Shying Away From Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature


Many introductory texts dedicated to Hegel’s Jena system (or systems) shy away from discussing his philosophy of nature, including the ultimate decision not to translate texts related to it into English. Both Leo Rauch book (Hegel and the Human Spirit) and H.S. Harris et al. book (The Jena System, 1804-05: Logic and Metaphysics)
on Jena do not include any texts on philosophy of nature. Both clearly state that Hegel’s system included the discussion of nature (Nature) as its essential component.

The most common explanation is that Hegel’s philosophy of nature – either early or mature – is obscure and irrelevant for contemporary readers. Here is how Rauch justifies taking out the section on philosophy of Spirit and leaving out the one on philosophy of Nature for his book:

The Jena lectures of 1805-6 comprise an internal duality themselves, since there is a section on the philosophy of Nature and another on the philosophy of Spirit. The former includes topics such as mechanics, chemistry, and physics, which are discussed in a way that is rather abstruse and the entire section is by now well out-of-date. The section on the philosophy of Spirit, on the other hand, has much to say to us today, and offers discussions on the topics of intellect, will, recognition, alienation, property, law, crime and punishment, social classes, and the theory of culture. [16]

So Hegel’s discussion of Spirit is relevant while his discussion of Nature is not – all of that after everyone constantly stresses that it is the system that matters for Hegel, not its individual parts. Rauch himself opens his Introduction with a rather sensible summary of the problem: “The Jena lectures are an attempt at presenting comprehensive world-system. Any such system must include (and reconcile) two seemingly opposed aspects: the world of physical nature and the world of mind.” [15]

So if we are to present a comprehensive “world-system,” then we must present all of its aspects – any one-sidedness or partiality (here meaning the state of being partial, being only a part) is falsehood. So is it fair to exclude Hegel’s philosophy of nature from discussions and pretend that simply taking his logic would do?

P.S. Rauch notes in his Preface that “(As for the 1805-6 lectures on the philosophy of Nature, no doubt someone will be coming forward with a translation of them before long.)[11]). This is 30 years ago in 1983. I don’t think such translation exists yet, does it?

6 thoughts on “Shying Away From Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature

  1. I must say, it seems neither fair nor legitimate to not translate or discuss his lectures on nature on the basis of “obscurity” (which more often than not is used as an easy way to dismiss and gloss over stuff that one has difficulty grasping), or being “out-of-date.”
    So it’s obscure? Well then, one should be able to explicate his ideas in a clearer, less byzantine fashion, revealing precisely what was being obscured by all of the unnecessary verbiage and what-not. If one is unable to do this, it’s either one’s own ineptitude that is to blame, or one must admit that the obscurity merely obscured the fact that there was nothing to obscure, that Hegel was uttering gibberish.
    So it’s out of date? Doesn’t one have the responsibility as a researcher to show us, the reader, some justification for this assertion? I can justifiably say “Newtonian physics is out-of-date” only if I understand that it is because that there are myriad phenomena (electro-magnetism, black-holes, etc…) that this theoretical framework is unable to account for, and that there are other frameworks which have superseded it in terms of accuracy and explanatory power. And I should be able to say so. Otherwise I’m probably blowing smoke, repeating something I heard from somewhere else for the purpose of looking like I know what I’m talking about. And even if it is out-of-date, why is that a good reason to disregard it, to not study or understand it? It might not further the state of present day science, but might it not be valuable to an understanding of Hegel’s overall project? How can we understand what he means by “Spirit” if we don’t understand what he has to say about what is not-Spirit?
    Further, it seems especially unfair if we consider that his philosophy of nature encompasses not only mechanics, chemistry, and the like, but biology as well. Weren’t the conceptual connections between organic life, purpose, and spirit extremely important for Hegel?

  2. I agree. Hegel’s system has philosophy of Nature as it’s integral part. But the tradition of Hegelian studies just does not care for that part. I mean even in his lectures on some of Heraclitus’s text about fire and water, a rather old-fashioned metaphysical talk of “first principle” like that, he manages to insert comments about science, comments that today would be non-controversial, i.e. that science does not have a privileged access to things/experience, it has its own (poorer) concepts that it presents as facts, but they aren’t – it takes philosophy to point that out and so on.

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