New focus on Hegel’s ‘naturalism’ impels another look at Marx

September 29, 2021

by Ron Kelch

Karen Ng’s Hegel’s Concept of Life: Self-consciousness, Freedom, Logic (Oxford UP, 2020) poses the Idea of Life, inseparable from actual life, as the foundation of Hegel’s whole Science of Logic (SL) and philosophical system. Hegel’s turn to Life as the immediate Idea in his Logic has been greeted as “a move as ‘scandalous’ as it is mysterious” (p. 3). Ng unravels the mystery by rigorously tracing Hegel’s development under the influence of Spinoza and the full arc of tendencies in German idealism beginning with Kant. Hegel plainly warns that without the Idea of Life–a “matter so concrete … so real” and purportedly outside the boundaries of logic–logic is only “empty, dead forms of thought” (SL, Cambridge UP, 2010, p. 676).

Far from perplexing, Lenin found Life’s prominence in Hegel’s Logic comprehensible and brilliant and a path to re-constitute revolutionary practice which official Marxism had abandoned in WWI.[1] Ng focuses, however, not on revolutionary Hegelian-Marxists but rather on a broad spectrum of today’s Hegel scholars. Critically engaging them, Ng encapsulates a new, growing emphasis on Hegel’s “naturalism” (p. 4). “Thoroughgoing naturalism,” further qualified as “humanism,” was Karl Marx’s designation for his 1844 critical recreation of Hegel’s dialectic.[2] Ng’s untangling Hegel’s sometimes obscure path to “naturalism” and the immediate Idea as Life brings a new perspective to an ongoing point of contention among Hegelians and Marxists alike, namely, the continuity and discontinuity with Hegel in Marx’s philosophy of revolution.


Karen Ng

The Hegelian H.S. Harris, for example, contended that attempts by the Hegelian Left “to use” Hegel’s Logic to effect revolutionary change “fell back into the dialectic of action and judgement.” Harris may have been thinking of Lenin for whom the ultimate of Hegel’s dialectic is Life’s opening to cognition’s practical Idea, the revolutionary action of the rational Will. Hegel’s view, as Ng cites, is that the Will is one-sided, asserting itself against a presupposed external actuality deemed a “nullity” and leaving “two worlds in opposition” (p. 286; SL, 731).

Negation left to the practical Idea is still under the spell of its opposition to what is, blocking the social individual (Spirit) from fully recognizing the self-actualizing Idea of freedom within their own self which includes their own external otherness. Harris’ Hegel can only passively comprehend this self-actualizing movement of the Idea as a phenomenon. Hegel’s Logic, for which Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is a mere introduction, reveals, for Harris, a “paradox” of “pure” thought, forever moving in negative, restless circles.[3]

Ng’s multi-faceted argument challenges this more traditional view of the Logic whose movement through “determinate negation” (p. 293) is a rootless, self-referencing “autonomous” negative thought (p. 66). “Determinate negation” refers to Hegel’s assertion that thought is not merely an empty negative confronting an external positive reality. Rather reality itself moves through thought negating something determinate or specific. Specific negation always indicates a new positive–a negation of the negation–within itself. For example, the negation of Jim Crow laws implied and impelled into existence the positive of integrated public facilities. Hegel’s self-movement of thought and reality through the negative challenged Kant’s self-contradictory, half-way dialectic: half-way because Kant backpedaled after proving that pure categories of thought are constitutive to the truth of the external world’s sensuous appearance. Bewildering to Hegel is why Kant then asserted the opposite, posing a self-limiting pure thought-abstraction, a “thing-in-itself,” beyond thought and the senses (SL, 552).

Ng highlights another thread: Hegel’s unequivocal praise for “Kant’s great contribution to philosophy” in distinguishing between external and internal purposiveness, because the latter “opened up the concept of Life, the Idea…”  (p. 23-64; SL, 654). Life’s internal purposiveness is no simple judgement shaping action on the external world. It is not the idea “in use” as in “artifact creation.” Internal purposiveness is rather like “organic production and life” (p. 24). The original judgment of Life “posits itself externally in objective reality…[and] is at once the immediate manifestation of the Idea” (p. 242). Harris didn’t heed how, within the Logic itself, the organic form becomes Hegel’s distinct point of departure and point of return. By presupposing its otherness as its own inorganic self, Life’s inner purposiveness objectively realizes its own inner nature. Anchored in Life the concept becomes not merely an unmoored, sequential negation of the negation of thought-determinations but “the agreement of the Concept with reality … the Idea” (p. 182; SL, 542). Hegel’s ceaseless dialectical movement towards freedom finds its crucial milestone in Life.

A living animal treats the immediate sensuous external world as its own inorganic nature through which it engenders its own life and comes to fully realize the inner universal nature of its kind. Self-actualizing life, driven by the inner purposiveness of need is both “enabled and constrained by an external, objective world” (p. 268). Hegel’s “pure Idea” concerns the human life form, which is inseparable from specifically human “cognitive capacities” (p. 277). Human cognitive capacity is historically rooted in shared concepts and meanings that shape the life-process and includes appropriating the whole of the external natural world. The appropriation of the whole of nature started with fixed mythical constructs, which often reflected immediate meanings attached to everyday life activity. Scientific conceptual constructs, which originate in what Kant called the intuitive understanding, came later. The determinate negation of the prevailing construct of an earth-centered universe impelled a new construct, the solar system, and the Copernican/Newtonian revolution. It inspired Kant’s dialectic–the certainty that the truth of the sensuous world came out of intuitive understanding’s unifying idea.

The instinctive certainty that the unifying understanding can intelligibly appropriate the whole of external nature is rooted, for Ng, in the concept’s self-diremption as life positing itself in nature as the enabler of its own self-actualization (p. 169-75). Beginning from life all the shared concepts and abstractions through which humans engage the external sensuous world and relations with their kind can’t be fixed in any given moment of understanding. When the immediate Idea of life “relates itself to itself as Idea” (p. 274, SL 486-7), the immediacy and givenness of conceptually organized social life processes become themselves subject to cognition. “Cognition’s self-conscious reflexivity [becomes] … the processual activity of its self-division from and unity with the immediacy of its own life-form” (p. 277). “Reflexivity” with respect to life opens the way to realize the freedom of the concept. In other words, Harris’ “absolutely restless” view of the Logic is totally bound up with the immanent restless character of Life-anchored cognition.

In place of Kant’s dual threads–the transcendent unifying idea and sensuous existence–the concept, becoming Idea through Life, is an original unity of opposites in the human organic being where the external world both enables and constrains the self-actualization of freedom as humans’ universal inner nature. The self-engendering natural purpose of the organic human life overcomes the Concept’s still inadequate external relation to reality. The Concept’s three syllogistic moments become in the Idea of Life an “internal relationship of … universality, particularity and individuality”(UPI). Only then, as Ng goes on to cite Hegel, does the Concept’s “free power” become the recognized universal, a universal that doesn’t “subsume” or do “violence” to the “infinitely unique” human individual (p. 184-5). The “dead form” of the old syllogistic UPI (typified by Aristotle’s “All men are mortal,” “Socrates is a man,” “Therefore, Socrates is mortal”) is fully buried.[4]

Before returning to the syllogism, not as static constructs but the living movement in Hegel’s “naturalism,” Ng’s poignant epigraphic citation from Marx to Chapter 3, “Hegel’s Speculative Identity Thesis,” is an opening to highlight the distinctiveness of the idea of life in Marx’s “naturalism” which reveals as well its considerable debt to Hegel’s concept of Life.


Marx does not abstrusely extrapolate life from a still inadequate and disembodied concept. In this respect there is no “mystery” to untangle. Rather Marx begins explicitly from the human organic being whose universal species character is the “free power” of the Idea–“life engendering life [as] … free, conscious activity” (CW 3:276). Marx’s Idea, which is directly part of life and nature, opens a new perspective on thinking and revolutionary human development. Ng’s epigraphical citation from Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts captures Marx’s “naturalism” at its source:

The animal is immediately identical with its life-activity. It does not distinguish itself from it. It is its life-activity. Man (sic) makes his life-activity itself the object of his will and of his consciousness. He has conscious life-activity. It is not a determination with which he directly merges. Conscious life-activity directly distinguishes man from animal life activity. It is just because of this that he is a species-being. Or it is only because he a species-being that he is a conscious being, i.e., that his own life is an object for him. Only because of that is his activity free activity. (p. 65; CW 3:276)

Marx’s original Idea of “human essence,” the absolute opposite of humans’ self-alienation from their own life-activity, includes but is not itself the revolutionary practice of the will. Nor is it any given result of that practice. “Human essence,” the human freedom to reflexively make an object of, and freely determine, their own life-activity, is an unchanging universal, that gets particularized in new moments of revolutionary practice. But this universal itself never “directly merges” with those particularizations. Thus, Marx’s foundational freedom idea is an unchanging universal that is always open to the new and explicitly warns against doing violence or subsuming the individual under “society” as an abstraction, because the individual is “the social being” (CW 3:299). In the immanent striving of individuals to realize their human essence in the face of particular barriers in the way life activity is socially structured, the shape of the woman/man relation is the most fundamental alienation of humans from their own life activity (CW 3:296). Further, any “science” that has a basis other than life is “a lie” as in reducing the human to an “abstract need” apart from their essential freedom (CW 3:303).

The specific alienation under capitalist private property is not the “cause” but the “consequence” of alienated life activity (CW 3:279). The colossal alienation of humankind from nature and their own nature under capitalist private property, “degrading spontaneous, free activity to a means” (CW 3:277), rightly was Marx’s intense focus.[5] However, the preexistent alienation of humans from their own life activity was not to be forgotten even as Marx traced “the course of humanity’s development” through capitalism (CW 3:281). Marx’s multi-linear and multi-dimensional view of human development, unfolding in a lifetime of revolutionary theory and practice, upsets and contrasts with the prevailing truncated, linear view of Marx.

Marx’s late turn to single out revolutionary potential in the pre-capitalist communal peasant form still extant in Russia shook up the prevailing discourse among post-Marx-Marxists. In his Ethnological Notebooks Marx critically evaluated new studies of pre-capitalist societies, seeing how in some ways women’s standing was more advanced than in technologically advanced societies. Again, as in 1844, the woman/man relation is the primary window through which to judge whether a human being is needed as a human being, namely a free determiner of one’s own life activity (CW 3: 295-6). In short, Marx never let go of his own Hegelian-style life-centered syllogism–a continuous multi-dimensional movement between the universal “human essence” and the individual through particularizations. That was true when the topic was pre-capitalist forms. Under capitalism in addition to alienated labor’s “quest for universality” Marx’s practice and theory singled out in the centrality of the revolutionary Black struggle for freedom in the American Civil War. For post-capitalism any drive to increase productive forces would be inseparable from “the all-round development of the individual” to achieve a situation where “labor, from a mere means of life, has itself become the prime necessity of life” (CW 24:87).

Taking off from the Idea as the immediate organic human essence, the form of its movement, says Marx, is not any existent form of materialism, but is rather Hegel’s negation of the negation (CW 3:329). However, this permanent movement arises because humans, who are “at bottom … nature” and are constantly positing their “objective essential powers,” never exhaust their innate powers whose manifestations are inadequate in any given form. This “naturalism” constitutes the “unifying truth” of “idealism and materialism” (CW 3:336). A mere sequence of specific (determinate) negations from which arise new specific positives cannot in itself be “the goal of human development” (CW 3:306). Even the much praised “practical humanism” of communism is the type of “negation of the negation” that doesn’t measure up to the Idea. Its “appropriation of the human essence … through the negation of private property” is not “yet the true, self-originating position but rather a position originating from private property” (CW 3:313). Marx’s “true” negation of the negation is a “self-deriving positive humanism.” Hegel, says Marx, is the one who grasped the meaning of this “self-originating” or “self-referred negation,” though Hegel does so in an “estranged fashion.” With Marx, Hegel’s self-referring negation of the negation returns to the “act of … emergence of species-consciousness and species-life” (CW 3:342), that is, returns, to Marx’s philosophic, absolute starting point of freedom with respect to human life activity that is inextricably part of nature.


Ng, too, highlights the self-referential character of Hegel’s dialectic, beginning with the moment the immediate Idea of Life “relates itself to itself as Idea.” Hegel elaborates this self-referred movement through the idea of cognition and the Absolute Idea. Cognition’s practical Idea creates a new world–a new given that is the positive in the negation of the old–but forgets the crucial aspect of the theoretical Idea’s self-certainty–an inner instinct of reason to make the contingent sensuous external world “conform with cognition’s form of activity” (p. 287). While each by itself is one-sided the Absolute Idea is the identity of the theoretical and practical Idea–the given world that both comes from within and is in permanent movement. As Ng cites Hegel, the absolute Idea is a “return to life” not in its immediate form but one that contains within itself the “highest opposition” of the practical and theoretical Idea (p. 288).

The “return” to life is a self-recognized movement through determinate negation and ever new beginnings in the “realization of the Concept” (p. 291, SL 739). Hegel explicitly apprehends the movement through determinate negation, the negation of the negation, as a self-referred immanent movement of the Idea, “a simple point of the negative self-reference.” Or, as Ng cites the way Hegel continues, it “…is the innermost source of all activity, of all living and spiritual self-movement…for on this subjectivity alone rests the sublation of the opposition between Concept and reality, and the unity that is truth….[It is] the innermost, most objective moment of life and spirit, through which a subject is a person, is free” (p. 293, n18; SL 745). This permanent movement or “infinite advance of absolute method” through the inseparable moments of “beginning and dialectic … returns again and again to its beginning in life” (p. 293).

Raya Dunayevskaya singled out Hegel’s negative, self-referential “innermost, most objective moment,” showing that this Hegel-designated “turning point” became the absolute not as any kind closure but “as new beginning, the self-bringing forth of liberty.” Further, Hegel’s absolute opening was anticipated when the “unity of theory and practice is the form of life out of which which emerge totally new dimensions.”[6] Dunayevskaya followed Hegel’s self-determination of the Idea, which can only exists by “apprehending itself” (SL, 736), namely by apprehending the objective presence of the immanent drive for freedom. Thus, the Idea becomes “nature,” not as a transition as when “subjective purpose becomes life” but as “an absolute liberation” in which “there is no transition” and which “completes this self-liberation in the science of spirit“(SL, 752-3).

One might expect that Ng would have been drawn to this moment of Hegel’s Idea becoming nature, to which life is inextricably bound. But that was’t so. The Idea becoming nature has been perhaps as great a source of mystery and controversy among Hegelians and Marxists as Hegel’s introduction of life as the immediate Idea. Dunayevskaya dismisses any reduction that Hegel here “‘deduced’ Nature from the Idea” or that it represents, according to Marx’s overused metaphor, “that Hegel is standing on his head” (HSA, p. 170). Marx noted that Hegelians got “such terrible headaches” at this moment because here Hegel “abandon[s] abstraction and …arrives at an entity which is its exact opposite–at nature” (CW 3:343-4). Dunayevskaya later (April 3, 1987) summarized Marx’s uniqueness with respect to the Idea becoming nature in Hegel: “…just consider how far in advance it is even of Lenin. Nature is not Practice. And Nature is not Sartrean exteriority. Nature, says Marx, is true essence because you can’t separate Nature from Human Nature.”[7]

True essence, which for Marx is the freedom Idea that is directly part of life and nature and which is the absolute opposite of alienated human life activity, is the perspective from which Dunayevskaya approached Hegel’s perfection of the Idea’s self-liberation in his three final syllogisms of Philosophy of Spirit. Hegel’s final syllogisms constitute another moment that would appear to be integral to Ng’s theme. Ng raises the issue of a “structural peculiarity” in Hegel’s Logic in as much as for each kind of judgement there is a corresponding syllogism, except for the judgement of the Concept. For Ng, “the puzzle of this missing syllogism” (p. 19) is only partially resolved in the Concept as “practical syllogism” before the Concept becomes Idea through Life (p. 242).

Again, why ignore the final syllogistic expression as the living movement of Hegel’s naturalism, which is in the syllogisms of the Idea’s self-movement or “the self-thinking Idea,” occurring at the end of Philosophy of Spirit? Dunayevskaya saw Hegel’s “three final syllogisms in Absolute Mind as a new point of departure in the Idea and in the movement from practice” (HSA, 172). Here (§575) Hegel begins a syllogistic sequence with where he ended the Logic, with Nature as mediation, the whole between its presupposition Logic which it couples with Mind (Geist). The Idea appearing as Nature still has “the external form of transition” or another sequential moment. Nature as manifesting the drive to be free, or, if you will, the irrepressible drive for “human essence” to appear, is “implicitly the Idea”, is but still a transition point.

The maturity of our age repeatedly has revealed that the movement from practice is itself a form of theory manifesting itself in Nature “as implicitly the Idea.” The implicit Idea appears in multiple dimensions as human essence manifests itself as Nature. Human essence is unchanging but there are ever “new passions and forces” (BF, 928) demanding to be recognized as human as they confront societal barriers to freely determine their own life activity. However, our age has also revealed that the Idea’s self-determination has to stand on its own, to, as Hegel put it “hear itself speak,” to not let the Idea get buried or forgotten as merely part of another transition.

In the second syllogism (§576) Mind presupposes Nature, and is the whole between Nature and Logic as it “reflects on itself in the Idea.” In a manner that recalls Life, the means and ends of self-actualization are inextricably bound together: “philosophy appears as a subjective cognition, of which liberty is the aim, and which is itself the way to produce it.” In the final syllogism (§577) the whole is not Logic but the Idea on its own, dividing itself into Mind and Nature. Dunayevskaya called this not the sequential “but the consequential Self-Thinking Idea,” which, as Hegel puts it “is the nature of the fact, the concept, which causes the movement and development, yet this same movement is equally the action of cognition” (HSA, 171).


Ng’s bringing together in a coherent form the many threads now emphasizing Hegel’s “naturalism” has helped illuminate the continuity and discontinuity in the idea of freedom between Hegel and Marx. Whether one takes Marx’s starting point of freedom with respect to human life activity that is inextricably part of nature or Hegel’s beginning again from Nature as mediation, the self-determination of the unifying Idea cannot be taken for granted in the face of the spontaneous self-bringing forth of liberty. Our times of total crises can perhaps especially appreciate that without a negative, self-related return to that source, human essence as the freedom idea, there can be no serious addressing the apocalyptic paths humanity is facing.

[1] V.I. Lenin Collected Works, (Progress Publishers: Moscow) vol. 38, p. 202.
[2] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works (International Publishers: New York) vol. 3, p. 336, further referenced as “CW” with the volume number and page number in the text, except for the commonly used Ben Fowkes translation of Capital, which is referenced with “BF.”
[3] H.S. Harris, Hegel’s Ladder II: The Odyssey of Spirit (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), 741. For a more comprehensive critique of both Lenin, an exemplar of Harris’ “Hegelian Left,” and the “paradox,” including how Hegel entered his dialectic into the fray in real time with respect to the self-realization of the Idea in the congregation, see my review/essay, “Harris’s Paradox and Dunayevskaya’s New Beginning: Can Hegel’s Method Shape New Unity of Theory and Practice?” CLIO 32:3 (Spring, 2003), 30
[4] This is not to say the validity of Aristotelian logic disappears for Hegel. Rather it’s mechanical nature is put in its proper place. As the supposed truth of thought abstracted from life, Hegel called formal logic the “height of self-estrangement,” dismissed as “mere pedantry” soon after its discovery because the “study of Logic is no more necessary to teach us to draw correct conclusions than the previous study of anatomy and physiology is required in order to digest or breathe.” (Encyclopaedia Logic, §183). See my view of how materialized formal logic in the workplace amplified this self-estrangement in “The Fetish of High Tech: Marx’s Mathematical Manuscripts vs. ‘Computer Consciousness'”, (Quarterly Journal of Ideology, Vol 10, Number 4, 1986).
[5] Marx’s Capital Vol. 1, the only one he completed for publication, was the culmination of this intense focus and can only be touched on here. Capital has a rich historical narrative including an ever present “quest for universality.” However, its logical form, which as Marx worked on Capital he found revisiting Hegel’s Logic of “great service” (Marx to Engels January 14, 1858), is the self-differentiating of a conceptual cell, the commodity-form of the product of labor appearing millennia ago in human development and sucking in humanity on a global scale (BF, 90). Its unfolding logic made the ability to labor itself a commodity and everyday life activity in the workplace a mere means to life, a means to earn a living. Human relations between commodity producers “really are” social relations between things. Through a totally “phantasmagoric” abstraction humans attach to their own creations, commodities, namely the socially necessary labor time “in” them, humans are alienated from each other, from nature and their own productive activity with devastating consequences. Marx reveals the absolutely apocalyptic result of the cell’s self-differentiating logic and the concreteness of Hegel’s idea for the capitalist epoch which Hegel didn’t do. After taking the reader through multiple pre-capitalist forms Marx speculates, “Let us finally imagine” freely associated laborers where each expends their labor-power in “full self-awareness” of being part of the whole, now transparent, “social-life process” (BF, 171-3). In other words, the commodity-form demands a totally new beginning in Life, a new beginning in “Self-consciousness, Freedom, Logic” (Ng’s subtitle). On “universal labor” as ground for the future see Ali Javaherian’s “Foundations of Post-capitalist Society in Marx’s Capital” (Argument, November, 2019).
[6] See “Hegel’s Absolute as New Beginning,”  Dunayevskaya’s October 1974 paper delivered to the Hegel Society of America reproduced in Art and Logic in Hegel’s Philosophy, eds. Warren E. Steinkraus and Kenneth L. Schmitz (Humanities Press, 1980). p. 167, 169, 174. Further referenced as HSA.[7] “The Raya Dunayevskaya Collection” #10887, available at the Labor History Archives of Wayne State University in Detroit and also available on-line at

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