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A recent article published in the New York Times Magazine undertook to explain “Why ‘natural’ doesn’t mean anything anymore”. As the article notes: the word “natural” is considered by many to have lost all meaning, despite – or perhaps because of – its persistent use and misuse in such diverse controversies as food labelling, the anti-vaccine movement, and same-sex marriage.

The author, Professor of Journalism Michael Pollan, argued his case in the context of 200 class-action suits against food manufacturers over the use of the word “natural”:

“Judges hearing these cases…have sought a standard definition of the adjective that they could cite to adjudicate these claims, only to discover that no such thing exists.”

While observing the potential philosophical quagmire that awaits a more stringent qualification of the term, Pollan concludes that we can at least find pragmatic refuge in a common-sense heuristic:

“’Natural’ has a fairly sturdy antonym — artificial, or synthetic — and, at least on a scale of relative values, it’s not hard to say which of two things is “more natural” than the other: cane sugar or high-fructose corn syrup? Chicken or chicken nuggets? G.M.O.s or heirloom seeds? The most natural foods in the supermarket seldom bother with the word; any food product that feels compelled to tell you it’s natural in all likelihood is not.”

This approach might work for food-labelling disputes, but it’s hard to see how it could help in debates surrounding particular issues such as the safety of vaccination or the morality of same-sex marriage. 

The problem with Pollan’s analysis is that it takes at face value the inability to identify a single comprehensive and contemporary definition of the word in question. This is a common fault of popular inquiries into or reflections on the meaning of a controversial term: they usually do a good job of identifying the different ways in which a word is currently used, and a very bad job of deciding on the basis of reason and provenance which of these mutually incompatible uses has priority.

Words are not like numbers

One of the great advantages of the English language is its diversity. We have many ways of saying almost the same thing, and can often interpret one saying in a multitude of ways. Yet when it comes to argument and reasoning, this advantage of English becomes an obstacle.

If I were to publish an article stating simply that 2+2=4, there would be few grounds for disagreement. I would not expect to see in comments “Actually, I think you’ll find that 3×3=9”, or “I can’t believe you don’t know that 4=2+12, in situations where you don’t mind losing 10”, or “I once had five apples, but I ate two and only had two left. Explain that!”

We are so deeply in agreement on the actual quantities of numbers that there is no room for controversy in basic mathematics, only for error and correction. Yet when it comes to language our capacity to bend and distort the meaning of words undermines even the efforts of a wise man like Socrates to appeal to the reason of his interlocutors.

By analogy, it is as though most of us are not entirely sure how many is “two”. We know that two is usually less than five, but we’ve never taken the time to work it out precisely. In a society where two can be several different quantities, math cannot really take priority, and the insistence of a Socrates that two is always and everywhere 1+1 will be viewed as merely a firmly held belief, one opinion among many.

We can know what words mean

The linguistic problem is far, far worse than the numerical problem illustrated above, because even if people cannot agree on the quantity of two, they can at least agree that two refers to a quantity.  Imagine a situation where people are not entirely sure whether two is in fact a quantity or a quality such as colour, mass, texture, or genus, and we begin to approach the complexity of the language problem.

Imagine a child who grows up without distinguishing two from its homophone “too”, and develops his own vague understanding that “I want to go too” means “I want the two of us to go along”, logically implying that for groups of three or larger one must substitute the word “also”.

In fact you needn’t try to imagine it because you are that child. We all inhabit a linguistic milieu of poorly defined words learned through context alone and bandied about with very little idea of their precise meanings, and, like the society that can’t agree on the quantity of two, letting the same words stand for a number of meanings without clarification. 

One of the uses if not the purpose of philosophy is to help us clear away the errors and clarify the double-entendres in our language. In fact the more time I spend reading contemporary debates the more I find myself inclining toward a quietist view of philosophy – that the whole purpose of the discipline is to untie the conceptual and linguistic knots in which we find ourselves enmeshed, to resolve difficulties and free us from our own confusion.

A theme concomitant with quietist philosophy is that many of our greatest philosophical problems are anomalies brought about through the misuse of language. In the West this approach can be found in the work of Wittgenstein and the Ordinary Language philosophers; in the East the Confucian drive to “rectify the names” held a similar purpose.

Of course there are philosophies which hold that nothing exists, or that if anything exists it cannot be known, or that if anything can be known it still cannot be communicated. Yet most of us act like realists, believing in the real existence of knowable and communicable objects in reality. And as realists we can, I believe, make a concerted effort to know what in reality a word refers to, is thought to refer to, and if confusion still abounds, to decide at least what we mean it to refer to.

Towards a definition of ‘natural’

It would be fortunate indeed if the seemingly incompatible uses of the word “natural” and all the confusion and debate the word evokes could be shown to have a single, unitary definition on which we could all agree. But in the history of philosophy it is more common to find that one definition must be advanced against the others, and the job of the philosopher is to convince his audience that this definition is superlative.

In a society where people cannot agree on the quantity of the number two, it is no use taking a survey of all the different quantities people think it might be. We often hear that “language is constantly evolving”, yet this is no excuse to ignore the evolutionary provenance of our words, or to accept every maladaptation as equally valid.  Confusion is not a positive linguistic attribute.

If we cannot agree on what a word means in common use, we should at least try to understand what it means in specific use.  For “natural” we might begin with the etymology: the historic development of the word and its origins.  While it is obvious that “natural” derives from “nature”, if we go right back it emerges that “nature” in turn comes from “natus”, meaning “born”. 

What does being born have to do with nature? In the sense of “the natural world” as distinct from “the human realm”, the connection seems remote. But in terms of nature as “essential characteristics” or “constitution” the connection is clearer. Our essential characteristics are those we are born with, or metaphorically the characteristics that belong to a thing by virtue of what it is in itself, as opposed to what has been done to it by external forces. 

We can follow the thread of this meaning from birth, to the attributes that are metaphorically ours (or any thing’s) “from birth”, hence the essential characteristics of all things individually (as in “the nature of water”, “the nature of a dog”), and thence the essential characteristics of all things collectively (as in “creation”, “the universe”, or “all things”), as opposed to the characteristics we might impose on those things from outside.

Metaphors have real meaning in context

It is because the word “natural” is originally a metaphor that its subsequent evolution is so varied. Many words are metaphors (even “metaphor” is a metaphor from the Greek “to carry across”) but over time their metaphoric origin is forgotten, and they can in turn be applied metaphorically anew to other situations. 

As such a complex metaphor, the rules and use of “nature” and “natural” will always be specific to the context.  For example, theologians speak of the nature of God, even though in other contexts God is spoken of as “supernatural” – that is, above nature. God has a nature, but God is not a part of nature. Even in this specific context the word “nature” is being used in two different ways with two different yet related meanings.

In an ideal world everyone would be clear about the meanings of the words that they and others use. The word “natural” has not lost all meaning, rather people have given it too much meaning without making the requisite efforts to keep these meanings straight in their own minds or for the benefit of others. 

Returning to the article in question: that judges and journalists depend on the authority of the masses is perhaps a necessary condition of their profession. Yet in Philosophy we find the right and sometimes the duty to cut through consensus, or lack thereof; asserting a singular, definitive answer against a mishmash of opinion and vainly proffered alternatives. 

If this is not the job of journalists and judges, perhaps it is the duty of everyone with capacity, with the time and the appropriate skills to undertake this most basic, most important, yet often overlooked or underdone component of argument: the definition of terms.

Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet. He also blogs at

Zac Alstin is a writer, editor and stay-at-home dad to three marvellous children, in Adelaide, South Australia. His hobbies include martial arts, making things at home, and contemplating the underlying...