The eminent French biologist and historian of biology, François Jacob, once notoriously declared “On n’interroge plus la vie dans les laboratoires”: laboratory research no longer inquires into the notion of ‘Life’. Nowadays, as David Hull puts it, “both scientists and philosophers take ontological reduction for granted… Organisms are ‘nothing but’ atoms, and that is that.” In the mid-twentieth century, from the immediate post-war period to the late 1960s, French philosophers of science such as Georges Canguilhem, Raymond Ruyer and Gilbert Simondon (...) returned to Jacob’s statement with an odd kind of pathos: they were determined to reverse course. Not by imposing a different kind of research program in laboratories, but by an unusual combination of historical and philosophical inquiry into the foundations of the life sciences (particularly medicine, physiology and the cluster of activities that were termed ‘biology’ in the early 1800s). Even in as straightforwardly scholarly a work as La formation du concept de réflexe aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles (1955), Canguilhem speaks oddly of “defending vitalist biology,” and declares that Life cannot be grasped by logic (or at least, “la vie déconcerte la logique”). Was all this historical and philosophical work merely a reassertion of ‘mysterian’, magical vitalism? In order to answer this question we need to achieve some perspective on Canguilhem’s ‘vitalism’, notably with respect to its philosophical influences such as Kurt Goldstein. (shrink)
The eminent French biologist and historian of biology, François Jacob, once notoriously declared "On n‘interroge plus la vie dans les laboratoires": laboratory research no longer inquires into the notion of Life‘. Nowadays, as David Hull puts it, "both scientists and philosophers take ontological reduction for granted… Organisms are ‗nothing but‘ atoms, and that is that." In the mid-twentieth century, from the immediate post-war period to the late 1960s, French philosophers of science such as Georges Canguilhem, Raymond Ruyer and Gilbert Simondon (...) returned to Jacob‘s statement with an odd kind of pathos: they were determined to reverse course. Not by imposing a different kind of research program in laboratories, but by an unusual combination of historical and philosophical inquiry into the foundations of the life sciences (particularly medicine, physiology and the cluster of activities that were termed 'biology' in the early 1800s). Even in as straightforwardly scholarly a work as La formation du concept de réflexe aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles (1955), Canguilhem speaks oddly of "defending vitalist biology," and declares that Life cannot be grasped by logic (or at least, "la vie déconcerte la logique"). Was all this historical and philosophical work merely a reassertion of 'mysterian‘, magical vitalism? In order to answer this question we need to achieve some perspective on Canguilhem‘s 'vitalism‘, notably with respect to its philosophical influences such as Kurt Goldstein. (shrink)
We have been accustomed at least since Kant and mainstream history of philosophy to distinguish between the ‘mechanical’ and the ‘teleological’; between a fully mechanistic, quantitative science of Nature exemplified by Newton (or Galileo, or Descartes) and a teleological, qualitative approach to living beings ultimately expressed in the concept of ‘organism’ – a purposive entity, or at least an entity possessed of functions. The beauty of this distinction is that it seems to make intuitive sense and to map onto historical (...) and conceptual constellations in medicine, physiology and the related natural-philosophical discussions on the status of the body versus that of the machine. In this presentation I argue that the distinction between mechanism and teleology is imprecise and flawed, on the basis of a series of examples: the presence of ‘functional’ or ‘purposive’ features even in Cartesian physiology; work such as that of Richard Lower’s on animal respiration; the fact that the model of the ‘body-machine’ is not at all a mechanistic reduction of organismic properties to basic physical properties but on the contrary a way of emphasizing the uniqueness of organic life; and the concept of ‘animal economy’ in vitalist medical theory, which I present as a kind of ‘teleo-mechanistic’ concept of organism (borrowing a term of Timothy Lenoir’s which he used to discuss 19th-century embryology) – neither mechanical nor teleological. (shrink)
Sensibility, in any of its myriad realms – moral, physical, aesthetic, medical and so on – seems to be a paramount case of a higher-level, intentional property, not a basic property. Diderot famously made the bold and attributive move of postulating that matter itself senses, or that sensibility (perhaps better translated ‘sensitivity’ here) is a general or universal property of matter, even if he at times took a step back from this claim and called it a “supposition.” Crucially, sensibility is (...) here playing the role of a ‘booster’: it enables materialism to provide a full and rich account of the phenomena of conscious, sentient life, contrary to what its opponents hold: for if matter can sense, and sensibility is not a merely mechanical process, then the loftiest cognitive plateaus are accessible to materialist analysis, or at least belong to one and the same world as the rest of matter. This was noted by the astute anti-materialist critic, the Abbé Lelarge de Lignac, who, in his 1751 Lettres à un Amériquain, criticized Buffon for “granting to the body [la machine, a common term for the body at the time] a quality which is essential to minds, namely sensibility.” This view, here attributed to Buffon and definitely held by Diderot, was comparatively rare. If we look for the sources of this concept, the most notable ones are physiological and medical treatises by prominent figures such as Robert Whytt, Albrecht von Haller and the Montpellier vitalist Théophile de Bordeu. We then have, or so I shall try to sketch out, an intellectual landscape in which new – or newly articulated – properties such as irritability and sensibility are presented either as an experimental property of muscle fibers, that can be understood mechanistically (Hallerian irritability, as studied recently by Hubert Steinke and Dominique Boury) or a property of matter itself (whether specifically living matter as in Bordeu and his fellow montpelliérains Ménuret and Fouquet, or matter in general, as in Diderot). I am by no means convinced that it is one and the same ‘sensibility’ that is at issue in debates between these figures (as when Bordeu attacks Haller’s distinction between irritability and sensibility and claims that ‘his own’ property of sensibility is both more correct and more fundamental in organic beings), but I am interested in mapping out a topography of the problem of sensibility as property of matter or as vital force in mid-eighteenth-century debates – not an exhaustive cartography of all possible positions or theories, but an attempt to understand the ‘triangulation’ of three views: a vitalist view in which sensibility is fundamental, matching up with a conception of the organism as the sum of parts conceived as little lives (Bordeu et al.); a mechanist, or ‘enhanced mechanist’ view in which one can work upwards, step by step from the basic property of irritability to the higher-level property of sensibility (Haller); and, more eclectic, a materialist view which seeks to combine the mechanistic, componential rigour and explanatory power of the Hallerian approach, with the monistic and metaphysically explosive potential of the vitalist approach (Diderot). It is my hope that examining Diderot in the context of this triangulated topography of sensibility as property sheds light on his famous proclamation regarding sensibility as a universal property of matter. (shrink)
L’empirisme, comme mode de connaissance mais aussi comme tradition de pensée, a longtemps été négligé, que ce soit en histoire des sciences ou en histoire de la philosophie. Longtemps opposé au rationalisme, l’empirisme fait figure de mode de connaissance rhapsodique et non systématique. Associé au scepticisme, il est considéré comme une forme de renoncement à la connaissance, se contentant de décrire l’apparence des choses quand la véritable .
In debates between holism and reductionism in biology, from the early 20th century to more recent re-enactments involving genetic reductionism, developmental systems theory, or systems biology, the role of chance – the presence of theories invoking chance as a strong explanatory principle – is hardly ever acknowledged. Conversely, Darwinian models of chance and selection (Dennett 1995, Kupiec 1996, Kupiec 2009) sit awkwardly with reductionist and holistic concepts, which they alternately challenge or approve of. I suggest that the juxtaposition of chance (...) and the holism-reductionism pair (at multiple levels, ontological and methodological, pertaining to the vision of scientific practice as well as to the foundations of a vision of Nature, implicit or explicit) allows the theorist to shed some new light on these perennial tensions in the conceptualisation of Life. (shrink)
The materialist approach to the body is often, if not always understood in ‘mechanistic’ terms, as the view in which the properties unique to organic, living embodied agents are reduced to or described in terms of properties that characterize matter as a whole, which allow of mechanistic explanation. Indeed, from Hobbes and Descartes in the 17th century to the popularity of automata such as Vaucanson’s in the 18th century, this vision of things would seem to be correct. In this paper (...) I aim to correct this inaccurate vision of materialism. On the contrary, the materialist project on closer consideration reveals itself to be, significantly if not exclusively, (a) a body of theories specifically focused on the contribution that ‘biology’ or rather ‘natural history’ and physiology make to metaphysical debates, (b) much more intimately connected to what we now call ‘vitalism’ (a case in point is the presence of Théophile de Bordeu, a prominent Montpellier physician and theorist of vitalism, as a fictional character and spokesman of materialism, in Diderot’s novel D’Alembert’s Dream), and ultimately (c) an anti-mechanistic doctrine which focuses on the unique properties of organic beings. To establish this revised vision of materialism I examine philosophical texts such as La Mettrie’s Man a Machine and Diderot’s D’Alembert’s Dream; medical entries in the Encyclopédie by physicians such as Ménuret and Fouquet; and clandestine combinations of all such sources (Fontenelle, Gaultier and others). (shrink)
I distinguish between ‘substantival’ and ‘functional’ forms of vitalism in the eighteenth century. Substantival vitalism presupposes the existence of a (substantive) vital force which either plays a causal role in the natural world as studied scientifically, or remains an immaterial, extra-causal entity. Functional vitalism tends to operate ‘post facto’, from the existence of living bodies to the search for explanatory models that will account for their uniquely ‘vital’ properties better than fully mechanistic models can. I discuss representative figures of the (...) Montpellier school (Bordeu, Ménuret, Fouquet) as functional rather than substantival vitalists, and suggest an additional point regarding the reprisal of vitalism(s) in the 20th century, from Driesch to Canguilhem: that in addition to the substantival and functional varieties, we encounter a third species of vitalism, which I term ‘attitudinal’, as it argues for vitalism as a kind of attitude. (shrink)
The category of ‘organism’ has an ambiguous status: is it scientific or is it philosophical? Or, if one looks at it from within the relatively recent field or sub-field of philosophy of biology, is it a central, or at least legitimate category therein, or should it be dispensed with? In any case, it has long served as a kind of scientific “bolstering” for a philosophical train of argument which seeks to refute the “mechanistic” or “reductionist” trend, which has been perceived (...) as dominant since the 17th century, whether in the case of Stahlian animism, Leibnizian monadology, the neo-vitalism of Hans Driesch, or, lastly, of the “phenomenology of organic life” in the 20th century, with authors such as Kurt Goldstein, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Georges Canguilhem. In this paper I try to reconstruct some of the main interpretive ‘stages’ or ‘layers’ of the concept of organism in order to critically evaluate it. How might ‘organism’ be a useful concept if one rules out the excesses of ‘organismic’ biology and metaphysics? Varieties of instrumentalism and what I call the ‘projective’ concept of organism are appealing, but perhaps ultimately unsatisfying. (shrink)
At the very beginning of L’Homme-Machine, La Mettrie claims that Leibnizians with their monads have “rather spiritualized matter than materialized the soul”; a few years later Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, President of the Berlin Academy of Sciences and natural philosopher with a strong interest in the modes of transmission of ‘genetic’ information, conceived of living minima which he termed molecules, “endowed with desire, memory and intelligence,” in his Système de la nature ou Essai sur les corps organisés. This text first (...) appeared in Latin in 1751 under the title Dissertatio inauguralis metaphysica de universali naturae systemate, with the pseudonym Dr Baumann; it was translated by Maupertuis in 1754 as Essai sur la formation des corps organisés and was later included in his 1756 Œuvres under the title Système de la nature. Now, it is clear that Maupertuis was a kind of Leibnizian; and that his molecule possessed higher-level, ‘mental’ properties. In that sense he falls under the first category described by La Mettrie. But he was also involved in a debate on this issue with Diderot, who put forth a sustained critique of Maupertuis’ theory of the molecule in the additions to his 1753 Pensées sur l’interprétation de la nature. Where Maupertuis attributes higher-level properties to his living minima, Diderot argues that these properties are ‘organizational’, i.e., they can only be properties of the whole. At issue here is the degree of commitment to a form of materialism. (shrink)
The concept of 'social brain‘ is a hybrid, located somewhere in between politically motivated philosophical speculation about the mind and its place in the social world, and recently emerged inquiries into cognition, selfhood, development, etc., returning to some of the founding insights of social psychology but embedding them in a neuroscientific framework. In this paper I try to reconstruct a philosophical tradition for the social brain, a ‗Spinozist‘ tradition which locates the brain within the broader network of relations, including social (...) relations. This tradition runs from Spinoza to Lev Vygotsky in the early 20th century, and on to Gilles Deleuze, Toni Negri and Paolo Virno in recent European philosophy, as a new perspective on the brain. The concept of social brain that is articulated in this reconstruction – some early-20th century Soviet neuropsychologists spoke of socialism and the cortex as being ―on the same path‖ – overcomes distinctions between Continental thought and the philosophy of mind, and possibly gives a new metaphysical framework for social cognition. (shrink)
In Book II, chapter xxi of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, on ‘Power’, Locke presents a radical critique of free will. This is the longest chapter in the Essay, and it is a difficult one, not least since Locke revised it four times without always taking care to ensure that every part cohered with the rest. My interest is to work out a coherent statement of what would today be termed ‘compatibilism’ from this text – namely, a doctrine which seeks (...) to render free will and determinism compatible. By emphasizing the hedonistic dimension of his argument, according to which we are determined by “the most pressing uneasiness” we feel, I show how a deterministic reading is possible. This was seen by Locke’s favorite and also most radical disciple, the deist Anthony Collins, whose treatise A Philosophical Inquiry Concerning Human Liberty (1717) is both a critique of Essay II.xxi and a radicalization of its contents. I argue that Collins articulated a form of determinism which recognizes the specificity of action, thanks in large part to the uniquely ‘volitional’ determinism suggested by Locke. (shrink)
This is the introduction to a collection of essays on 'embodied empiricism' in early modern philosophy and the life sciences - papers on Harvey, Glisson, Locke, Hume, Bonnet, Lamarck, on anatomy and physiology, on medicine and natural history, etc.
There is an enduring story about empiricism, which runs as follows: from Locke onwards to Carnap, empiricism is the doctrine in which raw sense-data are received through the passive mechanism of perception; experience is the effect produced by external reality on the mind or ‘receptors’. Empiricism on this view is the ‘handmaiden’ of experimental natural science, seeking to redefine philosophy and its methods in conformity with the results of modern science. Secondly, there is a story about materialism, popularized initially by (...) Marx and Engels and later restated as standard, ‘textbook’ history of philosophy in the English-speaking world. It portrays materialism as explicitly mechanistic, seeking to reduce the world of qualities, sensations, and purposive behaviour to a quantitative, usually deterministic physical scheme. Building on some recent scholarship, I aim to articulate the contrarian view according to which neither of these stories is true. On the contrary, empiricism turns out to be less ‘science-friendly’ and more concerned with moral matters; materialism reveals itself to be, in at least a large number of cases, a ‘vital’, anti-mechanistic doctrine which focuses on the unique properties of organic beings. This revision of two key philosophical episodes should reveal that our history of early modern philosophy is dependent to a great extent on ‘special interests’, whether positivistic or Kantian, and by extension lead us to rethink the relation and distinction between ‘science’ and ‘philosophy’ in this period. (shrink)
In this paper we suggest a revisionist perspective on two significant figures in early modern life science and philosophy: William Harvey and John Locke. Harvey, the discoverer of the circulation of the blood, is often named as one of the rare representatives of the ‘life sciences’ who was a major figure in the Scientific Revolution. While this status itself is problematic, we would like to call attention to a different kind of problem: Harvey dislikes abstraction and controlled experiments (aside from (...) the ligature experiment in De Motu Cordis), tends to dismiss the value of instruments such as the microscope, and emphasizes instead the privileged status of ‘observed experience’. To use a contemporary term, Harvey appears to rely on, and chiefly value, ‘tacit knowledge’. Secondly, Locke’s project is often explained with reference to the image he uses in the Epistle to the Reader of his Essay, that he was an “underlabourer” of the sciences. In fact, despite the significant medical phase of his career, Locke’s ‘empiricism’ turns out to be above all a practical (i.e. ‘moral’) project, which focuses on the delimitation of our powers in order to achieve happiness, and rejects the possibility of naturalizing knowledge. When combined, these two cases suggest a different view of some canonical moments in early modern natural philosophy. (shrink)
In selected texts by Diderot, including the Encyclopédie article “Cabinet d’histoire naturelle” (along with his comments in the article “Histoire nat-urelle”), the Pensées sur l’interprétation de la nature and the Salon de 1767, I examine the interplay between philosophical naturalism and the recognition of the irreducible nature of artifice, in order to arrive at a provisional definition of Diderot’s vision of Nature as “une femme qui aime à se travestir.” How can a metaphysics in which the concept of Nature has (...) a normative status, also ultimately consider it to be something necessarily artificial? Historically, the answer to this question involves the project of natural history. A present-day reconstruction would have to make sense of this project and relate it to the vision of Nature expressed in Diderot’s phrase. In addition, it would hopefully pinpoint the difference between this brand of Enlightenment naturalism and contemporary naturalism, and by extension, allow us to understand a bit more about what naturalism is in general. (shrink)
This is the introduction to a special issue of 'Science in Context' on vitalism that I edited. The contents are: 1. Guido Giglioni — “What Ever Happened to Francis Glisson? Albrecht Haller and the Fate of Eighteenth-Century Irritability” 2. Dominique Boury— “Irritability and Sensibility: Two Key Concepts in Assessing the Medical Doctrines of Haller and Bordeu” 3. Tobias Cheung — “Regulating Agents, Functional Interactions, and Stimulus-Reaction-Schemes: The Concept of “Organism” in the Organic System Theories of Stahl, Bordeu and Barthez” 4. (...) Charles T. Wolfe & Motoichi Terada — “The Animal Economy as Object and Program in Montpellier Vitalism” 5. Timo Kaitaro — “Can Matter Mark the Hours? – Eighteenth-Century Vitalist Materialism and Functional Properties” 6. Elizabeth Williams —“Of Two Lives One? Jean-Charles-Marguerite-Guillaume Grimaud and the Question of Holism in Vitalist Medicine” 7. Philippe Huneman — “Montpellier Vitalism and the Emergence of Alienism in France (1750-1800): The Case of the Passions” 8. Elke Witt —“Form – A Matter of Generation. The Relation of Generation, Form and Function in the Epigenetic Theory of C.F. Wolff” . (shrink)
In his Philosophical Inquiry concerning Human Liberty (1717), the English deist Anthony Collins proposed a complete determinist account of the human mind and action, partly inspired by his mentor Locke, but also by elements from Bayle, Leibniz and other Continental sources. It is a determinism which does not neglect the question of the specific status of the mind but rather seeks to provide a causal account of mental activity and volition in particular; it is a ‘volitional determinism’. Some decades later, (...) Diderot articulates a very similar determinism, which seeks to recognize the existence of “causes proper to man” (as he says in the Réfutation d’Helvétius). The difference with Collins is that now biological factors are being taken into account. Obviously both the ‘volitional’ and the ‘biological’ forms of determinism are noteworthy inasmuch as they change our picture of the nature of determinism itself, but my interest here is to compare these two determinist arguments, both of which are broadly Spinozist in nature – and as such belong to what Jonathan Israel called in his recent book “the radical Enlightenment,” i.e. a kind of underground Enlightenment constituted by Spinozism – and to see how Collins’ specifically psychological vision and Diderot’s specifically biological vision correspond to their two separate national contexts: determinism in France in the mid-1750s was a much more medico-biological affair than English determinism, which appears to be on a ‘path’ leading to Mill and associationist psychology. (shrink)
Locke and Leibniz deny that there are any such beings as ‘monsters’ (anomalies, natural curiosities, wonders, and marvels), for two very different reasons. For Locke, monsters are not ‘natural kinds’: the word ‘monster’ does not individuate any specific class of beings ‘out there’ in the natural world. Monsters depend on our subjective viewpoint. For Leibniz, there are no monsters because we are all parts of the Great Chain of Being. Everything that happens, happens for a reason, including a monstrous birth. (...) But what about materialism? Well, beginning with the anatomical interest into ‘monstrous births’ in the French Académie des Sciences in the first three decades of the eighteenth century, there is a shift away from ‘imaginationist’ claims such as those of Malebranche, that if a woman gives birth to a monstrous child it is a consequence of something she imagined. Anatomists such as Lemery and Winslow try to formulate a strictly mechanical explanation for such events, rejecting moral and metaphysical explanations. Picking up on this work, materialist thinkers like Diderot are compelled to reject the very idea of monsters. We are all material beings produced according to the same mechanisms or laws, some of us are more ‘successful’ products than others, i.e. some live longer than others. In his late Eléments de physiologie he says “L’homme est un effet commun, le monstre un effet rare.” Ultimately he arrives at a materialist version of Leibniz’s position: there are no monsters, we are all monsters in each other’s eyes, at one time or another. This conclusion is a pregnant one in light of twentieth century interest in the problem of ‘the normal and the pathological’ (Canguilhem), and the broader question of how materialism relates to the biological world. (shrink)
What is sophistics ? What are the genuine reasons of philosophers'hostility, from Plato and Aristotle to Habermas and Badiou ? This text offers a new definition of sophistics as critique of mainstream ontology and a description of the efficiency of such a critical view, through a comprehensive explanation of the primitive scenery between Parmenides'Poem and Gorgias' Treatise of Non-being, and Aristotle's settlement of the principle of non-contradiction in book Gamma of Metaphysics.