Biological Theory

, Volume 7, Issue 1, pp 56–68

Nicolai Hartmann and the Metaphysical Foundation of Phylogenetic Systematics

Historical Essay


When developing phylogenetic systematics, the entomologist Willi Hennig adopted elements from Nicolai Hartmann’s ontology. In this historical essay I take on the task of documenting this adoption. I argue that in order to build a metaphysical foundation for phylogenetic systematics, Hennig adopted from Hartmann four main metaphysical theses. These are (1) that what is real is what is temporal; (2) that the criterion of individuality is to have duration; (3) that species are supra-individuals; and (4) that there are levels of reality, each of which may be subject to different kinds of law. Reliance on Hartmann’s metaphysics allowed Hennig to ground some of the main theoretical principles of phylogenetic systematics, namely that the biological categories—from the semaphoront to the highest rank—have reality and individuality despite not being universals, and that they form a hierarchy of levels, each of which may require different kinds of explanation. Hartmann’s metaphysics thereby provided a philosophical justification for Hennig’s phylogenetic systematics, both as a theory and as a method of classification.


Nicolai Hartmann Willi Hennig Metaphysics Ontology Phylogenetic systematics Species 


  1. Caponi G (2010) Las masas lamarckianas como clases naturales. Filos Hist Biol 5:295–307Google Scholar
  2. Claßen-Bockhoff R (2001) Plant morphology: the historic concepts of Wilhelm Troll, Walter Zimmermann and Agnes Arber. Ann Bot 88:1153–1172CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Darwin C (1859) On the origin of the species by means of natural selection: or, the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. John Murray, LondonGoogle Scholar
  4. Dupuis C (1978) Permanence et actualité de la systématique: La « systématique phylogénétique » de W. Hennig (historique, discussion, choix de références). Cahiers des nat 43:1–69Google Scholar
  5. Hamilton A (2011) From types to individuals: Hennig’s ontology and the development of phylogenetic systematics. Cladistics 27:1–11CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Harms J-W (1934) Wandlungen des Artgefüges unter natürlichen und künstlichen Umweltbedingungen. Johann Ambrosius Barth, LeipzigGoogle Scholar
  7. Hartmann M (1925) Biologie und Philosophie. Julius Springer, BerlinCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Hartmann M (1959) Die philosophischen Grundlagen der Naturwissenschaften: Erkenntnistheorie und Methodologie, 2nd edn. Fischer, StuttgartGoogle Scholar
  9. Hartmann N (1912) Philosophische Grundfragen der Biologie. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, GöttingenGoogle Scholar
  10. Hartmann N (1926) Ethik. de Gruyter, BerlinGoogle Scholar
  11. Hartmann N (1933) Das Problem des geistigen Seins. Untersuchungen zur Grundlegung der Geschichtphilosophie und der Geisteswissenschaften. de Gruyter, BerlinGoogle Scholar
  12. Hartmann N (1935) Zur Grundlegung der Ontologie. de Gruyter, BerlinGoogle Scholar
  13. Hartmann N (1938) Zeitlichkeit und Substantialität. Blätter für dtsch Philos 12:1–38Google Scholar
  14. Hartmann N (1940) Der Aufbau der realen Welt. Grundriß der allgemeinen Kategorienlehre. de Gruyter, BerlinGoogle Scholar
  15. Hartmann N (1942) Systematische Philosophie. Kohlhammer, StuttgartGoogle Scholar
  16. Hartmann N (1949) Alte und neue Ontologie. Actas del Primer Congreso Nacional de Filosofía, vol 2, Mendoza, Argentina, marzo–abril, pp. 782–787Google Scholar
  17. Hartmann N (1950) Philosophie der Natur: Abriß der speziellen Kategorienlehre. de Gruyter, BerlinGoogle Scholar
  18. Hartmann N (1953) New ways of ontology. Regnery, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  19. Heng-an Chen (2003) Die Sexualitätstheorie und „Theoretische Biologie“ von Max Hartmann in der ersten Hälfte des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts. Franz Steiner, WiesbadenGoogle Scholar
  20. Hennig W (1947) Probleme der biologischen Systematik. Forschungen und Fortschritte 21–23:276–279Google Scholar
  21. Hennig W (1950) Grundzüge einer Theorie der phylogenetischen Systematik. Deutscher Zentralverlag, BerlinGoogle Scholar
  22. Hennig W (1966) Phylogenetic systematics. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, ILGoogle Scholar
  23. Hennig W (1982) Phylogenetische Systematik. Hennig W (ed). Parey, BerlinGoogle Scholar
  24. Kiriakoff SG (1963) Les fondements philosophiques de la systématique biologique. In Classification dans les sciences. Duculot, Gembloux, pp 61–88Google Scholar
  25. Kuhn H (1951) Nicolai Hartmann’s ontology. Philos Quart 1:289–318CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Lorenz K (1977) Behind the mirror: a search for a natural history of human knowledge. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  27. Mittwoch U (2002) ‘Clone’: the history of a euphonious scientific term. Med Hist 46:381–402Google Scholar
  28. Morgan CL (1923) Emergent evolution. Holt, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  29. Pouvreau D (2009a) The dialectical tragedy of the concept of wholeness: Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s biography revisited. ISCE Publishing, Lichtfield ParkGoogle Scholar
  30. Pouvreau D (2009b) « Systémologie générale », perspectivisme et humanisme. Sciences et techniques en perspective 12(1):99–226Google Scholar
  31. Pouvreau D, Drack M (2007) On the history of Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s “General Systemology”, and on its relationship to cybernetics. Int J Gen Syst 36:281–337CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Reif W-E (2010) Hennig’s threefold relationalism. Neues Jb Geol Paläontol Abh 255:213–236CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Richter S, Meier R (1994) The development of phylogenetic concepts in Hennig’s early theoretical publications (1947–1966). Syst Biol 43:212–221Google Scholar
  34. Rieppel O (2003) Semaphoronts, cladograms and the roots of total evidence. Biol J Linn Soc 80:167–186CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Rieppel O (2006) On concept formation in systematics. Cladistics 22:474–492CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Rieppel O (2007) The metaphysics of Hennig’s phylogenetic systematics: substance, events and laws of nature. Syst Biodivers 5:345–360CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Rieppel O (2009) Hennig’s enkaptic system. Cladistics 25:311–317CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Schlee D (1978) In memoriam Willi Hennig 1913–1976. Eine biolgraphische Skizze. Entomol Germanica 4:377–391Google Scholar
  39. Schneider F (1958) Realism in recent German philosophy. Philos Phenomenol Res 19:143–182CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Tremblay F (2011) Nicolai Hartmann’s definition of biological species. In: Poli R, Scognamiglio C, Tremblay F (eds) The philosophy of Nicolai Hartmann. de Gruyter, Berlin, pp 125–139CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. von Bertalanffy L (1968) General system theory: foundations, development, applications. Braziller, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  42. Wiley EO (1981) Phylogenetics: the theory and practice of phylogenetic systematics. Wiley, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  43. Wiley EO, Mayden RL (1985) Species and speciation in phylogenetic systematics, with examples from the North American fish fauna. Ann Mo Bot Gard 72:596–635CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Wilkins JS (2009) Species: a history of the idea. University of California Press, BerkeleyGoogle Scholar
  45. Ziehen T (1915) Die Grundlagen der Psychologie. I. Buch. Erkenntnistheoretische Grundlegung der Psychologie. Teubner, LeipzigGoogle Scholar
  46. Ziehen T (1934) Erkenntnistheorie. Erster Teil. Allgemeine Grundlegung der Erkenntnistheorie. Spezielle Erkenntnistheorie der Empfindungstatsachen einschließlich Raumtheorie. Fischer, JenaGoogle Scholar
  47. Ziehen T (1939) Erkenntnistheorie. Zweiter Teil: Zeittheorie. Wirklichkeitsproblem. Erkenntnistheorie der anorganischen Natur (erkenntnistheoretische Grundlagen der Physik). Kausalität. Fischer, JenaGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophySUNY BuffaloBuffaloUSA

Personalised recommendations