Notes on “Hegel’s Naturalism”

Tuesday, 6th May, 2014

book details

Hegel’s Naturalism: mind, nature, and the final ends of life
Terry Pinkard
Oxford University Press


This is a really exciting book. I read it through once and read it again straight away. It introduced me to Hegel, and opened up my idea of what Hegel’s philosophy might be about. I can see him placed with other philosophers I like (Aristotle, Spinoza, Marx).

Below are some highlights, and then some ideas for further reading.

An appendix of typos is at the end.

** highlights

*** thought as “still action”

[para p 18, 2 paras p 32]

The gist of these passages is that, “an intention is ‘an action on the way to being realised'” (p. 32).

When I read them I was reminded of experiments with primates (wish I could remember where or when I read about these experiments – would have been late 1990s). The basic idea of the experiment was that a chimpanzee (say) was given a challenge, for example a piece of fruit in a room hanging too high to reach unaided. The chimp would assemble various bric-a-brac together, use tools and so on to reach down the fruit.

The most interesting version of the challenge was where the chimp was not allowed into the room for a brief time. It could see the fruit and the items around the room, but couldnt get in (e.g. a cage door into the area is locked). The chimp would survey the room with its eyes, looking from item to item, end even make abbreviated movements with its arms and legs. It seemed as if the chimp was using its whole body to rehearse, work out or plan its attempt to solve the challenge.

If any reader can recognise the experiment from this garbled recollection please remind me!

It gave me the idea of thought as “still action” — after the old behaviourists’ idea of thought as “silent speech”.

These passages from HN seem to be describing something similar but in the other direction.

*** self-consciousness and taking a stand

Ch. 2 “Self-consciousness in the natural world”, Section A: Animal and human awareness.

p. 46

The awareness of oneself is thus not a monitoring of a special set of private entities. Rather, it is a way of taking a normative stance toward one’s own experience … Reporting what one thinks turns out not to be just reporting. It is just as much one’s taking a position on things.

p. 47

There is no distance between committing oneself to a claim and wondering if the claim is true.

This is so much like Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, where the work of memory is as much active construction as recollection.

This kind of self-presence in self-consciousness is thus bound up with the ability to be able, minimally, to undertake commitments.

And here we see things start to get political:

p. 48

One of Hegel’s central theses is that subjectivity is always determinate, located in a form of life with certain norms that are fundamentally authoritative for it and that form, as it were, the outer edges of intelligibility of that form of life, but that can also historically break down or go dead under pressures from their own internal shortcomings and contradictions.


p. 92

The actually free will is the unity of theoretical and practical mindful agency.

p. 93-4 on a Hegelian conception of “weakness of will” as a kind of lack of skill.

p. 94 For Hegel (via Pinkard), “eudaimonia” is success, satisfaction, freedom, more than happiness.


p. 120

What is bound up with being a rational agent is that one becomes an organism for whom the issue of making something better becomes itself an issue, and the very idea of progress is part of what it is to be a rational agent.

[emphasis added]

Perhaps the most exciting sentence in a very exciting book.


p. 181

By 1831, Hegel seemed to be thinking that many of the [historical, political] problems he thought now belonged clearly to the past, having been set aside by the tumult of the revolution, were themselves re-emerging in a different, although still modern form.

Hegel’s later political work seems more interesting — more open and less certain of itself — than his earlier work. In fact HN gives the impression that the development of Hegel’s thinking through his life would be as interesting as some “definitive” statement of Hegel’s philosophy. If Hegel’s philosophy is a “practical” philosophy, exploring how ideas emerge and change in historic time, this seems appropriate.


p. 193

The highest good consists in thinking about what it means to be a human being in general, and, as we have seen, that in turn requires us to think about what it means in particular to be a good parent, citizen, brother, sister, workman, artisan, legislator, and so forth. Moreover, given Hegel’s views on meaning and its actualisation, thinking about it also requires actualising it if one is ever to know what one really thinks about it, since one cannot know the full truth about one’s thoughts until they have been made actual.

** further reading

*** By Hegel

Terry Pinkard has been working on translating Hegel’s Phenomenologie des Geistes, and I think CUP might be publishing it soon.

Hegel’s Philosophie des Rechts is probably also relevant politically, but his lecture on aesthetics and his life of Christ look interesting too.

*** By Terry Pinkard

Two earlier works by Pinkard look interesting:

Hegel’s Phenomenology: the sociality of reason (CUP, 1994).

Hegel: a biography (CUP, 200).

*** By Robert Pippin

Pippin seems to be a contemporary of Pinkard’s and Pinkard refers to Pippin favourable several times. Two books by Pippin stand out:

Hegel’s practical philosophy: rational agency as ethical life (CUP, 2008).

Hegel’s self-consciousness: desire and death in Hegel’s phenomenology of spirit (Princeton UP, 2010).

The idea of Hegel’s philosophy as “practical” came over very strongly in HN, in several ways: the content — ideas emerge and change in historical, social time; Hegel’s own practice — his thinking developing and staying open right to his later years.

*** etc

Desmond, W. Hegel’s God: a counterfeit double? (Ashgate, 2003).

Lear, G. R. Happy lives and the highest good: an essay on Aristotle’s Nicomachean ethics (Princeton UP, 2004).

Lear, J. Open minded: working out the logic of the soul (Harvarh UP, 1998).

Richardson, H. Democratic autonomy: public reasoning about the ends of policy (OUP, 2002).

Taylor, C. Human agency and language (CUP, 1985).

Yeomans, C. Freedom and reflection: Hegel and the logic of agency (OUP, 2011).

** appendix: typos

As is my wont, I found a few typos. Here are some of them:

p. 30
“such a act of making distinctions”
-> “such an act”

p. 38 n. 28
“the very idea of animal’s good”
-> “of an animal’s good”

p. 45
“Hegel’s views of animal freedom, …, tracks Aristotle’s own view … (or … tracks the implications …)”
-> “views … track … (or … track …)”

p. 66
“whereas the slave lives an unsatisfying life whose unsatisfactoriness is not only comprehensible and whose contradictory nature is always present.”
-> “but whose contradictory nature”

p. 74
“… all such proposals for new ways to use old words will have to reflect on itself and what it is doing, …”
-> “any such proposal”

p. 90
“Must there be some ultimate set of goods or goods that stops this regress of goods …”
-> “Must there be some ultimate good or set of goods”

p. 94
“The agent thus achieves satisfaction when he pursues a life structured by ends that … are meaningful to that agent — which can be redeemed … — and about which the agent has good reason to believe he can be successful at achieving those ends”
-> that last “those ends” should be removed, but better might be to use a semi-colon instead of “and” to separate the clauses, as in:
-> “The agent thus achieves satisfaction when he pursues a life structured by ends that … are meaningful to that agent — which can be redeemed … ; ends about which the agent has good reason to believe he can achieve successfully”

p. 110 n. 16
“… one cannot lead a successful life that embodies various that are compatible with ethical goods.”
-> “that are incompatible”

p. 117
“In such cases, the tensions imposed on the agents who hold themselves and others to those norms is such that it undermines the affective relation agents can have to those norms.”
-> either “the tension … is such that it undermines” or “the tensions … are such that they undermine”

p. 143
“In this sense of ‘Idea’, it is, at it were, …”
-> “as it were”

p. 163
“and they often to seek to put those interests into practice …”
-> “often do seek”

p. 175
“… those having to with, for example, rights themselves”
-> “having to do with”

p. 176
“However, the ‘right of particularity’ meant that modern subjects, in refusing to budge from their conviction that their own Innerlichkeit, …, had come to possess a genuine authority in moral matters.”
-> not a sentence. Missing a predicate somewhere.

p. 200 n. 45
“Religion is form of reflecting”
-> “is a form”


3 Responses to “Notes on “Hegel’s Naturalism””

  1. […] its nature as a critique and a warning, this book doesn’t open up so many new horizons as the Hegel book did. However there were three clear […]

  2. […] from programming, I am following up some of my reading from last year. In particular, Hegel (I’m finally tackling his Phenomenology of Spirit) and Schrödinger (his book and […]

  3. […] is to confirm and consolidate our understanding of the similarities between Hegel and Marx. Pinkard stressed how Hegel’s “idealism” (as in not materialism) is not quite as […]

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