G.W.F. Hegel – The Philosophy of Nature (c.1820)

Page numbers refer to Miller translation (Oxford, 1970)

The second part of the Encyclopedia, sandwiched between the Logic and Spirit. It is divided into three sections: mechanics, physics, organics. The final section, in which I am most interested, is divided into terrestrial organ, the plant, and the animal. The animal section is subsequently divided into shape, assimilation, and the process of genus (or the relationship between individual and species). The move in each of these triadic moments is from universal to particular to concrete (unified) subjectivity. Life, which underwrites all of these movements, is perpetual return to the self: “it gives itself in the form of an object in order to return into itself and to be the accomplished return-into-self” (275).

Before getting to the animal, which is the fullest realization of this movement of life (it is in fact pure, self-determining negativity as such), it’s worth lingering with the plant. Hegel uses the plant to flesh out what could be called “immanent teleology,” similar to what Kant expounds in the second part of the third-critique, but rigorously without the imposition of the divine as guarantor of there teleologies. In short, the plant contains its own means and end. However, its relation to itself is immediately a relation to the outside world. Thus “the unification [of the moments] of self-preservation is not a union of the individual with itself but the production of a fresh plant-individual–the bud” (322). This illustrates what for Hegel is the primary motor of life–namely, a contradiction that compels a unification that always fails. The excess is life–both the life of nature and the life, one could argue, of Hegel’s system.

The animal differs from the plant in many ways–but the most important difference is that it has feeling, or “the existent ideality of being determined” (353). Or put otherwise, it has subjectivity, the self is for the self, it is not immediately related to externality like the plant. The process of determination is three-fold: 1. immediate, simply sensibility (nerves, brain, etc.); 2. particularity as the capacity for being stimulated and reaction, called irritability; 3. the negative return to the self which is the unity of the prior to movements–namely, reproduction, which includes the digestive system first and foremost.  The increasingly complexity of these processes–the means by which organisms divide inorganic material to be excreted and animalized matter ot be sublimated, for example–correlates with the complexity of the animal: “The simplest animals are merely an intestinal canal.”

These divisions are so rigorous and pervasive that they in fact begin to rebound on the very system of categorization that would contain them. So, for example, the mouth, while part of the system of sensibility…for it contains the tongue with which we taste (theoretical), also works to seize external objects and crunch them (practical); it is also the organ of the voice, thirst has its seat there; we laugh and kiss with the mouth: “thus the expressions of many sensations are unified in it” (374).

Assimilation is divided into the theoretical process, the practical process, and the Notional, which unifies the two previous. The animal stands in a state of tension without outside nature. By way of the five senses, the animal’s external relation is immediately reflected back into the self: this is the theoretical process, where appetite is checked. The practical process “begins with diremption of the organism within itself” (384)–that is, it is the feeling of lack and the urge to get rid of it. A being capable of containing this internal contradiction is the subject. The practical process if not free, since it is directed outwards, and freedom can only reside in the theoretical process of the sense, the reasonable will. Actin according to need (characterized as lack) is instinct. “Instinct is purposive activity acting unconsciously” (389). This very close to the aesthetic, it should be noted.

Assimilation works, first, by simple immediate transformation (infection), second, by mediation, which is digestion. Hegel does not want his theory of assimilation to be reducible either to mechanical (chomping) or chemical (saliva, gastric juices) processes. This process is not determined by an external teleology because it does not stop at the directing its activity against the out object but makes it into an object. In short, the animal, as “self-existnet Notion,” rids itself of it one-sided subjective anger towards the object, and finds the end and product of its activity to be “that which it already is at the beginning and originally” (397). In this way, Hegel writes, “the satisfaction conforms to reason…and the result is not the mere production of a means but of the end–union of the organism with itself.” Basically, the modes of external relation are always-already modes of internal self-realtion. Thus the explicit going outside of oneself of assimilation is an expression of the implicit return to oneself involved in every act of assimilation.

Now, this functions by a triple-determination. There is first the negation of the outside object (in anger), then the negation of the outward-turned activity (anger with the self), and then the positing of the self as self-identical, “but secondly, of reproducing itself in this self-preservation” (404). But the nature of the organism is to produce itself as external to itself (the production of the subject through determinate objects). It is in the very repelling of the self that the animal reproduces itself. And this is the final stage of animality, but it in turn takes three forms: simple repulsion, the constructivist instinct, and the propagation of the species. Hegel writes, “the highest and lowest parts in animal organization, are intimately connected: just as speech and kissing, on the one hand, and eating, drinking, and spitting, on the other, are all done with the mouth” (404).

Simple repulsion is excretion. It is the means by which “the organism gets rid of its entanglement with things” (405)–or, the discarding of the means after the end has been attained, which makes this purposive activity. For this reason, the Understanding, which attempts to reduce these mediations to mechanism and chemistry, are unable to comprehend vitality as such.

The constructive instinct, “that artistic impulse as instinct,” is the unity of the theoretical and practical processes of digestion. Like excretion, construction is a self-externaliztion, but one that builds an outside world:

The object is shaped in such a way in which it can satisfy the animal’s subjective need; but here there is not a mere hostile relationship to the outside world, but a peaceful attitude to outside existence. Appetite is thus at the same time satisfied and restrained; and the organism objectifies itself only by disposing of inorganic matter for it own purposes. Here, then, the practical and theoretical relationships are united. (406)

Hegel is here think of building nests, but also of relationships to the ground on which the animals lie, “which is not used up but merely fashioned and therefore preserved.” So in the constructive instinct the animal has reproduced itself as outer existence while remaining the same immediate creature: this is self-enjoyment. Up until now, the animal has only satisfied hunger or thirst, now it satisfies itself. (409) It cites the bird-song as the prime example of self-enjoyment.


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