We are happy to continue with the series Hegelian Interviews, started on the occasion of hegelpd’s fifth birthday and specifically designed for our blog. Professor Alison Stone, whom we sincerely thank, answers some questions about the path of her philosophical education, the topic of Hegel’s philosophy of nature, the role played by feminist philosophy in her own research and the future of the Hegelian studies.
Alison Stone is Professor of European Philosophy in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University, UK. She writes about feminist philosophy and continental European philosophy. She is the author of several books and numerous articles on feminism, German Idealism, Theodor Adorno, Judith Butler, philosophy of nature and various other topics. She co-edits the journal Hegel Bulletin.
Among several publications, we would like to mention: Petrified Intelligence: Nature in Hegel’s Philosophy (SUNY Press, 2004), Luce Irigaray and the Philosophy of Sexual Difference, An Introduction to Feminist Philosophy (Cambridge UP, 2006), Nature, Ethics and Gender in German Romanticism and Idealism (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2018) and Being Born (Oxford UP, 2019).
The interview is by Silvia Locatelli, Luca Corti and Giulio Mariottini.
hegelpd would like to take this opportunity to wish everyone happy holidays!
How did you get into philosophy in general and into the Hegelian philosophy in particular? What were the most important steps of this path?
It was doing A-Level Classical Civilisation that led me to philosophy initially – reading the Platonic dialogues especially. I’d also discovered Camus, by chance in the college library, and that had drawn me to existentialism. So I decided to do a degree in philosophy, rather than German as I had intended before. Then at some point during my degree, a friend said to me in passing “you’re obviously going to go on to do a PhD and become an academic” and I straightaway thought, “oh yes, that’s what I want to do!”. At first I intended to do my PhD thesis on feminist philosophy, in which I’d become interested during my degree. But during the first year of my PhD, I read Simone de Beauvoir and was led to read Hegel to understand her use of the master/slave dialectic. That in turn led me to sit in on an MA course on Hegel being given by Andrew Chitty – this was at the University of Sussex – and the interest in Hegel grew from there. So my thesis ended up being on “Sexual Difference and the Philosophy of Nature”.
Your work on Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature has been, in many senses, pioneering. This part of Hegel’s system had been for a long time considered by many scholars as the weakest and less convincing part of his philosophy. It had been thus neglected as irrelevant in comparison to his Logic or Philosophy of Mind. What brought you to explore precisely this area of Hegel’s thought? How do you think that a re-evaluation of the Philosophy of Nature can affect our understanding of the Hegelian thought?
I started reading the Philosophy of Nature during my PhD, and really it was the route through feminism that initially led me to it. Irigaray refers to it in the chapter of her book Speculum that concerns Hegel; specifically, she alludes to Hegel’s account of sex difference in nature, and I wanted to understand what she was saying. From there I decided I couldn’t understand his account of sex difference without understanding his account of organic life… and so back through the entire text. By the end, then, my interest in trying to understand what Hegel is doing in the Philosophy of Nature had mushroomed far beyond that initial impetus.
In answer to your second question here, I would say that there is a tendency either to see Hegel as a philosopher of mind (or spirit) for whom issues of history, culture, society and politics are central; or to approach him more in terms of his logic, whether as a metaphysician or as concerned with categories in some non-metaphysical sense. Either way, the part of his system that falls out of view is the Philosophy of Nature. But he himself saw it as no less integral a part than the other two. In the Philosophy of Nature, he’s dealing with the idea as embodied in the material objects, processes, kinds, forces, etc. of the natural world. So this part of the system shows that he wanted to make sense of materiality. Usually when historically-inclined philosophers want to think about the body, or materiality, or life, or cognate phenomena, they turn to figures such as Merleau-Ponty or Nietzsche. But Hegel also has things to say about our material, living bodies and the natural environment in which we are located.
In recent years, there has been a growing interest in Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature (especially in his conception of “life” and his views on “naturalism”). How has the philosophical landscape evolved from the period when you first started studying these issues in Hegel? What do you think is the driving force behind this new group of studies?
The landscape has changed in that “Hegel and naturalism” is now a big area of discussion – which is great! – and, as you say, interest in his conception of life is growing. When I was first studying Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature, most of the work on it was quite historical, often located within the history of science – reconstructing which scientific studies he learnt from and what he took from them. In contrast, there seems now to be much more of a sense that Hegel can still speak to our contemporary conjuncture, and more orientation to the bigger picture of his overall approach to nature.
As to the driving force behind this – John McDowell’s version of naturalism, with the idea of “second nature”, has been crucial; but so has, I think, the popularity of naturalism generally – most philosophers seem to want to say they are naturalists, and consequently in some cases to enlist Hegel on the side of naturalism. That said, since self-identified philosophical naturalists believe quite a wide variety of things, which has prompted further self-conscious reflection on what naturalism is (if anything), and Hegel’s work can also provide a useful test case here.
Now we would like to focus on the future of hegelian studies. Nowadays, the debate around Hegel has been very lively and dynamic. Some Hegelian themes are at the foreground in the contemporary debate, while others – which perhaps in past debates were considered central – are less discussed. Are there any other parts of Hegel that are currently underexplored and you think might become relevant in the future debates? How do you see the “future of Hegel” in the next years?
As a Hegelian, I’m reluctant to do predictions, but since you ask! There’s been considerable scholarship on Hegel, race and racism, but it still seems to have had a limited impact on Hegel studies overall. Something similar applies with regard to Hegel and gender – so that while many Hegel scholars would identify Hegel as a philosopher of freedom, there could still be more exploration of how far his approach to freedom is (or isn’t) limited by his views on race and gender. Another related issue is Hegel and colonialism, on which fascinating work has been done (by inter alia Enrique Dussel, Ranajit Guha, Stefan Bird-Pollan), and it would be great to see more Hegel scholars taking up this body of critical engagement with Hegel. I’m excited by the movement in the UK to decolonise the curriculum and I hope it will galvanise debate about these dimensions of Hegel’s thought. After all, Hegel is arguably the key philosopher to articulate the belief that world-historical progression leads inexorably to Western European modernity – the core belief of Eurocentrism. If we are to think seriously and critically about Eurocentrism, we can benefit from looking at Hegel; and conversely if we want to take seriously Hegel’s conception of freedom, it behoves us to consider whether or not it is vitiated by his Eurocentrism.
In addition to Hegel, your researches focused on feminist philosophers like Judith Butler, Adriana Cavarero and, above all, Luce Irigaray. You brought this tradition into dialogue with Classical German Philosophy. Clearly, approaching any kind of philosophical system – including Hegel’s – through the filter of a critical and subversive philosophy such as the feminist one helps to bring to light its unjustified assumptions (racist, sexist, patriarchal). In your writings, however, this pars destruens is flanked by a pars construens, for example when you show how ideas from authors such as Hegel and Schelling can be re-elaborated in order to support the feminism of sexual difference. How fundamental do you think this kind of approach is, as your peculiar way of developing your studies related to German idealism?
There is one key idea that I take from Schelling and Hegel and that runs through my work in feminist philosophy, and this is the idea that both nature and mind consist of a multiplicity of levels of development, each level emerging continuously out of the one preceding it. So that for Hegel the lowest level of nature is pure matter, but where even this contains a minimal degree of organisation; the next level has a greater degree of organisation of matter, into material bodies (in the general sense of bounded objects with mass, not yet living bodies); the next level involves yet more organisation, and so on. This series runs up through living organisms and then into minded organisms and the various levels of mind, then through the social and cultural products of mind. This means, on the one hand, that throughout all of nature there are degrees of organisation in respect of which natural things already prefigure and anticipate the mind. And on the other hand, it means that mind emerges out of and depends upon nature, specifically on organic life. And so, I take it, conscious rational thought emerges out of and always depends upon lower-level forms of mind such as sensation, feeling, affect – and, I would say, being dependent on the latter, always bears traces of them. While reciprocally our sensations, feelings, affects already involve latent intelligence, implicit significance, which we can then make more explicit – but where we are explicating latent meanings that were already there at a more bodily level. This connects up with feminism, and especially feminism of sexual difference: our thoughts are always going to arise from and bear the traces of our bodies; take, for instance, Julia Kristeva’s distinction between the semiotic and the symbolic. The symbolic for her encompasses language, the order of meaning that language embodies, and our positions as speaking subjects; while the semiotic is the realm of implicit significance conveyed in the affects and body-to-body interactions of infants with their care-givers, usually in fact their mothers. The symbolic depends upon the semiotic, making explicit the meanings that were only latent in the semiotic, but it is only because we first inhabit the semiotic, and always retain a foot in it, that we can ever come to operate with explicit meanings. In a way, then, I see the feminism of sexual difference as taking up the picture of continuous graded development from more material to more intellectual that we get from Schelling and Hegel, and pushing it a bit further than Hegel is willing to, to show how mind always remains dependent on and imbued with the materiality out of which it emerges.
In your latest book Being Born you continue your exploration of the phenomenon of birth. This discussion overturns a philosophical tradition which, if we can say so, has focused much more on the theme of death than on that of birth. Your book instead helps us to understand how considering natality also sheds new light on mortality and finiteness of human life, as well as on features such as anxiety, contingency and temporality.
We can say that the topic of “birth” is not unrelated even to thinkers like Hegel and Schelling. Indeed, as you point out in Nature, Ethics and Gender in German Romanticism and Idealism, their description of reproduction as a constitutionally failed attempt to resolve the finiteness and fallibility of the human individual manage to underline the human nature’s vulnerability. Can you tell us something more about this argument and the way you think it should be developed?
So, both Schelling and Hegel see reproduction as the route by which finite living beings try to overcome their finitude, to undo their separateness by as it were “merging” with another finite living being, so realising the unity of the entire kind or species to which they belong, and embodying that unity in the guise of offspring. But the attempt fails because the offspring is just another finite living individual, who will eventually repeat the same process, and so on ad infinitum. Interestingly Hegel links reproduction with death and illness – just as the living being remains finite and is unable to overcome its finitude through reproduction, likewise being finite it is vulnerable to adverse effects from its external circumstances and that arise internally through the material processes occuring within its own body. Because these always fall short of fully realising the concept, deviating from the concept in contingent ways, the living being is always open to chance events that harm or can kill it, and to things going awry and out-of-line within its own body, i.e. becoming ill, perhaps fatally. And in the end death is inevitable as the working-out of this mismatch between materiality and the concept – the mismatch has, in the end, to become realised by the two dimensions completely falling apart, which happens when the living being dies – the animating organisation departs from its materiality.
There’s several interesting features of this account: one is that sex is linked to death – a time-honoured association, going back at least to the Biblical book of Genesis. A more positive way to take Hegel’s thoughts here forward, as you suggest, might be through the linkage between sex and reproduction on the one hand, and finitude and vulnerability on the other: as beings that come into the world through sexed reproduction, we are finite and vulnerable to the effects of change, chance, adversity, etc. However, one might criticise Hegel here on the grounds that he is effectively treating our finitude and vulnerability as defects, and tracing these defects back to the fact that our material side doesn’t perfectly embody or realise the conceptual side (i.e. organising form). For arguably there has been a tendency in European thought to valorise invulnerability and think that although we are vulnerable, it is desirable to reduce our vulnerability as much as we can. In contrast to which recent feminist theorists of vulnerability have argued that vulnerability is normal such that it doesn’t make sense to idealise invulnerability. Hegel’s position, then, seems ambiguous between one that usefully acknowledges vulnerability and one that unhelpfully treats vulnerability as a defect or liability.
In your book An Introduction to Feminist Philosophy you state: “I aim instead to position feminist philosophy as a distinctive field of philosophy, alongside ethics, philosophy of mind, etc., defined by its own problemas and questions”. Do you think that we could extend the scope of the argument to grant the same status of autonomous fields also to philosophies that focus on issues such as disabilities, racism, environmental problems, post-colonialism?
I do! So that we have critical race theory, and environmental philosophy, for example. That said, I’m aware that some people find it problematic to regard feminist philosophy as a distinctive field – they are concerned that this marginalises the subject and that it’s better incorporated into mainstream philosophy by being subdivided into, e.g., feminist epistemology as a part of epistemology, feminist political philosophy as a part of political philosophy, etc. I think in hindsight I would say that part of feminist philosophy is the engagement with distinctive questions – and I would add care and intersectionality to that set of questions, which I didn’t in my book – but another part of it is interventions across the existing subdisciplines of philosophy.
In you later book Nature, Ethics and Gender in German Romanticism and Idealism you state that Hegel understood the work of philosophy in a way that can be described as both a posteriori and a priori: in fact, for Hegel the work of the philosopher consists in examining the natural forms given by scientists and organizing them into a systematic whole stated by an a priori reasoning that considers nature as organically and rationally developed. This position seems closer to what in Petrified Intelligence you call a “weak a priorism”, that you oppose advocating for what can be called a “strong a priorism”, that is the idea that Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature deduces a priori the forms of nature, and then selects and re-interprets the discoveries of the empirical sciences so that they correspond to the a priori categories.
This change of perspective does not seem to invalidate your purpose, which is supported in both your books, that is to demonstrate the intrinsic rationality of nature in order to propose a metaphysics capable of recognizing its intrinsic value. In Petrified Intelligence, however, you point out a critical issues related to the “weak a priorism”: organically systematizing and organizing a certain set of empirical laws leads to the risk of crystallization of the scientific concepts, leaving no room for progresses and changes. Do you still see this problem, or has your change of perspective also been driven by a resolution of it?
You’re quite right to say that in my recent book I have come round somewhat to the sort of view that I previously classed as “weak a priorism”. This is partly because I find that few readers have been persuaded by my earlier support for “strong a priorism”! I do still think that weak a priorism has the problem that I pointed out before. However, it doesn’t strike me as being so important now. The reason is that I now think that what is living in Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature is the overall account of nature that he gives in terms of progressively ordered stages, and the metaphysics of nature that is bound up with that, i.e. where nature contains the two dimensions of the concept and matter and with a gradually increasing permeation of the latter by the former. Even if, within that framework, Hegel takes up certain scientific views of his time and – as you put it – crystallises or ossifies those views, ones that we can no longer accept, the overall framework can still be of interest and relevance to us. When I wrote Petrified Intelligence I was concerned that if we thought that this was what Hegel was doing (taking up then-current scientific beliefs), then his Philosophy of Nature would end up as just a tissue of no-longer-plausible, out-of-date scientific findings and there’d be nothing in it to interest us today. And indeed I do think this is how the Philosophy of Nature is sometimes seen, even by Hegel scholars, hence in part the neglect of it. When I wrote Petrified Intelligence, as I mentioned earlier, most of the work being done on the Philosophy of Nature seemed to be quite historical, reconstructing its background in the history of science – it being assumed that its interest could only be historical. So that was what I wanted to combat. But I now think we can combat the assumption that the Philosophy of Nature is of merely historic interest just as effectively by saying that even if it’s a reconstruction of 1810s-and-1820s science, the metaphysical framework in light of which Hegel did that reconstructive work can still be of interest to us, a contemporary interest that transcends that of the particular scientific materials being reconstructed.
The environmental problem is certainly one of the main emergencies of the contemporary world. The current conversation on this issue shows us that a new approach to nature is needed. Indeed, it seems that the environmental problem is intrinsically linked with the human attitude of irresponsible appropriation and exploitation of nature according to our own needs. This is a theme that you address in several of your texts and articles. What role do you think philosophy, and in particular the tradition of Classical German Philosophy can play in this change of perspective?
At best, I think Classical German Philosophy can remind us that we are situated within and necessarily dependent upon nature, and that the various levels within nature – the chemical, electrical, physical, mechanical, etc. – depend on one another as well. It can thus remind us that nature as a whole whose are mutually dependent, and that the organisation of nature is a precondition of our own autonomy. Indeed, Schelling and Hegel think that in non-human living organisms there is a level of self-organisation and self-constitution that prefigures human autonomy; and that in physical nature there are levels of self-organisation that prefigure that found in living organisms. If the autonomy of human beings gives us grounds to respect them, then it seems to follow that we also have grounds for respecting natural beings at least in proportion to how far they exhibit self-organisation (as approximating to autonomy). That said, Hegel at worst doesn’t follow this conclusion but argues that because we as human individuals are free we are entitled to appropriate the natural world at will. But arguably this is inconsistent with the broader import of his Philosophy of Nature. We could think about this not only in terms of what sort of moral consideration – such as respect – we ought to give to non-human natural entities, but also in terms of causal consequences. Insofar as German Idealism highlights our embeddedness in nature as a whole interlocking system, it also implies that our actions are bound to have causal ramifications throughout this system. It thus offers us a picture of human-nature relations that can encourage us to consider the environmental effects of all of our actions. Indeed, if our autonomy depends on nature having the overall organisation that it does, then perhaps we are required, in the name of our own autonomy, to do our best to act so that this organisation is preserved. And that need not be merely as an instrumental means to securing our autonomy; arguably, an adequate understanding of what our autonomy is means seeing it as located in nature in the first place.
Finally, as we have done in previous interviews, we would like to ask you to list at least five books or contributions on Classical German Philosophy that have been crucial to your education.
Frederick Beiser, German Idealism: The Struggle against Subjectivism, 1781-1801
Manfred Frank, Unendliche Annäherung: Die Anfänge der philosophischen Frühromantik
Michael Hardimon, Hegel’s Social Philosophy: The Project of Reconciliation
Elaine Miller, The Vegetative Soul: From Philosophy of Nature to Subjectivity in the Feminine
Robert Stern, Hegel, Kant and the Structure of the Object.
Previous Hegelian Interviews: