Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1770–1831)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC036-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2004
Retrieved May 21, 2024, from

7. The system: philosophy of nature

Hegel’s philosophy of nature is an attempt to explain how it is possible that we can recognize nature as a complex whole standing under a set of laws. He thereby takes up the question, important in particular to both Kant and Schelling, of which epistemological and ontological preconditions underlie our conviction that nature can be known. Although Hegel had thought about the problems of a philosophy of nature since his time in Frankfurt, and although he produced several versions of a philosophy of nature during his Jena period, he only published an outline of this part of his system once, quite late, in his Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences. Hegel’s philosophy of nature is of interest mainly in three respects. The first concerns the way in which he transforms his logical theory into an interpretation of natural phenomena. The second relates to the question of how far Hegel’s conceptions in the field of the philosophy of nature take into account the scientific theories current at the time. Finally, the third leads to the question of what we should make of Hegel’s approach to a philosophy of nature within the framework of present-day philosophy of science. Since the philosophy of nature is that part of the Hegelian system which is traditionally regarded with the greatest suspicion and which for this reason has received the least scholarly attention, the assessment of the second and third aspects of this philosophy of nature has so far produced very few uncontroversial results.

As far as the construction of a philosophy of nature according to the requirements of the logical theory of the Concept is concerned, Hegel assumes in accordance with his organological conception of reason that we should think of nature ‘in itself as a living whole’. This living whole has to be conceived of primarily under three different determinations, which reproduce to a certain extent the central characteristics of the Concept of reason as developed by the logical process. According to the first of these determinations, nature is to be considered as a whole defined by space, time, matter and movement. This way of looking at nature makes it the object of what Hegel calls ‘mechanics’. According to Hegelian mechanics, space, time, matter and movement, their characteristics and the laws of nature which describe their relationship are generated by the formal structural moments of the (Hegelian) Concept. The utilization of such a ‘conceptual’ procedure to gain and secure scientific results was never seen by Hegel himself as a direct alternative procedure to empirical scientific research. On the contrary, he was of the opinion that (for instance, by means of his philosophical mechanics) he only makes explicit, and secures a rational foundation for, the conceptual elements which are implicitly contained in every scientific mechanical theory that acquires its data ‘from experience and then applies a mathematical treatment’.

According to Hegel, his philosophical mechanics leads to the insight that we must think of the whole of physical nature as ‘qualified matter’, that is, as a totality of bodies with physical characteristics. This provides the second main determination by which nature is to be comprehended. Hegel ascribes to this way of comprehending nature a discipline which he calls ‘physics’, including under this heading everything which can in any way be linked with the material status of a body. Accordingly, from phenomena like specific weight, through those like sound, warmth, shape, electricity and magnetism, to the chemical reactions of substances, everything is described as being a consequence of and following from the constitution of the (Hegelian) Concept. He also adds theses concerning the nature of light and a doctrine concerning the elements earth, fire, water and air. It was this part of Hegel’s philosophy of nature in particular which drove Hans Scholz, among others, to the following crushing judgment: ‘Hegel’s philosophy of nature is an experiment which set the philosophy of nature back several centuries instead of furthering its cause, returning it to the stage it had reached at about the time of Paracelsus‘. Whether this dictum has substance, however, depends very much on what conception of nature and science one favours.

The third part of Hegel’s philosophy of nature consists of the so-called ‘organic physics’ or ‘organics’. In this section the characteristic of subjectivity, familiar from his logical theory, is the determination under which nature is to be regarded. Since in the context of the philosophy of nature, Hegel interprets subjectivity as an essential characteristic of organic life, this section of his philosophy of nature is concerned with nature as a hierarchy of organisms or as an ‘organic system’. He distinguishes between three forms of organic life which are exemplified in three types of organism: the general form, which is represented by the geological organism, the particular, which is realized in vegetation, and the individual, which finds its expression in animal organisms. He regards these forms as hierarchically ordered by increasing degree of complexity. In some ways Hegel thematizes relations and conditions of dependence: just as vegetable life-forms presuppose geological structures and processes, so animal organisms presuppose a fully developed plant world. Hegel links this last part of his philosophy of nature to his philosophy of spirit by means of an analysis of the phenomenon of the death of an individual natural being. Here the leading idea is that although through death all natural determinations of the individual are removed, so that we can speak of the ‘death of the natural element’, none the less death does not annihilate the principle of life, that which is responsible for the essential unity of animal organization and which Hegel calls the ‘soul’. Since Hegel interprets the soul as a form of spirit, and since according to his conception the soul is not destroyed by death, he can now postulate the reality of spirit independently of natural determinations as the result of his philosophy of nature, and investigate this reality in its various forms within the framework of a philosophy of spirit.

The question whether Hegel’s philosophy of nature integrates in a relatively informed manner the state of science during his lifetime has provoked a number of fairly controversial answers, as has the question whether his approach can still provide any promising perspectives which are relevant today. During the nineteenth century, Hegel’s philosophy of nature was broadly considered scandalous by the majority of scientists, an attitude which contributed in no small measure to the discrediting of his philosophy as a whole. This assessment also meant that Hegel’s philosophy of nature has never really been taken seriously again. Since 1970, however, the situation has changed somewhat. Starting from and relying on recent investigations in the history of science regarding the development and state of the sciences during the early nineteenth century, increasing numbers of scholars are inclining towards the view that Hegel was indeed much more familiar with the science of his time and its problems than was generally believed during the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century. It seems advisable at present to refrain from passing final judgment on this matter. The same cannot, however, be said with regard to the present relevance. Here one cannot ignore the fact that Hegel’s theses concerning philosophy of nature are, quite simply, meaningless for present-day scientific theory.

Citing this article:
Horstmann, Rolf-peter. The system: philosophy of nature. Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1770–1831), 2004, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC036-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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