Observing Reason

Prof. Eric Steinhart (C) 1998

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Read paragraphs 255 and 293, 294, 295.

255. In this section, Hegel takes up the relation of the organism to its environment. He says that Reason is interested in laws (that is, in empirical generalizations). The most basic biological laws would be empirical generalizations that deal with "inorganic Nature and inorganic Nature in their relation to one another."

In Hegel's day, biology was very primitive. Hegel basically says that while there are laws in physics (like the law of gravitational attraction), there are no biological laws connecting an organism and its environment. Of course, Hegel is entirely wrong: there's the law of natural selection. This isn't quite his fault, since biology was so primitive, but it is odd.

Inorganic nature consists of environmental differences: "Air, water, earth, zones, and climate" are inorganic differences.

There are many rules relating organisms to their environments that look like laws but are really not laws: "But laws of this kind: animals belonging to the air have the nature of birds, those belonging to water have the nature of fish, animals in northern latitudes have thick, hairy pelts, and so on -- such laws . . . do not do justice to the manifold variety of organic Nature." There are far too many exceptions to these so-called laws.

Indeed, these laws have almost no explanatory power: "the characterization of the creatures to which they do apply is so superficial that even the necessity of the laws cannot be other than superficial, and amounts to no more than the great influence of the environment." So, strictly speaking, there are no laws for biology.

Law requires a conceptual relation: the Concept of "up" implies the Concept of "down", and vice versa. You can't have one without the other; they necessarily (that is, logically) go together. This is true in chemistry and in the theory of electricity. But not in biology, since "often as we may find a thick, hairy pelt associated with northern lattitudes, or the structure of a fish associated with water, or that of birds with air, the Notion of north does not imply the Notion of a thick, hairy pelt, the Notion of sea does not imply the Notion of the structure of fish, or the notion of air that of the structure of birds."

Of course, he's partly right and also partly wrong. It's not the Notion of north that implies the notion of thick hairy pelts, but the notion of north implies the notion of cold, which does imply the notion of thick hairy pelts. The problem is, Hegel just didn't have enough biological information (and the little he did have was a mess).

Hegel thinks that the environment and organisms are basically free in relation to one another. So he says that: "there are also land animals which have the essential characteristics of a bird, of a fish, and so on." Whatever. You can't blame Hegel for knowing so very little about biology. But there's a deeper flaw in his thought here.

Hegel's missing the concept of natural selection, of survival of the fittest, of the reproductive advantage of those organisms best adapted to their environment. These ideas make sense only if you consider long chains of generations -- the history of species. You'd think Hegel would do that, since he's all in favor of process.

You'd think Hegel would also look at the relations between species: predators and prey, for instance. The thesis is the prey: here are some cute bunnies. The antithesis is the predator: here are the nasty foxes that devour the cute bunnies. Of course, if the foxes eat all the cute bunnies, then the foxes will starve to death. So you get a synthesis: ecological balance or oscillation of predator and prey populations. Hegel could never have come up with anything like the Lotka-Volterra predator-prey equations that describe the ecological balance, but you have to wonder why he doesn't think that there are dialectical processes in organic Nature. Why isn't the World-Spirit active in nature?

Hegel's whole philosophy is based on the notions of historical progress, of evolutionary development. He sees it clearly enough when it comes to people, but he misses it in the organic (biological) world. This is a serious flaw in his thinking: Hegel's thought is in human-centered, it's anthropocentric. So what, you might say -- after all, philosophy by people for people. Well, not quite: philosophy is not anthropology. It's not the science of humanity. Hegel mistakes the place of humanity in nature; it's as if nature is irrelevant to the progress of spirit. But if he's got our relations with nature all wrong, how can we place any faith in his analysis of humanity?


293. A syllogism is a logical argument with 3 parts. Example: 1. All persons are mortal; 2. Socrates is a person; 3. Therefore, Socrates is mortal. Parts 1 and 3 are the extremes; part 2 is the middle term. Hegel wants to apply the syllogistic form to biology.

Hegel describes a kind of biological syllogism. The first extreme is "universal life as a universal or genus". A genus is a very abstract biological category: bird. The other extreme is "the same universal as a single individual, or as a universal individual." Well, what the hell is that? It turns out that the "universal individual" is the Earth (see 294). This is because everything lives on the Earth. In between, the middle term of the syllogism resembles both the genus on the one hand and the Earth on the other hand. So, the middle term combines both species (a more concrete genus) and the single individual living thing (a restricted part of the Earth).

The whole biological syllogism looks like this:

1. Genus (bird).

2. On the one hand, species (canary); on the other hand, single individual (Tweety).

3. The universal individual (the Earth where Tweety lives).


294. Here's the bad news: The Earth does violence to the genus, so that the middle term (the species and the individual) are all messed up. That's why there's no law; it's all just chaos. The genus divides itself into species using "as its principle of division particular features of its existence, e.g. shape, color, etc". So, the genus fish is happily dividing itself up into one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish, when along comes the universal individual, the Earth, and randomizes everything. The genus "suffers violence from the universal individual, the Earth." Organic nature would be very nicely logically organized if it weren't for that volcano that blew things up here, or the earthquake that killed everything there, etc. So, organic Nature is chaos. The middle terms of the syllogism, both the species and the individual, are sheer accidents. Hegel's philosophy of nature is just this: shit happens. Of course, he's wrong. But he's wrong in an extremely interesting way. He almost comes up with the idea of biological evolution.


295. There are many different species of living things, all of which have their own "structured shapes." But Life as a self-perpetuating process "does not actually possess any rational ordering and arrangement of parts, and is not an immanently [that is, conceptually] grounded system of shapes."

The problem is that the middle term (species and single individual) in the biological syllogism doesn't quite have it's act together. It doesn't properly unite the universality of life itself (the genus) with the individuality of the Earth. But if it did, then "this middle term would have in the movement of its actuality the expression and the nature of universality, and would be a self-systematizing development."

Here Hegel has basically stated a form of biological evolution, and told us how it would work out according to his system; he tells us that biological species could have a self-moving kind of develoment, but that they don't. It would make more sense if they did: it's easy to think of the gradual awakening of Spirit from inorganic slumber. Spirit is totally asleep in rocks; begins to awaken as it comes alive; plants are groggy, only somewhat awake; as animals increase in complexity, the Spirit manifest in their species is more and more awake, until you get to humanity, which is totally wide awake.

Unfortunately, Hegel says: "organic Nature has no history." He's wrong about this, but he's already showed how it is possible for organic Nature to have a history. Showing how its possible is enough: later, Darwin will come along and show how this possibility is actual. I haven't been able to find out much about Darwin's relation to Hegel, but the thing is that Hegel puts the ideas of evolutionary development into the culture. Nietzsche credits Hegel with making theories of evolution possible by showing how one concept can evolve into another (e.g. Sense-Certainty evolves into Perception, which then in turn evolves into the Understanding, etc.).

Biological species are abstract; they're like Hegel's concepts. If you let them move, then they're really like Hegelian concepts, which grow out of one another. Hegel's dynamical Platonism leads very naturally to Darwinian evolution by natural selection.

William Paterson University Philosophy Department