Some senses of ‘natural’

A number of common ethical arguments lean on a certain meaning of what ‘nature’ is, or whether some thing is ‘natural’, without specifying what is meant by the word.  Of course this renders the debates near-intractable, so I’ve put together a little list of some of the different ways the word can be used, and what they each mean.

  1. Occurring in observable animal behaviors —whatever armadillos or sea-horses or moonworts do, however they behave, is in this sense natural. In people, this sense could describe the fulfillment of any desires or impulses.
  2. Free of human interference—this sense is elusive, but tends to refer to things not caused by human action (lack of pollution, artifice) or made up of compounds that do not occur without human action.
  3. Innate, not the product of man’s caprice—not to say that it is independent of human volition, but that it occurs or is rooted in the pursuit of proper ends. In this sense, the state, or the creation of law, is natural.
  4. Oriented towards a thing’s end—natural in this sense describes a thing as it is when it is fully developed. It might be natural (second sense) for a woodpecker to bore a hole in a tree, but the nature of a tree (fourth sense) is whole, with all its bark and branches intact.
  5. Innate, static—in this sense, what is natural is essential and unable to be changed; so proper to a thing that it cannot be without it.
  6. Possessing untrained ability—in this sense, to be natural suggests some proficiency in an activity that was not learned, but was present from the beginning.
  7. Antonym of affected—a skilled actor can display emotions which appear “natural”.
  8. Calm, undisturbed—someone nervous is told to “act natural”.
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3 thoughts on “Some senses of ‘natural’

  1. How about natural as the antonym of affected? “The actor was skilled enough to make his displays of emotion seem natural.”

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  2. “Natural” as antonym of “affected” may perhaps be part of a broader definition that opposes it to “artificial.” Art, in this sense, is opposed to nature; but interestingly enough, in this case some kind of art is usually what is being described as “natural” or “artificial.” And it’s not as if for art to be “natural” here is necessarily considered better. You find a long-standing debate on this question popping up now and again in 16th and 17th century literature.

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