Nature in Whitehead, Hegel, and Schelling

In order to correct what I fear may have been an unfair caricature of Hegel presented in some of my posts earlier this year (HERE and HERE) after reading Iain Hamilton Grant‘s Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, I’ve sought out perspectives from thinkers more sympathetic to Hegel’s approach.

First on the list was the integral philosopher Sean Kelly, under whom I study at CIIS. Sean wrote his dissertation on Hegel and Jung, and though he thinks Hegel is more systematic than Schelling, he agreed with me that Schelling’s naturphilosophy may benefit from being brought out from beneath Hegel’s shadow to be recognized as a distinct project. Sean also recommended a book edited by George R. Lucas, Hegel and Whitehead: Contemporary Perspectives on Systematic Philosophy (1986). I’ve read several essays in it so far, but the one by J. N. Findlay called “Hegel and Whitehead on Nature” seems most relevant to the issues at stake when thinking the differences between Schelling and Hegel.

Findlay focuses in on the relationship between Logic and Nature in Hegel’s system, showing that, although the Concept or Universality as such ranks supreme, it includes Specificity and Singularity (phylogeny and ontogeny, or the species and the individual) within itself as essential moments of its concrete realization.

“Hegel’s philosophy,” says Findlay,

…starts with a ‘realm of pure categories’ which anticipate the specificities that will afterwards be actualized in the objective world and in the subjective experiences of that world… The Absolute Idea is the Idea of an exhaustively specific Universality which also has indefinitely many actual and contingent instantiations and, being what it is, must accordingly be actively dynamic and not abstract, have all the wealth of concrete instantiation that fulfills it, and represent its notional inwardness completely brought to outwardness and actuality (p. 157).

In other words, as Findlay goes on to say, Hegel’s Logic requires supplementation by both his philosophies of Nature and of Spirit. The relation of Logic, Nature, and Spirit in Hegel is strikingly similar to Whitehead’s depiction of an immanent, bi-polar God: the realm of pure categories is equivalent to God’s primordial envisagment of the eternal objects, the Idea’s self-externalization as Nature is equivalent to the objective satisfactions of finite actual entities, and the process of externality’s return to itself as Spirit is equivalent to God’s consequent apprehension of the Universe’s concrescence.

The otherness of Nature, in Hegel, Schelling, and Whitehead, is necessary for God to come to know itself as Spirit. Nature is God’s mirror image, allowing the “everywhereness and everywheness of [ideal categories]” to find the immediacy of “the hereness and nowness of the instance” (ibid., p. 159). This scheme seems to me to transcend the dichotomy between idealism and realism, since universals are merely virtual without becoming realized in concrete particulars, just as particulars are unintelligible without some relevance to universals. This shade of black that I experience here and now may be particular, but its thisness participates in concrete actuality rather than emerging from it. This black may appear again in a different circumstance as the same black, making it as much the ingression of an idea as the prehension of a instance.

Hegel, like Whitehead and Schelling, overcomes the subjectivism of Kant by positing space and time as constitutive elements of Nature itself, rather than forms of intuition imposed upon it by consciousness.

The one area where Hegel may diverge from Schelling, and especially from Whitehead, is in his preference for a logical, rather than temporal conception of evolution.

“Hegel asserts,” writes Findlay,

that Nature essentially reveals itself in a ladder of forms from the most self-external to the most organically unified, since the ladder is that of the logical dialectic. But he repudiates the notion that this dialectical ladder must be turned into a historical temporal ladder… Hegel holds that all stages of the ladder coexist in time: their order is logical, not temporal. This position was modified when Hegel, compelled by the facts of the geological record, was forced to admit that life at least, in its higher vegetable and animal forms, emerged out of mere chemistry at a definite point in cosmic history. But even then he preferred to think of all species emerging together much as Pallas emerged fully armed from Zeus’ forehead… The earth is presupposed by life as having a long pre-vital history, but Hegel does not believe that many of the fossils found in early geological strata ever really lived, [rather] they are products of an organic-plastic impulse in inorganic matter which anticipated the lightning stroke of life (p. 161).

Despite much cognitive stress on my part, and several conversations with Sean Kelly, I’ve yet to comprehend what exactly Hegel is getting at as regards his denial of temporal evolution, short of offering a form of creationism that contradicts all empirical scientific study. I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt here, but try as I may, it just sounds absurd. No doubt deep time and cosmic evolution are difficult to imagine, but even more so is the creation of a diversity of biological forms ex nihilo.

Jonael Schickler argues in his dissertation that Hegel’s account of the difference between the organic and inorganic realms (between chemistry and life) is underdetermined. Nonetheless, Schickler agrees with Hegel that individual organisms perish as a result of being unable to reconcile their individuality with their universality (a feat achieved concretely in Christ’s resurrection, but only abstractly in the inner life of Spirit). Hegel conceives of Spirit’s initial emergence as a potentiality seeking actualization (he calls Spirit in its potential phase the “natural soul” that relates to Nature through feelings rather than thought) (ibid., p. 163).

I’ll have to post another essay wherein I more fully draw out how Schelling differs from Hegel, but I’m far less certain now that the two had fundamentally opposed projects. Whitehead, due to his empirical bent, seems like the perfect mediator to bring the two into fruitful conversation.

More soon…

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8 thoughts on “Nature in Whitehead, Hegel, and Schelling

  1. Great post, Matt! I really get the part about “cognitive stress” trying to follow Hegel’s argument. In response to:
    “Despite much cognitive stress on my part, and several conversations with Sean Kelly, I’ve yet to comprehend what exactly Hegel is getting at as regards his denial of temporal evolution, short of offering a form of creationism that contradicts all empirical scientific study. I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt here, but try as I may, it just sounds absurd. No doubt deep time and cosmic evolution are difficult to imagine, but even more so is the creation of a diversity of biological forms ex nihilo.” Let me add the following:

    It’s clear from reading the Philosophy of Nature that Hegel in no way denies the notion of evolution as temporal succession, whether with respect to species or to the evolution of the Earth or cosmos as a whole. From a philosophical point of view–which is to say, from the perspective of Wisdom or the “System of Science”–such temporal succession is simply (to him) not very interesting.

    “…this temporal succession of the strata does not explain anything at all; or rather, it completley ignores the necessity of the process, the comprehension of it…. The whole style of explanation is nothing more than a transformation of spatial juxtaposition into temporal succession: as if, in seeing a house with a ground floor, first and second floors and a roof, I now reflect with profound wisdom, and conclude that therefore the ground floor was built first, and after that the first floor, and so on… This transformation has really no rational interest. The process has no other content than the product…. The meaning and spirit of the process is the inner coherence, the necessary connections of these formations, and nothing is added to this by the succession in time.” (section 339, second Zusatz)

    I imagine Hegel might have been more impressed by someone like Teilhard, who, though profoundly interested in the notion of temporal succession, never looses sight of the Begriff animating the whole process.

    Hegel’s position with regard to the role of temporal succession in evolution reminds me of Sheldrake’s critique of standard genetic theory. Sheldrake flatly denies the agency of genes in morphogenesis. Genes–or more precisely, the nucleic acids–only produce other nucleic acids and proteins, not the forms of the cells, organs, or the organism as a whole. Sheldrakes’s theory of formative causation breaks away from the merely material and efficient causality of standard biology and evolutionary theory to privilege formal causality. Here is one step closer to Hegel. What Sheldrake doesn’t include,however, is final causality, which for Hegel (and Teilhard) is actually the First of the four causes.

    “spirit is no less before than after Nature, it is not merely the metaphysical Idea of it. Spirit, just because it is the goal of Nature, is prior to it, Nature has proceeded from spirit: not empirically, however, but in such a manner that spirit is already from the very first implicitly present in Nature which is spirit’s own presupposition.” (sect. 376, Z)

    “the very stones cry out and raise themselves to Spirit.” (sect 247, Z)


  2. Thanks for this feedback, Sean. I think I grasp Hegel’s position a bit better now. Would it be right to say he doesn’t so much dismiss the fact of evolution in time, but rather dismisses the notion that temporal evolution misconstrued in spatial terms (i.e., along the lines Gebser marks out as resulting from deficient mental consciousness) could offer an adequate explanation of the inner coherence of the process?

    • That sounds right to me, Matt. I think the same could be said with respect to most appeals to the notion of “emergence” as an explanation of morphogenesis. To say that new forms emerge out of complex interactions may be true, but still begs the question. To e-merge implies some kind of pre-existence of the form which has “come out”. Not a temporal pre-existence, obviously, but an ideal or logical one, in Hegel’s sense of logic. While new forms clearly appear in time, they e-merge or evolve “out” of something else altogether, something pre-, a-, or trans-temporal (Gebser’s “Origin”, Hegel’s “Idea”).

  3. Hi,
    Thanks for a great discussion. I’m reading Schelling, and do not know anything about Hegel so I cannot contribute on my own – why not discuss Schelling’s own ideas about Hegel’s system (good point to start is his History of Modern Philosophy). I think the main point is that Hegel (like Kant) gives preference to the concept (not idea) as the a priori for understanding. A very nuanced issue. but one which is far reaching, if this is linked to ‘domination’ and ‘mastery’ even if this is eventually considered to be ‘self-mastery.’

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