Tag Archives: Emmanuel Levinas

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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Whitehead in the Clouds: Objects and Relations

Graham Harman and other proponents of object-oriented ontology (OOO) follow Whitehead in taking up the task of articulating a speculative metaphysics, which is a relatively untimely task, situated amidst multifarious post-Kantian prohibitions against metaphysics. In particular, OOO follows Whitehead’s “ontological principle,” affirming the irreducibility of actual entities. The relationship between OOO and Whitehead looks mutually beneficial. OOO benefits by getting support for its metaphysical orientation toward entities, things, i.e., “objects.” [Does it need to be reiterated that this is a general sense of object as entity, not the modern sense of object in opposition to (or participation with) subject?] Whitehead benefits by getting a boost in popularity, making Whitehead more relevant and interesting for contemporary thought. Despite this opportunity for mutual benefit, both partners aren’t totally into it. Harman refers to Whitehead regularly (including in his latest, Immaterialism), acknowledging Whitehead’s unique contributions to metaphysics. How do Whiteheadians respond? Let’s face it. It’s not the mutual admiration club. Guess what, OOO? Process philosophers just aren’t that into you. Continue reading


Coexistentialism

Coexistentialism: Unbearable Intimacy, Ecological Emergency. The manuscript is finished and off to the publisher. It’s around 110,000 words. The best thing about coexistentialism is the “co-,” indicating an ecological redistribution of Heidegger’s Mitsein (being-with) to include all beings, human, nonhuman, and otherwise. The worst thing is the “ism,” which is no doubt risky; it can degenerate into a lazy substitute for thinking along with other “isms,” but it could (I hope) facilitate solidarity, shared struggle, shared suffering, and shared feasting.  Existence is not the best or the worst, neither optimus nor pessimus. It just is: existence.  Continue reading


Lingis on 6 Problems in Levinas

There is a new issue of the journal PhaenEx: Journal of Existential and Phenomenological Theory and Culture.  It’s a free online journal that’s been around for roughly six years, with two issues per year.  I highly recommend checking it out.  The current issue has an article by Alphonso Lingis, “Six Problems in Levinas’s Philosophy.”  I’ll give a tiny overview here.

The first problem is Levinas’s constitutive phenomenology, which Lingis claims is too idealist (i.e., “The sense of things is constituted by the subject that appropriates them”).  In contrast, Lingis promotes a more realist vision:

Our existence as conscious organisms appears to us to depend on the prior and independent existence of the earth and its geological composition, climate, and ecosystems. A sequoia, an Oryx, a starfish appear to exist with their own internal and external forms prior to and independent of my consciousness of them. We see that other species perceive what we perceive, that our sensibility and perception are similar to the sensibility and perception of other species, who perceive the things of their environments as exterior, independent of them, and as real as they are.

The second problem is that, for Levinas, recognizing the demands of the Other happens by recognizing the Other’s “vulnerability and mortality” instead recognizing “the positive plentitude of an organism.” 

When someone faces us, we see someone in whom nature has achieved something: we see hale and hearty physical heath and vigor, vibrant sensibility, beauty. We see someone who has done something with his or her life, protected and nourished, built, repaired, restored, rescued. We see someone who has cared for a sick relative, maintained a farm, been a devoted teacher, is a loyal friend. We see someone who has not achieved anything materially, but who knows that he or she is a good person, steadfast, open-minded, with a good head and a good heart, has dared to break the rules and make mistakes, has a sense of his or her worth. We see facing us someone who has suffered the worst oppressions of the social system and the worst destructions wrought by disease or nature and who has been able to endure suffering and awaits death with lucidity and courage. We see someone who has the vitality to laugh over absurdities and his or her own failures, has the strength to weep over the loss of a lover and over the death of a child in another land.

The third problem has to do with the unendingness or infinition of human needs and wants.  “Levinas had acknowledged that the needs of a living organism are finite; they end in terrestrial goods and nourishments.”  But Levinas thought humans were different from other species, such that humans have a relationship of perpetual dependency on me (the ethical subject).  Lingis disagrees, “we think that a human organism, like that of other species, is a locus of production of excess energies. Human needs and wants are intermittent and superficial (not the core reality), and satisfiable.”

The fourth problem is Levinas’s appeal to God as the alterity constitutive of the otherness of every Other.  A practical response to the Other enlists determinate resources in me and my environment, but Lingis claims that, with Levinas’s God, the demand that the Other puts on me “loses its location in the midst of the common world and its determinateness.”

The fifth problem is that Levinas considers his ethics of responding to alterity is primarily Jewish.  However, anthropological research suggests that it pervades every human community…and it’s not limited to humans.

Indeed practical response to the needs of others of one’s species is widespread across nature. Spiders, birds, and mammals risk their own lives to protect their young from predators. Bees, penguins, vultures, and antelopes share food found with others of their species. Numerous cases of individuals giving sustenance and assistance to members of other species have been documented.

The sixth problem is the political implications of Levinas’s ethics.  Lingis is concerned that, when in power, proponents of an “unrealizable ethics of absolute responsibility” end up producing “irresponsible and disproportionate state violence, and the ethics of absolute responsibility functions as ideology.”