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: