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

David Proud
56 min readNov 14, 2023

‘Song of a fisherman’

by Marie-Emilie Maryon de, Baronne de Prinzen, (1736–1812)


Not constancy,


Without perseverance,

That is my only pleasure,

I owe all my gaiety to it.

My state can offer the image

Of the wiles inspired by love;

And here, on the shore,

What I do by turns:

In the agitated or calm wave,

I cast my nets laughing,

And in my mobile basket,

With artful eye on the lookout.

First the fish flees the bait,

I see him without being irritated;

He runs, comes back, gets restless and loses his strength;

The bait is sure, he cannot avoid it.

In love, I foresee the same thing:

Beauty troubled by desire,

When nature wants her to love,

Struggles in vain against pleasure.


Yes, pleasure,

And not constancy,


Without perseverance,

That is my only pleasure;

I owe all my gaiety to it.

‘Chant d’un pêcheur’

Le plaisir,

Et non la constance,

Le désir

Sans persévérance,

Voilà ma seule volupté,

Je lui dois toute ma gaîté.

Mon état peut offrir l’image

Des ruses qu’inspire l’amour;

Et voici, sur le rivage,

Ce que je fais tour à tour:

Dans l’onde agitée ou tranquille,

Je jette en riant mes filets,

Et dans ma nacelle mobile,

Avec art j’ai l’oeil aux aguets.

D’abord le poisson fuit l’amorce,

Je le vois sans m’en irriter;

Il court, revient, s’agite et perd sa force;

L’appât est sûr, il ne peut l’éviter.

En amour, je prévois de même:

Beauté que trouble le désir,

Quand la nature veut qu’elle aime,

Lutte en vain contre le plaisir.

Le plaisir,

Oui, le plaisir,

Et non la constance,

Le désir

Sans persévérance,

Voilà ma seule volupté;

Je lui dois toute ma gaîté.

(Almanach des Muse, 1812)

‘Breton Girl with a Basket, Study for ‘En route pour la pêche’ and ‘Fishing for Oysters at Cancale’,’ 1877, John Singer Sargent

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, ‘Philosophy of Nature’. ‘Organics’.

Some further thoughts on what the Hegelian philosophy is not, to clear up some possible misunderstandings. The account of life presented in the ‘Science of Logic’ provides ways of thinking about organic phenomena still relevant and useful in our time yet the account is to be distinguished from the discussion of natural organisms in the ‘Philosophy of Nature’, for how is the latter to be philosophically assessed? Are some of the things that Hegel claims regarding organic phenomena suggestive of vitalism — the theory that the origin and phenomena of life are dependent on a force or principle distinct from purely chemical or physical forces, a discredited theory, — in that he believes investigating physical and chemical properties of organisms is irrelevant for understanding organic phenomena? I think not, assert as you may that particular assertions made by Hegel do rather suggest that he thought inorganic sciences to be of no relevance for understanding organic phenomena his central stance is that they are merely not sufficient for the full understanding of such phenomena and the multi-level structure of nature he presents us with directs us towards different properties of natural objects rather than to distinct domains of objects.


‘Physical events can be looked at in two ways: from the mechanistic and from the energic standpoint’.

- Carl Gustav Jung, (1875–1961), ‘On Psychic Energy’

The idea is that from the fact that the physical laws of energy do not account for the phenomena of life or how the living organism transforms energy the body’s impulses must also contain a psychic aspect otherwise it would be impossible for an image to be produced by them and to assign primacy to one or the other then becomes a value judgment the projection of a subjective bias by the observer yet most of natural science conceives physical processes to be primary, ‘unjustly, for it cannot be substantiated’ claimed Jung, this fact being consistent with how opposites work and the uncertainty of evaluating intuitions as they apply to subjective emotions. The causal view ‘conceives an event as the effect of a cause, in the sense that unchanging substances change their relations to one another according to fixed laws’ while from the energic standpoint ‘the event is traced back from effect to cause on the assumption that some kind of energy underlies the changes in phenomena … The flow of energy has a definite direction (goal) in that it follows the gradient of potential in a way that cannot be reversed … The concept, therefore, is founded not on the substances themselves but on their relations, whereas the moving substance itself is the basis of the mechanistic view’.

Well, I won’t go down that rabbit hole. Psychic energy? What is ‘energy’ in this context? Sticking with Hegel, the account of life in the ‘Science of Logic’ has sometimes been discussed while drawing upon materials from the ‘Philosophy of Nature’, by James Kreines for instance, but the distinction between the logical and the natural philosophical accounts of life are in need of clarification. There is a distinction to be drawn between the logical and the natural philosophical analyses of the concept of life, and read in a certain way some of what Hegel says about specifically organic phenomena appear to imply a denial of the sciences of the inorganic phenomena being capable of contributing towards our understanding of organic processes thereby espousing an unacceptable form of vitalism. There are some, Christian Spahn for instance, who have suggested that Hegel is sympathetic to vitalism upon such grounds as these, while Terry P. Pinkard, (1947 — ), has criticized Hegel for rejecting the relevance of mechanistic or chemical explanations of the organic. And Cinzia Ferrini places Hegel between reductionists and vitalists albeit she focuses upon the scientific context while not analyzing the relevant passages from Hegel.

I have taken pains before to explain how misguided it is to align Hegel with any particular camp never mind vitalism but I shall press on. Indubitably the inorganic sciences are important for understanding organic phenomena and were the Hegelian account to imply a denial of this that would be a problem and in particular it would diminish the philosophical relevance of his account of living organisms. And as everything hangs together in the system if I may so put it the account of life in the Logic should not be detached from the discussion of organisms in the ‘Philosophy of Nature’ because of misplaced concerns with regard to preserving its relevance. The philosophy of nature is an integral part of the philosophical system. .

Rather than presenting a vitalistic account of natural organisms Hegel affirms an anti-reductionist position whereby albeit it is possible to apply sciences of the inorganic to the study of organisms this would not suffice to understand what is specific about organic phenomena and what makes organisms what they are and this position is grounded in Hegel’s account of what it is to be a living individual in the Logic and of what it is to be a natural organism in the ‘Philosophy of Nature’. Albeit some of the assertions concerning the limitations of the sciences of the inorganic in application to organisms that Hegel puts forward may not bear up to close scrutiny such assertions need not intrude upon the principle position held in both the Logic and in the ‘Philosophy of Nature’. Nature has a structure that is articulated into several levels and the fact that both sciences of the inorganic and sciences of the organic can be applied to the study of organisms demonstrates that these levels of nature do not apply to anything resembling non-intersecting domains that as organisms belong to one such level, that discussed in the ‘Organic Physics’ section of the ‘Philosophy of Nature’, would implicate. Alison Stone who has featured previously in this series of articles suggests such a picture in her account of Hegel’s philosophy of nature albeit she would not ascribe a vitalistic position to Hegel.

On the contrary they demarcate sets of properties that a single object can have although only organisms have all of them as only they have organic properties such that we can abstract for instance from the characteristic properties of organisms and regard them as simply mechanical or physical objects though doing so precludes any understanding exactly that which makes organisms what they are. Alternative positions on the status of organic phenomena were developed in philosophy and natural science by the early nineteenth century, reductionism, vitalism (metaphysical and methodological), Kantian agnosticism, non-vitalist anti-reductionism, and I repeat -isms have nothing to do with Hegelian philosophy so passages in the ‘Philosophy of Nature’ suggesting a vitalist position have to be looked at again. Of particular relevance here is the Hegelian principle stance on life and how the the logical idea of life is realized in nature. The Hegelian stance involves only the claim that sciences of the inorganic are insufficient to understand the phenomena of life and not that they are entirely irrelevant to the task at hand.

‘Fishing for Oysters at Cancale’, 1878, John Singer Sargent

During the course of the eighteenth century it became progressively harder to account for the properties of organisms within the mechanistic framework that dominated sciences earlier and Immanuel Kant, (1724–1804), gives us an overview of such properties in the discussion in the second part of the ‘Critique of Judgment’ wherein he explicitly suggests that organisms present a challenge to any endeavour to deliver mechanical explanations for all phenomena. Kant identifies the self-reproducing features of organisms manifested in nourishment, growth, self-maintenance, and reproduction as that which occasions the introduction of his concept of Naturzweck (principle of order) and such features have presented all natural scientists and philosophers of the period with a problem and with alternative responses to it.

Reductionism espoused at the time by for instance Johann Christian Reil, (1759–1813), held that albeit organisms are more complex than inorganic substances they are nonetheless entirely explicable in terms of laws and principles which operate in inorganic nature. By contrast metaphysical vitalism espoused by a number of researchers from Georg Ernst Stahl, (1659–1734), to Marie François Xavier Bichat, (1771–1802), to the early Alexander von Humboldt, (1769–1859), held organisms to be inexplicable in these terms and thus radically diminished the relevance of inorganic sciences towards the understanding of organic phenomena. Typically vitalists of this sort postulated some special forces or drives that are only operative in organisms and not in the rest of nature. The Kantian position is similar to metaphysical vitalism in that according to this position we can never explain organisms insofar as they are organized using the ‘merely mechanical principles of nature’ and Kant declared that there may never ‘arise a Newton who could make comprehensible even the generation of a blade of grass according to natural laws that no intention has ordered’. But Kant limited this inability to the cognitive subjects like us with discursive understanding and remained agnostic as to whether the principles behind organisms and inorganic matter might coincide in the super-sensible substrate of nature or for subjects with different kinds of cognitive capacities.

‘Reason is tremendously concerned not to abandon the mechanism nature [employs) in its products, and not to pass over it in explaining them, since without mechanism we cannot gain insight into the nature of things. Even if it were granted that a supreme architect directly created the forms of nature as they have always been, or that he predetermined the ones that in the course of nature keep developing according to the same model, still none of this advances our cognition of nature in the least; for we do not know at all how that being acts, and what its ideas are that are supposed to contain the principles by which natural beings are possible, and [so I we cannot explain nature by starting from that being, i.e., by descending (in other words, a priori) [from that being to nature]. Or suppose we try to explain by ascending (in other words, a posteriori), i.e., we start from the forms of objects of experience because we think they display purposiveness, and then, to explain this purposiveness, we appeal to a cause that acts according to purposes: in that case our explanation would be quite tautologous and we would deceive reason with [mere I words-not to mention that with this kind of explanation we stray into the transcendent, where our cognition of nature cannot follow us and where reason is seduced to poetic raving, even though reason’s foremost vocation is to prevent precisely that’.

- ‘Critique of Judgement’

‘On the other hand, it is just as necessary a maxim of reason that it not pass over the principle of purposes in [dealing with] the products of nature. For though this principle does indeed not help us grasp how these products originate, yet it is a heuristic principle for investigating the particular laws of nature. It would serve for this even if we did not try, by searching beyond nature for the basis on which these products are possible. to use it to explain nature itself, but continued in the meantime to can these products natural purposes only, even though they plainly display the intentional unity [that characterizes] a purpose. But since the question of how these products are possible must be raised in the end, it is just as necessary for reason to think a special kind of causality that cannot be found in nature, as it is necessary for the mechanism of natural causes to have its own causality. For if we are to indicate a basis that makes those forms possible, then we need more than this mechanism, since matter can receive more and other forms than it can get through mechanism: we need in addition a cause that has spontaneity (which, as such, cannot be matter). Of course, before reason takes this step, it must proceed cautiously; it must not try to explain as teleological every technic of nature, i.e . every power of nature to produce [things) with a shape that manifests purposiveness for our mere apprehension (as in the case of bodies [of] regular [shape], but reason must continue meanwhile to regard such technic as possible by mere mechanism. But reason must not carry this attempt to ex.plain things in mechanical terms to the point of excluding the teleological principle, i.e., to the point of insisting on following mere mechanism even in cases where natural forms are purposive [or specially suitable] for rational investigation into how their causes make them possible and where this purposiveness manifests itself quite undeniably as a reference to a different kind of causality. For [going to the extreme of explaining everything only mechanically] must make reason fantasize and wander among chimeras of natural powers that are quite inconceivable, just as much as a merely teleological kind of explanation that takes no account whatever of the mechanism of nature made reason rave’.

- ‘Critique of Judgement’

Methodological vitalism is similar to the Kantian position in its practical consequences but unlike Kant it is provisional in its attitude and it does not make strong claims to the effect that organic phenomena can never be explained in accordance with laws and principles of inorganic nature by us but rather merely claims this impossibility at a given state of the development of science hence it may employ concepts like vital force or formative drive heuristically and endeavours to discern regularities in organic phenomena without attempting to reduce them to inorganic phenomena and their principles. Some scholars, (for instance James L. Larson ‘Vital Forces: Regulative Principles or Constitutive Agents? A Strategy in German Physiology’, 1979), have contended that many natural scientists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who employed vitalistic terminology were in fact only methodological vitalists albeit this thesis proved to be questionable in application to particular figures such as Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, (1752–1840).

And anti-reductionism concurs with metaphysical vitalism that the peculiar features of organisms are inexplicable by reference to inorganic laws and principles yet does not ground this inexplicability in sui generis vital forces or principles and in this view inorganic laws and principles do operate in organisms yet there are also holistic properties of organisms and of their interactions with their environments that are not reducible to the former and according to this position studying organic processes and interactions at for instance mechanical or chemical levels might be helpful but not sufficient for understanding what is special about them. Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, (1775–1854), articulated and defended such a position in his early writings on natural philosophy.

And the Hegelian stance? On occasion in his discussion of natural organisms in the ‘Philosophy of Nature’ Hegel puts forward views in need of defending by today’s lights and that seemingly but only seemingly commit him to something akin to metaphysical vitalism and in particular in his discussion of the assimilation process one can discover contentions that appear to reject the relevance of inorganic sciences for understanding organic processes altogether:

‘It is on this immediate transition and transformation that all chemical and mechanical explanations of the organism founder and find their limit. The precise reason for this is that their explanations are merely based on a datum which already possesses exterior equality. The truth is however, that both sides in their determinate being are completely free with regard to each other. Bread in itself for example, has no connection with the body, the chyle, or the blood, for it is something quite different. Try as they will, neither chemistry nor mechanics can trace empirically the transformation of the nutriment into blood. Chemistry certainly displays something similar in both of them; albumen perhaps, and certainly iron and suchlike, as well as oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen etc. It will certainly extract matters from the plant that are also present in water. Wood, blood and flesh do not remain the same thing as these matters however, because, quite simply, both sides are at the same time something else. Blood which has been broken down into such constituents is no longer living blood. It is quite impossible to trace similarity any further and to find continuity here, for the existing substance completely disappears. By decomposing a salt, I obtain again the two matters which had combined to form it; consequently, this combination accounts for the salt, and the matters within it have not become something else, but have remained the same. In organic being however, the existing substances are posited as becoming something else. However, as inorganic being is merely a moment which is sublated in the organic self, It comes into consideration not in accordance with its determinate being, but in accordance with its Notion. Yet in accordance with its Notion it is identical with organic being’.

- ‘Philosophy of Nature’

The transition and transformation referred to here is transformation or digestion of the materials that living organisms consume and although in this passage he concedes that one can analyze blood, flesh, wood, and other organic substances into their components chemically he appears to be saying that such procedures do not give us understanding of the organic substances analyzed, and furthermore he declares that the transformation that occurs in the assimilation process is not explicable either mechanically or chemically and elsewhere he makes claims to the effect that this organic transformation of the consumed materials occur or at least are able to occur in an immediate way without mediation by a chain of intermediate steps. More exactly his contention is that such an immediate transformation or infection of the inorganic into or by organic happens in plants, in contrast to animals, the physiology of the plant appears as necessarily more obscure than that of the animal body because it is simpler its assimilation passes through fewer intermediate steps, and transformation occurs as immediate infection.

‘Goethe’s ‘Metamorphosis of Plants’ marks the beginning of a rational conception of the nature of the plant, for it has forced attention away from a concern with mere details, to a recognition of the unity of a plant-life. In the category of metamorphosis, it is the identity of the organs which predominates. The other necessary aspect of this substantial unity is however the determinate differentiation and the special function of the members, by which the life-process is posited. The physiology of the plant is necessarily more obscure than that of the animal body, because it is simpler, its assimilation passes through fewer intermediaries, and change occurs as immediate infection. As in every natural and spiritual life-process, the crux of the matter in both assimilation and secretion, is the substantial change, i.e. the general immediate transformation of one external or particular material into another. A point occurs at which the tracing of this mediation as either a chemical or mechanical series of gradations breaks down and becomes impossible. This point is omnipresent and pervasive, and it is ignorance of this simple identification and of this simple diremption, or rather the failure to acknowledge them, which makes a physiology of living being an impossibility. Interesting particulars concerning the physiology of the plant are given in the work of my colleague Prof. C. H. 30 Schultz (‘The Nature of the Living Plant, or Plants and the Vegetable Kingdom’ 2 vols.). I mention this work in particular, because some of the special characteristics of the life-process of the plant mentioned in the following paragraphs are taken from it’.

- ‘Philosophy of Nature’

And further in the addition to the next section Hegel writes that this immediate infection is even something opposed to the merely chemical workings’

‘Finally, the other side of this is the process itself, the activity within the first determination of the plant, universal life. This is the formal process of simply immediate transformation, it is the infinite living power constituted by this infection. Living being is stable and determined in and for itsel£ By coming into conflict with it, external chemical influence is immediately transformed. Consequently, any undue encroachment by chemical action is immediately mastered by living being, which preserves itself through its contact with an other. It poisons and transforms this other in an immediate manner. It therefore resembles spirit, which transforms and appropriates that which it sees; for what it sees becomes its perception. In the plant, this process is also to be grasped in its two aspects, (a) as the absorbing action of the wood-fibres, and (b) as the action whereby the sap in the life-vessels acquires a vegetable nature. The absorption and the circulation of the vegetable and organically constituted sap, are the essential moments of the Notion, although there may also be variations in particular instances. The action of the vital sap has its principal seat in the leaf In the plant, each member does not have special functions, as it does in the animal however, and the leaf is just as absorbent as the root and the bark, since it already stands in a reciprocal relation to the air. As Link says (‘Supplements’ I p. 44), ‘One of the most important functions of leaves is to prepare the sap for the other parts.’ The foliage is the pure process of the plant, and 10 that is why Linnaeus suggests that the leaves might be referred to as its lungs’.

- ‘Philosophy of Nature’

‘A Fishing Party’, c.1730–1731, William Hogarth

Hegel apparently believes that assimilation of what is taken in by plants for instance of nutrients and water occurs not through chemical reactions that are subject to the same laws of chemistry as chemical reactions that occur in the rest of nature yet rather immediately merely via contact with organic matter and this appears to drastically separate the plant kingdom from inanimate nature in a manner characteristic of vitalism. With regard to animals Hegel recognises that their digestion happens through multiple intermediate steps in which various internal organs participate. Nevertheless, he also seems to think that these intermediate steps are not really needed for the assimilation of the inorganic materials as such.

When Hegel employs the term inorganic in this context he does not mean inorganic precisely speaking, but rather something like that which does not yet belong to the organization of the animal or plant in question hence he says although it is true that the animals and plants which an animal consumes are already organic they constitute in their relation to it the animal’s inorganic being.

‘Animal nature constitutes the universal facing the particular natures which have their truth and ideality within it, for it is the actuality of that which constitutes the implicitness of these figures. Similarly, as all men are implicitly rational, the man who appeals to their rational instinct has power over them, for what he reveals to them already corresponds to something in this instinct which is able to respond to the reason he makes explicit. The general public accepts what it comes across in an immediate manner, so that it exhibits rationality as a propagation and an infection; it is because of this that the former barrier or apparent separation disappears. This power of animality is the substantial relationship which constitutes the main factor in digestion. Consequently, if the animal organism is the substance, inorganic being is merely an accident, its specific nature being merely a form which it abandons immediately. ‘We know from experience therefore, that sugar, vegetable gums and oils, nourish bodies which contain little or no nitrogen, and that in spite of this, they are converted into an animal substance which contains a great deal of nitrogen. For entire populations are completely vegetarian, just as others eat nothing but meat. The lack of malnutrition among these vegetarians makes it evident however, that their bodies do not merely retain the minute amount of apparently animal matter which is present in the plants they consume, and reject everything else, but that they elaborate a great deal of this vegetable diet into a nutriment appropriate to their organs.’ Although it is true that the animals and plants which an animal consumes are already organic, they constitute, in their relation to it, the animal’s inorganic being. Such a particular and external being has no subsistence of its own, for it is a nullity as soon as it is touched by living being’.

- ‘Philosophy of Nature’

The articulation into these intermediate steps is simply the consequence of the complex organization of the animal itself and not a necessary presupposition for assimilation of the materials taken in. If organic being as purpose does gradually bring inorganic being into identity with itself by means of the particular moments then these extensive digestive preparations by means of various organs are certainly superfluous for inorganic being and the course of organic being within itself still takes place however, in order that organic being itself may constitute movement, and so have actuality.

‘This is evident in organic assimilation. The nutriment which enters into the sphere of organic life is steeped in this fluid, and changes into this solution. Just as a certain thing becomes odour, something dissolved, a simple atmosphere, so here it becomes a simple organic fluid, in which nothing more of it or its constituents is to be discovered. This organic fluid, which persists in its self-equality, is the igneous essence of inorganic being, which here returns immediately, into its Notion; for inorganic things are turned into their implicit being by means of eating and drinking. Organic being is the unconscious Notion of inorganic things, and they are sublated into it because they constitute its implicit nature. This transition also has to exhibit itself as a mediated process, and display the members of its opposition. The basis of it is however, that as organic being is the genus as a simple self, and so holds sway over inorganic being, it draws inorganic being into its organic matter in an immediate manner. If organic being, as purpose, does gradually bring inorganic being into identity with itself by means of the particular moments of this immediacy, then these extensive digestive preparations by means of various organs are certainly superfluous for inorganic being. The course of organic being within itself still takes place however, in order that organic being itself may constitute movement, and so have actuality. It is the same with spirit, the strength of which is measured by the extent of the opposition it has overcome. Nevertheless, the basic relationship of the organism is this simple contact, in which there is an immediate and instantaneous transformation of the other’.

- ‘Philosophy of Nature’

reover, Hegel says that, even in animals, the “immediate infection” that he was talking about in his discussion of plants takes place and is an essential moment of the assimilation process:

‘The main moment in digestion is the immediate action of life as the power over its inorganic object. Life presupposes this object as its stimulus only in so far as it is implicitly identical with it, although at the same time it is its ideality and being-for-self. This action is infection and immediate transformation; it corresponds to the immediate seizure of the object pointed out in the exposition of purposive activity (§ 208). The researches of Spallanzani and others, as well as more recent physiology, have also demonstrated the immediacy with which living being as a universal, employing no other means than simple contact and the taking up of nutriment into its heat and its own sphere in general, maintains its continuity within this nutriment. These researches have been carried out empirically, and have shown that the facts are in accordance with the Notion. They have exploded the fiction that digestion functions as a purely mechanical secretion and excretion of2 parts which are ready for use, or as a chemical process. However, research on the intermediary actions has not revealed any more determinate moments of this transformation, as it has for example in vegetable matters, where a series of fermentations has been discovered. On the contrary, it has been shown for example, that a great deal of nutriment passes straight from the stomach into the mass of gastric juices without having passed through the further intermediary stages, and that the pancreatic juice is nothing more than saliva, so that it might3 well be dispensed with etc. The final product is the chyle, which is taken up by the thoracic duct and discharged into the blood. It is the same lymph as that which is secreted by each separate intestine and organ, which is appropriated everywhere by the skin and the lymphatic system in the immediate process of transformation, and which is already prepared wherever it is appropriated. Certain lower animal organizations, which are however nothing more than a simple alimentary canal, or lymph curdled into a point or tube, do not progress beyond this immediate transformation. In the higher animal organizations, the special product of the mediated digestive process is just as superfluous as the plant’s production of seeds by means of their so-called sexual differentiation. In faeces, the greater part of the food is usually unchanged, and mixed mainly with animal matters such as bile and phosphorus etc. This is particularly so in the faeces of children, who assimilate comparatively more matter than other people; which shows that the main action of the organism consists of its overcoming and ridding itself of its own products. Consequently, the syllogism of the organism is not that of external purposiveness, for it does not stop at directing its activity and form towards the outer object, but makes an object out of this process itself, which on account of its externality, is on the point of lapsing into mechanism and chemism. This behaviour was expounded as the second premiss of the universal syllogism of purposiveness (§ 209). The organism is the coalescence of itself with itself in its outward process. It wins and takes over from this process nothing but chyle, which is its universal animalization. Consequently, as the being-for-self of the living Notion, it is to an equal extent a disjunctive activity which rids itself of this process, separates itself from the one-sided subjectivity of its hostility towards the object, and so becomes explicitly what it is implicitly. It therefore becomes the non-neutral identity of its Notion and its reality, and so finds the end and product of its activity to be the already established beginning and origin of its being. It is thus that satisfaction conforms to reason; the process which enters into external differentiation turns into the process of the organism with itself, and the result is not the mere production of a means, but the bringing forth of an end, the unity of the self’.

- ‘Philosophy of Nature’

In the acceptance of this immediate transformation of foodstuffs and other materials taken in from outside justification for it resides in the results of the recent scientific research albeit they were actually somewhat outdated by the time of composition of Hegel’s Encyclopedia, as Lazzaro Spallanzani’s, (1729–1799), work he is referring to was published in 1780. The object of Spallanzani’ s experiments was to discover whether digestion was brought about by solvent juices, by triturations effected through the muscles of the stomach, or by both means and in order to settle the matter he administered food in metal tubes or spherical containers, to turkeys, ducks, chickens and so on (no animals were harmed in the experiments, I hope), and these tubes and containers were latticed or perforated in order that the gastric juice could reach the food. As the grain was never digested but merely became sourer he concluded that digestion is brought about by the intense pressing and pushing of the inner walls of the stomach. In these experiments the hardest things such as metal tubes and glass containers, and even sharp and jagged objects, were ground by the stomachs of these animals (ok so thy were harmed) hence it was thought that the trituration (the process used to purify crude chemical compounds containing solid impurities) of the food was helped on by the numerous tiny stones sometimes as many as two hundred frequently to be found in the stomachs of such animals. In order to refute this hypothesis Spallanzani took young pigeons which could not yet have swallowed any stones from their parents’ beaks, made certain that they obtained none with their food, and cooped them up to prevent them from finding any. Although these birds had no stones they were also able to digest. ‘I began to mix hard objects into their food, some iron tubes, some glass beads, some small fragments of glass; yet although not a single tiny stone had been found in the stomachs of these pigeons, the metal tubes were ground (froisses), and the beads and fragments of glass were broken up and worn down (emousses), without leaving the slightest trace of injury on the walls of the stomach.’

I digress, such points in addition to Hegel’s assertion to the effect that the motion of blood in the organism is not explicable mechanically may suggest to the uninitiated a closeness to vitalism. As absolute movement, and the natural living self, the process itself, the blood is movement, not something that is moved and all these mechanical explanations offered by physiologists are inadequate.

‘The concentration of this internal differentiation into a single system, is the heart, which is the vital muscular principle. This system is connected throughout with reproduction. There are no nerves to be found in the heart, for it is the pure vitality of centralized irritability, the pulsating muscle. As absolute movement, and the natural living unity of the process itself, the blood is movement, it is not moved. Physiologists search for all kinds of forces to explain its movement. ‘The cardiac muscle first thrusts the blood outwards, and then the walls of the arteries and veins and the pressure of the firm parts help to drive it. It is true that the impulse in the heart no longer operates in the veins, so that the effect there must be produced solely by pressure from the walls of the veins.’ All these mechanical explanations offered by physiologists are inadequate however, for they cannot explain the origin of this elastic pressure of the walls and the heart. They tell us that it comes, ‘From the irritation of the blood,’ which implies that the heart moves the blood, and that the motion of the blood in its turn motivates the heart. This is a circle, a perpetuum mobile however, and because of the equilibrium between its forces, it must at the same time remain immobile. This is precisely why it is rather the blood itself which constitutes the principle of movement. The blood is the leaping point through which the contraction of the arteries coincides with the relaxation of the ventricle of the heart. There is nothing incomprehensible or unknown about the autonomy of this movement, unless ‘comprehension’ is taken to mean that some extraneous cause is to be shown as working upon it. This ‘extraneous cause’ is only an external necessity however, and is therefore not a necessity at all. The cause itself is something distinct, and the cause of this same thing still has to be looked for, so that there is a perpetual progression to something else. This leads to the spurious infinity, the inability to think and conceive of the universal as the ground and simplicity which is the unity of opposites, and which is therefore immovable and yet moved. The blood is this unity, it is the subject which is just as much the initiation of a movement as the will is. In that it constitutes the whole movement, the blood is the ground as well as the movement itself. It is precisely as such, that it separates from itself into a single moment however, for it distinguishes itself from itself. The movement here is precisely this self-separation, by which it constitutes the subject or thing, and the sublation of this separation as the inclusion of itself with that opposed to it. However, it is precisely because the opposite constitutes the implicit sublation of itself, and brings about the return from its own side, that the movement appears as a part and result. It is in this way that the living and animating force of the blood proceeds from shape, but its interior movement also requires the outer movement, which is strictly mechanical. It moves, and holds the parts in their negative qualitative difference, but it cannot dispense with the simple negative principle of external movement. Thus, an invalid who has been inactive for a long time, on account of amputations for example, develops anchylosis; there is a diminution in the amount of synovia, his cartilages ossify, and his muscles become flabby through lack of external movement’.

- ‘Philosophy of Nature’

But we must look at his overall position with regard to natural organisms.

Logical and natural life. The ‘Subjective Logic’ which is the third part of the ‘Science of Logic’ we are given an account of different structures of object in particular of the mechanical object, of the chemical object, of the living individual, and of the cognitive and practical agent. The embodiments of such structures are subsequently discussed and further specified in Hegel’s Realphilosophie. The logical idea of life is constituted by three processes, that of the living individual, the living process, and Gattungprozess, or the process of the kind, and Hegel develops these moments of the logical idea without depending upon any empirical material from biology albeit some for instance John McTaggart have disputed this.

The process of the living individual is itself constituted by two drives, the drive for differentiation and the drive to integrate the diverse or, as Hegel explains ‘the specific drive of the particular difference, and … the one universal drive of the specific, which brings this specification back into unity and preserves it there’. (Gesammelte Werke). Similarly to Kant’s Naturzweck Hegel’s living individual is a purposive unity in which every member is both a means and an end for every other member, and further Hegel distinguishes the moments of sensibility, irritability, and reproduction, that correspond to the moments of universality, particularity, and singularity of the living individual. In the discussion of sensibility he oserves that any determination imposed on the living individual from outside gets integrated into its unity because of the unifying drive that partially constitutes the living individual. Irritability corresponds to the ability of the living individual to act upon external material and reproduction corresponds to the integration of that material into the living individual again due to its unifying drive. The relation between the living individual and that which is external to it is expatiated upon in the discussion of living process in the Logic whereby both the action of an external object upon the living individual and the outward activity of the living individual are considered and the significant point regarding the first is closely related to what is said about sensibility since the living individual absorbs and integrates the effects of external objects upon it it is not simply causally determined by them rather it responds to their action in accordance with its own nature:

‘Insofar as the object is at first an indifferent externality with respect to the living, it can act on it mechanically; but in this way it acts on it not as on something living; insofar as it relates itself to the living, it acts not as a cause, but rather the object excites it. Since the living is drive, the externality comes to and into it only insofar as it already in and for itself is in it’.

- Gesammelte Werke

With regard to the outward activity of the living individual since the non-living objects are indifferent to their determinations they do not have the power to resist the activity of the living and to preserve themselves against this activity. For instance for the mechanical object it is of no matter which particular determinations it has and because of this there are no mechanical factors which work specifically against the activity of the living individual. the latter is capable of imposing determinations appropriate to it on mechanical objects, albeit its interactions with the latter are constrained by mechanical laws and similar considerations apply with the respective differences having been considered to the interactions of the living individual with chemical objects and in the context of the Logic both mechanism and chemism have to be understood as logical structures and not as the subject matter of the sciences of mechanics and chemistry.

The living individual has the capability of transforming what is external to it in its own image.

The third moment of the logical idea of life is Gattungprozess and while at the logical level the concern is not with anything as specific as sexual propagation it is evident that a distinction is made of the relationship between two individuals of the same kind from the relationship between the living individual and objects that are indifferent to it. Although we certainly get more details in the ‘Philosophy of Nature’, in the Logic it is evident that the relationship between two individuals of the same kind must be something different from imposing one’s own image onto external objects at the very least because now the other with which a living individual stands in the relationship already has that image.

Natural organisms are embodiments of the idea of life hence they are constituted by the natural-philosophical specifications of the logical processes discussed above which is to say by the process of formation of individual bodies (Gestaltungsprozess), the process of assimilation, and the process of the kind. The first process is that of forming the body of a determinate structure and shape that is determined by its kind or species, the latter plays the role similar to that of Aristotelian form, indeed Hegel employs Aristotelian language, living being is also the shape which has substantial form dwelling within it and this form is not only determinative on account of the spatial relationships of the separate parts, but is also the productive restlessness which determines the process of physical properties in order to bring forth shape (cf the relation of Gattung to organic life, Hegel employs the concept of Gattung in somewhat different ways in different contexts).

‘The geological organism is devoid of ideality, for it is the bare system of shape. The subjectivity of plant-life now exhibits thiss ideality however. As the ideality which is present in all its members, life is essentially living being however, and this living being is merely stimulated from without. Consequently, the causal relationship falls away here, for in life in general, all the determinations of the understanding cease to be valid. The nature of these categories has to be perverted if they are still to be employed here. Then it can be said that living being is its own cause. To assert the sublime proposition that, ‘Everything lives in nature,’ is supposed to be speculative. The Notion of life, or life in itself, is of course everywhere; it is to be clearly distinguished from real life however, which is the subjectivity of living being, in which each part has a vitalized existence. It is only as a whole that the geological organism is alive therefore, not in its singularity. Its animation is merely implicit, and does not have the presence of existence. Living being also differentiates itself into subjective and inanimate being however. On the one hand it constitutes the prerequisite of its being framed within the individual, by expressing itself in lignification and bones, as is the case with the geological organism as a whole. On the other hand, living being is also the shape which has substantial form dwelling within it. This form is not only determinative on account of the spatial relationships of the separate parts, but is also the productive restlessness which determines the process of physical properties in order to bring forth shape’.

- ‘The Philosophy of Nature’

‘Two Women Fishing’, Daniel Ridgway Knight, (1839–1924)

This process diverges with regard to the potency of its constituent drives of differentiation and integration in animals and plants in addition to that between different animals and as in the Logic also considered here are the moments of sensibility, irritability, and reproduction, that are identified with different systems within the organism, plants and lower animals might not have dedicated systems for all these moments, that is due to their generally lower degree of differentiation. Also as in the Logic yet more concretely natural organisms are considered as functionally integrated purposive wholes albeit unlike in the Logic and in opposition to Kant Hegel denies that everything in natural organisms must be purposive.

‘But although there is a basic and universal type, which nature puts into effect in animals in such a way, that this effecting is in conformity with particularity, everything occurring within an animal must not be thought of as having a purpose. In many animals, there are rudiments of organs which belong only to the universal type, not to the particularity of these creatures, and which have not yet developed, because they are not needed by the animal’s particularity. What is more, they can be understood only by means of higher organisms, not by means of these lower organisms. For example, Reptiles, Snakes and Fish will be found to have the rudiments of feet, which are quite superfluous; similarly, the Whale has teeth which are not developed, and which, as they are merely rudimentary and hidden in its jaw-bones, serve no purpose. On the other hand, man has many features which are only necessary in lower animals; he has in his neck the so-called thyroid gland for example, the function of which, as it is actually obliterated and defunct, cannot be discovered; in the pre-natal foetus however, and still more in inferior species of animals, this gland is an active organ’.

- ‘Philosophy of Nature’

Nonetheless the results of the contemporary science in particular those delivered by comparative anatomy provided sufficient empirical confirmation to this concept of the integrated functional whole. At one stage Hegel talks of the habitus as a correspondence of various organs of an animal and refers to Jean Léopold Nicolas Frédéric, Baron Cuvier, (1769–1832), to substantiate this empirically.

‘Thoughtful observation of nature, primarily by French naturalists, has led to the division of plants into monocotyledons and dicotyledons, and in the animal world, to the cogent distinction based upon the absence or presence of vertebrae. By means of this distinction, the fundamental classification of animals has, in its essentials, been led back to that which had already been observed by Aristotle.-What is more, particular importance has been attached to the habit of the individual forms, which has been regarded as a coherence determining the construction of every part; this has enabled Cuvier, the illustrious founder of comparative anatomy, to boast that from a single bone, he could make out the essential nature of the entire animal. In addition to this, the general type of the animal has been traced in its barest initial indication, as well as in the various formations, which appear in an extremely imperfect and disparate manner; it has also been possible to grasp the significance of the interrelated organs and functions. It is precisely by means of this that the general type of the animal has been lifted out of particularity, and raised into its universality.-An important aspect of this approach is the recognition of the way in which nature shapes and adapts this organism to the particular element in which it places it, to climate, to a range of nutrition, and in general, to the environment which it finds about it. This environment can also be a particular genus of plants or another genus of animals (see § 361 Add.). For the determination of the species however, the distinguishing characteristics have, by a happy intuition, been selected from the animal’s weapons, i.e. its teeth and claws etc. This is valuable, because it is by its weapons that the animal, in distinguishing itself from others, establishes and preserves itself as a being-for-self’.

- ‘Philosophy of Nature’

Hegel’s thoughts regarding the clitoris are especially illuminating with regard to everything in nature having a purpose, or not (female pleasure for the sake of pleasure doesn’t count as purpose apparently).

‘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 sensibili ty, 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 second moment of organic life the process of assimilation accounts for the ability of living organisms to take in the materials from the outside and to assimilate them and it is especially the discussion of this process that gave occasion to most of Hegel’s claims that raise objections of vitalism so we need to look at this process more closely, just as it was with the process of formation the particularities of assimilation depend upon the species to which the organism belongs, the organism selects the matter to assimilate in accordance with its specific needs and then assimilates the matter it takes in into its own organic materials, both the latter and the needs of the organism being determined by its species:

‘The drive is completely determinate in particular animals; each animal has as its own only a restricted range of inorganic nature, which is its own domain, and which it must seek out by instinct from its complex environment. The mere sight of the object does not arouse the lion’s desire for a deer, nor the eagle’s desire for a hare, nor the desire of other animals for corn, rice, grass, oats etc. Yet these animals have no choice, for the drive is immanent in such a way, that this specific determinateness of the grass, and indeed of this grass, and this corn etc., is present in the animal itself, and it is simply unconscious of the presence of anything else. As the universal thinking animal, man has a widely extended range, and can treat everything as his inorganic nature, and as the object of his knowledge. Undeveloped animals have only an elemental principle such 20 as water as their inorganic nature. Lilies, willows and fig trees have their own particular insects, whose inorganic nature is entirely restricted to such growth. The animal can be stimulated only by means of its inorganic nature, because for the animal, the only opposite is its own. The animal does not recognize the other in general, for each animal recognizes its own other, which is precisely an essential moment of the special nature of each’.

- ‘Philosophy of Nature’

Only those things in the world that correspond to the nature of the animal itself work as a stimulus for it so that the rest of nature is not even there for the animal. Vittorio Hösle has discussed the parallels between these ideas of Hegel and the idea of Umwelt developed by Jakob von Uexküll as well as the related considerations of Helmuth Plessner. What counts as a stimulus for the organism depends on the nature of that organism and that nature is determined by its species and since the organism reproduces itself in the process of assimilation it demonstrates itself as the product of itself or as mediated by this process and not as something immediate as it was initially considered to be in the process of formation.

‘Through the process with external nature, the animal as a single individual endows its self-certainty or subjective Notion with truth and objectivity. Consequently, this production of itself is a self-preservation or reproduction} although as subjectivity has become a product, its immediacy is at the same time implicitly sublated. Linked up with itself in this way, the Notion is determined as the concrete universal or genus, which enters into a relationship and a process with the singularity of subjectivity’.

- ‘Philosophy of Nature’

Hence the relation of the organism to its environment mediates its relation to itself leading to the thought that something identical to the organism as far as its Gattung or kind is concerned can also be encountered in its environment and hence Hegel makes the transition to the third moment of organic life, the Gattungprozess, the third relationship which is the union of the first two, is the generic process [Gattungprozess] in which the animal relates itself to itself by relating itself to one of its kind.

‘At this juncture, the significance of the appeased appetite is not that the individual brings itself forth as this particular being, but that it brings itself forth as a universal, as a ground of individuality, for which it is merely form. The determinate appetite is therefore the universal which has returned to itself, and which contains individuality in an immediate manner. The theoretical return (of sense) into itself, only brings forth a general deficiency, while through the return of individuality into itself, the deficiency produced is positive. The deficient being is completed by itself, it is a dual individual. Initially, the animal is restricted to itself; secondly, it brings itself forth at the expense of inorganic nature, by assimilating it. The third relationship, which is the union of the first two, is the generic process, in which the animal relates itself to itself by relating itself to one of its kind. As in the first process, it relates itself to a living being, and as in the second process, it relates itself at the same time to a being which it finds before it’.

- ‘Philosophy of Nature’

This formulation echoes Kant’s first example with the tree:

‘I would say, provisionally, that a thing exists as a natural purpose if it is both cause and effect of itself (although of itself in two different senses). For this involves a causality which is such that we cannot connect it with the mere concept of a nature without regarding nature as acting from a purpose; and even then, though we can think this causality, we cannot grasp it. Before we analyze this idea of a natural purpose in full, let me elucidate its meaning by the example of a tree. In the first place, a tree generates another tree according to a familiar natural law. But the tree it produces is of the same species [Gattung]. Hence with regard to its species the tree produces itself: within its species, it is both cause and effect, both generating itself and being generated by itself ceaselessly, thus preserving itself as a species. Second, a tree also produces itself as an individual. It is true that this sort of causation is called merely growth; but this growth must be understood in a sense that distinguishes it completely from any increase in size according to mechanical laws: it must be considered to be equivalent to generation, though called by another name. [For] the matter that the tree assimilates is first processed by it until the matter has the quality peculiar to the species, a quality that the natural mechanism outside the plant cannot supply, and the tree continues to develop itself by means of a material that in its composition is the tree’s own product. For though in terms of the ingredients that the tree receives from nature outside it we have to consider it to be only an educt, still the separation and recombination of this raw material show that these natural beings have a separating and forming ability of very great originality; all our art finds itself infinitely outdistanced if it tries to reconstruct those products of the vegetable kingdom from the elements we obtain by dissecting them, or for that matter from the material that nature supplies for their nourishment. Third, part of the tree also produces itself inasmuch as there is a mutual dependence between the preservation of one part and that of the others. If an eye is taken from the leaf of one tree and set into the branch of another, it produces in the alien stock a plant of its own species, and so does a scion grafted onto the trunk of another tree. Hence even in one and the same tree we may regard each branch or leaf as merely set into or grafted onto it, and hence as an independent tree that only attaches itself to another one and nourishes itself parasitically. The leaves, too, though produced by the tree, also sustain it in turn; for repeated defoliation would kill it, and its growth depends on their effect on the trunk. There are other examples that I shall mention only in passing, even though they are among the most marvelous properties of organized creatures: if such beings are injured, nature aids itself, and the loss of a part that was needed to sustain [erhalten] adjoining ones is made up by the rest; if birth defects occur, or deformities come about during growth, certain parts, on account of their deficiencies or impediments, form in an entirely new way so as to preserve [erhalten] what is there, and so produce an anomalous creature’.

- ‘Philosophy of Nature’

Hegel’s discussion of the Gattungprozess incorporates discussions of the taxonomy of living organisms, their propagation, in addition to the necessary inadequacy of individual organisms with respect to their kind which manifests in disease and, ultimately, death of those individual organisms. The term Gattung assumes divergent roles, sometimes for instance in the discussion of sexual propagation it appears to refer to the biological species and sometimes as in the discussion of taxonomy it clearly refers to larger taxonomic groups. What is important is that the species determines the specific way in which the organism is functionally integrated and the particular ways in which it interacts with its environment.

Vitalism and reductionism. The properties discussed above belong to natural organisms insofar as they are organisms and hence are something higher than what belongs to matter considered as merely mechanical or chemical but the organisms possess these latter also. The question arises as to how we ought to conceive the relationship between the properly organic and the mechanical or chemical features that natural organisms possess in Hegel’s system. Generally speaking in Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Nature’ considering objects only insofar as they have certain properties that are situated lower in the Hegelian hierarchy that proceeds from the mechanical properties through various physical and chemical properties to the organic properties discussed above means regarding them in an abstract manner apart from their higher-level properties that are not reducible to the lower-level properties and are not explicable in their terms.

For inorganic bodies this means that for instance their electrical, magnetic, or chemical properties are neither reducible to nor fully explicable in terms of mechanical properties hence the mechanicist approach is insufficient even for the study of inorganic bodies and for organic bodies this means that their functional integrity, their specific ways of interacting with their environment, and their propagation are neither reducible to nor fully explicable in terms of the properties which they share with inorganic bodies and this demonstrates that a study of organisms that focuses upon their lower-level properties is not fully irrelevant for understanding them rather such a study is not sufficient for the full understanding of them. This is the doctrine and not metaphysical vitalism lying behind Hegel’s assertions regarding the limitations of mechanical, physical, and chemical research into organic phenomena and other claims seemingly less defensible are taken by Hegel from the scientific literature of his time.

‘The main difficulty ‘one encounters in grasping the meteorological process comes from confusing physical elements with individual bodies. The first are abstract determinatenesses, for they are still lacking in subjectivity, and what is true of them, is therefore not yet true of subjectivized matter. The natural sciences fall into the~ greatest confusion when these differences are overlooked. The attempt is made to put everything on the same level. Everything can of course be treated from a chemical point of view, but everything can also be treated from a mechanical point of view, or as electricity. When bodies are treated at one stage, this does not exhaust the nature of other bodies however, as for example when vegetable or animal bodies are treated chemically. This division, by which each body is treated according to its particular sphere, is essential. The appearance of air and water in their free elemental connection with the Earth at large, is quite different from what it is when they are submitted to the conditions of a completely different sphere. In a parallel situation, one might wish to observe the human spirit, and to this end one might bring customs officers or sailors under observation; one would then encounter the spirit in its submission to finite conditions and precepts which would not exhaust the nature of it. Water is expected to reveal its nature in the retort, and to display no further characteristics in its free connections. The attempt is usually made to demonstrate the universal appearances of physical objects, such as water, air, and heat. ‘What are they? What do they do ?’ are the questions that are asked. It is not thought determinations, but the modes of material existence that are expected to constitute this ‘what’. Existent material forms have two sides, for they are air, water and heat, conjoined into another object. Phenomenal appearance is the result of both these aspects. The other object with which air and water etc. combine, is always a particular, so that the effect also depends upon the nature of this particularity. This is why the fact may not be ascertained in universal appearance, but only in relation to particular objects. If one enquires as to the effect of heat, the answer is that it should cause expansion; but it also causes contraction. It is impossible to mention any universal appearance to which no exceptions might be found; some bodies give rise to one result, and others to another. The other appearances of air and fire etc. are therefore of no significance in the determination of the present sphere. The appearances of finite individual relationships are taken as a basic universal, and then used to explain the free meteorological process; … Lightning, for instance, is supposed to be no more than the flash of an electrical discharge produced by friction in the clouds. Yet there is no glass, sealing-wax, resin, rubber, or rotation etc. in the sky. Electricity is the scapegoat which has to be released everywhere; it is well known however that electricity is completely dispersed by moisture, and that lightning occurs in air impregnated with humidity. Assertions of this kind transfer finite conditions into the free life of nature, particularly when living matter is under consideration, and a sensible person will not be taken in by such explanations’.

- ‘Philosophy of Nature’

‘Girl In Blue’, Henry Meynell Rheam, (1859–1920)

We can certainly study organisms chemically or mechanically Hegel’s point is that if we do merely that we overlook significant aspects of them, we do not exhaust, in the discussions of the assimilation process for instance Hegel observes that we can analyze organic processes characteristic for organic bodies chemically but if we do only that we fail to see significant aspects of these processes and bodies, and the most vital aspect of the assimilation process is not the chemical transformations of the substances as such rather the significant thing is that these substances become integrated into the unified processes characteristic of the organism, or, as Hegel puts it:

‘The process begins with the mechanical seizure of the external object. Assimilation itself is the enveloping of the externality within the unity of the subject. Since the animal is a subject, a simple negativity, the nature of this assimilation can be neither mechanical nor chemical, for in these processes, the substances, as well as the conditions and the activity, remain external to one another, and lack an absolute and living unity’.

- ‘Philosophy of Nature’

This unity of the subject or absolute and living unity is the unity of the living organism that is especially characteristic of higher animals but to some extent shows itself in plants and lower animals as well and the principle point here is that once we focus simply upon the level of individual chemical processes we lose sight of the larger context in which we can see that the transformed materials start playing certain functions within the organism, become purposive for its organs and systems, in brief get integrated into the organism and similarly when Hegel asserts that the function of blood cannot be explained purely chemically, for instance, as a carrier of oxygen the main point is that an explanation in such terms alone ignores the function of blood in the context of the organism as a whole, in its preservation.

‘The respiratory process is continuity displaying its interruptedness. Exhalation and inhalation bring about a vaporization of the blood, and so constitute the vaporization of irritability (§ 354 Add. III. 124, 18); the transition into air is started and retracted. ‘Mud fish (Cobitis fossilis) inhale through the mouth, and eject the air through the anus.’ Fish decompose the water by means of their gills, which are also a secondary respiratory organ analogous to the lungs. The tracheae of insects are distributed throughout the whole body, and have orifices on both sides of the venter. Some underwater insects collect a supply of air, and keep it under their elytra, or in the pubescence of the abdomen. Now why does the blood relate itself to the ideal nature of this digestion of the abstract element? It relates itself because it is this absolute thirst, and is in an incessant agitation, both within itself and in opposition to itself. The blood is motivated towards the differentiation of animation. More exactly, this digestion is at the same time a mediated process with the air; that is to say, it is a conversion of air into carbon dioxide and dark carbonated venous blood, and into oxygenated arterial blood. I attribute the activity and vivification of the arterial blood to its satiation rather than to its material alteration. It seems to me in fact that the blood resembles other forms of digestion by perpetually appeasing what one may call its hunger or its thirst, and achieving being-for-self by negating its otherness. The air is the implicitness of the fiery and negative element. The blood is the same element as a developed restlessness; it is the burning fire of the animal organism, which not only consumes itself, but which also preserves its fluidity, and finds its pabulum vitae in the air. Consequently, the action of the organism may be paralysed by injecting venous blood in the place of arterial blood. When the organism is dead, the red blood is almost entirely replaced by venous blood; in the case of apoplexies, venous blood is found in the brain. This is not caused by a slight variation in the amount of oxygen and carbon. In the case of scarlet fever however, the venous blood is also a scarlet-red. Yet the true life of the blood is the incessant conversion of arterial and venous blood into each other. It is in this operation that the capillaries develop the greatest activity. ‘In certain organs, there is evidence that the arterial blood is converted into venous blood more rapidly. In many cases, the characteristic properties of venous blood, such as its blackness and its lower density when coagulating, are present to a greater extent than they are elsewhere, for example in the spleen; yet the walls of the vessels in question bear no evidence of an abnormally high influx of oxygen through the arterial blood, on the contrary they are softer, and often almost pulpy. Taken as a whole, the thyroid gland has more arteries than any other part of the human body. In the short course of this gland, a great deal of arterial blood is converted into venous blood.’! Since the vessels of this gland do not get harder, as they should, what becomes of the oxygen of the arterial blood? The gland brings about no external chemical action’.

- ‘Philosophy of Nature’

Hegel believes this broader organic context to be overlooked whenever we focus solely upon the lower-level explanations and in addition some of the transformations of the materials taken in themselves can be neither explained nor reproduced by us chemically. Kreines has observed that the first point is the one essential for Hegel but he does not discuss Hegel’s occasional endorsement of the second point and simply rejects one version of the vitalist reading of Hegel pointing out that he does not argue ‘that matter has a soul that represents concepts and organizes itself in accordance’.

Hegel’s stance with regard to the reductionist treatment of organisms. Both kinds of reasons for his dissatisfaction with such a treatment are given and juxtaposed.

‘For a long time now, it has been the fashion to give a mechanical explanation of the process of assimilation and of the circulation of the blood. […] Use has recently been made of chemical relationships, but assimilation cannot be susceptible of a chemical interpretation either, for in living being we have a subject which maintains itself and negates the specific nature of the other, whereas the acid and alkaline being of the chemical process loses its quality, and either sinks into the neutral product of a salt, or reverts to an abstract radical. In this case, the activity is extinguished, whereas the animal is the persistent unrest within self-relatedness. Digesting may certainly be grasped as a neutralization of acid and alkali: it is correct to say that such finite relationships begin in life, but life interrupts them, and brings forth a product which is not chemism. […] These finite relationships may be pursued to a certain point therefore, but then quite another order begins. A chemical analysis of the brain will certainly reveal a good deal of nitrogen, just as an analysis of exhaled air will reveal constituents other than those of the air that is breathed in. One is therefore able to trace the chemical process, even analyze separate parts of a living being. It should not be assumed however, that the processes themselves are chemical, for chemical being only accommodates that which is lifeless, whereas the animal processes are perpetually sublating the nature of chemical being. There is plenty of scope for tracing and indicating the mediations which occur in living being and in the meteorological process, but this mediation is not to be reproduced’.

- ‘Philosophy of Nature’

Aber diese Vermittlung ist nicht nachzumachen, translated by M. J. Petry as ‘but this mediation is not to be confused with the real nature of the phenomena’ thereby eliminating Hegel’s more objectionable assertion entirely.

Hegel’s position assigns some value to the purely chemical study of organisms or more generally to the study of organisms with the methods of inorganic sciences but his principle point is that such a study by itself does not allow us to understand the organic as that which preserves itself in its interaction with its environment and finally Hegel in addition insists that ‘the animal processes sublate the nature of the chemical’ and that the transformations characteristic of life cannot be reproduced by us. This third point has been targeted from contemporary standpoint and some historical explanation for Hegel’s acceptance of such a view is most assuredly to be found in the fact that organic chemistry had not yet been really developed during his lifetime. Friedrich Wöhler’s, (1800–1882), synthesis of urea from ammonium cyanate in 1828 is usually regarded to be a significant step in the development of organic chemistry which probably occurred too late in Hegel’s life for the consequences of this advancement to be integrated into his philosophy of nature. As for his second point this has its cogency independently of the third point and some variation of it has to be defended by anyone who believes for instance that the concepts such as that of function are ineliminable from our study of life and are not of a merely pragmatic use for cognitive subjects like us.

A defence of the second point does not depend upon any ridiculous vitalist claims regarding mechanical or chemical inexplicability of specific transformations of substances it amounts to the contention that mechanical or chemical research by itself does not allow us to understand organisms as functionally differentiated and integrated wholes which tend to preserve themselves as such in their interactions with their environment which involve assimilating matter taken in from that environment and it remains defensible even if this assimilation itself occurs by means of chains of chemical reactions each of which can be completely explained chemically. That which transcends the scope of chemical research is the fact that these chains of chemical reactions are arranged in such a way that their end products get integrated into the functioning of the organism as a whole.

Hegel’s central position on the organic is that organisms cannot be fully understood without the categories that are proper to them alone, and organic life is irreducible to inorganic nature but this position does not imply that the laws as well as specific causal mechanisms that operate in inorganic nature do not also operate in living organisms nonetheless much of what is special to living organisms has to do with their relation to their environment that cannot be properly grasped in terms of causal interactions that may be appropriate at other levels of nature. Rather, organisms integrate external materials into their own organization and into their constitutive processes and they perceive those aspects of their environment that correspond to their needs as salient, the perception of which is closely related to their behaviour directed at those aspects of the environment. To neglect such specifically organic features of organisms and focus upon those features they have in common with inorganic objects and processes and hence put everything on the same level is to abstract from that which actually makes organisms what they are and such consideration does not exhaust the nature of organisms.

‘Consideration of this field suffers from a basic defect, which has its origin in the fixed conception of a substantial and unalterable variety of elements. This conception is taken over by the understanding from the processes of isolated substances and used without discrimination. Where more complex transitions also appear in these finite processes, where for example, water is fixed in a crystal, or light and heat vanish etc. reflection has recourse to nebulous and meaningless expressions concerning dissolution, ligation, latence, and suchlike (see below § 305 Rem. and Addition). This way of thinking may be seen in the wholesale transformation of phenomenal relationships into partly imponderable ‘stuffs’ and ‘matters’, a transformation which pitches each physical existence into the chaos already mentioned (§ 276 Rem.), in which pores are postulated, through which matters are supposed to enter and leave one another, so that not only the Notion, but even commonsense is put to rout. It is mainly simple experience which is pushed aside, for assertions of this kind still assume an empirical existence, even when they can no longer lay claim to empirical evidence’.

- ‘Philosophy of Nature’

If we keep in mind this limitation we may abstract from the features that constitute organisms qua organisms and we can obtain diverse fruitful useful results in so to do and Kreines has argued for Hegel distinguishing different levels of reality that differ in relation to the kinds of explanation appropriate at these levels and to the kind of explainers, items in the world that figure in our explanations that for Kreines’ interpretation are immanent universals or objective concepts that are available at those levels and Kreines identifies the levels of mechanism where the concept of matter as such without further differentiation into its different kinds, plays the role of explainer, chemism where concepts of various kinds of matter operate, life, the level of the concepts of natural biological kinds which, for Kreines’ reading support teleological explanations, and absolute idea constituted by the kind that is free and possesses both theoretical and practical reason. Kreines in ‘Reason in the World’ gives a concise account of the multi-level structure of reality in Hegel.

A problem for the Kreinesian account however. It runs together the material from Hegel’s logic and philosophy of nature in effect interpolating the natural philosophical material into his account of the logic. for example he talks about the concept of matter when giving an account of the logical concepts of mechanism and chemism regardless that matter only appears upon the scene in the philosophy of nature. Similarly the concepts of various biological kinds which Kreines refers to in the context of the transition from the logical idea of life to absolute idea, belong to the philosophy of nature since the very fact that there are multiple biological kinds is something that cannot be derived within the logic. ‘The idea of life’, Kreines explains, ‘in the Logic does nothing to explain why multiple forms or species should be actually realized in the world, nor which ones should be; it leaves all this unexplained’. But the discussion in the Logic abstracts from all such variety that can be found in nature and so the latter cannot be used to motivate the transition in the Logic.

And so Hegel does not talk about such diversity of biological kinds in his Logic but only in the ‘Philosophy of Nature’ and the accounts of life in the Logic and in the ‘Philosophy of Nature’ ought to be distinguished albeit they are not unrelated and while Hegel’s logic delivers the account of the general types of objects that can figure in our explanations his philosophy of nature moves on to the more specific kinds of natural objects and the more specific issue of the relation between different ways of investigating natural organisms, the problem that becomes significant at the level of natural philosophy, is to be addressed. Alison Stone also reads Hegel’s philosophy while focusing in particular upon his ‘Philosophy of Nature’ as presenting a multi-level metaphysical structure of nature. She departs from Kreines in clearly separating the natural philosophical conceptual structures from the logical ones and she argues that the latter are just abstractions from the former and therefore that Hegel’s logic is posterior to his Realphilosophie but similar to Kreines Stone argues that different levels or stages of nature are individuated by different objective concepts or forms of thought combined with matter.

Stone does not address the question of how we should approach the natural objects that simultaneously belong to different levels of reality especially those that are at the same time physical, chemical, and biological objects, rather such different levels do not intersect in this way but each applies to a distinct set of objects: ‘Within this process of harmonization, Hegel identifies distinct stages, each including a specific range of natural forms’, she explains. And Hegel ‘is extending teleological explanation to the natural world in its entirety, not merely carving out a limited terrain within nature which is impervious to mechanical principles’ which seemingly contradicts the former claim but on the contrary the meaning is that even the forms of thought that are embodied at the mechanical and chemical levels are teleological because all natural forms are intrinsically rational and hence teleological in a weak sense hence her contention is not that all of nature is teleological for Hegel in a robust sense in accordance with his own account of teleology but it remains the case that natural organisms have mechanical and chemical features and that they can be considered insofar as they are mechanical and chemical. The consequence of this way of thinking about Hegel’s philosophy of nature albeit Stone does not draw it explicitly is that one does not consider the problem of applicability of different forms of explanation employing different kinds of objective concepts to the same natural objects but Hegel himself does explicitly address this problem and gives us an adequate solution to it.

Life’s Flowing Fortunes, c. 1880, Sir Hubert von Herkomer

Dedicated to the One. Every day is a new beginning with you my muse, my guide, without whom I would lose my way. 💕

I walk the maze of moments But everywhere I turn to Begins a new beginning But never finds a finish

I walk to the horizon And there I find another It all seems so surprising And then I find that I know

You go there, you’re gone forever I go there, I’ll lose my way If we stay here we’re not together Anywhere is

The moon upon the ocean Is swept around in motion But without ever knowing The reason for its flowing

In motion on the ocean The moon still keeps on moving The waves still keep on waving And I still keep on going

You go there, you’re gone forever I go there, I’ll lose my way If we stay here we’re not together Anywhere is

I wonder if the stars sign The life that is to be mine And would they let their light shine Enough for me to follow

I look up to the heavens But night has clouded over No spark of constellation No Vela, no Orion

The shells upon the warm sands Have taken from their own lands The echo of their story But all I hear are low sounds

As pillow words are weaving And willow waves are leaving But should I be believing That I am only dreaming

You go there, you’re gone forever I go there, I’ll lose my way If we stay here we’re not together Anywhere is

To leave the thread of all time And let it make a dark line In hopes that I can still find The way back to the moment

I took the turn and turned to Begin a new beginning Still looking for the answer I cannot find the finish

It’s either this or that way It’s one way or the other It should be one direction It could be on reflection

The turn I have just taken The turn that I was making I might be just beginning I might be near the end


Coming up next:

The process of formation.

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.