Life without being

Despite everything Bergson did for philosophy, he made an unfortunate mistake by nominating the logic of difference the “élan vital”, which was quickly misunderstood as another name for being. Rather, all the great vitalists (Spinoza and Leibniz come to mind) understood that logical monism (what Driesch calls the “monism of order”) was neither a metaphysical monism nor beholden to the usual problematic of necessity/contingency. If vitalism is to be a philosophy of freedom—of the “unforeseeable creation of novelty”—then it must be understood as a critical philosophy according to which what had been known as metaphysical questions are at bottom questions of sense (which, of course, is a question of time). Spirit, as Scheler says, “has its own nature and autonomy, but lacks an original energy of its own” as a series (Scheler says “group”) of pure intentions. It is only thus conceived that a philosophy of spirit can be deduced (dialectically?) from a philosophy of nature without succumbing to the identity of thought and being. If vitalism is to have a future, it must come to see that there are only specific relations (special metaphysics) and no relations “in” the absolute (general metaphysics):”organization in general is … nothing else but a diminished and as it were condensed picture of the universe” (Schelling), i.e, as a phenomenon.

9 thoughts on “Life without being

  1. On the name of “vitalism”: If philosophy has anything to learn from vitalism, it is the same lesson that it should learn from eco-feminism (in both cases, however, the difficulty is that there are notoriously facile ways to do them): i.e., that the world of philosophy is not the “human” world—from which we need to build relationships to nature, the spiritual, the other-than-human—but the “living” world or the world of life. Minimally, vitalism reminds us that the task of thought is to be in the service of life … and that no other thought is worthy of the name of philosophy. But what, then, is this life (if it is not to be confused with the “life of the human” on the one hand or mere “organic life”)?

    “Philosophy of nature”: All I am suggesting here is that the basic problem of transcendental philosophy (and romanticism, from which it is inseparable) is to understand how a sense of life is possible and, not only possible, that it should actually exist at all. This is the work of transcendental logic, which must proceed according to the principle that pure contingency is unthinkable—hence the monism of order—without denying that the aleatory encounter occurs as a matter of fact. Both metaphysical monism and metaphysical dualism agree in denying the facticity of contingency—either by subsuming all relations in the absolute or by consigning contingency as an effect of appearance.

    “An analogous but not identical distinction is made by Castoriadis, for whom ensemblist-identitarian logic leans on tendencies of the first natural stratum without exhausting all strata and without exhausting creation. ” — The comparison with Castoriadis on this account is well-taken insofar as Castoriadis also affirms that formal determination is not prior to its objects but that it is itself materially determined: that the what is not derived from the how. Hence, Castoriadis says, “a” or “one” cannot have the same sense when we speak of “a space” or “a factory” or “a contradiction” or “a revolution”. (Notice, however, that Castoriadis locates the paradigmatic representative of identitarian logic in the living organism. Granted that vitalism is not part of Castoriadis’ grammar, but it is precisely against this conception of life that a critical vitalism must be wary.) This is why there can be no general metaphysics (à la Wolff and Baumgarten) and the mistake of transcendental philosophy since Kant has been to assume that such a metaphysics is either the necessary consequence or the desideratum of critical philosophy.

    “… what makes “logical monism” preferable to something else? Do you see it as inevitable (“there are no other options”) or simply desirable (for its simplicity, perhaps)?” — I don’t know if I can commit to the “inevitability” of logical monism (and I’m hesitant about the term itself, just as I am regarding “vitalism”), but in the sense obliquely indicated above, I think it is the only way “to make sense” of contingency and, perhaps, to say that there is something unthinkable. But why any of that should be the case or desirable would be another conversation.

  2. Hi Mike,
    After the conversation today my questions are clearer:

    1. You wish to deduce spirit from nature. Does this mean that you deduce spirit from life?

    2. Who or what is the user or bearer of monist logic? Can all things use or bear it? Is it only used to “serve life”?

    3. Is logic a product or expression of life?

    4. I think it is important that you (seem to) reject the claim that determination is negation and distance yourself from (a certain reading of) Spinoza. However, I think that this is only an appearance unless you admit that diverse beings are genuinely diverse, and not merely different in degree. Your real target seems to be Hegel, and you goal is to replace “determination is negation” with the claim that “system” (Hegel) is negation. Is this correct? Hegel seems to be your target here and when you disdain “relations in the absolute” (perhaps you are attaching Scotus there however). Is this correct?

    5. I assume that you are not affirming Dreisch's methodological solipsism?

    Anyway, nice chatting. I'd like to talk more, especially concerning the things you say about bi-furcation. I have a feeling you are making a Nietzschean point (as does Wallerstein concerning bi-furcation: i.e. we can know that there is a current system; we can know that it is causing a bi-furcation; we just don't know which way it is headed; we certainly know we have to oppose the “system” which “causes” the bifurcation; etc. [of course, I know that all of those occasions of “know” in the previous phrases are really just occasions of “believe”]), but perhaps I will be pleasantly surprised.


  3. And I really to like reading these posts. But I do not presume to know what the hell you are doing on the whole, so I'm asking for clarity.

  4. Castoriadis: your point about formal determination is very well-taken and I agree.

    Your language, however, when you imply that ensidic logic “is itself materially determined” seems a bit “off” for Casoriadis. Castoriadis would say that creation–including the creation of ensidic strata (i.e. the first natural stratum)–is conditioned. However, creation is ex nihilo (not merely in-determinate, but also that, so long as the “in” is not taken to be an exclusive negation). Conditioning is not identified with determination, nor is it identified with causality. Whatever is determinate is, as such, an ensidic creation and it does not determine creation. Creation is not exclusive of conditioning, of course (not “disinserted,” in another of Castoriadis' bad metaphors); it is creation of determinations. I follow Castoriadis–provisionally of course–on this point.

    I'm not exactly sure what you are saying about C in the brackets there. Could you clarify whether that parenthetical sentence is a critique of C or whether you are saying that C is in agreement with vitalism against a cetain view of life?

  5. As always, thanks for the questions and for being willing to indulge in these little experiments. I don’t know that these texts are really, either individually or together, operating in a thetic or assertoric mode. I’m certainly not trying to stake out a territory or a “position” here (at least in the usual way of doing so). Neither am I committed to proper names but, rather, am inclined to treat them as designating conceptual fields (more or less “conceptual personae”). One way to express the gambit of the prelude form is that these fields interfere both constructively and destructively and that, subsequently, our task is to sketch new topographic images.

    This also means, unfortunately, that I cannot offer more than a sketch here; the outlines would need to be fulfilled elsewhere. But consider these outlines traced in pencil—certain lines still need to be erased, shaded, and smudged; but it’s precisely by these interactions that such work can be done!

    As far as the word “life” goes, I have resisted treating this word as a thing (being) or a concept (there is nothing essential about life that might be the object of a definition in the Aristotelian sense). I have tried to speak negatively—life is not simply organic nature or what is normally signified by the root bio- (biopower, biology, etc). In philosophical terms, we might say life is the continuous* difference of what never is, what always differs from itself. But this difference is from itself is not a simple becoming; rather, life is continuous occurrence—of generation and destruction, of unity and difference—that expresses itself to itself, appears to itself, with greater or lesser intensity. What this philosophical characterization borrows from the life sciences and systems theory is precisely not the reductive conception of life whose method of definition consists in the identification of a certain matter or form (e.g., “nature” or “organism”). This is why a critical vitalism must not begin from a notion of life (life processes, unitary nature, etc) but itself constructs an idea of life as itself an expression of life that appears to itself. But this is where all the usual problems of recursion (or reflexivity) apply and, consequently, where phenomenology and the mathematical sciences offer resources for a more critical vitalism than that to which we have previously been privy: the idea of life arises from life itself in certain moments of its syntheses, viz., in those moments when life folds back on itself, returns to itself, and opposes itself. This is why even within the sciences we are able to speak about life not as biology but as system (unfortunately, systems theory is still a relatively new branch of mathematics in which much work remains to be done, and here we have simply to wait). But in speaking of systems, particularly in the mathematical sense, we do not need to begin either at the level of being and derive the existent (e.g., as a determinate being) nor vice versa.

    *I mean this word in its mathematical sense, since not all difference is continuous. Life is not a continuum or simply the “flow of differences”. Yes, as we know, identity is an effect, but so too is difference.

  6. This is where Nietzsche, for example, is both helpful and misleading. When he speaks of life, it is easy to take him to mean life (or simply will to power) as something substantial: so when he says history, science, or philosophy should be “in the service of life”, the temptation is to treat “life” here as a subject, ground, or simply as being itself “from which” phenomena, thought, etc, arise. Rather, we need to think of life as what Nietzsche would call “will”, which is obviously not psychological but something more like “force” or, better, tendency (in the sense, for example, that is used to describe entropic systems). Life, thus conceived, and its manifestations have no “bearer”; life is not “incarnated” in the usual sense in which spirit and matter are wedded; life does not require, nor is, a subject. To speak of life as system, we need neither simple positivities (e.g., Scotus, Leibniz) nor negative determinations (e.g., Hegel)—both of which in one way or another rely on some form of essentialism according to which either there are no real relations or becoming is conceived as the dialectic of being and essence. In some ways the latter is a form of self-differentiation, but in a metaphysically monist fashion; yes there is becoming, but there is also real genesis: nothing comes from nothing, but so might something.

    As for “monism”, I am not committed to the term “logical monism” and I use it polemically since, strictly speaking, the phrase is non-sensical. All I mean here is what critical philosophy has always said about the division between sense and contingency. Thought cannot think pure contingency, which is why experience always contains a reference to what is other than thought. How we treat this other is decisive for how we think about thinking, especially for transcendental philosophy. Materialist and immanentist philosophy have their versions of this problem, but, curiously, they tend to mirror their idealist counterparts when they fail to maintain a rigorous distinction between thought and being,** which is why, for example, for vitalism the question is not explaining thought as rising from life (e.g., “life as a (transcendental, material, etc) condition for thought”) or, as we see in some philosophy of mind, to explain thought as epiphenomenal or supervenient to life.

    **To adopt a trope that might be worth salvaging (which I played with but abandoned a while ago), instead of speaking of the unity or difference between thought and being, we might instead speak of a chiasm of the two.

  7. One final aside, regarding Castoriadis. When I spoke of the “material determination of formal determination”, I was using my terms, not Castoriadis’, to re-describe a great insight that he has but does not develop: the difference between the “how” and the “what” of determination, i.e., that we cannot simply conflate logic and ontology. In his words, “the meaning of ‘organising form’ always derives in part from what is being organized”. This thought has several implications, some of which are explicitly identified by Castoriadis himself, but others which are popular in other areas of contemporary French philosophy: that consistency is always local, that relations (for example, between psyche and economy) must always be constructed, that thought must be concerned with the construction of new categories, or simply of thinking something new. Unfortunately, Castoriadis’ mobilization of contemporary mathematics is limited and his discussions of set theory are incomplete; in the example I mentioned before, the life sciences simply don’t treat living organisms in set-theoretic terms or, as Castoriadis says, as instantiating “an Aristotelian system of set-theoretic organisation/hierarchisation …” So, what I was suggesting before, is 1) that Castoriadis is not working with the same vocabulary, so his remarks on “life” cannot simply be translated into the terms I’ve been using; 2) that his interpretations of mathematics and science are simply not representative of the most current work in the fields he discusses (even at the time he was writing); but 3) because he is such an amazing thinker, there are insights and resources he articulates that can nevertheless be fruitful for contemporary interests. To mobilize these ideas, however, requires new conversations, new translations, and new encounters—such as all the great thinkers have made possible for us today.

  8. Thanks a lot Mike. These responses go a long way to helping me get an idea of where you are going with a lot of the posts. I appreciate the thoughtful and precise replies and I cannot wait to look them over again and talk to you about them!


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