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

David Proud
31 min readNov 14, 2023

‘The Borough’ (excerpt)

by George Crabbe, (1754–1832)

The living stains, which Nature’s hand alone,

Profuse of life, pours forth upon the stone;

For ever growing; where the common eye

Can but the bare and rocky bed descry, –

There Science loves to trace her tribes minute,

The juiceless foliage and the tasteless fruit;

There she perceives them round the surface creep,

And while they meet their due distinctions keep,

Mix’d but not blended: each its name retains,

And these are Nature’s ever-during stains.


I have been thinking, well as a philosopher it is part of my remit, maybe what my articles could do with to attract more interest is more cleavage. So here goes.

‘Study of a Piece of Brick, to show Cleavage in Burnt Clay’, c.1871, John Ruskin

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

Was Hegel a naturalist?

What is naturalism?

I have been through this before, that this isn’t the right way to approach Hegel, with one -ism pitted against another -ism and deciding which -ism Hegel prefers … but the question is asked so we will look into it.

Naturalism: a term with no very exact meaning in contemporary philosophy and currently it is used in a sense deriving from debates in America in the first half of the twentieth century. Self-proclaimed naturalists from that period included John Dewey, (1859–1952), Ernest Nagel, (1901–1985), Sidney Hook, (1902–1989), and Roy Wood Sellars, (1880–1973), philosophers that aspired to ally philosophy more closely with science and who urged that reality is exhausted by nature and contains nothing supernatural and that the scientific method ought be employed to investigate all areas of reality including the human spirit. Thus understood naturalism is not an especially informative term as applied to contemporary philosophers, the majority of contemporary philosophers would accept naturalism as thus characterized, that is to say, they would both reject supernatural entities and grant that science is a possible route if not necessarily the only one to important truths about the human spirit.

So on the question of whether Hegel is a naturalist or an anti-naturalist with respect to his philosophy of nature Alison Stone, (1972 — ), adopted what she called ‘a cluster-based approach to naturalism on which positions are more or less naturalistic depending how many strands of the cluster naturalism they exemplify’ and we will run with that. She focussed upon two strand: belief that philosophy is continuous with the empirical sciences, and disbelief in supernatural entities. She contends that Hegel regards philosophy of nature as distinct but not wholly discontinuous from empirical science and that he believes in the reality of formal and final causes insofar as he is a realist about universal forms that interconnect to comprise a self-organizing whole. however, for Hegel natural particulars never fully realize these universal forms so that empirical inquiry into these particulars and their efficient causal interactions is always necessary.

Stone concludes that Hegel’s position is situated in the middle of the naturalism/anti-naturalism spectrum and rather than approaching Hegel on the assumption that naturalism and anti-naturalism are polar opposites she suggests that we can make better sense of Hegel’s view of nature by adopting a cluster-based approach to naturalism and on this approach positions are more or less naturalistic depending upon how many strands of the cluster naturalism they exemplify and how thoroughly they exemplify these strands and under the influence of Finn Spicer she further suggests that the strands of the cluster naturalism incorporate a belief that philosophy is continuous with the sciences and a denial of the existence of any supernatural entities or processes (ontological naturalism).

From a methodological point of view Hegel’s view is that a philosophy of nature is continuous with the empirical sciences insofar as philosophers of nature start by learning from scientists about natural forms.

And what are natural forms? Or natural kinds?

A good deal of our investigation into nature consists in categorizing or classifying the objects and processes we encounter both in scientific and everyday contexts and there are numerous ways to sort objects into different kinds or categories but it is commonly assumed that among the countless possible types of classifications one group is privileged and philosophy refers to such categories as natural kinds. Standard instances of such kinds include fundamental physical particles, chemical elements, biological species and the term natural does not imply that natural kinds ought to categorize only naturally occurring stuff or objects for natural kinds can include man-made substances, such as synthetic elements, that can be created in a laboratory so that the naturalness at issue is not the naturalness of the entities being classified but rather of the groupings themselves whereby groupings that are artificial or arbitrary are not natural, they are invented or imposed upon nature, natural kinds on the other hand, are not invented and it is assumed that scientific investigations ought to discover discover them.

The philosophical tradition going back a long way has enjoined that we should search for natural classifications in our investigation of the world but the nature of such a prescription can be hard to spell out and this notion has been frequently illustrated through Plato’s metaphor about carving nature at its joints whereby in the ‘Phaedrus’ he declares that we ought to divide into forms following the objective articulation, we are not to attempt to hack off parts like a clumsy butcher. Here the underlying intuition is that the natural world is divisible into objective categories and that we ought to strive to discover such divisions, which is to say, our exploration of the world should model itself on the practice of a competent butcher who when cutting the meat follows its natural divisions and does not clumsily hack parts off:


Socrates: And of madness there were two kinds; one produced by human infirmity, the other was a divine release of the soul from the yoke of custom nd convention.

Phaedrus: True.

Socrates: The divine madness was subdivided into four kinds, prophetic, initiatory, poetic, erotic, having four gods presiding over them; the first was the inspiration of Apollo, the second that of Dionysus, the third that of the Muses, the fourth that of Aphrodite and Eros. In the description of the last kind of madness, which was also said to be the best, we spoke of the affection of love in a figure, into which we introduced a tolerably credible and possibly true though partly erring myth, which was also a hymn in honour of Love, who is your lord and also mine, Phaedrus, and the guardian of fair children, and to him we sung the hymn in measured and solemn strain.

Phaedrus: I know that I had great pleasure in listening to you.

Socrates: Let us take this instance and note how the transition was made from blame to praise.

Phaedrus: What do you mean?

Socrates: I mean to say that the composition was mostly playful. Yet in these chance fancies of the hour were involved two principles of which we should be too glad to have a clearer description if art could give us one.

Phaedrus: What are they?

Socrates: First, the comprehension of scattered particulars in one idea; as in our definition of love, which whether true or false certainly gave clearness and consistency to the discourse, the speaker should define his several notions and so make his meaning clear.

Phaedrus: What is the other principle, Socrates?

Socrates: The second principle is that of division into species according to the natural formation, where the joint is, not breaking any part as a bad carver might. Just as our two discourses, alike assumed, first of all, a single form of unreason; and then, as the body which from being one becomes double and may be divided into a left side and right side, each having parts right and left of the same name-after this manner the speaker proceeded to divide the parts of the left side and did not desist until he found in them an evil or left-handed love which he justly reviled; and the other discourse leading us to the madness which lay on the right side, found another love, also having the same name, but divine, which the speaker held up before us and applauded and affirmed to be the author of the greatest benefits.

Phaedrus: Most true.

Socrates: I am myself a great lover of these processes of division and generalization; they help me to speak and to think. And if I find any man who is able to see ‘a One and Many’ in nature, him I follow, and ‘walk in his footsteps as if he were a god’. And those who have this art, I have hitherto been in the habit of calling dialecticians; but God knows whether the name is right or not. And I should like to know what name you would give to your or to Lysias’ disciples, and whether this may not be that famous art of rhetoric which Thrasymachus and others teach and practise? Skilful speakers they are, and impart their skill to any who is willing to make kings of them and to bring gifts to them.

- ‘Phaedrus’


See my article: On Plato’s ‘Phaedrus’ — The Madness of Love’.

Philosophers of nature reconstruct scientific accounts of such natural forms on an a priori basis hence establishing how such natural forms are organised into a rationally connected chain albeit In the process philosophers of nature in addition reinterpret such natural forms in light of a metaphysics in accordance with which nature is a rational whole. Hegel declares that this metaphysics is distinct from that of empirical science albeit he also believes that this metaphysics only makes explicit a presupposition, that nature is an organised whole admitting of rational comprehension that scientists implicitly hold all along and must hold if their inquiries are to have any motivation.

But what does that mean, rational comprehension?

‘In order to do Physics you must believe in the rational intelligibility of the Universe’ ??

And ‘that rational justification came from Christianity’ ??

Once we get on to Aunt Mathilda and her cake my heart sinks, I will leave it to Noel Plum who is more engaging and wittier than me to deal with Aunt Mathilda’s cake:

If the Universe is rationally intelligible why is quantum physics counter-intuitive?Systems with quantum behaviour do not abide by the rules that we are used to, they are difficult to observe, they are difficult to feel, their features are controversial, they exist in several different states at the same time, they change depending upon whether they are observed or otherwise. Rationally intelligible?

Anyway, to press on. From a methodological point of view Hegel regards philosophy of nature and empirical science neither as discontinuous from nor entirely continuous with one another but occupying some kind of middle position, according to Stone, and within the context of his position regarding the relation between philosophy and science he is situated in the middle of the spectrum that runs from the most naturalistic to the most anti-naturalistic positions, a rejection of supernatural entities and processes. At the naturalistic end of the spectrum mechanistic materialists consider nature to be composed entirely of units of matter in efficient-causal relations, and not so naturalistic Immanuel Kant, (1724–1804), contends that with good reason we can legitimately postulate final and formal causes within nature in particular in the form of a basis that animates purposive wholes in so far as we do not ascribe real, mind-independent existence to these bases or purposes. And also not so naturalistic again Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, (1775–1854), contends that we may legitimately postulate actually existing final and formal causes in nature as long as we do so in ways that recognise the pervasiveness of mechanism in nature and that promote and guarantee as opposed to frustrating empirical research into efficient-causal relations in nature,and yet Schelling conceives of nature’s dimension of final and formal causality in terms of productive force, a force that persists in an important extent in being mysterious.

‘Zimowy zachód’, Michał Gorstkin Wywiórski, (1861–1926)

Hegel abandons such a notion of productive force and substitutes it with a notion of universal forms that exist throughout nature and upon abandoning productive force Hegel assumes a more naturalistic than Schelling’s but less naturalistic than Kant’s which also situates Hegel somewhere in the middle of the naturalism/anti-naturalism spectrum. The concepts of formal and final causation are to be understood as generic concepts that can be interpreted in a range of ways, so Kant interprets them in terms of purposive wholes, while Schelling reinterprets them in terms of productive force, and Hegel reinterprets them again in terms of universal forms, and some scientists of the German Idealist period interpreted these concepts in terms of vital or formative force.

Hegel, German idealism and their relations to naturalism. In the contemporary debate concerning naturalism amongst contemporary interpreters of Hegel Frederick Charles Beiser, (1949 — ), considers Hegel and the German Idealists to be naturalists while Sebastian Angus Gardner, (1960 -), considers Hegel and the idealists to be anti-naturalists. How come such a division in interpretation? A less divided manner of regarding how Hegel stands face to face with naturalism is called for. Beiser lists Hegel alongside with Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin, (1770–1843), Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel, (1772–1829), Novalis, (1772–1801), and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, (1775–1854), as being amongst the Absolute Idealists and Absolute Idealism including Hegel’s own take on it is a naturalist position for according to Beiser, Absolute Idealism is the position that reality as a whole is organically structured developing through self-differentiation and self-articulation into the manifold of entities, and in that it develops organically reality takes shape in regular law-governed ways that are rationally intelligible to us so that reality as a whole is rational and within this general position Beiser insists that the Idealists consider nature to be a self-organising whole and in this they accept the naturalist thesis that ‘everything in nature happens according to laws y of necessity’ and furthermore they accept that nature is pervaded by mechanism, they merely reject ‘a naturalism that claims everything is explicable only according to mechanical laws y a radical or narrow mechanism’ as Beiser explains.

Which is to say, Absolute Idealists do not accept the mechanistic materialism advocated by such late eighteenth-century thinkers as Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach, (1723–1789), Denis Diderot, (1713–1784), and Julien Offray de La Mettrie, (1709–1751), for whom: ‘The universe, that vast assemblage of every thing that exists, presents only matter and motion: the whole offers to our contemplation nothing but an immense, an uninterrupted succession of causes and effects’, explains d’Holbach who further insists that: ‘A cause is a being which puts another in motion, or which produces some change in it. The effect is the change produced in one body by the motion or presence of another’, that all causation is efficient causation involving the mechanical transmission of motion. Hence nature is equated with units of matter in relations of efficient causation a form of naturalism of narrower range according to Beiser than that of the German Idealists, or to put it another way mechanistic materialists are much more restrictive about what counts as natural, in particular they do not admit formal or final causes, whereas the German Idealists do admit these forms of causation into nature for they attribute generative, causal power to the non-material wholes or principles that they take to regulate organic processes and the overall development of nature as an organic whole. But the Idealists are naturalists nevertheless according to Beiser insofar as they believe that organic processes unfold in structured, rationally intelligible, necessary ways governed by the laws peculiar to organic processes, laws of self-differentiation and self-articulation.

And so for Beiser Absolute Idealists sign up to a kind of naturalism of wider scope than that which came to dominate later in the nineteenth century when scientific materialists and empiricists came to chase after a programme that directly continued that of the eighteenth-century mechanistic materialists, and this programme drew support from nineteenth-century scientific advances in accounting for life and evolution in mechanistic terms, nevertheless according to Beiser the materialist programme that came to prominence in the mid-nineteenth century is simply one narrowly mechanistic and reductive form of naturalism that should not be equated with naturalism without qualification.

Sebastian Gardner on the other hand describes the Idealist position as anti-naturalist tracing its development to Kant’s opposition between freedom and nature, the immense gulf fixed between the domain of the concept of nature, the sensible, and the domain of the concept of freedom, as the supersensible.

‘Hence there is a realm that is unbounded, but that is also inaccessible to our entire cognitive power: the realm of the supersensible. In this realm we cannot find for ourselves a territory on which to set up a domain of theoretical cognition, whether for the concepts of the understanding or for those of reason. It is a realm that we must indeed occupy with ideas that will assist us in both the theoretical and the practical use of reason; but the only reality we can provide for these ideas, by reference to the laws [arising] from the concept of freedom, is practical reality, which consequently does not in the least expand our theoretical cognition to the supersensible. Hence an immense gulf is fixed between the domain of the concept of nature, the sensible, and the domain of the concept of freedom, the supersensible, so that no transition from the sensible to the supersensible (and hence by means of the theoretical use of reason) is possible, just as if they were two different worlds, the first of which cannot have any influence on the second; and yet the second is to have an influence on the first, i.e., the concept of freedom is to actualize in the world of sense the purpose enjoined by its laws. Hence it must be possible to think of nature as being such that the lawfulness in its form will harmonize with at least the possibility of [achieving] the purposes that we are to achieve in nature according to laws of freedom. So there must after all be a basis uniting the supersensible that underlies nature and the supersensible that the concept of freedom contains practically, even though the concept of this basis does not reach cognition of it either theoretically or practically and hence does not have a domain of its own, though it does make possible the transition from our way of thinking in terms of principles of nature to our way of thinking in terms of principles of freedom’.

- ‘Critique of Judgement’

See my articles On Immanuel Kant’s ‘Critique of Judgement’ — A Glimpse of Eternity, parts one to five.

The Idealists taking this opposition to be in need of resolution and reconceiving nature as parts of a unified reality saw that this could be accomplished in principle ways, either by deriving human freedom from and perhaps reducing it to the operations of nature, or conversely by deriving the organisation of nature from human freedom and according to Gardner the scientific materialist trends that came to predominate in the later nineteenth century took the former channel and the Idealists the latter for the Idealists believed that ‘subjectivity supplies the grounds, if not ontological then at least conceptual, of Nature’ as Gardner explains, which is to say for the Idealists, nature must be understood on the model of free human subjectivity therefore as a self-organising whole.

‘Bokmål: Fra Mesnas utløp’, 1899, Frederik Jonas Lucian Bothfield Collett

However this is an identical take on nature that Beiser ascribes to the Absolute Idealists and yet Beiser takes that position to be naturalist while Gardner identifies the identical position as anti-naturalist. Gardner contends that while the Idealists viewed themselves as chasing after a naturalist project taking naturalism in a wide and non-mechanistic sense as Beiser does too their position was ‘historically revealed to be not ‘’genuinely naturalistic’’ after all’ but to be super-naturalistic by the standards that were to come, and in the later nineteenth century the meaning of naturalism shrivelled somewhat hence the standard view came to be that broad naturalism such as that of the Idealists was not truly naturalistic. Gardner cites Alexander Gottfried Friedrich Gode-von Aesch, (1906–1970), for support who claimed that the Early German Romantic view is that ‘science and poetry [are] integral parts of [a] higher entity which current usage would call neither science nor poetry yet which embraces both’ which is to say that the Romantics aspired and contributed to the creation of a form of science that was at once poetic and aesthetic, as Robert Richards has contended where aesthetic intuition into the wholeness of nature can motivate, inform and assist rather than obstruct scientific enquiry, yet Aesch emphasises this enterprise does not count as scientific by the more recent standards that became established during the nineteenth century, from this later perspective, science investigates nature merely simply with an eye to instrumental control over natural phenomena hence understanding nature mechanistically through the ‘elaborat[ion] of unfailing rules of prediction for the behavior of natural phenomena’ as Aesch puts it.

When Gardner characterises Idealist organicism as anti-naturalistic or further as supernaturalistic his meaning is that such a stance moves away from the more restricted form of naturalism that has come to be generally accepted and in spite of a seeming disagreement Beiser and Gardner concur that the Idealists did support a kind of naturalism but an organicist form wider than what is standardly understood by naturalism today hence we can progress beyond the assumption that Hegel and other Idealists must be either naturalistic or anti-naturalistic and rather declare that their views are naturalistic in a wide, organicist sense but not in a narrow, mechanistic materialist, sense. And the substantive philosophical question remains as to whether or broad naturalism is genuinely naturalistic and whether or not our historical understanding has moved towards a correct recognition that Idealist organicism is not truly naturalistic and is on the contrary supernaturalistic or perhaps this is an erroneous limitation put upon what can genuinely be regarded as naturalism.

Stone believes it is mistaken and that the difference between broad and narrow naturalism is one of degree and not kind. How so? The organicist conception of nature held by the German Idealists may be less naturalistic than more narrowly naturalist views such as mechanistic materialism but this does not mean that the Idealist view desists from being naturalistic altogether and degenerates into supernaturalism. Her reasons? To understand naturalism as a cluster concept as Finn Spicer suggested with regard to contemporary philosophical naturalism, which is to say that naturalism has various strands so that any particular philosopher might incline towards naturalism along one or several strands of the cluster but not others.

Spicer includes the following strands, amongst others:

1. Rejection of the idea of first philosophy.

2. Belief that philosophy is continuous with the sciences.

3. Disbelief in supernatural entities/ processes.

4. Physicalism about the mind.

5. Opposition to non-naturalism about ethics/values.

6. Rejection of a priorism.

If a philosopher can incline towards naturalism along some strands of the cluster but not others then to what extent naturalistic or anti-naturalistic a philosophy is is not an absolute matter but one of degree, and some strands of the cluster may support one another so that they tend to occur together, but naturalism is also a matter of degree in that for each strand of the cluster naturalism that a philosophy manifest it will manifest that strand to greater or lesser degrees. For example one might uphold the continuity of science and philosophy in stronger and weaker forms hence rather than a sharp divide between naturalism and anti-naturalism there is a spectrum of more and less naturalistic positions with supernaturalism whatever that might be at one extreme and mechanistic materialism at the other and idealist forms of organicism around the centre so that their being less naturalistic than mechanistic materialism does not at once situate them at the extreme of supernaturalism.

A possible objection is that Idealists do not belong in the centre but are in actual fact quite a bit along towards the supernaturalistic end of the spectrum but in support of the view that German Idealist views of nature and in particular that of Hegel do belong in or at least near the centre of the spectrum there are two particular strands of the cluster naturalism to consider. To begin with is the question of where Hegel positioned himself with regard to a priorism and the continuity of philosophy and science in virtue of the fact that there has been a long-standing dispute concerning the place of a priori reasoning in his approach to nature, and then there is the issue of where Hegel positions himself on belief in supernatural entities and processes.

Stone’s position and this is most assuredly correct is that this view of nature while stretching more widely than mechanistic materialism in what it includes within nature nonetheless departs quite evidently from supernaturalism, sufficiently enough so to situate this view around the centre of the spectrum albeit it may be objected that if Hegel’s view of nature indeed belongs midway between the extremes of naturalism and anti-naturalism then that view may be categorised as broadly naturalist but might equally well be categorised as moderately anti- or supernaturalist but in answer to that as will be seen broad naturalism is the more accurate description.

Hegel, the a priori, and empirical science. In the introduction to the ‘Philosophy of Nature Hegel may appear to regard the philosophy of nature and empirical science as discontinuous as he maintains that to determine what the Philosophy of Nature is, it is best that we separate [abscheiden] it from the subject-matter against which it is determined [bestimmt] for all determining requires two terms. In the first place we find it in a peculiar relationship to natural science [Naturwissenschaft] in general, that is, to physics, natural history, physiology, it is itself physics, but rational physics. It is at this point in particular that we have to grasp it, and in particular to clarify its relationship to physics.

‘But, although, on the one hand, the mechanical point of view must be rejected quite decisively when it pretends to take the place of conceptually comprehensive cognition altogether, and to establish mechanism as the absolute category, still, on the other hand, we must also vindicate for mechanism the right and the significance of a universal logical category; and therefore we must not restrict it simply to that domain of nature from which it derives its name. So there is no reason for us to object when attention is drawn to mechanical actions outside of the domain of mechanics proper, especially in physics and physiology (e. g., actions like those of weight, the lever, and the like). But it must not be overlooked here that in these domains the laws of mechanism are no longer the decisive ones, but enter only in a subservient position, so to speak. Another remark that directly follows is that wherever in nature the higher functions suffer some kind of disturbance or check in their normal functioning (and especially the functions of the organism), the otherwise subordinated mechanism immediately advances to a dominating role. For example, someone who suffers from weakness of the stomach feels ‘pressure’ there after having eaten a small quantity of certain foods, whilst others, whose digestive organs are healthy, remain free of this feeling, even though they have eaten the same amount. It is the same with regard to a general feeling of ‘heaviness’ in the limbs in the case of bodily indisposition’.

‘Even in the domain of the spiritual world, mechanism has its place, though again it is only a subordinate one. It is quite right to speak of ‘mechanical’ memory, and of all manner of ‘mechanical’ activities, such as reading, writing, and playing music, for example. As for memory specifically, we may note, in this connection, that a mechanical mode of behaviour belongs even to its essence; this is a circumstance that is not infrequently overlooked by modem pedagogy in a mistaken zeal for the freedom of intelligence-something that has caused great harm to the education of youth. Nevertheless, anyone who has recourse to mechanics in order to explain the nature of memory and wants to apply its laws without further ado to the soul will thereby show himself to be a bad psychologist. The mechanical aspect of memory simply consists in the fact that certain signs, tones, etc., are here apprehended in their merely external combination and are then reproduced in this combination, without there being any need to draw attention expressly to their significance and inner association. To be cognizant of this aspect of mechanical memory requires no further study of mechanics, and the study of mechanics cannot advance psychology as such’.

- ‘Encyclopaedia Logic’.

‘Winter landscape’, 1943, Ernst Lindgren

It may appear as though Hegel thought that philosophy of nature and natural science which he frequently refers to as physics, Physik, approach nature using contrasting or even separate methods but he observes that their separation (Trennung) has taken place only in the early modern period and both methods co-existed in for example Aristotle’s ‘Physics’ and other works of pre-modern natural philosophy and he makes clear that both methods are primarily theoretical and not practical methods of studying nature. As for the question of what does separate them physics and natural history are regarded as the eminently empirical sciences and they profess to belong exclusively to perception [Wahrnehmung] and experience [Erfahrung] and in this way to be opposed [entgegengesetzt] to the philosophy of nature, the knowledge of nature by thought.

‘As the initial form of objectivity, mechanism is also the first category that presents itself to reflection when it considers the world of ob-jects, and it is the very one at which reflection most often halts. But this is a superficial, intellectually impoverished point of view, inadequate in regard to nature and still more so in regard to spirit. In nature only the wholly abstract relationships of a matter which is still not opened up within itself are subject to mechanism; in contrast, not even the phenomena and processes of the physical domain in the narrower sense of the word (such as the phenomena of light, heat, magnetism, and electricity, for instance) can be explained in a merely mechanical way (i. e., through pressure, collision, displacement of parts and the like). The transference and application of this category into the domain of organic nature is even more unsatisfactory, since the task there is to comprehend what is specific about that domain, in particular, the nutrition and growth of plants or even animal sensation. So we must in any case regard it as a very crucial defect of the modern inquiry into nature — indeed as the main defect-that it holds so stubbornly to the categories of mere mechanism even where quite different and higher categories are really involved. In doing this, it contradicts what offers itself to unprejudiced intuition, and bars the way to an adequate cognition of nature’. — ‘Encyclopaedia Logic’

However Hegel is not declaring physics and the natural sciences in general to be purely empirical yet he is pointing out that a lot of scientists and non-scientists consider them as such, that is to say, the scientific method was generally considered to consist in observation and experiment and in collating, comparing and tabulating data about what has been observed. Hegel objects however that ‘empirical physics has in it much more thought than it admits or knows’. In actual fact natural scientific inquiry is not purely empirical and does not remain with the collection of endless empirical facts but rather scientists draw general conclusions from their data generalising from repeated occurrences to universal laws and classifying particulars under natural kinds. And so: ‘Physics and the philosophy of nature therefore distinguish themselves [unterscheiden sich] not as perception and thought, but only by the kind and manner of their thought; they are both a thinking knowledge of nature’.]

Physics involves thought insofar as scientists move upwards from empirical observations to generalisations one supposes by induction and/or by inference to the laws that best explain the observed data hence physics is a theoretical and thinking observation of nature which aims at comprehending that which is universal [Allgemeinen] in nature, a universal which is also determined within itself as forces [Kräfte], laws [Gesetze] and genera [Gattungen].

‘What is now called physics, was formerly called natural philosophy. It is, what is more, a theoretical and thinking consideration of nature, and while on the one hand it does not concern itself with determinations such as these purposes, which are external to nature, on the other hand it does aim at comprehending that which is universal in nature as it presents itself in a determinate form, i.e. forces, laws, genera. Here the content is not a simple aggregate, but is distributed through orders and classes, and must be regarded as an organic whole. In that the philosophy of nature is a comprehending consideration, its object is the same universal; it is however the universal for itself, which it regards in its own immanent necessity, according to the self-determination of the Notion’.

‘The relationship of philosophy to what is empirical was discussed in the general introduction. It is not only that philosophy must accord with the experience nature gives rise to; in its formation and in its development, philosophic science presupposes and is conditioned by empirical physics. The procedure involved in the formation and preliminaries of a science is not the same as the science itself however, for in this latter case it is no longer experience, but rather the necessity of the Notion, which must emerge as the foundation. It has already been pointed out that in the procedure of philosophic cognition, the object has not only to be presented in its Notional determination, the empirical appearance corresponding to this determination also has to be specified, and it has to be shown that the appearance does in fact correspond to its Notion. This is not however an appeal to experience in regard to the necessity of the content, and an appeal to what has been called intuition, which was usually nothing more than a purveyance of random concepts by means of fanciful and even fantastic analogies, is even less admissable here. These analogies may have a certain value, but they can only impose determinations and schemata on the objects in an external manner.

- ‘Philosophy of Nature’

Hegel evidently accepts that the scientific method is to make observations then to generalise from them by induction and yet scientists never make pure observations that are not already informed by theory but rather scientists set out to make observations that will confirm or tell against particular theories and hypotheses and such theories inform and guide all the way how scientists perceive and classify what they observe, how they construct experiments, and hence what observations they obtain. Elsewhere Hegel agrees that theoretical understanding always precedes observation. In the chapter on ‘sense-certainty’ in his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel famously argues that sense-perception is always informed by categories of thought. In his Philosophy of Nature, then, Hegel should have said that science involves thought in that theories and theoretical categories always inform the observations that scientists make and the experiments they conduct. Nonetheless (he should have said), science remains empirical because it tests these theories and categories against observations and experimental results.

However exactly we characterize it it is the empirical dimension of science that distinguishes science from philosophy of nature and the distinction and this distinction may be understood as follows: while scientists identify and discuss universals within nature on an empirical basis philosophers of nature take each universal already identified and conceptualised by scientists and reconstruct on a priori grounds how each universal derives from the others and fits with them into an organised whole hence in its origin and formation (Entstehung and Bildung) philosophy of nature depends upon empirical scientific findings but its method is to reconstruct these findings on a new basis that of the necessity of the concept. The material prepared out of experience by physics is taken by the philosophy of nature at the point to which physics has brought it and reconstituted without any further reference to experience as the final justification [Bewrährung] hence physics must work into the hands of philosophy in order that the abstract universal [verständige Allgemeine] that it provides can be translated into the concept by demonstrating how the universal as an intrinsically necessary whole proceeds out of the concept.

‘The material prepared out of experience by physics, is taken by the philosophy of nature at the point to which physics has brought it, and re-constituted without any further reference to experience as the basis of verification. Physics must therefore work together with philosophy so that the universalized understanding which it provides may be translated into the Notion by showing how this universal, as an intrinsically necessary whole, proceeds out of the Notion. The philosophic manner of presentation is not arbitrary, it does not stand on its head for a while because it has got tired of using its legs, nor does it paint up its every-day face just for a change; the ways of physics are not adequate to the Notion, and for that reason advances have to be made’.

- ‘Philosophy of Nature’

At this a priori level philosophers reconstruct the complete set of connections amongst natural universals and by so doing apprehend nature as an organised and ordered whole and the Hegelian understanding of the distinction between physics and philosophy of nature is less sharp than it initially seemed for no sharp line is drawn between empirical and a priori approaches but rather scientific method has a more empirical element gathering observations and data and a mixed empirical-and-conceptual element in which general hypotheses and theories are formed. The method of philosophy of nature is both a priori and has a more empirical element in which the philosopher learns from scientists, learns both about observed data and about universals, laws, and so on, and the philosopher then reconstructs on a priori grounds the connections between these universals identified by scientists and to varying degrees reinterpreting the nature of those universals in the process and at times this leads the philosopher to reinterpret empirical data and to conceive them from a new perspective.

‘Winterlandschaft am Abend’, 1905, Desiré Thomassin

There is continuity between philosophy and science whereby philosophy of nature draws out, extends and realises the dimension of ordering thought that is already operative in empirical science and in the course of so doing philosophy of nature endows a new level of organisation onto scientific hypotheses and theories and hence elevates to an understanding of nature as an ordered whole and this is a continuation and extension and not a rejection, of the scientific programme of understanding nature upon an empirical basis.

‘The empirical view of nature has this category of universality in common with the philosophy of nature, but it oscillates between regarding it as subjective, and regarding it as objective, and one often hears that these classes and orders are only formulated for the convenience of cognition. This uncertainty is even more apparent when distinguishing features are looked for not because it is thought that they are the essential objective determinations of things, but because they are a convenient way for us to distinguish things. If there were nothing more to it than this, one could for example select the earlobe as a distinctive feature of humanity, for no animal has it. One feels immediately however that such a determination is inadequate to the cognition of the essential nature of man. If the universal is determined as law, force or matter however, it will not be asserted that this is an external form, a subjective trimming; objective reality is attributed to laws, forces are said to be immanent, and matter is taken to be the true nature of the fact. Something similar is also asserted of the genera, i.e. that they are not such a ranging together of that which is similar, an abstraction made by us, that they not only have something in common, but that they are the peculiar inner essence of objects themselves: what is more, that the orders are not merely our mental vision, but form a graduated scale in nature itself. The distinguishing features are claimed to be the universal, the substantial element of the genus. Physics regards these universals as its triumph, and it is unfortunately true to say that too much of its activity is concerned with such universalization. The current philosophy is called the philosophy of identity. It might be much more appropriate to apply this name to this kind of physics, which simply dispenses with determinateness. Contemporary electro-chemistry, in which magnetism electricity and chemism are regarded as one and the same thing, is a good example. It is a fault in physics that it should involve so much identity, for identity is the basic category of the understanding’.

- ‘Philosophy of Nature’

However this continuity is to be understood in a less narrowly naturalistic way than some other possible understandings as Hegel reorganises as well as reinterprets the natural forms identified by scientists in light of the metaphysics by which philosophy of nature distinguishes itself from (sich unterscheidet von) science.

‘The philosophy of nature distinguishes itself from physics on account of the metaphysical procedure it employs, for metaphysics is nothing but the range of universal thought-determinations, and is as it were the diamond-net into which we bring everything in order to make it intelligible. Every cultured consciousness has its metaphysics, its instinctive way of thinking. This is the absolute power within us, and we shall only master it if we make it the object of our knowledge. Philosophy in general, as philosophy, has different categories from those of ordinary consciousness. All cultural change reduces itself to a difference of categories. All revolutions, whether in the sciences or world history, occur merely because spirit has changed its categories in order to understand and examine what belongs to it, in order to possess and grasp itself in a truer, deeper, more intimate and unified manner. The inadequacy of the thought determinations used in physics may be traced to two very closely connected points. (a) The universal of physics is abstract or simply formal; its determination is not immanent within it, and does not pass over into particularity. (b) This is precisely the reason why its determinate content is external to the universal, and is therefore split up, dismembered, particularized, separated and lacking in any necessary connection within itself; why it is in fact merely finite. Take a flower for example. The understanding can note its particular qualities, and chemistry can break it down and analyse it. Its colour, the shape of its leaves, citric acid, volatile oil, carbon, hydrogen etc., can be distinguished; and we then say that the flower is made up of all these parts’.

- ‘Philosophy of Nature’

What is this metaphysics? Taking up the accounts of natural universals provided by science Hegel endeavours to demonstrate how each natural universal derives from another by resolving an internal contradiction within it or by advancing towards a resolution of that contradiction for philosophy of nature is rational physics hence heart of this distinguishing metaphysics is the notion that nature is rational and not merely that nature is susceptible of rational comprehension by us but that nature in itself conforms to rational norms insofar as it is so structured as to resolve a succession of internal contradictions within natural forms and such rational metaphysics simply makes explicit the presuppositions that scientists already make, often unwittingly insofar as scientific enquiry is conducted on the presupposition that nature is an organised and intelligible whole and not simply admitting of being organised by us but really having organisation in itself.

Hegel elaborates this presupposition of ordinary scientific consciousness in full and explicitly hence while his approach to the philosophy-science relation is less naturalistic than some other possible approaches his approach is not wholly non-naturalistic for he is not positing a complete discontinuity between philosophy and science and while he believes that its metaphysics distinguishes the philosophy of nature from science he also believes that this metaphysics does not rest upon a departure from science but on the contrary realises presuppositions that are already implicit in science all along, for philosophy of nature takes the assumptions about natural order that underlie science and develops those assumptions into what they always implicitly were and yet this in need of such assumptions being transformed out of their initial, implicit intra-scientific form and as such philosophy of nature and science are neither completely discontinuous nor completely continuous but somewhere between the two.

Or so Stone argues. I shall delve deeper into that in the article to follow.

‘Winter evening on the moors’, Franz Schreyer, (1858–1936)

Dedicated to my lovely One — — gravity pulls on you and me forever and ever in one loving orbit — that is the science that matters to me .. 🪐☀️

Baby It’s been a long time coming Such a long, long time And I can’t stop running Such a long, long time Can you hear my heart beating Can you hear that sound? ’Cause I can’t help thinking And I won’t stop now

And then I looked up at the sun and I could see Oh, the way that gravity pulls on you and me And then I looked up at the sky and saw the sun And the way that gravity pushes on everyone On everyone

Baby When your wheels stop turning And you feel let down And it seems like troubles Have come all around I can hear your heart beating I can hear that sound But I can’t help thinking And I won’t look now

And then I looked up at the sun and I could see Oh, the way that gravity pulls on you and me And then I looked up at the sky and saw the sun And the way that gravity pushes on everyone On everyone

On everyone

On everyone

On everyone

On everyone


Coldplay — ‘Gravity’:

Coming up next:

Supernatural nature.

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.