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In the Phenomenology of Spirit (section 169 in my edition), Hegel asserts the following:

The determination of life as it has arisen from the concept, or from the general results with which we enter this sphere, is sufficient to characterize it. (There is no further need to develop its nature any further out of those factors). Its cycle resolves itself into the following moments. The essence is infinity as the sublation of all distinctions, the pure movement rotating on its own axis, its own being at rest as absolutely restless infinity. It is to be characterized as self-sufficiency itself into which the distinctions of the movement have been dissolved.

In class, my professor brushed past this and remarked that "Hegel takes some time here to settle scores with some other authors" insofar as "what's unique about human life as human life is the axial rotation." I know this is a phrase that appears in a few other places in the Phenomenology and I'm having trouble finding anyone in the secondary literature who defines it.

My understanding is something like: life is a kind of movement (much like perception is a kind of movement), so there needs to be some medium that it does its moving in -- namely the "universal fluidity" that he addresses later in this chapter. Furthermore, since it's a movement, it needs something to move with respect to. Since self-consciousness is, by definition, self-sufficient, it follows that the only thing its movement can be oriented with respect to is itself, i.e. its axis. So we get some kind of "snake attempting to eat its tail" image of what the position of life is in the "logical space" that Hegel often metaphorically locates relations in.

But I wouldn't be surprised if I've misinterpreted him completely. Can anyone provide a good interpretation and/or something in the secondary literature that addresses this term?

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  • I'm a Hegel scholar but not primarily philosophy of biology. I do think Hegel views living as a type of movement, but you're missing an important word: "determination" which would refer not to living things as they are (which for Hegel would be a non-sensical notion) but to on our concept of life. I will try to look at the passage at work (I'm in JST) and then offer up an interpretation. – virmaior Jun 10 '14 at 10:04
  • @virmaior I suppose I might more properly say "the concept of life is a kind of movement?" I don't mean that life consists in things that physically move, rather, in the same way that "pointing is a movement that establishes relationships between complexes of simples" and "consciousness is a movement" in the sense that it is an active process, rather than a passive one. I don't think this is a point about biology -- I always take Hegel's flowery language to denote logical relationships, rather than physical ones. – Patrick Collins Jun 10 '14 at 11:11
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA Interesting, I haven't heard any interpretations of Hegel relating him to Newtonian physics. It would be great if you reposted that as an answer so I can upvote you. – Patrick Collins Jun 10 '14 at 14:40
  • You can see also by Thomas Posch : Hegel's Criticism of Newton's Physics ... but it seems to me not to speak of the topic at issue. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Jun 10 '14 at 15:02
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To really grasp what is going in this section, we need to step back and position ourselves in the Phenomenology. We are now in the domain of "self-consciousness" as a mode of certainty which Hegel explains differs from other modes of certainty. His critique of other modes is that "what is true for consciousness is something other than itself" (166). He explains that for the other modes of certainty (sense-certainty, the concrete thing of perception, and for the Understanding, a Force") prove to be ways objects exist for something other than themselves.

What Hegel is here doing is making the Kantian move (thus my highlighting of differences in terms). His point is largely that certainty is a function of mind not of that which is outside of it. At this point, Hegel can unify object and Notion (Begriff) as the for-itself and in-itself of the same thing.

Thus paragraph 167, Hegel declares "we have therefore entered the native realm of truth" (i.e. the place where truth happens -- acts of consciousness). Thus, in 167, he considers the depth of saying I am I which appears empty but turns out to be quite meaningful insofar as it involves a dialectical and reflective separation between the notion and the object and the application of object-notion to the self.

But paragraph 168 shows us what happens to objects when self-consciousness makes certainty about thinking: "the object ... has ... returned into itself" under the idea of a living thing. Hegel distinguishes the mind and the body that has the mind: "the former is the unity for which the infinite unity of the difference is; the latter, however, is only the unity itself, so that it is not at the same for itself" -- in that dense gibberish-like fragment, when Hegel says "for which difference is" he means in contemporary vocabulary that it's that mind predicates. Moreover, when self-consciousness is "desire" it defines its object only as a negativity (i.e. food that I eat -- instead of what it really is). tl;dr: Consciousness then becomes the software running on the dumb hardware of the living thing.

Now to 169, life occurs in things that have essential forms. In this respect, he's an Aristotelian through and through. What's interesting about the essence is that not only does it supersede the distinctions it also has its own independence and has endurance (think Anthony Kenny's definition of the form as the self-regulating principle). But things that are merely different instances of the same essence (where essence is both quasi-Aristotelian essence and mental construct for describing) is that the objects are only determinated by consciousness itself.

I don't know if that makes it any clearer... but basically living things pose an interesting problem for self-consciousness since it has moved the basis of certainty to the mind which encounters objects. Now, we need to understand what sort of object a living thing is.

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I'm not an hegelian scholar, and I'm perfectly conscious of the tentative nature of my considerations...

It's know that Hegel had some "complaints" with newtonian's physics (like Goethe did) : see by Thomas Posch : Hegel's Criticism of Newton's Physics.

Assuming that my "reading" of the above quotation as connected with some sense of "absolute" is plausible, we have to take into account the problem of modern physics (Galileo, Descartes, Netwon) regarding the relativity of motion, the existence of reference frames and the newtonian conception of "absolute" space.

An attempt to prove the existence of an absolute reference frame (and thus to support the idea of absolute space) was made by Newton with the (mental) experiment of a bucket full of water [see Isaac Newton's rotating bucket argument], designed to demonstrate that true rotational motion cannot be defined as the relative rotation of the body with respect to the immediately surrounding bodies.

If a bucket suspend to a chord is turned on its axis, when it is released it turns on it axis and the surface of the water assumes a concave shape as it acquires the motion of the bucket spinning relative to the experimenter. This concave shape shows that the water is rotating.

"Of course" if it is the "outside" environment which turns around the bucket the water stay in rest.

This argument was intended by Newton as a refutatuion of (e.g.) Descartes' view that motions can only be relative, and that there is no absolute motion.

Thus, we may read Hegel's "metaphor" as reminescent of this, trying to merge in

"the pure movement rotating on its own axis, its own being at rest as absolutely restless infinity"

both "absolute" movement (axial rotation) and "absolute" rest (there is no real displacement).

I hope it may help ...

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  • Reading the entire paragraph, I don't think this is what it is trying to say... all of that might be true elsewhere. – virmaior Jun 11 '14 at 8:42

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