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.

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EXTRACT: "“The paintings which I propose to do will depict the struggles of a people to create a nation and their attempt to build a democracy” – this is how Jacob Lawrence described his project in 1954. Over sixty-five years later his proposal has, if anything, become only more urgent. Two days after this exhibition closes, Americans will vote in what is arguably the most significant election in a generation, an election that will measure our commitment to preserving that democracy, the struggle for which was Lawrence’s mighty theme."
Oct 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "There are also other ways our life stories can be passed down through generations, besides being inscribed in our DNA...... One 2014 study looked at epigenetic changes in mice. Mice love the sweet smell of cherries, so when a waft reaches their nose, a pleasure zone in the brain lights up, motivating them to scurry around and hunt out the treat.... The researchers decided to pair this smell with a mild electric shock, and the mice quickly learned to freeze in anticipation....... The study found this new memory was transmitted across the generations. The mice’s grandchildren were fearful of cherries, despite not having experienced the electric shocks themselves. The grandfather’s sperm DNA changed its shape, leaving a blueprint of the experience entwined in the genes."
Oct 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "As we Americans face the potential loss of a peaceful transition of power after the election and the possible end of democracy as we know it, we are reminded that discourse matters, that words matter and that the one who quotes poetry is a man who reads—and that matters."
Sep 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "We now know the potentially appalling long-term effects of suffering cruelty from others, including damage to both physical and mental health. The benefits of being compassionate towards oneself, rather than treating oneself cruelly, are also increasingly recognised..... And the idea that we must suffer to grow is questionable. Positive life events, such as falling in love, having children and achieving cherished goals can lead to growth..... Teaching through cruelty invites abuses of power and selfish sadism. Yet Buddhism offers an alternative - wrathful compassion. Here, we act from love to confront others to protect them from their greed, hatred and fear. Life can be cruel, truth can be cruel, but we can choose not to be."
Sep 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "Over his incredible career, David Attenborough has seen more of earth’s natural wonders than almost anyone. To hear him talk, with such clarity, about how bad things are getting is deeply moving. Scientists have recently demonstrated what would be needed to bend the curve on biodiversity loss. As Attenborough says in the final scene, “What happens next, is up to every one of us”. "
Sep 15th 2020
EXTRACTS: "The Anglo-Australian multinational company Rio Tinto – the largest iron ore mining company in the world – demolished two 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters in May.......The Dampier Archipelago of Western Australia is home to thousands of Aboriginal pictographs, and perhaps the oldest surviving rock art in the world. Indeed, Australia’s Indigenous art represents the longest uninterrupted tradition of art in the world – going back over 50,000 years......Aboriginal people represent the oldest continuous culture in the world...."
Sep 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution was a defining event that changed how we think about the relationship between religion and modernity. Ayatollah Khomeini’s mass mobilisation of Islam showed that modernisation by no means implies a linear process of religious decline.....Reliable large-scale data on Iranians’ post-revolutionary religious beliefs, however, has always been lacking...........In June 2020, our research institute, the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in IRAN...conducted an online survey......The results verify Iranian society’s unprecedented secularisation."
Sep 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Just as you can upgrade your old computer’s operating system, culture can evolve even if intelligence doesn’t. Humans in ancient times lacked smartphones and spaceflight, but we know from studying philosophers such as Buddha and Aristotle that they were just as clever. Our brains didn’t change, our culture did."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Our lab in Cambridge, England, is working with a promising new family of materials known as halide perovskites. They are semiconductors, conducting charges when stimulated with light. Perovskite inks are deposited onto glass or plastic to make extremely thin films – around one hundredth of the width of a human hair – made up of metal, halide and organic ions. When sandwiched between electrode contacts, these films make solar cell or LED devices."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Bryant, a black man, was sentenced to life in prison for trying to steal hedge clippers from a Louisiana carport storage room in 1997. He has already served twenty-three years for this petty crime, and on 31 July the Louisiana Supreme Court denied a request to review his life sentence. The denial followed a lower appeals court’s 2019 decision that concluded “his life sentence is final.” The only judge on the Louisiana Supreme Court to dissent (or even issue an opinion) was Chief Justice Bernette Johnson. She wrote a stinging rebuke, observing that Bryant’s “life sentence for a failed attempt to steal a set of hedge clippers is grossly out of proportion to the crime and serves no legitimate penal purpose.” "
Aug 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "In 2016, the Brennan Center for Justice reported that as high as 40 percent of prisoners should not be in prison—”behind bars with no compelling public safety reason.” There are literally thousands of young prisoners, Black and white, who are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for non-violent offences. It is unfathomable that we as a society are spending billions of dollars every year to sustain such pointless cruelty, to inflict needless pain on individuals, fathers and mothers, who pose no threat at all to the public."
Jul 31st 2020
EXTRACT: "From a Kantian standpoint discrimination based on race – or religion, or gender – is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because it is dehumanizing, a denial of human dignity. When I racially discriminate, I am denying the person’s intrinsic self-worth, I am, in fact, denying their very right to exist, whether I know it or not. The moral law demands that I treat every individual as a free person equal to everyone else. If the moral law grants each of us a kind of infinite worth, it does not grant someone greater worth than anyone else."
Jul 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Remember, your wellbeing is extremely important when supporting someone with depression. Take time for self-care so you can model positive behaviours and be replenished enough to provide this crucial support."
Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons."
Jun 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I know I’m good in a couple of things, really good in a few things, and that’s enough. My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, it’s no problem. I need experts around me. It’s really very important that you are empathetic, that you try to understand the people around you, and that you give real support to the people around you."
Jun 27th 2020
An essay about the "the enormously influential 1940 'Head of Christ' painting by evangelical Warner E. Sallman" pictured below.
Jun 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "The diverse, non-human life forms that live in our guts – known as our microbiome – are crucial to our health. A disrupted balance of these contribute to a range of disorders and diseases, including obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease. It could even affect our mental health..... It’s well known that the microbes living in our guts are altered through diet. For example, including dietary fibre and dairy products in our diets encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. But mounting evidence suggests that exercise can also modify the types of bacteria that reside within our guts."