Some people, a lot of people, treat René Descartes as a sort of bogeyman of modern philosophy. Somehow, in the first half of the seventeenth century, Descartes sundered the seamless fabric of Being into two factions, mind and body, a thinking thing and an extended thing, res cogitans and res extensa. With that dualism set in place, soul was thereby evacuated from the universe…except for a tiny piece of property that soul could rent out in the human head, accessed through a steep driveway in the pineal gland. In a universe devoid of soul, humans lost any motivation or justification for caring about anything beyond the solipsistic ego. Thanks a lot, René! There’s no concern for other humans, for community, or for the natural world. Mechanistic thinking thus spurred the rapacious destruction of ecosocial integrity through the development of industrial technologies and market economies. Now, as humans are sawing off the environmental limb that we’re sitting on, it’s more urgent than ever to overcome Cartesian dualism and find a way back into the seamless interconnectivity of existence. No, not really. Something is very wrong with that story. “In order to seek truth,” as Descartes says in his Principles of Philosophy, “it is necessary once in the course of our life to doubt, as far as possible, of all things.” Well, one of the things of which I’m doubtful is the idea that dualism is what’s wrong with Descartes.
Provocation and interruption are, respectively, the origin and goal of philosophy. This sense of philosophy finds expression in the following quotations from Peter Sloterdijk, the first of which suggests that philosophy is a trace of an unavoidable provocation, while the second articulates the function of the philosopher as an interrupter.
It is a characteristic of humanitas that human beings are confronted with problems that are too difficult for them and that nevertheless cannot be left unaddressed on account of their difficulty. This provocation of the human being by something that can be neither avoided nor mastered left an unforgettable trace behind already at the beginning of European philosophy—indeed, perhaps philosophy itself is this trace in the broadest sense.
(Sloterdijk, “Rules for the Human Park,” Not Saved: Essays After Heidegger [Polity Press, 2017], p. 211)
We live constantly in collective fields of excitation; this cannot be changed so long as we are social beings. The input of stress inevitably enters me; thoughts are not free, each of us can divine them. They come from the newspaper and wind up returning to the newspaper. My sovereignty, if it exists, can only appear by my letting the integrated impulsion die in me or, should this fail, by my retransmitting it in a totally metamorphosed, verified, filtered, or recoded form. It serves nothing to contest it: I am free only to the extent that I interrupt escalations and that I am able to immunize myself against infections of opinion. Precisely this continues to be the philosopher’s mission in society, if I may express myself in such pathetic terms. His missions is to show that a subject can be an interrupted, not merely a channel that allows thematic epidemics and waves of excitation to flow through it. The classics express this with the term ‘pondering.’ With this concept, ethics and energetics enter into contact: as a bearer of a philosophical function, I have neither the right nor the desire to be either a conductor in a stress-semantic chain or the automaton of an ethical imperative.
(Sloterdijk, Neither Sun nor Death [Semiotext(e), 2011], p. 84-5)
Peter Sloterdijk has written extensively about the political function of thymós (the spirited part of the soul in Plato’s three-fold schema of intellect-spirit-appetite). Here his reflections on that term open onto a discussion of freedom (libertatem). It turns out the liberals and neo-liberals are getting it wrong.
This term [thymós] referred to an inner affective centre that motivates people to reveal themselves to their social surroundings as owners of giving virtues. Yes: thymós, as a liberal mentality of the giving life, offers the only declaration of freedom that has nothing to fear from any naturalistic reduction to exogenous causes and neurological conditions. People have usually searched for freedom in places where one cannot possible find it—in the will, in the act of choice or in the brain—and overlooked its origin in the noble disposition, in uplift, in generosity. In reality, freedom is simply another word for nobleness, by which I mean the mindset which takes the better and more difficult as its point of reference under any circumstances, precisely because it is free enough for the less possible, the less vulgar, the less all-too-human. In this sense, freedom is availability for the improbable. Freedom still remains true to its essential negativity in the turn towards practical action, because everything it does expresses its rejection of the tyranny of the most probable. Whoever acts out of freedom revolts against the meanness they can no longer bear to see. This freedom is the opposite of everything envisaged by those who see it as a licence to let themselves go into the ordinary, all-too-ordinary.
Never before have such terms as ‘liberal’ or even ‘neo-liberal’ taken on as nefarious a connotation as in the last few years. Never before has liberal thought, especially in our country, been so far from the noble pole of human possibilities. Never before has freedom been so narrowly and fatally associated with the possession of humans by the stress of greed. But what does that prove? One thing alone: that the cause of liberality is too important to be left to the liberals. This restriction does not apply only to a single political party; the cause of the real and its reform is too important to be left to parties. Caring for cultural tradition is thus too comprehensive a task to be entrusted merely to conservatives. The question of preserving the environment is too significant to be considered only a matter for the green parties. The search for social balance is too demanding for social democrats and leftists to be given sole responsibility for it. Yet each of these elemental motifs requires one main party voice.
Peter Sloterdijk, Stress and Freedom, trans. Wieland Hoban (Polity Press, 2016), 54-56.
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 soma—sema, 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.