The Organism as a Subject: Hegel on Nature, Subjectivity, and Interconnectedness

19 September 2023


In his thesis entitled Agency and Organisation, Rasmus Haukedal highlights the remarkable mutual relevance of recent theoretical trends in biology and the dialectical approach to (living) nature as developed by Hegel, Engels, and others (Haukedal 2022). As Haukedal explains, a dialectical approach to the phenomena of life moves beyond the logic of binary thinking (of self versus other, subject versus object, cause versus effect and so on) by seeing nature as processes of becoming, i.e., of interaction, interdependency, integration, and organisation. For Hegel, philosophy is the science of scientific experience (“Wissenschaft der Erfahrung”), situating scientific insights in the context of a comprehensive encyclopaedic system while explicating and questioning the unspoken metaphysics at work in scientific research. Thus, dialectics should aim to assess and digest these recent developments from a dialectical perspective.  

What these recent biological developments share with a dialectical approach to living nature, Haukedal argues, is that both see the organism as the active agent in its own evolution (p. 8). Both Hegel and Engels consistently argue that, dialectically speaking, causation means interaction (“Wechselwirkung”), seeing the relationship between organism and the environment as a dialectical interplay, as reciprocity, while individuation is never a given, it is always a result (cf. Zwart 2022). Haukedal rightly emphasises this as well: agency is constituted through the interaction of organism and environment (p. 10). The organism is an active subject in its own evolution (p. 11). I italicise the term “subject” here because, in my contribution, I will emphasise the importance of this concept for Hegel’s decisive move away from Kant and Fichte, that is: his move away from philosophical egotism and anthropocentrism, by insisting on the interconnectedness of subjectivity and life. Hegel sees all organisms as subjects. In this contribution, I will zoom in on this aspect of his thinking, while treating Hegelian dialectics not as a finished product, but as an evolving system of thought, a research program to which dialectical scholars are invited to contribute, albeit based on a thorough grasp of Hegel’s dialectical method, – which means, rereading Hegel as an effort to contribute to contemporary scientific debate, while at the same time using these debates to revivify dialectics as a research program (again, interaction).

The Dialectics of Nature

For Hegel and Engels, dialectics is not only at work in the scientific enquiry. Rather, nature as such is inherently dialectical. Dialectics applies both to thinking and being. Heraclitus (the first dialectical thinker, according to Hegel) already emphasised this when he articulated his process ontology, his metaphysics of becoming (“everything flows”). Nature offers an open a theatre for interaction. This is taken up by Hegel who, building on Aristotle’s concept of energeia (“actualising” in the sense of “being-at-work”) develops a dynamical approach to being-as-becoming. This already applies to abiotic nature, for instance when Hegel sees Planet Earth as a semi-stable meteorological system, or the solar system as a theatre of interaction (of reciprocal causation).

The concept of dialectical interaction becomes even more pertinent in our efforts to come to terms with living nature. Everything is in flux; all entities are coagulated interactive processes. From a dialectical perspective, an organism is not a machine-like aggregate of components, let alone a carrier of selfish genes, but a subject. This already applies to plants, Hegel argues, actively modifying and remoulding their (inherently unstable) environment, maintaining themselves by actively engaging with their surroundings. For Hegel, nature is a theatre of adaptation, but as an interactive process, where the organism not only adapts itself to but also actively modifies the environment, e.g., plants adapting the soil to their needs. Natural selection is not a purely negative mechanism, it is relational, offering room for creativity, flexibility, and plasticity of organisms. From a Hegelian perspective, we may see DNA as the concept of an organism (Zwart 2022), but self-realisation on the basis of this concept is an interactive process, imbued with contingency, – DNA is not a blueprint. As Haukedal phrases it, life is an interplay between organism and environment (p. 15). And although the word “and” here still seems to suggest that we see organism and environment as clearly distinguishable, compartmentalised opposites, the dialectical concept of interaction rather invites us to see their relationship as interactive and fluid, – everything flows, everything is fluid, and this also applies to the boundaries between organism and environment, notably on molecular levels of organisation. Let us explore the relationship between life and subjectivity in Hegel’s oeuvre somewhat more in detail.   

The Organism as a Subject

Already in the Preface of the Phenomenology of the Spirit, Hegel presents life as a self-realising, self-positing “subject” (p. 23). Initially, as a subject, the living entails negativity and contradiction. Life is disruptive, but – as a process of becoming – it also engenders the subsequent negation of this negativity, resulting in a restoration of unity, not as a step backwards (towards the initial indifferent substance), but as something more comprehensive which has realised itself. In other words, life disrupts an initial situation of indifferent stability (i.e., the first dialectical moment, M1), thereby displaying the destabilising negativity which is inherent in all forms of subjectivity (M2). Yet, via a negation of the negation, the process of becoming will strive to regain a situation of stability, but now on a higher level of complexity (M3), incorporating that which was initially was seen as other, and therefore negated. Life is the process of becoming a subject (often referred to as individuation). And while becoming initially entails conflict and negativity (negating otherness), eventually a more positive outcome, a more positive relationship of interaction is established, so that subjectivity reconciles itself with otherness, seeing otherness as part of a more comprehensive totality. Thus, the concept realises itself – Hegel mentions the development of the embryo as an exemplification of such a process (p. 25). The contradiction between self and other (e.g., organism and environment) is now superseded as an obstacle to becoming (but also as an obstacle to our understanding of the process of becoming).

This is taken up in Part II of Hegel’s Encyclopaedia, i.e., his philosophy of nature. Living, organic nature, Hegel argues, is the realm of subjectivity (§ 252). Life is a concrete manifestation, an active “interpretation” of the concept by the organism as a subject (§ 251, Zusatz, p. 37). It is in living beings the subjectivity emerges (§ 248, z p. 29).[1] This applies to the whole organism, however. The organs of an organism are partial entities that cannot exist separate from the organic whole. Initially, there is a contradiction between the organic and the inorganic in the sense that the inorganic seems an inhospitable environment, threatening to destroy the organism, i.e., the living individual, the “subjective” (p. 39). Subsequently, however, this opposition, this negation finds itself negated (the contradiction finds itself superseded) to the extent that the organism manages to “assimilate” the inorganic and embed itself in the environment.

To some extent, this also applies to Planet Earth as such (§ 288). Hegel does not see the planet as a superorganism. Initially, Planet Earth was an abiotic planet, albeit with organic potential. Earth is the subject of a comprehensive whole which, via finite processes of chemistry and meteorology, at a certain point became a biotic planet in such a way that living organisms dramatically transformed the initial abiotic condition, so that Planet Earth as we now know it is the (unfinished) result of a plethora of interactive processes, where organisms (as subjects) contribute collectively to producing and co–shaping their own environment (rather than merely being products shaped by their environment via negative selection).

Special attention is given to crystals (§ 310) as an intermediate stage between the non-living and the living. Hegel considers crystals as instances of inorganic individuality: an individuality which is not yet subjectivity, however, since there is no sentience. Individuality is still drowned in matter. There is no room for creativity or plasticity, – it is mere inorganic being (p. 200).

All organisms are processes (§ 377) through which an idea comes into existence, becomes alive, Hegel argues. Whereas inorganic nature is the non-living, often even the corpse or remains of living systems of the past, it is in plants that subjectivity comes into existence, while it is only in animals that life truly becomes a genuine subject. The organism manages to sustain itself as a process, albeit always at risk of submerging again into chemism and the inorganic. The living is continuously under the threat of what we would nowadays refer to as entropy but, via interaction, the organism manages to sustain this contradiction up to a certain point (as all life is finite). Indeed, the living organism is precisely this union of opposites, where the internal and the external, cause and effect, subjectivity and objectivity come together (p. 339; cf. Haukedal 2022, p. 6).

Subsequently, Hegel discusses three realms: the realm of geological nature, of plants and of animals. Whereas geological nature is the non-living, the soil is at the same time a condition for the emergence of life, while underneath the soil, the remains of enormous forests from previous geological eras, lost worlds of vegetation and wildlife, lie buried (p. 345). In the past, dramatic changes took place in nature, Hegel argues, but in the present, such time-consuming processes are obfuscated by the disruptive impact of human activity on the environment. Micro-organisms (Hegel notably refers to infusoria) are considered as “punctuated” life, as “punctual” and transient instances of subjectivity.

Organic life is the self-sustaining self-realisation of a concept. Although there is subjectivity in plants (responsivity, interaction with the environment, etc.), a plant is not yet a subject in the genuine sense, although elsewhere Hegel argues that plants are subjects, but that their subjectivity is not yet fully realised. Rather, plant life entails perennial production, a combination of assimilation, externalisation, and multiplication. Animals, however, are subjects in the genuine sense, sensitive and self–present, reflecting on themselves via externality. They can relate to otherness through spatial movement, and the animal voice is already an approximation of self–conscious thought. The subjectivity of animals entails negativity, disrupting the environment, disrupting an initial situation of inertness (M1), e.g., by feeding on plants or other animals, which is basically an act of negation (M2), but this contradiction is superseded (again: negation of the negation) once a situation of ecological equilibrium is established (M3).

Let this suffice as a short exploration of the entanglement of Hegel’s conception of subjectivity and life. The core message is that, instead of seeing ourselves as a “subject”, confronted with nature as an “object”, from a dialectical perspective the first crucial step to take is to supersede this opposition (this negation of all subjectivity in nature) and to acknowledge the subjectivity inherent in and at work in nature itself.

Scientific Research as an Ecosystem

Let us now turn attention to the other side of the epistemological theatre, namely the place of science and scientists themselves, as subjects and as organisms. Here again, Hegelian dialectics allows us to move beyond the view of the scientific ego as a subject (the atomistic view of a researcher as a solitary individuals) and to conceptualise research itself as an interactive process, as the realisation of a concept or program, evolving within an academic ecosystem. In Kantian deontology, normativity focusses on the individual researcher, indicating how the autonomous agent should act in accordance with methodological and ethical constraints, but this focus on the individual agent evidently ignores the importance of universities or research institutes as evolving, interactive and co-constructed organisations, – as ecosystems. This for me is the core meaning of the Hegelian term Sittlichkeit, seeing a community (an academic community in this case) as a learning, developing ecosystem, encouraging certain actions and discouraging others, while the activities of all these actors will continuously affect the ecosystem as well (co–creation, “Wechselwirkung”). Thus, a university is likewise an ecological theatre offering a landscape of possibilities for worldmaking activities while at the same time confronting subjects with prohibitions and constraints, – but this evolving tension or contradiction between support and constraint is evidently at work in any social system.  


When it comes to assessing recent theoretical developments, I will focus on the concept of sympoiesis, introduced by Donna Haraway (2106) to emphasise the sense of embeddedness and interdependency which is also reflected by terms such as symbiosis, but in a more partial and finite manner. According to Haraway, speaking about organisms and the environment, even while emphasising processes of interaction, do not sufficiently allow us to come to terms with the entanglement an interconnectedness of the living. The term literally means “making with” (others) and emphasises that organisms are never alone and that nothing is really self–organising, since entanglement with otherness is always involved. Everything is complex, dynamic, responsive, situated, contingent, historical (p. 58). All living entities are open although in their desire for autonomy individuals may strive for autonomy and closure.

To some extent one could argue that this concept is in accord with the dialectical view of nature with its focus on fluidity, interaction and becoming. At the same time, there is a tension, to the extent that Haraway’s concept entails a turn away from thinking in terms of hierarchy. It entails a horizontalization of process ontology. Hegel’s philosophy of nature still adheres to the idea of a change of being, moving from crystals via plants to animals to human beings for instance, where crystals are “not yet” alive, plants “not yet” genuine subjects and animals “not yet” self-conscious beings in the sense of creating their own symbolic environment.

Take for instance the microbiome. Microbiome research made us aware of the fact that we are ecosystems, rather than individuals, inhabited by millions of microbes who not influence “lower” processes such as digestion, but also affect our mood and cognition. They are part of us, although some fluid boundaries continue to exist. They are extimate, as Jacques Lacan would phrases it: both intimate and other. Hegelian dialectics urges us to incorporate our microbiome in our self–understanding.

In this context, it is interesting to reread how Hegel in his philosophy of nature envisions excrements. On the one hand, he sees excrements of living beings as symptoms of deficiency (§ 365), indicating a lack of adjustment between self and other, organism and environment, as food is only partly digestible. In excrements, the metabolism of life becomes chemistry again, as these organic by–products are bound to decay. Yet, at the same time, Hegel emphasises that excrements are a product. They are not mere negativity, not mere waste (i.e., useless indigestible material) because, in the course of the process of digestion, the organism adds to it and actively expels it. In other words, although Hegel was obviously unaware of insights provided by contemporary microbiome research, everything is a dialectical syllogism, and this also applies to digestion and defecation. Food, the initial substance (M1), is digested, i.e., negated (M2), where bodily fluids trigger the food to decompose, so that the food is for the most part annihilated, but the end result (faeces) is a product as well, a combination of remnants and additives (M3). And on the collective level, excrements are part of the metabolism between human culture and the global environment. Seen from this perspective, global disruptive pollution is a symptom of systemic error, signalling the non–sustainability of the current global metabolism between humans and nature. In the context of global Sittlichkeit, the disruptive impact of waste can no longer be thoughtlessly ignored. And notwithstanding the hierarchical logic of his thinking, Hegel already pointed out that the term waste is a misnomer. Waste is a product, produced by us collectively, so that we are actively involved and responsible. The disruptive contradiction between human society as a superorganism and the global environment in which we are embedded and with which we are profoundly entangled must be superseded. The negativity of environmental disruption and mass extinction must be negated. Here we notice a detrimental dialectical deficit on the level of global Sittlichkeit, however, a lack of coordination and collaboration, a lack of integration and organisation, seeing that most human activity is focussed on addressing the acute symptoms (forest fires, floodings, and so on) rather than on transforming system, i.e., the chains of interactions from which these disasters stem.   


Haraway, Donna (2016) Staying with the trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press

Hegel, G. W. F. (1807/1986). Phänomenologie des Geistes. (Werke 3). Suhrkamp.

Hegel, G. W. F. (1830/1986). Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften II: Die Naturphilosophie (Werke 9). Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Haukedal, Rasmus S. (2022) Agency and Organisation: The Dialectics of Nature and Life. Durham University.

Zwart H. (2022) “Love is a microbe too”: microbiome dialectics. In: Bossert, L. and Höll, D. (ed.). The Microbiome and its Challenges for the Environmental Humanities. Endeavour 46, 2022, 46 (2) 10.1016/j.endeavour.2022.100816.

Zwart H. (2022) Continental philosophy of technoscience. Series: Philosophy of Engineering and Technology. Dordrecht / London: Springer Nature.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *