German Romantic and Idealist Conceptions of Nature
Recent interpreters of German Idealism and Early German Romanticism differ on whether these movements are discontinuous or continuous. According to Manfred Frank (1997), they are discontinuous because the Idealists affirm, while the Romantics deny, that the ground of our being is fully accessible to our intellects. According to Frederick Beiser (2002), on the other hand, these movements are continuous because both Romantics and Idealists hold that this ground – the universe as a whole, or the “absolute” – is intelligible to us (via a form of aesthetic intuition). In this article I will help to clarify how continuous these movements are by turning to a different aspect of them: their approaches to nature. Both the Jena Romantics and the German Idealists advance metaphysical theories of what nature is and of how natural processes and kinds are organised. In particular, both Romantics and Idealists hold that nature is an organic, self-organising, whole, and that nature in its self-organising capacity prefigures and makes possible human autonomy. However, the Romantics tend (as I shall show here with reference to Novalis) to see human autonomy as merely a higher-level version of the self-organisation of nature – a naturalist conception of autonomy which Hegel (among the German Idealists) rejects, so that he constructs a revised account of nature that supports an anti-naturalist view of human autonomy. Thus, taking Novalis and Hegel to represent German Romanticism and Idealism respectively, we may conclude that these movements are partly continuous, in respect of their approaches to nature, but partly discontinuous, in that they develop these approaches in naturalist and anti-naturalist directions respectively.
To explain these points, I first need to clarify what Hegel and Novalis mean by “nature”. For Hegel, nature (the subject matter of his Philosophy of Nature) is distinct both from (1) what is human or humanly created and structured (these forming the subject matter of Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind) and from (2) the general ontological principles (described in his Logic), such as causality or becoming, that apply to both humanity and nature. On the other hand Novalis, as we will see, tends to take “nature” to encompass everything, and to be synonymous with the universe as a whole. But, at the same time, Novalis thinks that the universe develops organically and is a large-scale organism. He also assumes, as we will see, that any organism is “natural” (rather than artificial) because organisms make themselves according to internal plans, rather than being made according to externally imposed plans as artefacts are. He therefore understands the universe to be “nature” in this more specific sense too: that it is an organic, self-developing whole.
Secondly, I need to clarify what I mean by “naturalism” in relation to German Idealism and Romanticism. What counts as “naturalism” is increasingly controversial, but I shall adopt a fairly traditional understanding of naturalism as encompassing a family of positions that deny the existence of any supernatural existents and that therefore treat human beings as completely natural creatures, including in respect of capacities (for rational thought, artistic creation, moral agency) which, at least until the late 1700s, would usually have been thought to derive from some uniquely non- or supernatural element setting human beings above animals, often the immortal soul. “Nature” in naturalism is whatever the empirical sciences understand it to be, generally an order of entities and events that are causally related in law-governed ways. Now, most scholars of the German Idealists (see, e.g., Kemp Smith, 1920; Gardner, 2007; Pinkard, 2002; Pippin, 1999, 2005) have held that they are non-naturalists because they adhere to a Kantian conception of autonomy and normativity. On this conception, I fail to exercise autonomy if I merely choose between several possible courses of action based on my desires. Rather, to be autonomous I must determine for myself what principles of action are to be authoritative for me, and I must make this determination on the basis of my rationality, which is impersonal and shared with all other rational beings. On this view, then, the German Idealists are non-naturalist because they hold that we must determine practical (and also epistemic) norms from our rationality, in doing which we abstract from nature, in particular from our desires and from the causal order of nature of which these desires are part. Insofar as this Kantian conception of autonomy and normativity is common currency among the German Romantics too, it seems that they too must be non-naturalist.
But this view that German Idealism and Romanticism are non-naturalist must be complicated when we take into account their approaches to nature. Since, for the Idealists and Romantics, philosophy must be systematic, our understanding of nature must be continuous with our understanding that human beings are capable of determining normative validity from within themselves qua rational, and so our understanding of nature must be such as to explain this human capacity. The aim is to explain this capacity in a way that preserves Kant’s (anti-naturalist) idea that we determine what is normative from our rationality and not from our desires, from which (for Kant) we are to prescind qua rational. Now, Novalis tries to effect this explanation by reconceiving nature as (pace Kant) not simply an order of items related by efficient causation, but as already exercising a form of rational self-organisation which is a less developed form of the capacity for rational self-determination that we find in human agents. On this view, human autonomy is simply a higher-level realisation of nature’s general power of self-organisation. By taking this view, Novalis hopes to preserve the idea that we determine normative validity from our rationality and not from our desires, but he abandons Kant’s idea that we thereby abstract from nature, instead claiming that we thereby realise nature’s rationality to a higher level. In this sense, Novalis puts forward a naturalistic reconception of Kantian autonomy.
It might be objected that this cannot possibly be a naturalistic project, because any idea that nature organises itself rationally must be supernaturalist (Gardner, 2007, p. 46). This depends on how one defines “supernaturalism”. Generally Novalis does not believe in mysterious, occult powers that transcend the laws of nature. Moreover, his approach to nature cannot be counted as supernaturalist simply on the grounds that he attributes purposefulness to nature, since this is consistent with his seeing nature as a causal order, albeit one within which some causes are telic rather than efficient. Nor can Novalis’s view of nature rightly be counted as supernaturalist on the grounds that it diverges from the empirical sciences, since Novalis thought that his view was consistent with, indeed required by, the empirical sciences of his time, which seemed to have readmitted forms of teleological explanation and surpassed Cartesian mechanism (see Richards, 2002). At least by the scientific standards of his time, then, Novalis’s view of nature counts as naturalistic.
The problem with Novalis’s naturalistic reconception of Kantian autonomy, though, is that contrary to his own intentions he fails to preserve Kant’s idea that when we rationally determine what is normative we prescind from our desires. Because for Novalis our rationality is a higher-level development of nature’s self-organisation, our rationality is also a higher-level development of the self-organisation of our – sensing, desiring – bodies: our rationality emerges from our bodies and desires rather than constituting an abstraction from them. Novalis is unhappy with his own departure from Kant on this point, which leads him to revise his views of nature and autonomy so that they become inconsistent overall.
Hegel, for his part, seeks to systematise Romantic Naturphilosophie. The way in which he does this preserves a Kantian, anti-naturalist, conception of autonomy. Thus, Hegel offers an account of how humanity’s capacity for rational self-determination emerges from (a primitive form of rational self-organisation within) nature but is, nonetheless, non-natural, involving a “break” with nature. Yet this possibility of human agents to “break” with nature is itself prepared by nature: nature is, essentially, self-negating or self-cancelling. In systematising Romantic Naturphilosophie, then, Hegel strips it of the naturalist dimension that Novalis had given it.
Novalis develops his conception of nature in his draft encyclopedia, the Allgemeine Brouillon (1798-99). Here he explores correspondences between different sciences and their explanatory principles. He surmises that the sciences exhibit these correspondences because their objects of study also correspond – there are, he writes, “relations – similarities – identities” between all natural kinds and processes (Novalis, 2007, #233, p. 34). Any given kind or process recapitulates the structure of many other kinds and processes to either a higher (more intricately developed) or lower (less developed) level. For example, youth (allegedly) corresponds to fluidity, age to rigidity; women correspond to oxygen, men to flame; sensing recapitulates the process of devouring food at a higher, more psychical, level (Novalis, 2007, #97, p. 16; #117, p. 19; #273, p. 40).
Novalis concludes that nature forms a whole system of interrelated kinds and processes. He writes: “Each individual life-process is determined by the universal life-process, the natural system of an individual is determined both by the other individual natural systems and by the higher, universal system—ultimately by the natural system of the universe, insofar as this equally determines both of the former” (Novalis, 2007, #460, p. 76). Each individual entity or process is as it is because it instantiates its kind (i.e. it is determined by the relevant universal), and each kind is the way it is because of its myriad relations of correspondence to other kinds (i.e. it is “determined by other natural systems”). Ultimately, each entity, process and kind is as it is because of its relations to all the others; each thing (Ding) is as it is because its place in the whole conditions (bedingt) it to be so. All natural things therefore form the “natural system of the universe”, a whole that is not merely the sum of independently existing things but constitutes these things – a synthetic rather than composite whole. Novalis defines this whole system as “the absolute”: “Only the All is absolute”; “In every moment, in every appearance, the whole is operating. ... It is all, it is over all; In whom we live, breathe and have our being”; “The universe is the absolute subject, or the totality of all predicates” (Novalis, 2003, #454, p. 145; #462, p. 147; 2007, #633, p. 113).
Novalis concludes that the absolute or the “structure of the world” is equally “the organism of the world” (Novalis, 2007, #503, p. 90) – a cosmic organism – a fanciful-seeming idea that reflects his reliance on Kant’s conception of the organism. According to Kant’s Critique of Teleological Judgement, the parts of an organism are so functionally interconnected that they must be understood to be constituted by the whole of which they are parts, and as constituting its own parts the organism must be understood to be a self-organising whole (Kant, 1987, pp. 248-255). Applying this to the “universal system of nature”, Novalis writes: “Every phenomenon is a limb in an immeasurable chain—which comprehends all phenomena as limbs” (Novalis, 1975, vol. 3, #140, p. 574). That is, this theory must treat all natural processes and kinds as “limbs” of a large-scale organism growing from within itself, explaining how each limb derives from the developmental trajectory of the whole organism.
As we see, Novalis tends to equate the universe as a whole – the absolute – with nature, speaking of the natural system of the universe. For Novalis, this system coincides with nature because (as he says) all phenomena belong within this system, including all phenomena of the human mind. Because for Novalis these phenomena realise the self-organising powers of nature, they remain within nature, which therefore is all-encompassing. For Novalis, then, metaphysics – interpreted as the study of the absolute – coincides with philosophy of nature; hence the metaphysics of the Brouillon is equally an examination of the empirical natural sciences.
Novalis’s “organicist” metaphysics may seem to regress to pre-Kantian metaphysical speculation compared against the anti-foundationalism of his Fichte Studies (1795-96), which stresses the limits to what we can know. On Manfred Frank’s (1997) well-known interpretation of this anti-foundationalist position, Novalis holds that we can only feel but not know the ground of our being (the absolute), although our feeling keeps compelling us to attempt to know it; in these attempts, we only learn more about finite things, but as a result we progressively systematise our knowledge of the finite. Since the resulting system of knowledge but does not derive from any certain first principle (such as a principle conferring knowledge of the absolute), each element of knowledge in the system lacks certainty and is always liable to be falsified or require revision, so that we cannot bring the system to definitive completion.
Despite its initial appearance of immodesty, Novalis’s metaphysics in the Brouillon is compatible with anti-foundationalism. For Novalis, our knowledge that the world is an organic whole is not a first principle from which we may deduce knowledge of everything. Rather, we learn that the world is a whole by reflecting philosophically on (and trying to systematise) empirical scientific findings, from which, too, we must learn about the particular processes and kinds that the whole generates. Since we are not deducing these scientific findings from a first principle, they never obtain certainty; hence our process of systematising them must be ongoing, so that our knowledge of how the absolute develops cannot become complete or final. Thus, we can interpret Novalis’s famous statement “We seek the absolute everywhere and only ever find things” (Novalis, 1997, p. 23) as asserting that we cannot know the absolute in the specific sense that, although we can provisionally conclude from the correspondences between the sciences that there is an absolute, we can never have complete or definitive knowledge about the absolute given the fallibility of our scientific knowledge.
I noted that Novalis equates the absolute with nature because he intends his organicist metaphysics to include a naturalistic account of the human mind. As part of this, Novalis intends to derive human autonomy from nature, even though he understands human autonomy, following Kant, as the capacity to determine normative principles from reason and not from desire. Novalis approaches the task of deriving human autonomy from nature by attributing to nature a kind of “freedom” that prefigures human autonomy.
Novalis claims that insofar as the absolute organises itself, it exercises self-determination: it gives itself a determinate form solely from within itself, not under constraints or conditions imposed by exterior entities or forces. “Nature [is] at once independent and self-modifying”; “The universe is the absolute subject … In this its … organisation is already contained” (Novalis, 2007, #50, p. 7; #633, p. 113) – that is, the universe’s organisation is contained and emanates from within it. That the absolute determines its shape from within itself follows from its being living, assuming something to be living if it grows and shapes itself guided by internal principles of development (whereas an artefact takes shape under the guidance of external principles: the “blueprint” in the artisan’s mind).
Novalis adds: “Life is freedom of nature” (2007, #172, p. 27). The absolute is free qua living, then, because its development is directed by a telos internal to it. The absolute is free not in escaping causal determination, but because its development is determined solely by final causation, the purpose affecting the absolute from within it, not by efficient causation, which would act on the absolute from outside it. Whereas any living being (e.g. an acorn) has a telos to become a finite thing of a specific kind (e.g. an oak tree), the absolute as the non-finite whole cannot have a telos of that type. The only telos the absolute can have is that of becoming every finite thing and of becoming the system of relations between finite things.
Novalis’s account of the absolute’s telos gives him a way to understand why the absolute develops into the natural kinds and processes that it does. The absolute, for him, develops by alternately differentiating and reintegrating itself. First the absolute develops into a plurality of finite things, then it strives to reintegrate these – to systematically interconnect them so that it will exist as the whole (system) that includes them. If the absolute assumes the shape of the system binding any finite set of things, though, then the absolute has again become finite; hence it must differentiate itself into further things, then seek their reintegration, and so on ad infinitum. Novalis found evidence of this differentiating-and-reintegrating pattern in, for instance, contemporary chemistry, in which it seemed that different entities are compelled by some inner force (the absolute) to unite, then to separate again, and then to re-enter further chemical cycles.
As I have said, in developing his teleological picture of the absolute Novalis aims to see nature as prefiguring human autonomy understood in terms of rational self-determination. A telos is a normative standard for development, such that something is good – of its kind, or good simpliciter, in the case of the absolute – in proportion as it realises that telos. Nature, then, is subject to a norm in that it both ought to and does obey its internal standard that prescribes that it become a systematically integrated set of finite things. The systematic integration so prescribed can be seen as a harbinger or primitive form of rationality. To that extent nature’s purpose is to become rational, and nature is rational in proportion as it realises that purpose. If rational thinking on the part of human beings is then seen as a high-level development of nature’s power of systematic integration (something Novalis will go on to claim), and if we are autonomous when our rationality determines what beliefs or principles count as normative for us, then nature indeed prefigures and makes possible human autonomy.
Puzzlingly, though, Novalis sometimes introduces an alternative picture of nature as a kind of entirely groundless bursting-forth. He does so because of a worry that causal explanations cannot appropriately be applied to the absolute, as opposed to finite things. “The opposite of all determination is freedom. The absolute opposite is freedom” (Novalis, 2003, #284, p. 99). Compressed in this statement are the thoughts that freedom consists in the absence of causal determination, and that the absolute precedes and is the source of all determinate objects and their causal relations, so that the absolute is outside all causal considerations and is in that sense “free”. Its development must be utterly groundless: no explanatory factor, external or internal, may be invoked to account for the fact or the manner of its development. The absolute does what it does inexplicably. If, on the other hand, the absolute developed from its own telos, then its development would be causally determined by an element within it; something Novalis now wants to avoid. It is not clear, though, that his motivation for avoiding this is sound; there is a relevant distinction between explaining why the absolute develops in the particular way that it does and explaining the absolute (that is, asking why there is a universe at all).
Still, the alternative, irrationalist view of nature that Novalis at times proposes has implications for autonomy. On this view, nature does not merely have an inbuilt telos to pursue self-integration; rather, nature determines for itself that it ought to pursue systematic integration, in the sense that nature adopts this purpose without cause, conferring normative force on this purpose in so adopting it. Yet nature adopts the purpose not from reason but, specifically, without any reason. Inasmuch as nature prefigures human autonomy, the autonomy so prefigured now involves not determining normativity from reason but, rather, conferring normative authority quite arbitrarily. Thus, Novalis’s idea that nature develops groundlessly supports a view of human autonomy as arbitrary self-legislation (see Section 4).
Novalis sometimes weaves this irrationalist view of nature together with his usual rationalist view. In notes from late 1799, he claims that nature both follows laws – it develops according to regular and predictable patterns – and acts from its “will” (Wille). He clarifies that nature both has “no will” and has “a particular will” (Novalis, 1975, 3: #291, 601). That is: nature follows laws, develops in a regular way, because it unfolds from its inner telos; yet again, nature must be free not merely in developing from its own telos but, more strongly, in having free “will”, i.e. developing however it wills with no ground of its decisions. Novalis again oscillates between the two views when he describes nature’s structure as both “immeasurable” (unermeßlich) and “measurable” (Novalis, 2007, #633, p. 113). That is, we can anticipate and predict how nature develops in that it develops from its telos; then again, we may venture no predictions because nature just bursts forth without rhyme or reason.
Let us now look in more detail at the conception of human autonomy that Novalis derives from his usual understanding of nature as a rationally self-organising whole.
Novalis’s view that nature tends towards systematic self-integration leads him to see the human mind as an integrated system that is the highest realisation of the self-organisation of nature. “Thinking, … is surely nothing else but the finest evolution of the plastic forces – it is simply the general force of Nature raised to the nth dignity” (Novalis, 2007, #114, p. 189). For Novalis, human beings achieve their supremely high level of mental organisation by imposing concepts on their sensations and uniting their concepts in judgements. Novalis is extending Kant’s view that concepts and judgements are not merely mental representations that we in fact have but rules for how we must think in order to give our experience intelligible structure. For Novalis, concepts and judgements are normative insofar as they make our experience coherent and integrated. (By which token we also become conscious, for Novalis, who takes it that to be conscious is simply to have experience as a specifically cognitive state.) We organise our mental life, too, by adjusting our judgements into a coherent system. Novalis’s anti-foundationalist view is that we strive to adjust our beliefs relative to one another so that they form as coherent a system as possible. This picture of mind implies that I ought to hold any belief (or, by extension, practical principle) inasmuch as it coheres with my other beliefs and principles and with those that other people hold, if they too employ the standard of intra- and inter-subjective coherence.
Now, whereas for Kant the normativity of concepts and judgements makes them non-natural, rules that we make for ourselves – as we ought – rather than being determined by nature to follow, for Novalis nature remains the source of the normativity of beliefs and principles. These are normative insofar as they exhibit and promote coherence, which itself is normative because a coherent system of thought would be the highest realisation of the self-organisation of nature, where it is good for nature to become as self-organised as possible because doing so is nature’s telos. So although for Novalis we ascertain what is normative from reason (by working out what is coherent), our rationality confers normativity only because this rationality realises nature’s telos. Reason is the source of normativity, but this is because reason realises nature, not (pace Kant) because it prescinds from nature.
Novalis has tried, then, to derive the human capacity for rational self-determination from nature, in the process reconceiving this capacity as a power to abstract from desire but not from nature, which is itself rational. Yet it is not clear that Novalis can see the human capacity for rational self-determination as emerging from nature without also seeing this capacity as emerging from human bodies, in such a way that human beings, in exercising rationality, after all are drawing or building on their desires rather than abstracting from those desires. Novalis’s doctrine of “magical idealism”, touched upon at regular intervals throughout the Brouillon, illustrates this.
Magical idealism is the rather bizarre doctrine that we should gain control of our “outer senses” – the senses by which we are affected by and receive input from the outer world – so that we can perceive the world as we (in some sense) choose. We are to gain this control by following particular medicinal practices – ensuring the right balance between eating, drinking and fasting and between exercise and rest. Novalis is influenced by John Brown’s (1735-88) medical theory, on which illness results from either excessive or insufficient “irritability”, i.e. excitation. By habitually maintaining the right diet and level of exercise we can regulate how much excitation our outer senses receive, and so what secretions our sense-organs transmit around our bodies, and so what passions we feel. With the right level of passions, the judgements that structure our perceptions will be correspondingly balanced and our perceptions will therefore cohere with one another, so that in that sense we will be perceiving as we (would ideally) choose. The better our sensuous, bodily nature is integrated the more we will attain coherence at the mental level. Because the mind is the body to a higher level, the more the body realises nature’s telos of integration, the more authority that telos – in the higher form of reason – obtains over the mind. Thus, if we can determine norms from our rationality, this is not because of any power to prescind from our desires, but rather because we already have rationally structured sets of bodily desires, structures from which a further power of rational self-determination arises.
But Novalis is unhappy to have moved away from the original Kantian idea that normativity derives from reason as opposed to desire. He therefore tries to restore the idea that human beings determine what is normative in a departure from what is natural, including from human desires. But for Novalis it cannot be the case that we so determine what is normative by exercising reason, because for him reason just is nature to a higher power. So we can only determine normativity in departure from nature if we make this determination not from reason but from its absence, i.e. quite arbitrarily. To be autonomous, then, is to arbitrarily legislate certain principles to oneself, as opposed to having their authority prescribed by (the rational system of) nature. These thoughts push Novalis towards (and are manifested in) a second version of magical idealism. On this version, magical idealist medicinal practices enable one to sense things entirely at will: to sense just what one chooses to sense, voluntarily – indeed, he says, arbitrarily (Novalis, 2007, #1075, p. 181). Whatever data impinge on one’s outer senses, the magical idealist can perceive something wholly or partly different from those data, and can impose on outer events whatever significance or construction s/he chooses. This reflects Novalis’s view that to be autonomous, I must legislate to myself quite at whim, and totally independently of nature, including independently of the sensations that my body, as an item in the natural world, receives. Thus, I must legislate at whim even with regard to my perceptions – I must determine what I perceive arbitrarily . However, Novalis qualifies this claim: I ought to give myself perceptions of a kind that manifest their status as the products of my arbitrary choice. These perceptions are of miraculous or wondrous events that contravene laws of nature (the staple of fairy-tales, e.g. a prince suddenly changing into a pig or vice versa), which therefore manifest the fact that they result from the self’s power to determine the content of perception quite as it wishes, without regard to the causal relations that hold within the system of nature (Novalis, 2007, #730, p. 135).
Novalis tries to combine this version of magical idealism with his preceding naturalistic version by saying that by engaging in appropriate medicinal practices we become able to arbitrarily determine what we perceive. This attempted synthesis fails: since exercising arbitrary control over one’s senses requires that one legislate without regard to the purposes of nature, the adequacy with which one realises those purposes at a bodily level cannot be relevant to whether one can exercise this control.
Moreover, Novalis’s interpretation of autonomy as arbitrariness has difficulty accounting for (what he sees as) the binding, obligatory validity of the norms we legislate to ourselves. If we do so quite arbitrarily, then presumably we can authorise and de-authorise norms at whim. Yet this interpretation ties in to – and supports – Novalis’s view that nature develops groundlessly. So far, this interpretation of autonomy has seemed anti-naturalist, since on this interpretation we assign norms to ourselves as opposed to being given them by nature. But this interpretation might not be anti-naturalist if nature is a wholly groundless bursting-forth, as Novalis has also proposed: for in that case, by legislating norms for themselves quite arbitrarily, human beings realise nature understood as that which forms itself groundlessly. Ultimately, though, this position is still anti-naturalist. For on this position, nature itself is not solely a causal order but is also the uncaused – “free” – power preconditioning all causally related events. But because “nature” in naturalism is the nature of the empirical sciences, that is, nature as the totality of causally related, law-governed events, Novalis has given the name “nature” to a force that counts as non-natural – indeed, supernatural – by naturalist standards. So the “nature” that human beings realise by acting arbitrarily is actually a non-natural power to act groundlessly.
Novalis has succumbed to these conflicting views because he has two incompatible aims: to give a naturalist account of human autonomy as emerging from rational self-organisation within nature, and to preserve Kant’s idea that autonomy requires abstraction from desire. It fell to the German Idealists, and Hegel above all, to render Romantic metaphysics consistent and rid it of these conflicts. Let us see how Hegel achieves this in his mature Philosophy of Nature.
Hegel seeks to retain the non-naturalist view that autonomy requires abstraction from desire, but also to explain via his Naturphilosophie how our capacity so to abstract emerges out of the rational self-organisation of nature. How, though, can he give Naturphilosophie this role without following Novalis into naturalism and thereby abandoning the opposition between reason and desire? Hegel’s solution is that human reason and autonomy must be understood specifically as resulting from the self-supersession of nature, nature’s “extinguish[ing] itself, … consum[ing] itself like a phoenix in order to emerge … rejuvenated as mind” (Hegel, 1970, vol. 3, #376A, p. 212). Thus, although human autonomy is essentially non-natural, its structure as non-natural is the result of nature, qua self-superseding.
To understand this, we first need to see that, like Novalis, Hegel regards all natural kinds and processes as an interconnected system, in which each is a higher or lower development of others. Unlike Novalis, Hegel aims to give a more-or-less definitive account of where each particular natural kind or process belongs in this systematic order. For instance, he treats magnetism as the lower-level analogue of electrical processes, in turn the lower-level analogue of chemical processes.
The overall organisation of nature, according to Hegel, is into the lowest-level “mechanical” sphere, the higher-level “physical” sphere (in which magnetism, electricity and chemistry, amongst other processes, belong), and the highest-level “organic” sphere. Thus, Hegel regards living beings – the earth inasmuch as it is a complex and self-regulating system, plants, and animals, including human beings – as the highest level of nature. Since Hegel regards the organic sphere as only one part of nature, it might seem that, unlike Novalis, he does not consider nature as a whole to be an organism. But this is not so. Like Novalis, Hegel thinks that each natural thing is constituted as it is by its place in the whole system of nature – each thing is as it is because it embodies its kind, and each kind is as it is because of its location in the chain of natural correspondences. Since the whole system is thus constitutive of its parts, this system counts as organic and self-organising, according, again, to the Kantian conception of a living being.
Much more than Novalis, Hegel stresses that nature, as a whole system, organises itself in accordance with the requirements of reason. For Hegel, each natural kind contains an internal “contradiction” (Widerspruch) to which another natural kind provides the solution, while in turn succumbing to an inner contradiction of its own which yet another kind resolves. For example, Hegel regards space as internally “contradictory” on the grounds that it is a whole composed of different spatial units, and yet these units are completely distinctionless (Hegel, 1970, vol. 1, #254, p. 223). As this exemplifies, the “contradictions” of which Hegel speaks may be better understood as internal tensions or instabilities rather than literal, logical contradictions. Each natural kind contains an inner tension, then, and in each case Hegel identifies another natural kind the inner structure of which is such that this new kind can be seen as eliminating that preceding tension, so that he can position the new kind as the immediately higher-level successor to the first kind. He therefore claims that nature advances from its least to its most developed form not in a “simple transition” but through “a series of stages consisting of many moments” (Hegel, 1971, #381A, p. 13).
Exactly how is nature organising itself according to rational requirements here? The overall organisation of nature is rational, because on each occasion that a “contradiction” or antagonism manifests itself in nature, a natural kind can be found that embodies the resolution of that tension. (To Hegel’s mind, this exemplifies rationality because it involves resolving contradictions; although we can say that, by extension, removing instabilities or tensions is also a rational activity.) So the picture Hegel appears to give us is not that nature itself responds to rational requirements but that we – scientifically informed philosophers – can reconstruct an order within nature such that nature presents itself to us as satisfying our standards of rationality.
In the Philosophy of Nature, though, Hegel pursues a stronger account of nature’s rationality, on which we can only identify rational order within nature because nature, independently of us, is already organising itself rationally. He explains:
Nature is to be regarded as a system of stages, one proceeding necessarily from the other and being the direct truth of that from which it results. This is not to be thought of as a natural engendering of one out of the other however, but as an engendering within the inner idea which constitutes the ground of nature. (Hegel, 1970, vol. 1, #249, p. 212)
Nature, then, is rational in that it is grounded in “the idea”. Since Hegel defines and introduces his technical concept of “the idea” in his Encyclopaedia Logic, we can only understand what he means by the idea’s being the ground of nature in relation to his Logic.
Firstly, the Logic examines our basic categories (see Houlgate 2007, 143-45). To simplify, the Logic unfolds as we first show that some particular category is necessary for any thought. Then we find that this category has limitations, such that we need an additional category which provides the only possible – or, at least, the best available – corrective to those limitations. Then we find that this new category is also limited, such that yet another category is required – and so on until we have deduced a complete chain of categories or “thought-determinations” (Gedankenbestimmungen). Secondly, Hegel believes that these “thought-determinations” are not only basic forms of thought but also basic structures or ordering principles that organise objects as they exist independently of our minds (Houlgate 2007, 150). For example, when he derives the category of causality, he sees causality not only as a category with which we must necessarily think but also a basic principle structuring all mind-independent things in causal relations to one another (Hegel, 1991a, #153-#154, pp. 227-30). Thus, Hegel claims to see the categories as not merely subjective but also “the truth, objectivity, and actual being of … things themselves. [The categories] resemble the Platonic ideas … which exist in individual things as substantial genera” (Hegel, 1970, vol. 1, #246A, p. 200).
Late in his Logic, Hegel introduces the category that he calls “the idea”, which he defines as rational thought that fully organises and pervades objective reality (“the absolute unity of concept and objectivity”; Hegel, 1991a, #213, p. 286). Yet according to Hegel’s account all categories organise objective reality. This indicates that rather than being a particular new category, “the idea” is simply the system of all the preceding categories, a system that is rational because its component categories correct one another’s limitations. Moreover, the idea is this system of categories insofar as it organises the objective world – it is an overarching rational order that structures all real things.
It appears to follow that nature is rational in that it is organised by this higher-level ontological system, the idea. Yet this is still not quite Hegel’s position. After all, he does not proceed in the Philosophy of Nature only by showing that each natural kind embodies some rational structure as described in the Logic (although he does regularly suggest parallels between natural kinds and logical structures). Rather, as we saw, he identifies each natural kind as suffering from its own inner instability while also resolving an instability in a preceding natural kind (as opposed to identifying each natural kind as exemplifying a logical category that contains a given problem but also resolves the problem in a preceding logical category). Hegel can only map particular natural kinds onto particular logical categories in virtue of having initially identified a series of instabilities and resolutions specific to nature.
Hegel begins with nature’s own instabilities because of another aspect of his account of the idea: that the idea “externalises” itself to produce nature (Hegel, 1970, vol. 1., #247, p. 205). By a kind of self-inversion or emptying-out of itself, the idea enters into the form of matter (Hegel, 1970, vol. 1, #248R, p. 209). Hegel’s claim that matter is a self-externalised form of the idea is strange, but has understandable philosophical motivations. Having argued that a system of categories structures material reality, Hegel has to explain why there is any material reality to undergo categorial structuring – after all, his system is intended to be presuppositionless, so he cannot simply assume that matter exists. Since the only available explanans is the idea, matter must be understood to emerge from the idea; but matter is partes extra partes, inherently antithetical to the centralising and unifying character of the idea (Hegel, 1971, #381A, p. 9); the notion that the idea externalises, or becomes other to, itself distils these points.
The consequence of these claims, though, is that for Hegel the lowest-level natural kind just is matter itself. Hegel then understands the progression within nature as a progression in which the idea gradually “returns to itself” out of its self-externalisation as matter. His thought is that in higher-level natural kinds, we discern the operation of organising and unifying principles that are not simply material, but rather give structure to matter. For example, in magnetism an integrating principle is operative that draws different elements together; in chemistry, again, an integrating principle draws different substances together; and ultimately, in living beings, a non-material whole organises and constitutes their various members.
So, for Hegel, nature does not instantiate the idea as a structure that is essentially independent of and unaffected by nature. Rather, the entirety of nature is the idea in a particular range of forms: first in totally self-externalised form as matter, and then in an ascending series of forms in which the idea progressively returns to itself by restoring organisation to its own material forms. (Moreover, this means that the idea is not only the system of logical and mental categories but also the system of natural kinds.)
Because all natural kinds are forms of the idea (forms that combine self-externalisation and self-restoration in varied proportions), Hegel understands the relations between natural kinds to be of the same type as relations between the logical categories that are non-self-externalised forms of the idea. When each logical category falls prey to problems, the idea generates or enters into the form of the category that will resolve that problem. (So the idea is not only the system of categories – and of natural kinds – but also the organising force behind the emergence of this system. This is because the idea, as a system or whole, is synthetic, constituting its parts.) Likewise in nature, the idea existing in the form of any given natural kind will, on becoming subject to an inner instability, generate or enter into the particular natural kind that will resolve that instability.
Moreover, an instability is generic to nature because nature is the idea existing in material, or materially entangled, forms which are inappropriate to the idea’s really non-material character. “[N]ature has … been regarded” – rightly, for Hegel – “as the idea’s falling short of itself, for in this external shape the idea is inadequate to itself” (Hegel, 1970, vol. 1, #248R, p. 209). Hence, the entire natural progression whereby the idea increasingly returns to itself is rational because that progression works to resolve nature’s generic instability. In this global case, as in the specific transitions within nature, nature exhibits the rationality of the idea that it ultimately is.
Strange as Hegel’s picture of nature is, it recognisably builds on the Romantic attempt to see nature as rationally self-organising in a way that prefigures human autonomy. But whereas for the Romantics (as we saw in the case of Novalis) nature organises itself because it has a telos to do so, for Hegel nature organises itself from reason. This is in the sense that nature enters into each of its component kinds, and takes on the overall organisation that it does, in order to resolve contra-rational instabilities. Together with his reconception of nature as rational, Hegel entirely abandons the sometime Romantic idea that nature develops quite groundlessly.
However, for Hegel it is only possible for nature to give its structure to itself from reason because nature is the idea (in self-externalised form). This fact enables nature to form itself rationally because the idea is the principle – operative not only in human thought but also throughout the world – that shapes itself into successive structures in ways that resolve instabilities or tensions in their predecessors: that is, the idea is the activity of constructing or generating structures rationally. Whereas Novalis equated nature with the absolute, then, for Hegel the idea – rational constructive activity as it generates the system of ontological structures, natural kinds and mental activities – is the absolute, the whole encompassing and constituting all entities. Nature is only part of the absolute idea. Thus, Hegel systematises the Romantic picture of nature by grounding nature in an underlying realm of non-material rational agency: “In time nature comes first, but the absolute prius is the idea” (Hegel, 1970, vol. 1, #248A, p. 211). This position is the basis for Hegel’s non-naturalist account of human autonomy.
Read separately from the Logic and Philosophy of Nature, the early sections of the Philosophy of Mind, in which Hegel explains how mind emerges from nature, could easily be taken to express naturalism ą la Novalis. Hegel claims that in organisms, the nature of each part (or “member”) is completely shaped by its function for the purposes of the whole organism, so that the organism’s “form” constitutes and completely pervades its parts (Hegel, 1971, #381A, p. 10). Consequently, the form is sentient, for sentience (Empfindung) is the state of being a centre that encompasses or overreaches, and is therefore in some sense present “within”, or returns into itself from, each bodily part. Sentience marks the beginning of mind: Hegel discusses sentience in the Philosophy of Nature as a characteristic of animals, but again in the Philosophy of Mind as a characteristic of specifically human animals, where it anticipates the higher levels of mind unique to humans. Then in the early parts of the Philosophy of Mind, he traces the emergence of feeling (the initial state of the sentient mind in which it is dispersed into its various sensations), self-feeling (Selbstgefühl – a kind of pre-reflective awareness of these sensations as one’s own), and consciousness (Bewußtsein – in which one begins to organise these sensations under concepts, initially very thin concepts). By sensations Hegel seems to understand bodily states or events insofar as the organism’s form is “within” them. However exactly we are to understand this, we can see generally how Hegel’s account of mind could appear to build on the teleological naturalism of Novalis. So construed, Hegel would be saying that nature pursues self-integration and achieves it to the highest level in organisms, whereupon that integration assumes the new form of mind, which in turn strives to integrate itself further (by judging sensations under concepts, etc.), this pursuit of integration being an extension of nature’s pursuit of integration.
However, Hegel stresses that “mind … differentiates itself from nature” (Hegel, 1971, #381A, p. 11), and that the specific mode of mind’s emergence from nature is a progressive liberation from nature rather than a realisation of nature to a higher level:
The illusory appearance that mind is mediated by something other [i.e. nature] is sublated by mind itself, since this has … the sovereign ingratitude of sublating that by which it appears to be mediated, … and in this way making itself completely self-subsistent. (Hegel, 1971, #381A, p. 14)
The culmination of this process within individuals is the emergence of human autonomy, the structure of which Hegel describes in the introduction to his Philosophy of Right. Following Kant, he contrasts autonomy (or what he calls “objective freedom”) to Willkür (“subjective freedom”), in which one simply selects which to follow of one’s antecedently given desires. The autonomous agent, in contrast, determines how to act solely from reason, and in so doing s/he “overcomes” (überwindet), “breaks” with (bricht) or “removes” (negiert) his or her naturalness (Hegel, 1991b, pp. 377, 333, 319). Hegel regards this activity of determining norms from reason as the highest level of an activity of organising and shaping its own content which the mind began to undertake by feeling its sensations to be its own and then by judging them under concepts. Crucially, this organising activity is said not to be natural – it is not, as Novalis held, the continuation of nature’s self-integrating activity – but, on the contrary, non-natural. How is this so?
Hegel’s answer relies on his view that nature is the self-externalised idea. As we saw, the idea increasingly returns to itself within nature in the sense that it increasingly re-assumes the form of form, of centres of non-material rational activity which organise matter without being material themselves. The more the idea resumes non-material form, the less the idea is natural (or, what is equivalent, the less the idea is self-externalised). Once the idea enters the form of organic form, in which it completely organises matter, we reach the threshold where nature ceases and mind begins. However, since the sensations that mind is initially to organise are states of the relevant body, why does Hegel not think that mind is still organising matter and so is still natural – a form in which the idea remains entangled with the self-external, material, bodily forms of itself that it is organising? Hegel admits that the mind initially remains natural: it is the “truth” (the product) of nature and as such exists as what he calls the “natural soul” (Hegel, 1971, #388, p. 29; #390, p. 34). But in organising its sensations, the mind generates new structures – concepts, judgements, principles of action – which, as organising principles, are non-material, so that insofar as it is engaged in constructing and systematising these principles, the mind is no longer natural. When the mind constructs practical principles for itself from reason, then, the mind is acting non-naturally; so that the idea, in these higher forms of mind, has fully returned to itself from its entanglement in matter. Of course, this does not mean that an autonomous, rational person is qua autonomous disembodied; any such person retains a body as that self-externalised form out of which the idea continually returns to itself, but in thus returning to itself the idea reorganises itself along non-natural, self-given lines. In Hegel’s own terms, then, his account of mind is non-naturalist, because on this account the mind in its higher-level functions is not natural. “Mind that is in and for itself is not the mere result of nature, but is in truth its own result; it brings itself forth” (Hegel, 1971, #381A, p. 14; my emphasis). This non-naturalist account of mind rests on a broader ontology that is non-naturalist because it grounds nature in the idea, a system of rational structures that precedes the natural world.
However, this anti-naturalist reading of Hegel could be challenged, notably by McDowell (1994), from whose perspective Hegel situates human desires within “second nature”, always already enculturated and morally educated so that no Kantian account of autonomy is required. While Hegel does indeed employ the concept of “second nature” (Hegel, 1991c, #151, p. 195), for him what permits our desires and sensations to become culturally educated is the fact that they are in themselves “conceptual” in the sense that I have examined: they are form-matter hybrids. But for Hegel this is a feature of our desires and sensations prior to any enculturation, because nature itself (nature in the sense of “first nature”) already has a conceptual side. By taking this view Hegel avoids making mature human perception qualitatively different from animal perception as McDowell seems pushed to do by his concept of “second nature”. But Hegel avoids this only by adopting his anti-naturalist view that nature is grounded in the idea.
Still, part of McDowell’s objection remains: if our desires and sensations are conceptual and educable by reason, then why should Hegel need a Kantian view of autonomy? The answer is that for Hegel our desires and sensations are imperfectly rational, because in them the idea remains “outside itself”, entangled with matter. It is because they are only imperfectly rational that our desires and sensations need to be educated in light of the perfect rationality of the idea that has “returned to itself”. That is, our desires and sensations must be educated and cultivated to accord with what we rationally determine to be normative. A Kantian view of autonomy is thus built into Hegel’s conception of the idea’s self-externalisation within, and self-restoration from, nature.
On my view, then, Hegel sees as rational human self-determination as prefigured by the prior form of rational self-organisation exercised by nature, whereby nature gives itself its structure from reason in virtue of being the (self-external) idea. Nature’s rational self-organisation makes possible human autonomy because as nature structures itself rationally, the idea progressively re-emerges within nature so that it can then assume the higher form of mind. Once arisen, the mind progressively breaks with nature, a progression that culminates in autonomous self-determination. But what makes these breaks possible is the structure of nature itself as self-cancelling, as the sphere in which the idea gradually overcomes its self-externalisation as matter.
Hegel resolves the conflicts in Romantic metaphysics, retaining Kant’s view that human autonomy involves a break with desire and with nature, while yet explaining how the human capacity to make this break emerges from nature. But Hegel’s resolution comes at the cost of a non-naturalist metaphysics and philosophy of mind. We might therefore think that the more worthwhile approach to nature and mind is the naturalist approach of Novalis, and that he should simply have abandoned his residual Kantian commitment to the opposition between reason and desire. He could then have said that our desires already, naturally, exhibit a level of rationality and so can be educated and cultivated – educated in accordance with a rationality that remains natural itself, constituting a higher-level realisation of nature’s rationality. However, this form of naturalism relies on the idea that nature has a telos to become systematically integrated and in that sense rational. But while this view of nature counted as naturalist in relation to the sciences of Novalis’s own time, which tended to support that view, it is less clear that Novalis’s view can count as naturalist for us today. At first glance at least, little in contemporary science (with partial exceptions, such as Gaia theory) seems to bear out Novalis’s view that nature is a systematically self-organising whole. It remains a matter for further investigation, then, whether anything like Novalis’s approach to nature and mind can be retained against the background of contemporary scientific accounts of nature.
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 I believe that the same is also true of Friedrich Schlegel, who comes to see human poetic creativity (which he regards as autonomous) as an outgrowth of the creativity of nature; see Stone 2005.
 I speak of ‘non-’ rather than ‘anti-naturalism’ here because Pinkard and Pippin construe Hegel as a ‘non-metaphysical’ thinker whose claims are consistent with the naturalist ontological thesis that all existents obey laws of nature (Pippin, 1999; 2005). On this reading, for Hegel autonomy requires not that agents have any metaphysical power for uncaused self-determination but merely the capacity to ‘take their lives in a certain way’ (Pinkard, 2002, p. 287) and so to be beholden solely to those reasons or values that they take to be authoritative. These reasons and values stand in the logical space of how agents ought to (rather than do in fact) think and act – a ‘space of reasons’ that is logically (rather than metaphysically) irreducible to the ‘space of natural law’.
 John McDowell would agree, but would think that this complication calls for a revised definition of naturalism. For him, Hegel does not limit “nature” to the physical nature of the empirical sciences but also includes within “nature” our “second nature”, our culturally educated desires, sensations and moral dispositions, which are natural because enculturation is “a normal part of what it is for a human being to come to maturity” (McDowell, 1994, p. 84). Hegel is, on this view, a kind of naturalist, taking the “nature” in naturalism to comprise physical and “second” nature. So for McDowell, Hegel has no need to understand autonomy as involving abstraction from desire, because he already treats desires as rational. I interpret Hegel differently; see section VI.
 Although for the Romantics, the only possible system is a system-in-progress (see Schlegel, 1991).
 From Pippin’s perspective Idealist and Romantic accounts of nature are uninteresting because they explain the natural origins of a capacity that, once arisen, is non-natural (which inaugurates the non-natural space of reasons). Pinkard (2002) gives Naturphilosophie slightly more shrift; he argues that it reconstructs the concept of nature that is needed to make science intelligible: namely, the concept of nature as non-normative in contrast to the normative space of reasons, this contrast (allegedly) being needed to make science intelligible as a norm-governed practice. However, the German Romantics and Idealists reject these sharp contrasts between the rational and the natural, the normative and the natural. For them nature already exercises rationality in organising itself, and nature follows norms in so doing. Pippin would reject such views of nature as misguided metaphysics. But before we can assess whether these views are misguided, we must acknowledge that the Romantics and Idealists did engage in this kind of metaphysical theorising about nature, and must examine the content of their metaphysical theories.
 Translations from Novalis and Hegel have sometimes been amended in light of, respectively, Novalis (1975) and Hegel (1972).
 For Novalis, then, a ‘thing’ is an individual entity that is as it is because it is causally conditioned to be so by other such entities, and which differs from other such entities in its properties such that it falls under different concepts from those others.
 Beiser, 2005, pp. 95-96, clearly explains the distinction between composite and synthetic wholes.
 Thus, Isaiah Berlin (1999) is not wholly wrong to attribute a belief in irrational, arbitrary will to the Romantics; he errs in seeing this belief as a central rather than a minor element in Romanticism.
 Of course this is one of Hegel’s criticisms of Romanticism, made apropos of the ‘Romantic irony’ of Schlegel; see Hegel, 1975, pp. 64-65.
 Not surprisingly, therefore, Novalis sometimes equates the absolute with God – not Spinoza’s pantheist God, but a personal God who exercises volition (Novalis, 2003, #151, p. 55).
 So Beiser shows (2002, 2005). As far as I know Hegel aimed to systematise not Novalis’s ideas specifically but the general Romantic view of the absolute, the tensions in which are played out not only in Novalis’s work but also in that of other Romantics, such as Schlegel – see Stone 2005. In this task Hegel built on Schelling, who he believed had not succeeded in completely systematising the Romantic view.
 Hegel himself often speaks of ‘tensions’ (Spannungen) in natural kinds; see Stone, 2004, p. 183.
 For more on how the idea self-externalises to produce nature, see Maker (1998), Halper (1998).
 For example, Hegel claims that because space is self-contradictory, the idea necessarily enters into the improved form of time (Hegel, 1970, vol. 1, #257A, p. 229).
 ‘[I]t is man who first raises himself above the singleness of sensation to the universality of thought … in a word, it is only man who is thinking mind and by this, and by this alone, is essentially distinguished from nature’ (Hegel, 1971, #381A, p. 14). For Hegel there is no mystery about how the mind can produce non-material structures: the mind is the idea as rational constructive activity. Any mystery here (of which Hegel hopes there is none) already applies to the logical idea.