The Problem with Descartes: It’s Not Dualism

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.

Continue reading

(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.

Panpsychism

Adam Robbert has posted a helpful overview of Steven Shaviro’s paper, “Consequences of Panpsychism,” a paper which I heard Shaviro deliver at Claremont in 2010. 

I’m somewhat sympathetic with panpsychism, but I don’t consider myself a panpsychist.  Of course, any “ism” has its problems, but I’m not just bothered by the “ism” in panpsychism.  It’s the “pan” that bothers me.  I would have similar reservations about pantheism or pan-anything. 

What’s wrong with the “pan” in panpsychism?  Everything!  It everythings things.  In contrast, attending to things themselves, I tend to resist the everythinging of things. 

No quality or thing should be panned.  It would be better if the “pan” in panpsychism meant that panpsychism would involve inquiry into the souls of dish pans, or what it’s like to be a baking pan.  Even better, in a more Latinate turn of phrase, panpsychism would describe the vibrant materiality of animate bread.