“Positing the Presuppositions — Dialectical Biology and the Minimal Structure of Life” by Victor Marques

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Positing the Presuppositions — Dialectical Biology and the Minimal Structure of Life

Victor Marques

There is a curious passage that has been repeating itself for at least ten years in the work of Slavoj Žižek.1 In it Žižek identifies, but doesn’t really develop, an interesting parallel connecting the conception of life in Hegelian philosophy and some recent results in the field of theoretical biology: “at this crucial point, the language of contemporary biology starts to resemble, quite uncannily, the language of Hegel. When Varela, for example, explains his notion of autopoiesis, he repeats almost verbatim the Hegelian notion of life as teleological, self-organizing entity. His central notion of the loop or bootstrap points towards the Hegelian Setzung der Voraussetzungen (positing the presuppositions).”2

In fact, the Hegelian conception of the unity of the organism not as something transcendent or substantial but rather as the very process of active self-limitation (pure “self-relating negativity”) has some similarity not only with Varela’s theory of autopoiesis, but also with the “relational biology” of mathematical biologist Robert Rosen, as well as with the proposal presented by biological anthropologist Terrence Deacon in his book Incomplete Nature.3

To be sure, what Žižek refers to as the “notion of life as teleological, self-organizing entity” is not originally Hegelian. It is, indeed, the notion of a “natural purpose” as it appears in Kant’s Critique of Judgment—to which both Varela and Deacon make explicit reference. What Hegel does is to ontologize it, and use it as bridge between the world of nature and the world of spirit. Life, says Hegel, is the first ideality of nature, the most basic form of the Self—there is a structural connection between life and self-consciousness: both are expressions of “true infinity.” Thus, although authors like Varela and Deacon (but also many others in the recent philosophy of biology and theoretical biology) reclaim Kant,4 they are actually much closer to Hegel, to the extent that they want not a mere regulative principle, but to uncover a deep continuity between subjectivity and the organic. However, they do go beyond Hegel, as this continuity is regarded to be not only logical but also historical: they offer a diachronical account of how the movement of an initially inanimate matter gives rise to organic life and then to thought and self-consciousness. In other words, the challenge here is to show how a properly teleological, normative being can emerge from an indifferent material reality by means of natural evolution. But isn’t that, in a sense, already the aim of dialectical materialism: to explain how freedom itself can take place in a completely natural world, to give a nontranscendent account of the emergence of the autonomous, self-determined subject by the nonteleological (self)organization of matter? Isn’t dialectical materialism, from its beginning, a synthesis of Hegel and Darwin? We would like to say that what is really at issue in dialectical materialism is a conceptual articulation of a synchronic concept of a whole that is cause and effect of itself (an ontologized natural purpose) and a diachronic historicization of nature, animated by purely immanent tensions.

This “uncanny resemblance” between the biology of Varela and the philosophy of Hegel turns out to be, then, no coincidence at all. Varela firmly belongs to a tradition within natural science that rejects mechanical materialism in favor of a nonreductive naturalism. This “dialectical biology” has deep roots, going back to biologists directly influenced by Marxism. Those natural scientists were the main critics of the “machine metaphor” in biology during the twentieth century and advanced a concurrent view based on metabolism and self-organization—biologists such as Joseph Needham and J. D. Bernal (who organized the Cambridge Theoretical Biology Club), Oparin and Haldane (who made long lasting contributions to the problem of the origin of life), Conrad Waddington (who organized the famous and influential conferences “Towards a Theoretical Biology”), and, finally, Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, who not only developed some seminal work in evolutionary theory but also popularized, in their book The Dialectical Biologist, the use of the Marxian way of thinking to investigate complex systems.5

This chapter aims to demonstrate that Hegel’s notion of organism involves what we today would call “strange loops”—an entangled hierarchy where closed loops of containment occur. That is closely related to the very concept of “true infinity,” which is the basis of the Hegelian notion of freedom. What Hegel calls “self-relating negativity,” the process of active self-limitation, is the basic structure shared both by the organism and by the self. That is precisely what makes reductive materialism untenable. Dialectical materialism, discredited by doctrinaire vulgarization as an “official ideology,” is quietly making a comeback in the natural sciences—not as a schematic procedure to deduce a priori the “laws of matter” but as a way to think through the inner interconnections of evolving complex systems.

The Organism and the Possibility of Freedom

A major theme of Žižek, one that runs as a red thread through the whole of his oeuvre, is a Kantian–Hegelian problem: How is freedom possible? As Kant noticed, if the subject were to be included in a fully complete natural causal link, there would be no freedom. However, to simply add an element of pure contingency would also not be sufficient. Mere chance is not enough: freedom is not simply the opposite of deterministic causal necessity, but—as Kant has also recognized—a specific mode of causality. As Žižek puts it, “freedom is not the lack of causal determination, but a sui generis form of determination”6—not indetermination but self-determination. The possibility of freedom of the subject demands a kind of excess of the effect over its cause—in what Žižek names a “Deleuze-Hegelian formulation,” the subject is “a fold of reflexivity by means of which I retroactively determine the causes allowed to determine me.”7 That is to say, freedom is inherently retroactive. But this “temporal loop,” as Žižek quickly recognizes, is already the “minimal structure” of life itself. That is precisely the link between modern biology and German idealism: “In the modern sciences, this closed circle of the self-referential ‘positing of the presuppositions,’ which Hegel already perceived as the fundamental characteristic of a living entity, is designated as ‘autopoiesis’: in a kind of retroactive loop, the result (the living entity) generates the very material conditions that engender and sustain it.”8

A system can be called “autopoietic” when it is organized as a network of processes of productions of components that, through their transformations, continuously realize the network of relations that produced them and generate a boundary that distinguish it as a concrete unity. The interdependence of those processes, mutually reproducing each other, is the source of the system’s concrete identity. Autopoietic systems “produce their own identities; they distinguish themselves from their background.”9 That, says Varela, is a “funny, screwy logic where the snake bites its own tail.”10

There is, indeed, something paradoxical about it: here we have a network of self-organizing processes that produces a boundary which, in turn, constrains the very same network that produces this boundary. There is no network without the boundary or boundary without the network—“you can’t discern a beginning,” notes Varela, or, as Hegel would say: “the result is the same as the beginning.” In the organism, there is an identity between what produces and what is being produced, which is why Hegel calls it “the realized End itself ”—“a being whose end is its own self.”11

Here Žižek identifies an “unexpected encounter of contemporary philosophy with Hegel,”12 referring to the work of the “materialist Christian” Peter van Inwagen. In his book Material beings, van Inwagen states a radical conclusion right in the preface: “There are no tables or chairs or any other visible object except living organism”13—composite material objects simply do not exist. Artifacts, like chairs or automobiles, are aggregates of material parts—although they function for us as a whole (we’ve imposed a form onto matter in order for it to serve a purpose for us), the whole is just an external idea; it is not for-itself, in the sense that the parts are indifferent toward this arrangement. This indifference is for Hegel what constitutes the essential character of “mechanism”: “that whatever relation obtains between the things combined, this relation is one extraneous to them that does not concern their nature at all, and even if it is accompanied by a semblance of unity it remains nothing more than composition, mixture, aggregation.”14 The determinant function in mechanism is a “matter of indifference,” because “a principle of self-determination is nowhere to be found.”15

The very elementary form of life, on the other hand, requires a “minimum of self-relating.”16 For van Inwagen, something is a proper component of something when its activity constitutes a life. In van Inwagen’s theory, lives are self-maintaining and self-directing events; they are homeodynamic events that have a kind of “dynamic stability,” compared to the “static stability” of mechanical systems. As Žižek observes, they remain the same “throughout the incessant change of its material components.”17 The form persists, despite the incessant material flux. It is, thus, only with the organism, Žižek notes, that we have a real, actual, Whole—what Hegel describes as a “self-related negative unity.”18 In life, production becomes self-production, “in which the living being posits itself as self-identical for-itself.”19 The unity of the living being is minimally for-itself, it is, in Hegelian parlance, a “self-related being-for-self.”

No surprise then that “today’s biological language starts to resemble the language of Hegel”—that is, in essence, Varela’s theory of autopoiesis!

Varela and Dialectical Biology

This minimal organization is what Varela calls “bio-logic” and understanding it scientifically is the stated goal of his theory of autopoietic systems. The identity of a living being cannot be understood as inertial permanence of an essence (material or immaterial), much less based on molecular composition or in historically contingent configurations. The identity here can only be a “self-produced coherence”:20

[O]ne way to spotlight the specificity of autopoiesis is to think of it self-referentially as that organization which maintains the very organization itself as an invariant. The entire physicochemical constitution is in constant flux; the pattern remains.

By “autopoietic organization” it is meant simply that the constitution of the system is the result of a specific, circular way to concatenate internal processes. This circularity allows for the emergence of an individuality; a precarious identity persists through time, despite a never-ending material flux and all kinds of deformations caused by its necessary interaction with an environment that both enables and threatens its existence as a distinct entity. The dynamic integration of processes related in a network of reciprocal determination brings forth an entity that continually changes while, at the same time, remains itself. Varela, however, is quick to point out that the preservation of the organism as a separate individual entity depends on its relationship with what is out of it, what it is not. Without engagement with the environment, from which the organism needs to draw both energy and the material that feed and make possible its process, the autopoietic system is unable to maintain its identity. That is the “intriguing paradoxicality”21 proper to an autonomous identity: it must distinguish itself from its environment, while at the same time maintaining a coupling; the organism comes forth against this environment, but depends on it for maintaining its own autonomy.

The autonomy of the precarious living being exists only in and through the continuous process of reproducing its basic organization. Autonomy does not mean indifference to the external environment. On the contrary, the process of maintaining one’s own identity is, first of all, enabled (and then affected, positively or negatively) by the outer environment. The way the system is affected, in turn, is mediated by the system’s own intrinsic activity.22 The organism can never be self-sufficient, since its existence as something with an identity of its own, distinguished from the surrounding environment, is precarious and never finished. The living being is inherently incomplete. There is necessarily a mismatch between autopoietic system and its environment: the system is always in need of something, just in order to keep functioning as a whole under the constant and unremovable risk of dissolution. Varela speaks of a permanent “lack” of being alive.

It is interesting to note that Varela is in no way alien to dialectical thought.23 In fact, he explicitly says that autopoietic self-construction is a kind of dialectical process: “Autopoiesis is a prime example of dialectics between the local component levels and the global whole, linked together in reciprocal relation through the requirement of constitution of an entity that self-separates from its background.”24 It is impossible here not to relate this very idea of “self-separation” from a background to the Hegelian concept of Urteil: “the original judgment [Urteil] of life consists in this, that it detaches itself as an individual subject from objectivity, and in constituting itself the negative unity of the Notion, makes the presupposition of an immediate objectivity.”25

For Varela, the organism connotes a “knotty dialectic”—“a living system makes itself into an entity distinct from its environment through a process that brings forth, through that very process, a world proper to the organism.”26 To explain what he wants to say with “dialectic,” Varela refers to the work of Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins The Dialectical Biologist. Varela states that, following them, he uses the term “dialectic” to describe the kind of phenomena where things stand in relation so that “one thing cannot exist without the other, that one acquires its properties from its relation to the other, that the properties of both evolve as a consequence of their interpenetration.”27

In his Principles of Biological Autonomy, Varela even risks a direct philosophical consideration about the very content of dialectics. He believes that in order for us to properly grasp the relation between body and mind it will be, in the end, necessary to transform “the logic used to understand what dialectics and wholes are.” In an “excursus into dialectics,” Varela discusses the logical relation between pairs that are related yet distinct—“not one, not two.” According to Varela’s version of dialectics, the appearing dualities express an “imbrication of levels.” He tries to distinguish his dialectics from what he regards to be Hegelian dialectics, where we supposedly have excludent polarities that belong to the very same level—the contrasting poles are symmetrical and there is a kind of zero-sum antagonism between them, resulting eventually in a synthesis. In Varela’s version there is no symmetry, and no synthesis.28 This dialectics is, in contrast, marked by level-crossing and entanglement: “The nerve of the logic behind this dialectics is self-reference.”29 He exemplifies with an image from mythology: “Female gives birth to male which fertilizes female.”

But we can also see this kind of logic in action in the vital process itself, where this short-circuit of hierarchical levels keeps together a complex whole: “a whole decomposes in parts which generate processes integrating the whole.”30 But can’t we find here another “unexpected” encounter with Hegel, rather than a distancing? Žižek thinks that what makes the Varelian account of life resemble so much the language of Hegel is precisely this idea that the “the One of the organism as a Whole” retroactively posits its own causes.31 But that, observes Žižek, is precisely the “basic form of true infinity” for Hegel! In Hegel, “true infinity does not stand for limitless expansion, [but] for active self-limitation (self-determination).”32 Autopoiesis is the minimum physical expression of this kind ideal form.

We can now understand why Hegel begins the “Organic Physics” in his philosophy of nature by stating that life is the first ideality of nature. As Žižek notes, “infinity acquires its first actual existence” in the world when a natural process starts to function in a self-constraining manner, producing its own boundary.

Infinity and Strange Loops

For Hegel, it is necessary to distinguish the good infinite from the spurious infinite, that is, the infinity of Understanding and the infinity of Reason:

[T]he infinite is not yet really free from limitation and finitude; the main point is to distinguish the genuine Notion of infinity from the spurious infinity, the infinite of reason from the infinite of understanding.33

Hegel wants to sustain that Reason expresses itself as faculty of the unconditioned to the extent that it is capable of determining itself. What distinguishes Reason, therefore, is that it is not determined from outside but is essentially self-determined. By turning back on itself, Reason displays the true form of infinity. Here lies the crucial difference: the infinite of Understanding has as its image the endless, ever expanding line, whereas the infinite of Reason bends round and forms a circularity:

The image of the progress to the infinite is the straight line [. . .]; the image of true infinity, bent back into itself, becomes the circle, the line which has reached itself, which is closed and wholly present, without beginning and end.34

This kind of self-referent infinity is at the heart of Hegel’s logic, but was viewed with suspicion by the philosophical mainstream during most of the twentieth century. When logicians and mathematicians were forced to confront the paradoxes of set theory, an influential solution emerged: in order to deal with the paradoxes, self-reference itself was to be banned. Russell, specifically, formulated the “vicious circle principle” with which he intended to prevent “illegitimate totalities”: “whatever involves all of a collection can not be a collection.” If certain collection would have members only definable in terms of that total, that collection “has no total.” Saying that the collection does not have “a total” means that one cannot take the collection as an object. That is, if a totality has members that presuppose, or make reference in any sense to, the very totality, then such totality lacks objectivity.

Russell became convinced that he had discovered the common underlying structure for the semantic paradoxes and the paradoxes of set theory: all those are rooted in some form of circularity, or self-reference. “Reflexivity,” as Russell called it, is the trait shared by all these reasonings that seem to result in contradictions, and it is a byproduct of using impredicative definitions. A definition is impredicative when, in defining a given object, it makes reference to a totality of which the object being defined is part. According to Russell, such circularity is vicious—and therefore impredicative definitions cannot be accepted as valid. As Barwise and Moss argue, “Russell’s reaction to the paradoxes was to blame them on the circularity. He formulated what he called the ‘vicious circle principle’ which attempted to ban circularity from scientific discourse.”35

The outcome is a “metaphysics” not only very different from what can be found in Hegel, but its exact opposite: atomistic, constructivist, and finitist. Hegel’s metaphysics, in contrast, was holistic, organicist, and emphasized the insufficiency of Understanding’s notion of infinity (spurious infinite). Russell, contra Hegel, was convinced that potential infinite investigated by constructivist mathematics was already good enough. As Moore remarks: “[Russell] petulantly dismissed the idea that the mathematically infinite was a ‘false’ infinite, a vain attempt to reach ‘true’ infinity. He did not mention Hegel and his followers by name, but it is clear whom he had in mind.”36

To impose upon logic the “vicious circle principle” is also to assume an ontological commitment, and a very heavy one, because it excludes from the outset the possibility of self-referential objects, and thus makes it impossible to conceive systems essentially defined by circular organization. That will become the default ontology of much of twentieth-century philosophy, which became thus, without even noticing it, the heir to Russell’s move away from Hegel. As Barwise and Moss accurately note:

Russell’s attitude to the paradoxes has dominated twentieth century logic, even among those who reject his logicism. It has resulted in the iterative conception of set, in Tarsky’s insistence on the hierarchy of language and meta-language, and similar moves which replace circularity by hierarchies.37

The very notion of autonomy, or self-determination, is in itself an explicit violation of the theory of types—it involves a level-crossing of the hierarchy, with the result that it is not possible to maintain the hierarchical levels neatly and orderly separated: the above is simultaneously what is below. We are thus no longer in the realm of finite (external) determination, in which an object receives its determinateness from the outside: here, on the contrary, the determinant is at the very same time also that which is being determined. The (truly) infinite object gives itself its own determination, and thus prevents, through the folding up of the chain of determinations, the bad infinite of the linear and indefinite chain of determinations.

The cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter gives the name “strange loop” to the collapse of the hierarchical levels, when there is a closure of a cycle that does not conform to the principle of the vicious circle:

What I mean by a “strange loop” is [. . .] an abstract loop in which, in the series of stages that constitute the cycling-around, there is a shift from one level of abstraction (or structure) to another, which feels like an upwards movement in hierarchy, and yet somehow the successive “upward” shifts turn out to give rise to a closed cycle. That is, despite one’s sense of departing ever further from one’s origin, one winds up, to one’s shock, exactly where one had started out. In short, a strange loop is a paradoxical level-crossing feedback loop.38

Žižek is right when he identifies, in Hofstadter’s notion of strange loop, “some echoes between cognitivism and German Idealism.”39 Hegel had already observed that “self-consciousness is the closest example of the presence of the infinite,”40 and now Hofstadter is arguing for the thesis that the “I” is a strange loop. Such a paradoxical circle—turned back on itself and making a short circuit of the hierarchy—is precisely the general form of Self. Self-relation, from a Hegelian perspective, constitutes the very essence of Self and of the true infinity of thought: “thought is with itself, relates to itself, and has itself as object. [. . .] The I, the thought, is infinite, because in thinking it refers to an object that is itself.”41 In saying that the I is infinite because it refers to itself, Hegel is making absolutely clear the intimate connection between infinity and self-reference—that which for Russell was something vicious, to be eliminated at any cost, is for Hegel the highest.

Hofstadter uses, in order to illustrate his concept of strange loops, the famous Escher drawing, in which two hands are drawing each other. Intuitively, the producer (in this case, the drawing hand) is at a higher level than the product (the drawn hand)—the passage to the hand drawn hand drawing is a rise in the hierarchy, in order to go from the drawn to the drawing one must go up, go meta. What is paradoxical is that when doing the upwards movement, we realize that the drawing hand is in turn being drawn by the drawn hand itself! That is to say, by constantly rising in the hierarchy one ends up returning to the first level, what was an effect is not a cause, what was above is now below. Or in the language of Hegel, “the last or the result is also the first.”

Curiously, Varela borrows the concept of strange loop from Hofstadter, applying it to characterize not only the mind, or the human self, but also living systems in general. “A [strange] loop is completed whereby two levels are collapsed, intercrossed, entangled. At this point, what we wanted to hold in separate levels is revealed as inseparable, our sense of foundation seems to falter, and a sense of paradox sets in.”42

Surprisingly enough, Varela even uses the same Escher drawing to illustrate his notion of autonomy.

For Varela, life itself is already the elementary form of Self, for in it the identity between producer and product, the collapse of the hierarchy in a closed loop, is already realized. What Hofstadter saw only in the I, Varela generalizes to every living being. Not only the I is a strange loop, even the most simple form of life—the cell—already expresses this peculiar organization. In contrast to mere mechanism, a principle of self-determination is present, and living beings can be regarded as autonomous systems. Such systems therefore produce not only things (exterior products), but (re)produce themselves, produce their own identity. They distinguish themselves (self-differentiate) from a background, the objective external environment, by a self-constraining activity. There is, so to say, an identity between the producer and the product in the production process itself: the organization, far from being indifferent to the production process, it is not only the result of this process, but also its cause.

Terrence Deacon also mentions Hofstadter’s concept, noting that bio-molecules exhibit “process-dependent properties in the sense that they are reciprocally producers and products, means and ends, in a network of synthetic pathways. [. . .] But in this case, this hierarchic ontological dependency is tangled in what Douglas Hofstader has called ‘strange loops.’”43 And not only that: he also makes reference to Varela, reclaiming his idea of the Self as “purely virtual and relational.” When Deacon talks about his protolife model of “autogens” he also emphasizes that an autogenic self “cannot be identified with any particular substrate, bounded structure, or energetic process”44—it is only a “virtual self”: there is no substantial core, no hard kernel, yet the whole behaves as a unity, as if there was a coordinating agent at its center (where, of course, there is none!). The system as a whole is a locus of real physical influences, a source of causal influence—but it is not a substantial reality; its mode of existence is relational. As Varela says, life is in the configuration and in the dynamical pattern, but life is not in any particular structure nor in a localized property—it doesn’t exist anywhere solidly. This is for Žižek “the minimum of idealism”: “a Self is precisely an entity without any substantial density,”45 nothing to guarantee its consistency, and no transcendent unity to secure its persistence.

Robert Rosen was another theoretical biologist to propose a minimal model for the living cell based on circularity. For Rosen, what defines an organism is that it makes itself: in a living system, all efficient causes are internal. Rosen’s question is how the fabrication of life is possible. An efficient cause is a constraint on a process that leads to a product. But it is always legitimate to ask about the efficient cause of the efficient cause, necessarily leading to a hierarchy of causation with no end in sight—all we have is an infinite regress (a bad infinite, Hegel would say). But no problem, says Rosen: biology teaches us that we can avoid this regress by closing a causal loop. In a manner very similar to Hegel himself, Rosen opts theoretically to create an impredicativity in order to avoid infinite regress, folding back the hierarchy on itself in a closed loop.46

Rosen’s “(M,R)-systems” are impredicative models, with the same entanglement of hierarchical levels we saw in Hofstadter’s “strange loops” or Varela’s autonomous systems. The organism is characterized by internally producing all of its efficient causes—in it, all presuppositions are posited by its own activity. Such collapse of the hierarchy, by the closing of the cycle in a round loop, is precisely what ensures the totalizing unity of life and separates an inside from the outside—what the system is from what it is not. The organism may be irritated by the environment (it is, in fact, open to the material cause), but always remains distinct from it (it is closed to efficient cause).

Kercel observes that “in processes of life and mind, Rosenesque complexity is equivalent to autopoiesis. Its distinguishing feature is a hierarchical closed-loop of causal entailment.”47 But then we are very far away from the world of traditional machines. Just as Hegel once said that mechanism lacks a principle of self-determination, Rosen concludes that “there can be no closed path of efficient causation in a mechanism.”48 When the linear hierarchy is bent round on itself in order to avoid an infinite regress, what we have is precisely a “strange loop”—both hierarchy and circularity are present at the very same time.

Investigating living systems from a relational perspective, both Varela and Rosen seem to agree that the answer to the question of what is life itself is to be found in its circular organization.49 Organisms are, we could say, natural realizations of “strange loops.” Hofstadter’s concept is useful in illustrating the difference between linear hierarchical models and circular ones (where we have at the same time an hierarchy and a closed loop collapsing the type distinction).

Interestingly, when discussing Hofstadter’s idea, Žižek notes that the way to distinguish the “true infinity” that gives rise to the Self from mere infinite regress is to make the whole become part of itself: “the frame is inscribed as an element in the framed content.”50 Isn’t that exactly what is at play in Aczel’s hyperset theory? Traditional, well-founded set theory, following the ban on circularities suggested by Russell, doesn’t allow for a set to be a member of itself; in the iterative conception, sets are arranged in levels, the elements of any set necessarily placed at a lower level than the set itself. In hyperset theory, this requirement is suspended, permitting circular phenomena to be modeled in a straightforward way.51 Žižek is routinely using a dialectical way of thinking in which the universal ends up including itself among the particulars; this, of course, is Hegel’s “concrete universal,” but it is clearly a non-well-founded phenomenon, rendered nonobjective by traditional set theory. Aczel’s hyperset can be used to make sense of this kind of phenomenon. It is no coincidence then that hyperset theory has been used to model Varela’s autopoiesis and Rosen’s metabolism-repair systems.52

Dialectical Materialism and the Genesis of the Subject

In the third critique, reflecting the question of purposiveness in nature, Kant argues that in contrast to mechanical artifacts, which have only external, relative teleology, organisms must be understood as self-organizing entities—each part producing the others reciprocally. That is what Kant calls a “Naturzweck” (natural purpose), an object that is both cause and effect of itself.53

Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, biologists and philosophers of biology have shown an increasing interest in the Kantian notion of a “natural purpose”: Juarrero, McLaughlin, Weber and Varela, Thompson, Kauffman, Moreno and Mossio all refer back to Kant and his pioneering use of self-organization as a conceptual tool to understand purposiveness in natural systems.54 What unites all those authors is the theoretical effort to naturalize, rather than simply eliminate, teleology. What they want is to rescue finality without appealing to the supernatural.

Hegel, while cheering Kant for rescuing the notion of internal teleology, was also a critic of what he saw as ambivalence and hesitation in the Kantian position.55 The limit of Kant’s conception of life lies precisely in the fact that he does not see how to think about the purposiveness of organisms but in analogy with the purpose of mental operations of human subjects, and thus ends up falling into a kind “physical-theology” as a schema to apply the regulative principle. In doing so, the innovative idea of life as self-organized and self-organizing systems is subsequently reduced to a mere instrumentalization of the machine metaphor.

It is fair to say that the Critique of Judgment is the starting point of German idealism; not by coincidence did Hegel consider it the most significant work of modernity. For Hegel, with the concept of internal finality Kant had “resurrected the idea in general.” The problem is that despite taking a crucial step forward, for Kant it remained only a regulative principle. What Hegel does is to actually take the logical form of teleological judgment discovered by Kant and develop a real ontology of life.

With the growing interest in the Kantian concept of Naturzweck, the Hegelian critique of Kant’s hesitation becomes even more relevant and surprisingly contemporary. In fact, some who try to reclaim Kant end up looking more like Hegel, in the sense that what they really want is not only a regulative principle, but the proper German idealist insight that the Kantian notion of life can gain an ontological interpretation and life can thus serve as a critical point for questioning the traditional mechanical image of nature. And that is what makes possible a naturalized theory of the subject.

Obviously, proper conceptual knowledge of distinctively rational mentality is not only continuous but also discontinuous with respect to the “basic cognition of biological self” (in Varela’s terms), or “practical idealization activity of the living being” (in Hegel’s terms). Both in Hegel and in Varela, intersubjectivity plays a decisive role in the passage of pure biological life to knowledge. In Hegel, cognition is the Idea that relates to itself as Idea—there is a universal dimension, and a second-order reflexivity through that universal dimension, that is simply not present in normal biological life. Now, what is required is the transition from a merely biological intentionality to semantic intentionality that is found in human thought. The semantic intentionality emerges historically on top of the biological intentionality, as its material presupposition, but it is mediated by the formation of an intersubjective universal that comes up only with language.56

In order to achieve a proper theory of rational thought and representation, both a theory of life, dealing with the minimal form of self and proto-intentionality, and a theory of verbal animality, dealing with intersubjective communication mediated by a symbolic network, are necessary. Hegel is an interesting starting point because his philosophy encompasses not only an Aristotelian naturalism (biologically oriented) but also Kantian inferentialism socially reinterpreted (with a theory of socially instituted normativity). But is it compatible with materialism?

It is necessary to highlight that Hegel’s position is not so strongly anti-thetical to naturalism. As Pinkard reminds us: “as Hegel makes it abundantly clear, if we were forced to choose between a purely naturalist account of mindedness and a dualist account, we would have to opt for the naturalist account. [. . .] then we would have to choose naturalism over the ‘belief in miracles’ that subjective idealism seems to force on us.”57

As an enemy of all dualists, Hegel has a commitment to immanentism. But that is clearly not enough, because naturalism requires not only a non-transcendent explanation but actually a kind of “genealogical perspective” well expressed by Jon Stewart: to really understand phenomena, one must “follow the natural process of their genesis through history.”58 This historical exigence is the “naturalist imperative.” And, for the sake of coherence, one must apply it to the human spirit, to give an account of the natural-historical genesis of human subjectivity. This Hegel was not able to do, because for him nature has no history. What is missing is a crucial theoretical element, not available at Hegel’s time: a well-developed, conceptually structured, and empirically supported theory of natural evolution that deals with the appearance and diversification of organic forms, ultimately establishing the genealogical continuity between humanity and animality. We had to wait for Charles Darwin for this. Accordingly, a contemporary naturalist dialectics must take the form: Hegel + Darwin.

In fact, that very same combination is not without historical precedence. One can find it in at least two very distinct strands of thought: Deweyan pragmatism and Marxism. It is a well-known fact that Dewey was very much influenced first by Hegel, than by Darwin, and is no coincidence that Pinkard refers to him while trying to articulate his account of a Hegelian naturalism: “how we can get a handle, in a way that Deweyan pragmatists have always appreciated, as to how human reason develops out of organic nature.”

The Marxism case is even clearer. As Adrian Johnston notes, Marx’s historical materialism “requires supplementation by a dialectical-materialist account of the immanent natural genesis of this active human subjectivity.”59 But not only that: both Marx and Engels enthusiastically praised the appearance of Darwin’s Origins both as a mortal blow to cosmic, theological teleology and as the first real step toward the historicization of nature. In that sense, Darwinian evolution was the perfect counterbalance and complement to Hegel’s still idealist dialectics, and it still is a fundamental ingredient in a truly materialist dialectics of nature.

It is time to come back to Žižek. Maybe the constant repetition of the passage alluded to in the beginning signals a theoretical limit. Žižek never really devotes much time to “dialectical biology”—in fact, when pressed for a materialist theory of subject he won’t go to the nonreductive naturalism developed by biologists influenced by dialectical thought, he goes instead to quantum physics. And he does have a point: for this downward determination to have any material efficacy we need to presuppose the noncompleteness of physical causality. But a naturalist theory of the subject requires something more; it requires us to tell a history—a history of how the subject and its material presuppositions came to be. Although the retroactive logic is ubiquitous in Žižek’s work, the cumulative Darwinian logic is almost completely absent. Here we need to abandon any fears of historicism: the present builds on the past, the gradual accumulation of past random variations opens up future possibilities in a completely non-telelogical manner. Marx’s materialism is not only dialectical, but also historical. It is from this historical, genealogical perspective that we can, retroactively, see the possibility of the subject in inanimate matter itself. From a truly dialectical materialist perspective, the genesis of the subject is not only a history of structural breaks but also of material continuity. We need thus to see, and give a rational account, of how life emerged from chemistry, how cells came together to form multicellular organisms, how a nervous system and complex intelligent behavior evolved on the basis of multicellularity, and, finally, how a symbolic network was intersubjectively produced which then colonized the plastic brain of some primates in an entangled process of coevolution. Ultimately, dialectical materialism will have to recover the Engelsian research program of how labor and language played a part in the “transition from ape to man”—and for that purpose it will have to incorporate concepts that originated in contemporary evolutionary theory, like niche construction, phenotypic plasticity, exaptation and many others. This kind of naturalist project, which includes a theory of anthropogenesis, could be enriched by insights from psychoanalysis. In fact, dialectical biology can even play a pivotal role in the renewal and actualization of Freudian speculative meta-psychology.

Notes

  1. It first appears, to my knowledge, in his book about Deleuze, Organs without Bodies—On Deleuze and Consequences. Then it makes a comeback, in exactly the same word, in The Parallax View, and finally in his Less than Nothing, where that observation that “today’s biological language starts to resemble the language of Hegel” actually appears twice: first at page 157, where Francisco Varela and Lynn Margulis are referred, and the notion of “self-relating” and “self-limitation” is associated both to the “elementary structure of life” and with Hegelian true infinity, and second in page 910, in the context of the question “How can we account for a whole that is more than the mere sum of its parts”—Varela and Margulis are once again mentioned, but also the analytic philosopher Peter van Inwagen (with his thesis that organisms are the only composite material objects that really exist; the work of van Inwagen, by the way, is also discussed in “Organs without Bodies,” in the same chapter where the passage first occurs.
    Slavoj Žižek, Organs without Bodies—On Deleuze and Consequences (New York: Routledge, 2004).
    Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), p. 116.
    Slavoj Žižek, Less than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (New York: Verso, 2012), pp. 204–205.
  2. Žižek, Less than Nothing, p. 157.
  3. Terrence Deacon, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012).
  4. Varela does it in an article coauthored with Andreas Weber (and posthumously published), where they state: “It is already amazing that Kant (KdU, § 65, 374) had given a visionary account of self-organization that anticipates the definition of autopoiesis almost literally, but within the bounds of a transcendental analysis.”
    Andreas Weber & Francisco Varela, “Life after Kant: Natural Purposes and the Autopoietic Foundations of Biological Individuality,” in Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 1, no. 2 (2002): 97–125.
  5. 5. Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, The Dialectical Biologist (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985).
  6. Žižek, Less than Nothing, p. 734.
  7. Žižek, Organs without Bodies, p. 112.
  8. Ibid., pp. 119–120.
  9. Franciso Varela, Principles of Biological Autonomy (New York: Elsevier North Holland, 1979), p.13.
  10. Francisco Varela, “The Emergent Self,” in John Brockman, ed., The Third Culture (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).
  11. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 161.
  12. Žižek, Organs without Bodies, p. 115.
  13. Peter van Inwagen, Material Beings (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990).
  14. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Science of Logic [1923], trans. A. V. Miller (London: Allen & Unwin, 1969), p. 711.
  15. Ibid., p. 713.
  16. Žižek, Less than Nothing, p. 909.
  17. Ibid., p. 909.
  18. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, p. 758.
  19. Ibid., p. 772.
  20. Francisco Varela, “Patterns of Life: Intertwining Identity and Cognition,” in Brain and Cognition, 34, no. 1 (1997): 72–87.
  21. Ibid.
  22. For Hegel, that is, already in natural life, “the beginning of idealism”—the organism is no longer “determined by external causes” but irritated by external forces. How the world “appears” to an organism depends on the organism itself. As notes Žižek, recognizing that also here Varela seems to come close to Hegel: “In the tradition of German Idealism, the living organism’s relation to its external other is always-already its self-relationship.”
         Žižek, Organs without Bodies, p. 120.
  23. It is fair to say that he is, probably, not alien to Marxist thought either. Varela was in his youth a left-wing activist, and while working in Chile was a militant supporter of Allende’s democratic-socialist government, being involved in the Cybersyn project—“a revolutionary system of communications and regulation of the Chilean economy inspired by the nervous system.” Varela himself links the revolutionary nature of autopoiesis theory to the political mood during the Allende’s years: “It was clear to us that we were embarking on a journey that was consciously revolutionary and anti-orthodox and that this valor had everything to do with the mood in Chile, where possibilities were unfolding into a collective creativity. The months that led to the development of autopoiesis are inseparable from Chile at that time.”
    Francisco Varela, “The Early Days of Autopoiesis,” in Bruce Clarke and Mark Hansen, eds., Emergence and Embodiment: New Essays on Second-order Systems (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), p. 71.
  24. Varela, “Patterns of Life.”
  25. Hegel, Science of Logic, p. 764.
  26. Francisco Varela, “Organism: A Meshwork of Selfless Selves,” in Alfred Tauber, ed., Organism and the Origins of Self (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 1991), p. 79.
  27. Levins and Lewontin, The Dialectical Biologist, p. 3.
  28. Varela even states that it should be more accurately be called “the Law of Zero,” since everything stays just the same.
  29. Varela, Principles of Biological Autonomy, p. 101.
  30. Francisco Varela, “Not one, Not Two,” CoEvolution Quart, no. 12 (1976): 62–67.
  31. Žižek, Organs without Bodies, p. 116.
  32. Žižek, Less than Nothing, p. 158.
  33. Hegel, Science of Logic, p. 137.
  34. Ibid., p. 149.
  35. Jon Barwise and Lawrence Moss, Vicious Circles: On the Mathematics of Non-well-founded Phenomena (Stanford: CSLI Publications, 1996), p. 56.
  36. Adrian Moore, The Infinite (New York: Routledge, 1991), p. 117.
  37. Barwise and Moss, Vicious Circles, p. 60.
  38. Douglas Hofstadter, I Am a Strange Loop (New York: Basic Books, 2007), p. 101.
  39. Žižek, Less than Nothing, p. 717.
  40. Hegel, Science of Logic, p. 158.
  41. Ibid., p. 91.
  42. Francisco Varela “The Creative Circle: Sketches on the Natural History of Circularity,” in Paul Watzlawick, ed., The Invented Reality: How Do We Know What We Know? (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1984).
  43. Ibid.
  44. Deacon, Incomplete Nature, p. 311.
  45. Žižek, Organs without Bodies, p. 117.
  46. “However, we can see an infinite regress forming. For we can ask: What fabricates F (S)? Biology teaches us that we can avoid this regress by closing a causal loop.”
    Robert Rosen, Essays on Life Itself (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), p. 282.
  47. Stephen Kercel, “The Endogenous Brain,” Journal of Theoretical Biology, 3, no. 1 (2004): 61–84.
  48. Rosen, Life Itself.
  49. We have elsewhere investigated the similarities between Varela’s account and Rosen’s:
    Victor Marques and Carlos Brito, “The Rise and Fall of the Machine Metaphor: Organizational Similarities and Differences between Machines and Living Beings,” Verifiche, XLIII, nos. 1–3 (2014): 77–111.
  50. Žižek, Less than Nothing, p. 728.
  51. Peter Aczel, Non-well-founded Sets (Stanford: CSLI Publications, 1988).
  52. Chemero and Turvey notes that autopoietic systems and M,R-Systems (but also Kauffman’s autocatalytic systems) “share an important structural feature”: they all have “loopy hyperset diagrams.”
    Anthony Chemero and Michael Turvey, “Autonomy and Hypersets,” in Biosystems, 91, no. 2 (2008): 320–330.
  53. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment (New York: Dover Publications, 2005).
  54. Alicia Juarrero, Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999).
    Peter McLaughlin, What Functions Explain: Functional Explanation and Self-reproducing Systems (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
    Evan Thompson, Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).
    Stuart Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion (New York: Basic Books, 2008).
    Matteo Mossio and Alvaro Moreno, “Organisational Closure in Biological Organisms,” History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 32, nos. 2–3 (2010): 269–288.
  55. See: Francesca Michelini, “Hegel’s Notion of Natural Purpose,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 43, no. 1 (2012): 133–139.
  56. According to our naturalistic register, it is worth noting that the language, in turn, is a result of a natural process of evolution, a culturally inherited network of signs emerges historically from the practical necessity to coordinate behavior in the context of social life.
  57. Terry Pinkard, “Transcendental Philosophy, Naturalism, and Hegel’s Alternative,” in Riccardo Dottori, ed., Autonomy of Reason? Autonomie der vernunft? (Lit Verlag, Berlin: Transaction Publishers, 2009), pp. 77–93.
  58. John Stewart, “Foundational Issues in Enaction as a Paradigm for Cognitive Science: From the Origin of Life to Consciousness and Writing,” in John Stewart, Olivier Gapenne and Ezequiel Di Paolo, eds., Enaction: Toward a New Paradigm for Cognitive Science (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010), pp. 1–31.
  59. Adrian Johnston, “From Scientific Socialism to Socialist Science: Naturdialektik Then and Now,” in Slavoj Žižek, ed., The Idea of Communism Vol.2 (London: Verso Book, 2013), pp. 113–136.
    Bibliography

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    Jon Barwise and Lawrence Moss, Vicious Circles: On the Mathematics of Non-well- founded Phenomena (Stanford: CSLI Publications, 1996).

    Anthony Chemero and Michael Turvey, “Autonomy and Hypersets,” Biosystems, 91, no. 2 (2008).

    Terrence Deacon, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012).

    Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Science of Logic [1923], trans. A. V. Miller (London: Allen & Unwin, 1969).

    Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977).

    Peter van Inwagen, Material Beings (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990).

    Adrian Johnston. “From Scientific Socialism to Socialist Science: Naturdialektik Then and Now,” in Slavoj Žižek, ed., The Idea of Communism Vol.2 (London: Verso Book, 2013).

    Alicia Juarrero, Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999).

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    Stuart Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and religion (New York: Basic Books, 2008).

    Stephen Kercel, “The Endogenous Brain,” Journal of Theoretical Biology, 3, no. 1 (2004).

    Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, The Dialectical Biologist (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985).

    Victor Marques and Carlos Brito, “The Rise and Fall of the Machine Metaphor: Organizational Similarities and Differences between Machines and Living Beings,” Verifiche, XLIII, nos. 1–3 (2014).

    Peter McLaughlin, What Functions Explain: Functional Explanation and Self-reproducing Systems (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

    Francesca Michelini, “Hegel’s Notion of Natural Purpose,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 43, no. 1 (2012).

    Adrian Moore, The Infinite (New York: Routledge, 1991).

    Matteo Mossio and Alvaro Moreno, “Organisational Closure in Biological Organisms,” History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 32, nos. 2–3 (2010).

    Terry Pinkard, “Transcendental Philosophy, Naturalism, and Hegel’s Alternative,” in Riccardo Dottori, ed., Autonomy of Reason? Autonomie der vernunft? (Lit Verlag, Berlin: Transaction Publishers, 2009).

    Robert Rosen, Essays on Life Itself (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).

    John Stewart, “Foundational Issues in Enaction as a Paradigm for Cognitive Science: From the Origin of Life to Consciousness and Writing,” in John Stewart, Olivier Gapenne and Ezequiel Di Paolo, eds., Enaction: Toward a New Paradigm for Cognitive Science (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010).

    Evan Thompson, Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).

    Franciso Varela, Principles of Biological Autonomy (New York: Elsevier North Holland, 1979).

    Francisco Varela, “The Creative Circle: Sketches on the Natural History of Circularity,” in Paul Watzlawick, ed., The Invented Reality: How Do We Know What We Believe We Know? (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1984).

    Francisco Varela, “Organism: A Meshwork of Selfless Selves,” in Alfred Tauber, ed., Organism and the Origins of Self (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 1991).

    Francisco Varela, “Patterns of Life: Intertwining Identity and Cognition,” Brain and Cognition, 34, no. 1 (1997).

    Francisco Varela, “The Early Days of Autopoiesis,” in Bruce Clarke and Mark Hansen, eds., Emergence and Embodiment: New Essays on Second-order Systems (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).

    Andreas Weber and Francisco Varela, “Life after Kant: Natural Purposes and the Autopoietic Foundations of Biological Individuality,” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 1, no. 2 (2002).

    Slavoj Žižek, Organs without Bodies—On Deleuze and Consequences (New York: Routledge, 2004).

    Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006).

    Slavoj Žižek, Less than Nothing: Hegel and the shadow of dialectical materialism (New York: Verso, 2012).

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