The Importance and Relevance of Hegel's Philosophy of Nature

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INTRODUCTION. There can be no doubt that interest in Hegel among Anglo-American philosophers is greater now than it has been at any point in the past 100 years. This interest has happily taken the form of increased attention to his major published works, primarily the Phenomenology of Spirit and the Philosophy of Right. (1) While the more systematically central Science of Logic remains largely the domain of Hegel specialists, non-specialists, particularly those interested in Hegel's relation to Kant, are turning to that text as well. And given the influence of Hegel on some contemporary philosophers of mind, it seems inevitable that the Philosophy of Spirit will soon come in for detailed treatment. (2) But amidst all this increased interest in Hegel, a major part of his mature system has been almost completely ignored: the Philosophy of Nature. (3)

The Anglo-American tradition in philosophy, and the Austrian tradition from which it in part stems, have always harbored deep suspicions about this area of Hegel's thought. Bolzano, a contemporary of Hegel's whom Dummett has called "the great-grandfather of analytic philosophy" (4) devoted considerable time and ink to attacks on Hegel generally and on the Philosophy of Nature in particular; he repeatedly uses the heading "Hegel's Ignorance" for his notebook entries on that text. (5) Helmholtz, the sober-minded scientist and prominent member of the "back to Kant" movement that eventually led to 20th-century neo-Kantianism and positivism, also singles out this part of Hegel's system for scorn, saying that upon its release it "appeared to natural scientists to be, at the very least, absolutely senseless." (6) He did not think time had improved its intelligibility, either. Similar, and well-known, comments are to be found in the writings of Popper and Russell. (7)

Yet it would be wrong to single out Anglo-American philosophers for their eagerness to condemn the Philosophy of Nature. Perhaps predictably, some Hegel partisans, recognizing a chance to gain an audience for one part of the system by disavowing another, have attacked the Philosophy of Nature in the process of advocating a Hegelian approach to some other area of inquiry. (8) Indeed, this strategy appears particularly popular among Hegelians whose primary interest is in developing a Hegelian approach to the sciences of nature. So we can find Meyerson, an otherwise dedicated Hegelian, attacking the philosophy of nature even as he advocates a "Hegelian" historical treatment of the natural sciences themselves. (9) On the whole, then, both passionate anti-Hegelians and passionate Hegelians are united in their rejection of the Philosophy of Nature. (10)

Are they wrong? The purpose of this paper is to indicate, if only briefly and in sketch form, the basis for a new understanding and evaluation of the Philosophy of Nature. The central task in carrying out this project is to show that Hegel's philosophy of nature is entirely intelligible within the context of a straightforward understanding of modern, mathematized natural science, its goals, and its values. Since many of these goals and values are intimately bound up with conceptions of experiment, empirical responsiveness, and responsibility to the deliverances of the senses and their technological proxies, I can carry out this task only if I can overcome the central obstacle blocking virtually every reading of the Philosophy of Nature to date: namely, the conviction that Hegel claims a priori status for his system, and for the part dealing with nature in particular.

Beyond merely arguing that the Philosophy of Nature is not "at the very least, absolutely senseless," I have another goal: to show that Hegel's Philosophy of Nature is both important and relevant to contemporary philosophical concerns beyond the areas of history of philosophy and Hegel scholarship. (11) In particular, an adequate study of the Philosophy of Nature yields results for the problem of the rationality of scientific theory change, as well as yielding results in philosophy of mind and epistemology. …


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