Dialectic, Systems, and Organization: The Philosophical Implications of the New Science
By Anthony Mansueto
By Anthony Mansueto
The grandeur of Hegel's effort has no equal in the history of Western philosophy. Like Aristotle before him, he had an "emergent" interpretation of causality, of how the implicit becomes explicit through the unfolding of its latent form and possibilities. On a vast scale over the course of two sizable volumes, he assembled nearly all the categories by which reason explains reality, and educed one from the other in an intelligible and meaningful continuum that is graded into a richly differentiated, increasingly comprehensive, or "adequate" whole, to use some of his terms. We may reject what Hegel called his "absolute idealism," the transition from his logic to his philosophy of nature, his teleological culmination of the subjective and objective in a godlike "Absolute," and his idea of a cosmic Spirit (Geist). Hegel rarefied dialectical reason into a cosmological system that verged on the theological by trying to reconcile it with idealism, absolute knowledge, and a mystical unfolding logos that he often designated "God." Unfamiliar with ecology, Hegel rejected natural evolution as a viable theory in favor of a static hierarchy of Being. By the same token, Friedrich Engels intermingled dialectical reason with natural "laws" that more closely resemble the premises of nineteenth-century physics than a plastic metaphysics or an organismic outlook, producing a crude dialectical materialism. Indeed, so enamored was Engels of matter and motion as the irreducible "attributes" of Being that a kineticism based on mere motion invaded his dialectic of organic development.
To dismiss dialectical reason because of the failings of Hegel's idealism and Engels's materialism, however, would be to lose sight of the extraordinary coherence that dialectical reason can furnish and its extraordinary applicability to ecology--particularly to an ecology rooted in evolutionary development. Despite Hegel's own prejudices against organic evolution, what stands out amid the metaphysical and often theological archaisms in his work is his overall eduction of logical categories as the subjective anatomy of a developmental reality. What is needed is to free this form of reason from both the quasi-mystical and the narrowly scientistic worldviews that in the past have made it remote from the living world; to separate it from Hegel's empyrean, basically antinaturalistic dialectical idealism and the wooden, often scientistic dialectical materialism of orthodox Marxists. Shorn of both its idealism and its materialism, dialectical reason may be rendered naturalistic and ecological and conceived as a naturalistic form of thinking.
This dialectical naturalism offers an alternative to an ecology movement that rightly distrusts conventional reason. It can bring coherence to ecological thinking, and it can dispel arbitrary and anti-intellectual tendencies toward the sentimental, cloudy, and theistic at best and the dangerously antirational, mystical, and potentially reactionary at worst. As a way of reasoning about reality, dialectical naturalism is organic enough to give a more liberatory meaning to vague words like interconnectedness and holism without sacrificing intellectuality.
It can answer the questions I posed at the beginning of this essay: what nature is, humanity's place in nature, the thrust of natural evolution, and society's relationship with the natural world. Equally important, dialectical naturalism adds an evolutionary perspective to ecological thinking--despite Hegel's rejection of natural evolution and Engels's recourse to the mechanistic evolutionary theories of a century ago. Dialectical naturalism discerns evolutionary phenomena fluidly and plastically, yet it does not divest evolution of rational interpretation. Finally, a dialectic that has been "ecologized," or given a naturalistic core, and a truly developmental understanding of reality could provide the basis for a living ecological ethics. Labels: anthropology, cosmology, dialectical materialism, dialectics, Engels, Gould, Kropotkin, science, space posted by eugene plawiuk 4:08 AM