Academic journal article Philosophy Today

The Figure of (Self)-Sacrifice in Hegel's Naturphilosophie

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

The Figure of (Self)-Sacrifice in Hegel's Naturphilosophie

Article excerpt

The poem with which we open is one of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's lesser known literary efforts. It has none of the poignancy of Eleusis, dedicated to Friedrich Holderlin, nor the innocence of some of the more lyrical nature poems. One of Hegel's biographers describes the poem as an interplay of "playful freedom, natural necessity, estrangement of self and return to self."2 On this account, the description of Hegel's interaction with his pet poodle could almost encapsulate the later dialectical method. Both the poem and the explanation certainly have a foreboding ring of what is to come; at the time of the poem's composition Hegel had broached neither the philosophy of nature nor the dialectical method. Perhaps it is not frivolous to see in this "playful description" an ominous sign of what would become Hegel's attitude towards nature in his mature works.

The poem describes a dog that runs about on the grass in circles, possibly chasing a stick, always returning to the master who is walking with his friends. But the dog, a mere animal without language or rationality, is distracted by other dogs, and in particular, by a female dog who pulls him away from the cycle of the master that Hegel indicates is "higher" than the natural, sexual cycle that tempts the dog away. The master shouts "Halt!" and "Come back!" The words "tear [the dog] loose" from mere instinct, but he is weak, and the natural drive pulls him away again. The master shouts, and awaits the dog with a cane, determined to teach through pure force what could not be communicated rationally. Though the dog cannot understand the words, the blows of the cane teach him the power of the necessity of reason over the contingency of pure natural impulse. "Do you see what 'Must' means? Now you see it."

But Hegel somewhat excuses the dog: "He cannot help it." In spite of this, the dog is beaten, in order that he may learn to obey his master. One cannot help visualizing a slightly hysterical young Hegel, his face red with righteous indignation, repeatedly beating his dog with a cane "for its own good" for not realizing that chasing a human's stick is spiritually higher than indulging in the pleasures of the senses. The alternation of perspective within the poem intensifies the uneasy feeling the poem creates in the reader: in the moments when Hegel speaks of the dog as "he," he (Hegel) is distant and descriptive, if utterly anthropocentric ("He [the dog] runs in broad circles on the plane, we are his point of return"). Yet as soon as he speaks directly as master to the dog (in the intimate Du form) Hegel becomes shrilly insistent upon the necessity of the lower animal's obedience and subservience ("You cry at the blows: Obey the commands of the master"). At this moment the pet dog becomes a metonym for nature itself, and the relationship of master and dog can serve as an analogy of the way that Hegel will approach nature. Cane in hand.

If this poem illustrates the cycle of freedom, natural necessity, estrangement of self and return to self, then the "self" of the dog is understood only in its relationship to a higher level of nature, namely (in this example) to the human being. As we will come to see, this is indeed the case with every level of organic nature as Hegel describes it in both his early lecture courses on the philosophy of nature and the later versions of the Encyclopedia. For Hegel nature has a value only as a known, conceptualized nature, only to be approached through the assumption that it has already been filtered through human understanding.3

After Hegel moved to Jena in 1801 and began lecturing at the university, he lived and worked closely with Schelling; it is generally assumed that Hegel's turn to the philosophy of nature-an area of philosophy that had not concerned him, at least thematically, prior to 1801-was a result primarily of his association with Schelling. Hegel taught three lecture courses as a Privatdozent from 1803 to 1806, fragments of which have been preserved from Hegel's own manuscripts and those of his students and put together as the Jenaer Systementwurfe. …

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