Wednesday, November 10, 2010

How do we analyze life? [by Neal]

[This is a post by Neal, which I'm posting for him due to some technical difficulties.]

Noah raises some great issues, and I’d like to offer, not an answer or solution, but perhaps a framework that I think might be helpful in formulating a solution. What I’d like to suggest is that we should adopt some kind of ‘modal ontology’.

I’m taking this from a Dutch philosopher name Herman Dooyeweerd. There are some issues with the details, but I find the overall idea compelling. Basically, the idea is that ontology is not an all-or-nothing affair, but rather that all of experience is made up of different ontological levels or ‘modes’, which are united in experience but can be distinguished in reflection. Each mode has its own ‘individuating factor’ or characteristic form or focus. These modes are not only distinguishable, but are particularly ordered in that some are foundational for others. So, for example, the spatial mode or aspect is foundational for the biotic aspect, in that there can be no study of life (the individuating factor of the biotic sphere) without it having some ‘analogy’ or relation to continuous extension (the individuating factor of the spatial sphere). The biotic aspect, in turn, is foundational for, say, the sensitive/psychic aspect (individuated by feeling, broadly speaking), etc.

More foundational modes ‘anticipate’ later modes (in being foundational for them), and founded modes ‘retrocipate’ or refer back to earlier modes (in being founded on them), and so the different modes, though distinguishable in reflection, are presented in experience as a coherent whole. The key to any such ‘modal’ analysis is to not let human experience be reduced to any one particular mode, or give any one particular mode undue pride of place over the others. All are necessary to human existence, and all are present (as a coherent whole) in every human experience.

The reason I think this is helpful to the problem Noah discusses is because it helps us discuss our own human experience as both a living being but also a manufactured one (or at least, as something made up of parts; Dooyeweerd would think we were manufactured, via the process of evolution and growth, but I think we can leave that out of the discussion for now). That is to say, qua living things, we are perhaps not made up of anything at all; but qua physical beings, we are made up of things (not to mention the ways in which we are ‘made up’ of social, economic, and symbolic forces, to name a few other modes).

This, by the way, hints at another major issue: in what sense are we, for Merleau-Ponty but also in general, the products of human action [via, say, cultural sedimentation, etc. as Noah was talking about at SPEP], and in what sense are we the centers of human action [as, say, subjects or actors]? Can we distinguish these two points rigorously in human living? Do we need to?). This is to say, while I agree with the distinction you are making between living bodies and manufactured entities, I also want to claim that even living bodies can be understood also as manufactured (provided this means ‘made up of things’; if this term also implies a purposeful intention enacting the manufacturing, then perhaps we aren’t—depending, I suppose, on how you answer the question I raised in the last parenthesis).

I think such a ‘modal’ analysis could be of service to the issue here in two ways: first, by enabling us to honor the real difference between growth/living and manufacturing/inanimate, without losing track of the fact that something can be living and still have many things in common with the manufactured/inanimate; second, and probably more interestingly, to open up the discussion of where ‘life’ should be situated or how it should be understood. If ‘life’ is here synonymous with human existence, then it is not a particular mode, but can be analyzed by each of the modes in distinct ways. According to Dooyeweerd, as I have said, ‘life’ is characteristic of the biotic mode—and this makes it more foundational than higher-order. That is, here, ‘life’ is only understood biotically, and I suspect that Noah (and probably Merleau-Ponty) have something else in mind here in talking about life.

The problem of life (and what it means) is a huge issue in Husserl, and is what spurred Derrida’s analysis of difference as well as much of Michel Henry’s “material phenomenology,” but MP’s focus on animality suggests that life cannot mean the same thing for him as it does for Husserl or Henry. So, shall we talk about ‘life’: what do we mean when we speak of ‘life’ or ‘living’ bodies? And where would ‘life’ rate on a list of modes of human existence, from most foundational to most founded?

P.S. If you’re interested, here’s a link to a more thorough elaboration of Dooyeweerd’s theory of modal aspects, including all 15 aspects and their order:


Noah said...


Could you say more about what you take the problem I've raised to be?

I ask because the question you say can be left out of the discussion for now—namely, whether or not evolution and growth can be understood as kinds of manufacturing—was precisely the question I took myself to be raising in my last post.

Neal said...

Apologies. I meant to suggest that we could leave Dooyeweerd's particular answer to that question out of the discussion for now (in that I don't find the evidence he gives for his answer to be particularly compelling). That is, the interest I took in his work was more for the overall framework within which an answer to the problem you raised could be formulated, rather than in his particular answer to that problem.

In terms of answering that question, I proposed: a) that we understood 'manufactured' as meaning 'made up of parts'; b)that if we understand 'life' in a biotic fashion, I see no problem in saying that living things can be also manufactured (made up of parts); c) that you (and MP) might not agree with my definition of 'life' and, therefore that we need to clarify what exactly we mean by 'life', and where it fits in the scheme of our experience: is life synonymous with human experience, or is it one aspect of human experience?

Noah said...

Is there only one way for a whole to have parts?

1. A point is part of a line.
2. A note is part of a melody.
3. A day is part of a year.
4. A water-molecule is part of a wave.
5. A spark-plug is part of a car.
6. A cell is part of a multi-cellular organism.
7. An ant is part of a colony.
8. A person is part of a community.

All of these wholes have parts. Are they all related to their parts in the same way? Are they all manufactured?

Mlle. Le Renard said...

Noah, I think you were responding to Neal, but that was my point at the end with the suggestion that desks are isolated in a way that cows aren't... many desks do not a herd make.

Mlle. Le Renard said...

and more, an isolated desk is never as isolated as a cow... you can't understand the way the cow came to be without thinking of it terms of other cows. The desk could be understood in relation to its maker or its world of use, but its very being doesn't tell you anything of its creator.

Neal said...

I'm afraid I don't know what you mean when you ask if they are all related "in the same way". Are you asking whether we use the terms 'whole' and 'part' equivocally at times? We probably do. Are you implying that you and I are using it equivocally in the present discussion? If so, in what sense?

I can easily claim that I, a living being, have parts in the same way as all 8 things you list there have parts. Of course, I can also say there is something essentially different about my 'parts' as opposed to, say, the car's parts. That is, when you viewed from a mathematical perspective, I can say that me and my cells are distinct, and that my car and its sparkplugs are distinct, and that the relation between these distinct entities can be univocally called a "whole-part" relation. However, there is a biotic connection between me and my parts that is not present between the car and its parts. So, in one sense (i.e., mathematically) my relation to my cells is just like that of the car's relation to its sparkplugs. In another sense (e.g., biotically), my relation to my cells is different from the car's relation to its sparkplug (since neither the car nor the sparkplug can be understood biotically).

Indeed, most of the 8 things you list can be understood as offering a different relationship:
2. aesthetic/harmonious
3. logical
4. physical
5. physical or aesthetic(harmonious)
6. biotic
7. social
8. depending on the nature of the community, I would describe this relationship as either social, juridical, economic or moral.

So, there are undoubtedly different ways of being related to things, and yet also a way in which parts and wholes all relate to each other the same way (i.e., as parts to wholes). I guess my questions are:
a) in what sense do you want to use 'part' to say that living things are not made up of parts?
b) how would you describe the relationship you are calling "manufacturing" or being "made up" of things? Is this primarily a physical relationship? an aesthetic one? a social one? etc.
c) to return to an earlier question, how are you using the term 'life' or 'living'? Is this a particular way of looking at experiences, or is this constitutive of experience itself?

Neal said...

Also, re: the desk-cow example, I would want to say that the cow can be understood socially in a way that desks never can. I take this to be Mlle. le Renard's point: part of being a cow is to be part of a social 'community' of cows (i.e., a herd); a desk, on the other hand, is not understood in this way.

Noah said...

What I'm trying to say is that it's misleading to call wholes "manufactured" just in virtue of their having parts.

Manufacturing is a very particular way of creating a whole out of parts.

A line is not manufactured out of points; a year is not manufactured out of days; and a living body is not manufactured out of cells or atoms.

Neal said...

Fair enough. So what definition of "manufactured" would you offer in its place?

Neal said...

Also, it isn't at all apparent to me that those things you cite aren't manufactured. This is what makes me think that perhaps we don't have the same definition of "manufactured" (since what strikes you as obvious does not strike me so). Since my definition (probably correctly) has been deemed inadequate, I am wondering what definition you are working with in its place.