Monday, March 19, 2007

The World of the Amoeba

Jonas claims that motility, perception and emotion distinguish animals from plants (p. 99). The problem as I see it, however, is how to distinguish animals from other motile, hetertrophic, eukaryotic organisms. I have no clue as to what the actual taxonomy of eukaryotes should look like, but it seems clear that motility and hetertrophy are more primitive than perception and emotion which are clearly evident in only one lineage. Since Jonas has made such an example of the amoeba, I'm dissapointed that he ignores the amoeba when he ties the emotional life of animals directly to motility and hetertrophy, as if all of these characteristics emerged at once in a single lineage. If I'm going to have any use for Jonas' thinking on this topic, I'm going to have to revise and restructure his argument to account for the protozoa.

The autotrophic organism, according to Jonas, doesn't quite have a world. (p. 100). Its environment is directly contiguous with it.

From this original fact of life's having commerce with an environment we should exclude all premature suggestion of the duality of subject and object. The original condition is an environment contiguous with the organism: in this stage environment is nothing but the immedieate surroundings with which the chemical interchanges of metabolism take place. This situtation of material contiguity means also continuity in the process of exchange and thus immediacy of satisfaction concurrent with the permanent organic need. In this condition of continuous feeding there is no room for desire

(p. 102)

So the sunflower, in Jonas' view, doesn't know desire, doesn't relate to things as objects, and, although it has a vital identity, it doesn't have a reflective self and concomittantly it doesn't really relate to a world. If Jonas is right that only animals have a passionate existence (p. 106), or, to be exact, "passionate being," it can't be for the reasons he adumbrates, because by his reasoning the protozoa would also have to be thought of as passionate, even though they lack the ability to percieve or the mechanical means of transmitting feelings.

Does the amoeba after all have a world? Does it relate to objects in its environment even though it lacks the means to percieve them? Is the subject-object duality contingent upon motility, heterotrophy, or upon perception? Jonas views mediacy as the key attainment of the animals, but in the record of life there appear to be different kinds or stages of mediacy–Jonas is not altogether consistent; he recognizes that mineral relations are even less mediate than a plants' relations to its environment (p.107), so in the end it appears to be a question of degrees, and this is a problem for the analysis of mediacy, self-transendence and the notion of activity, an organism's capacity for action over and above basal metabolism, which is in a sense an emotional capacity that Jonas ascribes to animals but not to plants.. What then can we really make of the emergence of mediacies in the history of life, since there has apparently been more than one evolutionary event leading to the kind of impassioned mediacy that Jonas asks us to observe in animal life? Can biology tell us whether an amoeba has a world? If a world is a phenomenon of life, is it the sort of phenomenon that exists prior to and in some cases independently of perception or sentience? If we allow that the amoeba relates to a world rather than simply being in contact with its environment, does this open the door to considering that the sunflower also has a world? On what grounds do we say that the sunflower's movements don't add up to motility? We could adopt a special definition of motility that applies only to animals but not to protozoa, but this doesn't really solve the problem that Jonas creates by linking worldhood directly to motility. Alternatively we could say that Jonas is simply wrong about perception and emotion being coeval with motility, and wrong about the origins of worldhood. However, it does make sense to see worldhood as a elaboration of motility. So either the amoeba has a world, or the elaboration of motility that leads to worldhood happened only once. This puzzles me. How do we imagine nature such that freak occurrences and phylogenetic trends equally belong to nature? (I'm completely ambivalent about the whole issue of teleology. So it goes.)

Labels: , , , ,

posted by Fido the Yak at 1:10 PM. 3 comments

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Ontology of the Metabolic

For Hans Jonas the beginning of life marks an ontological revolution in the history of matter (The Phenomenon of Life, p. 81). Unlike the particle, or an event structure such as a wave that can be described mathematically, the living organism possess a form that is a function of its metabolism and cannot be explained by reducing it to its material constituents. The living organism has a world and a corresponding interiority. It is self-transcendent, spatially and temporally extending beyond its own immediacy (pp. 84-85.) Jonas sees in the organism a primary dialectic of freedom and necessity; he sees this as not merely an aspect of the human condition, but an aspect of the cosmos, an aspect of being since the ontological revolution that is life.

In Jonas' view the emergence of life rather than the emergence of consciousness represents the greatest challenge to thought. This focus creates an interepretive problem. Jonas believes that the amoeba's conation can be reasonably infered based on our own human experience of being a living body, but that to make the same inference for the particle would be unwarranted anthropomorphism (pp. 81-83). He writes that "the teleological structure and behavior of [the] organism is not just an alternative choice of description: it is, on the evidence of each one's own organic awareness, the external manifestation of the inwardness of substance. To add the implications: there is no organism without teleology; there is no teleology without inwardness; and: life can be known only by life" (p. 91). Thus while Jonas regards lifeless matter as an abstraction, as something that doesn't quite fully exist, he does yet believe in substance, a property of living, concrete being. Is there a paradox here, in that the organism, particularly the autotroph, relies on something that doesn't concretely exist? I'm not sure, though I find it telling that Jonas' preferred example of the primitive organism is the amoeba, a hetertrophic protozoan. In any case, Jonas' belief that life is only intelligible to the living requires the exercise of a judicious anthropomorphism, or zoomorphism. Once we allow for making inferences based on our own experience, what limits do we accept on our use of such inferences?

I've already touched on the possibility that Jonas is wrong with respect to protozoa and what kind of dent (if any) that might put in his panpsychism. But what if he's correct? Did consciousness emerge historically by building on what was already present, not in raw matter, but in the being of the organism? What connection is there between metabolism and consciousness? Are self, world, and temporality all prior to the existence of consciousness? How much can we really say about a vital identity without relying on shoddy inferences? We'll see if Jonas has anything to say on the topic when I turn to his next chapter, "To Move and to Feel: On the Animal Soul."

Labels: , , , ,

posted by Fido the Yak at 11:45 AM. 0 comments

Friday, March 09, 2007

The Vital Situation

Jonas' review of the ontological implications of Darwinian evolutionary theory leads him to the position, hedged but clearly proposed, that inwardness is coexstensive with life (The Phenomenon of Life, p. 58). This notion that subjectivity begins with the membrane again raises the question of whether my philodendron in any way experiences its life, whether it has a soul or whether only animals have something that can be called be a soul. In either case, it appears that life on earth has generated a wide variety of forms of psychophysical unity, and the belief that subjectivity is something that belongs to humanity alone cannot be sustained.

If inwardness is merely coexstensive with Animalia, what's the difference between inwardness and fins, or opposable thumbs? We'll for one thing in inwardness we're looking at something far more primitive. The flagellates, more primitive than Animalia, are heterotrophic and motile–but how could a flagellate possibly feel its own motility? And yet how could it not know where it is going? This is puzzling. Only animals, with the exception of Phylum Porifera, have nerve tissues, giving them a means to feel that we can clearly understand. I don't know how much this matters to Jonas. If it were true that only "higher" mammals had subjective experiences of living, I think he would still argue that inwardness is a reality that belongs to life. Given the huge variety of eukaryotes that never evolved into animals, I'm hesitant to see things that way. Perhaps inwardness truly is freakish, the flowering of a single improbable mutation. Once inwardness exists, though, can it be understood mechanistically? Jonas thinks not, and this is for him is an essential difference between inwardness and other, anatomical features that have evolved over the aeons.

If inwardness cannot be understood mechanistically, it may still be understood evolutionarily, or in a way that's at least consistent with evolutionary theory. Jonas calls evolutionism the "apocryphal ancestor" of modern existentialism (p. 47) because it did away with the notion of the immutable species and introduced the idea that the condition is constituitive of the existent. Life doesn't occur simply within the boundaries of the organism, but in its habitat, in the organism's specific relations to its environment (p. 46). Inwardness was in no way forseen by the amoeba, Jonas argues, but it was elicited over the aeons in the flux of the vital situation (pp. 46-47). In other words, natural selection is the agency responsible for the emergence of inwardness, and inasmuchas natural selection belongs to the whole of life and not to the internal dynamics of particular organisms, which merely produces variations but does not select which will thrive, the outcomes of natural selection belong to the whole of life. If I've understood Jonas correctly, the vital situation is not simply something that bears on how an organism makes a living, to use the popular metaphor, but rather how it comes to exist at all in nature.

Labels: , , , , , ,

posted by Fido the Yak at 12:53 PM. 0 comments

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.

Labels: , , , , , ,

posted by Fido the Yak at 1:09 PM. 0 comments

Monday, March 05, 2007

Emphasis Mine

In For More than One Voice Cavarero said "uniqueness" many times but she ultimately doesn't have a whole lot to say about uniqueness. She fails to establish that the metaphysical shunning of uniqueness which she assails isn't due to the simple fact of there being very little to say about uniqueness. This failure to meet my expectations, however, doesn't mean that her project as a whole is a failure. It's not a question of whether or not my expectations were reasonable, but rather that they simply belong to me, to the interests and problems arising from my own intellectual development. When I quote a passage, highlight this or that phrase, or explore the meaning of this or that word, the last thing on my mind is providing an authority for a way of thinking. What I am after is a philosophical conversation with an author, a conversation that acknowledges the uniqueness of the author, seeking to elucidate an aspect of the author's world as it is revealed in her or his texts, while at the same time cultivating my own abilities to grapple with problems and formulate questions. I'm frequently neither as sensitive nor as insightful as I'd like to be, but I believe there is a call for both sensitivity and insight and I try to meet it.

As it happens, I am ready to push the idea of uniqueness even if it means leaving Cavarero behind. If every thinker is irreducibly unique, does it follow that every thinking is likewise unique? Is there a fundamental connection between uniqueness and thinking, or is the existential uniqueness of the thinker more or less an accident with respect to thinking? If I take the position that thinking is tied to uniqueness, that thinking is in essence existential, what then do I say about the massive fact of language? How can I then account for grammar? Or quoted speech, the fact that the words of language are not my own?

Dialogism may be the easiest hurdle to cross. In saying something again, I have the powers of recontexualization and emphasis. Emphasis in text signifies a vocal intensity. It could also be thought of as gestural. It's a meaning that the body gives to words. To use Cavarero's language, quoted speech is like any other speech in being destined toward resonance. This too is a fact of language and it means that far from being obliterated by language, the uniqueness of each speaker is affirmed dialogically. Is the uniqueness of each act of speaking thus also affirmed in the destination toward resonance? I don't see why not.

Is grammar something that exists apart from habits of speech, apart from a process of structuration or systematizing language that begins in infancy? I don't really know, but I'm willing to explore the possibility that grammar is a kind of sedimentation rather than a program, and that each speaker comes to grammar uniquely. This is of course highly speculative, and it doesn't resolve the issue of whether the process of structuration involves any universals of thought. Against an enormous body of linguistic evidence I have only the knowledge that you are unique and that any thoughts you share will be uniquely yours. How that actually plays out is unclear to me.

Is uniqueness a struggle or is it just simply given? For me it doesn't often feel like a struggle to say something uniquely so I more or less take uniqueness for granted. However, I have to wonder whether this is true of others. There are people, it seems, for whom the recognition of uniqueness is a problem, people who either fail to acknowledge the uniqueness of others, or fail to see what in their own thinking is unique, or both. Many bloggers that I read are more eloquent or more erudite than I am. I often wonder whether I shouldn't feel more of a struggle to say something unique, whether I rely too heavily on block quotations, or whether the questions I pose deserve consideration. My insecurities have never led me to pass off the words of another as my own, but I can imagine the reasons why somebody else would do such a thing. Perhaps uniqueness is a burden. Perhaps thinking doesn't want to be unique. Is thinking fundamentally at ease with itself, or is being at ease anethema to thinking? Well, I've wandered.

Labels: , , ,

posted by Fido the Yak at 3:17 PM. 6 comments

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Three New Books

I went to the bookstore this past week and picked up three titles:

  1. Desire and Distance: Introduction to a Phenomenology of Perception, by Renaud Barbaras (translated by Paul B. Milan, Stanford University Press, 2007). I thought Merleau-Ponty had already written the book on the subject, but Barbaras impressed me at several points for his willingness to go through and beyond Merleau-Ponty. His first sentence reads: "The question of perception not only has a 'technical' or a 'regional' scope, as we often tend to think; it merges in reality with the ontological question in its simplest sense, namely as an inquiry into the meaning of the being of what is" (p. 1).

  2. The Present Personal: Philosophy and the Hidden Face of Language, by Hagi Kenaan (Columbia University Press, 2005). Kenaan describes his book as "a philosophical attempt to think the depth of the possibility of listening to the other person" (p. ix). He asks, "How do you inhabit your language, or, in what way is it you that inhabits the language that you speak to me?" (p. 1). Neither Kenaan nor Cavarero appear to be aware of one another's work.

  3. Consciousness and the Acquisition of Language, by Maurice Merleau-Ponty (translated by Hugh J. Silverman, Northwestern University Press, 1973). The book is comprised of lecture notes from a course taught by Merleau-Ponty at the Sorbonne. The notes were taken by students and approved for publication by Merleau-Ponty. The book is missing a lot of what I love about Merleau-Ponty–not simply his style, as if that could be reduced to a kind of belletristic display, but his way of engaging the reader to explore subtleties and obscure facets of a philosophical problem. I want to study the book, though, because the topic has arisen in my own thinking, and because Merleau-Ponty's approach to language is so startling even today that I want to fully appreciate where he was coming from and how his thinking developed.

My reading schedule remains a little crowded. I've finished For More than One Voice and Difference and Repetition though I may yet have things to say about those two volumes. I've started reading Gustave Guillaume's Foundations for a Science of Language and Hans Jonas' The Phenomenon of Life. I still have a half dozen books lying around that demand to be read, including Hiroshi Kojima's Monad and Thou which I really, really, really mean to read soon because he has an unusual take on the problem of intersubjectivity and the horizon of the somatic ego, whom he views as the proper agent of phenomenology. And of course I haven't forgotten Gemma Corradi Fiumara's The Other Side of Language: A Philosophy of Listening. And, well, the list goes on.

posted by Fido the Yak at 5:27 PM. 0 comments