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Aristotle and Hegel on Nature: Some Similarities

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 June 2015

Liberato Santoro-Brienza*
University College Dublin
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Michael Petry has observed that “until 1970 there was nobody among the hegelians, not to mention the philosophers of the Naturwissenschaften, willing to recognise Hegel's philosophy of nature as an area of investigation to be taken seriously.” An analogous fate seems to have afflicted Aristotle's Physics, if one agrees with Heidegger that: “The Aristotelian Physics is the arcane (verborgene) fundamental book of Western philosophy and, insofar as arcane, it has never been studied sufficiently.”

Fortunately, the past neglect has been amply compensated for by the considerable degree of interest shown, in more recent years, towards both Hegel's and Aristotle's philosophy of nature. With reference to Hegel, that interest may have been nourished initially by the recognition of some isomorphic traits obtaining in Hegel's doctrine and in the methodology of structuralism and gestaltism. Furthermore, part of that interest must have also been triggered by the overall state of bankruptcy and disrepute which have befallen mechanistic, quantitative, empirical or neo-empirical and neo-positivist explanations of reality and of nature. Think of the developments of genetic biology, pathology and genetic engineering. Quantum Mechanics, the highly speculative turn in physics, cosmology, mathematics. By now, the assumptions, methods and findings of these sciences seem to be more kin to Aristotle and Hegel than to Newton and Galileo. Other hypothetical reasons could be offered, to explain the renewed attention paid to Hegel's philosophy of nature.

One point, to begin with, emerges from the panorama of recent research on Hegel, namely that - regardless of and despite the recurrent mythical, hyper-animistic, anthropomorphic images, sustained by analogies and metaphorical diction; also despite of the frequent obscurities and downright factual mistakes - the philosopher cannot be sweepingly accused of scientific ignorance, nor of endemically gratuituous a priori, abstract reflection.

Hegel's Metaphysics of Nature
Copyright © The Hegel Society of Great Britain 1992

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1 Petry, M J, “Hegels Naturphilosophie. Die Notwendigkeit einer Neubewertung”, Zeitschrift f. philosophische Forschung, Bd 35, 1981, p 618 Google Scholar.

2 Heidegger, M, “Vom Wesen und Begriff der Physis. Aristoteles' Physik B, 2”, Il Pensiero, (3) 1958, pp 132-156, 265289 Google Scholar.

3 Popper, K, The Open Society and its Enemies, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1945, Vol II, p 27 Google Scholar.

4 On this point, see Buchdahl, G, “Hegel's Philosophy of Nature and the Structure of Science”, Ratio, (15) 1973, pp 127 Google Scholar.

5 See Mansion, A, Introduction a la Physique aristotelicienne, Louvain, 1946 (2nd ed)Google Scholar; Wieland, W, Die aristotelische Physik, Goettingen: Vandenhoeck-Ruprecht, 1970 Google Scholar; Idem, “Aristotle's Physics and the Problem of Inquiry into Principles”, in J Barnes, M Schofield, R Sorabji (eds), Articles on Aristotle, Vol I, London: Duckworth, 1975, pp 127-140.

6 See Heidegger, M, An Introduction to Metaphysics, Yale University Press, 1959, p 5861 Google Scholar.

7Kinoumena” can be interpreted as intransitive, reflexive or passive.

8 Translated as “induction”, epagoge is more fully understood as “a process from the prior and more known in relation to us (in which is implicitly and undeterminately contained what is of itself prior) to what is of itself prior and more known. The epagoge is a leading-to in the double sense of: being led to the necessary universal by the individual things… and a gathering together leading the individual things to reveal their ground.” O'Farrell, F, “Aristotle's, Kant's and Hegel's Logic”, Gregorianum, Vol 54, Fasc 3, p 494 Google Scholar.

9 I disagree with W Wieland's interpretation according to which Aristotle's principles must be understood - in a Kantian way - as only “concepts of reflection” or Kant's Reflexionshegriffe. See Wieland's “Aristotle's Physics and the Problem of Inquiry into Principles”, cit, p 136. To say the least, the four causes (archai) announced in Metaph. 983a 24ff. cannot be reduced to “concepts of reflexion”, but are clearly intended as ontological constituents and internal/structural ingredients of reality.

10 See Barnes, J, The Presocratic Philosophers, London: Routledge, 1979, pp 4243 Google Scholar. I hasten to add that the “meta-physical” character of the “sciences” is all-pervasive in Greek thought. For a comprehensive discussion of atomism, ancient and modern, see Van Meisen, A G, From Atomos to Atoms, Duquesnes Univ. Press, 1952 Google Scholar; and Sfendoni-Mentzou, D, “Models of Change”, in: Nicolacopoulos, P (ed), Greek Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science, Dordrecht/Boston/London: Kluwer, 1990, pp 149169 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 See W Wieland, art cit, p 131.

12 Ibidem, p 133. Interestingly, the examples used to explain natural change or “coming into being” are all drawn from cultural occurrences, phenomena and events. It is worth noting that Aristotle generally presents examples of art and craft to explain natural processes and, vice-versa, natural instances to cast light on artificial and poetic processes.

13 “We must conceive three kinds of principles of change: 1) that which comes to be, 2) that in which it comes to be, 3) that from which it is copied when it is born into existence. And we liken 2) to a mother, 3) the model, to a father, and 1) that which is between them, to a child”. (Plato, Timaeus 50 c). See Hegel's fragment titled Die Liebe, of 1790/1, in his Theologische Jugendschriften.

14 In Physica the term entelecheia occurs 12 times. Other places where entelecheia is identified with energeia: Psych. 431 a 1+3; De Gen. Anim. 734 a 30+35, b 21. The soul or psyche is defined as entelecheia e prote somatos physikou organikou, in Psych. 412 a 27, b 5. Movement is defined as entelecheia ton kinelou he kineton, in Phys. 257 b 8; or as energeia and energeia ateles, in Phys. 201 b 31.

15 See Heidegger, M, Sein und Zeit, Tuebingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1967, pp 6873 Google Scholar.

16 This contemporary assumption clearly echoes Kant's observations on teleology, as a Reflexionsbegriff!, to be found in the Critique of Judgement.

17 See Berti's, E excellent essay: “La supremazia del movimento locale secondo Aristotele”, in Studi aristotelici, L'Aquila: L U Japadre, 1976, pp 275295 Google Scholar.

18 D Sfendoni-Mentzou, art cit, p 157.

19 Hegel, G W F, Werke in zwanzig Baenden, ed Moldenhauer, E & Michel, K M, Frankfürt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1969ff, Bd. 19, p 169 Google Scholar. All further references will be indicated, in the text, by the page number in the same volume.

20 Marcuse, H, in his Reason and Revolution, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969 (1941), pp 342 Google Scholar, has underlined that “Hegel's philosophy is in a large sense a re-interpretation of Aristotle's ontology, rescued from the distortion of metaphysical dogma…”.

21 Heisenberg, W, Physics and Philosophy, New York: Unwin, 1958, p 67 Google Scholar.

22 Bohm, D, Causality and Chance in Modern Physics, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1959, p 147 Google Scholar.

23 D Sfendoni-Mentzou, art cit, p 161.

24 W Heisenberg, op cit, p 42.

25 Popper, K, Quantum Theory and the Schism in Physics, London, Hutchinson, 1982, p 159 Google Scholar.

26 Findlay, J N, Hegel: A Re-Examination, New York: Humanities Press, 1958, p 272 Google Scholar.

27 Idem, “The Hegelian Treatment of Biology and Life”, in R S Cohen & M.W. Wartofsky (eds), Hegel and the Sciences Dordrecht/Boston/Lancaster: D Reidel, 1984, pp 87-100.

28 Apart from the numerous explanatory observations on teleology, central to Hegel's presentation of Aristotle's Naturphilosophie (Werke in zwanzig Baenden, cit, vol 19, pp 168-198), see also the Enzyklopaedie, par 204-244, and Phaenomenologie, ed cit, vol 3, pp 196-226.

29 J N Findlay, art cit, p 93.

30 See Hegel's Phaenomenologie des Geistes, ed cit, ibidem. In his Geschichte der Philosophie (ed cit, vol 19, p 175) Hegel explicitly rejects contemporary theories that would explain life forms and organic conformations as the result of Hervorgehen: evolutionary emergence and transformation caused by environmental forces only. This would imply that the early natural productions emerged as blind, undirected Versuche: trial attempts and experiments of nature. To this gedankenloses Entwickeln, Hegel opposes Aristotle's (and his own) idea that “Nature is entelecheia, - that which generates itself”.

31 See J N Findlay, art cit, pp 92-93.

32 For a detailed analysis of evolutionary explanations and a vindication of Aristotle's teleology, see Grene, M, “Aristotle and Modern Biology”, in Grene, M & Mendelsohn, E (eds), Topics in the Philosophy of Biology, Dordrecht/Boston: D Reidel, 1976, pp 336 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. I realize that the problem of evolution with reference to teleology in particular, and Hegel's understanding of the correlation between organism and environment, deserve a treatment more detailed and rigorous than the initial suggestions contained in this essay.

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