Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Success of the Word Milieu

The name Georges Canguilhem popped up over at Wildly's. The Oxford University Centre for the Environment School of Geography Technological Natures Research Cluster has made public Graham Burchell's rough translation of The Living Being and its Environment from La connaissance de la vie by Georges Canguilhem. In this essay Canguilhem reviews the history of the word milieu and the concept of the milieu or environment of a living being.

But there is still a lesson to be drawn from the absolute and unqualified use of the word milieu definitively established by Comte. In Lamarck, the equivalent of what the word will henceforth designate was circumstances; Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, in his 1831 report to the Academy of Sciences said: the surrounding environment (le milieu ambiant). The terms circumstances and ambiance or surroundings suggest a particular intuition of a centered or focused formation. In the success of the word milieu the representation of the straight line or indefinitely extendable plane, both continuous and homogenous, lacking definite shape or privileged position, prevails over the representation of the circle or sphere, forms which are still qualitatively defined and, if one may say so, hitched to a fixed center of reference. Circumstances and surroundings still preserve a symbolic value, but milieu forgoes reference to any other relation than that of a position forever denied by exteriority. Now refers to before, here to its beyond, and so on without cease. The environment is truly a pure system of relations without supports.

(pp. 4-5)

I should pause a moment to take note of Canguilhem's rather semiotic view of the environment. He says, "[Kurt] Goldstein says that 'the meaning of an organism is its being'; we can say that the being of the organism is its meaning. . . . Biology must therefore consider the living being first of all as a meaningful being, and individuality not as an object but as a characteristic in the realm of values. To live is to spread out, to organize the environment from a center of reference which cannot itself be referred elsewhere without losing its original meaning" (p. 13). Then, in a discussion of Pascal's "Disproportion of the Human Being," Canguilhem lays out three senses of the word milieu: median position, sustaining fluid (a sense inherited from Newtonian mechanics), and vital environment:

We know what became of the idea of the Cosmos with Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo, and how dramatic the conflict was between the organic conception of the world and the conception of a universe decentered in relation to the Earth of living beings and man, the privileged center of reference of the ancient world. Starting with Galileo, and also Descartes, we had to choose between two theories of the environment, that is to say, basically of space: a centered, qualitative space in which the mi-lieu is a center; a decentered, homogenous space in which the mi-lieu is an intermediary field. Pascal's famous text, Disproportion of [M]an [ยง72], clearly reveals the ambiguity of the term in a mind which cannot or does not want to choose between its need for existential security and the requirements of scientific knowledge. Pascal knows full well that the universe has fallen apart, but the "eternal silence" fills him with dread. Man is no longer in the middle (au milieu), but he is a "mid-point" [un milieu]) (a mid-point between [milieu entre] two infinities, between nothing and everything, between two extremes); the "middle station" (milieu) is the condition in which nature has placed us; we drift over a vast milieu ["we are floating in a medium of vast extent"]; man bears a proportion with some parts of the world, he has a relationship with all that he knows: "He needs a place to contain him, time to exist (durer) in, motion in order to live, elements to compose him, warmth and food for nourishment, air to breathe . . . everything in short is related to him." We can see therefore three senses of the term milieu interfering with each other here: median situation, sustaining fluid, and vital environment. In developing this last sense Pascal sets out his organic conception of the world in a return to Stoicism beyond and against Descartes: "Thus, since all things are both caused or causing, assisting and assisting [sic], mediate and immediate, providing mutual support in a chain linking together naturally and imperceptibly the most distant and different things, I consider it as impossible to know the parts without knowing the whole as to know the whole without knowing the individual parts." And when he defines the universe as "an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere," Pascal paradoxically tries, through the use of an image taken from the theosophical tradition, to reconcile the new scientific conception, which makes the universe an unlimited and undifferentiated milieu, and the ancient cosmological vision, which makes the world a finite totality that refers back to its center. It has been established that the image Pascal uses here is a permanent myth of originally Neo-Platonist mystical thought in which the intuition of the spherical world centered on and by the living being is combined with the already heliocentric cosmology of the Pythagoreans.


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posted by Fido the Yak at 12:25 PM.


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