Life: A Necessary Concept?

Hegel argues that we ultimately cannot explain intelligibility without presupposing Aristotelian/Kantian “internal” teleology, which in turn requires the concept of the distinction between living and nonliving beings.

With nonliving beings, events simply happen. A piece of iron may rust, for instance, and that is that. It is still iron.

A living being, however, is always subject to a normative comparison to its concept. For Hegel, a plant that is dying of thirst is a “failing” instance of what it is to be a plant. There is no comparable status for the rusting piece of iron.

Mechanistic explanation offers an allegedly complete system of causality. But for Hegel, it raises the same “problem of indifference” that the logic of being encountered.

In a similar kind of move to what he has been doing in the Logic as a whole, Hegel argues that mechanism implicitly presupposes a more comprehensive kind of explanation, that it cannot really solve its own problems when it is pursued as the only valid form of explanation. He then considers in succession “chemism”, which additionally takes into account internal properties of materials that affect how they may combine with one another; “external” teleology applicable to artificial things, which explicitly presupposes a designer; and finally the immanent “internal” teleology considered by Aristotle and Kant.

Pippin dwells extensively on the similarities and differences between Kant and Hegel in this area. On the Kantian side, this involves an important evolution of Kant’s thought that occurred while he was writing what became the Critique of Judgment.

“In early 1789 Kant began to formulate the new problem of reflective judgment, as well as a new a priori principle for such a faculty, the purposiveness of nature. What is important to notice for our purposes is that with that development, the shape of the entire critical project began to change dramatically” (Hegel’s Realm of Shadows, p. 290).

“Kant had realized that something like the deep structure of judgments like ‘this rose is beautiful’ actually contravened its own surface structure, that the predicate ‘beautiful’ was not really functioning as a standard predicate, as it appeared to. It referred to no objective property or mere secondary quality. Instead, he concluded, it involved a nonconceptually guided reflective activity on the part of the subject of the experience, whose novel logic required notions like a free play of the faculties, purposiveness without a purpose, disinterested pleasure, a commonsense and universal subjective validity” (pp. 290-291).

“The realization of the distinct features of this reflective activity was only the beginning of a series of more strikingly novel claims of interest to us…. [T]he reflective judging that resulted in aesthetic judgments, also constituted the basic structure of teleological judgments, and so could account for the unique intelligibility of organic beings” (p. 291).

“And then a number of other issues seem to be thrown into the same reflective judgment pot. The formulation of scientific theories not fixed or determined by empirical generalizations involved this activity and its logic, as did the systematizing of empirical laws necessary for genuine scientific knowledge. Finally, even the determination of ordinary empirical concepts now seemed to require this newly formulated reflective capacity…. So reflective judging and its a priori principle were now necessary not only for explaining the possibility and validity of aesthetic judgments, but in accounting for the necessary distinction between organic and nonorganic nature, the formation of empirical concepts, the proper integration of genera and species, the general unification of empirical laws into systems of scientific law, theory formation itself, and the right way to understand the attribution of a kind of necessity to all such principles, judgments, concepts, laws, and systems” (ibid).

“Kant continued to hold that such reflective judging was not constitutively necessary for there being objects of experience at all, and so could not be properly called cognition…. But Kant himself seems to be conceding that that result alone leads to an impoverished notion of cognition…. We wouldn’t know much… without empirical concepts, laws, systems, and distinctions between living and nonliving. So all the above products of reflective judgment must count as indispensable, and in a way that is not just convenient, but nevertheless remains merely regulative” (p. 292).

“Given their necessity and indispensability, given how much we would miss in the world if we could not claim to know that things fall into kinds (that there are empirical concepts), that nature is law-governed with necessity, that species fall under genera, and that some beings are alive, the Hegelian question is: Why does Kant persist, even after the expansion of his system in the third Critique, in claiming that we do not really know any of these things, that we just require them of ourselves and can’t see a way to abandon such commitments?” (ibid).

Kant seems to have held that in spite of its value for subjective understanding, teleology stands in conflict with scientific explanation; that the only objective causality is efficient causality; and that an objective teleology would imply a sort of “backwards” determination in time. Hegel contests all of this.

“For Kant, a living being requires us to think something we cannot, how the whole causes the parts that cause it” (p. 293).

Pippin, like Kant, seems to regard the last formulation as a reduction to absurdity. But he himself notes that in biological reproduction, parts and whole are produced simultaneously. And many processes in nature work by a kind of feedback, which involves circular dependencies that play out over time in an alternating or simultaneous way.

“[J]ust as Kant did not attempt to deduce the necessary existence of events in causal relations, but sought to show that any event that did exist must stand in a necessary relation to some prior event, and just as Kant did not try to deduce the necessary existence of living beings, but tried to show that any world that required mechanistic explanations of what exists, or any world in which change is a matter of efficient causation, must also allow, cannot rule out, that there are changes like gestation, birth, growth, reproduction, disease, and death, which cannot be accounted for by the logical form appropriate for nonliving beings, so Hegel is not out to deduce a priori the necessary existence of living beings, but has an ambition similar to Kant’s… but much greater because Hegel denies that teleological explanations are merely subjectively necessary” (p. 274).

“In terms of the logic of the Concept where the concept of life appears, [Hegel] means to show that there could not be adequate mechanistic and chemical and ‘external’ teleological explanations (say, the production of an artifact guided by a maker’s representation) without the contrasting distinction with living beings, without, following Kant, ‘internal’ teleology. (That is, a case where an element is for the sake of the whole without its being the — impossible — case that the element or part intends to be for the whole, and without reference to any designer’s intention.) His unusual thesis is that teleology is ‘the truth of mechanism’. That is, mechanistic explanations are domain specific, and so represent an abstraction from a more comprehensive and complex domain that includes subjective or intentional teleology and objective teleology in organic beings” (pp. 275-276).

“For Hegel, … the conceptual forms required for the unity of judgment are, at the same time, the forms necessary for any object determinacy. The forms of thought are the forms of being” (p. 276).

This is not because thought has magic powers, but because of the kind of thing that being has turned out to be in the investigations of the Logic. In my estimation at least, Hegel has convincingly shown that true being is inseparable from meaning and intelligibility. It is not some dumb and arbitrary “existence”.

“Life is said to be the ‘immediate’ manifestation of the Idea” (p. 277).

What this means is that “Life will reveal at an initial level the true unity of subjectivity and objectivity. This is said in the sense in which even plants, for Hegel, have ‘subjectivity’ even as objects. Their growth and nutrition cannot be comprehended adequately as just the product of mechanical forces. Each can be said to ‘direct’ the course of its life as it requires; each has an inner distinct from an outer, where this does not just mean inside as opposed to outside its surface” (ibid).

It was not clear to me that the Idea would even have an “immediate manifestation”. At this point, the Idea seems to me to be something that in itself would be purely mediate, even though experience always involves an element of immediacy. But at least within a human subjectivity, something purely mediate can always be represented, and the representation in itself does have a kind of immediacy. This case is a little different, but the argument that a plant has a kind of rudimentary “subjectivity” while also being a kind of object does, I think, suggest a way of understanding this simultaneous subjectivity and objectivity that could be seen as a simple instance of the union of subjectivity and objectivity that characterizes the Hegelian Idea.

“[H]aving shown the truth of the object in self-consciousness, in conceptuality, Hegel proposes to investigate the concept in that status, now understood as being-true, or in its being the ground of the intelligibility of the object. As he says, now ‘the concept determines itself as objectivity’…. This begins after a consideration of the concept in its formality, in the structure of concept, judgment, and syllogism. This then suggests the question of the world of objects, of ‘the truth’, of being-in-and-for-itself, already reflected in the truth-preserving inferential structure of such a syllogistic. To have reached this stage, presupposing everything that has gone before, is to see the logic of the relation among concepts in judgments and of judgments in inferential syllogistic relations as comprehending objects and their interrelations as explicable in a system” (p. 278).

This kind of use of “system” simply expresses the coherence in real intelligible being, and does not have the objectionably pretentious character that was all too common in talk of philosophical “systems” in Hegel’s Germany. Since Hegel does use “system” in this more benign and substantial sense, I am inclined to be forgiving of his rhetorical participation in the enthusiasm for philosophical “systems”.

“At such a point, we will have fleshed out considerably the ‘object’s being its concept’ in a much fuller logical system of judgmental interrelations, systematically, and a modally robust one, prescribing what must and cannot happen under this or that condition. In this fuller systematic picture, we need a determinate characterization of the norm, comprehensibility, as such. Such a norm or pure concept of genuine understanding will tell us what a thing is in terms of its relevant relational properties” (pp. 278-279).

With the concept, we have explicitly entered the territory of normativity. A concept for Hegel is never just a representation. Every Hegelian concept has a normative character.

“That determinate norm of comprehensibility is what is introduced by the pure concept Mechanism — more broadly in the claim that true comprehensibility is and is only mechanistic, paradigmatically Newtonian mechanics. Yet again, it is this sort of overreach that reveals the limitations and incompleteness of such a norm of comprehensibility. This is the first, immediate, simplest manifestation of the a priori claim to a norm for determinate explicability…. This is essentially a ‘billiard balls’ model of moving and inertial forces, in which there is what Hegel continually calls ‘an indifference’ in the relation among objects. And therein will lie its chief problem” (p. 279).

The concept of mechanism now shows a dynamic very similar to what we saw before with the concept of Being. In both cases, Hegel wants to extract as much insight and value as possible from their respective failures.

“That is, the indifference of objects external to each other, or comprehended only as matter moving and colliding in space, means there is no real explanation of what happens, just a formalization of what happens. There is no way (except pragmatically or ‘subjectively’ for Hegel) to select in or out the relevant relations among such indifferent objects, and we will find instead that we are awash in infinite contingency, with no real ground for our isolation of the relevant units of comprehension” (pp. 279-280).

“Chemism does make such an appeal to internal properties, the chemical properties, to explain why some chemical compounds are possible and others are not. Objects considered chemically are not ‘indifferent’ but determine their relationality as dependent on the kind they are” (p. 280).

“When we say that average acceleration over a period of time is its change in velocity divided by the duration of the period, or when we say that the hydrogen and oxygen molecules combined to form water, or when we say that that clock functions poorly, or that wolf is deformed, these are not empirical distinctions within a common notion of comprehensibility. In Hegel’s language, they are objective aspects of the logical distinctions between immediacy, mediation, and self-mediation necessary for all objective intelligibility” (p. 281).

Hegel in the Logic aims to develop a kind of universal logical meta-language for explaining the more concrete concepts we use to explain the world.

“A living being’s concept is not external to it as a particular being. That particularity is essentially nothing other than the becoming of its concept. The concept is internal to its nature, and that nature is self-determining, not determined from without. (Hence the claim that life is the first, immediate manifestation of the Absolute Idea, the unity of subjectivity and objectivity.)” (ibid).

“Now, a simple way to sum all of this up, however misleading, would be to say that for Hegel life is an objectively necessary pure concept because we know that mechanism is such a concept, and that chemism is, and that artifactual teleology is, and that these pure concepts are incomplete without teleological concepts, ultimately the concept of living organisms” (p. 282).

“As we have already seen, Kant distinguishes, and Hegel praises him for doing so, between an element in a complex that is purposive because it satisfies the ends of the designer or maker, like a radiator in a car, or external purposiveness, and an element the purposiveness of which is determined not by any appeal to an external designer, but rather ‘internally’ in an organic self-organizing and self-maintaining whole. We explain the parts by reference to this whole, which itself is, reciprocally, the reason the parts are as they are; and all of this without any intention of the parts, such as organs, to represent anything as their end. So, for example, we can say what leukocytes, white blood cells, are for, without reference to a designer of the system, but by reference to the internal ends of the living being, such as maintaining health by attacking foreign invaders like bacteria or parasites. As Kant says, we can show that the parts of a living being ‘as far as their existence and their form are concerned are possible only through their relation to the whole'” (pp. 283-284).

“But, again, [for Kant] this is all a matter of what we must think for the sake of a satisfying explanation…. It must be merely that because… teleological causality makes no sense in the scientific terms Kant considers himself to have established…. ‘Strictly speaking, therefore, the organization of nature has nothing analogous to any causality known to us'” (p. 284).

“But all of this is supposed to be consistent with the unavoidability of teleological explanations, that is, with their necessity…. He asserts as a philosophical truth that we will never be able to [reduce life to mechanistic principles], and even that it is ‘absurd’ to imagine that we could. (No ‘Newton for a blade of grass’, ever.) He says clearly that we can no more give up the teleological principle and the idea of final causality than we could give up the universal causal principle itself” (pp. 284-285).

“One brief reason [Kant] gives for this is that this abandonment would leave us without anything ‘for guidance in observing’…. While we have the possibility of a physical and chemical account of cell division, we are not observing a mere series. With that account alone, we would have no way of understanding that these processes are part of one series, no way to isolate anything like ‘what comes next’ and so no language to explain what happens when it does not” (p. 285).

“What [Hegel] tries to show is that mechanism as a principle, as a pure or logical principle…, already amounts to, implicitly, what is most distinctive about teleology, an ‘explanation by concept’, how a thing ‘matches up’ to its concept, although in mechanism this concept is only ‘in itself’, not ‘for itself’…. [H]is claim is that while mechanism posits a radical independence among objects in motion, the results of mechanism itself reveal a regular dependence, fixed and unvarying, among such putative independent objects, and it must transform itself into a position that can do this justice, not treat it as an astonishing accident” (p. 288).

Plotinus on Intellectual Beauty

“Art… must itself be beautiful in a far higher and purer degree [than the beautiful object]” (Plotinus, Enneads V.8, MacKenna trans., p. 422)

“The Nature, then, which creates things so lovely must be itself of a far earlier beauty; we, undisciplined in discernment of the inward, knowing nothing of it, run after the outer, never understanding that it is the inner that stirs us; we are in the case of one who sees his own reflection but not realizing whence it comes goes in pursuit of it” (p. 423).

“By what image, thus, can we represent it? We have nowhere to go but to what is less” (p. 424).

“For all There is heaven; earth is heaven, and sea heaven; and animal and plant and man; all is the heavenly content of that heaven…. And each of them contains all within itself, and at the same time sees all in every other, so that everywhere there is all, and all is all and each all, and infinite the glory. Each of them is great; the small is great; the sun, There, is all the stars; and every star, again, is all the stars and sun. While some one manner of being is dominant in each, all are mirrored in every other” (p. 425).

“Each There walks upon no alien soil; its place is its essential self; and, as each moves, so to speak, towards what is Above, it is attended by the very ground from which it starts: there is no distinguishing between the Being and the Place; all is Intellect, the Principle and the ground on which it stands, alike” (ibid).

“The myth of Lynceus seeing into the very deeps of the earth tells us of those eyes in the divine. No weariness overtakes the vision which yet brings no satiety as would call for its ending; for there never was a void to be filled…. [T]o see is to look the more, since for them to continue in the contemplation of an infinite self and of infinite objects is but to acquiesce in the bidding of their nature” (ibid).

“Life, pure, is never a burden…. The greatness and power of the wisdom There we may know from this, that it embraces all the real Beings, and has made all and all follow it, and yet that it is itself those beings” (p. 426).

“If we have failed to understand, it is that we have thought of knowledge as a mass of theorems and an accumulation of propositions, though that is false even for our sciences of the sense-realm…. [T]his is not a wisdom built up of theorems but one totality, not a wisdom consisting of manifold detail co-ordinated into a unity but rather a unity working out in detail” (ibid).

“Later from this wisdom in unity there appears, in another form of being, an image, already less compact, which announces the original in terms of discourse and seeks the causes by which things are such that the wonder arises how a generated world can be so excellent…. This excellence, whose necessity is scarcely or not at all manifest to search, exists, if we could but find it out, before all searching and reasoning” (p. 427).

“One way, only, remains: all things must exist in something else… thus the entire aggregate of existence springs from the divine world…. [T]he creation is not hindered, even now; it stands firm in virtue of being All. To me, moreover, it seems that if we ourselves were archetypes, Ideas, veritable Being, and the Idea with which we construct here were our veritable Essence, then our creative power, too, would toillessly effect its purpose” (p. 428).

“Certainly no reproach can rightly be brought against this world save only that it is not That” (p. 429).

“Being is desirable because it is identical with Beauty; and Beauty is loved because it is Being. How then can we debate which is the cause of the other, where the nature is one?” (p. 430).

“To those that do not see entire, the immediate impression is alone taken into account; but those drunken with this wine, filled with the nectar, all their soul penetrated by this beauty, cannot remain mere gazers: no longer is there a spectator outside gazing on an outside spectacle; the clear-eyed hold the vision within themselves, though, for the most part, they have no idea that it is within but look towards it as to something beyond them and see it as an object of wisdom caught by a direction of the will” (p. 431).

“The very contrary: to see the divine as something external is to be outside of it” (p. 432).

“We ourselves possess beauty when we are true to our own being” (p. 433).


Like definition, classification sometimes gets an unjustified bad name. It is not a kind of truth about the world, but rather plays an expressive role, helping to explain the meaning of what is said. Classification makes it possible to substitute simple names for arbitrarily complex conditions or adverbial expressions, allowing the underlying complexity to be abstracted away, or reconstructed as needed.

In Book 1 of Parts of Animals, Aristotle shows great sophistication about this. He explicitly argues against Plato’s recommended procedure of “division” or repeated application of binary distinctions, noting that many significant real-world distinctions are better approached as n-ary or manifold than as binary.

He also explicitly notes how difficult and arbitrary it ends up being to develop real-world classifications in a strictly hierarchical manner, arguing for a more holistic approach, which cannot be reduced to a sequential application of lower-level operations.

Good real-world classifications are arrived at through dialectical trial, error, and iterative self-correction over time. Conversely, behind every ordinary referential use of simple names for things is a complex implicit dialectical/semantic development. (See also Aristotle’s Critique of Dichotomy; Hermeneutic Biology?; Difference; Aristotelian Identity; Substance; Aristotelian Semantics.)