Naturalism is a term common to currents of thought that consider nature, in all its aspects, not only as a fundamental object of philosophical reflection, but also, and above all, as a decisive and absolute point of reference with regard to the life and interests of humanity.

Therefore the term naturalism can refer for example to: literature, art, philosophy, ethics, religion and spirituality, politics, scientific doctrine concerning biology and zoology.


Naturalism, in philosophy is any of several philosophical stances wherein all phenomena or hypotheses commonly labeled as supernatural are either false or not inherently different from natural phenomena or hypotheses.

The most radical form is given by metaphysical naturalism, tending to see in nature the first principle of everything, as already at the beginning of Greek speculation and then again with the Stoics and in much of Renaissance thought, in its ilozoic and pantheistic currents (Telesio, Bruno); a more articulated and complex form of naturalism can be seen in the evolutionary positivism of the nineteenth century, which leads back to the internal evolution and differentiation of natural forms (Darwin, Spencer, Ardigo). A more articulated and complex form of naturalism can be seen in the evolutionary positivism of the nineteenth century, which brings everything back to the internal evolution and differentiation of natural forms (Darwin, Spencer, Ardigo).

More recently, even those currents that claim to refer to naturalistic approaches agree to reject the mechanistic or metaphysical aspects and to give the concept of nature (both understood as human nature and as world-environment) a more nuanced and complex connotation, susceptible to elaboration thanks to the techniques of investigation and operation (for example, Dewey’s naturalism). As for ethical, religious, aesthetic naturalism, etc., it is nothing more than an extension of the general concept of nature to the various fields of human knowledge and activity.

Renaissance naturalism

While the early Renaissance promoted a humanistic vision that exalted the freedom and dignity of man, there was also a revival of naturalism as an autonomous reflection on nature, anticipated for example by Lorenzo Valla, Poliziano, or Boccaccio’s conception of love. Developed especially since 1500, it sees the natural investigation as an indispensable tool for the realization of human goals in the world. In other words, it represents the rebirth of man as a being inserted in nature.

This philosophical movement considers man as the creator of nature (homo faber) and, consequently, aims at a deepening of the knowledge of the world. For example, Aristotelian Pietro Pomponazzi is part of this trend.

But also Neoplatonism is dedicated to the study of nature, giving rise to natural philosophy, through the practice of magic: this was in search of formulas or intelligible procedures to be used as a key to decipher the various natural mysteries, thus granting man an unlimited power over nature.

As in the early Greek philosophers, the world is interpreted from a monistic point of view, with no more opposition between spirit and matter: nature is again assimilated to a single living organism, in which the life-giving breath or Soul of the world does not work by assembling smaller parts until you get to the most evolved and intelligent organisms (atomism), but the opposite: the evolution of nature is made possible by the intelligent principle that already pre-exists matter.

Bernardino Telesio, who also argues against Aristotle and transcendent metaphysical systems, states the need to study nature according to its own principles, that is, according to the typically Aristotelian vision of a reason immanent to organisms.

According to Giordano Bruno, God himself works in nature, revealing himself in man as Reason, through a progressive exaltation of the senses and memory known as heroic fury.

Tommaso Campanella is the bearer of a cosmic sensism, a conception for which all nature is sentient, or perceives, as animated by an idea makes it alive.


In literature, naturalism is understood to be, more than a movement, a current of opinion, born in France during the great industrial revolution, due to the influence of scientific and philosophical thought (positivism) and the new political and social ideologies. The greatest representative of naturalism was Émile Zola, who boasted of having adopted in writing the same methods of investigation of scientists, the product of this choice was the great cycle of novels of Rougon-Macquart.

Naturalism is perhaps above all a reaction to idealistic romanticism, the same one that provoked realism and parnassianism, as well as positivism. The link between naturalism and positivism is evident precisely because of the confident alliance with science and the repudiation of romanticism as an escape from reality.

The “naturalists” repudiate metaphysics, they do not agree with realism, which is limited to reproduce a faithful image of nature, they sink into a pessimistic and materialistic vision of the world and, also abandoning the positions of classical naturalism, Lucretian and philosophical deterministic type, they go to clinically study human problems in their evolution, using rigorous measurements on data provided by reality. The “naturalists” also do not stop in front of the less poetic aspects of reality, they use an extremely realistic language and for this reason they were accused of a certain complacency in the choice of sordid and vulgar situations. The doctrine, or rather the dogmas of naturalism, were repeatedly exposed by Zola: Le roman expérimental (1880), Les romanciers naturalistes (1881). Precursors of naturalism can be considered Balzac, Champfleury, Duranty and especially the brothers Goncourt and Flaubert.

Between 1880 and 1890 there was in France the triumph of naturalism: there adhered E. de Goncourt (who with his brother Jules had made a first attempt in the theater in 1865 by representing Henriette Maréchal, whose crudity shocked the bourgeois public), Daudet, Jules Renard and others, in the wake of L. Hennique, H. Céard, P. Alexis and Zola himself in Soirées de Médan had left a kind of manifesto of naturalism. Shortly after, however, began the defections that ended with the manifesto, called of the five, against Zola’s La terre: P. Bonnetain, J. H. Rosny, L. Descaves, P. Margueritte and G. Guiches. Zola had also tried to bring naturalism to the theater (Le naturalisme au théâtre, 1881) where, however, the victory was difficult due to the lack of important works, except for Henry Becque (Les corbeaux, La parisienne) and A. Antoine’s Théâtre-Libre which, however, hastened the disappearance of the old theatrical taste.

In Germany, naturalism arrived later, in 1885, with the magazine founded in Munich by Michael Georg Conrad, but already for some years the brothers Heinrich and Julius Hart, in Berlin, had taken sides in favor of naturalism. The theoretical formulation of German naturalism was given later by Arno Holz (consistent naturalism) who, together with the poet J. Schlaf, wrote the novella collection Papa Hamlet (1889). As for the theater, the Freie Bühne in Berlin, founded in 1889, had goals similar to those of the Théâtre-Libre. Far from accepting the scientism of French naturalism, certain German playwrights (think of G. Hauptmann) kept in mind not only the Parisian models, but also those of Ibsen, maturing within themselves the turning point towards symbolism, that is, anti-naturalism. Naturalism and symbolism are poles between which the Nordic art of Ibsen and Strindberg oscillates.

In Russia, the most conspicuous example of theatrical naturalism is Tolstoy’s The Power of Darkness. Remarkable was the influence of naturalism on the first phase of the activity of the Moscow theater of Stanislavsky and Nemirovič-Dančenko. In Italy, naturalism took root under the name of verismo and almost immediately renounced the scientific detachment that should have been the fundamental characteristic of the current.

Ultimately, naturalism in all European countries was more a starting point for new experiences than a real goal, or it offered isolated cases, such as Gissing and Bennett in England, Palacio Valdés and Pardo Bazán in Spain, Eça de Queiroz in Portugal.

In the United States, naturalism was introduced by E. Watson Howe and accompanied the development of young American literature (the first James, Upton Sinclair, Th. Dreiser, J. Dos Passos, S. Anderson, Hemingway, Faulkner, Caldwell) and then flowed back to Europe.


In the history of art, the term naturalism, understood as a tendency to the objective representation of reality, assumes the value of an eternal category, referable to different artistic moments: from certain prehistoric figurations to Hellenistic art, from certain aspects of the Italian and Flemish fifteenth century to the Caravaggism of the European seventeenth century, up to the painting of costumes of the English eighteenth century.

Historically, however, naturalism indicates the movement that arose in France around 1870 as a continuation and development of realism (whose major theorists were Courbet, Daumier and Millet), from which it derived the opposition to classical and romantic idealism on the basis of a claim to the value of objective reality as a theme of representation valid in itself even in its less pleasant and edifying aspects. However, while deriving from realism such needs of truth and sincerity of expression, naturalism attenuated the political and social commitment, accentuating instead the relationship with the natural sciences, in correspondence with positivistic ideals and rationalistic mentality of the moment.

From France, where the movement reached high expressions and created the cultural premises of the Impressionist turning point, this push towards reality spread throughout Europe and America: in Germany, artists such as A. von Menzel, H. Thoma and the landscape painters of the Worpswede and Dachau schools were trained in the Naturalist school; in Belgium, next to Ch. de Groux, we find C. Meunier, who was able to express his passion for the natural world. Meunier, who was able to express with simplicity and greatness the condition of the workers; in Italy, through the close relationship with the French brothers Palizzi and S. De Tivoli, naturalism influenced the formation of the Macchiaioli, while in Holland the movement was grafted onto the national tradition, giving rise to the pathetic and melancholic naturalism of J. Isräels; the Russian group of Peredvižniki also participated in this trend.

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