Hegel: From Logic to Nature

Source: An Introduction to Hegel, Freedom, Truth and History. Stephen Houlgate, Blackwell 2005, pp. 106-8, reproduced here under Fair Use provisions.

For a long time Hegel’s philosophy of nature was regarded as the least convincing part of his philosophical system. Indeed, Karl Popper could see little in it but ‘bombastic and mystifying cant’. In recent years, however, scholars have begun to take Hegel’s philosophy of nature more seriously. They have pointed out that, pace Popper, Hegel was well acquainted with the scientific literature of his day – in areas as diverse as mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and geology - and they have begun to see merit in many of his own philosophical ideas about space, time, motion, light and organic life.

Why does Hegel deem it necessary to provide a philosophy of nature? Is it simply that nature is a given and as such commands the attention of philosophers? Or is a philosophy of nature made necessary by the internal structure of Hegel’s own philosophical system? In my view, the latter is the case.

Hegel’s philosophy proper begins with the Logic which seeks to provide an immanent, presuppositionless derivation of the basic categories of thought and being. This derivation of the categories is ‘presuppositionless’ because it takes for granted no specific rules of thought and, indeed, is preceded by the act of setting aside all our familiar determinate assumptions about thought and being (an act undertaken either in the interests of radical self-criticism or in response to the deconstructive arguments of the Phenomenology). Since it may not begin with any determinate conception of being (as, for example, ‘substance’ or ‘nature’), presuppositionless logic must start, according to Hegel, with the wholly indeterminate category of pure being, and it must proceed by simply ‘unfolding’ or rendering explicit the various categories that are implicit in pure being itself. Such categories emerge in the Logic because, contrary to expectation, pure being turns out logically not just to be pure being after all, but to entail being ‘something, being ‘finite’, being ‘quantitative’, exercising ‘causality’, and so on. The Logic culminates in the insight that being proves ultimately to be self-determining reason or what Hegel calls the ‘ldea’ Hegel proves to be an idealist, therefore, not because he thinks that objects exist only in the mind, but because he understands being itself to be rational.

At the very end of the Logic Hegel then argues that the Idea not only is self-determining reason, but also constitutes once again the simple ‘immediacy of being’. The Idea constitutes this immediacy because it alone is what there truly is. As such, it has nothing outside itself but is pure and simple ‘self-relation’ (einfache Beziehung auf sich). In so far as it is purely self-relating, it is always and only itself, always and only what it is. Accordingly, the Idea is not just being that determines itself and develops in a certain manner, but also being that is immediately itself, being that simply is what it is. In this way, Hegel argues, the Idea necessarily ‘contract[s] itself’ (sich zusammennimmt) – through its own immanent logic – ‘into the immediacy of being’.

The immediate being we encounter at the end of the Logic is not, however, the same as the pure being with which the Logic began. Being, as it is initially conceived, is utterly abstract and indeterminate, whereas being as it emerges at the end of the Logic is ‘fulfilled being, ... being as the concrete and also absolutely intensive totality’. This is because the being with which the Logic ends is constituted by self-determining, internally differentiated reason: it is ‘the simple being to which the Idea determines itself’.

To recapitulate: pure indeterminate being proves logically to be reason, but reason itself proves in turn to be immediate being and existence. Hegel goes on to claim that the immediate being constituted by reason is nature. It is not initially clear, however, why Hegel should identify the immediate being of reason with nature in particular, rather than, say, with God. We will thus have to return to this question later. At this stage, it is important simply to note that Hegel does, indeed, make this identification: ‘The Idea, ... contracting itself into the immediacy of being, is the totality in this form – nature’ Hegel is thus required to develop a philosophy of nature because, in his view, being – the ‘object’ with which philosophy is always concerned – itself turns out to be nothing but nature. Nature, as it emerges in Hegel’s philosophy, is in turn understood to be not just brute contingency or sheer givenness, but actually existing reason – ‘the Idea as being’, the ‘Idea that is’ (diese seiende Idee), or, as Hegel puts it in his 1819/20 lectures on the philosophy of nature, ‘the embodied immediate Idea’.

Hegel’s account of the transition to the philosophy of nature is to be found at the end of both the Science of Logic and the Encyclopaedia Logic, and the formidable complexity and brevity of his arguments have led to widely differing interpretations of this crucial logical move. In my view, however, the core of Hegel’s argument is clear. Reason does not transform itself into nature gradually over time, nor does it precede nature in time and bring nature into being through a creative act. Rather, absolute reason discloses itself actually to be nature itself by proving logically to be immediately self-relating being. Note that absolute reason can be said to be the creative ‘ground’ of nature, in so far as it makes nature necessary. (This is the core of truth in the religious Vorstellung of ‘divine creation’). Yet reason ‘grounds’ nature in a highly unusual manner: not by preceding it in time, but by proving itself logically to be nothing less than nature itself.

For Hegel, therefore, there is no ‘being’ prior to nature: nature is all there actually is (though later, of course, we shall see human consciousness or ‘spirit’ emerge out of nature). We reach this conclusion, however, by starting not directly with nature as such, but with pure indeterminate being and discovering that, logically, such being cannot be anything but nature. This may seem to be a somewhat roundabout way to proceed. Why not begin straight away with nature? Because in a presuppositionless philosophy we cannot simply assume from the start that being is nature, any more than we can assume that it is substance or will to power. We must begin with sheer indeterminate being, about which no assumptions are made, and wait to see what such being proves logically to be. Furthermore, such philosophical patience brings its own reward: for it leads to a distinctive conception of nature that we might never have gained without undertaking the presuppositionless study of being.

It becomes clear, for example, that nature is an absolute logical necessity and not just a happy accident. It also becomes clear, however, that nature has no transcendent ground or cause that exists ‘apart’ from or ‘prior’ to it. The Idea ‘grounds’ nature by proving to be nothing apart from or less than nature itself. The Idea cannot, therefore, have an independent existence prior to nature. On the contrary, it must inhabit the very nature it makes necessary and so, to borrow the words of Spinoza, be the ‘immanent, not the transitive, cause of all things’.

At the end of the Logic, therefore, it becomes clear that to bring to mind only pure being or the Idea – as happens within the Logic itself – is not to think of something other than nature, but is to think of nature itself (including the conscious spirit that emerges from nature), in so far as it has been stripped of all or some of its defining characteristics. In other words, it is to underdetermine nature, in the same way that I underdetermine this book in front of me when I think of it merely as ‘something’, rather than as ‘Hegels Philosophy of Nature’. The difference is that in ordinary life we are not led by the bare fact that something is ‘something’ to any deeper understanding of the object in question, whereas in philosophy we are led by the bare fact that being is pure and simple being to the deeper insight that being is in fact nature. Philosophy, in other words, understands how pure, abstract being determines itself logically to be nothing but nature.

The other thing that becomes apparent from Hegel’s circuitous logical derivation of nature is that nature is essentially rational. This is necessarily the case because nature is simply the immediate existence of the self-determining reason or ‘Idea’ that being proves to be. The claim that nature is rational is thus not one that is asserted arbitrarily by Hegel, but one that he can claim to have proven at the close of the Logic.

Hegel emphasizes, however, that nature is by no means purely rational. This is because nature is reason in so far as the latter is not explicitly self-determining reason as such but immediate being and existence. This is no doubt a somewhat paradoxical idea, but it is an important one to grasp if we are to understand why Hegel conceives of nature in the way he does. To learn more about why nature is not fully rational – and, indeed, what it means for nature not to be fully rational – we must look more closely at the Logic.


Text of Philosophy of Nature - Houlgate on Hegel and Darwin

Hegel-by-HyperText Home Page @ marxists.org