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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More Essays

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."
Jun 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Bonhoeffer’s life holds an important lesson for us today, regardless of our religious affiliation or lack thereof. And simply put it is this: you are called upon; you are called on behalf of your neighbor. When you are called to be responsible that is not an obligation which you can decline, discharge or acquit yourself of – it is an infinite responsibility, a “forever commitment” as Charles Blow recently put it. And we all must be prepared to make any sacrifice necessary when we are called."
Jun 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "People differ substantially in how much they’re affected by experiences in their lives. Some people seem to be more affected by daily stress, or the loss of someone close to them. On the other hand, some people seem to get through the same experiences relatively unscathed. Similarly, some people benefit strongly from counselling, or having a support system of close family and friends. Others seem better able to manage on their own. But understanding why some people are more sensitive than others isn’t just a question of how they were raised, and the experiences they’ve been through. In fact, previous research has found that some people in general seem more sensitive to what they experience – and some are generally less sensitive."
Jun 7th 2020
EXTRACT: " 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. "
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals."
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Psalm 91, for example, reassures believers that God will protect them from “the pestilence that walketh in darkness… A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee”.............Luther was a devout believer but insisted that religious faith had to be joined with practical, physical defences against sickness. It was a good Christian’s duty to work to keep themselves and others safe, rather than relying solely on the protection of God. "
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Evidence from this study shows clearly that eating foods rich in flavonoids over your lifetime is significantly linked to reducing Alzheimer’s disease risk. However, their consumption will be even more beneficial alongside other lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, managing a healthy weight and exercising."
May 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s possible that the answers to questions like, “how do I live a virtuous life?” or “how do we build a good society?” are not the same as they were a few weeks ago."
May 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Strangely, those with strong beliefs tend to be admired. The human mind hates uncertainty, so it is comforting to be told what to think, and to form settled opinions. But it is not rational. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Apr 21st 2020
Extract: "Humans, Boccaccio seems to be saying, can think of themselves as upstanding and moral – but unawares, they may show indifference to others. We see this in the 10 storytellers themselves: They make a pact to live virtuously in their well-appointed retreats. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in some stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation. Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers, and make them think about their responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the questions: How do the rich relate to the poor during times of widespread suffering? What is the value of a life? In our own pandemic, with millions unemployed due to a virus that has killed thousands, these issues are strikingly relevant.
Apr 20th 2020
Extract: "If we do not seize this crisis as a moment for transformation, then we will have lost the war. If doing so requires reviving notions of collective guilt and responsibility – including the admittedly uncomfortable view that every one of us is infinitely responsible, then so be it; as long we do not morally cop out by blaming some group as the true bearers of sin, guilt, and God’s heavy judgment. A pandemic clarifies the nature of action: that with our every act we answer to each other. In that light, we have a duty to seize this public crisis as an opportunity to reframe our mutual responsibility to one another and the world."
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Death is the common experience which can make all members of the human race feel their common bonds and their common humanity."
Apr 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "A crisis such as this one demands that we exercise what the philosopher Immanuel Kant called the ‘public use of reason’ – as opposed to merely the ‘private use of reason’ where, briefly put, the expert, the specialist is tasked with resolving a defined problem. The private use of reason is sufficient when we are dealing with a problem that can be solved by simply applying the appropriate expertise...............The public use of reason asks: how we are defining the problem? Is our definition – our conceptualization of the problem – perhaps part of the problem itself? Is this pandemic solely a problem of public health, or is it also a problem of extreme economic inequality? ..............Since this crisis began, the greatest failure of the administration is not the denial, the lies, the lack of preparedness, but the inability to rally and unify the nation against this common threat, the lack of genuine leadership – Trump’s utter inability to bring the nation together."
Apr 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "Rarely has an architectural experiment aroused such extremes of ire and admiration. One side is convinced the house is a masterpiece. The other expresses brutal condemnation of the entire project (leaky roof, danger of flooding, too-hot, too-cold interiors depending on the American Midwest weather).........Farnsworth encapsulated her personal ambiguity in her comment to a Newsweek interviewer: “This handsome pavilion I own is almost totally unworkable.” She told one journalist, “ … all I got was this glib, false sophistication. The conception of a house as a glass cage suspended in air is ridiculous.”