The Absolute Contradiction of Self-Determination
Rasmus Sandnes Haukedal
Krisis 2023, 43 (1): 143-147.
The prior issue of Krisis (42:1) published Critical Naturalism: A Manifesto, with the aim to
instigate a debate of the issues raised in this manifesto the necessary re-thinking of the role
(and the concept) of nature in critical theory in relation to questions of ecology, health, and
inequality. Since Krisis considers itself a place for philosophical debates that take contempo-
rary struggles as starting point, it issued an open call and solicited responses to the manifesto.
This is one of the sixteen selected responses, which augment, specify, or question the assump-
tions and arguments of the manifesto.
Autonomy, Closure of constraints, Hegel, Normativity, Self-determination
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC
BY 4.0). © 2023 The author(s).
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
The Absolute Contradiction of Self-determination
Rasmus Sandnes Haukedal
The manifesto for critical naturalism is commendable. I will, however, identify a possible
weakness in their construal, relying on Hegel and contemporary biology. The authors write:
The only real, concrete form of freedom with regard to what we are constitutively re-
lated to and thus determined by is reconciliation that acknowledges its otherness but
overcomes the hostility in the relationship.
Yet, just before writing this, they say:
The concept of freedom as autonomy or self-determination is in this regard no less
problematic than the simpler concept of negative freedom: it easily lends itself to the
hubristic fantasy of independence from nature (Gregoratto et al. 2022, 121).
I find this peculiar, as the notion of freedom as self-determination, in my view, captures the
contradictory nature of living systems, being with oneself in otherness, which the authors en-
dorse. Furthermore, they say that freedom is never given but related to the continuation of life.
This dovetails with the notion of self-determination as the ongoing self-maintenance of life
presented below. Yet the authors believe that self-determination lends itself to the fantasy that
we are independent of nature. I will argue that another reading is more aligned with contem-
porary life science.
But first, I should note that Hegelian naturalism is a non-naturalistic naturalism, i.e. continu-
ous with science but without the aim of reducing everything to physical or chemical happen-
ings. This contrasts with the modern iteration of naturalism, which is narrowly mechanistic
(Stone 2013). Irrespective of the larger debate about what we should mean by naturalism, the
central point is that Hegel refuses to divide the world into completely heterogenous spheres,
culture and nature, while maintaining that they are nonetheless different. Hegel therefore es-
pouses a broad, organicist, kind of naturalism, “whose very core is the notion of life” (Illetterati
2023, 188). In this view, different levels of organisation constrain and enable each other but
do not collapse into each other.
We find this naturalism implicit in the notion of self-determination, Hegel says:
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
The living being is thereby the impulse to posit as its own this world which is other
than it, to posit itself as equal to it, to sublate the world and objectify itself. Its self-
determination has therefore the form of objective externality, and since it is at the same
time self-identical, it is the absolute contradiction (Hegel 2010, 684, emphases origi-
The absolute contradiction is that the organism remains itself only by changing objective ex-
ternality. It is not a matter of independence but of co-constitution, where neither is what they
are without the other. Hence, there is no clear distinction between a living system and its con-
figuration space (Jaeger 2019).
Hegel states that the individuation of the living is a closed circle (Kreislauf) (Corti 2022). It
reproduces itself through needful and formative actions. It goes through stages of assimilation
and self-feeling to finally gain the capacity for reproduction but only through interaction
with the environment. Biological reproduction is, however, not simply the continuation of the
species (bad infinity) but also the cyclical and reflexive maintenance of biological organisation
(true infinity).
The notion closure of constraints, which concerns a closure specific to biological systems,
where the whole organisation maintains itself by the interdependence of constraints (Montévil
and Mossio 2015), concretises Hegel’s definition. While they achieve cyclical organisational
closure, living systems maintain themselves only through exchange with the environment. The
reproduction relies on thermodynamical openness, the ability to exchange energy and material
with the outside. A naturalistic account of teleology follows from this definition since the or-
ganism can only reproduce its organisation by acting purposively (Jaeger 2021).
Organisational closure is never complete, but a tendency towards closure (Montévil and Mos-
sio 2015). This opens the prospect of including the environment and emergent affordances into
the definition of organisational closure, since organisms rely materially (but also cognitively)
on the stability of their material surroundings and act to maintain them as part of their ongoing
reproduction (Heras-Escribano and Saborido 2023).
Organisms are constrained and enabled by their environments, both materially and cognitively;
and as they reproduce and impose constraints in return, they canalise evolution. Actions are
directed by practices, and norms “emerge from a particular context which comes from the very
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
history of this practice” (Tahar 2022, 12). They are internalised and give rise to new activities
that produce new constraints. These natural norms, broadly construed, ground other forms of
normativity (Ikäheimo 2021).
From an ecological perspective, self-determination is not about independence from the envi-
ronment. Instead, it concerns the constitutive relationship between the environment and the
organism the organism-environment system. Actions and affordances for actions, ecological
information, emerge through interaction between the organism and its milieu. Here, the skills
of the organism and the properties of the environment are coupled (Saborido and Heras-Escrib-
ano 2023).
Normative self-determination emerges from interaction with its other. In other words, the self
of determination emerges through the process of determination, a cause becoming a result and
vice versa. This is a determinate negation that relies on the overall stability of the internal and
reciprocal causal interaction between the organism and the niche. Self-determination is tied to
self-maintenance or reproduction of organisation (Corti 2022). By acting purposively, the or-
ganism alters itself and its environment to reproduce the whole system that enables it.
Critical naturalism rejects “the static conception of nature that identifies nature with a set of
unchanging laws and species” (115). The problem, from an angle that emphasises the centrality
of life, is that this perspective is insufficiently specific to living systems and fails to explain
how they manage to stabilise their interaction with nature. By highlighting that all living sys-
tems are agents, with a degree of self-determination, we are better able to make sense of why
the static conception of nature must be abandoned and why a dynamic model, which encom-
passes the circular causality between an organism and its environment, is more appropriate.
Normativity is grounded in the purposeful actions of organisms, as well as the internal and
external constraints that channel different parts towards achieving organizational closure.
Hence, we grasp normative functions based on the closed and differentiated self-maintaining
organisation (Mossio, Saborido and Moreno 2009). This view does not imply independence,
as it only emerges and self-maintains through its constitutive relation to the environment. It is
a significant source of evolutionary novelty that should be considered by naturalistic ap-
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
In summary, the precariousness of living organisations both constrains and enables the emer-
gence of self-determination and normativity. Organisms cannot survive without this capacity
to canalise the material processes they confront. Thus understood, self-determination allows
us to grasp the continuity and difference between nature and culture, and thereby overcome
the false dichotomy between realism and constructivism. Finally, by acknowledging the con-
tinued importance and problem of nature, we might accomplish what Marx saw as the task of
critical theory: “the self-clarification of the struggles and wishes of the age” (Marx 1975, 209).
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Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
Rasmus Sandnes Haukedal has recently completed a PhD in philosophy at Durham University. He works in
the intersection between philosophy and theoretical biology, with an emphasis on the historical and conceptual
interaction between philosophy and evolutionary biology. In his thesis, he discusses the ongoing change within
evolutionary theory, the extended evolutionary synthesis, through a dialectical framework. He also co-convenes
the reading group at the Centre for Culture and Ecology at Durham University.