On Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Nature’ : A Free Reflex of Spirit — part fifty five.

David Proud
50 min readJan 18, 2024

A Woman’s Life and Love — 4.

‘Thou ring on my finger’

by Adelbert von Chamisso (1781–1838)

Thou ring on my finger,

my little golden ring,

I press thee piously upon my lips

piously upon my heart.

I had dreamt it,

the tranquil, lovely dream of childhood,

I found myself alone and lost

in barren, infinite space.

Thou ring on my finger,

thou hast taught me for the first time,

hast opened my gaze unto

the endless, deep value of life.

I want to serve him, live for him,

belong to him entire,

Give myself and find myself

transfigured in his radiance.

Thou ring on my finger,

my little golden ring,

I press thee piously upon lips,

piously upon my heart.

‘Du Ring an meinem Finger’

Du Ring an meinem Finger,

Mein goldnes Ringelein,

Ich drücke dich fromm an die Lippen,

Dich fromm an das Herze mein.

Ich hatt’ ihn ausgeträumet,

Der Kindheit friedlich schönen Traum,

Ich fand allein mich, verloren

Im öden, unendlichen Raum.

Du Ring an meinem Finger,

Da hast du mich erst belehrt,

Hast meinem Blick erschlossen

Des Lebens unendlichen Werth.

Ich werd’ ihm dienen, ihm leben,

Ihm angehören ganz,

Hin selber mich geben und finden

Verklärt mich in seinem Glanz.

Du Ring an meinem Finger,

Mein goldnes Ringelein,

Ich drücke dich fromm an die Lippen,

Dich fromm an das Herze mein.


‘A Bride’, circa 1895, Abbott Handerson Thayer


Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, (1770–1831), ‘Philosophy of Nature’, ‘Organic Physics’.

What is a woman? (Continued).

‘The True is the whole. But the whole is nothing other than the essence consummating itself through its development. Of the Absolute it must be said that it is essentially a result, that only in the end is it what it truly is; and that precisely in this consists its nature, viz. to be actual, subject, the spontaneous becoming of itself. Though it may seem contradictory that the Absolute should be conceived essentially as a result, it needs little pondering to set this show of contradiction in its true light. The beginning, the principle, or the Absolute, as at first immediately enunciated, is only the universal. Just as when I say ‘all animals’, this ex pression cannot pass for a zoology, so it is equally plain that the words, ‘the Divine’, ‘the Absolute’, ‘the Eternal’, etc., do not express what is contained in them; and only such words, in fact, do express the intuition as something immediate. Whatever is more than such a word, even the transition to a mere proposition, contains a becoming-other that has to be taken back, or is a mediation. But it is just this that is rejected with horror, as if absolute cognition were being surrendered when more is made of mediation than in simply saying that it is nothing absolute, and is completely absent in the Absolute’.

- ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’

The true is the whole. This is something I should mention as a reminder now and then. Hegelian philosophy is about looking at things in their totality, which is to say, in their complexity. It is what makes it difficult, hence short articles on some aspect of Hegel’s thought always fall very far short of getting to grips with it. Something to bear in mind when reading articles addressing such questions as was Hegel a materialist? An atheist? An idealist? An empiricist? A humanist? A feminist? (Well, feminists like to draw from his work, as we shall see). A statist? An alchemist? The true is the whole. He wasn’t any kind of -ist and any attempt to reduce his thought to an ism is against the spirit of the system.

An alchemist? I hear you ask. Whoever called him an alchemist? James Lindsay for one. He says it repeatedly without ever explaining what he means, given that presumably he does not mean it literally. I suspect it stems from his having read one book on Hegel, ‘Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition’, 2008, by Glenn Alexander Magee, and that is enough for him to present deep, thoughtful and well informed critiques of Hegel and explain how Hegel is responsible for all the contemporary postmodern nonsense and for the mess we are in today. I have posted a series in my Hegel Group on people who criticize Hegel without having read him. Lindsay features heavily.

And so now I present this slight article on Hegel’s philosophy of nature and Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986), none of whose novels I have read, and as for her philosophical work I have been skim reading through parts of ‘The Second Sex’. So it is not quite the case that I am writing about de Beauvoir without having read her, but I have not read her much. Yet as I said before, I have never thought of myself as a feminist and have not read much in the way of feminist philosophy but the ease with which women are being erased and their rights trampled upon has me wondering whether feminists may have a point.

So here goes. (and yes I am being my mischievous self in my choice of picture to head this article on feminist philosophy).

‘Woman? Very simple, say those who like simple answers: She is a womb, an ovary; she is a female: this word is enough to define her. From a man’s mouth, the epithet ‘female’ sounds like an insult; but he, not ashamed of his animality, is proud to hear: ‘He’s a male! The term ‘female’ is pejorative not because it roots woman in nature but because it confines her in her sex, and if this sex, even in an innocent animal, seems despicable and an enemy to man, it is obviously because of the disquieting hostility woman triggers in him. Nevertheless, he wants to find a justification in biology for this feeling. The word ‘female’ evokes a saraband of images: an enormous round egg snatching and castrating the agile sperm; monstrous and stuffed, the queen termite reigning over the servile males; the praying mantis and the spider, gorged on love, crushing their partners and gobbling them up; the dog in heat running through back alleys, leaving perverse smells in her wake; the monkey showing herself off brazenly, sneaking away with flirtatious hypocrisy. And the most splendid wildcats, the tigress, lioness, and panther, lie down slavishly under the male’s imperial embrace, inert, impatient, shrewd, stupid, insensitive, lewd, fierce, and humiliated. Man projects all females at once onto woman. And the fact is that she is a female. But if one wants to stop thinking in commonplaces, two questions arise. What does the female represent in the animal kingdom? And what unique kind of female is realized in woman?’

- ‘The Second Sex: Biological Data’

Simone de Beauvoir’s opens ‘The Second Sex’ with a chapter on ‘Biological Data’ which is grounded in her reading of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Nature’, at least that is an interpretation and the reason why I include this discussion on this series on Hegel’s philosophy of nature, and if we give it such a reading we will find novel formulations in her understanding of the concept of life, the relation of the individual organism to the species, and the putative necessity of heterosexual reproduction. Beauvoir’s strategic engagement with Hegel on the themes of organic life and the rational division of the sexes deepens our understanding of the complexity of Beauvoir’s approach in ‘The Second Sex’ and opens up radically different possibilities regarding the configuration and metaphysical necessity of human sexuality and reproduction.

For after all de Beauvoir has come under fire on a number of fronts one of which being because of the language she employs describing female physiology which is seen as somewhat troublesome (‘problematic’ is the word of the day but I avoid it, usually when someone says of something that it is ‘problematic’ they mean it bothers them but they can’t say what the problem is) and its odd use of ‘data’, and in particular female (if I may use that word) biology appears to be a strange place to begin on the issue of woman as Other. (Incidentally de Beauvoir may have a point about the use of the word ‘female’ rather than ‘woman’. Incels, the involuntary celibate will to refer to ‘human females’ rather than ‘woman’ which goes a long way to explaining why they are involuntary celibate in the first place. Would we use the word ‘male’ to replace the word ‘man’? De Beauvoir’s observations ring true, with regard to certain types of male if I may use that word but otherwise I do not recognise what she is saying. Perhaps my own misogyny is invisible to me. I think of myself as a philogynist but perhaps in some ways philogyny and misogyny are two sides of the same coin).

So, in ‘Biological Data’ Beauvoir tracks a relationship between the female animal and the species that becoming more and more unnerving as she progresses from unicellular organisms to complex mammalian life and upon reaching human beings we find ourselves hit with passage after passage that stress woman’s ‘enslavement’ to the species, the tyrannical nature of a women’s hormonal and reproductive life, and the obstructive consequences of physical limitations. It is contentions such as these that have resulted in the charge from certain quarters of de Beauvoir having taken on board an Aristotelian model of women whereby they are seen as not much more than as little more than ‘deformed males’. (Charlene Haddock Seigfried, (1943 — ), ‘Second Sex: Second Thoughts’, 1985). Aristotle it is claimed regarded women as inferior to men due to the fact that their bodies were too cold to produce seed, semen, and in ‘On the Generation of Animals’ he asserts that the first principle of the movement whereby that which comes into being is male is better and more divine than the material whereby it is female whereas the male comes together and mingles with the female for the work of generation:

‘Now (1) some existing things are eternal and divine whilst others admit of both existence and non-existence. But (2) that which is noble and divine is always, in virtue of its own nature, the cause of the better in such things as admit of being better or worse, and what is not eternal does admit of existence and non-existence, and can partake in the better and the worse. And (3) soul is better than body, and living, having soul, is thereby better than the lifeless which has none, and being is better than not being, living than not living. These, then, are the reasons of the generation of animals. For since it is impossible that such a class of things as animals should be of an eternal nature, therefore that which comes into being is eternal in the only way possible. Now it is impossible for it to be eternal as an individual (though of course the real essence of things is in the individual) — were it such it would be eternal — but it is possible for it as a species. This is why there is always a class of men and animals and plants. But since the male and female essences are the first principles of these, they will exist in the existing individuals for the sake of generation. Again, as the first efficient or moving cause, to which belong the definition and the form, is better and more divine in its nature than the material on which it works, it is better that the superior principle should be separated from the inferior. Therefore, wherever it is possible and so far as it is possible, the male is separated from the female. For the first principle of the movement, or efficient cause, whereby that which comes into being is male, is better and more divine than the material whereby it is female. The male, however, comes together and mingles with the female for the work of generation, because this is common to both’.

- ‘On the Generation of Animals’

Hence women simply function as a depository for sperm and a nourishing receptacle for a developing foetus and woman is a deformed male and the menstrual discharge is semen though in an impure condition, that is to say it lacks one constituent, the principle of the Soul:

‘As semen is a residue, and as it is endowed with the same movement as that in virtue of which the body grows through the distribution of the ultimate nourishment, when the semen has entered the uterus it ‘sets’ the residue produced by the female and imparts to it the same movement with which it is itself endowed. The female’s contribution, of course, is a residue too, just as the male’s is, and contains. all the parts of the body potentially, though none in actuality; and ‘all’ includes those parts which distinguish the two sexes. Just as it sometimes happens that deformed offspring are produced by deformed parents, and sometimes not; so the offspring produced by a female are sometimes female, sometimes not, but male. The reason is that the female is as it were a deformed male; and the menstrual discharge is semen, though in an impure condition ; it lacks one constituent, and one only, the principle of Soul. ‘This explains why, in the case of the: wind-eggs produced by some animals, the egg which takes shape contains the parts of both sexes; but it has not this principle, and therefore it does not become a living thing with Soul in it; this principle has to be supplied by the semen of the male, and it is when the female’s. residue secures this principle that a fetation is formed’.

- ‘On the Generation of Animals’

In addition to possessing soulless semen women would inevitably reach puberty, maturity, and old age quicker than males due to their imperfection albeit Aristotle believed that both sexes had a soul that was capable of reason but women were nonetheless fated to be subservient to men because that they were unable to ‘…control themselves physically and psychologically through the exercise of reason the way men can’ as L. A. Whaley puts it. (‘The classical debate: Can women do science? Women’s history as scientists’, 2003). Aristotle utilises his biology of sex to determine each gender’s role in society believing that the rational, strong, active, and perfect form of humanity ought to receive an education and hold positions of power and women being endowed with irrationality, weakness, passivity, and imperfection, were not capable of abstract reasoning and were bound to the domestic sphere, am assessment that prevailed view until the Middle Ages.

Do women have souls? was a question raised by medieval philosophers and theologians. Although I have heard it said that it is a myth that some of them thought woman had no souls. Well, misinformation is nothing new. A tale is told of Valentius Acidalius, (1567–1595), a young scholar working as a teacher in Silesia, so, short of money then, which he tried to rectify by publishing a pamphlet for diversionary purposes. In Latin the word homo like the word man in English chiefly primarily means a human being, male or female, young or old but has the secondary meaning of adult male and Valentius for a lark exploited this this ambiguity to demonstrate that in the Bible only adult males have souls. This backfired as Simon Geddicus, a Lutheran scholar wrote a forceful counter-pamphlet entitled ‘A Defense of the Female Sex’ in which he proposed ‘manfully’ (he did use the word viriliter) to ‘destroy each and every one of the arguments put forward by Valentius’. The latter’s pamphlet frequently often bound with the refutation by Simon Geddicus survived and apparently was published at Lyons in France in 1647, now in Italian, and entitled ‘Women do not have a soul and do not belong to the human race, as is shown by many passages of Holy Scripture’. One commentator remarked that ‘the ladies of Italy took this system very differently. Some were vexed to have no souls. Others were pretty indifferent about the matter, and looking on themselves as mere machines, hoped to set their springs so well agoing as to make the men stark mad’. But some ladies spoke up. Archangela Tarabotti, (1604–1652), a nun, wrote ‘A Defense of Women’. Pope Innocent X as it happens put the women not having any souls tract on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1651.

I digress. Or perhaps not. The thing about history is that there is a lot of it. So if we generalise about male and female and how they view and treat each other there will be stuff in there to support our generalisation, stuff that runs counter to it, and a great deal of stuff that we are completely unaware of. The vast majority of people in history led unrecorded lives. How can we possibly recapture the past? To quote Hegel:

‘In short we retreat into the selfishness that stands on the quiet shore, and thence enjoys in safety the distant spectacle of ‘wrecks confusedly hurled’. But even regarding History as the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of States, and the virtue of individuals have been victimized — the question involuntarily arises — to what principle, to what final aim these enormous sacrifices have been offered. From this point the investigation usually proceeds to that which we have made the general commencement of our inquiry. Starting from this we pointed out those phenomena which made up a picture so suggestive of gloomy emotions and thoughtful reflections — as the very field which we, for our part, regard as exhibiting only the means for realizing what we assert to be the essential destiny — the absolute aim, or — which comes to the same thing — the true result of the World’s History. We have all along purposely eschewed “moral reflections” as a method of rising from the scene of historical specialties to the general principles which they embody. Besides, it is not the interest of such sentimentalities, really to rise above those depressing emotions; and to solve the enigmas of Providence which the considerations that occasioned them, present. It is essential to their character to find a gloomy satisfaction in the empty and fruitless sublimities of that negative result. We return them to the point of view which we have adopted; observing that the successive steps (momente) of the analysis to which it will lead us, will also evolve the conditions requisite for answering the inquiries suggested by the panorama of sin and suffering that history unfolds.

- ‘Philosophy of History’

[Side note: Aristotle left a will specifying that he was to be buried next to his wife].

Anyway, back to de Beauvoir. Another charge levelled at her is that she merely parrots her master’s voice. Jean-Paul Sartre, (1905–1980), that is, particularly with regard to his horror of the flesh. (Toril Moi, (1951 — ), ‘Existentialism and Feminism: The Rhetoric of Biology in The Second Sex’, 1986). I don’t care to discuss Sartre that much, he annoys me, probably because there was a time when I was taken in by Sartre and existentialism, my MPhil thesis was a defence of Sartre’s act-libertarianism theory of free well, but I now know that Sartre lifted a lot from Hegel and putting his own wayward spin on it turned it into something that makes no sense (in particular the Lord/Bondsman dialectic. See my article A World of Gods and Monsters — Part Three about this, and about why existentialism is a secular theology). Sartre’s big idea was that things overflow all the relationships and designations that can be attached to them, this is the transphenomenality of Being. Here Roquentin the protagonist in the novel ‘Nausea’ realizes that since he is an existent he can not escape this original contingency, this ‘obscene superfluity’:

‘We were a heap of living creatures, irritated, embarrassed at ourselves, we hadn’t the slightest reason to be there, none of us; each one, confused, vaguely alarmed, felt de trop in relation to the others. De trop: it was the only relationship I could establish between these trees, these gates, these stones. In vain I tried to count the chestnut trees, to locate them by their relationship to the Velleda, to compare their height with the height of the plane trees: each of them escaped the relationship in which I tried to enclose it, isolated itself and overflowed. And I — soft, weak, obscene, digesting, juggling with dismal thoughts — I, too, was de trop…. Even my death would have been de trop. De trop, my corpse, my blood on these stones, between these plants, at the back of the smiling garden. And the decomposed flesh would have been de trop in the earth which would receive my bones, at last; cleaned, stripped, peeled, proper and clean as teeth, it would have been de trop: I was de trop for eternity’.

- ‘Nausea’

And later, in a philosophical work, Sartre writes:

‘Being-in-itself is never either possible or impossible. It is. This is what consciousness expresses in anthropomorphic terms by saying that being is de trop-that is, that consciousness absolutely can not derive being from anything, either from another being, or from a possibility, or from a necessary law. Uncreated, without reason for being, without any connection with another being, being-in-itself is de trop for eternity’.

- ‘Being and Nothingness’.

Judith Butler, (1956 — ), has argued that we misread Beauvoir if we do do not pay proper attention to how all facts are filtered through culturally situated lenses. Let us adopt the view however that the chapter ‘Biological Data’ may in actual fact be grounded in Beauvoir’s reading of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Nature’, as indeed is ‘The Second Sex’ in its entirety. What then opens up to us? Some original formulations of the concept of life. The relation of the individual organism to the species. The necessity of heterosexual reproduction. We know that the edition of the ‘Philosophy of Nature’ that Beauvoir used included the Zusätze from Jules Michelet’s, (1798–1874) text of 1847. Hegel’s three Encyclopedias present arguments and observations followed by Zusätze or explanations thar elaborate and clarify the principle points and there is some debate among Hegel scholars regarding the inclusion of the Zusätze, though de Beauvoir quite clearly draws upon them and so should we in our discussion of ‘The Second Sex’.

‘After the Wedding Ceremony’, 1874, Firs Zhuraviev

Albeit much work has been undertaken on Beauvoir’s engagement with the ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’ in particular the Lord/Bondsman dialectic not so much has been undertaken with regard to her use of the ‘Philosophy of Nature’. I mention Kimberly Hutchings, (1960 — ), and Alison Stone, (1972 — ), in previous articles and how they have given attention to the presence of the ‘Philosophy of Nature’ in ‘The Second Sex’ but neither develops the depths it goes to in colouring de Beauvoir’s overall philosophical framework. De Beauvoir takes up Hegel’s natural philosophy in two important ways, a positive adaptation and a ground for critique. To begin with she adapts Hegel’s understanding of life as the core component of her formulation of immanence but she understands life not merely as immanence but rather as the infinite intertwining of transcendence and immanence thereby opening up the way for her to argue that organic life is integral to our embodiment without being reduced to it. And then she demonstrates the way in which Hegel’s articulation becomes a justification for a rational division of sexes in animal life thereby promoting heterosexual reproduction as nature’s highest objective and de Beauvoir’s strategic engagement with Hegel upon these matters can deepen our understanding of the intricacies of de Beauvoir’s approach in ‘The Second Sex’ and open up radically alternative possibilities with regard to the configuration and metaphysical necessity of human sexuality and reproduction.

Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Nature’. On Life and Reproduction. According to Hegel life is that which through infinite circular repetitious processes maintains the living thing, specifically, the animal organism, thereby providing the necessary conditions for the emergence of subjectivity. Life preserves wholeness in the face of opposition and contradiction; it functions at the irrational level to sustain unity while preserving differentiation. In the encyclopedic system, nature — positioned in between Logic and the Philosophy of Spirit — is the ultimate barrier that must be overcome and incorporated in order for the infinite, self-determining spirit to come to know itself. Nature has presented itself as the Idea in the form of otherness, externality constitutes the specific character in which Nature, as Nature, exists:

‘Nature has yielded itself as the Idea in the form of otherness. Since the Idea is therefore the negative of itself, or external to itself, nature is not merely external relative to this Idea (and to the subjective existence of the same, spirit), but is embodied as nature is the determination of externality. Addition. If God is all sufficient and lacks nothing, how does He come to release Himself into something so clearly unequal to Him? The divine Idea is just this self-release, the expulsion of this other out of itself, and the acceptance of it again, in order to constitute subjectivity and spirit. The philosophy of nature itself belongs to this pathway of return, for it is the philosophy of nature which overcomes the division of nature and spirit, and renders to spirit the recognition of its essence in nature. This then is the position of nature within the whole; its determinateness lies in the self-determination of the Idea, by which it posits difference, another, within itself, whole maintaining infinite good in its indivisibility, and imparting its entire content in what it provides for this otherness’.

- ‘Philosophy of Nature’

Trapped between abstract and concrete mind nature is entrammelled in diverse stages of externality, a sort of disassociated, dispersed, side-by-sideness of objects and systems bereft of internal coherence and relationality and the natural world is matter parts beyond parts existing independently longing for the concept to progressively overcome materiality as Stone has characterised it:

‘Hegel writes, ‘The inscription on the veil of Isis, ‘I am that which was, is, and will be, and no mortal has lifted my veil’ melts away before thought’. Once again, his point is that when we recognize that nature is conceptually permeated we remove the illusory appearance that nature is merely material, which corresponds to the philosopher’s lifting of the veil of Isis, his symbolic marrying of Isis, whereby (according to Hegel’s account of marriage) he identifies with what they have in common — the status of being concept-permeated matter. But the fact that Hegel figures nature as Isis — a quintessentially female goddess, traditionally depicted as many-breasted — reflects his view that nature remains relatively material compared to the human inquirer, and so this figuration confirms that he associates matter with the female. Nature is merely a product of what came before and a prefiguration of what is to come, but in itself lost in contingency and determinateness — at least, that is, until animal life appears in the final stages of nature’s development’.

- ‘Matter and Form’

Whereas plants remain locked in immediacy, exhibiting merely formal unity, the animal organism exists as subjectivity in so far as the externality proper to shape is idealized into members, and the organism in its process outwards preserves inwardly the unity of the self:

‘Organic individuality exists as subjectivity in so far as the externality proper to shape is idealized into members, and in its process outwards, the organism preserves within itself the unity of selfhood. This constitutes the nature of the animal, in which the actuality and externality of immediate singularity is countered by the intra-reflected self of singularity or the subjective universality which is within itself (§ 163). Addition. In the animal, light has found itself, for the animal checks its relationship with an other. The animal is the self which is for the self, it is the existent unity of differences, and pervades their distinctness. The plant’s tendency towards being-for-self gives rise to the plant and the bud, which are two independent individuals, and are not of an ideal nature. Animal being consists of these two posited in unity. The animal organism is therefore this duplication of subjectivity, in which difference no longer exists as it does in the plant, but in which only the unity of this duplication attains existence. True subjective unity exists in the animal therefore; it is an incomposite soul, which contains infinity of form, and is deployed into the externality of the body; what is more, it has a further relation with an inorganic nature, an external world. Nevertheless, animal subjectivity consists of bodily self-preservation in the face of contact with an external world, and of remaining with itself as the universal. As this supreme point of nature, animal life is therefore absolute idealism. This implies that it contains the determinateness of its corporeality in a completely fluid manner, and that it has incorporated this immediacy into subjective being, and continues to do so’.

- ‘Philosophy of Nature’

The animal, unlike the plant, is a subject. This means that rather than being wholly externally determined by environment, animals preserve themselves inwardly, forming a mediated unity that allows for the emergence of self-determination and autonomous action. Hegel finds animal life to be a concrete (that is, differentiated) unity that is relatively free from the externality that dominates nature as such. Somewhat unencumbered by natural forces, the animal exhibits individuality emerging from under the domination of the environment and even of the species.

Animals operate according to complex processes that require entanglement with the outside world (processes such as digestion, sensation, metabolism, etc.) without being wholly determined by it. As such, animal life is sustained through biological repetitions that form a kind of circular infinity — cycles of breathing, eating, defecating, sensing, circulating, and so on — all of which continue, more or less invariably, until the death of the organism. Although these organic cycles never reach stasis, they do not themselves progress but, rather, continue in infinite loops, preserving the organism’s vitality. They function as the living background noise necessary for freedom to become actualized. In this manner Hegel contends that the structure of life is essentially process in which the organism converts its own members into a non-organic nature, into means, lives on itself and produces its own self and maintains itself.

‘The primary organism, in so far as it is initially determined as immediate or implicit, is not a living existence, for as subject and process, life is essentially a self-mediating activity. Regarded from the standpoint of subjective life, the first moment of particularization is that the organism converts itself into its own presupposition, and so assumes the mode of immediacy, in which it confronts itself with its condition and outer subsistence. The inward recollection of the Idea of nature as subjective life, and still more as spiritual life, is basically divided between itself and this unprocessive immediacy. This immediate totality presupposed by subjective totality, is simply the shape of the organism; as the universal system of individual bodies, it is the terrestrial body’.

- ‘Philosophy of Nature’

‘In that it is alive, the shape is essentially a process. As such it is indeed abstract, and is the process of formation within itself, in which the organism converts its own members into its inorganic nature, or into means, consuming itself, and producing itself as precisely this totality of members. In this process each member is interchangeably both end and means, and maintains itself by virtue of the other members, and in opposition to them. The result of this process is simple and immediate sentience’.

- ‘Philosophy of Nature’

Life is the totality of organic processes that allow the organism to persist in the face of external and internal contradictions. And similarly he says elsewhere:

‘For since the essence of the individual shape-universal Life-and what exists for itself is in itself simple substance, when this substance places the other within itself it supersedes this its simplicity or its essence, i.e. it divides it, and this dividedness of the differenceless fluid medium is just what establishes individuality. Thus the simple substance of Life is the splitting-up of itself into shapes and at the same time the dissolution of these existent differences; and the dissolution of the splitting-up is just as much a splitting-up and a forming of members. With this, the two sides of the whole movement which before were distinguished, viz. the passive separatedness of the shapes in the general medium of independence, and the process of Life, collapse into one another. The latter is just as much an imparting of shape as a supersession of it; and the other, the imparting of shape, is just as much a supersession as an articulation of shape. The fluid element is itself only the abstraction of essence, or it is actual only as shape; and its articulation of itself is again a splitting up of what is articulated into form or a dissolution of it. It is the whole round of this activity that constitutes Life: not what was expressed at the outset, the immediate continuity and compactness of i ts essence, nor the enduring form, the discrete moment existing for itself; nor the pure process of these; nor yet the simple taking-together of these moments. Life consists rather in being the self.. developing whole which dissolves its development and in this movement simply preserves itself’.

- ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’

The repetitions that are performed in the organism are marked by a peculiar kind of infinity. A being which is capable of containing and enduring its own contradiction is a subject; this constitutes its infinitude.

‘Only a living existence is aware of deficiency, for it alone in nature is the Notion, which is the unity of itself and its specific antithesis. Where there is a limit, it is a negation, but only for a third term, an external comparative. However, the limit constitutes deficiency only in so far as the contradiction which is present in one term to the same extent as it is in the being beyond it, is as such immanent, and is posited within this term. The subject is a term such as this, which is able to contain and support its own contradiction; it is this which constitutes its infinitude. Similarly, when reference is made to finite reason, reason shows that it is infinite, and precisely by thus determining itself as finite; for negation is finitude, and is only a deficiency for that which constitutes the sublated being of this finitude, i.e. for infinite self-reference (cf. § 60 Rem.). Through lack of thought, no advance is made beyond the abstraction of the limit, so that even where the Notion itself enters into existence as it does in life, there is a failure to grasp it. This thoughtlessness keeps to the determinations of ordinary thought, such as impulse, instinct, need etc., and does not ask what they are in themselves. An analysis of the way in which these determinations are regarded would show that they are negations posited as contained within the affirmation of the subject itself’.

- ‘Philosophy of Nature’

Preserving continually the unity of the body as it struggles with an environment that can be more or less hostile and with itself as various systems conflict with each other and the world is in need of requires continual maintenance and hence life is characterized by infinite systemic maintenance, cyclical repetitions, and the preservation of unity within difference but all is seldom harmonious in the experience of the animal. The animal’s subjective unity suffers from lack, want, need, and a general deficiency marked by its finitude. As Luca Illeterati explains: ‘If a living being did not have needs or deficiencies, it would not be a living being anymore’. Such lack shapes the impetus for the organism’s motivation to perform particular actions. And actual infinity which is true freedom is the movement of spirit to transcend limitations and since in virtue of their embodied finitude animals feel needs accompanied by corresponding urges in the form of instincts that motivate them to overcome the feeling of lack, a feeling that impels organisms to search for fulfillment in order to root out this defect and since nature cannot be a site where free recognition occurs there has to be something else that functions to drive out biological deficiency.

This purpose is served by reproduction, the conflict between the universality of the genus (Gattung) and the immediate singularity of the living natural being motivates animals to engage in copulation itself a kind of prefiguration of the desire felt by self-consciousness for recognition.

‘As animation is bound up with a single singularity, the union is not consummated in the genus, and in many animals copulation even constitutes the termination of existence. However, although other animals survive copulation, so that the animal overcomes inorganic nature as well as its genus, the genus still retains its mastery over it’.

- ‘Philosophy of Nature’

‘It is the simple genus which, in the movement of Life itself, does not exist for itself qua this simple determination; on the contrary, in this result, Life points to something other than itself, viz. to consciousness, for which Life exists as this unity, or as genus. This other Life, however, for which the genus as such exists, and which is genus on its own account, viz. self-consciousness, exists in the first instance for self-consciousness only as this simple essence, and has itself as pure ‘I’ for object. In the course of its experience which we are now to consider, this abstract object will enrich itself for the ‘I’ and undergo the unfolding which we have seen in the sphere of Life’.

- ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’

The sex relation is a direct result of the animal feeling a disjunction between its individuality and the higher universality of the genus to which it owes its existence and Hegel describes this feeling of a defect on the part of the individual in relation to the genus as the single motivating factor for copulation. ‘The genus is therefore present in the individual as a straining against the inadequacy of its single actuality, as the urge to obtain its self-feeling in the other of its genus, to integrate itself through union with it and through this mediation to close the genus with itself and bring it into existence’. De Beauvoir gives a direct quote here:

‘Most philosophies have taken sexual differentiation for granted without attempting to explain it. The Platonic myth has it that in the beginning there were men, women, and androgynes; each individual had a double face, four arms, four legs, and two bodies joined together; one day they were split into two ‘as one would split eggs in two’, and ever since then each half seeks to recover its other half: the gods decided later that new human beings would be created by the coupling of two unlike halves. This story only tries to explain love: the differentiation of sexes is taken as a given from the start. Aristotle offers no better account: for if cooperation of matter and form is necessary for any action, it is not necessary that active and passive principles be distributed into two categories of heterogenic individuals. Saint Thomas declared that woman was an ‘inessential’ being, which, from a masculine point of view, is a way of positing the accidental character of sexuality. Hegel, however, would have been untrue to his rationalist passion had he not attempted to justify it logically. According to him, sexuality is the mediation by which the subject concretely achieves itself as a genus. ‘The genus is therefore present in the individual as a straining against the inadequacy of its single actuality, as the urge to obtain its self-feeling in the other of its genus, to integrate itself through union with it and through this mediation to close the genus with itself and bring it into existence — copulation’. And a little further along, ‘The process consists in this, that they become in reality what they are in themselves, namely, one genus, the same subjective vitality’. And Hegel then declares that in order for the process of union to occur, there has to be differentiation of the two sexes. But his demonstration is not convincing: the preconceived idea of locating the three moments of the syllogism in any operation is too obvious here. The surpassing of the individual toward the species, by which individual and species accomplish themselves in their own truth could occur without the third element, by the simple relation of genitor to child: reproduction could be asexual. Or the relation to each other could be that of two of the same kind, with differentiation occurring in the singularity of individuals of the same type, as in hermaphroditic species. Hegel’s description brings out a very important significance of sexuality: but he always makes the same error of equating significance with reason. It is through sexual activity that men define the sexes and their relations, just as they create the meaning and value of all the functions they accomplish: but sexual activity is not necessarily implied in the human being’s nature’.

- ‘The Second Sex’

The single motivating factor for sexual reproduction is thus the desire in the form of instinct to fix the defect of embodied animal finitude.

‘The Bride’, 1842, Theodor von Holst

Dissatisfied with mere contending that animals are drawn to reproduction through a feeling of deficiency in relation to the universal Hegel moves forward to posit an inequality between the sexes albeit both experience the urge (Trieb) to overcome the limits of individuality and one detects an Aristotelian stance whereby genitals are an indicator of a natural axis of female passivity (inferiority?) and male activity (superiority?): At this point, he shares some of his finest gems in defense of sexual inequality:

‘As the different sexes constitute the sex-drive as differentials, there must be a difference in their formation; their mutual determinateness must exist as posited through the Notion. The implicitness of both sides is not merely neutral, as it is in chemism however, for on account of the original identity of their formation, the same type underlies both the male and female genitals. The difference is however, that in one or the other of these genitals, one or the other part is essential; in the female this is necessarily the undifferentiated element, while in the male it is the sundered element of opposition. This identity is most conspicuous in the lower animals. In some Grasshoppers, such as the Gryllus verruccivorus, the large testicles, which consist of fascicularly coiled vessels, resemble the ovaries, which are equally large, and which consist of oviducts coiled in a similarly fasciculate manner. Similarly, in the male Gaijly, the testicles not only have precisely the same general outline as the thicker and larger ovaries, but also consist of delicate vesicles, which are almost oviform and oblong, and which stand on” end on the substance of the testicles, like ova on an ovary. The identification of the female uterus in the male parts has presented the greatest difficulty. The scrotum has ineptly been mistaken for it, for it is actually the testicle which apparently corresponds to the female ovary. In the male, it is however the prostate which corresponds to the female uterus; in him therefore, the uterus is reduced to a gland, an indifferent generality. Ackermann has demonstrated this very well from his hermaphrodite, which has a uterus, although the formation of its other organs is male. This uterus not only occupies the position of the prostrate however, for the ejaculatory ducts also pass through its substance, and open into the urethra at the crista galli. What is more, the lips of the female pudendum are shrunken scrota, which accounts for the labia pudendi of Ackermann’s hermaphrodite having been filled with a kind of testicular formation. Finally, the medial line of the scrotum is split in the female, and forms the vagina. From this, it is quite understandable that one sex should change into the other. On the one hand, the uterus in the male is reduced to a mere gland, while on the other, the male testicle in the female remains enclosed within the ovary, fails to emerge into opposition, and does not become an independent and active cerebrality. The clitoris moreover, is inactive feeling in general; in the male on the other hand, it has its counterpart in active sensibility, the swelling vital, the effusion of blood into the corpora cavernosa and the meshes of the spongy tissue of the urethra. The female counterpart of this effusion of blood in the male consists of the menstrual discharges. Thus, the simple retention of the conception in the uterus, is differentiated in the male into productive cerebrality and the external vital. On account of this difference therefore, the male is the active principle; as the female remains in her undeveloped unity, she constitutes the principle of conception’.

- ‘Philosophy of Nature’

The ovary is likened to an enclosed testicle that ‘does not develop on its own account into active brain’, the ‘clitoris is inactive feeling in general’, the uterus is defined as ‘a simple retention’ that in the male is ‘split into the productive brain and the external heart’, ‘the male is the active principle, and the female is the receptive, because she remains in her undeveloped unity’, ‘the female contains the material element but the male contains the subjectivity’. Outdated all such conclusions may well be but in actual fact not needed for the analysis that Hegel is undertaking a point made evident as we shall see and as I mentioned in the previous article Stone said that ‘if Hegel is an essentialist with respect to sex, he is a metaphysical rather than a biological essentialist’.

Animal finitude is not in need of an inequality of the sexes to motivate copulation and here Beauvoir takes apart and analyses (‘deconstructs’ in contemporary parlance but I prefer to avoid that ridiculous word) Hegel’s rationalization of biological facts providing a critique of Hegelian thinking, a critical appropriation of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Nature’, a discussion of biology yielding frequently limited and disputable scientific analyses. There feature descriptions of female weakness and passivity regarding sexuality and maternity, so as Moira Gatens, (1954 — ), puts it for de Beauvoir ‘the situation of the existent is composed of both facts and values, both nature and culture, both biology and consciousness’ and so we mus bear in mind that every putative datum is always to be understood as part of a complex network of social and historical forces. As a matter of fact de Beauvoir’s reading of biology “may yield a more radical view of the human subject than feminists have hitherto supposed her to have held’ claims Gatens.

But to overlook the importance of biology and physiology even in contemporary discussions of sex, gender, and identity is fall short of a satisfactory feminist analysis albeit such discussions can sometimes stray into strange territories, and Hegel features prominently in de Beauvoir’s biology chapter. Why so? She does not take up the Phenomenology as she does elsewhere but instead cites directly from the ‘Philosophy of Nature’ on three occasions, and this a text that apparently only a few scholars like myself take at all seriously. For de Beauvoir it is significant. Whereas life is something that the Hegelian dialectic is keen to sublate into spirit, for Beauvoir life is always intimately intertwined with action, indeed, life is not separate from spirit but is rather the infinite exchange between immanence and transcendence.

Beauvoir typically associates transcendence with futurity, creativity, and freedom but always balances it with the equally necessary force of immanence, itself associated with repetition, conservation, maintenance, nourishment, stasis, objectification, and temporal stability. Albeit transcendence and immanence are necessary forces in the propagation and advancement of human beings not only does the former movement take on greater prestige than the latter but transcendence comes to be associated with men thereby imprisoning women in the repetitious and monotonous practices of immanence, those practices that perpetuate and maintain life at the animal level. This is a foundational insight into the historical oppression of the feminine. Andrea Veltman, (1975 — ), elaborates how transcendence as creative, constructive, and active, remains to a degree free from biological fate whereas immanence involves uncreative chores that sustain life thereby submitting more readily to biological fate. But de Beauvoir continually challenges this dichotomy throughout the work, there is no transcendence without immanence, no freedom without maintenance, there are two movements that come together in life, and life maintains itself only by surpassing itself, it does not surpass itself without maintaining itself and these two moments are always accomplished together:

‘Thus, the ovum, active in the nucleus, its essential principle, is superficially passive; its mass, closed upon itself, compact in itself, evokes the nocturnal heaviness and repose of the in-itself: the ancients visualized the closed world in the form of a sphere or opaque atom; immobile, the ovum waits; by contrast, the open sperm, tiny and agile, embodies the impatience and worry of existence. One should not get carried away with the pleasure of allegories: the ovum has sometimes been likened to immanence and the sperm to transcendence. By giving up its transcendence and mobility, the sperm penetrates the female element: it is grabbed and castrated by the inert mass that absorbs it after cutting off its tail; like all passive actions, this one is magical and disturbing; the male gamete activity is rational, a measurable movement in terms of time and space. In truth, these are merely ramblings. Male and female gametes merge together in the egg; together they cancel each other out in their totality. It is false to claim that the egg voraciously absorbs the male gamete and just as false to say that the latter victoriously appropriates the female cell’s reserves because in the act that merges them, their individuality disappears. And to a mechanistic philosophy, the movement undoubtedly looks like a rational phenomenon par excellence; but for modern physics the idea is no clearer than that of action at a distance; besides, the details of the physicochemical interactions leading to fertilization are not known. It is possible, however, to come away with a valuable indication from this meeting. There are two movements that come together in life, and life maintains itself only by surpassing itself. It does not surpass itself without maintaining itself; these two moments are always accomplished together. It is academic to claim to separate them: nevertheless, it is either one or the other that dominates. The two unified gametes go beyond and are perpetuated; but the ovum’s structure anticipates future needs; it is constituted to nourish the life that will awaken in it, while the sperm is in no way equipped to ensure the development of the germ it gives rise to. In contrast, whereas the sperm moves around, the ovum is incapable of triggering the change that will bring about a new explosion of life. Without the egg’s prescience, the sperm’s action would be useless; but without the latter’s initiative, the egg would not accomplish its vital potential. The conclusion is thus that fundamentally the role of the two gametes is identical; together they create a living being in which both of them lose and surpass themselves. But in the secondary and superficial phenomena that condition fertilization, it is through the male element that the change in situation occurs for the new eclosion of life; it is through the female element that this eclosion is established in a stable element.

- ‘The Second Sex’

Such a claim has implications running deep in the remainder of her analysis of woman’s situation since it demonstrates for us something about the human situation in general:

‘But it is true that in both these active operations — maintenance and creation — the synthesis of becoming is not realized in the same way. Maintaining means denying the dispersion of instants, thereby affirming continuity in the course of their outpouring; creating means exploding an irreducible and separate present within a temporal unity, and it is also true that for the female it is the continuity of life that seeks to realize itself in spite of separation, while separation into new and individualized forces is brought about by male initiative; he can affirm himself in his autonomy; he integrates the specific energy into his own life; by contrast, female individuality is fought by the interest of the species; she seems possessed by outside forces: alienated. This explains why sexual opposition increases rather than abates when the individuality of organisms asserts itself. The male finds more and more ways to use the forces of which he is master; the female feels her subjugation more and more; the conflict between her own interests and those of the generating forces that inhabit her exasperates her. Giving birth for cows and mares is far more painful and dangerous than for female mice and rabbits. Woman, the most individualized of females, is also the most fragile, the one who experiences her destiny the most dramatically and who distinguishes herself the most significantly from her male’.

- ‘The Second Sex’

For de Beauvoir, transcendence and immanence are two interrelated, active, and equal aspects of life and there is no separating them other than in abstraction and as a matter of fact it is the interchange of the two that constitutes the very ambiguity of existence. Splitting transcendence and immanence produces an artificial division in what Beauvoir conceives life as such to be. Beauvoir’s take on the distinction between life and existence in Hegel is one whereby the former is a condition for the latter but yet remains radically distinct and as a condition, nature is such in two ways: ‘first because existence is always embodied and therefore mortal (temporal); second, because nature provides the raw material of the situation which existence is defined as oriented to negate and transcend’, as Hutchings explains. De Beauvoir insists that the division between maintenance and creativity is not a difference between passivity and activity and hence by extension between women and men even though historically this is exactly what happened. Albeit women become tied to the maintenance of life at the expense of creative activity this is not to condemn them to the passive side of the equation as if it were a metaphysical fact for both maintaining in the sense of continuity and sustenance and creating in the sense of disruption, plurality, and novelty, are necessary in the becoming characteristic of life, even at and perhaps especially at the level of biology and this echos Hegel’s own division.

Quite evidently influenced by her reading of the ‘Philosophy of Nature’ de Beauvoir posits life in the form of immanence as infinite, cyclical processes in need of continual maintenance but unlike in Hegel immanence and transcendence together form life as such. Separating natural life as immanence and spiritual life as transcendence proves decisive in the oppression of the feminine other, assigning immanence to the feminine in the form of domestic and reproductive labour bolsters the patriarchy which promotes itself as autonomous, rational, and transcendent, or as unnatural. And yet this division does not emerge out of the blue from nothing and that is why the opening chapter on biology plays such an important part in the work in its entirety. Albeit de Beauvoir contends that she is not attempting to propose a ‘philosophy of life’ in her discussion of biology she does confess to a foundational character to the two dynamic forces of maintenance and surpassing:

‘Rejecting any a priori doctrine, any implausible theory, we find ourselves before a fact that has neither ontological nor empirical basis and whose impact cannot a priori be understood. By examining it in its concrete reality, we can hope to extract its significance: thus perhaps the content of the word ‘female’ will come to light. The idea here is not to propose a philosophy of life or to take sides too hastily in the quarrel between finalism and mechanism. Yet it is noteworthy that physiologists and biologists all use a more or less finalistic language merely because they ascribe meaning to vital phenomena. We will use their vocabulary. Without coming to any conclusion about life and consciousness, we can affirm that any living fact indicates transcendence, and that a project is in the making in every function: these descriptions do not suggest more than this’.

- ‘The Second Sex’

The contention is that every biological function is a project in the making and the position held here is evidently that biological and physiological factors are integral to understanding the complexities of lived experience even as de Beauvoir is aware of the fact that the interpretation and application of these forces is never disinterested, and such an awareness of the significance of biology and especially of its misapplication leads Beauvoir to concentrate upon the animal’s relationship to the species through individuation and reproduction, and taking Hegel on directly she contends that albeit sexuality holds ontological significance, it, in particular heterosexual reproduction, is not necessarily implied in human being. The emphasis that sexual difference and reproduction are not essential for human being is repeated in the following chapter of de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’, ‘The Psychoanalytic Point of View’.

‘The Wedding Dress’, Charles Mertens, Karel Jozef Mertens, (1865–1919)

‘Without coming to any conclusion about life and consciousness, we can affirm that any living fact indicates transcendence, and that a project is in the making in every function’ is a view also found in Maurice Merleau-Ponty, (1908–1961):

‘There is interfusion between sexuality and existence, which means that existence permeates sexuality and vice versa, so that it is impossible to determine, in a given decision or action, the proportion of sexual to other motivations, impossible to label a decision or act ‘sexual’ or ‘non-sexual’. Thus there is in human existence a principle of indeterminacy, and this indeterminacy is not only for us, it does not stem from some imperfection of our knowledge, and we must not imagine that any God could sound our hearts and minds and determine what we owe to nature and what to freedom. Existence is indeterminate in itself, by reason of its fundamental structure, and in so far as it is the very process whereby the hitherto meaningless takes on meaning, whereby what had merely a sexual significance assumes a more general one, chance is transformed into reason; in so far as it is the act of taking up a de facto situation. We shall give the name ‘transcendence’ to this act in which existence takes up, to its own account, and transforms such a situation. Precisely because it is transcendence, existence never utterly outruns anything, for in that case the tension which is essential to it would disappear. It never abandons itself. What it is never remains external and accidental to it, since this is always taken up and integrated into it. Sexuality therefore ought not, any more than the body in general, to be regarded as a fortuitous content of our experience. Existence has no fortuitous attributes, no content which does not contribute towards giving it its form; it does not give admittance to any pure fact because it is the process by which facts are drawn up’.

- ‘Phenomenology of Perception’

Following the ‘Philosophy of Nature’ de Beauvoir gives her attention to how simpler life-forms are sacrificed entirely to the repetition of life whereas more complex organisms display increasingly pronounced individuation. As the male becomes more vibrant and aggressive the female remains a ‘slave’ of the species.

‘In the higher forms of life, reproduction becomes the production of differentiated organisms; it has a twofold face: maintenance of the species and creation of new individuals; this innovative aspect asserts itself as the singularity of the individual is confirmed. It is thus striking that these two moments of perpetuation and creation divide; this break, already marked at the time of the egg’s fertilization, is present in the generating phenomenon as a whole. The structure of the egg itself does not order this division; the female, like the male, possesses a certain autonomy, and her link with the egg loosens; the female fish, amphibian, and bird are much more than an abdomen; the weaker the mother-to-egg link, the less labor parturition involves, and the more undifferentiated is the relation between parents and their offspring. Sometimes, the newly hatched lives are the father’s responsibility; this is often the case with fish. Water is an element that can carry eggs and sperm and enables their meeting; fertilization in the aquatic milieu is almost always external; fish do not mate: at best some rub against each other for stimulation. The mother expels the ova and the father the sperm: they have identical roles. There is no more reason for the mother to recognize the eggs as her own than the father. In some species, parents abandon the eggs, which develop without help; sometimes the mother has prepared a nest for them; sometimes she watches over them after fertilization; but very often the father takes charge of them: as soon as he has fertilized them, he chases away the female, who tries to devour them; he fiercely defends them from anything that approaches; there are those that put up a kind of protective nest by emitting air bubbles covered with an isolating substance; they also often incubate the eggs in their mouths or, like the sea horse, in the folds of the stomach’.

- ‘The Second Sex’

In the higher forms of life reproduction becomes the production of differentiated organisms, it has a twofold face: maintenance of the species and creation of new individuals … what is surprising to de Beauvoir is that these two moments of perpetuation and creation ‘break’ and ‘divide’ along sexually differentiated lines. Hence even at the level of sexual difference there is a split of the two vital moments, maintaining and creating which fall to females and males, respectively.

‘The most complex and concretely individualized life is found in mammals. The split of the two vital moments, maintaining and creating, takes place definitively in the separation of the sexes. In this branching out — and considering vertebrates only — the mother has the closest connection to her offspring, whereas the father is more uninterested; the whole organism of the female is adapted to and determined by the servitude of maternity, while the sexual initiative is the prerogative of the male. The female is the prey of the species; for one or two seasons, depending on the case, her whole life is regulated by a sexual cycle — the estrous cycle — whose length and periodicity vary from one species to another. This cycle has two phases: during the first one the ova mature (the number varies according to the species), and a nidification process occurs in the womb; in the second phase a fat necrosis is produced, ending in the elimination of the structure, that is a whitish discharge. The estrus corresponds to the period of heat; but heat in the female is rather passive; she is ready to receive the male, she waits for him; for mammals — and some birds — she might invite him; but she limits herself to calling him by noises, displays, or exhibitions; she could never impose coitus. That decision is up to him in the end’.

- ‘The Second Sex’

This is a contention coming from a philosopher who requests of us not to think of the feminine as an inescapable destiny but de Beauvoir clarifies that the phenomenon of reproduction can be considered as ontologically grounded without sexual difference being necessary. (And ‘it has to be pointed out first the very meaning of division of the species into two sexes is not clear’ and de Beauvoir follows Hegel’s analysis of sexual difference where males are associated with activity and individuality and females are associated with passivity and species identification, while vigilantly remaining critical of it as Hutchings notes).

‘One of the essential features of man’s destiny is that the movement of his temporal life creates behind and ahead of him the infinity of the past and the future: the perpetuation of the species appears thus as the correlative of individual limitation, so the phenomenon of reproduction can be considered as ontologically grounded. But this is where one must stop; the perpetuation of the species does not entail sexual differentiation. That it is taken on by existents in such a way that it thereby enters into the concrete definition of existence, so be it. Nevertheless, a consciousness without a body or an immortal human being is rigorously inconceivable, whereas a society can be imagined that reproduces itself by parthenogenesis or is composed of hermaphrodites’.

- ‘The Second Sex’

Quite evidently as she notes this is factually the case insofar as many animal species reproduce asexually but even in mammals and hence by direct implication, humans sexual difference is not an absolute but more a reflection of the current state of patriarchal gender codes and after briefly mentioning the treatment of sexual difference in Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas de Beauvoir turns to a more extensive treatment of Hegel to make the point clearer. See the passage quoted above where she says that Hegel ‘would have been untrue to his rationalist passion had he not attempted to justify it [sexual difference] logically’. She then twice quotes the ‘Philosophy of Nature’, the first dealing with the relationship between the genus and the species through copulation, and the second is from the following Zusatz: ‘The process consists in this, that they become in reality what they are in themselves, namely, one genus, the same subjective vitality’. De Beauvoir had read the ‘Philosophy of Nature’ and the published paragraphs and the Zusätze, and this particular passage concerns the relationship of the individual to the species, the culmination of sexual reproduction for Hegel, where the animal attempts to overcome its subjective defect, ‘cette disproportion de sa réalité individuelle’, by merging with the universal genus. De Beauvoir sets her sights upon this moment where sexual reproduction is motivated by the feeling of a lack in the individual organism but she criticizes Hegel for forcing the tripartite dialectical movement onto sexual difference: ‘His demonstration is not convincing: the preconceived idea of locating the three moments of the syllogism in any operation is too obvious here. The surpassing of the individual toward the species, by which individual and species accomplish themselves in their own truth could occur without the third element, by the simple relation of genitor to child: reproduction could be asexual’. Because the movement from the individual to the species does not necessarily require sexual difference and copulation she hypothesizes other ways for animals to relate and differentiate pointing out asexual reproduction and hermaphroditism as alternatives.

And furthermore de Beauvoir raises a question that addresses feminist concerns, namely why the individual cannot overcome its feeling of lack through the relation of parent to offspring rather than in the sexual union itself. The individual in Hegel seeks to overcome its finitude by merging with the genus through copulation so as to produce offspring for species perpetuation but the product of copulation equally fulfills the Hegelian urge without necessitating heterosexual sex or requiring the importation of binaries of passivity/activity, weakness/strength, undeveloped/developed, and so on produced through rationalized sexual differentiation.

‘But Aristotle’s ideas have not lost all validity. Hegel thought the two sexes must be different: one is active and the other passive, and it goes without saying that passivity will be the female’s lot. ‘Because of this differentiation, man is thus the active principle while woman is the passive principle because she resides in her non-developed unity’. And even when the ovum was recognized as an active principle, men continued to pit its inertia against the agility of the sperm. Today, there is a tendency to see the contrary: the discoveries of parthenogenesis have led some scientists to reduce the role of the male to that of a simple physicochemical agent. In some species the action of an acid or a mechanical stimulation has been shown to trigger the division of the egg and the development of the embryo; and from that it was boldly assumed that the male gamete was not necessary for generation; it would be at most a ferment; perhaps man’s cooperation in procreation would one day become useless: that seems to be many women’s desire. But nothing warrants such a bold expectation because nothing warrants universalizing life’s specific processes. The phenomena of asexual multiplication and parthenogenesis are neither more nor less fundamental than those of sexual reproduction. And it has already been noted that this form is not a priori favoured: but no fact proves it is reducible to a more elementary mechanism’.

- ‘The Second Sex’

Note: ‘Perhaps man’s cooperation in procreation would one day become useless: that seems to be many women’s desire’.

So, sexuality itself for Beauvoir is not necessarily implied in human being and Hegel’s description brings out a very important significance of sexuality: but he always makes the same error of equating significance with reason:

‘Hegel’s description brings out a very important significance of sexuality: but he always makes the same error of equating significance with reason. It is through sexual activity that men define the sexes and their relations, just as they create the meaning and value of all the functions they accomplish: but sexual activity is not necessarily implied in the human being’s nature. In Phenomenologie de la perception {Phenomenology of Perception), Merleau-Ponty points out that human existence calls for revision of the notions of necessity and contingency. ‘Existence has no fortuitous attributes, no content which does not contribute towards giving it its form; it does not give admittance to any pure fact because it is the process by which facts are drawn up’. This is true. But it is also true that there are conditions without which the very fact of existence would seem to be impossible. Presence in the world vigorously implies the positing of a body that is both a thing of the world and a point of view on this world: but this body need not possess this or that particular structure’.

- ‘The Second Sex’

The Hegelian move to force a necessary sexual division in animal reproduction inaugurates the pernicious binary that oppresses the feminine. See the passage above where quoting the ‘Philosophy of Nature’ once more de Beauvoir reprimands Hegel for replicating the Aristotelian fallacy: ‘Because of this differentiation, man is thus the active principle while woman is the passive principle because she resides in her non-developed unity’. Albeit de Beauvoir’s perhaps frequently incorrect presentation of biological and physiological facts are debateable they serve a principal function of demonstrating that albeit hey matter they do not determine. And Hegel can be usefully drawn upon to the extent that illustrates the philosophical moment where life is riven and heterosexual reproduction becomes the zenith of woman’s oppression and yet as de Beauvoir contends there is no reason to posit a fixed destiny: “Presence in the world vigorously implies the positing of a body that is both a thing of the world and a point of view on this world: but this body need not possess this or that particular structure’ (see above).

As de Beauvoir observed ‘most philosophies have taken sexual differentiation for granted without attempting to explain it’ while Hegel is formative insofar as he does explains it but demonstrates also how social inequality can be based upon it. De Beauvoir most assuredly takes the biological body seriously but balks at allowing it ontological primacy as she recognises the potentially unavoidable short-sightedness and practical inequality it generates. Her reading of the ‘Philosophy of Nature’ gives her a framework to interpret immanence as the work necessary for maintaining and nourishing the biological body, without it producing sexually differentiated bodies and tasks. Enter Luce Irigaray’s, (1930- ), philosophy of sexual difference as the next logical step (see next article) as Ann V. Murphy noted.

Hegel’s notion of life becomes one-half of the ambiguous and dynamic interplay of the forces of preservation (immanence) and disruption (transcendence) in Beauvoir’s analysis and is a thread running through ‘The Second Sex’ as she recognises not only the necessity of both forces in the phenomenon of life but what occurs when through a variety of historical and cultural impositions transcendence and immanence are split between men and women, and she adopts another Hegelian insight which is to say that consciousness defines itself oppositionally through an other that it seeks to dominate, such a diremption contributing in the oppression of woman so the story goes (not how I read it but this article is already too long).

Through the separation of these interrelated and equal aspects of life onto two different sexes de Beauvoir can then take apart Hegel’s rationalization of sexual difference for in the ‘Philosophy of Nature’ the organism seeks union with another of its kind through sexual reproduction in order to rid itself of the feeling of a defect in relationship to the genus and de Beauvoir underscores the fundamental misstep taken by Hegel as it is seen by her and that sheds light on much of western thinking on this point). This defect or lack comes to be part of the actual definition of the feminine as Other rather than something that is simply human or even animal and this occurs largely just as it does in Hegel’s analysis of animal reproduction through an unnecessary distinction between male and female reproductive bodies and functions.

De Beauvoir critiques not only of this distinction as one resulting in bodily allocations of activity/passivity and superiority/inferiority but also of the entire structure that it gives rise to and perpetuates, sexual reproduction as the necessary goal of animality and hence an unstoppable dimension of human being. Hence the claim quoted in a passage above: ‘One of the essential features of man’s destiny is that the movement of his temporal life creates behind and ahead of him the infinity of the past and the future: the perpetuation of the species appears thus as the correlative of individual limitation, so the phenomenon of reproduction can be considered as ontologically grounded. But this is where one must stop; the perpetuation of the species does not entail sexual differentiation. … [A] society can be imagined that reproduces itself by parthenogenesis or is composed of hermaphrodites’. In brief sexual difference is not necessary for the continuation of human society. And if sexual difference is not necessary then neither is heterosexual reproduction and it is conceivable that life could be sustained and advanced through completely different structures, ones that could potentially reinstate and even heighten the dynamic and ambiguous interplays of existence and the possibilities of myriad lived experiences of hermaphroditism alone to impel us to imagine differently sexed beings and novel forms of sexual expression. This is the chimera anyway, I find it difficult to follow myself but perhaps it is a failure of imagination on my part.

But of course de Beauvoir’s rejection of sexual difference and heterosexual reproduction as necessary features of human society breeds such repercussions especially in an age haunted by thoughts of looming global catastrophe (but are we the first?) thereby confronting what it means for the species to reproduce itself takes on heightened urgency, albeit de Beauvoir was not thinking in terms of whether or not we should continue to reproduce, worrying more about forced reproduction and its role in the oppression of women, there are those happy to think through to the conclusion of what de Beauvoir raises in her discussion of biological data, and to raise the question that if heterosexual reproduction is not ontologically grounded (whatever that means) maybe reproduction itself so grounded, and if that is so the issue is raised as to what that means with regard to our commitments to the species and the earth upon which it lives, but as I like to point out Hegelian philosophy is a philosophy of freedom and such questions concerning emancipation and ethical commitment are dealt with in depth elsewhere in his work and are to be considered alongside his philosophy of biology, otherwise all is on-sided, as much of what I have read in ‘The Second Sex’ seems to be, as are the conclusions other feminists philosophers have drawn from it. The true is the whole.

‘After the Reception’, Stephen Arnold Douglas Volk (1856–1935)

— — -

For my soul mate🌹nature’s masterpiece:

Used to be a dreamer

But you know I’ve found

A better way — you

Thought I was a loser

But you proved me wrong

You’re taking me so much higher

You’re taking me so much higher

Higher and higher


Barclay James Harvest, ‘Taking Me Higher’:

Coming up next:

More Hegel and feminism.

It may stop but it never ends.



David Proud

David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.