Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Hegel's Ontological Pluralism: Rethinking the Distinction between Natur and Geist

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Hegel's Ontological Pluralism: Rethinking the Distinction between Natur and Geist

Article excerpt

THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN a human social world and a natural world governed by immutable laws has been decisive for modern philosophy. Some have even suggested that this dichotomy is itself constitutive of what it means to be modern, or at least of modernity's self-understanding. (1) Of course, there are many important variations in how exactly we should think through this distinction--from Descartes's res cogitans and res extensa to Rousseau's nature and civil society to Kant's realm of freedom and realm of necessity--and these differences have significant repercussions. Nevertheless, most modern philosophers work within some form of differentiation between the world of nature which is the proper object of the natural sciences and the human, minded, and sociohistorical world, and Hegel is no exception. Hegel is distinctive, however, in his attempt to both articulate the truth of such a difference and simultaneously to overcome it by showing the continuity or unity between the human world and the natural world. The goal of this paper is to argue for how Hegel's account of the relationship between nature and spirit (Natur und Geist) is an attempt both to preserve and to overcome this modern dichotomy. This task is important because some of the recent secondary literature on Hegel appears to suggest a false alternative: either Hegel follows Kant's distinction between the natural realm of necessity and the realm of human freedom, or he returns to a precritical rationalist monism wherein nature is nothing but an emanation of the Idea. I will argue that if we are able to reconstruct Hegel's account of how to think both the difference and the unity between the natural and human world, not only do we move beyond this false dichotomy, but we also end up at the surprising conclusion that Hegel is an ontological pluralist who believes that entities exist in many different ways.

Accounts of Hegel's idealism have wavered between two opposing interpretive poles for some time now. One general line of interpretation, historically the more traditional one, sees in Hegel's philosophy the expression of a robust metaphysical rationalism, while another draws his idealism closer to Kant's critical philosophy and its various restrictions. (2) While this is not always made explicit, these different readings have repercussions for how we interpret the relationship between the human historical world of spirit and the realm of nature within Hegel's philosophy. The metaphysical interpreters tend to see nature as a "manifestation" of Geist, and read the Natur/Geist distinction as somehow unified or overcome speculatively, while the nonmetaphysical readers emphasize the distinction until it almost becomes a Kantian dichotomy. In his classic study, for example, Charles Taylor describes Geist as an elaborate and historically mediated "cosmic spirit" (3) at work in and through everything, including nature. (4) On this reading, Hegel's rationalism implies that everything is somehow grounded in or an emanation of the Concept (der Begriff). What we end up with is a fairly exuberant form of monistic rationalism in which all of existence derives from the thinking activity of a cosmic substance, or in Taylor's words: "For the inner truth of things is that they flow from thought, that they are structured by rational necessity.., the Concept is an active principle underlying reality, making it what it is." (5) Even the supposedly contingent products of nature are expressions or emanations of Geist. Of course, Hegel is presented as having an elaborate defense of this position, and it does not have to be crude or cartoonish in the way I have just presented it. In fact, many commentators have successfully attempted to refine and defend this picture of Hegel as a monistic rationalist, sometimes by showing how this monism is actually quite epistemologically sophisticated, (6) or by demonstrating how it was historically motivated by the necessity of uniting Fichte's notion of freedom with Spinozistic naturalism and substance monism. …

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