Date: 20th October 2021
Speaker of the day: Andreas Weber
Article: Varela, Weber, “Life after Kant – Natural purposes and the autopoietic foundations of biological individuality” (2002)
Keywords: self-organisation, autopoietic closure, biological subjectivity, surplus of signification, Hans Jonas
Andreas Weber first heard Varela giving an interview on the French radio. Fascinated by what was being said, he wrote Francisco an email and got invited to continue his studies at the infamous institute in Paris. Andreas’s dissertation focused on the revitalisation of meaning in biology, inspired by figures such as Jonas, Uexküll and Portmann.
The paper at hand was born out of a fascination with the similarities between Kant’s treatment of teleology in his third Critique and the concept of autopoiesis. Kant already noticed that teleology was intrinsically connected to the understanding of living beings as integrated wholes, capable of self-organisation. This is evidently not far from the concept of autopoetic closure, which makes it possible to consider an organism as creating its own embodied identity and with it a distinct and original perspective. The crucial point of the paper, however, is the radical reinterpretation of what the creation of a new perspective entails – namely, a creation of a biological subjectivity. This means that autopoetic identity is not merely a formal requirement for the living, but rather introduces values in its Umwelt. This view was already well developed in the works of Uexküll, Jonas and the biosemioticians, however an exact explication was achieved only in the paper in question.
This leads Andreas to insist that we should follow Kant’s division of intellect into two kinds: (a) discursive (ectypus) and (b) intuitive (archetypus). While not being completed, Kant’s famous Opus Posthumum hints at a theory of embodied subjectivity. The application of the latter is more thoroughly worked out in the works of Hans Jonas, who we might even name an “embodied Kant”. He maintained that we can only know life because we are alive, and considered this a consequence of life creating its own meaning by valuing what is good for it and divesting from things that might disturb its precarious existence. Varela completes this analysis with the concept of surplus of signification which aims to make explicit the permanent lack and thus the ceaseless creation of meaning. Precisely because the existence of a living being is maintained by it and no one else, the constant struggle to exist endows factors that influence it with positive or negative value.
1) Miha Flere & Primož Vidovič: Where do Whitehead and Plessner fit into the larger narrative of people such as Uexküll and Goldstein?
Andreas Weber: With Francisco, we did not discuss Whitehead; however, he can be readily integrated into the overall picture presented in the paper. We should also not forget about Deleuze, as he is a thinker deeply concerned with life. We should never forget that there is an irreducible subjective dimension to everything that exists.
Holistic biology has always existed, yet not in a very prominent way. After the war, everything that had a romantic feel to it started to be considered too close to fascism. Particularly in Germany holistic biology lost its standing, and this problem remains. One can be a historian of holistic biology, but it is very hard to be a holistic thinker.
Sebastjan Vörös: Novel approaches to understanding of the problematic were crucial in developing links to older traditions – links that were before only dormant.
Thomas Fuchs: The paper had a crucial part in integrating systems theory, phenomenology and German philosophy. There is still a possibility of losing the established connection.
2) Mareike Smolka: Why are we going through this revival now? Why is it resurfacing now, while staying dormant for so long?
Sebastjan: Fleck says that when specific thought styles start to crumble, there comes a period of turmoil.
Andreas: I am only a source, you are the historians. I am interested in this because I see the life vanishing. In the mainstream, life does not exist.
John Protevi: In the French tradition, vitalism continuously seems to come up.
Sebastjan: There are structural similarities between the authors.
3) Timotej Prosen: If you posit the preservation of one’s life as a kind of meta-value, what are you to make of altruistic and sacrificial behaviour or less biologically immediate desires? Does one have to concede that human agency is underdetermined?
Andreas: It is important to see the link between bodily processes and existential problems. In living beings there is this need to self-create. This is why this is different from Naturphilosophie – it is not enough for the life to be based on homeostatic values.
If we ascend on the levels of selves, the structures become more complicated. It is not only about creating oneself but also about biological subjectivity’s relation to others. There is always a contradiction, a complication in the process of life. It is not about survival, but about self-actualisation.
Sebastjan: This is very similar to Goldstein who says that merely trying to survive is an organism’s reduced form. When Goldstein was forced to emigrate to USA, there was very little interest for what he was doing. However, Maslow was very influenced by Goldstein – his concept of self-actualisation comes right from there.
4) Several questions combined: Why cannot teleology be explained with efficient causation?
Andreas: One notable example would be genetic causation. Recent developments in evo-devo show that genetic reductionism cannot account for the diversity of heritable characteristics by reducing them to pure, efficient, downward causation.
There is also Hans Jonas, who shows how all of human experience is permeated with teleology; life is not about downward causation – life is about goal-distractedness.
5) Arnaud Poublain: Francisco was also interested in artificial life. Could we construct a teleological artificial system?
Andreas: We also wrote an article about dualism and nondualism in the explication of life. Maybe Francisco would disagree with me here, but as long as artificial life is not capable of assembling itself from the environment and maintaining itself by exchanging matter and energy with it, it has not reached the teleological state. Although AI and AL have made a lot of progress, I am not very optimistic. Life is building up its material incarnation autonomously.
6) Sebastjan: Many people might think that Varela did not quite accept the notion of teleology. This, however, is not true.
Andreas: We had this quarrel where Francisco did not agree with me bringing Kant’s teleology close to the notion of creation of an identity. Much of his thinking originated from the cybernetic tradition, and this tradition did not have deep links to traditions dealing with teleology. And yet he proposed that we write a paper on it; when he found something which would inspire him, he would remain open minded, despite coming from the forementioned tradition.
Evan Thompson: There is a lot to say about this. Francisco tried to develop many ideas that others might want to continue working on; his thinking was always evolving.
With regard to the issue with teleology, cybernetics is in much of its argumentation resolutely opposed to a certain kind of teleological causation, while at the same time it tries to recuperate teleology in the form of control functions. Francisco also criticised teleonomy. How does autopoiesis fit into that? Autopoiesis is not graded, thus it does not connect quite well to the idea of precarious existence espoused in the discussed paper. In many ways, the philosophical problem remains. Naturalize Kant, but also reconceptualize our understanding of nature by understanding it through this novel notion.
*featured image: Eva took this photo of a Mediterranean species of oak tree in a high maquis near Dolnja Bitunja in Herzegovina.