On Alienation from Life: A Response to Wendell Kisner’s ‘A Species-Based Environmental Ethic in Hegel’s Logic of Life’


Wendell Kisner’s article is important. It breaks the near-universal silence about what the possible relations might be between Hegel and environmental ethics. This silence is surprising: environmentalism has raced to the top of the political agenda in the US and the UK, as in other countries, while Hegel scholarship continues to flourish. Yet most environmental philosophers remain caught in an image of Hegel as someone who favors mind and reason at nature’s expense, and the prevailing trend in Hegel studies – the trend to read Hegel’s ‘dialectic as the public-communal constitution and recognition of rational norms, free of ontological claims, in a kind of historicized Kantianism’ – has not helped to dispel that image.[1]

So Kisner’s arguments mark a welcome departure from this historicized-Kantian approach. For Kisner, Hegelian philosophy has the scope to intervene constructively into debates in environmental ethics, specifically to provide a welcome alternative to the orientation towards ‘intrinsic value’ found in so much environmental ethics. If I understand Kisner rightly, he thinks that the very notion of ‘value’ assumes a fact/value gap such that ‘value’ can only ever be external to ‘facts’ about environments and organisms. Since environmentalist arguments for intrinsic value assume this fact/value gap, their diverse attempts to bridge this same gap are necessarily arbitrary and unconvincing.[2] The Hegelian alternative that Kisner proposes is to see organic life as having an inherent logic such that it is irreducible to mechanism and cannot be appropriately or rationally treated as mere stuff or as a mere means to human ends.

Accordingly, Kisner writes, ‘life … cannot be adequately conceived in terms of purely mechanical processes and … it is ontologically inappropriate to treat it as if it were a mere mechanism [or] a mere means to an end that is external to it’. The categories (that is, the ontological principles) of mechanism undermine themselves: the mechanical-chemical sphere proves to be more than can be accounted for under mechanistic categories. The mechanical-chemical sphere proves to be, in truth, life, so that life is not mechanism plus some vital extra, but is mechanism as it proves to be more than itself. Thus, despite involving no vital extra, life is irreducible to mechanism and must be understood in its own terms. To reduce life to mechanism is to assume, erroneously, that mechanical categories are sustainable and not self-undermining.

Kisner carefully follows Hegel’s reconstruction in his Logic of how this self-undermining happens. Let me summarize his very clear account. Indifferent, self-external mechanical objects prove to be not actually self-subsistent and indifferent; this is because, as they are not self-determining, they must be determined to be self-external by something outside themselves, namely (at this stage of the dialectic) other mechanical objects. Mechanical objects thus exist only in relation to others outside them and as such they are now chemical, oscillating between being mutually external and being united with one another. Externality thereby proves to be an aspect of self-determining chemical processes. This brings us to the category of teleology, in which externality seems to be a means external to the purposive processes that use it. Yet actually these external means are constituted by those processes, which are objectifying themselves, purposively alienating themselves into mechanical-chemical shape. With self-objectification, we reach life.

Because life is self-objectifying, it exists as a living body. This embodies the conflict between life’s unity as a single process and its dispersal into bodily multiplicity. In sensibility the organism returns to unity, but its internal conflict is thereby lost. The organism therefore must re-confront its externality as something genuinely outside it – an outer environment different from it, and then another living being (because the organism must confront that which is outside it as implicitly its own, the same as it). The living being, then, is necessarily one amongst others in a shared environment. But the otherness by which the organism is now surrounded pains it insofar as it is in principle self-same. It needs to reproduce itself as a unity by way of the other. Therefore the organism assimilates other beings, and determines how other objects mechanically-chemically affect it. The organism shapes its own environment. And because that organism has proved to be, in truth, one amongst similar others sharing a habitat – i.e. to be a member of a species – that organism must reproduce itself as the species (e.g. it must reproduce sexually, in the case of many organisms). But, because it is a self-external unity, the organism reproduces its species-unity only in the form of another particular, finite individual. In life, species and individual remain in dissension.

This ontology of life has ethical implications, Kisner argues. Firstly, as rational beings we must follow the necessity of reason; and to do so is to be self-determining, genuinely free as opposed to a mere maker of arbitrary choices. Following the necessity of reason, we must grasp life in its irreducibility, and as, in truth, species. Secondly, as self-determining beings we must act in ways, and must cultivate habits and have social institutions, that embody our rationality and hence that treat life appropriately to its being, hence not as a mere means or a set of indifferent external objects. Our self-determination, then, requires that we act non-anthropocentrically. This does not mean that our obligations to life are grounded, anthropocentrically after all, in our own necessity of being rational, of fidelity to our own rational essence. Kisner ingeniously argues that our duty to ourselves as rational beings is a duty to grasp being as it is and, within that, to know and respond to life as it really is. We are to treat life as life for its own sake, because to be the rational knowers that we are we have to treat life as the life that it is.

So, we have obligations to life, but since life is in truth species, our obligations are to preserve species, not necessarily single individuals: these may be sacrificed to the species (contrary to some individualistic animal-rights theories). This consequence follows from our grasp of the species/individual dissension that inheres in life: to treat life as it is to treat its species-being as in partial conflict with, and if necessary as trumping, its individual-being. We are also obliged to preserve habitats and biological diversity as the external body of life – not as living beings’ external means to their own continuation but as part of life, the self-external shape in which life itself is objectified. In his Philosophy of Nature, Hegel characterizes the entire earth as self-externalized life: ‘Life, as only the immediate idea, is … outside itself [außer sich], non-life [Nicht-Leben], only the corpse of the living process, the organism as totality of lifelessly existing, mechanical and physical nature’.[3] Thus although under Kisner’s approach we have no obligations to non-living nature, very little is thereby lost, because the scope of ‘life’ includes much that we would ordinarily, but irrationally, categorize as non-living – as Hegel has it, non-life is an aspect of the entire life process.

As Kisner concedes, if this approach is Hegelian in the sense of being the logical consequence of Hegel’s account of life in his Logic, it is not the road actually traveled by Hegel in his Elements of the Philosophy of Right. On the contrary, Hegel insists in that work that living beings are external means to the human end of embodying freedom in private property, and that the only obligations that human subjects have are towards other human beings and not towards non-human living beings or any other aspect of life. But, Kisner argues, with this insistence Hegel betrays his own thought. In the Logic, as Kisner cites, Hegel says that when something acts on a living being mechanically – or, by implication, teleologically, as a finite means ­– ‘it is not acting on it as on a living being’ (my emphasis). And yet, Hegel also says (and as Kisner also quotes), ‘A person has as his substantive end the right of putting his will into any and every thing … because it has no such end in itself’ – and these ‘things’ include non-human living things, explicitly. So, Kisner concludes, Hegel has betrayed his own thought. The implication seems to be that Hegel’s Philosophy of Right would need very extensive revision to make it genuinely Hegelian by taking account of human obligations to life.

But a problem arises here. For Hegel, of course, the Philosophy of Right is not merely a normative account of the right way to structure the social world. It is also a descriptive account of the social structures – private property, the nuclear family, civil society, the nation-state – that Hegel saw emerging in modern European societies. Indeed, as a descriptive account it is still largely accurate. Nuclear families, civil society, private property and nation-states (globalization notwithstanding) are still with us. They are still the ‘basic structure’ of Western societies. Moreover, it is still the case that, in fact, these social institutions embody only inter-human rights and obligations and that they are premised on the assumption that non-human living and non-living beings are mere means to the realization of human freedom. Hegel described this feature of these institutions, and he described it accurately. For example, the fact is that our work and family lives relying on us treating oil as a means for driving cars and running machinery, or at best as a resource to be conserved for future generations. We certainly do not treat the chemical stratum of the earth as part of the objectified body of life as a whole and, as such, as something that cannot appropriately be treated as a mere external means.

But perhaps, in consistency, Hegel should not have argued that the social institutions he saw emerging in modern Europe were the embodiment of human freedom and rationality. Yet that argument is fundamental to his project as a social-political philosopher. As Michael Hardimon has put it, Hegel seeks to show us that our modern social world – at least in its essential, incipient kernel – is objectively a home for us, a place where we can be at home in otherness and so be free. We may feel alienated (entfremdet) from this world, but this is subjective and not objective alienation: objectively, our social world is a home, even if this truth is not transparent to us.[4]

If we follow Kisner’s argument, though, then we are objectively alienated from ourselves in this social world. This world does not appropriately institutionalize our freedom, that is, our rational self-determination that crucially includes our obligation as rational thinking beings to grasp life in its own irreducible logic and to act and live consistently with that grasp of life. Instead, our modern social world constrains us to be unfree, to act in accordance with ways of thinking about and of treating living beings which our own rationality tells us are false.

On Kisner’s reading of Hegel, then, he should to be consistent have said that objectively we are not at home in the world. Somewhat like Marx, albeit for different reasons, Hegel should have said that we are objectively alienated. Presumably, also like Marx, he should have identified some locus in the existing social world of a nascent more consistent rationality and ethos with the potential to transform society and end our objective alienation (equivalent to Marx’s proletariat). Perhaps this locus would be certain of our everyday life-world practices – recycling, composting, re-using materials, insulating houses.

But could this possibly be a Hegelian approach? For Hegel, the aim of showing that we are objectively at home in our social world – or at least that that world has the essential lineaments of a place where we can be at home – is fundamental. We therefore have to question Kisner’s argument that Hegel’s positions in the Philosophy of Right represent a failure of consistency on his part. Consider that, for Hegel, life never succeeds in unifying itself. Species and individuals remain in dissension (as Kisner himself says), and within each living body unity and material plurality remain in dissension too. Thus, Hegel claims, nature is the sphere of division between unity and material plurality, and even nature’s highest form, life, cannot totally dissolve this division. Mind, however, does overcome this division through rational thought, in which conceptual universals comprehensively encompass sensory particulars, and through the construction of social institutions that embody human freedom as rational self-determination.

If life is the truth of mechanism, then equally mind is the truth of life. Mind is the self-differentiating unity that life is in principle but fails fully to be. Ontologically higher than mechanism, life is nonetheless ontologically below mind. Or so, at least, Hegel believes. But these beliefs imply that relative to mind, non-minded living beings – that is, non-human living beings and non-human life in all its aspects – do not count as having their ends in themselves. This is because, compared to mind, non-human life forms fail to fully realize their own purposiveness in their materiality – to fully integrate their unity and their corporeal plurality. But ultimately, as rational beings, we must grasp life precisely in comparison to mind, as relatively undeveloped compared to the mind that life in its self-undermining turns out to be. Consequently, Hegel can consistently claim that to treat life as it really is – as life, irreducible to mechanism – is also to treat life as ontologically inferior to human mind and therefore is, in practice, to treat non-human life as a mere means to human purposes, not an end in itself or bearer of inherent worth. Relative to human beings, life has no rights.

I say this not to endorse these Hegelian views, but so as to acknowledge that with respect to environmental issues Hegel’s thought is not unequivocally constructive. As I argued, although in a somewhat different way, in Petrified Intelligence, Hegel opens up possibilities for engagement with environmental ethics at the ontological or metaphysical level of his thought – including, as Kisner shows, by thinking life ontologically as an end in itself. But Hegel closes down these possibilities at the level of his moral-political philosophy. Contrary to Kisner, though, I think that this closure reflects deep features of Hegel’s philosophical thinking, not a mere failure to follow his own arguments through. This does not make him the enemy of nature that he is sometimes made out to be. But it does mean that Hegel’s relation to environmentalism is inescapably ambiguous.


Alison Stone, Lancaster University

[1] Richard Velkley, review of Songsuk Susan Hahn, Contradiction in Motion: Hegel's Organic Conception of Life and Value, in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 2008.04.22 (http://ndpr.nd.edu/review.cfm?id=12943)

[2] In this connection Kisner criticises my own argument that, for Hegel, intrinsic value (or goodness) inheres in practical rationality and the latter is a dimension in all natural beings (in my Petrified Intelligence: Nature in Hegel’s Philosophy, Albany: SUNY Press, 2004, esp. ch. 6). As Kisner notes, this argument attributes to Hegel belief in a division between nature’s rational and material sides. In partial defence of my earlier work, I will be arguing in this response that Hegel does indeed uphold such a division when he characterises life as self-external, and that this characterisation is crucially connected to his denial of human obligations to nature or to non-human living beings.

[3] Hegel, Enzykopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften II, Werke 9 (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1970), §337.

[4] Michael O. Hardimon, Hegel’s Social Philosophy: The Project of Reconciliation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), esp. pp. 119-22.