Tag Archives: Aristotle

Bacteria and Natural Agency

The latest issue of the Journal of the American Philosophical Association has an article about agency and cognition in bacteria, “Natural Agency: The Case of Bacterial Cognition,” by Fermín C. Fulda. It’s part of a steady stream of research across the humanities and sciences indicating that nonhuman life forms are smarter than most modern philosophers had thought. It’s often billed as a surprise. Even bacteria have cognition! HERE is another piece with an overview of some bacterial cognition research. Fulda’s article is very critical of the looseness with which words like cognition, intelligence, and agency get lumped together, so he adds some philosophical clarity and distinction to those terms, specifically as they apply to research regarding the patterned behavior of bacteria.

Proposing an “ecological conception of agency,” Fulda argues for a move from a Cartesian to neo-Aristotelian perspective. Focusing on different kinds of agency (Aristotle) and not primarily on cognition (Descartes) allows for a broad, fluid boundary between human and nonhuman life instead of the rigid binary of Cartesian mind and matter. Of course, many philosophers make similar arguments for a spectrum of agency. Hans Jonas, Alfred North Whitehead, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin are good twentieth-century examples, but those aren’t exactly the thinkers who dominate discussions in the American Philosophical Association. It’s significant that Fulda is making this argument in an APA context. Is mainstream philosophy becoming less anthropocentric? Maybe. Continue reading

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Beginnings of Philosophy

The origin or beginning of something plays a significant role in its ongoing explication: extreme sensitivity to initial conditions. As Aristotle observes (Ethics 1098b), “arche [origin] seems to be more than half of the whole.” There’s a story that philosophers tell themselves about the beginning of philosophy, a very common story, a story that seems to have past its expiration date. Continue reading


20 Days on Mercury: A Ten Year Retrospective

One year on Earth (365 days) is four years on Mercury.  Mercury revolves around the sun relatively quickly: once every eighty-eight Earth days.  While the years are relatively short on Mercury, the days are long—twice as long.  One day on Mercury takes two years on Mercury, which is to say, it takes two solar revolutions of the planet for it to rotate fully on its axis (in Earth terms: imagine the sun rising in June, reaching its noontime zenith in January, approaching dusk the following summer, and approaching midnight the following January).  In the last ten years, twenty days have transpired on Mercury.

I found some old notes of mine (perhaps even “notes” is too emphatic a word), which were written in this month ten years ago.  They are clearly under the spell of Mercury, or in Greek terms, Hermes.  I was quite taken with hermeneutics, particularly through the inflection of a Heideggerian-Aristotelian poetic philosophy.  I was interested in a hermeneutic radicalization of hermetic philosophy (not unlike Jeff Kripal’s mystical hermeneutics or Jack Caputo’s devilish hermeneutics).  Along with hermeneutics, I was also exploring the Merleau-Ponty/Whitehead alliance, anticipating current trends in hybridizing phenomenological and process thought, such as the “Whiteheadian key” to Merleau-Ponty’s ontology that Hamrick and Van Der Veken articulate (see Nature and Logos).  I can also see the beginnings of my ongoing work with a philosophical concept of sense.  With no further introduction or commentary, no apologia or proslogion, here’s a sample of what I was writing twenty mercurial days ago.  Continue reading


Speciesism and Philosophical Botany

I’m participating in a couple of events in March.  First, I’m a panelist in a session on “Religion and Culture: How Self-Perceptions and Scientific Literacy Influence Political Views,” which is part of an ongoing seminar, Speciesism and the Future of Humanity: Biology, Culture, Sociopolitics, taking place at the University of California, Berkeley.  The specific time isn’t listed on their site yet, but my session is March 14, 5-7pm in Boalt Hall room 132 South Addition. 

I’ll be responding to a couple presentations on the roles of religion as it relates to conservation, sustainability, and the sociology/politics that surround our solutions to major environmental problems, particularly in light of questions regarding how or if Western religion promotes the belief that humans are different, or potentially better than, other organisms in the planet.

A couple weeks later, I’m presenting a paper on philosophical botany at the American Philosophical Association’s pacific division annual meeting, which will be held in the Westin St. Francis hotel in San Francisco’s Union Square.  I’ll be speaking on Friday the 29th in the evening, but the whole event runs from March 27-31. 

I’ll be speaking about a comparative philosophical botany, touching on indigenous, Hindu, and Buddhist perspectives on plants along with some occidental philosophy (especially Aristotle and Theophrastus).  I’m following Matthew Hall pretty closely, whose work on philosophical botany takes its cue from the ecofeminist philosophy of Val Plumwood and from a multicultural comparative orientation.  I like Michael Marder’s work on plant-thinking, but I probably won’t engage much of it in this talk.  His focus is on hermeneutic phenomenology, deconstruction, and weak thought, which have plenty of internal critiques of the anthropocentrism and zoocentrism of occidental philosophy, but he doesn’t touch on external critiques from non-Western traditions (aside from acknowledging the importance of those critiques).

Growth suspended in ecstasy, the ideal flowering for you. 
The plant will have nourished the mind which contemplates the blooming of its flower. […]
Untouchable because it does not touch itself in its centre.  Only its edges will lightly touch — there where already it is no longer held in that suspended becoming — the interruption of its unfurling.
—Luce Irigaray, Elemental Passions.


(Re)Introducing Aristotle, 4: Degrees of Freedom

Following the previous installment in this series, this episode continues the elaboration of Han Jonas’ updated version of Aristotle in a philosophy that integrates the insights of Whitehead and Heidegger.  In particular, it’s time to talk about degrees of freedom and the uniqueness of humans.  Let’s begin by thinking with Jonas’ philosophical biology.

While animals have perception and some sort of capacity to form images or tools, they apply their potential for merely vital, practical ends (Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life [1966], 158).  However, image-making in its proper sense is only achieved in the new level of freedom attained by humans (170).  To be able to make an image entails the ability to behold an image.  This means one must be capable of discerning differences between the image, imagined, and the material substratum of the image.  Nonhuman animals cannot perceive mere likeness, and thus cannot distinguish between the image, the imagined, and the material substratum.  It can see something as other or the same, but not similar.  Thus, animals can imagine in the limited sense of bringing together images, but these images are bound up with sensation. 

In human beings, the image of a thing is understood as a separate presence.  It necessarily follows, then, that humans can alter and make images, for they see them as separate things.  In the mind of human beings, form becomes completely separable from matter.  Humans have more control over form because they understand form by itself, but this means humans—with metabolizing bodies—also experience great distances through their apprehension of form by itself. 

The human understanding of form is also evident in the human capacity for naming—that is, ordering the world according to the general forms of things.  “The generality of the name is the generality of the image” (173).  Humans can know that a thing is “this” and not “that” by comparing the forms of things ordered in naming.  The new degree of freedom witnessed in human beings is what makes possible the experience of theoretical and practical truth.         

Like Aristotle, Jonas argues that the ascending degrees of freedom inherent in organism and the becoming of natural bodies in general might have its origins in some divine act (275).  Ultimately, however, Jonas argues that the mystery of origins is closed to us (3).  The divine act Jonas imagines is the original giving up of the divine essence to the venture of becoming and experience.  This venture keeps matter oscillating between forms.  Somehow form gains freedom from matter as organic life begins to stir.  As form gains freedom in higher organisms, form comes to experience its own form and divinity. 

The divine venture is undertaken for the sake of the identity of divine form; all becoming is the preservation of divine form.  The freedom of human beings allows form to be completely itself.  Humans can neglect the call issuing from freedom, forget the origin of truth, and forget the divine venture.  Indeed, humans are given the precarious task of completing the image of divinity, for better or worse.

Jonas’ interpretation of human freedom relies upon the distinctions between matter, life, and mind (intellect) set forth by Aristotle, but updated with a blend of Heideggerian existential phenomenology and Whiteheadian panexperientialism.  Both Aristotle and Jonas begin their investigations with a view to their contemporaries and current opinions about their questioned subject matter.  The opinions inherited by each philosopher provide the groundwork upon which they develop their arguments and terminology.  Their own accounts attempt to get beyond whatever impasses are preventing a complete understanding of the subject matter.  Aristotle tries to get beyond the impasses of the theories of the natural scientists and mathematicians of his day with his account of an intertwined matter and form of the complete, independent thing.  Jonas tries to get beyond impasses concerning the relationship between mind and life with his existential interpretation of biological facts, which discloses the reciprocal participation of organism in mind and mind in organism. 

For both Aristotle and Jonas, any living thing—plants, animals, and humans—stays itself and maintains its form by metabolizing, acting upon and being acted upon by the things in its surrounding world.  Humans have a unique degree of freedom through which we have a particularly great abundance of things in our world, not the least of which are images.  If form is the work of divinity, human imagination and contemplation share in divine activity, and indeed, all becoming is an ongoing divine venture.  But that’s a big if.


(Re)Introducing Aristotle, 3: Life After Heidegger and Whitehead

In the earlier parts of this Aristotelian exposition, we covered Aristotle’s conception of nature and the thinghood of things, and then moved on to talk about Aristotle’s conception of life and soul.  In this episode, I want to consider what an Aristotelian philosophy could look like if it was updated in a context that took the works of Heidegger and Whitehead into account.  Object-oriented philosophy would be a good example, but I want to look back a little earlier to the works of one of Heidegger’s students, Hans Jonas, specifically in light of The Phenomenon of Life, wherein Jonas presents a phenomenological investigation into life, which “offers an ‘existential’ interpretation of biological facts” (p. xxiii).  That is, he describes the facts established by the natural sciences and interprets them according to the individual existence of the things named by the facts.  Although the title sounds like a Teilhard allusion, and Jonas explicitly refers to his similarity to Teilhard’s panpsychism, Jonas prefers Whitehead’s philosophy of the “feeling” of actuality, which is “on a considerably higher philosophical plane” than Teilhard (25n2).

Jonas, like Aristotle, supposes a sort of hierarchy from the activity of matter to that of mind.  However, Jonas attempts to leave behind the anthropocentricism of modern idealist and existential philosophies and the materialism and epiphenomenalism that hold sway over the natural sciences.  The first part of our explication of Jonas’ hypothesis (that the organic prefigures mind, which still remains part of the organic) will discuss the conception of organism that he articulates in the light of modern science.  From there, we will discuss the conception of mind that Jonas articulates.

Humans first interpreted the nature of things as being infused with life or spirit.  Animism and hylozoism are terms often used to describe the panpsychic worldviews of early humanity.  For early humanity, spirit was everywhere, even with matter (7).  However, this vitalistic monism did not hold sway for long.  Various articulations of dualism held sway for some of the late ancient period until a completely mechanistic view of the world prevails in modernity.  Modern cosmology places man in a mechanistic, inanimate universe, which accords not with any teleology, but with the laws of mechanical inertia.  Jonas argues that this movement from a vitalistic monism to a mechanistic monism is the result of the long ascendance of dualism out of the confrontation between early animist-vitalists and the fact of death.  We can see this dualism at work in the Orphic formula somasema, the body—a tomb, which held sway over many Gnostic and Christian interpretations of nature (13).

Dualism culminates in Cartesian ontology, wherein the organism is taken for a mere occurrence of an unfeeling, unwilling, res extensa (21).  Eventually, even the cognitive function of man is taken as a mere epiphenomena arising out of lifeless matter (88).  Materialism (or epiphenomenalism) and the aforementioned dualisms are accompanied by nihilism, wherein man alone is free and thinks in an uncaring, unknowing, indifferent nature (213).  However, natural bodies are not merely extended!  Humanity is not alone in its freedom.  If we attend to the self-showing of an organism, we see a thing that stays alive by continually exchanging its material, in short, metabolizing.  The organism has an identity apart from, though not independent of, its extended material.  The fact of life existentially interpreted reveals the coincidence of an organic body’s outward presence to the world with its freedom, self-identity, and finality (17-19).

Jonas interprets the biological fact of metabolism as an activity of the organism that maintains its self-identity and transcendence (75).  The constant exchange of material between the organism and its environment is indicative of the organism’s activity for its own sake.  Jonas claims that even lifeless material maintains itself, although with no distinction between self and other.  Matter is always already informed, ceaselessly adapting to different forms.  Similarly, continually appropriating various materials, the organism tries to maintain its form and stay itself.  Thus, with the organism we see a freedom of form from its material accompanied by a need to maintain its form as apart from matter.

The degrees of freedom of form vary with respect to different organisms.  For instance, plants generally have less organic freedom than animals, since their metabolic activity involves whatever material is immediately present to their boundaries.  The world is always acting upon the plant directly and vice versa.  For Jonas, plants do not have a formed world in the proper sense (which sounds like a very Heideggerian statement).  There is an atmospheric irritability upon the boundaries of the plant.  However, this foreign irritability affecting the plant has not yet opened a world out there.  The distinction between self and environing world is only germinal in plants (103).

With the animal kingdom, a higher degree of needful freedom is attained.  Animals, like plants, metabolize and exchange material with the environment to maintain their identity.  However, animals also exhibit motility, perception, and emotion (99).  The ability to perceive opens up the self-world distinction.  In plants, the world is what is directly affective.  With perception, which is necessarily accompanied by motility and emotion, the world is more “there” as something that must be surmounted and affected through distance.  Animal life is characterized by the presence of distance.  This distance is traversed and felt, both sensually and emotionally.

Thus far we have seen the different levels of freedom of form inherent in inorganic matter, which is completely bound up with form, and organic life, which maintains its free form by changing its material.  Organic life is itself stratified according to varying degrees of freedom.  The plant maintains its form by metabolizing with the material of its immediate environment.  The animal maintains its form by metabolizing with the material of its environment as disclosed in the mediating acts of perception, motility, and emotion.  In the next episode, the focus will shift to the peculiar freedom of the human and the role of mind in the hierarchy of life.


(Re)Introducing Aristotle, 2: Life and Soul

In a previous post, I started (re)introducing some of the basics of Aristotle, focusing on his view of nature (phusis) and thinghood (ousia), showing how the cosmos can be understood as an individual thing that is in motion—material swinging from form to form.  In other natural bodies, the movement of material to form is characterized by growth, self-nourishment, and wasting away.  Aristotle defines such bodies as living bodies (On the Soul [Joe Sachs, trans.] 412a12).  Aristotle investigates the nature and thinghood of living bodies by way of an investigation on the soul (psyche), “since the soul is in some way the governing source of living things” (402a6).  Like his investigation into nature, the opening of the investigation concerning the soul responds to the thought of Aristotle’s predecessors, which for the most part supposes the soul to be an elemental body or composed of elemental bodies (403b20).

In the second book of his investigation concerning the soul, Aristotle offers his definition of the soul, which follows from his understanding of nature and natural bodies.  Just as natural bodies have thinghood as composites of material and form, so too do living natural bodies (412a15).  The body (soma) is what the independent thing is called that underlies the growth and decay it endures.  The body, then, is underlying material having potential for life.  The body has no further thing underlying it.  Therefore, the soul (psyche)—the cause of life in the body—is not a material body, but is the being-at-work and form of a material body (412a20).  Like the being-at-work of the form of natural bodies, the being-at-work of the soul is the being-at-work-staying-itself of the living body.  The soul, then, is what a body keeps on being in order to be at all (to ti en einai), and this is the thinghood of the body as it is revealed in speech (ousia he kata ton logon) (412b10).

The living, or ensouled, body is distinguished from non-living bodies by the presence of one or more of the following potencies of the soul: intellect, perception, movement with regard to place, and nutrition (414a30).  A plant has share in the nutritive (threptike) part of the soul, which manages the work of growth and nutrition.  Growing and living are the being-at-work-staying-itself that is the thinghood of the plant.  The soul of the plant is the form that actively maintains itself.

Animals also share in this nutritive potency of the soul.  However, animals also possess the perceptive (aisthetike) potency of the soul, and some animals are also capable of moving themselves with respect to place.  Furthermore, some animals have the capacity to reason and think things through (415a).  The way in which an animal’s senses are directed and attuned to the sensible world is a kind of ratio or rationality (426b5).  However, this does not mean that animal thinking is identical with the kind of thinking proper to humans.

Aristotle distinguishes two types of thinking: imagining and conceiving (opining or knowing) something to be the case (427b30).  Imagination differs from perception in that a sensible thing need not be present to the senses for it to be imagined, although it must have some connection to sensibility.  What appears to the imagination is sometimes true, but not in the way that knowledge is true; and it is sometimes false, but not in the way an opinion or belief is false (428a).  Opinion and knowledge only belong to the animal capable of speech, the human—the rational animal (zoion logon echon).

The part of the soul that conceives of things—the intellect (nous)—is completely receptive of the forms of those things it apprehends (429a15).  This receptiveness of form is present in greater degrees from formed material to the different potencies of the soul.  Just as the nutritive, motile, and perceptive potencies are open to the presence of nutritious, distant, and perceptible things in their formed material, so the intellect is open to the presence of intelligible things.

Whereas the percept and the perceiver are not the same during the act of perception (since the percept is sensed in its material aspect, which is apart from the perceiver), the intelligible is one with the intellect in the being-at-work of contemplation.  Being-at-work-staying-itself, thinking is the same as and what is thought (Metaphysics 1074b35).  Free of dependency on sensibility, the being-at-work-staying-itself of intellect is the original cause of all motion and being.  Aristotle calls this original cause God (1072b).

The contemplative intellect is that form toward and from which all matter stretches.  Potent material bodies are always reaching for contemplative intellect, which is always at-work, staying itself, untouched, attracting material toward itself.  Natural bodies have their thinghood ultimately in the eternal being-at-work-staying-itself of contemplative intellect.  These bodies keep being themselves by essentially swinging, stretching from and toward nous—the psyche of the cosmos.