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D. H. Lawrence’s Critique of Reductionism

peacock_peahen [1]

Tobias Stranover, “Peacock, Peahen and Poultry in a Landscape,” 1684

3,141 words

In his essay “Why the Novel Matters,” Lawrence writes, “To the scientist, I am dead. He puts under the microscope a dead bit of me, and calls it me. He takes me to pieces, and says first one piece, and then another piece, is me.”[1] This is unfortunate because, as Lawrence never tires of repeating, “life, and life only, is the clue to the universe.”[2]

D. H. Lawrence’s views about the nature of the universe are unscientific, and proudly so. He wants to find a new way of coming to understand the world, and he rejects the approach of modern science. To some, this will mean that he rejects reason and wants to engage in flights of fancy. It is certainly true that, in a qualified way, he does reject reason, but for Lawrence to reject modern scientific reason is not to abandon the quest for truth. For Lawrence, the scientific method is merely one way in which the truth is approached, and it is a way that has its pitfalls. Lawrence seeks a different way to the truth.

Further, it must be understood that when Lawrence attacks “science” it is really reductionism that he is specifically critiquing (or what is sometimes called “scientism”). Throughout his essays, Lawrence frequently goes on the attack against reductionism, especially when it comes to theories about sex. Here is one, very rhetorically effective example:

Again, they talk of sex as an appetite, like hunger. An appetite; but for what? An appetite for propagation? It is rather absurd. They say a peacock puts on all his fine feathers to dazzle a peahen into letting him satisfy his appetite for propagation. But why should the peahen not put on fine feathers, to dazzle the peacock, and satisfy her desire for propagation? . . . We cannot believe that her sex-urge is so weak that she needs all the blue splendour of feathers to arouse her. . . These theories of sex are amazing. A peacock puts on his glory for the sake of a wall-eyed peahen who never looks at him. . . . And a nightingale sings to attract his female. Which is mighty curious, seeing he sings his best when courtship and honeymoon are over and the female is no longer concerned with him at all but with the young.[3]

Elsewhere he writes, “The very statement that water is H2O is a mental tour de force. With our bodies we know that water is not H2O, our intuitions and instincts both know it is not so.”[4] Specifically, Lawrence attacks the idea that water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen. Since Aristotle we have been accustomed to think of natural objects as being “made” of one type of matter or another, and we have been taught that understanding them means finding out how they are “put together” from their “parts.”[5] In fact, natural objects are not like human-engineered artifacts: they are not “put together” at all. As Alan Watts was fond of pointing out, trees are not “made of” wood, they are wood.

Further, whereas both “water” and “H2O” have the same denotation, their connotation is actually quite different. To the ordinary person, as opposed to the scientist trained to think in reductive terms, “H2O” simply does not capture all that there is to water. Water has a whole host of qualities and associations that cannot be reduced to the chemical formula. In Revelations, Lawrence’s favorite book of the Bible, we find the words “I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely.” It just doesn’t mean the same thing to make this “I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the H2O of life freely.” It is simply false to assert that water just is H2O, and nothing else.

The folly of reductionism was eloquently exposed by Plato in the Phaedo. Socrates is in jail awaiting execution, having refused either to escape Athens or to renounce philosophy. In conversation with his friends he recalls his early disappointment with the philosopher Anaxagoras, who postulated a Mind in nature, but when he came to explaining specific natural phenomena only gave reductive, physicalistic explanations. Plato has Socrates say,

That seemed to me much like saying that Socrates’ actions are all due to his mind, and then in trying to tell the causes of everything I do, to say that the reason I am sitting here is because my body consists of bones and sinews, because the bones are hard and are separated by joints, that the sinews are such as to contract and relax, that they surround the bones along with flesh and skin which hold them together, then as the bones are hanging in their sockets, the relaxation and contraction of the sinews enable me to bend my limbs, and that is the cause of my sitting here with my limbs bent.[6]

Obviously, such an account is not a satisfactory explanation of why Socrates sits in jail! To give an adequate account we would have to not only say something about the laws of Athens and the actions of the city against Socrates, we would also have to say something about Socrates’s principles and motivations and purpose in life. His flesh and bones are, to him, merely a means to realize these things.

In attempting to explain life as such, Lawrence claims, science makes an analogous mistake. “They describe the apparatus,” Lawrence writes, “and think they have described the event.”[7] Scientific reductionism involves believing that living things, including human beings, can be understood solely through the actions and interactions of dead things: bones, sinews, proteins, hormones, etc. Lawrence believes, as we shall see, that this has things the wrong way round; that non-living matter can only be understood in terms of living, and that life itself is an irreducible primary.

Furthermore, Lawrence sees a hidden will behind reductive theories. Speaking, again, of reductive theories of sex and of peacocks and nightingales, he writes:

There is a hidden will behind all theories of sex, implacable. And that is the will to deny, to wipe out the mystery of beauty. Because beauty is a mystery. You can neither eat it nor make flannel out of it. Well, then, says science, it is just a trick to catch the female and induce her to propagate. How naïve! . . . Science has a mysterious hatred of beauty, because it doesn’t fit in the cause-and-effect chain. And society has a mysterious hatred of sex, because it perpetually interferes with the nice money-making schemes of social man. So the two hatreds make a combine, and sex and beauty are mere propagation appetite.[8]

Science, of course, sets its sights on solving mysteries; it aims to explain that which hitherto had no explanation. However, it goes further than this. Modern science desires not just to explain, but to explain away. There is a negative will in many scientists which seems to impel them to reduce everything that inspires wonder and awe to the level of the mundane, and then to smile condescendingly at wonder and awe. Our ancestors were struck with wonder when they saw lightning, and a fearsome bolt of lightning can still produce awe in people today. The scientist comes along and says “It’s foolish to feel wonder and awe for something as simple as atmospheric electrical discharge.”

To use Lawrence’s example, we wonder at the beauty of the peacock’s plumage, and become filled with awe at nature’s power to produce something of such incomparable loveliness. We may even be moved to write a poem in honor of the peacock. But along comes the scientist to tell us, “That’s silly. Those feathers are nothing more than a device for attracting a mate.” Perhaps the most disturbing thing about many modern scientists is the obvious pleasure they take in offering such “deflationary” explanations.

In Apocalypse, Lawrence argues that their theories are actually a reflection of the modern soul:

When we describe the moon as dead, we are describing the deadness in ourselves. When we find space so hideously void, we are describing our own unbearable emptiness. . . . We know everything in terms of our own deadness. . . . Can’t [modern man] see that he is merely describing himself, and that the self he is describing is merely one of the more dead and dreary states that man can exist in? When man changes his state of being, he needs an entirely different description of the universe, and so the universe changes its nature to him entirely. . . . The Chaldeans described the cosmos as they found it: magnificent. We describe the universe as we find it: mostly void, littered with a certain number of dead moons and unborn stars, like the backyard of a chemical works.[9]

If, in the modern age, we feel a gnawing emptiness, is it any wonder that we describe the universe and even objects in the universe (at the sub-atomic level) as “mostly emptiness”?[10] If we feel dead inside is it any surprise that we attempt to understand the living in terms of the dead? If our days seem to be entirely given over to commerce and competition, interspersed with occasional episodes of sexual indulgence, doesn’t it stand to reason that we would interpret everything in life, even beauty, as existing somehow merely to further competition and copulation? Our theories about the universe hold up a mirror to ourselves, and they are true only so long as we exist in a certain state of soul. And Lawrence tells us that our present state is becoming “unbearable”: “We shall have to change it. And when we have changed it, we shall change our description of the universe entirely.”[11]

The influence of Nietzsche on Lawrence’s thinking is obvious here. Such an argument is an attempt to show that there can be no truly “objective” interpretation of the universe. However, this does not mean that we cannot judge that some interpretations are better than others. Interpretations that flow from a deadened, diseased state of the soul are obviously not to be preferred to those which flow from a vitally-alive and healthy state. Of course, defining just what such a state consists in is difficult, and in a certain way Lawrence’s entire philosophy aims precisely at doing this.

Nevertheless, Lawrence’s critique of science is the most philosophically interesting one that can be made, for it aims to establish inherent limitations on science’s ability to give us objective truths about the world. Lawrence actually gives several arguments which try to establish exactly that. In Fantasia of the Unconscious, he claims that all of man’s attempts to get at the very bottom of things fail:

The universe is once more in the mental melting-pot. And you can melt it down as long as you like, and mutter all the jargon and abracadabra, aldeboronti fosco fornio of science that mental monkey-tricks can teach you, you won’t get anything in the end but a formula and a lie. The atom? Why, the moment you discover the atom it will explode under your nose. The moment you discover the [celestial] ether it will evaporate. The moment you get down to the real basis of anything, it will dissolve into a thousand problematic constituents. And the more problems you solve, the more will spring up with their fingers at their nose, making a fool of you.[12]

This can be taken either as a metaphysical claim or as an epistemological one, or both. Lawrence is saying that everything in the universe contains an infinite depth, and that therefore there is no “bottom” to things. Or he is saying that the rational mind is built in such a way that the explanations it postulates will always only be partial, and will always give rise to a whole host of problems; that the human mind simply cannot encompass the world.

A still more daring attempt to mark out the limitations of science occurs in a late essay, “Him With His Tail In His Mouth.” There, Lawrence speaks of modern science as setting itself the difficult task of trying to measure the “length, breadth, and height” of “the Monad, the Mundane Egg.” Lawrence seems to be alluding here at one and the same time to Leibniz and to Orphic mythology and its “egg” at the beginning of time. Leibniz told us that our consciousness is confined to our monad – and Kant’s response to Leibniz was essentially to say that we cannot get outside the monad to know the other sorts of things that Leibniz claimed to know (such as the ultimate nature of the world, the soul, and God).

Lawrence is saying something similar. Taking the living universe that encompasses us as “the monad” Lawrence is saying that modern science wants, at root, to get outside life and the universe in order to know them. “Once you realize that, willy nilly, you’re inside the Monad, you give it up. You’re inside it and you always will be. Therefore, Jonah, sit still in the whale’s belly, and have a look around. For you’ll never measure the whale, since you’re inside him.”[13]

If, finally, we come to realize that there are serious problems with the approach of modern science, which wants to understand life “from the outside,” then what is Lawrence’s alternative? Quite simply, it involves knowing nature in intimate connection with it: knowing it from inside ourselves (what Lawrence calls in his late essay “A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, knowing in terms of “togetherness”).

In other essays I have discussed the important influence of Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy on Lawrence. Schopenhauer inferred to the inner essence of all creation from what he knew about his own inner nature. There is only one thing that we know, as it were, “on the inside,” Schopenhauer held, and that is ourselves. When he introspected and studied himself he found acting within him a force he called “will.” From this, he inferred that will is the secret to understanding everything else in nature: will, Schopenhauer held, is the inner essence of all that exists. One can find a similar methodology in Lawrence. We know nature first and best within ourselves. Our clue to the fundamental powers and forces animating nature is to be found in us. We must understand ourselves as living in organic relation with all of existence, and permeated by the same drives, tendencies, and laws that animate all else.

It is a well-known fact that Schopenhauer was influenced by Vedanta and Buddhism, but he was also strongly influenced by Western esotericism as well. One of the principle dictums of Western occultism is Hermes Trismegistus’s saying “As above, so below.” In other words, the nature of the human individual, the microcosm, corresponds to the nature of the macrocosm, or universe. This was the fundamental principle underlying the idea of “correspondences” which one finds throughout the mystical and occult traditions. One can see that the principle of “correspondences” underlies Schopenhauer’s argument for the will as thing-in-itself. Having identified will as his own inner nature, he infers that it is the inner nature of all, on the principle that the macrocosm mirrors the microcosm.[14]

This sort of approach to understanding nature was rejected and ridiculed mercilessly by modern scientists, and had pretty much died out by the mid-nineteenth century. But Lawrence is keen to revive it. And he believes that the key to a new understanding of nature lies in the imagination. However, imagination does not create its products from nothing, instead it “recollects” images and patterns from the collective unconscious of mankind. And if there is a fundamental correspondence between our innermost nature, and the innermost nature of the world around us, then the perennial archetypes of myth and poetry that seem to occur “naturally” to human beings may reveal fundamental truths about ourselves and the universe we live in.

It cannot be overemphasized that Lawrence believes that there are forms of knowing different from science, which reveal truth in their own way. The assumption that scientific knowledge is the only legitimate knowledge and thus that science is the only path to truth is precisely what Lawrence is rejecting. Thus to dismiss what he aims to give us as “not really knowledge” is question begging.

Further, it would also be false to claim that Lawrence is taking an “irrationalist” approach. If he is correct that science cannot illuminate certain matters, then it is irrational—meaning contrary to reason—to apply science to those matters. Instead, taking a non-rational approach—which is what “knowing in terms of togetherness” involves—may be precisely what is reasonable. Understanding this, however, is incredibly difficult for modern people. In my next essay, we will see Lawrence’s new (yet perennial) form of imaginative knowing in action, as he tries to solve the riddle of existence itself.


1. D. H. Lawrence, Phoenix, ed. Edward McDonald (New York: Viking, 1968), 535.

2. D. H. Lawrence, Fantasia of the Unconscious in Fantasia of the Unconscious and Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious (New York: Penguin, 1971), 151. Henceforth: “Fantasia.”

3. D. H. Lawrence, Phoenix II, Warren Roberts and Harry T. Moore, Eds. (New York: Viking, 1971), 527-28 (“Sex versus Loveliness”). Lawrence spent his youth in close proximity to nature, and was a keen observer of life in all its varieties.

4. Phoenix, 574 (“Introduction to These Paintings”).

5. In truth, this tendency begins with Plato, who speaks of natural objects as if they were artifacts, crafted as imitations of eternal patterns.

6. Plato, Phaedo, trans. G. M. A. Grube (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1977), 49 (98b-c).

7. Fantasia, 156.

8. Phoenix II, 528 (“Sex versus Loveliness”).

9. D. H. Lawrence, Apocalypse, ed. Mara Kalnins (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 53-54.

10. See Arthur Eddington, “Two Tables,” in Carl Levenson and Jonathan Westphal, eds., Reality (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1994), 145.

11. Apocalypse, 54.

12. Fantasia, 150. When Lawrence tells us that the atom “will explode under your nose” it is unlikely that he is referring to what we call “splitting the atom.” More probably he simply means that once we’ve discovered the atom we will inevitably find that it can be reduced to still more fundamental constituents, and so on, so that the atom contains a potential infinity.

13. Phoenix II, 431 (“Him with His Tail in His Mouth”).

14. Schopenhauer writes in The World as Will and Representation: “Everyone finds himself to be this will, in which the inner nature of the world consists, and he also finds himself to be the knowing subject, whose representation is the whole world: and this world has an existence only in reference to the knowing subject’s consciousness as its necessary supporter. Thus everyone in this twofold regard is the whole world itself, the microcosm; he finds its two sides whole and complete within himself. And what he thus recognizes as his own inner being also exhausts the inner being of the whole world, of the macrocosm.” Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Vol. I, trans. E. F. J. Payne (New York: Dover Publications, 1969), 162.