Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal

What can we learn from a philosophy of nature today? — Karen Ng

In 1987, the GFPJ published a translation of Hegel’s Philosophical Dissertation on the Orbits of Planets, which he defended in Jena on his 31st birthday.* Still under the heavy influence of Schelling, this strange document represents Hegel’s earliest attempt to present a philosophy of nature. The very notion of a Naturphilosophie, which emerged at the end of the eighteenth-century and continued into the early decades of the nineteenth-century, seems like the classic case of a failed project in the history of ideas that we can dismiss with the wisdom of hindsight. Primarily associated with German idealism and romanticism, and with figures such as Goethe, Schelling, Friedrich Schlegel, Novalis, and Hegel, Naturphilosophie represented an attempt to provide a scientifically informed conception of nature in which human freedom could be grasped as an emergent feature. In spirit, if not in letter, it shares much in common with the liberal naturalism of thinkers like John McDowell, and the enactivist approach of thinkers like Evan Thompson. In recent years, scholars have increasingly come to appreciate the contributions made by philosophies of nature, and the GFPJ provides a rich resource of essays that demonstrate their continuing relevance for present debates concerning the relation between human beings and nature, especially in light of heightening environmental crises that threaten the continued existence of human life on earth.

A good place to begin exploring the GFPJ’s collection of essays on Naturphilosophie is with the figure at the center of German philosophy, literature, and the natural sciences at the turn of the eighteenth-century, the mastermind behind the Jena circle whose name has come to define an entire age—Goethe. David Lawrence Levine’s “The Political Philosophy of Nature: A Preface to Goethe’s Human Sciences” (1986) argues that Goethe’s natural philosophy, especially Theory of Colors and his botanical writings, can also be read as a contribution to political philosophy, one that recalls an ancient Greek approach. Writing in the wake of the scientific revolution, Goethe’s philosophy of nature can be read as an attempt to understand the place of human beings in nature, investigating the possibility of harmony between these two perspectives, which had been largely undermined by modern scientific developments. According to Levine, the political significance of Goethe’s natural philosophy lies in its attempt to retrieve the importance and specificity of sensuous human experience, providing a metaphysics of nature compatible with human freedom.

Whereas Levine investigates the broader political significance of Goethe’s philosophy of nature, Eckart Förster’s two-part essay, “The Significance of §§76 and 77 of the Critique of Judgment for the Development of Post-Kantian Philosophy,” argues that Goethe (by way of his engagement with Kant’s third Critique) can be viewed as the primary influence on Hegel as he developed the method of his most famous text, Phenomenology of Spirit. According to Förster, the key to unlocking the development of post-Kantian philosophy lies in Goethe’s appropriation of Kant’s conception of the intuitive understanding, a model of thought that was specifically suited to grasping organic, living development. Combining Spinoza’s notion of intuitive knowledge (scientia intuitiva) with Kant, the methodology of Goethe’s botanical writings serves as a source of inspiration not only for Fichte and Schelling, but also for Hegel’s account of how spirit or Geist develops in history, demonstrating how our approach to nature can be mirrored in our attempts to understand ourselves as historical beings.

Although Hegel is the most famous and arguably most influential figure in the post-Kantian context, his contributions to the philosophy of nature are less often discussed. Richard McDonough’s “Hegel’s Organic Account of Mind and Critique of Cognitive Science” (1996) argues that Hegel’s conception of the living mind remains an important resource for contemporary debates in cognitive science that is easily overlooked. Specifically, McDonough suggests that Hegel offers a powerful critique of mechanistic models of mind and demonstrates the continuity between mind and life, one that is most fully realized in significant human action. McDonough presents Hegel’s organic conception of mind as a live option for contemporary cognitive science, making a case for the ongoing interest of Naturphilosophie.

Christoph Menke’s “Spirit and Life: Towards a Genealogical Critique of Phenomenology” (2006) presents a critique of Hegel’s take on the relation between spirit and life by contrasting it with a genealogical approach to this relation inspired by Herder. Whereas Hegel understands the development of spirit as an overcoming of life, what Menke calls the counter-teleological, genealogical approach understands the development of spirit as always permeated by life. Menke suggests that spirit, despite its historical development and cultural formation (Bildung), even in its most educated form, retains an essential relation to the non-spiritual—to living forces that resist full subsumption into the spiritual. Taking up the example of learning to speak, Menke concludes that the genealogical approach better captures the relation and ongoing strife between spirit and life that attunes us to the ways in which Bildung always remains incomplete.

In the face of criticism from various directions, Adrian Johnston’s “The Voiding of Weak Nature: The Transcendental Materialist Kernels of Hegel’s Naturphilosophie (2012) attempts a systematic defense of Hegel as a materialist philosopher and a thinker of radical contingency. Johnston argues that it is precisely in the maligned and neglected philosophy of nature that Hegel’s materialism is most evident. Moving from Hegel’s earliest texts to his mature thought in the Encyclopaedia, Johnston defends Hegel against prominent critics and provides a materialist reading of the relation between logic and nature in Hegel’s system. He concludes by suggesting that Hegel was in fact already a materialist in the sense declared by Marx and Engels in The German Ideology, and that it is in exploring Hegel’s writings in Naturphilosophie that this connection is best revealed.

— Karen Ng

* For more on the GFPJ special issue in which Hegel’s Dissertation appeared, see the “From the Archives” post by James Dodd. For recent contributions to the discussion of the issues central to the philosophy of nature, see John McDowell, Mind and World (Harvard, 1994); Evan Thompson, Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and Sciences of Mind (Harvard, 2007); Robert Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe (Chicago, 2002); Frederick Beiser, “Kant and the Naturphilosophen,” chap. 9 of The Romantic Imperative: The Concept of Early German Romanticism (Harvard, 2003), pp. 153–170; Eckart Förster, The Twenty-Five Years of Philosophy: A Systematic Reconstruction (Harvard, 2012); Alison Stone, Petrified Intelligence: Nature in Hegel’s Philosophy (SUNY, 2005); and Alfred Schmidt, The Concept of Nature in Marx (Verso, 2014).

Further reading:

G.W.F. Hegel, “Philosophical Dissertation on the Orbits of the Planets (1801), Preceded by the 12 Theses Defended on August 27, 1801,” trans. Pierre Adler, in “Topics in the History and Philosophy of Science,” special issue, Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 12:1–2 (1987), pp. 269–309.

David Lawrence Levine, “The Political Philosophy of Nature: A Preface to Goethe’s Human Sciences,” in “Essays in Honor of Richard Kennington,” special issue, Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 11:2 (1986), pp. 163–78.

Eckart Förster, “The Significance of §§76 and 77 of the Critique of Judgment for the Development of Post-Kantian Philosophy (Part 1),” Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 30:2 (2009), pp. 197–217.

Eckart Förster, “The Significance of §§76 and 77 of the Critique of Judgment for the Development of Post-Kantian Philosophy (Part 2),” Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 31:2 (2010), pp. 323–47.

Richard McDonough, “Hegel’s Organic Account of Mind and Critique of Cognitive Science,” Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 19:1 (1996), pp. 67–97.

Christopher Menke, “Spirit and Life: Towards a Genealogical Critique of Phenomenology,” in “Expression in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century German Philosophy,” special issue, Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 27:2 (2006), pp. 159–86.

Adrian Johnston, “The Voiding of Weak Nature: The Transcendental Materialist Kernels of Hegel’s Naturphilosophie,” Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 33:1 (2012), pp. 103–57.

Karen Ng (PhD NSSR ’13) is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. She specializes in Hegel, German Idealism, and Frankfurt School Critical Theory. Her work has appeared in journals such as Review of MetaphysicsConstellations, and Hegel-Bulletin. She is currently working on a book on the concept of life in Hegel’s Science of Logic.

Karen Ng’s previous contributions to the Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal:

Karen Ng, review of Hegelian Metaphysics, by Robert SternGraduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 31:2 (2010), pp. 443–9.

Karen Ng, review of The Verge of Philosophy, by John Sallis, Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 29:2 (2008), pp. 203–8.

About GFPJ

The Journal, published semi-annually in association with the Department of Philosophy at The New School for Social Research, provides a forum in which contemporary authors engage with the history of philosophy and its traditions.

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