Jun 7th 2020

What Can Hegel Teach Us Today?

by Sam Ben-Meir

Sam Ben-Meir is professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy Collage in New York.

This year marks 250 years since the philosopher G. W. F. Hegel was born in 1770 in Stuttgart, Germany. In light of this anniversary I reassess what Hegel’s philosophy of nature can contribute to our contemporary understanding – what it has to say to us as we face a time of unprecedented environmental degradation.

We are in the midst of a mass extinction; losing species – plants and animals – somewhere between 100 and 1,000 times the naturally occurring background rate of extinction. Clearly, estimates vary widely – but there is a general consensus that anthropogenic climate change “at least ranks alongside other recognized threats to global biodiversity,” and is in all likelihood the “greatest threat in many if not most regions.”

What can Hegel’s philosophy teach us given this unfolding catastrophe? For most philosophers and scholars (not to mention scientists), if there is any area of Hegel’s thought that is antiquated and irrelevant it is his Naturphilosophie. Indeed, even in Hegel’s own day this part of his philosophy was ridiculed if not ignored, mainly because of his reliance upon a priori (as opposed to empirical) reasoning in constructing an account of the natural world. Consequently, it receives relatively little scholarly attention compared to his other monumental contributions to modern thought. This is unfortunate; for Hegel’s approach to nature is anything but a mere curiosity in the museum of ideas, even if parts of it seem dated or worse. Rather, what he has to say is centrally relevant to environmental concerns today.

The root causes of anthropogenic climate change – which has led to the endangering of countless species across the globe – cannot be adequately grasped in isolation from the technological application of modern science. While Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was certainly justified in calling upon American legislators to “unite behind the science,” neither can we overlook the culpability of science in bringing about the environmental crisis.

Alison Stone’s Petrified Intelligence (2004) offers one of the few sustained and sympathetic studies of Hegel’s philosophy of nature. She points out that the problem with the scientific approach is that it rests on inadequate metaphysical assumptions: “Empirical scientists work from a metaphysical assumption according to which natural forms cannot in any sense be considered agents whose behavior has meaning, but rather are bare things whose behavior makes up a mass of intrinsically meaningless events.”

In the Introduction to the Philosophy of Nature, Hegel writes that “The wealth of natural forms, in all their infinitely manifold configuration, is impoverished by the all-pervading power of thought, their vernal life and glowing colours die and fade away.” This draining of nature of its inherent richness, its intrinsic qualities occurs paradigmatically in René Descartes’ famous analysis of the piece of wax in his Mediations on First Philosophy. Descartes effectively dissolves the “sensuously resplendent piece of wax into properties (extension and malleability) graspable by the mind’s eye alone.” Qualitative distinctions are replaced by quantitative ones; so that what we witness is indeed nothing less than the dematerialization of nature and its reduction to a mechanical system which can be fully articulated through the immaterial forms of theoretical mathematics.

Scientific and classical enlightenment views of nature represent it as lacking the qualities – including value qualities – which we generally understand to be present within it. Sensibility embodies a basic understanding of nature as intrinsically valuable, as having its own right and its own voice. The metaphysics of empirical science, by contrast, assumes that the behavior of natural forms is inherently meaningless and exhaustively explained by external causal factors.

Hegel wants to reenchant nature, but not by retrieving an outdated and unacceptable medievalism – rather, the approach that he favors is distinctly modern; and involves reasserting nature’s interiority or inwardness: “Matter interiorizes itself to become life,” as Hegel puts it. In terms of ethics Hegel’s conception of nature is preferable to the rival scientific metaphysics because he recognizes and insists upon the intrinsic value of every natural form. Nature’s forms and entities are intrinsically good – which is to say, they are good regardless of any human interests in or feelings regarding them. Indeed, Hegel postulates goodness everywhere in nature – not only in sounds and colors, but in chemical and electrical processes, elemental qualities, and even the passage of time and the immensity of space.

While individual natural forms have intrinsic value, they do so to varying degrees: nature is structured hierarchically, according to Hegel – and the organic is privileged over the non-organic. Hegel is also prepared to say that this hierarchy culminates in the appearance of human beings; so that one criticism of Hegel that environmental thinkers are likely to make is that he adopts a narrowly anthropocentric viewpoint. What this charge fails to appreciate however is that while humanity may represent the highest realization of Spirit (Geist), spirit is already there implicitly in the animal organism.

Animal life is, for Hegel, the truth of the organic sphere: the plant is a subordinate organism whose destiny is to sacrifice itself to the higher organisms and be consumed by them. The animal organism is the microcosm which has achieved an existence for itself, and in which the whole of inorganic nature is ‘recapitulated and idealized.’ What distinguishes the animal organism is its subjectivity – the animal is ensouled, “having a feeling of itself, whereby it acquires enjoyment of itself as an individual.” The plant lacks precisely this feeling of itself, this soulfulness.

To consider this more concretely, look at what Hegel has to say about voice, which he describes as “a high privilege of the animal which can appear wonderful… The animal makes manifest that it is inwardly for-itself, and this manifestation is voice.” Hegel draws special attention, in fact, to birdsong – for “the voice of the bird when it launches forth in song is of a higher kind;  and this must be reckoned as a special manifestation in birds over and above that of voice generally in animals… birds utter their self-feeling in their own particular element… Voice is the spiritualized mechanism which thus utters itself.”

It is noteworthy that what Hegel has to say about birdsong has in fact been reiterated by more recent ornitho-musicology. Charles Hartshorne – one of the twentieth century’s great philosopher-theologians – was also an expert in birdsong. In his book, Born to Sing: An Interpretation and World Survey of Birdsong, he observes that the song “conveys no single crude emotion but something like what life is to that bird at that season.” In fact, birdsong expresses feeling, “according to principles partly common to the higher animals… That a bird sings because it is happy is not entirely foolish.”

As our knowledge of living Nature grows, we will likely find that those aspects of ourselves which we take to be most distinctly human – such as aesthetic appreciation – may be regarded as an extension and refinement of abilities already present among nonhuman animals. Hegel’s philosophy of nature may provide the basis for a more environmentally sustainable way of life, in part by helping us to see how it is our intellectual duty to view living things “within the widest of intellectual and spiritual horizons,” as the great Swiss zoologist Adolf Portmann put it.

To treat the natural world – and especially living beings – as a mere aggregate of things to be ruthlessly exploited according to our narrow interests cannot but entirely miss the deeper, genuine and philosophical comprehension which views Nature as “in itself, a living Whole.”  This implies that we must view and treat the animal organism as an irreducible way of being in the world, which cannot be understood solely through the physio-chemical or molecular analysis of life.

The loss of biodiversity is not only an environmental crisis, but an ontological crisis as well – for with the extinction of a species the very interiority of Nature has been diminished, as the world is no longer experienced in the way specific to the life form in question. To avoid this catastrophe we must be prepared to draw on all the resources at our disposal, and that may well include the philosophy of nature.

Sam Ben-Meir is a professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy College in New York City.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: " The sad reality is that the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent) were discriminated against from the day of Israel’s inception, whose Ashkenazi (European Jewish) leaders viewed them as intellectually inferior, “backward,” and “too Arab,” and treated them as such, largely because the Ashkenazim agenda was to maintain their upper-class status while controlling the levers of power, which remain prevalent to this day." ..... " The greatest heartbreaking outcome is that for yet another generation of Israelis, growing up in these debilitating conditions has a direct effect on their cognitive development. A 2015 study published in Nature Neuroscience found that “family income is significantly correlated with children’s brain size…increases in income were associated with the greatest increases in brain surface area among the poorest children.” "
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "We all owe Farah Nabulsi an enormous debt of gratitude. In a short 24-minute film, The Present, she has exposed the oppressive indecency of the Israeli occupation while telling the deeply moving story of a Palestinian family. What is especially exciting is that after winning awards at a number of international film festivals​, Ms. Nabulsi has been nominated for an Academy Award for this remarkable work of art. " 
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "When I crashed to the floor of my home in Bordeaux recently after two months of Covid-19 dizziness, I was annoyed. The next day I collapsed again. Now I was worried. What I didn’t know was that my brain was sloshing around inside my skull, causing a mild concussion. Nor did I know that I was in for a whole new world of weird and wonderful hallucinations."
Apr 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Overall, our review has found that there isn’t evidence to back up the claims that veganism is good for your heart. But that is partly because there are few studies ....... But veganism may have other health benefits. Vegans have been found to have a healthier weight and lower blood glucose levels than those who consume meat and dairy. They are also less likely to develop cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. "
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Pollock’s universe, the universe of Mural, cannot be said to be a rational universe. Nor is it simply devoid of all sense. It is not a purely imaginary world, although in it everything is in a constant state of flux. Mural invokes one of the oldest questions of philosophy, a question going back to the Pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus – namely, whether the nature of Reality constitutes unchanging permanence or constant movement and flux. For Pollock, the only thing that is truly unchanging is change itself. The only certainty is that all is uncertain."
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many present day politicians appear to have psychopathic and narcissistic traits too. It’s easy to spot such leaders, because they are always authoritarian, following hardline policies. They try to subvert democracy, to reduce the freedom of the press and clamp down on dissent. They are obsessed with national prestige, and often persecute minority groups. And they are always corrupt and lacking in moral principles."
Apr 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "This has led some to claim that not just half, but perhaps nearly all advertising money is wasted, at least online. There are similar results outside of commerce. One review of field experiments in political campaigning argued “the best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans’ candidates choices in general elections is zero”. Zero!"
Mar 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Father is an extraordinary film, from Florian Zeller’s 2012 play entitled Le Père and directed by Zeller. I’m here to tell you why it is a ‘must see’." EDITOR'S NOTE: The official trailer is attached to the review.
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Picasso was 26 in 1907, when he completed the Demoiselles; de Kooning was 48 in 1952, when he finished Woman I.  The difference in their ages was not an accident, for studies of hundreds of painters have revealed a striking regularity - the conceptual painters who preconceive their paintings, from Raphael to Warhol, consistently make their greatest contributions earlier in their careers than experimental painters, from Rembrandt to Pollock, who paint directly, without preparatory studies."
Mar 26th 2021
EXTRACT: "Mental toughness levels are influenced by many different factors. While genetics are partly responsible, a person’s environment is also relevant. For example, both positive experiences while you’re young and mental toughness training programmes have been found to make people mentally tougher."
Mar 20th 2021

The city of Homs has been ravaged by war, leaving millions of people homeless an

Mar 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "There are two main rival models of ethics: one is based on rights, the other on duties. The rights-based model, which traces its philosophical origins to the work of John Locke in the 17th century, starts from the assumption that individuals have rights ....... According to this approach, duties are related to rights, but only in a subordinate role. My right to health implies a duty on my country to provide some healthcare services, to the best of its abilities. This is arguably the dominant interpretation when philosophers talk about rights, including human rights." ........ "Your right to get sick, or to risk getting sick, could imply a duty on others to look after you during your illness." ..... "The pre-eminence of rights in our moral compass has vindicated unacceptable levels of selfishness. It is imperative to undertake a fundamental duty not to get sick, and to do everything in our means to avoid causing others to get sick. Morally speaking, duties should come first and should not be subordinated to rights." ..... "Putting duties before rights is not a new, revolutionary idea. In fact it is one of the oldest rules in the book of ethics. Primum non nocere, or first do no harm, is the core principle in the Hippocratic Oath historically taken by doctors, widely attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher and physician Hippocrates. It is also a fundamental principle in the moral philosophy of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, who in De Officiis (On Duties) argues that the first task of justice is to prevent men and women from causing harm to others."
Mar 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Several studies have recently compared the difference between antibodies produced straight after a coronavirus infection and those that can be detected six months later. The findings have been both impressive and reassuring. Although there are fewer coronavirus-specific antibodies detectable in the blood six months after infection, the antibodies that remain have undergone significant changes. …….. the “mature” antibodies were better at recognising the variants."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Like Shakespeare, Goya sees evil as something existing in itself – indeed, the horror of evil arises precisely from its excess. It overflows and refuses to be contained by or integrated into our categories of reason or comprehension. By its very nature, evil refuses to remain within prescribed bounds – to remain fixed, say, within an economy where evil is counterbalanced by good. Evil is always excess of evil." ....... "Nowhere is this more evident than in war. Goya offers us a profound and sustained meditation on the nature of war ........ The image of a Napoleonic soldier gazing indifferently on a man who has been summarily hanged, probably by his own belt, expresses the tragedy of war – its dehumanization of both war’s victims and victors."
Mar 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "A blockchain company has bought a piece of Banksy artwork and burnt it. But instead of destroying the value of the art, they claim to have made it more valuable, because it was sold as a piece of blockchain art. The company behind the stunt, called Injective Protocol, bought the screen print from a New York gallery. They then live-streamed its burning on the Twitter account BurntBanksy. But why would anyone buy a piece of art just to burn it? Understanding the answer requires us to delve into the tricky world of blockchain or “NFT” art."
Mar 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "Exercise is good for your health at every age – and you can reap the benefits no matter how late in life you start. But our latest research has shown another benefit of being physically active throughout life. We found that in the US, people who were more physically active as teenagers and throughout adulthood had lower healthcare costs."
Mar 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "Although around one in 14 people over 65 have Alzheimer’s disease, there’s still no cure, and no way to prevent the disease from progressing. But a recent study may bring us one step closer to preventing Alzheimer’s. The trial, which was conducted on animals, has found a specific molecule can prevent the buildup of a toxic protein known to cause Alzheimer’s in the brain."
Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The art historian George Kubler observed that scholars in the humanities “pretend to despise measurement because of its ‘scientific’ nature.” As if to illustrate his point Robert Storr, former dean of Yale’s School of Art, declared that artistic success is “completely unquantifiable.” In fact, however, artistic success can be quantified, in several ways. One of these is based on the analysis of texts produced by art scholars, and this measure can give us a systematic understanding of how changes in recent art have produced changes in the canon of art history."
Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The most politically sensitive option we looked at was the virus escaping from a laboratory. We concluded this was extremely unlikely."
Feb 16th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... these men were completely unaware that they had put their lives in the hands of doctors who not only had no intention of healing them but were committed to observing them until the final autopsy – since it was believed that an autopsy alone could scientifically confirm the study’s findings. As one researcher wrote in a 1933 letter to a colleague, “As I see, we have no further interest in these patients until they die.” ...... The unquestionable ethical failure of Tuskegee is one with which we must grapple, and of which we must never lose sight, lest we allow such moral disasters to repeat themselves. "