Mixing Memory

A Little Hegel


Over at A Brood Comb, Tanasije Gjorgoski posts a quote from Hegel’s Philosophy of Logic that is one of my favorites. I used to use part of it all the time in discussions with people (mostly scientists) who thought that all metaphysics was nonsense to be avoided at all cost.

The Atomic philosophy forms a vital stage in the historical evolution of the Idea. The principle of that system may be described as Being-for-itself in the shape of the Many. At present, students of nature who are anxious to avoid metaphysics turn a favourable ear to Atomism. But it is not possible to escape metaphysics and cease to trace nature back to terms of thought, by throwing ourselves into the arms of Atomism. The atom, in fact, is itself a thought; and hence the theory which holds matter to consist of atoms is a metaphysical theory.

Newton gave physics an express warning to beware of metaphysics, it is true, but to his honour be it said, he did not by any means obey his own warning. The only mere physicists are the animals: they alone do not think: while man is a thinking being and a born metaphysician. The real question is not whether we shall apply metaphysics, but whether our metaphysics are of the right kind: in other words, whether we are not, instead of the concrete logical Idea, adopting one-sided forms of thought, rigidly fixed by understanding, and making these the basis of our theoretical as well as our practical work. It is on this ground that one objects to the Atomic philosophy.

Hegel’s not only good for arguing against anti-metaphysical sentiments. His section on phrenology in Phenomenology of Spirit also provides some nice arguments against reductionism in philosophy of mind. All in all, Hegel’s a pretty useful guy.


  1. #1 Kurt
    December 12, 2006

    Wait, you use Hegel to argue against the notion that metaphysics is nonsense to be avoided? I would have thought it would be the other way ’round.

  2. #2 MIchael
    December 12, 2006

    “Paging Dr. Popper.” It seems Mr. Hegel has escaped from his cage again…

  3. #3 Chris
    December 12, 2006

    Kurt, I always used this quote, and a couple from The Archeology of the Frivolous to go with my argument that as soon as you open your mouth, you’ve made some metaphysical commitments.

  4. #4 Brandon
    December 12, 2006

    Hegel really does have an undeservedly bad reputation; some of his objections to Kant, for instance, are simply brilliant. The trouble is that when he’s arguing against Kant, he never says, “I’m arguing against Kant here”, and he often leaves out similar information in his other arguments. So he’s often brilliant, but it often takes more than a bit of work even to figure out what his point is. It doesn’t help that he talks philosophy like a German….

  5. #5 Brian
    December 15, 2006

    I probably shouldn’t comment, being insufficiently versed in Hegel and metaphysics, but isn’t Hegel conflating two very different categories of things by calling them both thoughts? Both the atom and the ether are thoughts. The atom is more than a thought.


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