The Philosophy of Big History

I attended the recent conference of the International Big History Association.  The association is oriented toward researching and teaching “Big History,” which aims (as their website says) to “understand the integrated history of the Cosmos, Earth, Life, and Humanity,” specifically by means of “the best available empirical evidence and scholarly methods.”  That opens up the field of history into a comprehensive and cross-disciplinary account of the entire 13.8 billion year history of our universe.

Big History is far from alone in its aim to articulate an integrated and evolutionary vision of matter, life, and humanity.  Multiple scholarly fields and schools of thought share the integrative aims of Big History (e.g., the universe story, the field of religion and ecology, integral theory, ecofeminism, complexity theory, posthumanities, process philosophy).  Big historians still have much to learn from those and other integrative and transdisciplinary sources of evolutionary knowledge.  Continue reading

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(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, 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.

(Re)Introducing Aristotle, 1: Nature and Things

Aristotle is underrated.  He is not some dry systematic thinker who abstracted and oversimplified the insights of his teacher.  Plato and Aristotle are too often reduced to straw men who are guilty of establishing the structures (especially dualisms) that have caused most of the world’s subsequent problems.  Some people rescue Plato by reminding everyone of the complexities inherent in his use of dialogues, but it’s been harder to rescue Aristotle, due in part to a long history of Latinate translations (substance, actuality) that have made it hard for some of us to appreciate humor and passion for truth.  The translations of Aristotle by Joe Sachs are a breath of fresh air.  Sachs makes it easier to see that Aristotle is not the dualistic straw man that many make him out to be.  Aristotle is much weirder than that.  In fact, his attention to individual things makes him a forerunner of Whitehead’s ontological principle, Latour’s actor-network theory, and object-oriented ontology.  Paraphrasing Heidegger, if you want to understand contemporary philosophy, you should study Aristotle for ten to fifteen years.  Using Sachs’ translations, let’s just look at the basics.

Aristotle’s investigation into nature (phusis) can be approached through the definition of nature offered at in the second book of the Physics.  “Nature is a certain source and cause of being moved and of coming to rest in that to which it belongs primarily, in virtue of itself and not incidentally” (192b20).  An investigation into nature, then, is an investigation into the sources and causes of motion and ultimately into being as such (Metaphysics 1003a22).  Whatever has a source of motion inherent in itself is said to have a nature.  Furthermore, whatever has this inherent power to move and change must persist and endure through the change of which it has the power.  The cosmos remains a whole while its elements move and change (1040b9).  The human being remains a human being while it becomes educated. The plant remains a plant while its parts change and grow.

Whatever has a nature, then, has being as an independent thing—thinghood (ousia), which is characterized by material (hule) stretching toward a form (morphe) (Physics, 192a 20).  An independent thing as an active whole is said to be an underlying thing (hupokeimenon).  A body is an underlying thing if it endures through the change of attributes.  The underlying thing is always some material moving toward form.  Moreover, deprivation of form is still form.  Material is always swinging from form to form.

When investigating the nature of things, Aristotle examines the hypotheses of his predecessors.  His definition of nature as a source of motion responds to the denial of motion by some philosophers, e.g. Parmenides (184b18).  The natural way of an independent thing is sometimes identified with the unarranged material of the thing.  The philosophers that hypothesized elements or atoms as the nature of things, e.g. Thales and Democritus, supposed that it was these elements or atoms that were the primary causes of things.  Indeed, unarranged material is part of a thing and does affect its movement causally.  However, the thinghood of a thing is also determined by its form, which is the look that is disclosed in speech (eidos) (193a30).

An investigation into nature must account for the material together with the form of independent things.    Aristotle argues that the form of a thing is more indicative of its nature than the material (193b9).  A thing is more itself when its form is being-at-work (energeia) than when its material is only potentially formed according to what has been disclosed in speech.  Some of Aristotle’s predecessors identified the nature of a thing with its form, e.g. Pythagoreans and Platonists (Metaphysics, 985b-87b).  They investigate the form of natural bodies as separate and motionless.  Those who investigate merely the form or material of a thing (or the separated form and material) do not grasp its nature as a moving, changing, independent thing.  Aristotle investigates the form of natural bodies as they appear with their moving material.  The form of a natural body is always the form being-at-work with some moving material.

Let’s summarize what we know of Aristotle’s conception of natural bodies before we continue.  Something has a nature if it is a source and cause of motion and change in itself.  Thus, a natural body has the being of an independent thing (ousia), thinghood.  The cause of motion in a natural body is its underlying material, which is forming itself to its look disclosed in speech, moving from the potency (dunamis) of form to the being-at-work (energeia) of form. To get a clearer and more complete understanding of the cause of motion in natural bodies, let us further explicate the relationship between form and being-at-work.

Aristotle argued that the form of a thing is more its nature than the underlying material, for the underlying material moves according to its look disclosed in speech.  Furthermore, material is said to be what it is when it is being-at-work in its form, not when it is merely potentially in form.  Thus, form is that which a thing keeps being in order for the thing to be at all.  What a thing keeps being in order to be at all (to ti en einai) is often called its essence.  Form, as was said earlier, is the being-at-work of material.  Form is the being-at-work that a thing keeps on being in order to be at all.

Aristotle coins a term to describe this self-maintaining being-at-work by combining a word that means “complete” (enteles) with one that means “to be a certain way” (echein).  In Joe Sachs’ translation, the resulting word means “being-at-work-staying-itself” (entelecheia), which is sometimes translated poorly as the Latinate “actuality.”  Moreover, entelecheia puns on a word that means persistence (endelecheia) by adding a word that means finality or completion (telos).  The completion of a thing is that for the sake of which it works.  For a natural body, the form is its telos, and the being-at-work of form is being-at-work-staying-itself.  Sachs also translates entelecheia as “holding together actively as a whole” (On the Soul, 412b9).  My favorite translation is Ralph Manheim’s translation of Heidegger’s translation of entelecheia: “the holding (preserving)-itself-in-the-ending (limit)” (Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics [Yale, 1959], p. 60).

We have discussed three different ways of causing or being responsible for a natural thing: the material of a thing, the form to which it has potential to stretch, and the final state of being-at-work-staying-itself as a complete, independent thing.   Aristotle also discusses another cause of a thing, which is the original impetus for the movement of material toward form, sometimes called the efficient cause.  The efficient cause of a natural body is what allows the other causes to come together.  In this manner, the father causes a child (Physics, 194b30).  Aristotle argues that the first cause—formal, telic, and efficient—of all motion and being is the being-at-work-staying-itself of intellect (nous), which exists co-eternally with potent material (Metaphysics, 1072b 20).

Before I say more about the role of contemplative intellect in causing the movement and being of natural bodies, I want to examine Aristotle’s conception of life, which will lead us to a discussion of the soul and intellect.  That will have to wait for later.

The Place of Irigaray’s New Age

The transition to a new age requires a change in our perception and conception of space-time, the inhabiting of places, and of containers, or envelopes of identity. It assumes and entails an evolution or a transformation of forms, of the relations of matter and form and of the interval between: the trilogy of the constitution of place. Each age inscribes a limit to this trinitary configuration: matter, form, interval, or power [puissance], act, intermediary-interval. (pp. 7-8)

Luce Irigaray, An Ethics of Sexual Difference, trans. Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill [Cornell UP, 1993].