What's Wrong with Rex? Hegel on Animal Defect and Individuality



In his Logic, Hegel argues that evaluative judgments are comparisons between the reality of an individual object and the standard for that reality found in the object's own concept. Understood in this way, an object is bad (ugly, etc.) insofar as it fails to be what it is according to its concept. In his recent Life and Action, Michael Thompson has suggested that we can understand various kinds of natural defect (i.e., defects in living things) in a similar way, and that if we do, we can helpfully see intellectual and moral badness—irrationality and vice—as themselves varieties of natural defect. In this paper, I argue that Hegel's position on animal individuality denies the claim that irrationality and vice are forms of natural defect. Hegel's account of the individuality proper to the animal organism in the Philosophy of Nature clearly disallows evaluative judgments about animals and thereby establishes a well-defined conceptual distinction between natural defect and intellectual or ethical—i.e., broadly spiritual or geistliche—defect. Hegel thus provides a way of maintaining the difference between nature and spirit within his broader commitment to a post-Kantian conception of substantial form.


Encyclopedia Logic (cited by section number, followed by ‘A’ for Anmerkung or ‘Z’ for Zusatz); trans. Geraets, Suchting, and Harris, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1991


Philosophy of Nature (cited by section number, followed by ‘A’ for Anmerkung or ‘Z’ for Zusatz); trans. Miller, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004


Philosophy of Spirit (cited by section number, followed by ‘A’ for Anmerkung or ‘Z’ for Zusatz); trans. Wallace, Miller, and Inwood, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007


Phenomenology of Spirit (cited by paragraph number); trans. Miller, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979


Elements of the Philosophy of Right (cited by section number, followed by ‘A’ for Anmerkung or ‘Z’ for Zusatz); trans. Nisbet, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991


Science of Logic [cited by page number of Hegel, G.W.F. (1969), Hegel's Science of Logic, trans. A.V. Miller, Amherst, MA: Humanities Press, followed by volume and page number of Hegel (1970)]

§1. Defect, Normativity and Individuality

You are visiting an old friend at her home. She has a dog—call him Rex—getting on in years for his breed. The front door opens and Rex, as is his habit, bounds forward to greet you. He seems vaguely lurching and awkward, but your focus is elsewhere, on your friend. With hellos out of the way, you squat down and turn your attention to him, scratching behind his ear and asking your friend, ‘What's wrong with Rex? A little arthritis in his senior years?’ To which she replies: ‘Oh, no—I didn't tell you? He got hit by a truck back in August—it crushed his knee and paw, and we had to amputate’. Leaning left for a better angle, you look more closely at Rex's body and then you see it: he's missing a hind leg.

Now, Rex may or may not have done anything wrong to get himself into this spot, but there is surely something wrong with him, at least in the sense that you have not misused English in asking the question as you did. Dogs are supposed to have, or they naturally have, four legs. And so, naïvely stated, there is something wrong with a three-legged dog; such a dog is defective, unwell, damaged, injured, something is amiss with it, or it is not as it should be. But even if we think there is something right about saying things this way, we might still hesitate to do so, since claims of defectiveness seem to invoke a ‘nature’ or ‘kind’ of thing Rex is or should be, and thus seem to appeal to a conception of Rex's species as a natural norm for Rex the individual. This hesitation is supported by at least two distinct, if compatible, lines of criticism. According to one line, purported natural norms (especially when they involve humans) are often really social norms in disguise, and the pursuit of social justice requires vigilant skepticism in the face of all claims of natural normativity. According to the other, claims about ‘natures’ or ‘kinds’ are claims about biological species, and claims about biological species are the concern of natural science. Natural science, however, is not in the business of discovering norms of any kind; it rather knows nature as wholly ‘disenchanted'—i.e., as norm- and value-free—and thus requires species concepts devoid of all normative import.

There is much to be said in favour of these lines of criticism, not least because we ought to share their aims of justice and truth. But although they may motivate an understandable hesitation, they do not really settle the question of whether anything is wrong with Rex. In fact, despite their different orientations, they both operate in the same basic way: first, they bracket the question of whether or in what sense there is something wrong with him; second, they suggest some other things we might say instead. Rather than saying that something is wrong with Rex, we ought instead to say, more justly, that Rex does not conform to our general expectations about what a given dog will look like, or, more scientifically, that he is in the statistical minority when it comes to the quantity of legs had by dogs in the relevant population.

These seem like very reasonable things to say. And perhaps more to the point, they seem true. I am surprised when I encounter three-legged dogs, and I would be surprised to find out that I should not be surprised. But all of that is also wholly compatible with there being something wrong with Rex. That is, even if we agree that neither strictly social norms nor strictly scientific data would warrant claims of natural defect, we might still think such claims were warranted on some other grounds. So if we want to decide whether or not something is wrong with Rex, we cannot simply show that we might correctly say something else. Rather, we have to attend to whom or what we are talking about when we say such things and to what we want to say about it—to the kind of thing Rex himself is and what it would be for there to be something wrong with that.

Hegel may seem to stand on the wrong side of a number of historical divides—in the development of science, logic and politics, for instance—regarding the issues that arise here; he is pre-Darwinian, pre-Fregean and enjoys only questionable liberal-democratic credentials. But as it happens, his discussions of evaluative judgments, on the one hand, and of animality, on the other, are very helpful in thinking through these issues. My aim in this paper is thus to show how Hegel's discussions of those topics give us a helpful way to construe animal defect and, in turn, point to a helpful way of differentiating judgments of animal defect from genuinely evaluative judgments of moral or ethical wrongness. Hegel begins by distinguishing animal individuality from ethical (or more broadly, ‘spiritual’) individuality.1 On his view, animal individuality is constituted in and through natural defectiveness, while ethical individuality is open to defect but also capable of a certain kind of perfection. While I will not go into any detail about Hegel's views on spiritual individuality, I will present and defend enough of his argument about animal individuality to make the distinction visible in its rough outlines.

Something very much like the approach to animal species and individuality I will ascribe to Hegel is taken by Michael Thompson in his recent Life and Action,2 and in what follows, my strategy will be to piggyback on some points he makes there. Thompson's neo-Aristotelian, Anscombian position must be sharply distinguished from Hegel's, particularly as regards Thompson's core claim that ‘irrationality and vice are forms of natural defect’ (Thompson 2008: 81). But I intend only to clarify Hegel's position through considering some of Thompson's points, not to assess Thompson's position on its own merits. In what follows, then, I will begin by sketching some of Thompson's points about judgments of natural defect (§2). I will then use these points to highlight the distinguishing features of Hegel's views on evaluative judgment (§3) and animal individuality (§4). This will lead me in turn to a discussion of the role defect plays in Hegel's conception of individual animal life (§5) and then to a discussion of his conception of animal genera (§6), which will provide the link to his discussion of animal individuality, ethical individuality and the difference between them. I will then conclude (§7) with some points about the significance of these Hegelian claims for understanding some of his other views.

§2. Thompson on Judgments of Natural Defect

Thompson's discussion of animal defect centres on his analysis of judgments of natural defect, an analysis he conducts by placing these judgments in their typical inferential contexts.3 Canonically, they appear as the conclusion in inferences conforming to the following schema:

SCHEMA D:(D1)The S is F.
 (D2)This S is not F.
/.:(D3)This S is defective in that it is not F.4

Schema D looks relatively simple. In D1, feature F is predicated of the species S—e.g., ‘The Doberman has four legs’. In D2, an individual of species S is said to lack feature F—e.g., ‘This Doberman does not have four legs’. And in D3, the mismatch between this Doberman and its species is made explicit in a single judgment as the conclusion.

But the apparent simplicity of Schema D masks a series of well-known problems. We can start with problems raised by the generic term occupying the subject position in D1. Clearly, D1 cannot be understood as a standard type A categorical (‘For all x, if x is an A, then x is a B’). First and foremost, if we understand it that way, we should conclude not that there is something wrong with this three-legged Doberman, but rather that this thing we thought was a Doberman is not really a Doberman at all. But there is surely something odd in thinking that an amputation can cause a Doberman to lose not just its leg but also its species membership. In order to avoid this consequence, we might propose that the copula in ‘The S is F’ is not a normal copula of predication, but rather hides a statistical generalization, or perhaps a ceteris paribus clause. Alternately, we might propose that ‘The S is F’ is not a natural-factual-descriptive claim at all but an irreducibly normative one.5

Thompson presents arguments against each of these proposals; I regard these arguments as well made and will not rehearse them here.6 Thompson's counterproposal is to distinguish between standard type A categoricals and propositions of the kind found in D1, which he calls ‘natural-historical judgments’; he proposes that we do this in terms of the logical form of the things they are judgments about. When we understand ‘All A's are B's’ as properly analyzed into ‘For every x, if x is an A then x is a B’, we understand the proposition expressed by ‘All A's are B's’ as a proposition about individuals, in the sense that we interpret the predicate B as attaching to objects whose logical form is that of individuality. The relation of the predicates A and B to each other is thus understood in reference to the individual objects to which they attach. A natural-historical judgment, by contrast, is best understood as predicating something directly about the species or ‘life-form’ named by the term in the subject position; the predicate F connects directly to S, which in turn does not pick out a set of individuals but rather the life-form. F is then predicated of members of the species only indirectly insofar as they ‘bear’ this life-form.7

Thompson's proposal, though focused mostly on the kind of generality characterizing a life-form, suggests a specific way of understanding living individuality. The living individual is always implicitly thought of as located in a ‘wider context’, namely, the context captured in its life-form, which specifies what it is for it to live out an individual life as the kind or species of thing it is.8 Even if we understand very little about the life-form of a given organism, just in grasping this object here and now as a living thing, we understand its present existence as part of a context that ‘goes beyond’ whatever we encounter in it. When we do so, we understand it as having a life-form. Thus, for instance, we grasp the thing this squirrel is doing with its jaw as (part of) an eating only by linking it implicitly to other things involving the squirrel's throat, stomach, bowels, circulatory system, and so forth.9 And in this sense, the wider context captured in the life-form is not ‘beyond’ the individual at all; it is only through this larger context that the organism is the individual it is.10

The proposal, then, is that we understand natural-historical judgments, such as that appearing in D1, as claims about life-forms, and that we understand a life-form as specifying the peculiar kind of unity an individual has when it is a living individual. Understood in this way, the unity picked out by the life-form can be correctly said to have features many individuals enjoying that unity may never manifest at any time. It may be true that the honey badger hunts cobras, while my pet honey badger never will.

If Thompson is right about all this, then to assert that this individual S does not exhibit a feature contained in life-form S cannot amount to denying that it has or ‘bears’ that form; if it did amount to such, our assertion would be self-contradictory (‘This honey badger is not a honey badger’). And now, we can see how Thompson proposes to understand the idea of natural defect as expressed in Schema D: natural defect names a negative relation between this S and its life-form S. Only in light of S is this S the individual it is; if it stops being an S, then it stops being an individual (e.g., it dies and decays). So in being not F, it has not stopped being an S (assuming it is still there at all). Yet its life-form involves being F (by D1), and it is not F (by D2); thus it is a defective S (D3). This conclusion, then, is not a judgment holding this S up to some external standard, but a judgment pointing to a way in which its present condition does not display the unity the subject term attributes to its life.

There is a lot to be said about Thompson's proposal, but for my purposes here, the emphasis should be on his conception of the species as life-form and the view of individuality it involves. His claim that the subject of D1 is properly speaking a life-form, and thus that feature F is only indirectly predicated of individuals, shows that he takes living individuality—the kind of individuality characteristic of the things falling under a species concept—to be formally-logically distinct from the individuality attributed to objects falling under standard Fregean universals.11 He takes our judgments of animal defect and the inferences in which they appear to display our implicit commitment to such heretofore overlooked logical forms. Thus, in turning now to Hegel, I will begin by discussing his analysis of evaluative judgments in general. As it turns out, Hegel also emphasizes various forms of unity, and specifically emphasizes the importance of the form of living individuality. He also, like Thompson, grasps this form through a reflection on defect. But he gives defect a fundamentally different significance, eventually using his analysis of animal life as the basis for a highly consequential distinction between animal and ethical individuality.

§3. Hegel on the Logical Form of Evaluative Judgments

Hegel analyzes evaluative judgments—in his terms, ‘judgments of the concept'—very traditionally, according to the ways in which they exhibit the rational or conceptual relation between subject and predicate they combine.12 He identifies three varieties of such judgment: the assertoric (e.g., ‘This house is bad’), the problematic (e.g., ‘A house may be good or bad depending on its constitution’) and the apodictic (e.g., ‘This house, being roofless, is bad’).13 In each of them, the concept of the subject ‘is laid down as the basis and … is an ought to which the reality may or may not be adequate’ (SL:657/W6:344). The assertoric judgment merely issues an evaluation in which the connection of subject and predicate is asserted, but no further indication of its basis is provided; the problematic judgment expresses that there is a criterion for attaching the evaluative predicate to the subject but does not specify that criterion's content. Only the apodictic judgment reserves a place in the judgment itself for the explicit statement of the determination of the subject by virtue of which it is rationally tied to the evaluative predicate. It is not that this house is bad, full stop, or that it is bad or good depending on how it is constituted, but that this house, being roofless, is bad.

Even the apodictic judgment, however, leaves something out or unsaid, since it does not make explicit why the house's being roofless counts as a reason for evaluating it as bad. To make this reason explicit, says Hegel, we must make explicit the fact that in the evaluative judgment, ‘subject and predicate correspond to each other and have the same content’, a content articulated in the judgment itself in ‘two moments, the objective universal or the genus, and the individualized [universal]’ (SL:662/W6:349). But it turns out we cannot make this content and relation explicit in an evaluative judgment alone; instead, we must move beyond the judgment to an inference of which it is the conclusion. Specifically, we need an inference that includes a judgment explicitizing the relevant content of the concept house and a judgment articulating the ‘reality’ of this house. Thus, the kind of inference Hegel has in mind is one that conforms to Schema D: Houses have roofs, but this house is roofless; this house is therefore a bad house, a defective house, insofar as it is roofless.14

Hegel and Thompson thus agree on the validity of inferences conforming to Schema D, and the little we have seen so far suggests that they may do so for similar reasons. Hegel's idea that the basis for evaluative judgments of individuals is found in the concept through which the individual subject is understood sounds a lot like Thompson's idea that the organic individual is the individual it is in virtue of its life-form. Yet in reading through Hegel's treatment of such judgments, a telling feature emerges. When considering non-evaluative judgments, he routinely uses examples from organic (and also from inorganic) nature. But when he turns to consider evaluative judgments and the individual–universal relations they involve, he stops using natural examples altogether and instead restricts his examples to just two: a house and a not-further-specified action.15 Hegel's choice of examples may be wholly arbitrary, but then again may not be, and it at least invites a closer look at his views on animal individuality and animal defect. Hegel speaks of animal defect at length. But as it turns out, he does not think animals can be proper subjects of evaluative judgments, precisely because they do not have the right kind of individuality. Thus, while natural defect plays a central role in Hegel's conception of animality, he regards such defect as different in kind from the (genuinely evaluative) badness predicable of minded agents, their actions and the products of those actions. The task of the next sections, then, is to see how Hegel understands animal individuality, what role defect plays in that individuality and how that individuality is to be differentiated from ethical individuality.

§4. Hegel on Animal Individuality

Hegel's procedure in the Philosophy of Nature consists in a search for forms of unity within a nature taken initially as a mere multiplicity of fundamentally ‘self-external’, spatiotemporally diverse constituents.16 The last part of the Philosophy of Nature is devoted to the form of unity constituting and constituted by animal life.17 His discussion there begins with a consideration of the animal in abstraction from its environment, focusing on what he calls the ‘shaping process’—roughly, the overall internal physiological process in which each part of the animal produces itself and contributes to the production of the others.18 This process is a complex, self-relating series of activities distinguished into a number of physiological subsystems (nervous, skeletal, circulatory, etc.) standing in functional interdependence with each other; when its systems are interdependent in this way, the animal as a whole is, and actively treats itself as, means to itself as end. Within its coordinated self-shaping activity, the activity of the nervous system in particular constitutes the animal's ‘simple and immediate self-feeling’ (EPN§356).

With this conception of the shaping process in hand, Hegel moves to a consideration of the animal's relation to its environment, under the heading of ‘assimilation’.19 Included here are both the animal's purely sensory or ‘theoretical’ activity—seeing, hearing, etc.—and its ‘practical’ activity—breathing, digesting, etc.20 The assimilation process obviously includes many of the same systems and activities that make up the shaping process. The distinction between processes, then, is not to be made solely in terms of these systems and activities, but rather in terms of the logical relation they bear to the living animal as a unity. In the shaping process, the animal's organic systems are understood in the context of their active relations to each other within the animal's body—i.e., they are understood in terms of their contribution to the internal physiological economy of the animal abstracted away from its relation to its environment. In the assimilation process, by contrast, these systems are understood through the role they play in relating the animal, now understood as a single unity, to its environment. Importantly, even when they are distinguished in this way, both processes have the animal itself as their cause and result. In the shaping process, the animal is analyzed as the wholly self-contained cause and effect of itself; in the assimilation process, the animal is analyzed as cause and effect of itself only through its relation to the environment outside it.

Hegel's introduction of the distinction between the shaping and assimilation processes in his discussion of the results and descriptions provided by contemporary physiology can easily be misunderstood as an attempt to propose alternatives to those results and descriptions. But in fact, when he introduces these philosophical distinctions, his aim is not to assert the discovery or ‘deduction’ of any new functions or mechanisms unknown to biology, nor is it to assert some special, non-empirical mode of access to biological facts. In keeping with his overall aim in the Philosophy of Nature, his goal here is to understand the kind of unity produced by, and productive of, the very things discovered and described by the life sciences. Thus the shaping process, e.g., is not meant to be a heretofore undiscovered function or activity; rather, by allowing us to abstract away from the animal's necessary and continuous relation to its environment, such a process concept isolates the most logically simple form of the animal's self-relation, and thus reveals the most simple variety of unity the animal achieves. The assimilation process, in turn, names no biologically distinct function or activity, but rather highlights the more complex self-relation the animal achieves through its relation to the environment, and thus points to a more complex form of unity the animal enjoys.

In Hegel's own terms, while in the shaping process the animal produces a ‘singularity’ (EPN§350) that is ‘related only to itself’ (EPN§353), in assimilation the animal achieves ‘individuality’ (EPN§357) and ‘gives truth and objectivity, as the single individual, to its self-certainty and to its subjective concept’ (EPN§366). The distinction here between the simple self-relation of singularity and the more complex self-relation of individuality can be further clarified by reflecting on Hegel's idea that in these life-processes, the animal produces itself.21 In the shaping process, this self-production involves three elements: the animal as producer, the animal as material and the animal as product.22 At the level of abstraction characterizing this process, each of these productive roles is differentiated, and yet each is filled by the same entity—namely, the animal itself. Thus, in calling the result of this process ‘singularity’ [Einzelheit], Hegel means to stress the idea that the unity achieved in it is the straightforward self-identity of all three elements. In the assimilation process, by contrast, a fourth element—the environment as material means—is introduced. The product produced by the animal in assimilation is still itself, and thus in one sense identical with it as producer, but in assimilation, the animal as producer has made itself as product out of something other than itself.23 Thus, the identity or unity of the animal considered as the thing that engages in and is produced by assimilation is not the simple or immediate singularity of the shaping process but a unity achieved through a transformation of self and other. This more complex unity is what Hegel here calls ‘individuality’ [Individualität] and in its most developed form, it is ‘concrete individuality’.

Thus for Hegel, the individuality properly characterizing the animal is one that it achieves through a variety of self-productive physiological processes in which it relates itself to its environment. The full description of these processes involves a wealth of detail, which Hegel eagerly incorporated into his lectures. But even while engaging with this detail, he insists that the activities of the assimilation process have a common character: they are all activities in which the animal acts to overcome a defect. Thus, in order to understand his view on animal individuality, we must consider Hegel's concept of animal defect, which turns out to be not an evaluative concept but a constitutive feature of animal individuality as such.

§5. The Role of Defect in the Assimilation Process

As we have seen, the process of assimilation involves the incorporation of outside substances as means in the self-producing and self-maintaining processes of animal life. The main variety of such incorporation is what Hegel calls the ‘real process’ or the ‘practical relation’ of the animal to its environment, and it begins, he says, ‘with the feeling of defect and the drive to sublate it’ (EPN§359).

Hegel regards feeling in general not as something an animal passively suffers but as an activity of the animal's own nervous system.24 The feeling of defect, on this model, is a modification of the activity of self-feeling present in the shaping process.25 In the shaping process, the animal's self-feeling is the nervous system contribution to a series of interdependent means–end relations in which each organ or system produces materials consumed by another.26 The feeling of defect arises when these materials are inadequate for the self-production and self-maintenance of the animal—i.e., it arises when the animal has become insufficient means to itself as end.27 A feeling counts as a feeling of defect, then, when it is of a kind that leads to efforts to incorporate substances foreign to the animal as means to the animal's self-production.28 But insofar as it is a feeling of inadequacy and part of a process of self-production, the feeling of lack is, logically speaking, just as much ‘the feeling of externality as the negation of the subject’ as it is ‘the positive relation [of the animal subject] to itself’ (EPN§359). In other words, the feeling of defect is an activity of the animal that relates it in a dependent way to something that is not itself, and is thus formally ‘negative’, but it is also an activity through which the animal makes this other a means to itself, and is thus also a formally ‘positive’ self-relation.29

This somewhat abstract and technical-looking point about the logically positive or negative formal determination of the feeling of defect is immensely significant for Hegel, and it indicates the fundamental difference between his position and Thompson's. The conclusion of Schema D has the logical form of negation, introduced in D2; thus, to the extent that our concept of natural defect is understood through this schema, we will be bound to a merely negative conception of it. In Thompson's proposal, we reach only this negative view; the positive truth about the individual is articulated by the life-form concept, while defect in the living individual is understood as the logical negation of some part of that content.30

According to Hegel, the defective animal stands in a negative relation to itself, but the negative self-relation of defect is equally a positive self-relation. Defect is thus characteristic of the animal's way of being an individual and is included in the unity proper to it.31 The animal's positive self-relation of self-production is achieved through an assimilation activity that establishes the animal's individuality, but the form of this activity is that of the conversion of a negative self-relation into a positive one. Defect, on Hegel's view, is thus not a marker of wrongness or malfunction but of the normal, healthy, successful activity of life. Far from being a sign that the animal is failing to exhibit the unity of its life-form, such defect is rather a constitutive ‘moment’ in its characteristic unity; the animal can only be what it is by means of defect.32

The difference between Thompson's and Hegel's views on the logical form of animal defect yields a difference in their views about how to understand everyday judgments of defect. Take, for instance, the case of a thirsty Doberman. Following Schema D, we might instantiate D1 as ‘The Doberman uses two liters of water per day’, D2 as ‘This Doberman did not drink two liters of water today, but only one’ and D3 as ‘This Doberman is defective in that it is one liter short on water’. Now, in some sense, Hegel can endorse this analysis; in fact, he will have to claim that we can properly understand the Doberman's eagerness to drink from its bowl when it gets home from the park only by seeing that eagerness as a manifestation of its ‘drive to sublate’ its defect. The non-defective drinking is understood only through the defect, the thirst. But conversely, we can understand the dog as thirsty only if we understand that its living unity includes activities that sublate this defect. That is, we understand the dog's thirst as a defect only if we understand it as having a positive significance for the dog's unity-achieving self-production. (To put it in Thompson's terms: things that do not have drinking as part of their life-form cannot get thirsty, but things that do not have thirst as part of their life-form cannot drink.) There is something wrong with a thirsty Doberman but that same thing is something right with it, too; being a Doberman includes getting thirsty and then drinking in order to quench that thirst. And insofar as all of its defects are of this sort, judgments of animal defect are not evaluative judgments.33

In the next section, I will say more about how animal individuality relates to the kind of individuality—human ‘spiritual’ individuality—that can be the proper subject of an evaluative judgment, on Hegel's view. But before taking up those issues, I want to address a possible objection to what I have just said about the positive aspect of defect. The objection would have it that by starting with a discussion of a three-legged dog and then moving to a discussion of a thirsty one, I have switched topics (abetted, perhaps, by my translation of ‘Mangel’ by ‘defect’ instead of the more usual ‘lack’). Thompsonian defect, according to this objection, is genuine damage, whereas Hegelian defect is merely natural need, and while need is rightly thought to be part and parcel of any life, damage is not. If the objection holds, then, Thompson is perhaps right to insist on a strictly negative logical form for defect-as-damage, and it remains open to him to attribute some other form to instances of everyday need.

It would be obtuse to deny that there is a difference between getting thirsty and losing a limb. But whatever that difference may be, it is not relevant here. Our concern is the relation of defect to the form of unity characteristic of living individuals, and there is no reason to think that damage and need differ significantly in this regard. They may seem to differ causally; it may seem that a dog gets thirsty through its own activity and loses a leg through the imposition of an external force. But a dog can get thirsty by being locked in a hot car, and what happens to it when it is hit by a truck (or cut by a vet's bone saw) is determined by its body's constitution and its response to trauma. Alternately, need and damage may seem to differ in frequency or statistical likelihood; all dogs get thirsty, but not all get hit by trucks. Yet for the analysis of their form, frequency is wholly irrelevant. What matters is the way both damage and need figure in the animal's activity of bringing about its continued individual life, and in this respect, they are the same. The dog who recovers from an accident (or from surgery) and learns to lope about on three legs is acting to sublate a defect just as much as the thirsty dog that drinks. The action of each is what it is in relation to the defect it responds to and the unity it achieves. Thus, whatever their differences, damage and need are both subtypes of the broader category of defect, whose logical analysis applies to both.34

But another worry may arise at this point—a worry about how to link Hegel's conception of the form of unity characteristic of animal individuality, and the role defect plays in that form, with a more common (broadly ‘extensionalist’) notion of the species as a collection of individuals, usually picked out in terms of a common set of properties. Thompson's conception of the life-form retains aspects of the extensionalist conception of the species, as he makes clear in defining the living individual as ‘whatever falls under a species or “bears” a life-form’ (Thompson 2008: 76–7). But Hegel's conception of animal individuality does not seem to involve an appeal to any kind of unity other than that of the individual. Even Hegel's analysis of defect—according to which it is not a mismatch between the properties of the individual and the set of properties united in its species concept but a negative ‘moment’ in a process through which the individual relates to itself and its environment—steers clear of any direct appeal to an extensionalist species concept. But as it turns out, Hegel is eager to show that his position not only can recover the extensionalist concept of the species but can do so by developing it out of the foregoing analysis of the unity of the living individual. It is to that argument that I now turn.

§6. Animal Individual and Animal Genus

In the Science of Logic, Hegel appropriates and systematizes, and in so doing reformulates, almost the entire vocabulary of the Western tradition in metaphysics and logic. He then uses that vocabulary to present the doctrines found in his Philosophy of Nature and Philosophy of Spirit. This way of doing things invites us to think that the categories articulated in the Logic are taken as the a priori basis for the claims made in those later parts of the system.35 Under the influence of this thought, we may be tempted to attribute the following position to Hegel: the distinction between individuality and universality, of which the distinction between animal and species is an instance, is a logical one instituted beyond or outside of or before nature—perhaps in a strong metaphysical sense, or perhaps only in a mild, Kantian sense—and is thus given to nature ready made (either by the universe itself, or by our world-making mental activities, or in some other way).36 But if we attribute such a position to Hegel, we miss the core of his view of animal life. His goal in the Philosophy of Nature is not so much to identify this or that natural object or relation as instantiating this or that category from the Logic as it is to understand the natural unities and distinctions brought about through natural activities, relations and processes. Thus, with regard to animal individuals and species, his goal is to understand the individual and the species as brought about in nature by natural activities, relations and processes—and precisely not to understand the distinction between them as one given to, or legislated to, nature from some noumenal, a priori, or otherwise extra- or supernatural realm.

As we have seen already, Hegel claims that in the shaping process, the animal gives itself singularity, and in the assimilation process, it achieves individuality properly so called. In the final process he considers—the ‘genus process’—the species both brings itself about through its individual members and distinguishes itself from them, while those members are now understood as ‘concrete individuals’ both produced through the species and productive of it.37 Hegel's conception of this process is complex, and I will not attempt to summarize it here. But we can use his analysis of the process of sexual reproduction, itself a sub-process of the genus process, as an example. If sexual reproduction is to serve as such an example, then it will have to be understandable as an activity of reciprocal production and differentiation of the species and its members as concrete individuals. That is, it should bring about some kind of extensionalist species unity through an activity that is also productive of the concrete individuals so unified.

Bracketing possible complications arising from mutation, however, this is just what sexual reproduction does. In the higher-order animal cases Hegel takes as canonical, sexual reproduction is one activity involving two individuals, and thus it is a process in which the individual achieves a living unity with another individual.38 As the result of this activity (in its most quantitatively simple form), a third individual is produced; insofar as it is produced in this way, it, too, has an individuality that necessarily involves a living unity with (two) other individuals. But all three are not merely united in this activity; they are also distinguished, through the sexual difference of the parents and the producer/produced difference between parents and offspring (among others). Thus, if we understand the species as a unity of distinct individuals in which both their unity with and differences from each other are produced and in which their unity with and difference from this species itself are manifested, then the activity of sexual reproduction clearly (if partially) constitutes the species.

Hegel's account of the genus process involves many more activities beyond sexual reproduction, and the account just given is very schematic. But even at the level of such a sketch, we can see the direction in which Hegel's argument is heading. We have already seen that Hegel regards animal defect as constitutive of, rather than as a departure from, the unity characteristic of the individual animal. And now we can see, first of all, that he has a strategy for recovering the extensionalist conception of the species and, second of all, that this strategy will not result in a species concept that could provide any kind of norm for the individual. The species here is produced by the activity of individuals. But why think that, beyond the causal regularities involved, any matter of fact about the number of legs had by one's parents in such a process would constitute a norm for one's own quantity of legs? On Hegel's view, it need not do so at all, while he remains free to allow any number of causal mechanisms tying physiological facts about one's parents to physiological facts about oneself.

What we can see through this brief look at the genus process, then, is that just as an individual's defects are understood as such only when we grasp their role in its process of achieving concrete individuality, so the differences between individual members of a species are properly understood only when we grasp individual difference as required by the very concept of species membership. This point can be clarified by considering again how evaluative judgments work, according to Hegel. In such judgments, as we saw, ‘the concept is laid down as the basis, to which the reality may or may not be adequate’. But the ‘reality’ of the individual animal participating in the genus process is an activity of differentiating itself, as individual, from the species (and vice versa), and thus that individual cannot be what it is without failing to correspond to its species. In failing to correspond to its species, the individual successfully corresponds with itself qua individual. In Hegel's own terms, an evaluative judgment is about an ‘individualized’ universal (SL 662/W6:349), but animals as such are not individualized versions of their species; they are concrete individuals characterized in part by participation in the genus process, which participation itself involves distinguishing them from the species.

Hegel's own examples of proper subjects for evaluative judgment—and thus his own examples of individualized universals—are houses and actions. What these examples have in common is that they are both products of mindedness or Geist, and it is this fact about them that gives them the form of individualized universality. The human ethical agent, too, is a product of Geist and enjoys this form. The process through which such an agent is produced, according to Hegel, is Bildung: formation, enculturation, education. But what is gebildet in this way is a human animal, and therefore something that, qua animal, does not have the form of individualized universality. Thus, the Bildung of a human animal into its agency consists in its self-production, not as the immediate living singular or even the concrete living individual—forms it shares with other animals—but as what Hegel calls a ‘concrete universal’ (EPN§376). This form of unity is one that the human animal achieves for itself through its own activity. But rather than being a production of itself as distinct from and related to other natural individuals, Bildung is the self-production of the individual as distinct from ‘self-external’ nature in general. As Hegel sometimes put it, Bildung is the production of spiritual individuality as a ‘second nature’.39

The detailed account of such Bildung and its elements and stages occupies the whole of Hegel's Philosophy of Spirit. But he gives his account of the natural origins of human ethical self-formation in the Philosophy of Nature, in the final section on the genus process, entitled ‘The Death of the Individual from out of Itself’. There we find a typically surprising Hegelian thesis about dying of old age: for an individual animal to die of old age, he claims, is for it to succeed in making itself, as a concrete individual, formally identical with its species. He writes that ‘the individual sublates [its formal non-correspondence with universality] in that it inwardly forms its singularity into universality’ through a process of habituation. But in this habituation, the animal's universality—i.e., its identity with its species—does not achieve a concrete natural existence; it rather achieves ‘only an abstract objectivity’ in which the individual animal becomes ‘rigid’, its activity ‘snuffs itself out’ and the individual thus ‘kills itself from out of itself’ (EPN§375).40

The idea seems to be that the lengthy repetition of the individual animal's characteristic living activities eventually results in habituation, itself a general withdrawal from external stimuli and thus a withdrawal from the feelings of defect and the resulting drives that determined the individual's assimilative activity.41 Absent such stimuli, the animal fails to feel its own inadequacy, responds less and less and thus acts in a more and more universal way. The extreme version of this decline is to act in no particular way at all and thus to cease living. But although the individual animal does not succeed in giving its natural life the form of concrete universality except in death, Hegel counts this death as an ‘achieved identity with the universal’ in which the animal brings about the ‘sublation of the formal contradiction between immediate singularity and the universality of individuality’ (EPN§376). That is, it no longer merely sublates this or that defect but sublates the logical-formal distinction between it as an individual and its species. Such a sublation, in turn, counts as an activity in which the living individuality of nature ‘passes over into its truth’ or achieves concrete universality.42

What is of interest to us in this claim is that the concrete universality achieved here is the same form enjoyed by Geist. Thus, whatever else Hegel may be asserting here, he is also claiming that the human animal is the animal that can achieve such a unity—in its ‘second nature'—without killing itself in the process. Perhaps better put, it is the animal that can fashion a non-natural, and thus non-fatal, unity between individuality and universality, one Hegel describes in the Phenomenology of Spirit as ‘the I that is we and the we that is I’ (PhG ¶177). Our capacity to make sense of this concrete universality thus depends, on the one hand, on our ability to understand it as something an animal can be involved in making, and, on the other hand, on our ability to understand it as a non-natural kind of universality characterizing a non-natural kind of individuality—an individualized universality. And to understand Geist in this way is to understand why it and all its products are proper subjects of evaluative judgment.

§7. Conclusion

So is there something wrong with Rex? Hegel's reply is, I think, a wholly typical yes-and-no. Yes, because defect in Hegel's sense only does the explaining he wants it to do if the defective state somehow calls for action, and specifically for its own cancellation or sublation. It is important to identify injury, thirst, damage and disability as conditions that call for, e.g., care, and it is perfectly sensible to ask ‘What's wrong with Rex?’ when such a condition is suspected. No, because that negative story is quite clearly only partial, even in strictly natural cases. Animals that do not lack are not alive, and it is easy to imagine that everything Rex did after getting hit by the truck corresponds 100% with what Rex and relevantly Rex-like things do in these situations. In this sense, we might say that while ‘What's wrong with Rex?’ is a perfectly good question, ‘Oh nothing, he's fine—he just had to have his leg amputated’ is a perfectly good answer.

Despite this ambivalent result regarding Rex, thinking through his (imaginary) case affords us some valuable insights regarding Hegel's argument for a formal-logical distinction between first-nature natural life, for which defect is the ever-needed and omnipresent motor, and a spiritual-ethical or second-nature natural life, in which it plays a very different role. With such a distinction in hand, we can differentiate, as we should, between defect of a natural kind and defect of a properly spiritual-ethical kind, and we can more effectively subject our assumptions about relations between the two to critical examination. In this sense, Hegel shows us that the idea that animals have a natural unity proper to them cannot underwrite genuine normativity but also need not, on its own, threaten our projects in natural science or social justice.

Finally, Hegel's eventual goal of establishing that ethical individuality consists in some kind of universality and that true self-correspondence between individuality and universality is thus possible for such individuals need not entail the further claim that humans must be moral saints. His view of what it takes to correspond to one's concept as an ethical agent does not call for the imitatio Christi but for a distinctly human kind of unity through community with oneself and others.43 Whether Hegel can make sense of this variety of unity, its genuine universality and individuality, and thus also the genuine evaluative truth of the judgments and inferences grounded in it, is a topic for another paper. But however that may turn out, it is clear that despite his sharing Thompson's openness to seeing the unique formal-logical aspects of these questions, Hegel's own position leads to a conception of human agency as the self-transformative production of a new kind of individuality and universality, rather than the inheritance of either from nature.44


  1. 1

    Hegel's term ‘Geist’ is usually translated as either ‘mind’ or ‘spirit’, terms I have used interchangeably here. Hegel regards the ethical life (Sittlichkeit) of a community as the actualization of Geist in both individuals and the community as a whole; hence I often refer to defects in Geist as defects in ethical individuals.

  2. 2

    Thompson 2008.

  3. 3

    Thompson's concern is with the broad category of natural defect. Since my ultimate target here is Hegel's conception of animal individuality, I will restrict my own discussion to specifically animal defect. Thus, when summarizing Thompson's position, I will maintain his broader focus, and when discussing Hegel's position, I will restrict the scope of the claims to animals.

  4. 4

    ‘We may implicitly define a certain very abstract category of “natural defect” with the following simple-minded principle of inference: from “The S is F”, and: “This S is not F”, to infer: “This S is defective in that it is not F” ’ (Thompson 2008: 80).

  5. 5

    These strategies, I take it, map on to the broad lines of criticism already enumerated in §1 above.

  6. 6

    See Thompson (2008: 68–76).

  7. 7

    In Thompson's terms, sentences of the form ‘The S is F’ are Aristotelian categoricals (Thompson 2008: 65); the thoughts they express are natural-historical judgments (ibid., 64); their subjects are species-concepts or life-form-words (ibid., 48); what is thought through such a concept or a word is a species or life-form (ibid., 48); ‘the system of true natural-historical judgments with a given kind, S, as subject’ is the ‘natural history of S's’ (ibid., 72); and, finally, an organism or individual living thing is ‘whatever falls under a species or “bears” a life-form’ (ibid., 76–7).

  8. 8

    Thompson attributes this idea of a ‘wider context’ to Anscombe; see Thompson (2008: 53–62).

  9. 9

    The example is borrowed and modified from Thompson (2008: 54–5).

  10. 10

    As Thompson rightly points out, ‘a reference to the life-form is already contained in the thought of the individual and its vicissitudes’ (Thompson 2008: 81).

  11. 11

    He is explicit about this development of a non- or post-Fregean set of fundamental logical forms; see Thompson (2008: 13–20). He is equally explicit about the fundamentally Aristotelian orientation of his approach (ibid., 8–11), and the fact that his positive references to Hegel stem from his understanding of Hegel as an Aristotelian (ibid., 12).

  12. 12

    See SL:657–663/W6:344–350 and the parallel passages at EL§§178–180. Translations are frequently modified from editions cited. For helpful exposition of Hegel's position on judgments, I have been grateful for Winfield (2005a); on inference, for Winfield (2005b); on Hegel's relation to Fregean and post-Fregean logic, for Redding (2007); on Hegel and objecthood generally, for Stern (1990).

  13. 13

    In the Encyclopedia Logic, Hegel gives the following quasi-schema for apodictic judgments: ‘This—the immediate individual—house—genus—, constituted thus and so—particularity—, is good or bad’ (EL§179).

  14. 14

    See Redding (2007: 188–9) and Stern (1990: 64–5) for similar analyses.

  15. 15

    So, for instance, in non-evaluative judgment cases, Hegel appeals to examples such as: ‘The rose is red’ (SL:632, 640/W6:313, 322; EL§§166Z, 167A, 172A, 172Z), ‘The rose is fragrant’ (SL:634/W6:314), ‘The sun is round’ (SL:636/W6:317), judgments involving ‘hardness, elasticity of bodies’ (SL:643/W6:326; see also EL§§174Z, 175Z), and judgments whose subject is ‘some man, or some animal’ (SL:646/W6:330), among others. The evaluative references to houses and actions are at (SL:659–661/W6:346-9 and EL§179).

  16. 16

    EPN§§247–252. See also EL§§193-4 and SL:705–711/W6:402–410. An overview of key moments in Hegel's Philosophy of Nature taken as a project of displaying the kind of unity-in-indifference peculiar to material objects can be found in Stern (1990: 77–106).

  17. 17

    See EPN§350.

  18. 18

    EPN§§353–356. See also EL§218 and SL:764–769/W6:474–479.

  19. 19

    EPN§§357–366. See also EL§218 and SL:769–772/W6:480–484.

  20. 20

    On the theoretical process, see EPN§§357-8; on the practical, see EPN§§359–366.

  21. 21

    See, among others, EL§§218, 221.

  22. 22

    In the shaping process, ‘the organism converts its own members … into means, lives on itself and produces its own self’ (EPN§356).

  23. 23

    The sections dealing with the details of digestion as a form of assimilation (EPN§§363–365) are of particular interest here. Hegel's task in those sections is to understand how digestion converts an inorganic other into a proper part of the animal's body. The difficulty arises from the fact that we cannot understand this if we take digestion to be a purely chemical process, since chemical processes can only have chemical results, and digestion must have an organic result. Thompson's discussion of stimulus–response relations (Thompson 2008: 39–43) is very helpful on these points.

  24. 24

    See EPN§354 and Rand (2012).

  25. 25

    The shaping process ‘is the process which has simple, immediate self-feeling for its result’ (EPN§356).

  26. 26

    See note 22 above.

  27. 27

    The German term ‘Mangel’, which I am translating with ‘defect’, can also be translated with ‘lack’, as it is in the majority of translations of these passages.

  28. 28

    Thus, only those things that correspond to possible deficiencies in means for a given animal's self-production are stimuli for it, on Hegel's view: ‘the animal can be stimulated only by its own inorganic nature … each animal recognizes its own other, which is precisely an essential moment of the peculiar nature of each’ (EPN§361Z).

  29. 29

    By understanding the feeling of defect in terms of the participation of the nervous system in animal–environment relations of self-production, Hegel avoids the trap of understanding that feeling in fundamentally qualitative representational or subjective-phenomenological terms. The animal does not, on his view, represent one thing as food and another as non-food, nor does it represent itself as lacking. Rather, the animal's nervous activity is stimulated by a limited range of substances in the environment—those that serve as means to its shaping activity when assimilated. See note 28 above.

  30. 30

    Thompson is explicit about defining natural defect in terms of Schema D; see note 4 above.

  31. 31

    Hegel makes this point directly in the treatment of assimilation in the Encyclopedia Logic, where we read that ‘this negative aspect of itself is just as much a moment of the concept of the living itself’ (EL§219).

  32. 32

    Thus, Hegel can endorse Thompson's assertion that ‘a true judgment of natural defect … supplies an “immanent critique” of its object’ (Thompson 2008: 81) but only in a sense Thompson does not seem to have in mind. Whereas Thompson means ‘critique’ here in the sense of ‘negative evaluative judgment’, Hegel could endorse the assertion if and only if ‘critique’ were understood in the strict Kantian sense of a self-articulation of limits.

  33. 33

    The understanding of negation involved in Hegel's conception of animal life and defect marks a point at which his appropriation of Aristotelian logic differs sharply from Thompson's, and a full exploration of the role of negation in Hegel's conception of animal life would require a consideration of Hegel's appropriation of (some elements of) Aristotle's logic of term negation. A very clear account of the issues here can be found in Chapter 7 of Redding (2007), where the author helpfully outlines Hegel's proximity to and distance from Aristotle on term negation and propositional negation and connects Hegel's position to discussions in Fregean and post-Fregean logic.

  34. 34

    For his part, Thompson seems to agree with me on this issue; he writes that ‘in truth, the abstract category of natural defect is an artificial one. One tends to employ more concrete concepts: sickness, need, lack, deformity—or, still more concretely: lameness, blindness, colour-blindness, etiolation, and so forth’ (Thompson 2008: 81).

  35. 35

    The straightforward Kantian apriority of Hegel's philosophy of nature is maintained in, e.g., Stone (2005). For an argument against such an interpretation, see Rand (2007).

  36. 36

    Stern suggests that Hegel uses the structures explored in the Logic as a ‘model’ that appears as ‘the background to his account of various natural phenomena’ (Stern 1990: 79). This is surely true; the problem would arise if those structures were taken as the model and background for nature itself, in the Kantian (or a stronger) sense.

  37. 37

    On the genus process, see EPN§§367–376; EL§§220–222; SL:772–774/W6:484–487. Hegel uses the terms ‘genus’ (Gattung) and ‘species’ (Art) analogously to his use of ‘universal’ (Allgemeine) and ‘particular’ (Besondere); in each case, the latter term names a hierarchically subordinated subtype of the former. So, e.g., triangle is a particular with respect to the universal shape but a universal with respect to the particular right triangle. Here I have retained the term ‘genus’ for the name of the genus process [Gattungsprozeß], but used ‘species’ to translate all other occurrences of either ‘Gattung’ or ‘Art’, so as to retain common English usage of the term ‘species’.

  38. 38

    See EPN§369 (EPN§368 in Miller's reordering in his English translation), where Hegel describes sexual reproduction as the individual animal's attempt ‘to integrate itself through union with [the other individual of its species] and through this mediation to close the species with itself and bring it into existence’.

  39. 39

    See, e.g., RPh§151.

  40. 40

    See also the parallel passage at EL§§221–222.

  41. 41

    ‘The living being dies from the habit of life, in that it lives itself into its body, into its reality’ that becomes ‘processless habit’ (EPN§357Z). On habituation as withdrawal through repetition, see EPS§410.

  42. 42

    In the Encyclopedia Logic, Hegel describes things thus: ‘In this way, it comes to itself, to its truth, entering into concrete existence as the free genus for itself’ (EL§222).

  43. 43

    While Hegel does not hold that the actualization of ethical life requires the individual imitation of Jesus' sinless life, he clearly holds that genuine ethical life has its fundamental representation in the complete revelation of mankind as the imago Dei through the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ and has its major practical actualization in the establishment of the Church as the community of the Holy Spirit. For a recent attempt to reconstruct this aspect of Hegel's thought, see Hodgson (2005: 141–204); for a treatment of the difficulties surrounding the relation between this fundamental representation and Christian cultic practice, on the one hand, and the speculative transformation of Christian theology in philosophy, on the other, see Fackenheim (1967). Both authors rightly emphasize the way in which Hegel takes the incarnation, death and resurrection as a model for the ongoing ethical task of reconciliation, rather than taking it as a one-time transactional sacrifice. For a treatment of Hegel's philosophy of religion in its local historical context, see Dickey (1993).

  44. 44

    I am grateful to audiences at Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Georgia, the United States Military Academy and Agnes Scott College, as well as to an anonymous referee for this journal, for their comments and criticisms regarding earlier versions of this paper. I am also grateful to the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst for a grant in Summer 2010 partially used in support of this project.