BMCR 2002.12.09

Rethinking Reality: Lucretius and the Textualization of Nature

, Rethinking reality : Lucretius and the textualization of nature. Studies in literature and science. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002. viii, 145 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0472112880 $44.50.

In this elegantly postmodern brainteaser of a book, Duncan F. Kennedy (K.) has achieved something rare: true interdisciplinarity. Bringing to bear on Lucretius epistemological questions central to contemporary science studies, K. approaches the De rerum natura not as a relic of some long-gone past, but as a text well-suited for exploring methodological issues pertinent to modern science. The result is a thought-provoking work that should be of interest not only (or not even primarily) to classicists, but also to scientists and historians and philosophers of science, as well as to anyone who enjoys tackling the occasional “big” question.

For indeed, the question that K. asks is nothing less than, What is reality? And, on the assumption that scientists somehow deal with reality ( rerum natura in Lucretian parlance), what exactly is this object of their study, and how do they approach it? As K. shows, there are two theoretical ways of looking at this. The first approach is “realism.” Realists believe that there is indeed a real world “out there” and that scientists “discover” constituent features of this world (e.g., atoms) and subsequently use language to describe their discoveries. The second approach is anti-realism or “constructivism.” Constructivists may or not believe that there is a real world out there (that is not the point); what they do believe is that scientists, rather than discovering reality, actually “invent” it, using language (e.g., terms such as “atom”) to create the object of their research. This difference can also be figured in terms of representation. For the realists, representation is always the representation of something real; thus, the “world” is primary while the “text” that represents it is secondary. For the constructivists, by contrast, the world is but an effect of the text; in other words, there is no world unless it is represented as something. K. points out that constructivism and realism are typically operative at different points in a historical process: “within” history, the scientist is still struggling to “come up with,” that is, construct, his or her piece of reality; from a vantage point at the end of the process, “outside” history, he or she will appear to have discovered said feature of reality, now believed to have been the object of research all along—rather than its result.

K.’s book consist of two essays of nearly equal length, “Rethinking Reality” and “Is Man the Measure of All Things?.” The first explores the theoretical issues just raised, with ample reference to such scholars as Ian Hacking, Bruno Latour, and Steven Weinberg, while the second continues this discussion by (intermittently) using Lucretius as a kind of case study. Lucretius himself, of course, is a realist, convinced of the reality of the atoms that his master Epicurus has discovered. Still, in his attempts to represent the world that is his subject matter, the poet is at the same time constructing reality. For example, by depicting the lifeless atoms in terms appropriate to living organisms (e.g., they are “seeds” or “bodies”) and ascribing to them activities and agency characteristic of human beings (e.g., they have “assemblies” and do things “of their own accord”), Lucretius is presenting nature as something that is alive and organic, in fact, as a kind of mother-figure (cf. Lat. natura, related to nascor). The same anthropomorphization is found, as K. points out, in modern science, for example in genetics, where the very notion of the “gene” implies the idea of human procreation and where genes are typically described in human terms, including, in Richard Dawkins’s striking formulation, “selfish.” Realists would maintain, of course, that Lucretius and Dawkins are simply using metaphors to get across a reality that is already there—but constructivists would counter that without these creative metaphors, we would not have “nature” or “genes” and would have to construct our reality in a different way.

From a classicist’s perspective, it is somewhat of a pity that K. does not talk more about Lucretius himself—rather than using him solely as a kind of springboard to get to the general questions—since it seems to me that the De rerum natura is particularly rich in passages, beyond the ones K. discusses, that have a bearing on the question of reality. Most strikingly, one of the poet’s favorite rhetorical strategies is to present himself and his student as in the process of, as it were, creating the universe as they go along—a remarkable case of self-conscious constructivism. Thus, for example, the student is warned repeatedly not to make any mistakes (i.e., not to harbor any wrong ideas about nature), ne tibi res redeant ad nilum funditus omnes“lest all things return utterly to nothing” (1.673, 797; 2.756, 864): the scientist here appears as a creator whose possible failure would endanger the existence of the reality that is his construction.1

Circling forever around the central opposition of realism vs. constructivism, K.’s book does not show much progression and definitely refuses to provide a solution. K.’s own sympathies clearly lie with the constructivists, but he is careful to avoid the great possible pitfall of this approach: if pursued with some measure of reductionism, constructivism will ultimately turn into a realism of its own, for example, when it is claimed that a certain scientific view of reality (revealed as a construct, of course) is “actually” the product of language, or culture, or society, or power relations, or some other kind of “real” reality that is posited as primary. It thus appears that realism and constructivism exist in some kind of uneasy equilibrium and that it is impossible to get rid of either: any purported reality can always be shown to be a construct of one sort or another, and any constructivism ultimately falls into the realist trap just described. Or, to quote K., “To ask which comes first, text or universe, is to make the reductionist move of seeing the tenor of signification going in one direction only, which might equally be from text to universe (the constructivist move) as from universe to text (the realist move), and so to establish an order, and hierarchy, of representation” (115).

Owing to its weighty subject matter, Rethinking Reality is not exactly beach-chair reading. Even though K., whose style is playful but lucid, generally does a very good job at explaining complicated propositions, I more than once found myself staring in momentary incomprehension at such sentences as, “Heidegger too may be seen to make an ontological gambit, and a neatly recursive one at that, for the implication of the notion of ontology with the notion of (the order of) representation (in a theoretically infinite regress) makes the predication of ‘representedness’ as such an originary gambit a far from innocent move” (56). This is not a book for those allergic to theory or those who could not care less whether our life revolves around realities or representations; I am afraid that it may also not appeal to avowed realists who believe that a poetic text, like that of Lucretius, contains “real” features, of whichever kind, which are discovered, not created, in the process of interpretation. Those, however, who enjoy the mental gymnastics involved in pondering a concept like “reality” and who delight in looking at an old text in a new light will appreciate the intellegence and originality of K.’s work.

A final caveat: in representing K.’s book, I have, needless to say, been constructing the object of my own review. I therefore urge readers to check out the real Rethinking Reality for themselves. There is much to discover!


1. I further discuss Lucretius’ use of this so-called creator motif in The Poetics of Latin Didactic: Lucretius, Vergil, Ovid, Manilius, Oxford 2002, 78f.