G.W.F. Hegel




Consider a Flower

M.A. Marchetti
Hegel often uses the example of a flower in explaining the significance of philosophy. A flower is, of course, a finite existence and therefore not a proper object of philosophy, but it does serve as a ready example to illustrate its principles.

In his Encyclopedia Part 2 - Nature (EN246) Hegel describes the difference between empirical science (physical science) and philosophical science (Philosophy of Nature).

What distinguishes the Philosophy of Nature from physical science is, more precisely, the kind of metaphysics used by them both; for metaphysics is nothing else but the entire range of the universal determinations of thought, as it were, the diamond net into which everything is brought and thereby first made intelligible. Every educated consciousness has its metaphysics, an instinctive way of thinking, the absolute power within us of which we become master only when we make it in turn the object of our knowledge.

Philosophy in general has, as philosophy, other categories than those of the ordinary consciousness: all education (Bildung) reduces to the distinction of categories. All revolutions, in the sciences no less than in world history, originate solely from the fact that Spirit, in order to understand and comprehend itself with a view to possessing itself, has changed its categories, comprehending itself more truly, more deeply, more intimately, and more in unity with itself.

Here Hegel attributes all revolutions in science as well as in world history to changes in the categories of thought. (We will bring this point into focus at the end of this article.) Thomas Khun established the term "paradigm" to indicate scientific conceptual frameworks that can change due to fundamental alterations in the categorical foundations of physical sciences. The French revolution was inspired by the Reformation, according to Hegel, where individual conscience rather than external authority became the center of faith. This central conception of modernity achieved its philosophical expresssion in the cogito of Descartes.

Spinoza's attempt to attribute thought to the Absolute, and thereby again establish its infinite form, was only partly successful. By merely "attributing" thought to the Absolute by the fact of his own, as it were, empirical experience of thought, he properly understood its ultimate origin had to be located within the Absolute, but because he conceived the Absolute as Substance, he did not derive its own inherent pure thinking essence from the Absolute itself. Thus, along with extension, thinking remained for Spinoza a mere attribute of the Absolute as Substance. But Kant along with other philosophers of this period ignored this insight of Spinoza's - perhaps because of the imperfect or "empirical" form in which he held this principle - and pursued the subjective, empirical thinking that it seemed Descartes espousesd.

The result of this dramatic change, as Hegel acknowledges in his EL62 was that,"... now, at length, even the thought-forms are pronounced anthropomorphic, and thought itself is described as a mere faculty of finitization." It was in this way that subjective or psychological thinking entered philosophy, and such thinking was consummated in the philosophy of Kant. Along with the rise of anthropomorphic thought-forms another associated principle became effective, namely, the significance of intuition or direct experience, especially as the basis of empirical science.

Of course, finite thought or subjective thought is appropriate for finite understanding, but it has no juristiction in the sphere of Absolute Truth. Fichte, Shelling and Hegel all recognized the proper status of infinite thinking that Aristotle had long since established as noesis noesios, or the self-thinking thought of the Absolute. But it was only Hegel who actually showed how the Absolute establishes itself as self-determined self-thinking Subject as well as Substance.

This is fundamental to understanding how Philospophy can ever become scientific, i.e. systematic. As long as philosophy remains based upon subjective thinking, it remains within the sphere of finitude, and the Absolute is that which it can only know "about" but never know in its infinite being in-and-for-itself. Absolute knowing can only be conducted on the Absolute platform. The Phenomenology was written for the purpose of raising thought to that platform, by dissolving all entrenchemnet in the immediacies of sensuousness, understanding, consciousness, self-consciousness (ego), family, society, art, religion. This liberation from all conditional finite existence is necessary to enter the ether of science - the freedom of self-thinking thought - thought that has only itself as its object.

Much of this is explained very clearly in the section "With What Must Science Begin?" in Hegel's Science of Logic (SL88-122).

Such absolute thinking is necessary for philosophy as a science, however, empirical thinking must remain on the finite level. Still the principles that limit such empirical thinking must be known and recognized by empirical scientists. Without such knowledge of philosophy it leads to further problems, as Hegel continues in EN246,

Now the inadequacy of the thought-determinations used in physical science can be traced to two points which are closely bound up with each other.
(1) The universal of physical science is abstract or only formal; its determination is not immanent in it and it does not pass over into particularity.

(2) The determinate content falls for that very reason outside the universal; and so is split into fragments, into parts which are isolated and detached from each other, devoid of any necessary connection, and it is just this which stamps it as only finite.

If we examine a flower, for example, our understanding notes its particular qualities; chemistry dismembers and analyses it. In this way, we separate colour, shape of the leaves, citric acid, etheric oil, carbon, hydrogen, etc.; and now we say that the plant consists of all these parts....

This glaring discontinuity requires that we become more aware of the proper estimation of intuition (sense-perception) and its relation to rational thought, and the way we might overcome this cleavage. Thus Hegel offers the following:

Spirit cannot remain at this stage of thinking in terms of detached, unrelated concepts (Verstandesreflexion) and there are two ways in which it can advance beyond it.
(a) The na´ve mind (der unbefangene Geist), when it vividly contemplates Nature, as in the suggestive examples we often come across in Goethe, feels the life and the universal relationship in Nature; it divines that the universe is an organic whole and a totality pervaded by Reason, and it also feels in single forms of life an intimate oneness with itself; but even if we put together all those ingredients of the flower the result is still not a flower. And so, in the Philosophy of Nature, people have fallen back on intuition (Anschauung) and set it above reflective thought; but this is a mistake, for one cannot philosophize out of intuition.
(b) What is intuited must also be thought, the isolated parts must be brought back by thought to simple universality; this thought unity is the Concept, which contains the specific differences, but as an immanent self-moving unity. The determinations of philosophical universality are not indifferent; it is the universality which fulfils itself, and which, in its diamantine identity, also contains difference.
We want to explicitly understand what is this "universality which fulfills itself," and also "contains difference." But the first problem seems to be, how to get over the apparent permanence and solidity of immediate experience or immediate thought (such as we find in the atom, gene, or even the empirical self, etc.) and establish its unity or continuity within the whole of which it is a part. Hegel addresses this problem in his remarks to EN246,

"The difficulty arising from the one-sided assumption of the theoretical consciousness, that natural objects confront us as permanent and impenetrable objects, is directly negatived by the practical approach which acts on the absolutely idealistic belief that individual things are nothing in themselves. The defect of appetite, from the side of its relationship to things, is not that it is realistic towards them, but that it is all too idealistic.

Philosophical, true idealism consists in nothing else but laying down that the truth about things is that as such immediately single, i.e. sensuous things, they are only a show, an appearance (Schein). Of a metaphysics prevalent today which maintains that we cannot know things because they are absolutely shut to us, it might be said that not even the animals are so stupid as these metaphysicians; for they go after things, seize and consume them. The same thing is laid down in the ... theoretical approach ..., namely, that we think natural objects.

Intelligence [Understanding] familiarizes itself with things, not of course in their sensuous existence, but by thinking them and positing their content in itself; and in, so to speak, adding form, universality, to the practical ideality which, by itself, is only negativity, it gives an affirmative character to the negativity of the singular. This universal aspect of things is not something subjective, something belonging to us: rather is it, in contrast to the transient phenomenon, the noumenon, the true, objective, actual nature of things themselves, like the Platonic Ideas, which are not somewhere afar off in the beyond, but exist in individual things as their substantial genera."

Here, the theoretical conception of the solidity of sensuous things is "negatived" or negated by practical activity - such as eating. Furthermore, we should not make the mistake of thinking that eating is just the chemical dissolution of objective substance. Assimilation is the essence of eating, and this assimilation is actually the transition of objectivity into the subjective vitality of life (EN365). By thinking, the object is also negated and raised from singularity to universality. In this way the finite is idealised, and such idealism is the basis or maxim of philosophy (EL95).

In the general idea or universality of a flower there is the continuity or integral unity of the flower as such. In the determination of its parts is given the differential particularity of the flower's constituents. That which unifies the universality and particularity is the actualized singular individuality of the flower. To articulate and comprehend the explicit thought by which this universality, particularity and individuality are united is the task of philosophical science. It is this unitive process of the universal, particular and individual aspects that forms the fundamental basis of the Concept. (EL162)

In the previously cited quote, Hegel states,

"This universal aspect of things is not something subjective, something belonging to us: rather is it, in contrast to the transient phenomenon,...the actual nature of things themselves,... not somewhere afar off in the beyond, but existing in individual things as their substantial genera."

Thus the universal (the flower as such) is the substantial genus of which the individual existence of the flower is transient - it grows, reproduces, and dies. Therefore, the universal (genus) is the permanant (eternal) while the individual is changing. Because it is universal, it does not exist in its universality as a single individual sensuous or immediate object. The universal is eternal, therefore it does not exist, as such, in time. It is only the transient individual instantiation of the universal that is found in nature.

In EL21 Hegel writes,

"In thus characterizing the universal, we become aware of its antithesis to something else. This something else is the merely immediate, outward, and individual, as opposed to the mediate, inward, and universal. The universal does not exist externally to the outward eye as a universal. The kind (genus) as kind cannot be perceived: the laws of the celestial motions are not written on the sky. The universal is neither seen nor heard, its existence is only for the mind."

Thus Hegel continues in EN246,

"If genera and forces are the inner side of Nature, the universal, in the face of which the outer and individual is only transient, then still a third stage is demanded, namely, the inner side of the inner side, and this, according to what has been said, would be the unity of the universal and the particular."

The flower as an existing individual is made up of determinate particulars, and this manifold of determinate differences must be united with the universal, that is its law or genus, in order for the individual to be manifest as that unity. If we call the universal the "inner side" of the flower then there must be something further inside or within this inner side that connects it to particularity. But this inside of the inside is just the negation of the inside, or the outside - the individuality of the flower.

What is lacking in universality is determinateness. But as opposed to particularity the universal is just another particular. Likewise, as isolated and independent, particularity is just universality. What seems separate and distinct are thus in truth the unity (or identity in difference) of the universal and particular. Thus Hegel writes in (EN246),

"The particular is supposed to be separate from the universal, but this very separateness, this independence, makes it a universal, and so what is present is only the unity of the universal and the particular."

The relation of universal and particular may be studied even more closely by following the analysis given in the Encyclopedia Part 1 - Logic, (EL92-95) on the finite and infinite. This is considered in more detail in another article, "Finite, Spurious Infinite, True Infinite," on this site.

Let us summarize those results.

When the determinateness of something finite is determined as other or different from that which it determines, it becomes another finite, which, as having its limit identical to itself, is related to another, etc. ad infinitum, giving rise to the spurious infinite. This is the result of considering determinateness as merely the other of what it determines.

When the identity of the other with its other (the original being) is grasped then the other as such is negated. This negation of the negation is the true infinite. As the negation of the other it is the being-for-self of the infinite relation.

What is the relation of the finite to the infinite?

Finite immediate being, the experienced individual or existent thing is finite because it has an end - a qualitative limit as well as an extensional and temporal limit. It is essentially a vanishing being, or momentary being. This vaninshing appearance of the finite indicates that it is fleeting part of a larger movement or belongs to a greater development, of which the finite is just the momentary aspect.

The finite is not an independent reality apart from that whole in which it participates. Even in a mechanical sense - for example, a watch - the gear is not the truth of the watch; it is only a part of the whole that is the watch. To think that the gear is the whole truth is to miss the watch entirely, and its signficance for telling time.

It is not enough to determine merely what something is. Reflective thought, or empirical thought, is concerned only in determining what something is (the in-itself), but fails to give recognition to the purpose or goal for which the thing exists (being-for-another or itself). An acid has no meaning as being "acidic" in-itself. Unless its relation to an alkaline element is known, there is no reason to call it an acid. Furthermore, acidity and alkalinity are related to a third thing, viz. the neutral salt that they form, and in this neutral product the original acidity and alkalinity are completely superceded or sublated.

Similarly, in a living organism, the atomic or molecular inorganic material of which it is composed, is superceded in the biochemical functions of the organism, just as the biochemical functions are likewise sublated in the higher goal-oriented unity or self-maintenance, self-preservation, and self-determined activity (spontaneous movement) of the living organism. All of these features are related to the being-for-self that atomistic thinking considers only in the abstract sense that is without the intrinsic difference that would make it a concrete or actual unity.

In his Phenomenology Hegel develops the Infinite before the category of Life. The reason is that Life is a form of concrete being-for-self, which we have seen (in the previously mentioned article on the Infinite) follows from the concept of the true Infinite.

The important thing is to try to study that development in whatever way you are able, because several fundamental principles are involved that enable us to understand the unity of the concrete universal with its particularity, as well as the important concept of being-for-self in its concrete significance as containing its negated difference within itself.

Because modern science as well as modern philosophy, has failed to understand these simple and fundamental categories of being, the relatively recent science of biology (developed with the past century) will continue to be hampered by using the limited categories that belong to atomic and molecular physics. The limited category of being-for-other that characterizes the chemical sphere fails to apply to biological systems because it does not reach the infinite being-for-self that is needed to comprehend the teleological nature of living organisms.

The theory of evolution, under which biology is prsently organized, is not the rational unifying principle of the biological sphere. The concept of adaption, as understood by modern Darwinists, is not a process of creating new organs to accomodate environmental alterations. That is not the meaning of adaption. Adaption simply refers to adjustments due to the inherent flexibile resources of the original organism that enable it to conform to changes in its environment. Therefore, any adaptive ability must already be inherent in the organism - it is not a pure novel creation. Thus the origin of species and the unity of the biological sphere is not comprehended by evolution.

Philosophy has repeatedly criticized the theory of evolution for its flawed reasoning, but such criticisms have gone unheeded by most biologists. Popper was one of the more recent outspoken critics, even though he had to modify his views under pressure from the biological community. Aristotle, Kant and Hegel have contributed much to the philosophical understanding of the living organism. As Hegel shows, not only life, but the next higher categories of cognition, consciousness, etc. require the comprehension of being-for-self.

It is encouraging to see research work like that of James Kreines at Yale, who is currently studying the importance of Hegel's contribution to the establishment of a more rational foundation for science. In his online paper on "Hegel's Critique of Pure Mechanism" (HTML format) he outlines the difference between the "descriptive" power of mechanistic science versus the "explanatory" power of the teleological perspective in science. This is the type of study that is needed to bring science into alignment with philosophy that may mark the begining of a scientific revolution that will bring about a modern unified science of matter, mind and spirit.