Tuesday, 3 January 2023

Hegel on Teleology and Life

Teleology in action: plants strive for the sunlight in Queensland, Australia.    

This post analyses Hegel’s view of teleology, or apparent purpose in nature, in his Science of Logic.


Hegel's Science of Logic contains a dedicated essay on the significance of teleology that is worth analysing in depth for what it has to say on the “argument from design” for God’s existence. It raises issues of some contemporary interest, insofar as it involves considerations broader than the science of its day. It is also a key essay for the question of whether Hegel should be seen as a theological realist in the manner of Aristotle, or as a guarded precursor of Feuerbach’s atheism. His work has been interpreted in both ways, e.g. Rosenkranz and the British Idealists for the former view, with thinkers like Haym and Lukács tending to the latter. French scholar Jacques D’Hondt thought this ambivalence pervasive in his work.

The essay appears in the Science of Logic, which contains the first part of Hegel’s tripartite system of philosophical sciences, the remaining divisions being the philosophies of Nature and Mind. Whilst Hegel describes Logic as a “realm of shadows”, which suggests its dependence on more solid realities, he finally considers it to be a system of rational concepts susceptible of independent study which are necessarily embodied in concrete experience. Hegel revises Kant’s account of these concepts without the restrictions of space, time and the unity of the self that Kant imposed on them. He attributes a reality to reason similar to that of the Logos tradition.

The more general sphere of Essence that precedes this section analyses the idea of real nature. Hegel characterises essence(s) as “something made” (ein Gemachtes) or “put forth” (ein Gesetztseyn). He comments though that “teleological ground is peculiar to the concept” (i,e, reason, G555, J&S74). When we turn to the section of the book on the concept, he tells us that: “Life, Ego, Spirit and Absolute Concept [untrammelled reason] are universals not only as higher genera:  they are concrete entities… their absolute solution is found in that universal which must be taken as veritably absolute concept, as Idea of infinite Spirit, whose Gesetztseyn [posited being] is infinite and transparent reality, in which it contemplates its creation and, in it, itself.” (J&S, 239) These quotes show Hegel in a theologically orthodox light. 

In a similar vein, he says that natural kinds show “traces and premonitions everywhere of the notion (Begriff, i.e. reason, 242)”. This leads me to consider the translation of Begriff. Where it does not indicate a determinate concept (e.g. "the concept of work"), it has been explained to denote the presence of the Universal-particular-individual structure of rationality. The nearest English to this is “reason”. Hegel writes for example that “The syllogism thus is the notion (Begriff) posited in its completeness; hence it is the reasonable.” (301) and when he says that “Insofar as reason is distinguished from intellect and notion as such, it is the totality of the notion and of objectivity.” (395) In German though, greifen conveys “to grip” or “to grasp” and hence “to be-grasp” would be an etymological rendering. We have the word “conceive” in English that connotes both “to have an idea” and “to get pregnant” and hence has a concrete meaning. For this reason, “conception” (which retains a concrete meaning alongside the logical) would work as a translation of Begriff better than the modern “Concept” or the older “Notion” – provided one knows what the translator is doing. 

The broader idea of natural kind, Hegel notes, is presupposed in logical forms such as the notional judgement and syllogism of analogy. In these, e.g. “the horse is good”, the qualifying clause “according to its kind” is taken as read. Hegel was writing about real essences at a time when relatively little was known of their physical substructures (cells, molecules, DNA). When he analyses the notion of final cause though, such advances in empirical knowledge are less in play. 

Whilst Hegel regards the ontological proof of God as necessary being as primary, he also says that “God as living God, and still more as absolute Spirit, is recognised only in his activity. Man has been instructed early to recognise him in his works”. (344) This reference to scripture (e.g. Romans) turns our attention to cosmological proofs and the argument from design. The Greek idea of fate (Schicksal) though, belongs to self-conscious mind alone. On my reading then, Hegel endorses the argument from design, at least in passing, though he regards the ontological argument as the primary mode of conceiving God and the nature of the mind as generating a higher idea of his nature than contemplation of nature alone. His conclusion is not so different from Hume’s that there is a “distant analogy” between the concept of mind and "the cause or causes of order in the universe".

In what follows, I draw on the Johnson and Struthers (J&S) translation of the Science of Logic (London: Allen, 1929), occasionally amended by comparison with the Glockner edition (G). The passage commented on below is pages 651-57 of di Giovanni’s translation (Cambridge: UP, 2010), which is commonly regarded as superseding that of Miller (1969). 

First English edition of Hegel's Science of Logic.

Teleology (Science of Logic III.2.3)

The section on teleology in the Science of Logic is a self-contained essay. However, a complete treatment of the subject would have to consider the appropriate sections of the Philosophy of Nature and the later sections on the Logic, where self-conscious mind (“made in the image of God”) is held to embody reason in a higher degree than a natural system characterised by ends. 

Hegel begins: “When adequacy to an end (Zweckmässigkeit) is perceived, an intellect is assumed as the origin; that is, the proper and free existence of reason (des Begriffs) is demanded for the end.” (J&S 374, adapted) The passive voice here may be attributed to common sense and natural piety. Hegel continues:

“Teleology is chiefly contrasted with mechanism, where the determinateness posited in the object, being external, is essentially of such a kind as manifests no self-determination. The opposition between causa efficientes and causa finales – between merely efficient and final causes – refers to this distinction; and to this taken in a concrete form, the investigation reverts whether the absolute essence of the world must be taken as a blind natural mechanism or as an intellect  which determines itself by ends.” (374)

The Latin terminology here takes us back to scholastic philosophy. This had both Catholic and Protestant exponents in Germany, Hegel being most familiar with the latter (Leibniz, Wolff and his own teachers). Hence it takes us back also to Aristotle, whom Hegel identifies elsewhere as its source. Hegel identifies the point at issue as the antinomy between fatalism (or determinism) and freedom – “for the free is reason in its existence” (374). Thus far then, we have a clear presentation of an important issue. The following paragraph though, displaces the question from common sense and its medieval exponents to his own methodology. Hegel writes:

“Older metaphysics have treated these notions as they have treated the rest; partly they have presupposed an idea of the world, and have attempted to prove that one or another notion fits and that the opposite is defective because it does not suffice to explain it; and partly in doing so, they have not investigated the notions of mechanical cause and of end in order to ascertain which has truth in and for itself.” (374)

The method of the “older” – pre-Kantian may be understood – metaphysics seems eminently rational, with allowance for the method of analogy involved. Hegel’s proposed method on the other hand, of determining the truth of an idea by “investigating the notion” of it – if not ridiculous – at least requires explanation and justification. We need not rule out an a priori method: it might reveal contradictions that disallow one alternative for example, or a common assumption underlying both, or some ambiguity or confusion of terms. Hegel proceeds to explain further.

Hegel’s Method

Hegel contrasts his own method of evaluating teleology with that of the older metaphysics. It differs from Kant, who introduces experience into his account, as well as from scholastic realism. Hegel writes: “When this [the inherent truth of the idea] has been established for itself, then the objective world may offer mechanical and final causes; its existence is not the measure (der Maasstab) of the truth. The truth is rather the criterion which shows which of these existences is the true existence.” (374) Hegel has previously discussed the question of a criterion in the Phenomenology (Preface, Introduction and chapter 4 on skepticism), but there he said that the method was to follow the subject matter itself (die Sache selbst). His a priori method of considering ideas alone would be ridiculous if the criterion of truth were correspondence with the object. Hegel explains that, as subjective intellect contains errors, so the objective world exhibits various sides and levels of truth. These are often one-sided, incomplete or merely apparent relationships. He writes;

“If mechanism and purposiveness stand opposed to each other, they cannot, for that very reason, be taken as indifferent to one another. Nor can it be assumed that each by itself is a correct concept having as much validity as the other, the only question being where either of them may be applied. [...] the necessary preliminary question is, since they are opposed, which of them is true, and the higher and proper question is whether a third term is not their truth after all, or whether one is not the truth of the other. (374-75; Italics Hegel’s)

This might take us back to Aristotle and the scholastic tradition that distinguishes them as two species of cause. Aristotle’s own concept of cause is broader than ours, as he makes a fourfold division of causes by including form and matter in his notion of causality. Hegel proceeds by contrasting mechanism and chemism with teleology. I will try to collect what he says about each under appropriate headings.

Mechanism and Chemism

Hegel recaps his previous analysis in the mechanism chapter that “the unfreedom and submersion of reason (des Begriffs) in externality stand opposed to the End.” (375) Both mechanism and chemism, he argues, are “comprehended under natural necessity”. Reason is not present in mechanism because mechanism does not include self-determination. This introduces the idea of freedom into the discussion as a criterion, but thus far in a dogmatic way. To merely assert freedom is not to refute fatalism, though our possession of the concept – if demonstrated - might tell against it. 

Hegel explains that, despite their immanent principle, mechanism and chemism rely on externality. The externality though, is of the same nature as the object explained in such terms. For example. the parts of a mechanical system at least require room to move and the parts are external to each other. Hegel concludes of them:

“An essential moment of the totality always lies in an external term. Consequently, these principles remain within the same natural form of finitude. But, although they do not attempt to pass beyond the finite and lead only to finite causes of phenomena, which causes demand further progress, yet still they extend themselves partly into a formal totality in the conception of force, cause and similar reflective-determinations which are intended to denote originality (Ursprünglichkeit), while partly they do so through the abstract universality of an all of forces, or a whole of reciprocal causes. Thus mechanism manifests itself as a tendency of totality in that it seeks to grasp nature for itself as a whole which requires no other for its reason – a totality which is not found in End and the extra-mundane intellect which is associated therewith.” (375-76)

This recurs to the theme of finitude and the beyond of preceding sections of the Logic. The quote might be taken to refer to the French materialist philosopher D’Holbach and similar radical enlightenment theorising. It reframes the progress to teleology that Hegel earlier discerned in his discussion of mechanism. Thus armed, Hegel turns to teleology for comparison.


On teleology, Hegel firstly comments: “The more the teleological principle was connected with the notion of an extra-mundane intellect, and to this extent favoured by piety, by so much it seemed to be removed from the true investigation of nature.” (375) Hegel himself illustrates this in his Philosophy of Nature and we may also think in this regard of Voltaire’s caricature of Leibniz in Candide, as Dr Pangloss. Investigation seeks to establish determinate facts, not speculate on their ultimate meaning. This, it soon emerges, is not a rejection of teleology as such for Hegel. He writes: “the end is the concept itself in its existence.” (375) 

Knowledge from concepts seems to be an imposition on a heterogeneous element, whereas mechanism is an immanent principle. However, Hegel explains: “Purposiveness now manifests itself in the first place as something higher in general, as an intellect which externally determines the manifoldness of the objects by a unity which is in and for itself.” (376) Formerly indifferent aspects of the object become essential. Teleology presupposes a conception (Begriff) and thus self-determination. 

In mechanism in contrast, Hegel explains, the form of external necessity is decisive.  Only dry intellect is satisfied in recognising the abstract identities of mechanism. In teleology, the form is of relations of distinctions and reciprocal determinateness, whilst the content is a unity. Hence, we think, if the content is finite and insignificant, it is contrary to the design, for as regards form the end is a totality infinite within itself. This is so, “especially if activity which operates by ends is taken to be absolute will and intellect.” (376) [There is too large a gap between the purpose of creation (“to glorify God”) and the ends we see in living organisms. The ends demonstrated are “trifling” or “merely childish”; the relations established external and contingent. Hegel summarises:

“Teleology [...] sets up as something absolute whatever it contains that is trivial or even contemptible; and here a more universal thought can only feel infinitely cramped or even nauseated.” (377)

Mechanical demonstration gives value to its contingent object. It even has an air of “infinite freedom” as it presupposes an Agent. (377) There is also a point of scientific method at issue then. While teleology seems a valid concept, drawing predictions from it by attributing intentions to God is an arbitrary and error-prone activity of mind. Hegel comments: “The formal disadvantage to which this teleology is subject is this: that it does not progress beyond external adequacy to an end. (377) This alone is essential. Without regard to outer and inner adequacy, the End-relation is the truth of mechanism. “Teleology has in general the higher principle.” (378) It endows reason, as infinite and absolute principle of freedom, with a certainty of self-determination.

This is true as a matter of comparison, but we can note that what is involved is something less than a demonstration. The limits of mechanism provide space for a wider view that includes teleology. This is an endorsement of objective teleology on Hegel’s part. 

Kant’s Critique of Teleology

Hegel is struggling to hold together two thoughts, firstly that teleology represents a “higher principle”, and secondly that its application is often “trivial”, or “childish”. With this in mind, he turns to Kant, whose principal work on the subject is in his Critique of Judgement (Third Critique). Hegel criticises Kant’s subjective solution of this problem, but seeks to build on its positive content. He writes:

“One of Kant’s great merits in philosophy is that he established a distinction between relative or external and internal purposiveness. In the latter he has opened up the notion of life, or the Idea, and has thereby positively raised philosophy above the determinations of reflection and the related world [relative Welt] of metaphysics; though in the Critique of [Pure] Reason this is done only negatively, incompletely and in a very crooked fashion.” (377)

This indicates a preference for the Third Critique over the more skeptical First Critique (the Critique of Pure Reason). The opposition of teleology and mechanism, Hegel continues, is that of freedom and necessity in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, third antinomy. Hegel quotes from this and refers to his previous discussion of the antinomies in general in the Science of Logic. He summarises: “Its essential part is so simple that it requires no lengthy analysis.” (377) He gives the opposition:

  •    “It is necessary to assume another causality through freedom.” (thesis)
  •    “There is no freedom, only natural laws.” (antithesis)

Kant’s proofs assume the opposite and derive a contradiction. Thus the proof of the thesis assumes natural law, but argues that an a priori cause so conceived implies an absolute spontaneity. The proof of the antitheses assumes freedom, i.e. a state not causally connected to what preceded it, which contradicts the law of causality. Hegel comments that this whole circumlocution of proof might be spared. He then moves on to the Third Critique. Hegel says:

“Essentially the same antinomy returns in the Critique of the Teleological Faculty of Judgement, as the contradiction that all production of material things takes place according to merely mechanical laws and that some production of them according to such laws is impossible.” (378)

Kant’s solution is that reason can prove neither of these propositions, “since we can have no determinant principle a priori about the possibility of things according to merely empirical laws of nature.” (378) Hence they cannot be regarded as objective propositions, but only as “subjective maxims (Maximen)”. We can adopt both maxims, as suits us, “as though these two maxims (which further are supposed to be required only by human reason) were not in the same opposition in which the propositions stand.” (379) Hegel comments that how the propositions are seen (as objective facts or subjective maxims) is not relevant to their content. He summarises his criticism of Kant’s position:

“The only question which is demanded by philosophical interest is not looked into, namely, which of these two principles is true in and for itself. [...] This [Kant's view] is a subjective, that is, a contingent cognition, which applies one or the other maxim as the occasion may suggest, according as it thinks it appropriate to the given objects, but otherwise does not concern itself about the truth of these determinations themselves, or ask whether both are determinations of the objects or of cognition (des Erkennens).” (379)

Hegel thus seeks to return to an objective standpoint from the subjective bias he finds in Kant's critical philosophy.

Kant’s Positive Theory

Hegel next explains the content, rather than the skeptical form, of Kant’s theory. He writes that Kant ascribes the teleological principle “to a reflecting power of judgement, and thus makes it the connecting middle link (Mittelgliede) between the universal of reason and the individual of intuition.” (379) Kant then distinguishes this reflecting power of judgement from the determining faculty which merely subsumes the particular under the universal. Such a universal is abstract and only becomes concrete in an Other. In contrast, Hegel writes:

“The End on the other hand is the concrete universal which contains in itself the moment of particularity and externality, and consequently is active and is the impulse to push itself on from itself.” (379)

This makes the notion as End an objective judgement. In one respect, the subject is self-determined, in another (the predicate), it is external objectivity. Something distinctive is going on in teleological activity. 

Hegel’s View

The following represents a move to Hegel’s own view: “But the End-relation is not for this reason a reflecting process of judgement, which considers external objects only according to a unity, as though  some intellect had given them for the benefit of our powers of cognition.” (379-80) This might be seen as a criticism of the later “philosophy of as if (Als Ob)” associated with Vaihinger and the neo-Kantians. Instead, reason is discerned to be active in the world. Hegel continues:

“The relation is the truth which is in and for itself, which judges objectively and absolutely determines external objectivity. Thus the End-relation is more than judgement, it is the inference (Schluss) of the independent and free notion, which through objectivity binds itself together with itself (mit sich zusammenschliest).” (380)

So there is a pun on Schliessen here. Hegel’s own view then, is that reason (the notion) is immanent in the life-process. He does not invoke God as first cause at this point, though the reader is free to draw that conclusion in light of what is said before and after. There is no new argument, but a descriptive location of the reality of teleology in experience. 

The End then, is the third term to mechanism and chemism: “it is their truth.” It still stands within objectivity and so is affected by externality. Mechanism here is subordinate, external determination that gives way to the self-determination of reason. Reason is present in mechanism and chemism too, where it gives rise only to infinite progress. In them, the notion, as still external, is End. First though, “Mechanical or chemical technique (Technik) spontaneously offers itself to the End-relation by dint of its character or being determined externally; and this relation must now be further considered.” (380) With this, the section ends. What follows immediately is a discussion of the means-end relation in human life, rather than a further interpretation of natural teleology. 

On Life and Concluding Thoughts

The later section on life again takes up the nature of living organisms. In this, Hegel uses the idea of life as the background to his discussion of the ideals of truth and goodness. He writes for example: “The thought which frees reality from the show of purposeless changeability and transfigures it into the Idea must not imagine this truth of reality as a dead repose or bare picture, spent and without impulse or motion, or as a genus, number of abstract thought.” (399) Karen Ng has written recently in this vein about the centrality of life in Hegel’s Logic. Life is also the background to the key fourth chapter of the Phenomenology on self-consciousness. In the Logic though, Hegel more clearly distinguishes natural life from the life of the mind. He writes:

“Here life in general must be taken in its proper sense of natural life, for what is called the life of the mind as mind is its peculiarity which stands opposed to bare life […] Life as such is partly the means of spirit, and as such opposed to it; and partly it is the living individual and life is its body; while partly this unity […] receives birth out of life itself into the ideal.” (402-03)

The consideration of this yields a richer idea of God as governing the mind of man than the minimal idea of the divine creator of plant and animal life that results from the argument from design. Nonetheless, this idea is found in Hegel, though it has only a subordinate place in his broader system of metaphysical considerations bearing on man’s knowledge of God.

The later Encyclopaedia (1817-30) recapitulates the content of the above. In it, Hegel describes the distinction of final and efficient cause as of “supreme importance” (para 204), though invoking external teleological relations without warrant is a misuse of it (para 205n). In the Philosophy of Nature, he is clearer about the Aristotelian as well as Kantian origins of the idea of internal teleology (para 360R). He also restates his view that the mind of man betokens the nature of God more than does nature (para 248R).


Hegel, G.W.F. The Science of Logic. 1812-16. Trans. W.H. Johnson & L.G. Struthers. London, NY: Allen, 1929. Trans. Di Giovanni. Cambridge: UP, 2010.

-. Encyclopaedia Logic. Trans. W. Wallace. Oxford: UP, 1873.

-. Philosophy of Nature. Trans. A.V. Miller. Oxford: UP, 1970. [See also Petry translation]

Hume, David. Dialogues on Natural Religion. 1779. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990; Various editions.

Ng, Karen. Hegel’s Concept of Life. Oxford: UP, 2020.

Veillard-Baron, J-L (Ed.). Hegel et la vie. Paris: Vrin, 2004.

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