Response to Halper and Dahlstrom


I thank John Fritzman for organising the APA session out of which these papers arose, and I particularly thank Halper and Dahlstrom for their very helpful and thought-provoking criticisms and questions. I will not take up every one of the points that they raise. Rather, I have selected the six questions which I judge to be most crucial: Hegel’s relationship to environmental thought; the nature of Hegel’s idealism; the interpretation of Hegel’s infamous transition from logic to nature; the extent to which nature is material; the extent to which sensibility is conceptual; and whether one single metaphysics underlies empirical science.

Firstly, I am pleased to find that Halper and Dahlstrom are open to my drawing a connection between Hegel and environmental philosophy. One of the motivations behind my book was my frustration at the frequently expressed, if not standard, view that Hegel devalues nature. (Jeffrey Reid, for example, writes that for Hegel ‘the purely natural is radically devalued’,[1] while Allan Megill writes that Hegel ‘crammed the phenomena of natural science into a Procrustean bed in which natural phenomena were subordinated to spirit’).[2] There now exists a substantial amount of scholarship which argues that the work of other German Idealist and Romantic thinkers, such as Schelling and Goethe, is relevant to or anticipates environmental philosophy.[3] But the same scholars who demonstrate this relevance almost invariably draw an unfavourable contrast with the work of Hegel.[4] Admittedly, these contrasts are often based on relatively superficial acquaintance with Hegel’s theory of nature, but they help to disseminate the idea that Hegel has nothing to contribute to environmental philosophy. In my book, I wanted to challenge this more-or-less standard view by showing that, when we attend to the details of Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature, we see that his project, too, prefigures that of environmental philosophy in certain respects: for example, he implicitly believes that all natural entities have intrinsic value. Nonetheless, reading Dahlstrom’s and Halper’s criticisms has prompted me to make me wonder whether, even on my interpretation of Hegel, he still in some sense subordinates nature to spirit. I remain persuaded that, on the whole, Hegel does not, but I think matters are somewhat more nuanced than my book suggested. I will return to this when I consider the extent of nature’s materiality.

Let me now address some of the issues on which Halper, Dahlstrom and I disagree, beginning with that of the character of Hegel’s ‘idealism’. Halper objects that my interpretation of Hegel is dualistic. When I ask (in my book) whether Hegel’s metaphysics truly captures nature’s real character, Halper argues, I presume that there is a physical reality of nature, distinct from our thoughts and to which these thoughts may or may not correspond. By ‘dualistic’ views, then, Halper means views which presume that there is a distinction between concepts or thoughts and material entities which may correspond to, or instantiate or exemplify, thoughts. Halper argues that one of Hegel’s key objections to ‘physics’ – that is, science – is precisely that science is implicitly committed to a dualist metaphysics, since scientists distinguish thoughts (scientific hypotheses and theories) from the particular material realities that those thoughts attempt to explain. By contrast, Halper maintains, Hegel is an ‘idealist’: that is, he believes that only thought is real and that physical reality is actually a ‘determination’ of thought.[5] From this perspective, the difference between physical reality and categories is an internal difference arising within categorial thought. The irony, then, Halper concludes, is that though I profess to appreciate Hegel as a critic of the metaphysics implicit in science, I myself endorse the very same – dualist – metaphysics upon which science rests.

However, when I ask whether Hegel’s metaphysics corresponds to the reality of nature, I do not assume that nature must be merely physical. I take it that, if the concepts constituting Hegel’s metaphysics (his theory of the basic features of reality) do correspond to reality, then reality must be as Hegel describes it and so must consist not only of matter but also of ‘objective’ forms of thought which are embodied in matter. Thus, I understand Hegel’s ‘idealism’ to consist in the belief that physical reality has an inner, rational, structure, a structure which can (as Frederick Beiser has recently expressed it in his German Idealism) be properly called ‘ideal’ – despite its objective, mind-independent, existence – because it is rational and intelligible.[6] The question, then, is whether there really exists a structure of objective forms of thought which are instantiated within matter, or whether Hegel gives us good reasons to believe that such a structure exists.

Nonetheless, Halper’s objection stands insofar as, on my reading, Hegel believes that this structure of thought-forms is embodied in matter, thereby apparently presupposing that matter – physical reality – exists as something different from concepts. How, then, does Halper argue otherwise? His central argument is comprised within his account of Hegel’s transition from logic to nature. Halper re-examines the last section of the Science of Logic, where Hegel ends his discussion of logical categories and moves on to nature. According to Halper, the last logical category, the ‘absolute idea’, incorporates all preceding categories and, in so doing, becomes self-contained, related only to itself. It therefore comes to instantiate the first logical category, ‘being’, which is simple and immediate. So absolute idea has two conceptual determinations: complexity (because it incorporates all previous logical categories) and now, too, simplicity. These determinations are ‘other’ to one another; they are antithetical, but combined, so that they just, as it were, exist alongside one another. With this, we reach the beginning of nature, which is initially pure ‘otherness’ or ‘externality’ or – what for Hegel is the same – physical matter (taking matter, as Hegel does, to be partes extra partes).[7] Thus, Halper argues, Hegel considers physical reality to be merely a function of a particular relationship between conceptual determinations.

I find this ingenious, but I become worried by readings of Hegel, such as Halper’s, according to which Hegel tries to derive actual existence from thought. Schelling objected, in his late lectures on the history of philosophy, that there can be no valid derivation of the facticity of the ‘that’ (Daß) from an analysis of concepts of ‘what’ is possible. According to Schelling, one can only reach the ‘that’ by breaking out of conceptual analysis and simply accepting existence as a given.[8] Feuerbach, building on Schelling, takes the existence that is given to be specifically material existence.[9] Schelling’s objection, and Feuerbach’s development of it, motivate me to think, on charitable grounds, that Hegel does take physical reality to be given and to exist mind-independently.

Nonetheless, from this initial starting-point (the acceptance of the givenness of physical existence), Hegel proceeds in the Philosophy of Nature to trace how physical reality comes to instantiate objective thought. Moreover, he begins this undertaking by arguing that matter per se contains an internal tension: being material, it is partes extra partes, but, because nothing differentiates these parts, they prove identical, and, being self-identical, matter turns out after all to be a form of thought (thought being that which is unextended, devoid of parts). To resolve this tension, the thought-element and the physical element within matter must, first, become distinct from one another; thereafter, the thought-element must progressively reorganise matter, which results in the production of a series of natural forms, in each of which physical existence instantiates objective structures of thought in a distinct way. Unlike Halper, then, I think that Hegel does not consider matter to be solely a function of thought; rather, Hegel believes that matter is partly a form of thought, but also has an element of sheer physicality. Indeed, matter is conceptual only insofar as it is purely physical, and so the sheer physicality of matter is its original feature, although Hegel’s philosophical analysis professes to prove that this physicality is at the same time a form of thought and hence that matter actually contains two fused elements.

This brings me to the next issue which I want to consider, the problem of the materiality of nature. Dahlstrom objects that, despite my efforts, Hegel still does not allow enough materiality to the matter of nature. Dahlstrom, in this respect, criticises me from the opposite direction to Halper. Dahlstrom makes two main points. Firstly, since, in support of my reconstruction of Hegel’s account of the successive stages in nature, I appeal to how they run in parallel with the stages that Hegel finds in consciousness, it follows that even my own attempted demonstration of nature’s mind-independent rationality indicates ‘that the Philosophy of Nature is subordinated to the effort to demonstrate the absoluteness of spirit and its logic’. That is, Dahlstrom contends, Hegel is determined to construe nature as approximating to spirit as it progresses towards self-knowledge. However, perhaps we need not draw this inference from Hegel’s attempt to find parallels between the domains of consciousness and nature. Perhaps, instead, his attempt testifies to his belief that consciousness and nature must be thought through together, where this belief reflects the assumption that we (humans) are beings situated in nature and whose intelligence must be developed from, and modelled upon, some proto-intelligence that already exists within nature.

Secondly, Dahlstrom has doubts about my reconstruction of Hegel’s argument that there is an internal tension within matter. This internal tension, to recall, consists in the fact that matter is both internally differentiated (hence material) and wholly self-identical (hence conceptual). Dahlstrom asks why the self-identity of matter should make it a form of thought. At this point, Hegel relies on his general identification of thought with what is ‘universal’, so that forms of thought are universal patterns or structures that organise things and are the locus of unity in things. Thus, because matter proves to lack internal differentiation, it proves to be a unified, intelligible, structure of this kind. Moreover, Hegel believes that, as well as having this conceptual aspect, matter retains its purely physical aspect, because matter can only be conceptual to the extent that it also is, and remains, physical. This, I think, should alleviate the worry that Hegel does not accommodate matter’s materiality or what am I calling physicality.

Dahlstrom raises a related worry about my reconstruction of Hegel’s theory of sensibility in the Philosophy of Mind. Dahlstrom’s worry is that, on my reconstruction, Hegel assumes that sensibility has rational content and structure and so approximates to conceptual thought; thus, he already understands sensible experience on the model of conceptual thought. But here is a global suggestion in defence of Hegel’s approach of seeing nature and sensibility as, respectively, rational and proto-conceptual. Perhaps this approach does not subordinate nature and sensibility to spirit, but naturalises spirit. Of course, Hegel repeatedly claims that humans are irreducibly non-natural insofar as they exhibit spirit or mind (the locus of conscious rational thought).[10] But he remains convinced that this minded dimension of humans arises out of the prior dimension of rationality or conceptuality that exists within nature.[11] Presumably, this is because Hegel thinks that it would be inexplicable how we could have minds unless there existed some relatively undeveloped analogue within nature of which mind can be seen as the fullest realisation. Thus, I believe, Hegel describes nature as rational not so as to subordinate it to spirit, but so as to be able to satisfactorily situate spirit within nature.

Finally, Dahlstrom questions whether, in view of the disunity of science, it can rightly be said to presuppose one single metaphysics. Halper, for his part, thinks that the metaphysics which I ascribe to science is not the one that (according to Hegel) it actually does presuppose, namely, a metaphysics according to which nature does evince some intelligence or rationality. But the claim that science presupposes a single metaphysics, and one according to which nature is composed of ‘bare things’, is crucial to my attempt to defend the project of philosophy of nature, both in and beyond Hegel. This is because I defend this project by arguing that thinking about nature is specifically philosophical just when it issues from metaphysical assumptions about nature which diverge from and improve upon those of science. Now, two lines of response to Dahlstrom and Halper are open to me.

The first possible response is to rethink what the project of philosophy of nature consists in. I myself argued in my book that Hegel opens up philosophy of nature as a project that should be rearticulated outside of his own terms. Thus, rethinking philosophy of nature in a way that removes it more strongly from Hegel’s own version of it is a possibility for me. Dahlstrom suggests that philosophy of nature might involve ‘articulating the historical reality of our engagement with nature in all its theoretical, practical, aesthetic and ethical complexity’. I take this to mean that philosophy of nature would be the project of producing a comprehensive, but avowedly historically situated and fallible, picture of nature which accommodates our practical and sensory experience of nature as well as scientific theories about it. This would be a kind of ‘post-metaphysical’ philosophy of nature.

Alternatively, the second possible response is to defend my prima facie implausible claim about science. Now, in the background to my reading of Hegel was a broad acceptance of the picture of science that emerges from the first-generation Frankfurt School: Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse argue that modern science rests on a conception of nature as merely quantifiable stuff. This conception, they suggest, has practical implications built into it; specifically, it implies that it is legitimate for us to manipulate, and to intervene unrestrainedly into, this bare stuff.[12] Of course, the fact that the Frankfurt School endorse this view of science does not prove that it is accurate. Indeed, Adorno, at least, recognises that his pessimistic picture of science oversimplifies, portraying as the totality of science what is only one tendency within it – the tendency to quantification.[13] However, he believes that, because this tendency exists within science, it may come to prevail, unless we act to prevent this; but we will take such action only if we adhere to the (admittedly simplified) idea that science just is quantifying. Thinking that science has only a tendency in that direction will not be enough to motivate us to act to change science, Adorno believes. One might call the resultant position ‘strategic simplification’ about science. To the extent that my simplification about the metaphysics of science can be defended, I suggest, it can only be on some such strategic grounds as these.


[1] Jeffrey Reid, ‘Hegel and the State University: The University of Berlin and its Founding Contradictions’, Owl of Minerva 32: 1 (2000), p. 11.

[2] Allan Megill, Karl Marx: The Burden of Reason (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), p. 37.

[3] See, for example, Elaine Miller, The Vegetative Soul: From Philosophy of Nature to Subjectivity in the Feminine (Albany: SUNY Press, 2002); Wirth, Jason M. The Conspiracy of Life: Meditations on Schelling and his Time (Albany: SUNY Press, 2003).

[4] For instance, Miller, The Vegetative Soul, ch. 5; Wirth, ‘Introduction’ to Schelling Now: Contemporary Readings, ed. Wirth (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005), p. 5: ‘The ecological sensitivity of Schelling’s early writings, their receptivity to the call of the earth, is left largely unexplored by Hegel’.

[5] Halper, ‘The Idealism of Hegel’s System’, Owl of Minerva 34: 1 (2002-03), p. 20.

[6] Beiser, German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism 1781-1801 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002), p. 353.

[7] Hegel states that in nature ‘the idea appears in the element of mutual externality [Außereinander] … in nature this subsists near this, this follows that, – in brief, everything natural is mutually external, ad infinitum; furthermore, matter, this universal basis of all the formations that are there in nature … holds itself external to its own self’; Philosophy of Mind, trans. A. V. Miller and W. Wallace (Oxford: Clarendon, 1971), §381A, p. 9.

[8] For an explanation of Schelling’s view, see Stephen Houlgate, ‘Schelling’s Critique of Hegel’s Science of Logic’, in Review of Metaphysics 53 (1999), pp. 99-128.

[9] See Ludwig Feuerbach, ‘Provisional Theses for the Reformation of Philosophy’, in The Young Hegelians: An Anthology, ed. Lawrence S. Stepelevich (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1983), pp. 164, 166-7.


[11] EM

[12] See, for example: Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (London: Verso, 1997), pp. 3-5; Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason (New York: Continuum, 1974), esp. pp. 105-109; Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), esp. pp. 157-158.

[13] To be more exact, Adorno concedes that his generally pessimistic view of modern capitalist society oversimplifies and actually only picks out tendencies, but he defends his simplification on strategic grounds; see Deborah Cook, Adorno, Habermas, and the Search for a Rational Society (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 173.