Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Biranian Rhapsody

The living body, Hans Jonas says, is the memento of the question "What is being?" (The Phenomenon of Life, p. 19). Whereas in Jonas' view the worlds of matter and of thought are both equally abstractions, the living body is concrete, and only on the basis of its concreteness and authenticity can ontology free itself from the deadening impact of the dualistic antithesis (p. 22). Although Jonas does not cite Maine de Biran, his thinking about the living body seems to be indebted to the French philosopher. He argues, against Kant, that causality is not a category of the understanding, not an a priori basis of experience, but rather is itself a basic experience, an experience rooted in "the effort I must make to overcome the resistance of worldly matter in my acting and to resist the impact of worldly matter upon myself. This happens through and with my body, with its extensive outwardness and its intensive inwardness at once, which both are genuine aspects of myself. And advancing from my body, nay, myself advancing bodily, I build up in the image of its basic experience the dynamic image of the world–a world of force and resistance, action and inertia, cause and effect" (p.23, emphasis Jonas'). I'll return to the issue of anthropomorphism here, but first I want to point out that this line of thinking about effort emerges in response to Hume.

Hume admits that "the animal nisus, which we experience, though it can afford no accurate precise idea of power, enters very much into that vulgar, inaccurate idea, which is formed by it." This admission comes in a footnote to a paragraph that reads:

We may, therefore, conclude from the whole, I hope, without any temerity, though with assurance; that our idea of power is not copied from any sentiment or consciousness of power within ourselves, when we give rise to animal motion, or apply our limbs to their proper use and office. That their motion follows the command of the will is a matter of common experience, like other natural events: But the power or energy by which this is effected, like that in other natural events, is unknown and inconceivable.

(See also Brandon's post on Hume's dismissal of animal nisus.) So is nisus unknown and conceivable, does it enter into a vulgar and innacurate idea, or is it rather, following Maine de Biran, immediately and incontestably known? Jonas takes the latter view, a way of thinking that leads him to a defense of anthropomorphism.

Are causes, including final causes, a part of nature? Jonas sees natural science's prejudice against teleology as but a phase in science's struggle against anthropomorphism (p. 36). If causality belongs to human nature, will natural science go so far as to alienate the human being from his own nature, to deny that the experience of effort has meaning (p. 37)? Alternatively, could natural science embrace anthropomorphism?

Perhaps, rightly understood, man is the measure of all things–not indeed through the legislation of his reason but through the exemplar of his psychophysical totality which represents the maximum of concrete ontological completeness known to us: a completeness from which, reductively, the species of being may have to be determined by way of progressive ontological subtraction down to the minimum of bare elementary matter (instead of the complete being constructed from this basis by cumulative addition). The question is still open whether life is a quantitative complexification in the arrangement of matter, and its freedom and puposiveness nothing but an apparent blurring of its simple, unambiguous determinacy through the massed complexity as such (a fact of our bafflement rather than of its own nature)–or whether, contrariwise, "dead" matter, as one extreme of a spectrum, represents a limiting mode of the properties revealed by feeling life, their privative reduction to the near-dwindling point of inchoateness: in which case its bare, inertial determination would be dormant, as yet unawakened freedom. The ontological justification for this question lies in the fact that the living body is the archetype of the concrete, and being my body it is, in its immediacy of inwardness and outwardness in one, the only fully given concrete of experience in general.

(pp. 23-24, emphases Jonas')

Whew. Jonas' ontological argument appears solid to me, but it's hard to imagine that natural science will realign itself to follow an anthropomorphic ontology. What science demands of its theories is that they explain more or explain better than established theories. (I had a similar sort of reaction to Grace de Laguna's foray into biology in On Existence and the Human World.) It will be interesting to see how Jonas develops the anthropomorphic idea as he tackles evolution, metabolism, DNA and other well studied topics in biology.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 1:09 PM.


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