Life as an ontological surprise

The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology

By Hans Jonas

Evanston: Northwestern University Press.  1966/2001.

I’ve argued elsewhere in this blog that our Western conceptualization of the universe could gain a lot from the Chinese Neo-Confucian view that sees reality arising from a confluence of li and ch’i, the organizing principles of nature (li) being applied to the raw energy/matter (ch’i).  In this approach, if you look at a candle, the ch’i comes and goes every moment in the substance of the wick, candle wax and oxygen burning up, but the form of the flame, the li, is what remains stable.

In his book, The Phenomenon of Life, Hans Jonas, a 20th century existential philosopher (a pupil of Martin Heidegger), never mentions Chinese thought, but his approach to matter and form resembles the Neo-Confucian approach so closely that it offers an example of how certain Western philosophical paths form a natural bridge to the Chinese tradition.

When considering life, as opposed to inanimate objects, Jonas tells us, “form becomes the essence, matter the accident.”  “In the realm of the lifeless,” he explains, form is no more than a changing composite state, an accident, of enduring matter.”  But when you look at “the living form,” the reverse holds true:

the changing material contents are states of its enduring identity, their multiplicity marking the range of its effective unity.  In fact, instead of saying that the living form is a region of transit for matter, it would be truer to say that the material contents in their succession are phases of transit for the self-continuation of the form.

This approach to understanding life is fundamentally at odds with the Western dualistic and reductionist view, and so it’s not surprising that Jonas’ book, viewed as “the pivotal book of Jonas’s intellectual career,” spends much of its time attacking reductionism, tracing its ancient roots from Orphism all the way through to modern renderings such as August Weismann’s dualist distinction of germline from somatic cells and the Neoplatonism of some modern mathematicians.

Jonas offers a strikingly clear narrative of how  Greek Platonic dualism, which formed the ontological basis for Christian cosmology, set the groundwork for modern reductionism by draining the spirit out of the material world.  He explains how concentrating the sense of the sacred into the eternal realm left a “denuded substratum of all reality,” which is then viewed as a “field of inanimate masses and forces.”  And he emphasizes the central importance of this dynamics in the structure of Western thought, saying:

In more ways than one, the rise and long ascendancy of dualism are among the most decisive events in the mental history of the race.  What matters for our context is that, while it held sway, and in an otherwise varied career, dualism continued to drain the spiritual elements off the physical realm – until, when its tide at last receded, it left in its wake a world strangely denuded of such arresting attributes.

Jonas sees the crucial moment occurring in the seventeenth century.  Christian dualism had already “drain(ed) nature of her spiritual and vital attributes,” leaving “the new metaphysic of science” to seal the deal.    In company with many other historians of philosophy, Jonas sees Descartes as putting the final nail into nature’s vital parts, describing how “Descartes’ division of substance into res cogitans and res extensa… provided the metaphysical charter for a purely mechanistic and quantitative picture of the natural world.”

Other historians of philosophy have traced a similar path, but Jonas’ book really comes to life when he offers an alternative worldview, which is where he begins to sound intriguingly like a Neo-Confucianist.  Jonas describes life in almost poetic terms, describing how, “in living things, nature springs an ontological surprise,” where “systems of matter” no longer exist by the “mere concurrence of the forces that bind their parts together, but in virtue of themselves for the sake of themselves, and continually sustained by themselves.”

This interpretation of life as an emergent phenomenon is a philosophical forerunner of current views espoused by leading thinkers in biology and complexity theory, such as Stuart Kauffman, Evan Thompson and Ursula Goodenough, among others; and in fact it was Thompson’s book, Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind, reviewed on this blog, that originally alerted me to Jonas’ writings.

As Thompson noted in his book, Jonas deserves credit for highlighting the “all-pervasiveness of metabolism within the living system.”  Most of us think of metabolism as something that happens when we eat, an important part of life but not exactly the foundational concept.  However, as Jonas argues:

The exchange of matter with the environment is not a peripheral activity engaged in by a persistent core: it is the total mode of continuity (self-continuation) of the subject of life itself… the system itself is wholly and continuously a result of its metabolizing activity.

This is the crucial differences, Jonas explains, between a living system and a machine, and underlines the inadequacy of any scientific approach that views living organisms as just very complicated “machines” – the core metaphor of the reductionist view.  “It is inappropriate,” Jonas tells us, “to liken the organism to a machine,” and here’s why:

[M]etabolism is more than a method of power generation, or, food is more than fuel: in addition to, and more basic than, providing kinetic energy for the running of the machine … its role is to build up originally and replace continually the very parts of the machine.  Metabolism thus is the constant becoming of the machine itself – and this becoming itself is a performance of the machine: but for such performance there is no analogue in the world of machines…

Following on the implications of this, Jonas concludes that “the organism must appear as a function of metabolism rather than metabolism as a function of the organism.”  Which takes us back to the li and ch’i of Neo-Confucianism.  Metabolism can be viewed as a process of changing the organization of matter, cell by cell, molecule by molecule, breaking apart the prior organization and reorganizing the molecules into a form that optimizes and becomes the organism, on a continuous, dynamic basis.  Viewed in this way, it’s the li, the organizing principles, that define the organism, and the matter/energy, the ch’i, is merely the raw material being used to maintain the li.  Or, to put it in Jonas’ words, the organism is a function of metabolism.

Jonas then ventures deeper into the implications of this reversal of traditional Western priorities.  He shows how the existence of an organism leads to the emergence of teleology, an underlying sense of purpose.  Traditional Western scientists steer clear of notions of teleology, fearing that it smacks either of Aristotle or Christian theology.  But in fact, as Jonas makes clear, teleology is the logical result of the unique dynamics of living systems:

But there is always the purposiveness of organism as such and its concern in living: effective already in all vegetative tendency, awakening to primordial awareness in the dim reflexes, the responding irritability of lowly organisms; more so in urge and effort and anguish of animal life endowed with motility and sense-organs; reaching self-transparency in consciousness, will and thought of man: all these being inward aspects of the teleological side in the nature of ‘matter.’

Because of this universal characteristic of teleology in life, Jonas concludes that “life can be known only by life.”  “We poor mortals” have an advantage, Jonas tells us, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, over the Neoplatonic God existing as an eternal, never-changing idea of perfection:

Happening to be living material things ourselves, we have in our self-experience, as it were, peepholes into the inwardness of substance, thereby having an idea (or the possibility of having an idea) not only of how reality is spread and interacts in extensity, but of how it is to be real and to act and to be acted upon.

This has profound implications for what it means to “know something.”  Knowledge of any living system can never be a purely abstract conception.  True knowledge involves an integration of our minds and bodies, our conceptual and our animate consciousness.  Not surprisingly, alien as this view is to Western thought, the Chinese long ago had a word for it: tiren.  In another review on this blog, I’ve quoted Chinese scholar Donald Munro on the meaning of this word:

Tiren means to understand something personally, with one’s body and mind.  This knowledge becomes qualitatively different from knowledge that does not involve personal experience…  Embodiment is a combination of cognition … and empathic projection of the self to the object.

For Western reductionist thinkers, life might indeed be, in Jonas’s words, an ontological surprise.  But I have a feeling that, for Chinese Neo-Confucianists, Jonas’ discussion of “the phenomenon of life” would be no surprise at all.  For them, the surprise would be the reductionist view of the world that only measures the ch’i, remaining blithely oblivious to the fact that the li even exists.

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