G.W.F. Hegel

Philosophy of Nature

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From Hegelian Logic to Nature
The Relation of Philosophy to the Empirical Sciences

by Wendell Kisner, Ph.D.

[Wendell Kisner currently teaches philosophy at Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He authored "Life as Idea: The Irreducibility of Living Process to Mechanism in Hegel's Logic" as his doctoral thesis, and has research interests that include Hegel, Heidegger, Plato, and Environmental Ethics.]

I read Hegel’s Science of Logic as a purported record of what it means to be, and hence as ontological rather than as merely epistemological. I subscribe to the kind of interpretation advanced by Stephen Houlgate, Richard Winfield, Kenley Dove, and David Kolb, among others, which reads the Logic as if it does not anticipate where it is going, and which does not assume that Hegelian dialectic must presuppose an absolute spirit as a horizon against which it carries out its movement. In each case the development is generated by the immanent dialectic that shows itself to be implied in that specific case. Heidegger, for instance, tries to make the criticism that having already traversed the system, Hegel’s standpoint can only be that of absolute spirit.1 This kind of criticism reads the structure of consciousness into the entire system2 — rather than engaging in the immanent dialectic itself, it steps back from it to a presupposed horizon of "absolute spirit" (which Heidegger misunderstands as the standpoint of representing subjectivity raised to an absolute level) and interprets all the logical moves against this horizon. But if the logical development can be shown to work without such a presupposed standpoint, then we can dispense with it — to continue to insist upon it then becomes mere willfulness.

The unfolding of being begins in sheer immediacy — abstract, immediate being. But since this sheer positive immediacy is indistinguishable from pure nothing, the most affirmative category, being, shows itself to be thoroughgoing negativity. Being is not negative because it must mark itself off from what it is not, but rather being is in itself, intrinsically, negative in its very immediacy. Pure being is indistinguishable from pure nothing, which itself can only be nothing and so is indistinguishable from being.

This oscillating movement of being to nothing and back again, a movement generated by the category of being itself, is in fact immediately a new category: becoming. Being thus passes over into its other, becoming, through its own intrinsic negativity. The sphere of being in general is marked by this kind of immediate transition into an other. The negativity is immediate and so there is yet no unity with the other. Because there is always a transition into an other, no identity can be maintained. Each category, in immediately being what it is, cannot be what it is but passes over into something else.

Eventually, it becomes apparent that this immediacy cannot be without mediation. Being can only immediately be insofar as some kind of mediating structure allows it, and for that reason being cannot be immediate. In other words, immediacy is superseded in mediation. This supersession of immediacy in mediation is the sphere of essence. If being is the sphere of immediacy, essence is the sphere of mediation. Unlike the categories of being, the determinations of essence do not immediately pass over into what is other than them, but each maintains its identity against its other. Each has an identity whereby it is what it is, but it can only be this identity over and against an opposite.

However, this renders its identity illusory. That is, an essential determination has no self-subsistence because its identity is really in the other against which alone it can be the determination that it is. The same structure holds with respect to the other as well. The opposites are thus "reflected into each other," and each only seems to be a self-subsistent identity. Insofar as each determination can only be itself over and against its opposite, the identity of each consists in its not being the other. Thus both are bound together in an inseparable unity. Because each is what it is by not being the other, and this not-being-the-other unifies them, the unity is a negative unity.

Thus negative unity does emerge here, but it is an illusory unity based upon the semblance of identity. Because each only seems to be an identity, its negative unity with the other is based upon semblance. Its identity is constituted negatively through not being the other, but for that reason it has no real identity of its own, and so its negative unity is not a real unity. The lack of identity here undermines the very distinction between "self" and "other" upon which the idea of a negative unity rests.

A negative unity holds between A and what is not A, where each is what it is by not being the other and so each is inseparable from the other — it is a unity of opposition. However, if neither A nor not-A has an identity of its own, then the "not" that holds them apart is likewise a semblance. But if A and not-A cannot be held apart, then neither can be an identity over and against the other. The unity of opposition (negative unity) is only a seeming unity insofar as the identity of each whereby they are mutually opposed is a seeming identity, rendering the mutual opposition a seeming opposition, and therefore rendering the unity of opposition a seeming unity. That is why the negative unity that shows itself in the sphere of essence is an illusory unity based as it is upon the semblance of identity.

The immediacy of being was continually undermined by its implicit mediation until it was simply seen to be based upon mediation, at which point being passes over into essence. In the sphere of essence the immediacy of being is seen to be mediated, but immediacy still shows itself insofar as the mediating structure of essence itself seems to be immediate. In the sphere of being, immediacy in being immediate continually finds itself mediated; in the sphere of essence, mediation in mediating continually finds itself immediate. Being tries to get away from mediation and fails, as it were, and essence tries to get away from immediacy and fails.

The semblance character of essence only persists so long as there seems to be something standing over and against its mediation. The very mediating structure of essence seems to be something simply "there" and immediate. The mediating structure and that which is mediated by it appear as separated, and this difference seems to maintain the immediacy of both sides. This structure also collapses, not because it is seen to be mediated by an other or by an opposite, but because it is seen to be self-mediating. In this self-mediation a unity is established that has real self-subsistence insofar as it does not disappear in otherness nor does it only seem to be subsistent against an opposite. The whole ontological development is now seen to be self-determining, and the identity that is established at this point is no longer merely a semblance. This self-determining ontological process is what Hegel calls "the concept," and is that which emerges out of the collapse of essence.

The identity or unity established at the level of the concept is no longer seen to be simply and immediately "there." It is indeed an immediacy, but it is an immediacy that is seen to be a result of self-mediation. Immediacy does not just go away in the face of mediation — if this were the case, immediacy would have been merely reinstated at another level, and would thus merely be another shape of essence. Rather, the very immediacy of immediacy is self-mediating. For this reason, the unity of the concept is thoroughly negative. The negativity of self-mediation is no longer something which prevents immediate positive being from being what it is. Rather, that negativity is precisely what constitutes the unity present and thereby establishes self-subsistent being in its very immediacy.

This is the negative unity of the concept as opposed to the negative unity that first appeared in the sphere of essence — in the sphere of essence there only seemed to be a unity because it was undermined by negativity, whereas in the sphere of the concept the negativity of mediation establishes itself as immediate unity. Once again, we can see how in Hegel’s text the entire sense of terms and phrases (such as "negative unity") undergoes a complete transformation in and through the dialectical development within which these terms appear.

Now insofar as the concept establishes its identity not by holding itself apart from mediation but by becoming self-mediating or self-determining, it cannot remain behind as an identity that underlies or that is prior to its mediating movement. This means that the concept has to lose itself to be itself — it cannot just be an "itself" that is formally distinct from its own self-determining. But neither is it lost in otherness as in the sphere of being. Rather, it is the identity that it is only in and through its own self-loss. This self-loss is a loss of what it immediately is, and only in this way is it a self-mediating immediacy. In losing itself as immediate, it cannot remain behind or underlie its self-determining movement — only in this way is it really self-determining rather than merely mediating something immediately other than it. If it simply undermined immediacy, its mediating structure would itself be immediate, and so it would fail to undermine immediacy, as was the case in the sphere of essence. This self-loss is its character as negative unity.

Logic and Nature

But how are we to appropriate Hegel’s account with respect to our understanding of the empirical beings that we encounter and live among? What is its relevance to biological science and to our own comportment toward the non-human? In Hegel’s system no categories are fixed and abiding. Mechanism is unsustainable in its own terms, and so cannot be a stable sphere of determinations in which we can take refuge for the purposes of "explanation." Indeed, the sheer externality of mechanism renders any real explanation impossible. But life is not a fixed category either. It is not self-undermining in the same way as was mechanism, but nonetheless it does not provide a categorial refuge for the understanding any more than any other ontological determination does.

So how are we to understand the relevance of the Logic for thinking the ontological structure of real existing things in the world? For this we need to discuss the nature of truth in the Logic as a whole, and then turn to the move out of the sphere of logic in general and into nature. A full treatment of the philosophy of nature is beyond the scope of the present study, so I will merely sketch out the move to nature for the purposes of clarifying the place of the Logic in our understanding of the world, and I will take living organisms as my point of reference. That is, I will look at the way in which the logical category of life is related to the account of living beings in the philosophy of nature, and how this whole philosophical articulation of the living organism stands in relation to empirical biological research.

a) Truth

Truth for Hegel is not a state of affairs, nor an adequate representation, nor even an ultimate category. Rather, truth is a movement of self-mediation. It does reach a kind of culmination or completion in spirit, where the idea is explicitly for itself as idea. Does this then form an ultimate horizon within which the rest of the determinations of the system are to be situated? Even if this horizon is not tacitly posited in advance as Heidegger maintains, nonetheless does it not encompass all the preceding development, inwardizing it in the final summation where spirit comes to itself in its recollection (Erinnerung) of the moments it has necessarily traversed in its history?

The problem with this interpretation is that it assumes a basically reflective structure — Erinnerung as the inwardizing/recollecting of determinations in a kind of subsumption.3 This kind of reflective movement shows itself to be unsustainable in the logic of essence insofar as it is a mediating structure that mediates everything except its own mediation, which thereby seems to be an immediacy itself. The concept is the sphere wherein the difference between the mediating and the mediated has collapsed, and the idea is the concept that is for itself as its own end. So if spirit is the idea that is for itself as such, it cannot be reduced to a reflective movement such as Erinnerung. To follow the ontological development and then at the end fall back upon reflection would be similar to the way Euthyphro follows Socrates in spelling out the immanent logos of his opinions, and then forgets that development, blaming Socrates for manipulating his words.4

But if the idea that Hegel ultimately arrives at some final horizon is mistaken, we are back where we started — how are we to understand the world in terms of the Logic? One might be tempted to regard it as a hermetically sealed system that is always self-confirming, a kind of "metaphysical idealism"5 that spins out its own development quite efficiently but which, when all is said and done, cannot tell us about the actual world in which we really live. However, any conception of hermetic closure necessarily and simultaneously posits an outside or an other to what is hermetically sealed off. In sealing something in, it simultaneously seals something out, and in such a way that the outside is so thoroughly co-opted and appropriated that any sense of outsideness or externality can only appear as a determination that is already within. In this way the outside is completely effaced — it has no voice that does not already belong to the inside, and so it must suffer its own silent burial.

But this conception, too, relies upon categories that have not been derived or clarified in their necessity. It simply presupposes an other to thought which, in hermetically sealing itself off, silences this other. It posits a same/other, interior/exterior relation prior to the ontological development, an "irreducible" outside to the Logic. For this reason, it has not really begun philosophy (in Hegel’s sense), but is still saddled with the standpoint of consciousness that posits a gap between thought and being.

So when we wonder if the Logic can tell us anything about the real world outside of its hermetic closure, we have unwittingly fallen back upon this standpoint and situated the ontological development within it — which would mean of course that such development is not ontological at all but a mere appearance that may indeed appear for us in a certain way, but of whose "in itself" or intrinsic character we can say nothing. But of course the standpoint of consciousness has not yet emerged in the Logic, and if we are to systematically derive the categories of being without arbitrarily positing any underived determinations, the assumption of this standpoint is unwarranted.

Does this then silence the question with which we began? Do we have to fish for acceptable terms with which to ask it? No — we still have the question as to how the Logic enables us to better understand the world we live in. When we tacitly assume the standpoint of consciousness, it seems as if we are locked into a circle of thought from which we cannot escape, closed off from the exterior to such a degree that we cannot even think the exterior at all, as if we can only think the interior, and the exterior only as something within the interior. But when this semblance of hermetic closure vanishes along with the standpoint of consciousness, we find that we are not closed off to anything — not because otherness is effaced but because the ontological development opens us up to the otherness of the other, the exteriority of the outside, so that we can think and understand it for the first time, and in such a way that thinking it does not compromise it — it could only compromise it if we are still assuming the standpoint of consciousness at some level.

Thus the Logic enables us to better understand the world we live in precisely because it does not stand in relation to it as to something which stands outside, as to an exterior or other. In fact, as we will see, in the supersession of immediacy and also of the immediacy of mediation, the idea itself is immediate as an immediacy that has arisen from self-mediation, and this self-mediated immediacy is the real external being of real things in the natural world — rocks, asteroids, house cats, etc. Of course the level of determinacy that a philosophy of nature can reach has to be specified, but it is not that an interior realm of thought has somehow magically jumped over into the external world, because the categories that posit this relation of thought-as-interior to the world-as-exterior are simply unwarranted and irrelevant here. The relation of thought to the world is neither a relation of otherness (a being relation) nor one of opposition (an essential relation), but is a relation that is appropriate to what Hegel calls "the idea."

i) The Logic as Ontological Motion Rather than Horizon of Interpretation

David Kolb offers some helpful indications for us that pertain here:

If Hegel’s basic understanding can be found in the architectonic of the large sections of the logical sequence, perhaps it should be thought of as a motion within which things appear. Perhaps there is not one unified horizon of interpretation but many, each treated in the dialectic that is the motion of its appearance. The space for our encounter with things would then be structured by the current horizon and, ultimately, by the motion of having horizons of interpretation at all, which is the motion described in the logical sequence — not itself a final horizon of interpretation so much as the thinking of the event of having interpretations.6

The Logic begins without horizons, viz. it begins with the thought of being abstracted from any possible horizon. From this beginning it then systematically derives every possible horizon.7 Herein lies an important difference between dialectic and (non-dialectical) phenomenology — in the former, horizons are derived; in the latter, horizons are given in the step back from phenomena to their conditions of phenomenality. With respect to the movement of thought, there is a fundamental difference of direction here: forward development as opposed to a step back.

However, the notion of a "horizon" is itself problematic insofar as it implicitly posits a difference between mediating and mediated structures. That is, it posits a difference between an interpretive structure on the one hand and that which gets situated and interpreted in its terms on the other. That the horizon is derived rather than presupposed in a step back is an improvement over the phenomenological method, but nonetheless it still seems to unavoidably posit an essential difference between two levels, between a kind of "deep structure" and a "surface structure." It is precisely this kind of movement that characterizes the logic of essence and which shows itself to be unsustainable.

For this reason it might be appropriate to characterize reflective determinations like difference, identity, opposition, ground, etc., as horizons insofar as their very determinacy includes just such an essential difference. But it would be inappropriate to regard the concept as an interpretive horizon, and even more inappropriate to regard the idea in this way. Kolb is probably pressing too far a connection that he wants to see between Hegel and Heidegger’s thought of a "propriative event" (Ereignis). Thus in my view Kolb runs the danger of mistakenly regarding Hegel in quasi-reflective terms: "I am saying that Hegel too makes a step back. The self-grasp of the absolute idea is not just another world but the self-grasp of the event of our being appropriated into any world."8

However, Kolb’s suggestion to which I initially referred above can be helpful if we bracket the notion of "horizon" as well as perhaps even "interpretation," and focus instead upon the sense of movement or motion that he rightly emphasizes. Indeed, if we keep in mind that right at the outset of the Logic the truth of being shows itself to lie in becoming, then what is at issue in the Logic is not so much what it means to be as what it means to become. "Becoming" by itself is of course too vague and abstract, as would be expected given that it only appears as the Logic’s second category. But the ontological movement that it is generates many becomings, each articulating a different ontological movement whose motion defines the being of things — inanimate physical objects, plants, animals, and humans. Henceforth I will use the terms "motion" and "movement" in this ontological sense.

It is not that the ontological movements form horizons within which things are situated, but that the ontological movement is the thing itself. The immediate idea is the process that is space, time, life, etc. — it is not that-within-which these beings are situated. In following the development of the Logic we are not forming horizons so much as thinking being. There is no tacit separation between thought and being, between thinking subject and corresponding object, or even between an ontological horizon and the particular beings situated in terms of it. There is no "ontological difference" between Being and beings.9

ii) The Relevance of Ontological Motion to Empirical Science10

Notwithstanding the fact that there is no horizonal structure within which things are situated, the Logic does unfold at a certain level of abstraction, and thus it is incomplete without the philosophy of nature which articulates the actual spatio-temporal being of the idea (I will return to a discussion of how we might understand this below). The Logic without nature might indeed begin to look like a merely formal interpretive structure, a quasi-Kantian set of categories that necessarily structure our understanding of empirical phenomena. There are further levels of determinacy to be spelled out beyond the Logic.

Thus Hegel does go on to spell out the ontological movement that characterizes and generates what we experience in the world as life, living organisms, including the movement of contingency which by its very determination precludes the logical derivation of the specificity of its determinations.11 Hegel can systematically derive the ontological motion that is life, and in the sphere of nature that which is further determined as plant and animal. In the philosophy of nature, Hegel even goes as far as to develop bird-life vis-à-vis mammalian-life. But the contingency that is also necessarily in motion here precludes the possibility that, say, the scarab beetle Popillia japonica with its specific color pattern be systematically derived. Nature is also a sphere of accidental contingency. In the section of the Encyclopedia that deals with the ontological category of actuality, Hegel remarks:

Although it follows from the discussion up to this point that contingency is only a one-sided moment of actuality and for that reason is not to be confused with the latter itself, nevertheless as a form of the idea in general it also belongs in the objective world as its appropriate due. This initially applies to nature, upon whose surface area, so to speak, contingency has free play. This free play then is also to be recognized as such without the pretension (sometimes erroneously ascribed to philosophy) of wanting to find something therein that can only be so and not otherwise.12

Now it is not that we begin with a given species of scarab beetle and then interpretively situate it with respect to the horizon of an ontological movement specified by the Logic. Rather, any particular species of scarab beetle is a further determination of that ontological motion — rather than being situated within, it is a further determination of — and the given species’ contingent characteristics (e.g. color pattern, tarsal claw configuration, feeding habits, etc.) are necessarily generated also. More exactly, it is not that this particular characteristic (e.g. tarsal claws of unequal length) is necessary, but that some particular characteristic is necessary, and this just so happens (contingently) to be it.

Philosophy has to develop into the sphere of contingency because it deals with the concrete universal which particularizes itself. If it did not, it would merely be a discourse of abstract universals. The concept of the universal necessarily develops into the particular and into singularity (Einzelheit). This ultimately means that the universal concept must through its own immanent dialectic become empirical singularity ¾ only thereby can it truly be the concept that it is. But in doing so it passes over into the sphere of contingency and thereby out of the proper realm of philosophy ¾ thus the empirical sciences are necessary.

Political philosophy, for instance, deals with the universal concepts that are necessarily generated out of the development of freedom, but in any particular instance it must be empirically determined how to realize a determination of freedom in a given socio-economic context, e.g. what the exact tax rate will be and how it will be levied. These decisions "lie outside the explicit determinacy of the concept."(EP §16, addition) The contingency of the empirical sphere means that at a certain level any systematic derivation is impossible with respect to the determinations within it, which themselves "allow a latitude for their determination."(Ibid.)

"Nature" is the loss of the idea in externality. But Hegel’s account can specify the necessity of this very loss through the dialectical development. The Logic had already shown contingency itself to be a necessary moment in the concept’s self-determination. Thus the idea of nature "loses itself in its dispersion into isolated contingencies."(Ibid.13) In this way Hegel can account for why nature must be a sphere that is largely determined by chance and random events. He is not assuming that he can derive nature in all of its particular contingent determinacy from thought, but he does show that sphere of contingency itself to be a necessary moment in the philosophical system. Nature is a necessary moment of the concept, but as nature it is a sphere wherein the idea is released into external contingency, and therefore cannot be accounted for in its entirety by philosophical thought.

At a certain point philosophy must let go of the concept precisely because of the concept ¾ more precisely, the concept lets go of itself and is itself this letting go.

Philosophy then can follow the movement of the idea in nature, but due to the external contingency therein, this movement is not a transition and development of one determination into another with respect to its external particularity and contingency, but only is such in the idea which constitutes the ground of nature. This "ground" however is a ground which only grounds in emerging into existence, i.e. in becoming external contingency and thereby losing itself as ground.14 This loss of the idea which is nature is the irrationality of nature, i.e. its irreducible randomness and pure chance.

This irrationality and contingency allows for and even renders necessary the empirical sciences, which in themselves do not recognize their finite limited character and so do not grasp the movement of the idea — in this lies their positive character.(Ibid.) Thus from the point of view of empirical science, the sphere of "spirit" (i.e. ethics, aesthetics, politics, etc.) looks merely like more contingent phenomena added on to what is already there. This point of view cannot see the implications in nature ¾ the idea implicit in nature ¾ that when developed are "spirit." To this point of view everything looks like a sea of contingently related diversity.

Hegel claims that the empirical sciences are finite without recognizing their finitude, and because they do not recognize their finitude they take their standpoint to be valid in an obvious and simply straightforward way ¾ it is the bottom line to which everything reduces, so much so that the mere suggestion of anything else is immediately regarded as flight into fantasy. However, this does not preclude the possibility that an empirical scientist may intuit the "inner sequence of the concept" and order phenomena accordingly.(Ibid.) In this case Hegel suggests that only the form of presentation would be empirical, and the scientist would thus sense the universal concept.15 Hegel remarks: "A thoughtful [sinnige] experimental physics, history, etc., would in this manner present the rational science of nature and of human events and deeds in an external image that mirrors the concept."(Ibid.)

Thus there is a point where philosophy ends and empirical science has its place.

There is a point where biological taxonomy legitimately takes over, specifying the contingently generated features of natural organisms. But what is always illegitimate is when such empirical science reduces an ontological determination, like life, to a more impoverished determination, like mechanism — because the Logic shows that the category of mechanism is unsustainable in its own terms and that through its own immanent dialectical development its unsustainability leads to and even necessitates the category of life. Life, therefore, cannot be fully accounted for in purely mechanistic terms. The biologist may even point out "mechanisms" in organisms provided that these are not surreptitiously or otherwise taken as a reductive basis. And it should be clear that if indifferent externality is not the primary process involved then an appeal to "mechanisms" for a final understanding of any living phenomenon is inappropriate. Thus even what the biologist may refer to as a mechanism may be a chemical process irreducible to the sheer external and indifferent interrelation of mechanical objects.

This indicates the place where philosophy can legitimately inform empirical science without interfering with scientific work. However, to the degree that science replaces truth with something other than truth as the primary criterion for the viability of its theorizing (e.g. usefulness for prediction and control, parsimony of "explanation," etc.), philosophy may well interfere and demand not just that something be useful for this or that but that it be true.

Now it is not that we go and look at an organism and then attempt to verify whether or not it corresponds to our ontological account. This would tacitly introduce the standpoint of consciousness into the picture, and the ontological account would then appear as a formal set of categories in a subjective consciousness. Rather, philosophy must begin in an entirely different manner. It must unfold the ontological motion that is the living organism before us — without, however, beginning with the standpoint of this "before us." That is, philosophy cannot begin with the standpoint of consciousness.

But a few potentially damaging questions could be raised here. How then can we tell the difference between a mechanical object and a living being in the empirical world? Do the philosopher who begins with pure being and the empiricist who begins with phenomena meet at some point, or are they utterly cut off from each other? How can we tell which ontological motion something is? In other words, it is conceivable that someone like Richard Dawkins could say, "Fine, if you have derived the category that you call ‘life’ in these terms, then these ‘animals’ and even ‘humans’ that I’m characterizing as DNA-programmed machines are not ‘life’. I’ll just give up that category, if you insist. What are called ‘animals’ — these things that move themselves around in their various environments — are just complex mechanisms. That is the ‘ontological motion’, if you like, that legitimately characterizes them." There are a couple of points to be made in reply to such objections.

1) At the very least we can say that mechanism is self-undermining in its own terms. Thus it cannot be naively assumed as a self-evident category of thought that can provide a secure foundation for biological theorizing. But life too is self-undermining, as is every determination derived in the Logic (that is, up to the "absolute idea," to which I will return). Neither mechanism nor life can be a foundation — it is foundational representing that must be given up (i.e. ontological movements reified into Vorstellungen and regarded as grounds). Where does this leave the mechanists? It leaves them without a foundation, and if they follow the logic implicit in their own categories, they will necessarily arrive at something more than mechanism, viz. life.

By its own nature indifferent externality cannot provide a basis, and that is why it is a mistake to look for a "mechanism" to serve as a basis for understanding living beings. We have seen that we cannot rely upon indifferent externality as a basis, and mechanism is nothing without indifferent externality. Anything more than the latter would necessarily be more than merely mechanical (and if one wishes to redefine mechanism in terms other than indifferent externality, then one would have to show in what consists its precisely mechanistic character). Thus to insist upon mechanism is either to fail to think the self-negating contradiction that indifferent externality is, or it is to use a word without a meaning. Then the question becomes: why insist upon mechanistic categories when they are no longer necessary? To continue to do so would then appear to be merely arbitrary dogmatism, unthinking habit, or mere willfulness.

2) Since the standpoint of consciousness is appropriate for empirical science, this opens the possibility for the empiricist to observe more thoughtfully and see whether the phenomena s/he investigates exhibit mechanical, chemical, or organic processes. If the latter, s/he will have learned from philosophy that these processes are not reducible to mechanical ones, and thus the temptation to do so for a convenient or "useful" representation will be, if not eliminated, at least minimized. The scientist will understand that even though a living being can be represented in terms of mechanism due to the fact that mechanism is an under-determination of life, this does not constitute the truth of life, and to understand a living being as living, one must move beyond the categories of mechanism. Further, s/he will have additionally learned that this move beyond mechanism is even implied in and necessitated by the very determinations of mechanism itself.

The philosopher cannot begin with given phenomena, but the scientist can and indeed must — without, however, deriving categories like mechanism and life from such given phenomena (which no scientist really does anyway 16). In this way philosophy and science can complement each other rather than being at odds. Heidegger’s thought, by contrast, could never achieve this — for Heidegger the scientist right from the outset has failed to step back from the ontological horizon of Vorhandenheit or extantness (or later, Gestell) and think being as such, and so anything and everything developed in science can only naively transpire within this horizon. Science is thus relegated to the oblivion of being, never capable of thinking being as such. Were a scientist to do so, s/he would no longer be a scientist but a philosopher, and such thinking of being contributes nothing to science per se but is always heterogeneous to it. Faced with Heidegger’s thinking of being, the scientist can either step back from the forgetfulness that understands being in terms of beings, which would mean giving up scientific theorizing, or s/he can ignore Heidegger and go on with scientific work. If Heidegger is right, I do not see that there can be any third alternative or middle ground here. The scientist can become philosopher, but never as scientist, and philosophy can never enter into scientific practice as it might be conceived of as doing in the Hegelian account.17

b) The Ontological Development as Nature

If all the categories of the Logic are self-superseding, then how do we explain the obvious fact that the things that we live alongside in the world do not transform themselves into something more than what they are at their given level of determination? Or, to put it somewhat crudely, if mechanism leads beyond itself to life, why don’t rocks turn into squirrels? Manifestly at an empirical level, mechanical objects do not transform themselves into plants and animals, even if we theorize that at some point in the distant past this happened. Mechanical objects do seem to present us with a kind of self-subsistence whereby they maintain themselves as objects. How does the ontological movement presented in the Logic relate to this?

The empirical level of determinations is developed in the philosophy of nature. At the close of the Logic Hegel claims that the idea freely releases itself into the externality of space and time, which are the initial determinations of nature.(SL 843) The idea has at this point superseded all mediation in it. In doing so it returns to immediacy. It has become the simple self-relation that is being. Ideally, in order to gain a clearer understanding of what Hegel is trying to articulate here we would need to follow the development of the Logic from knowing to the absolute idea. We will have to forego a detailed account of the transitions here, unfortunately, and be content with a bare schema of the movement.

i) From Knowing to Absolute Idea

The absolute idea is the idea present as thought. As opposed to the understanding which represents a given content, the absolute idea thinks itself and thus is its own object. In its object, which is itself, all the determinations of the Logic have come together. Life was the idea in its immediacy, the idea in itself. Knowing was the idea only for itself, whose "in itself" stood over and against it as something presupposed. Both the "in itself" and the "for itself" are one-sided. The absolute idea is the idea that is in and for itself, i.e. explicitly idea, and for this reason is characterized as "absolute."(EP §236)

The content that is the idea’s object here is the idea itself, and this "itself" is not an abstract identity but is the movement of the entire Logic as a whole: "So also the content of the absolute idea is then the whole unfolding, which up to now we have had before us." (EP §237, addition) The form of this content now appears as the method of exposition of this content, the knowing that explicates the ontological movement, the unfolding of the whole. This is proper philosophical method for Hegel — speculative thought. It is simultaneously analytic and synthetic, passive and active, that is, medial, according to the middle-voiced process appropriate to the idea:

Philosophical thinking proceeds analytically insofar as it merely takes up its object, the idea, allows it to continue, and it simply watches, as it were, the movement and development of it. Philosophizing is thus far totally passive. However, philosophical thinking is just as much synthetic and proves itself to be the activity of the concept itself. But to this belongs the exertion to restrain our own fancies and particular opinions which always want to bring themselves forward.(EP §238, addition)

Thus when we get to the absolute idea, the very ontological movement we have been following shows itself to be nothing other than our own enactment of the conceptual development. Our own passive following of the movement coupled with our active restraint becomes explicit in the absolute idea as the method which belongs to the content. For the first time, we can here recognize the activity of our own thinking which has been implicit or "in itself" throughout the entire logical movement.18

All mediation is aufgehoben in the absolute idea. Now insofar as the idea has become pure relation to self, no longer to an other or to a semblance of something lying outside it, it has returned to the initial immediacy that is being and that constituted the beginning of the Logic.(SL 838) However, there is this difference — immediate being is now posited as such, and so is a mediated immediacy. "In the progression of the idea the beginning proves itself as that which it is implicitly, namely as posited and mediated and not as being and immediacy."(EP §239, addition) This is how Hegel avoids stepping back from an immediacy to its mediation and then presupposing the immediacy of that mediation as given. In this way the immediate beginning now shows itself to be something mediated and as such is immediacy. That is, mediation does not undo the immediacy of the beginning, but rather establishes it. This is again for Hegel why both immediacy and mediation are equally one-sided.

The idea as the end result is again the beginning, immediate being. This beginning is now shown to be mediated retrospectively. But as this retrospective mediation is only accomplished through the unfolding of the ontological determinations beginning with being in its abstract immediacy, the progressive development and the retrogressive establishment of the beginning coincide.19

By virtue of the nature of the method just sketched out, [philosophical] science presents itself as a circle coiling into itself, into whose beginning, the simple ground, the mediation coils back the end; thereby this circle is a circle of circles; for each link, as animated by the method, is the reflection-into-self which, in that it returns into the beginning, is equally the beginning of a new link. The individual sciences are the fragments of this chain, each of which has a before and an after, or more precisely, only has a before and in its conclusion itself indicates its after.(WL 571-2)

The "links" here are the sciences of logic, nature, and spirit. We have just reached the conclusion of one of those links, the science of logic. My account here of the absolute idea is admittedly too brief and philosophically inadequate — all the transitions from knowing to the absolute idea need to be worked out in their specificity. But we should now have enough of a sense of what the absolute idea means for us to proceed to an understanding of the place of nature in Hegel’s philosophy and its relevance both to the Logic as a whole and to my thesis here concerning life. What I will now turn to is the move to nature, which I will attempt to clarify.

ii) The Absolute Idea as Nature

The Logic unfolds the truth of being as becoming. It ultimately returns to being — not to being as abstract, immediate, sheer indeterminacy, but rather to the being of the idea. Being becomes reflection, concept, and finally idea. This is the Logic. At the end, we have the idea enclosed in pure thought, the idea that is in and for itself as such. Thus we do have the truth of being as idea, but we do not have the idea as being. This is the deficiency of the idea at the end of the Logic (which is, as we will see, only a seeming deficiency) — it is enclosed in the element of pure thought and as such is not. What is must exemplify or display the ontological motions spelled out in the Logic, but at this point these ontological motions themselves do not exist in time and space. To this degree they are still abstract. Hegel says that "this idea is still logical, it is enclosed in pure thought ... To be sure, the systematic exposition is itself a realization [of the idea], but held within the same sphere."(WL 572)

Just as the concept confined in the sphere of subjectivity (i.e. judgment and syllogism) through its own one-sidedness was driven to objectify itself, so the idea is likewise now the drive to objectify itself as idea. But initially it objectifies itself as immediate being. This is nature. "In that the idea posits itself precisely as absolute unity of the pure concept and its reality, accordingly gathering itself into the immediacy of being, so it is as the totality in this form — nature."(WL 573) How are we to understand this transition?

Our understanding of this would seem to be further complicated by Hegel’s assertion that this move from the absolute idea to nature is not a transition or a result of a process of becoming, as was the objectification of the concept. It is neither Übergang nor Gewordensein, and so is not really even a movement. What is it then, and why are the concepts of becoming and transition inadequate? The idea is "absolute liberation" (absolute Befreiung). Why? Because for it "there is no immediate determination that is not equally posited and is the concept."(Ibid.) As long as there appeared to be something other, an immediacy in some way at odds with the concept, there was a transition of that immediacy into conceptual movement through its own immanent dialectic.

But if all determinations are explicitly concept-determinations in the idea, there is no place left for transition. Indeed, things in general are but concepts that appear to representation and to reflection as others20. Because of this, there is nothing to prevent or to put up an obstacle to the idea in its drive to objectify itself. There is no immediacy appearing over and against the idea which has to be first made explicit as belonging to the idea’s process. Thus its drive to objectify itself quite simply is the same thing as its being as idea. For this reason, there is properly speaking no "drive" present — the absolute idea immediately is being. For this reason also what appeared initially as a deficiency only appears that way as long as we do not attend to what the absolute idea is.

Because of its freedom in this respect, "the form of its determinacy is also utterly free."(WL 573) That is, in its return to immediate being, the very immediacy of being is now determinate through the self-mediation that the absolute idea is. In this way it is not merely the abstract and utterly indeterminate being with which the Logic begins. Lacking such determinacy, abstract being was indistinguishable from mere nothing, and in this sense it lacked the freedom to be itself — its being consisted in its becoming other.

Here, on the other hand, the idea does not stand over and against an immediacy, nor does its own immediacy appear as an abstraction. For this reason its determinacy is "free" — the determinate form it takes does not pass into something other nor is it set off against the abstraction of its immediacy. The initial determinate form it takes is that of space, which is the externality of the idea as such (I will offer my explanation as to why this is so in a moment). This externality is to be distinguished from the external indifference of mechanism, and it is self-subsistent as a determination of the absolute idea. Thus space will be thought differently than the concept’s self-externality (i.e. mechanism). But due to the self-subsistent freedom of the idea’s determinations, each subsequent form of determinacy generated within the sphere of nature, as a determination of the absolute idea, likewise stands on its own as an objectified conceptual determination.

The externality of mechanism was the self-externality of the concept. We saw that, far from disappearing, externality was transformed through its own self-supersession to become the necessary self-objectification of the concept. It is this necessary self-objectification through which the living being is embodied and thereby alive. Now what we are seeing is the externality of the idea, which contains all the mediated determinations of the Logic. It is the externality or being-outside-itself of all the ontological determinations.

Sheer external indifference prevented the concept from being for-itself as such. This very external indifference then showed itself to be that through which the concept becomes for-itself as life. But life’s universality, the genus, could not be for-itself except as knowing or as pure thought. Now this for-itself of the idea gains being in its own self-externalization, the first form of which is space. Space is the pure being-outside-itself of the idea. This is the immediate being of the idea. Thus nature is the immediate being of pure thought. Nature shows in itself, i.e. implicitly, the structure or movement that in and for itself, i.e. explicitly, is thought. That is, nature is implicitly thinking. This of course does not mean that rocks think in the sense of entertaining mental representations or performing mental calculations, but that the ontological structures of their very physicality, when carried forth into what they themselves imply in themselves, will yield the structures we can recognize as thought. That is, nature implies a logos.

As previously mentioned, we can only criticize this as "metaphysical idealism"21 if there is a kind of tacit Kantian assumption concerning the Logic — namely, that it is "only" or "merely" thought. This "only" implies that thought is opposed to something other than it — it is "only" thought as opposed to... The only way that the relation of the idea to nature can be one of "radical otherness" is if that otherness had not shown itself in the Logic, as if all along the Logic had been merely thought as opposed to some presupposed sphere outside it.

On the one hand, this would be to assume that all along the standpoint of the Logic had really been merely that of consciousness. We learn from the Phenomenology that it is consciousness which makes a distinction between what is for itself and what is in itself (like nature outside of thought). This opposition between thought or what is for consciousness and what merely "is" apart from thought is what Hegel refers to as the "opposition of consciousness." But this tacit opposition of consciousness is not the structure of the idea at all. When consciousness does look at the externality of the idea in its immediate being, this externality exists for it only as "mere objectivity and external life."(Ibid.) Consciousness does not grasp the idea which is the being (ontological movement) of the very external physical nature it has before itself.

On the other hand, to assume that all along the Logic had been merely thought as opposed to some presupposed sphere outside it would be to tacitly posit a sphere of determinacy (the "outside" of the Logic) that has not been derived, a covert determinacy against which the beginning in abstract immediacy would be tacitly understood. But this would mean nothing less than that one had never really begun with immediate being at all insofar as the latter turns out to be tacitly mediated by a presupposed determinacy that was never derived. In other words, to assert that the Logic is "only" thought, at any level, is to fail to begin the Logic at all.

Now as previously noted, because there is no unmediated immediacy present, each form of determinacy that the absolute idea as nature takes is "free" or self-subsistent. With respect to each form of the idea as nature, there is likewise nothing immediately "there" to suffer transition. In this vein we can understand Hegel’s remark, often merely taken to deny the very possibility of biological evolution: "Nature is to be regarded as a system of stages wherein one comes forth necessarily out of the other and is the nearest truth to that one out of which it results, but not in such a way that the one would be naturally engendered out of the other, but rather in the inner idea which constitutes the ground of nature."(EP §194)

On the one hand, the logical development implied in natural determinations does not necessarily follow the actual course of evolutionary development through natural selection. As we have seen, the contingency that characterizes nature is shown to be a necessary moment in the ontological sequence, but its very character as contingency denies the possibility of systematic derivation at a certain level. Since natural selection operates through the contingent features of the environment in interaction with contingent genetic mutations, the precise course of evolutionary development cannot be specified in advance with any systematic necessity. For instance, philosophy could never have derived the genetic mutation of the pepper moth’s color to a darker shade in response to the darkening of the tree trunks needed for camouflage against predation, a change caused by pollution from industrial factories in the nineteenth century.

On the other hand, this remark may not so much deny the possibility of a generation of new species through natural selection as much as it denies that a particular form in its determinate externality is transformed into another particular determinate form. Hegel’s remark might in fact be taken as denying the Lamarkian notion of "the heritability of acquired characteristics," which notion understands such transformation as transpiring within the development of an individual natural form in its external determinacy.

Because of the self-subsistent "freedom" of the idea’s determinations, they are outside one another — that is, they are spatial, and thus the determinations of the idea as nature do not pass into one another on this spatial, physical level. Even a genetic mutation is not a transformation of a determinate individual organism but is a new organism, a new particular determinacy. As such the new organism in its spatial determinacy, that is, as a natural determination, is a break with the structure of its species rather than a development of it. Thus Hegel says that the stages of nature are not naturally generated out of their predecessors — we have to keep in mind that by "nature" and the "natural" Hegel is referring to the being of the idea. A heritability of acquired characteristics would, however, posit such transformation on a natural level. Lamarkianism is too abstract — it confuses nature with logic, and sees the transformation appropriate to the latter in the former. "Metamorphosis," Hegel writes, "belongs only to the concept as such, since the alteration of the concept alone is development."(Ibid.) For this reason rocks don’t become squirrels.

c) Further Considerations Concerning the Idea as Ground of Nature

It is precisely because immediacy is aufgehoben in all the determinations of the idea that the idea is immediately nature. Because immediacy is aufgehoben the idea is immediate as nature. Being could not simply remain being but had to pass into becoming. Each determination of the Logic failed to sustain itself as the determination it was determined to be — each failed to be what it was supposed to be. But with the absolute idea there is no more room left for transition — there is no immediacy falling outside it, i.e. all immediacy is aufgehoben. Any immediacy is such only through the self-mediation that the idea is. For this very reason the idea immediately is. It does not fail to be the idea that it is. But equally, if all immediacy is superseded, there is nothing left requiring mediation either, and so all mediation is likewise aufgehoben. So also, the idea returns to immediacy. Either way one looks at it, the idea is immediately as idea, and so has returned to immediate being. Nature is thus immediate being — not the pure abstract immediacy at the beginning of the Logic, but the immediate being of the idea. It is this immediacy that sets up the structure that Hegel refers to as "the inner idea which constitutes the ground of nature."(Ibid.)

But what prevents this from being a mere repetition of the structure of soul in the sphere of mechanism as the "inner" truth of externality? Does not the notion of an "inner" unavoidably set up a relation to an immediate externality? And would this not throw us back to an earlier determination? I will address these questions by way of posing another question which will lead us, I hope, to some clarity concerning this difficult matter. First I will attend to the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Outline22, Hegel’s 1817 version of the Encyclopedia, and then to the later expanded version.

Is nature the immediate being of the idea as a whole, or is nature a return to the beginning of the Logic, only now a beginning posited by the idea? The former would still seem to view the beginning as immediate and the idea as a result, as if the idea is not its own result, as if it arises from something other than it. But such a conception would not be the idea at all, so the latter must be closer to the mark. Now if the beginning is posited (i.e. mediated) by the idea, and the beginning is immediacy (i.e. unmediated), the idea is then the negative of the immediacy of the beginning. But it is that beginning, and so it is the negative of itself. The idea posits itself as the immediate beginning and thereby as the negative of itself. This negativity-of-itself sets up the tension of external nature and the inner idea as its ground.23

To put it another way, strictly speaking the move to nature cannot be one of positing, since the absolute idea immediately is nature. But as idea it is the negative of the abstract immediacy with which the Logic begins. However, the idea contains all the moments of the ontological movement — there is nothing immediately present outside it (this would throw us back to an earlier determination). If it contains all the ontological moments, it must contain the beginning, abstract being, which is shown to be its own moment whereby it is the idea. In being the negative of this abstract immediacy it is the negative of itself. Thus in being the immediate being of nature, the idea is the negative of itself, and shows itself as the inner idea whose externality is nature. This tension is only resolved in the sphere of spirit. In this way nature presents itself "as the idea in the form of otherness" in which "the idea is as the negative of itself."(EPSO #192)

In the move to nature, the idea does not go on to posit something else. All the determinations of the Logic are now seen to be the idea’s doing. The idea is nothing other than the self-mediating movement of the Logic as a whole. In this way the idea is its own result — its self-determination means that it posits itself as the immediate beginning. Thus it does posit the immediate being of the beginning: "In this next resolve of the pure idea to determine itself as external idea, however, it thereby only posits [for] itself the mediation out of which the concept raises itself as free existence that has gone into itself out of externality, in the science of spirit completes its freedom through itself, and finds the highest concept of itself in the logical science as the self conceiving pure concept."(WL 573)

Because the idea already is the self-mediation that contains all determinations, there is nothing to transform; there is nothing left to pass over into. For this reason the idea does not posit the beginning as if it is now doing something else or something further — it now immediately is the beginning whereby it can be the idea that it is. But now in running through all its moments, i.e. in the ontological sequence that the Logic articulates, it does so as idea.

What about the first, initial beginning — the abstract immediacy that was not idea, nor concept, nor even yet essence? What about that abstract being that was not a mediated immediacy, but was just immediate? This moment cannot simply disappear, for it is the beginning of the ontological sequence. It is precisely because abstract being is sheer immediacy that it cannot be distinguished from nothing, and so passes over into becoming. If it were a determinate immediacy as a form of the idea’s determinacy, it would be constituted in the free self-subsistence of the idea and would not suffer transition. But then it would not be the beginning at all, and the immediacy with which the Logic began would fall outside the idea, and so the idea would collapse into a mere result of something other than it. It would not be its own result and so would not really be the idea.

The abstract immediacy of the beginning is only now seen to be the idea’s process, that is, only from the perspective of the idea. As abstract being, the idea is nonetheless its negative and thereby the negative of itself. But for this reason there are two beginnings: the first beginning in abstract immediacy, and the beginning now seen to be explicitly a moment of the idea. But precisely what is now seen to be the beginning of the idea’s process is the first beginning in abstract being. "The end is in itself the negative of the first, and as the identity with that it is the negativity of itself. It is consequently the unity in which both of these firsts, the ideal and the real, exist, or are suspended."(EPSO #188) The ideal "first" presumably is that of the ontological sequence, and the real "first" that of nature. But both of these "firsts" are unified in the one process that is the idea — neither can maintain a kind of separate immediacy against the other. They are one and the same process from different points of view, as it were.

This frees thought to think the structure of nature as the idea in its immediate externality. The idea is external to itself in nature, and so thought can appear as something subjective (in our heads) over and against a conceptless objective nature. Once again, this facilitates mechanistic determinations of mutual externality and indifference. The implicit unity of the idea as external (nature) and the idea as idea (thought) only becomes explicit in spirit. This merely manifests the fact that in nature the idea is the negative of itself. But speculative thought which follows the necessity of ontological self-determination can be "the more thoughtful contemplation of nature, a knowing guided by the idea."(EP II, Introduction) This is the "method" of thinking nature philosophically.

d) Thinking Nature: Method and Content

The Logic establishes the most minimal determinations of what lives, and so in the sphere of the idea’s external existence, nature, even though those forms do not naturally generate one another as do the determinations of the Logic, nonetheless knowing can grasp the inner idea which is the ground of those external forms. It is not a matter of first encountering a phenomenon and then stepping back to a ground — this would be to take the mediating structure as itself immediate. Rather, it is a matter of letting the logical determinations unfold in the sphere of nature, and in this way grasping the ontological structure or movement that living beings are.

All the ontological determinations are developed in the Logic, and so no new determinations are derived in the philosophy of nature. Rather, all the ontological determinations run their course as in the Logic, but with this difference: in nature they constitute the idea as external to itself. Or to put it another way, they constitute the being of the idea, which initially shows itself as self-externality. This self-externality, sheer being-outside-itself, is space. Space is being-outside per se.

As noted above, this externality is not to be confused with the external indifference of mechanism, where the concept became the closed-up totality of the mechanical object, which as sheer indifferent externality was external to its own determination as externality. Here the externality is constituted at the level of the idea. In the idea there is no externality that would fall outside the idea’s process. All externality is the externality that it is through the self-determining process that the idea is. But as this very self-determining process that contains externality as its moment, the idea is outside itself.

We have two "firsts" or two beginnings: 1) the beginning of the Logic which is abstract being, not determined or mediated but pure immediacy, and 2) the same abstract being now seen in its pure immediacy as posited or mediated in the idea’s process, and thereby rendered determinate. But since the idea is the whole process of self-mediation and abstract being appears as immediate (and whose very immediacy nonetheless is seen to be posited by the idea), the latter appears as outside the idea. This very being-outside the idea, however, is the idea. The idea, in being the process that it is, must be outside itself. This being-outside-itself of the idea is nature, whose beginning is the abstract being of space — being-outside per se.

In this way we can perhaps throw light upon Hegel’s otherwise enigmatic assertion concerning the idea: "The absolute freedom of the idea however is that it does not merely pass over into life, nor does it allow life to seem within it [in sich scheinen lässt] as finite knowing, but rather in the absolute truth of itself it resolves itself [sich entschliesst] to freely release out of itself the moment of its particularity or of the first determining and otherness, the immediate idea as its counter-semblance [Widerschein], itself as nature."(EP §244) This "counter-semblance" is the being-outside of the idea. It is not merely semblance (essence), nor a passing over into otherness (being), but is the beginning in immediacy which as an immediate beginning is posited by the idea and simultaneously as immediate is outside the idea — not, however, in the way that immediacy seems to fall outside the concept in the Logic but rather as a sphere of externality whose very being-outside is the idea. There is no unmediated immediacy present, and hence nature or the immediate idea is a "Widerschein" of the idea.

The being of the idea thus appears not as idea — it is implicitly the self-determining process, but the beginning in immediacy does not yet reveal the mediation it must eventually develop. It is here that we can recognize the abstract being of sensual immediacy that consciousness takes as certain in its perceptions(EP §238), and which is the immediacy corresponding to immediate consciousness that forms the point of departure for the Phenomenology of Spirit.(EP §239) Having said this, though, we must avoid tacitly positing here a consciousness for whom nature is its object insofar as consciousness, properly speaking, has not yet shown itself. The thinking of nature does not proceed from a presupposed standpoint of consciousness any more than does the ontological development.

We have the ontological movement as content, released outside the idea and whose being-outside is the idea. We also have the method or form of the content, which is the idea’s self-determining process. Thus form and content coincide. The method of thinking nature then is to let its ontological determinations show themselves as the self-superseding moments that they are in themselves, rather than either fixating upon them in representation on the one hand or stepping back from them to a presupposed immediacy which functions as a transcendental condition of possibility on the other.

In this way we can recognize mechanism as a superseded moment within organic life, and we can recognize organic life as not determined by the external indifference of mechanism and so as irreducible to the latter — even though in the sphere of the idea’s being-outside-itself there is no transition and so the forms of the being of the idea, i.e. the forms of natural beings, do not transform one into the other as do the determinations in the Logic. Due to the absence of transition that characterizes the idea’s "freedom" or self-determination, in nature mechanical objects do not become living organisms with respect to their external particularity.

Yet nonetheless they are the forms of the being of the idea, the idea’s being-outside-itself, and so display the ontological moments developed in the Logic. The fact that the idea’s being-outside-itself, nature, does not fully correspond to the idea as idea marks it as finite. The truth of the finite lies in its own passing away, wherein it arrives at its determination and so does not pass away but passes over into infinite self-relation. This latter is the universality that is grasped by philosophy in its thinking of nature, not the contingency of external experience (i.e. empirical observation): "The true infinite is the unity of itself and the finite, and that is now the category of philosophy, and therefore also of the philosophy of nature."(EP §246, addition)

In developing the inner idea of nature, philosophy however can indicate the empirical appearances that correspond to the concept determinations.(EP §246) These appearances are not taken as verifications of hypotheses, but as the external forms of the idea’s inner necessity whose being-outside they are. The philosophy of nature is thus "metaphysical" insofar as "metaphysics means nothing other than the range of universal thought-determinations, the diamond net, as it were, into which we bring all material in order to render it understandable."(Ibid.) In this sense, the philosophy of nature is the metaphysics of natural science without which the latter would be unintelligible.

It is not that empirical approaches to nature do not appeal to universals — they do and must (species, family, order, phylum, etc.). The problem with an empirical approach is that in appealing to the universal, "it vacillates at times in between, whether the universal is subjective or objective; one can often hear it said that these classes and orders are only fabricated for the utility of knowing." (EP §246, addition) Since it is saddled with the opposition of consciousness, it cannot come to any final conclusion as to whether its universal categories and concepts are such only for it or whether they truly determine the thing in itself. Hence the arbitrariness of first "applying" concepts that "fit" certain observations, and then relegating these concepts to obsolescence through other observations, other more useful concepts, or even sociological influences.24

From Hegel’s perspective, the subject-object gap is not a problem because it has not yet properly emerged. We do not begin with the givenness of an object for consciousness. There is an immediacy, but this is the beginning posited by the idea, and so the self-determining process implicit in it is not just accessible to thought — it is thought, that is, it is the idea itself in its being-outside. Philosophy thus demonstrates the necessity of the universal categories employed by empirical science without waiting upon the latter to pronounce them to it — contra Mayr.25 Waiting upon empirical science for concepts would be to remain mired in the opposition of consciousness from which empirical science cannot extricate itself.

Empirical science cannot show the development of its categories, but must take them up as it finds them in representation, and then look to see if they facilitate ease of explanation with respect to observable givens (although the latter is always already tacitly conceived in some way).26 Again, we confront the hegemony of Baconian power over truth. As Hegel sarcastically remarks, "The philosophical manner of presentation is not something optional, sometimes for a change also going on its head because it has gone on its legs for a long time, or also sometimes painting over its everyday look to be seen, but rather because the manner of physics does not appease the concept, philosophy will therefore advance further."(EP §246, addition)

The problem with the universal as conceived in empirical science is that it is not intrinsically connected to the particular. Universal and particular are mutually external ¾ and the particulars subsumed under the universal are likewise external with respect to each other.(EP §9) Here again, we can easily see how mechanistic representation is facilitated. Because empirical science begins with givenness and presupposes it, it cannot derive the necessity of the particular from the universal ¾ it cannot show a necessary development out of the universal itself (i.e. self-determination). Hence the particulars are gathered under a universal with respect to some external feature, and the universal looks like an artifact imposed by the scientist for the sake of parsimony.

Hegel might well say that it is precisely because the biologist cannot get to the concrete universal through empirical givenness that taxonomists like Buffon must eventually say that all universal categories like species and genera are abstractions, that nature knows only individuals ¾ i.e. the "species" is just as abstract as the average height across a given population, and so is merely nominal.27 Only philosophy, i.e. speculative thinking, can derive the concrete universal and thereby give the universal its due. Speculative thought derives the categories employed in the empirical sciences ¾ that they must employ ¾ and develops further ones. This is what Hegel means when he says that speculative thinking does not leave aside the content of the empirical sciences but recognizes and uses it.(EP §11)

I have already noted in the introduction that science does not just collect "facts," but that it assembles facts under universal concepts (laws, genera). That is, the data of experience are given the form of universality. But it is not that philosophy must wait upon science for its concepts (as in positivism). The empirical sciences do not merely observe singular things and events but impart abstract universality to a given experiential content, and "they thus prepare that particular content [the data of experience] so it can be taken up into philosophy."(EP §12, addition) In this way the empirical sciences do exercise a certain constraint upon thinking — thought must be able to advance to concrete universal determinations. It looks as if, for Hegel, philosophy cannot just do its own thing in complete indifference to the sciences (as it seems to eventually become the case for Heidegger). Philosophy cannot be content to remain formal — it cannot just be "idealistic," but it must on its own develop the concrete universal determinations of the empirical world of nature.

Philosophy cannot merely accept concepts given to it from scientists without ceasing to be philosophy — it would then be presupposing the given and therefore be uncritical. But philosophy must, out of its own self-determining movement (i.e. freedom), generate the very concrete universality that is the world. Thus philosophy must be not only logic, but philosophy of nature as well. This is why Hegel remarks that "philosophy is indebted to the empirical sciences for its development"(Ibid.) — but not in the way that a philosophy of science is. Philosophy does not take information from empirical science and conceptualize it, but it arrives at the concrete universal determinations of nature from out of self-determining thinking. Philosophy meets science from out of thought — they both meet at the universal, except that empirical science can only arrive at an abstract universal because it begins with givenness. This is one of the factors leading to the charge that Hegel is a "metaphysical idealist," i.e. that he tries to generate the world out of pure thought. This he does not do, but what Hegel actually does attempt to do is arrive at the concrete universal determinations that are implicit in nature without assuming them uncritically as given. In this way philosophy imparts to the content of empirical science "the most essential shape of the freedom ... of thought."(Ibid.)

However, why should the empirical sciences care? What can philosophy do for them? Hegel’s claim is that in arriving at the content out of self-determination rather than merely finding its content given to it contingently, it gives the content of the empirical sciences "the authentication [Bewährung] of necessity." This necessity is just what was lacking in the universal concepts of science, and which rendered them abstract — a universal over and against a particular given content that is indifferent to it, both equally contingent and having no necessary relation between them:

In that philosophy owes its development to the empirical sciences, it gives their content the most essential shape of the freedom (of the a-priori) of thought and the authentication of necessity, instead of the verification [Beglaubigung] of what is happened upon and of the fact of experience, so that the fact becomes the presentation [Darstellung] and imitation [Nachbildung] of the originary and completely self-subsistent fact of thought.(Ibid.)

Thus philosophy can give the empirical sciences the form of rationality by authenticating their universal categories through the systematic derivation that self-determining thought makes possible.

Concluding Remarks

Nature is not the self-externality of the concept but of the idea, and as such its negativity does not fall outside its positive immediacy as was the case with mechanism as an ontological category (and indeed, we followed the problematic distinction of negative unity from its immediacy up through the category of life). Here the very immediacy and positivity of the idea’s being is its own negative unity through which it is a self-mediating immediacy, a full positivity that is such through its negativity. This non-external negativity shows itself in the finitude of natural things, whose generation of a higher concept is simultaneously their own demise. In this way a system of stages is generated in the inner idea which coincides with the passing away of the beings whose determination is deficient.

With respect to life, all the determinations of life developed in the Logic will show themselves as the ground-determinations of living organisms in nature, which for their part in their finitude never achieve the universality that is for itself as such, but always only generate another singular existence as the genus. The transition from mechanism to life will not be a transformation of a rock into a squirrel, even though the ontological movement of mechanism in the former is a moment within the life process of the latter. So also life is a moment within thought process but, contra Nietzsche, is no longer the guiding determination.

Thus Hegel can show the development and necessity of the universal categories that any empirical science must employ in its empirical apprehension of phenomena if it is to genuinely seek truth above and beyond Baconian power or mere parsimonial convenience. Gerald Edelman and "emergentists" are closest to the idea of life when they intuit its lower-level structures as self-superseding, when they catch sight of the "downward causation" whereby determinations are taken up and transformed as moments within a higher process that they no longer determine. Concepts must be fluid, freed from representational fixity — not so that we can easily give them up when they fail to correspond to observations, but because their fluidity is nothing other than their own immanent dialectic.

Ultimately, in thinking the idea the philosophy of nature may even be seen to undermine the kind of human mastery over the earth that views the latter in terms of external teleology — as something there on hand to be used up: "But nature itself, in its universality, cannot be mastered in this way, nor can it be trained to the purposes of man."(EP §245, addition) On the one hand Hegel’s thought opens the possibility of a rational ethics toward living organisms that is constrained to recognize them as life (and all that this entails) and so does not eviscerate this recognition by acting upon them as upon mechanical objects. But on the other hand all the determinations are moments within the one process of the idea, whose being is nature. Insofar as the immanent dialectic of nature implies spirit, human beings are unified with nature. We do not stand over and against nature in a Cartesian relation of mutual externality. Just as the concept is not something beyond being and reflection, just as the idea is not something beyond mediation and immediacy but is immediate as mediated, so spirit is not something beyond nature but is the idea implicit in nature made explicit as idea. Spirit is nothing supernatural. Just as life is not beyond externality but is the self-relation of externality, so one might say that spirit is the spirit of nature.

However, this unity with nature is not a romantic state of primal innocence in the distant past — it is not something we need to get back to. Rather, it is a result of the idea’s immanent dialectic, of the self-mediating process that is the idea, and which ultimately we ourselves are. Hegel writes, "This unity of intelligence and intuition, of the being-in-itself of spirit and its comportment to externality, must however not be the beginning, but rather the end, not an immediate unity but rather a unity that is brought forth."(EP §246, addition) Human unity with nature is a result that is achieved, and neither lies in a romantic past nor in a transcendental a priori. In this way an environmentalism that learns from Hegel’s system will not be reactionary or misanthropic but will be truly progressive. Nature is neither a ground or matrix superordinate to individual freedom, nor is it a blind mechanical sphere in which reason is alienated (or to which reason and life reduce).


  1. Martin Heidegger, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, tr. P. Emad and K. Maly, Indiana University Press: Bloomington, 1988, pp. 25, 41, 78-9, 112-3, 136, 141, 149.(Return)
  2. For Heidegger’s own brief synopsis of the way he situates the entire Hegelian corpus within the framework of subjectivity and its standpoint of representation, cf. Nietzsche, v. III, tr. D. F. Krell, San Fransisco: Harper Collins, 1991, pp. 222-3. Also cf. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, pp.78-80 and 126.(Return)
  3. See my essay "Erinnerung, Retrait, Absolute Reflection: Hegel and Derrida," in The Owl of Minerva, vol. 26, no. 2 (Spring, 1995), 171-186, for a criticism of this assumption.(Return)
  4. Euthyphro 11c-d.(Return)
  5. This phrase was taken from William Maker’s essay, "The Very Idea of the Idea of Nature, or Why Hegel is Not an Idealist," in Hegel and the Philosophy of Nature, ed. Stephen Houlgate, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998, pp. 1–27. I will return to this essay below (cf. footnote 21).(Return)
  6. David Kolb, The Critique of Pure Modernity: Hegel, Heidegger, and After, University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1986, p.221.(Return)
  7. The completeness of this derivation is of course subject to dispute — we cannot say a-priori that Hegel’s system achieves the closure that it intends to, and indeed Kolb is critical of the insistence upon closure in Hegel (Ibid.. p. 219 fn.).(Return)
  8. Ibid.. p.221(Return)
  9. The logic of essence could perhaps be understood to spell out the rise and collapse of something like this kind of ontological movement.(Return)
  10. For an excellent discussion of the relation of the philosophy of nature to empirical science from a slightly different angle, cf. Thomas R. Webb, "The Problem of Empirical Knowledge in Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature," Hegel-Studien, Band 15, Bonn: Bovier Verlag Herbert Grundmann, 1980, pp. 171-186.(Return)
  11. For a fuller treatment of the ontological categories of contingency and necessity as they are developed in the Logic, cf. Stephen Houlgate, "Necessity and Contingency in Hegel’s Science of Logic," The Owl of Minerva, vol. 27, no. 1 (Fall, 1995), pp. 37-49.(Return)
  12. Enzyklopaedie der philosophischen Wissenschaften II: Werke 9, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1970 (henceforth cited in the text as "EP"), §145, addition (also cited in Houlgate, Ibid.).(Return)
  13. I am indebted to T. F. Geraets, W. A. Suchting, and H. S. Harris for their translation of this passage.(Return)
  14. Cf. Science of Logic pp. 474-478 (Miller trans., Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1969) for Hegel’s account of the truth of ground as a loss of itself as ground, a loss which is the same thing as its emergence into existence.(Return)
  15. "... das Allgemeine vor den Sinn tritt," EP §16, addition. I take it to be obvious that the concrete universal is intended here.(Return)
  16. On the primacy of concepts in science cf. Ernst Mayr, , The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance, Cambridge: Belknap Harvard, 1982, p. 23ff.(Return)
  17. To be fair, Heidegger does hold open the possibility of genuine dialogue between science and philosophy (as metaphysics) in his 1929/30 course, where he asserts that "the inner unity of science and metaphysics is a matter of fate,"( Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik: Welt-Endlichkeit-Einsamkeit, Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann, 1983, p. 279 – hencforth cited as "GM") and again that "the relation between positive research and metaphysics is not a matter of organized management and arrangement, but rather of fate, that is, it is always co-determined through the inner readiness for mutual participation."(GM 280) But nonetheless, given Heidegger’s critical stance toward metaphysics and the necessity of stepping back away from the latter in order to think being and initiate a new beginning, one could have guessed that this optimism about the mutual participation of science and philosophy would be short-lived, eventually perhaps even yielding the very "semblance of freedom in which each finally abandons the other to its field" that he disparages in this early lecture course.(GM 281)(Return)
  18. However, this is not to say that we are explicitly present in the development in all our particularity as human beings, since this involves levels of determinacy yet to be developed.(Return)
  19. Wissenschaft der Logik II: Werke 6, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp 1969 (henceforth cited in the text as "WL"), p. 570.(Return)
  20. In a discussion of the method as the form that belongs to the content that is the ontological sequence, Hegel makes this point in passing as if it were a matter of course — the universality of the idea is the manner of knowing constituted just as much by the subjective concept that knows itself as by "the objective type and manner or rather the substantiality of things, that is, of concepts insofar as they appear to representation and to reflection primarily as others." (WL 552) What we regard as a thing with all its independent substantiality is a concept appearing to representation as an other.(Return)
  21. The phrase is borrowed from William Maker (cf. footnote 5 above). Maker seems to overlook the fact that the whole reason that the idea is immediately being, i.e. nature, and that this is not a transition, is because there is no externality that is not its moment. It seems to me that the reason for this oversight on his part is due to insufficient attention paid to the appearance of externality in the Logic. Indeed, Maker speaks about externality in nature as if it first appears there. Thus he remarks, "If the limiting other is, in its determinate content as the concept of nature, anything less than a genuine other to self-determining logical thought, logic would not be fully determinate as self-determining, [and] there would be no final definiteness to its domain."(p.9) Leaving aside his apparent assumption that only the finite structure of a limiting other can provide determinacy, Maker here clearly misses the fact that precisely this kind of externality devoid of self-determination has already superseded itself in the sphere of mechanism. Otherness and externality are thought as such in their full and radical otherness and externality in the Logic, and it is this that necessitates the absolute idea. Thus, contrary to what Maker seems to hold, when externality shows itself to be a moment of the idea this does not therefore make it a "quasi-other," nor is the idea hermetically sealed within a sphere that is "only" or "merely" thought. It seems to me that Maker tries to vindicate Hegel by conceding too much to the standpoint of consciousness which tries to criticize him.(Return)
  22. G.W.F. Hegel, Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Outline, tr. Steven A. Taubeneck, Continuum: New York, 1990 (abbreviated in the body of the text as EPSO).(Return)
  23. Here too we must keep in mind that, as shown in the Logic, "ground" does not signify a fixed basis or an enduring essence behind appearance, but is the very emergence into existence of something in its truth as the being that it is (cf. the Science of Logic chapter 3). Thus the "inner idea" is not a transcendental condition of nature but is the very emergence into existence of nature.(Return)
  24. The famous "paradigm shifts" of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1962) immediately comes to mind, but concerning sociological influences cf. R. C. Lewontin, Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA, Harper Perennial: New York, 1991.(Return)
  25. Mayr, op. cit., 75.(Return)
  26. One can certainly present a history of scientific ideas and try to show how, say, a particular concept was developed in response to observations and/or problems — DNA as a "double helix," for instance. But the notions of "helix" and of "double" were not derived but merely taken up and applied to a theoretical model which was then seen to be useful in certain respects.(Return)
  27. Mayr, op. cit., p. 180. Mayr explicitly deals with the problem of the "reality" or ontological status of the higher biological categories, claiming that it is impossible "to give an objective (non-arbitrary) definition of such higher categories as genus, family, or order," and that "categorical rank is largely an arbitrary decision." (208) Beginning with empirical givenness, the universal can only appear to him as an abstraction. We might put it this way: we can get from Hegel to Mayr, but we cannot get from Mayr to Hegel.(Return)
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