Conference

The

and the

The upcoming conference The Organic and the Normative seeks to investigate the phenomenon of vital normativity, which refers to the capacity of living beings to (co)determine and (co)constitute their own conditions of existence, preservation, and development. The conference aims to approach the phenomenon of vital normativity from at least four different perspectives. 

Scheduled for July 30th to August 1st, 2024, at the University of Ljubljana in Ljubljana, Slovenia, the conference will provide a platform for interdisciplinary dialogue in the form of lectures by invited speakers from diverse fields as well as ample opportunities for in-depth discussions.

The conference is open to the public. Recordings of all sessions will also be made available online on various platforms (subject to participants’ approval), while a dedicated website will feature presentations of articles from the speaker line-up. More details on the venue and conference schedule will be available soon.

Details

First, we would like to explore the philosophical and scientific problems associated with the reductionist/mechanist accounts of life and vital normativity, as well as the challenges raised by the infamous “is/ought divide,” which separates normativity from the fundamental structure of reality.

Second, by drawing on the insights from various disciplines and traditions (systems biology, autonomous systems, enactivism, phenomenology, etc.), and the work of important physicists (e.g., Kauffman and Prigogine), biologists (e.g., Maturana, Varela and Rosen), and philosophers (e.g., Bergson, Canguilhem and Merleau-Ponty), the conference aims to better elucidate the nature of vital normativity; articulate its various characteristics; and spell out its philosophical, scientific, and socio-cultural implications. 

Third, we seek to investigate how vital normativity fits with other phenomena that have recently been the subject of intense research and discussion in philosophy and theoretical biology – affectivity, agency, embodiment, emergence, individuality, teleology, etc. -, and indicate how it may contribute to a better understanding of living beings and their fundamental characteristics

Finally, we would like to investigate how the vital relates to other, e.g., rational or social, forms of normativity, and explore the potential benefits and dangers in establishing such interconnections in various types of discourses (scientific, philosophical, cultural, political). 

The overall goal of the conference is thus to not only shed more light on the main subject of inquiry – normativity of the living – but also, and more generally, improve our understanding of the nature of life and its embeddedness in the physical and socio-cultural worlds.

Jul 30–Aug 1

2024

Ljubljana, Slovenia

Prešernova dvorana, ZRC SAZU, Novi Trg 3 (Google Maps)


Click on the plus (+) icon to reveal the day’s scheduled talks with abstracts.

July 30

See schedule

14:00

Sebastjan Vörös

Introduction


14:15–15:00

Alejandro Fabregas-Tajeda

The Pulses of Vital Normativity: A Metaphilosophical Bird’s-Eye View

Abstract

What is the nature of vital normativity? How may normative judgments about what living beings do or don’t do be backed or defended? What is the meaning, if any, of normative concepts, such as ‘value’ or ‘norms,’ when dealing with non-human organisms? When similar ontological, epistemological, or semantic questions are raised about (human) moral normativity, a helpful philosophical lens that is usually adopted to try to sketch some answers, without much surprise, is metaethics. In contrast, when it comes to vital normativity, neither the philosophy of biology nor the philosophy of the cognitive sciences, to give two examples of fields currently engaged with these quandaries, espouses explicit metaphilosophical perspectives to hone in on its horizon. Here, I take initial steps to map a wide-ranging conceptual space for vital normativity from a metaphilosophical vantage point.
First, by drawing parallels with metaethical debates—but without positing equivalence or isomorphisms between moral and vital normativity, only a convergent metatheoretical structuring of positions about them—I outline the divide between vital normativity realism and non-realism. This includes spelling out a distinction between cognitivist and non-cognitivist positions about the truth-aptness of normative statements concerning living processes, introducing the possibility of an ‘error theory’ for vital normativity, and differentiating between ‘conceptualist’ and what I call ‘agentualist’ commitments about the instantiation of normative properties and states of affairs.
Second, I delve deeper into vital normativity realism by contrasting naturalist and non-naturalist positions (e.g., primitivism, intuitionism). To address the former, I analyze the metaphilosophical commitments and assumptions of recent approaches and standpoints on organismal agency and teleology that have been articulated in the philosophy of biology to naturalize the normativity of developing organisms. I argue that when the naturalization of vital normativity is countenanced, the naturalist still has to offer a rejoinder to a modified version of G. E. Moore’s ‘open question argument’ regarding the equivalence of (organismal) normative and non-normative concepts when the latter are used to account for the emergence of the former. Furthermore, I outline some of the challenges that we naturalists need to undertake moving forward.
Finally, I provide closing reflections on this metaphilosophical exercise. For all of us who care about vital normativity (or its lack thereof), being aware of where we fall on the metaphilosophical spectrum is important to engage in productive discussions and not talk past one another.


15:00–15:15

Discussion


15:15–16:00

Predrag Šustar

A Kantian Normative Landscape for the Life Sciences

Abstract

There are two main issues related to Kant’s general account of empirical laws of nature: the necessity and the knowability issues. In the present paper, I primarily focus on the knowability of laws, as they play their roles in the life sciences broadly construed. More specifically, I explore the interpretative thread according to which the knowability is secured through an appropriate classification within a hierarchical ordering of concepts and/or judgments. Furthermore, the relationship between the knowability and classification of the above kind is ultimately based on Kant’s characterization of our understanding as being distinctively “discursive”, i.e., relying on subsuming-procedures. In that regard, I examine empirical laws referring to biological phenomena, which are interestingly intertwined with the teleology-mechanism specific relationship. Critique of the Power of Judgment and related Kant’s writings thus address the class of teleological judgments and/or functional statements that should also have the status of a law of nature. I argue that the knowability of specifically biological laws equally relies on subsuming-procedures, which in the life sciences, that is, primarily, biology plus its application to medical practices, consist in an explanatory integration between normative teleological/functional judgments and those causal-mechanical. Finally, I try to clarify how a Kantian take on these issues fits within the current function debate: namely, in what way it acknowledges the explanatory and normative dimensions of function statements as they contribute to the practice of the life sciences.


16:00–16:15

Discussion


16:15–16:30

Break


16:30–17:15

Vera Straetmanns

Formal Teleology in Agnes Arber‘s Philosophy of Plants

Abstract

Plants, despite comprising over 80% of Earth’s biomass and being essential for all animal
and human life, remain underrepresented in natural philosophy and the philosophy of biology.
However, they exhibit unique characteristics such as lifelong growth, a dibiontic life cycle,
and high phenotypic plasticity, that set them apart from animals and call for philosophical
examination. Another intriguing aspect of plants is the high autonomy of their parts, as, for
example, seen in grafted branches that retain their characteristics or in cut-off parts that can
develop into whole new plants. Simultaneously, plants exhibit coordinated movements and
behaviors, acting as unified organisms. This duality of independence and coordination raises
compelling questions about agency and teleology in plants.

In my talk, I will present insights into these questions from British plant morphologist Agnes
Arber (1879-1960), a significant figure in early and mid-20th-century botanical thought. Arber,
an organicist thinker occasionally characterized as a vitalist, proposed a neo-Aristotelian
approach to teleology informed by morphological thinking. Her account of teleology, which I
call “formal teleology”, is evident in her partial-shoot theory of the leaf, where she describes the leaf as a partial shoot, revealing an inherent “urge” towards becoming a whole shoot, thus attributing directiveness and agency to plant parts. She advocated for incorporating teleological thinking in biology and opposed a solely mechanistic approach to the natural world. I will connect Arber’s ideas to the concept of vital normativity and discuss how they can enhance our understanding of the unique characteristics of plant life.


17:15–17:30

Discussion


17:30–18:15

Andreas Weber

Bodies Are Love Processes

Abstract

To be a body – like we all are – means to have a direct, unmediated experience of reality. We know reality through felt understanding. We understand that being a body means to be of this material world, and it means to know that this material world is an existential-emotional experience, a yearning for existence, a desire for being. As desiring matter we grasp that reality is desiring matter. Reality desires life to be. It is giving life. It gives life through its material unfolding. Reality therefore can be understood as realizing love. Love is reality’s active desire that life be. Like our own, each organism’s body is the experience of these workings of love, and at the same time directly points out the way how they work. A body’s activity is to give life to itself from the stream of world matter through itself. By transforming world matter into itself and passing on its own substance – by being edible – it gives life to other beings, too. Each organism’s subjective experience is the perspective which the material continuum of reality has on itself in terms of its desire to give life.


18:15–18:30

Discussion


19:00

Dinner


July 31

9:00–9:45

Timotej Prosen

Creative Normativity: Some Insights and Lingering Questions in Canguilhem, Simondon and Enactivism

Abstract

In my talk I will explore the notion of creative norms as proposed by Georges Canguilhem. I will also sketch out some related concepts as developed by Gilbert Simondon which can help us get a better grasp of this idea. Lastly, I intend to flesh out the implications of this notion for certain present day discussions in the enactivist literature.

Canguilhem introduces the notion of creative norms to designate a specific way in which organisms evaluate and normatively relate to their living conditions. As such, creative norms are closely related to his more widely discussed ideas on vital normativity. The latter notion is more general however, and includes both creative, and (what he terms) conservative norms. Conservative norms are those, which guide organisms in counteracting deviations from more or less fixed preferred states. Creative ones on the other hand are those which include a margin of indeterminacy, i.e. the capacity of organisms to plastically redefine preferred states or goals posited by such norms. As I will argue, the latter kind of norms are ubiquitous in the realm of the living, but they are also harder to conceptualize rigorously than their conservative counterparts. 

I will show that Simondon’s notions of metastability and individuation may be of help in this regard. I will also point out another, slightly different but equally productive route of developing the idea of creative norms a step further, namely one that is made available by the enactivist framework. With regard to present day enactivist discussions, I will make a twofold point. On the one hand I will argue that Canguilhem’s and Simondon’s insights can be fleshed out in greater detail on the basis of certain enactivist notions, at least to some extent. On the other hand, I intend to show that the intuitions behind the idea of creative norms can also enrich the enactivist position by guiding it in going beyond the notions of autonomy and adaptivity in its attempts of conceptualizing normative phenomena. In the last part of my talk, I will sketch out the notion of metaadaptivity in an attempt to give an enactivist account of creative norms.


9:45–10:00

Discussion


10:00–10:45

Sebastjan Vörös & Jan Halák

Life as the Advent of the Problematic: Vital Normativity in Canguilhem, Merleau-Ponty, and Varela

Abstract

Organicism, which centers its focus on the organism rather than on evolutionary principles or genetic and molecular mechanisms, provides a way to naturalize normativity rooted in the autonomous organization of living beings. Historically, Kant distinguished between organic and rational norms, a philosophical tension that persists today. Modern efforts to naturalize norms in cognitive systems have largely followed either a rationalistic path (à la Fodor) or an evolutionary path (à la Millikan), often reducing normativity to adaptive fitness. In contrast, the notion of mental or sensorimotor life, as explored through organicist principles, has more recently emphasized the autonomy and intrinsic normativity of sensorimotor systems as the grounding for cognitive normativity. A new form of live, sensorimotor life implies a new sense of vitality and the organic.

In this talk, I clarify the origins and implications of an organismic notion of cognitive normativity, drawing upon the notion of habit and Jean Piaget’s sensorimotor schemes as elaborated in “Sensorimotor Life” (Di Paolo, Buhrmann, & Barandiaran, 2017). Firstly, I explore the concept of habit as foundational in cognitive normativity. Habits embody a basic sense of normativity as self-maintenance arising from the organism’s ongoing interactions with its environment. A key tension arises between habitual and intentional behavior. While habitual behavior is generally conceived as emerging from repetition, intentional behavior involves goal-directedness. Traditionally, these have been conceptualized as emerging from different neuro-behavioral systems and responding to different normative sources. I explore how these two conceptions of behavior (habitual and goal-directed) can be reconciled and unified under an organicist conception of sensorimotor or cognitive normativity.


10:45–11:00

Discussion


11:30–13:30

Lunch Break


14:00–14:45

Charles Wolfe

Organisms as Material Agents, Organisms as Meaning-Makers

Abstract

Organisms, like zombies, nearly extinct Jedi knights or perhaps more gently, like a character in a play who keeps exiting and then somehow returning to the stage, keep having a ‘return’ or a ‘revival’ in bio-theoretical and bio-philosophical thought. Most of the time, they return as key elements of proud empirical claims to “overturn mechanism”; truth claims, in fact: organisms are x, are defined by properties y and z, and so on. I have tried to achieve some (friendly) critical distance on such literal truth claims about organisms in past work (Wolfe 2010, 2014, 2023b), but it is never a clearly resolved issue, for at least two reasons. First, because the strongly opposite view – a kind of pragmatic, constructivist approach along the lines of ‘handsome is as handsome does’, in this case approaching organisms as heuristic constructs – seems to leave something out; some of their “vital materiality,” perhaps, which is characteristic of biological systems. Second, because the empirical definitions keep changing (Claude Bernard’s organicism is different from Francisco Varela’s, and both are different again from the metaphysics of organism in Hegel or Hans Jonas; this is a point of disagreement between me and staunch defenders of organicism who treat it as monolithic). But there is another way in which organisms can and do return: as what one might call meaning-makers (following a line of inquiry often associated with Jakob von Uexküll’s Umwelt-research). It is a very different approach to organism, to their existence and to ‘what makes them tick’ to say they are defined by metabolism, or organizational closure, and to say that they are defined by the production of meaning (and the responsiveness to meaning). This approach has a definite biosemiotic flavor to it, but instead of reiterating those analyses, I will explore it on the basis of insights from Uexküll, Kurt Goldstein, Georges Canguilhem and Jean Starobinski. Organisms in this context bear some resemblance to the ‘organism as figure of subjectivity’ narrative familiar from the German Idealist and Romantic tradition (which Canguilhem in 1947 wanted to ‘bring back’ into biophilosophical work: Canguilhem 1947a, Wolfe 2024); yet they have a processual, performative quality which makes them rather less foundational or internalist; less like the corps propre of embodied and/or enactivist phenomenology which is defined by its subjectivity (Wolfe 2023a). Hopefully, the return of organisms as meaning-makers is neither tragedy nor farce.


14:45–15:00

Discussion


15:00–15:45

Johannes Jäger

Organizational Continuity as the Basic Norm for Living Systems

Abstract

The self-manufacturing (autopoietic) organization of living organisms implies a straightforward foundation for a kind of normative realism. Organisms must constantly invest physical work to ensure their continued existence. More specifically, they must maintain organizational closure throughout their life and reproductive cycles. This requires the constant construction and reconstitution of context-dependent constraints towards this aim, both inside the organism and in the relevant part of its experienced environment. This translates into the most basic norm of all life: survivability. It is not only a prerequisite for the persistence of living systems, but also for their evolution. Optional further norms that facilitate flourishing can then be constructed on top of this basic normative scaffold. I will present a naturalistic philosophical account of this kind of evolving and complexifying normativity, based on the work of Rosen, Hofmeyr, among other authors, and will discuss the use and limitations of formalized modeling approaches in its study.


15:45–16:00

Discussion


16:00–16:15

Break


16:15–17:00

Arantza Etxeberria Agiriano

The Normativity of Organic Reproduction

Abstract

Reproduction, often understood as an individual capacity for self-propagation, has been insufficiently examined within the framework of organicism. Traditional organismal normativity, which focuses on autonomous individuality, presents challenges when applied to reproductive processes. In standard evolutionary biology, reproduction’s normative aspects are typically tied to fitness maximization, an external perspective that remains fundamentally individualistic. However, reproduction, particularly sexual reproduction, is inherently relational, necessitating the union of gametes to form a zygote. Thus, we need a deeper exploration of the normative dimensions that drive and define reproductive processes in organic entities.

Traditional perspectives often frame reproduction as an imperative driven by genetic inheritance and individual survival, potentially overlooking its broader, systemic roles within organic life. Moreover, efforts to conceptualize reproductive normativity on a collective scale have faced significant obstacles, including (1) the complexity of defining and attributing reproductive normativity to collectives such as species; (2) the challenges associated with inclusive fitness theory; and (3) the intricate interplay of conflict and collaborative interdependencies in reproductive and life processes.

Drawing on previous research that examines reproductive phenomena like pregnancy, agency, and collaborative interdependencies from an organismal-relational approach (Nuño de la Rosa et al. 2021, Etxeberria et al. 2023; Nuño de la Rosa 2023, Etxeberria 2023), this paper explores the normative dimensions and systemic roles of reproduction. It emphasizes the interconnected and dynamic processes that shape reproductive functions in organic entities.


17:00–17:15

Discussion


17:15–18:15

General Discussion


19:00

Dinner

August 1

9:00–9:45

Ela Praznik & Moritz Kriegleder

Like a Rolling Stone? Normativity in Enactivism and Active Inference

Abstract

The self-manufacturing (autopoietic) organization of living organisms implies a straightforward foundation for a kind of normative realism. Organisms must constantly invest physical work to ensure their continued existence. More specifically, they must maintain organizational closure throughout their life and reproductive cycles. This requires the constant construction and reconstitution of context-dependent constraints towards this aim, both inside the organism and in the relevant part of its experienced environment. This translates into the most basic norm of all life: survivability. It is not only a prerequisite for the persistence of living systems, but also for their evolution. Optional further norms that facilitate flourishing can then be constructed on top of this basic normative scaffold. I will present a naturalistic philosophical account of this kind of evolving and complexifying normativity, based on the work of Rosen, Hofmeyr, among other authors, and will discuss the use and limitations of formalized modeling approaches in its study.


9:45–10:00

Discussion


10:00–10:45

Xavier Barandiaran

An Organismic Approach to Cognitive Normativity

Abstract

Organicism, which centers its focus on the organism rather than on evolutionary principles or genetic and molecular mechanisms, provides a way to naturalize normativity rooted in the autonomous organization of living beings. Historically, Kant distinguished between organic and rational norms, a philosophical tension that persists today. Modern efforts to naturalize norms in cognitive systems have largely followed either a rationalistic path (à la Fodor) or an evolutionary path (à la Millikan), often reducing normativity to adaptive fitness. In contrast, the notion of mental or sensorimotor life, as explored through organicist principles, has more recently emphasized the autonomy and intrinsic normativity of sensorimotor systems as the grounding for cognitive normativity. A new form of live, sensorimotor life implies a new sense of vitality and the organic.

In this talk, I clarify the origins and implications of an organismic notion of cognitive normativity, drawing upon the notion of habit and Jean Piaget’s sensorimotor schemes as elaborated in “Sensorimotor Life” (Di Paolo, Buhrmann, & Barandiaran, 2017). Firstly, I explore the concept of habit as foundational in cognitive normativity. Habits embody a basic sense of normativity as self-maintenance arising from the organism’s ongoing interactions with its environment. A key tension arises between habitual and intentional behavior. While habitual behavior is generally conceived as emerging from repetition, intentional behavior involves goal-directedness. Traditionally, these have been conceptualized as emerging from different neuro-behavioral systems and responding to different normative sources. I explore how these two conceptions of behavior (habitual and goal-directed) can be reconciled and unified under an organicist conception of sensorimotor or cognitive normativity.


10:45–11:00

Discussion


11:00–11:15

Break


11:15–12:00

Konrad Werner

A Long Way from Salience to Values and Norms

Abstract

In this presentation, I will argue that while 4E and other biologically inspired currents in philosophy rightly claim that “organisms cast a web of significance on their world” (Di Paolo et al. 2010, p. 39) and therefore each individual “is an ontological center that imbues interactions with the environment with significance they do not have in its absence” (Ibid., p. 47), this is not enough to say that normativity is part of life itself. This is closer to salience, not value or norm. Thus, it refers to a basic non-indifference (positiveness or negativeness) of things or events, taken as a means to preserve individual autonomy. But how do values and norms emerge on this basis? I will sketch an answer, taking norms especially as factors devoted to stabilizing certain complex behavioral strategies of group problem-solving.


12:00–12:15

Discussion


12:15–13:00

Christopher Donohue

TBA

Abstract

Organicism, which centers its focus on the organism rather than on evolutionary principles or genetic and molecular mechanisms, provides a way to naturalize normativity rooted in the autonomous organization of living beings. Historically, Kant distinguished between organic and rational norms, a philosophical tension that persists today. Modern efforts to naturalize norms in cognitive systems have largely followed either a rationalistic path (à la Fodor) or an evolutionary path (à la Millikan), often reducing normativity to adaptive fitness. In contrast, the notion of mental or sensorimotor life, as explored through organicist principles, has more recently emphasized the autonomy and intrinsic normativity of sensorimotor systems as the grounding for cognitive normativity. A new form of live, sensorimotor life implies a new sense of vitality and the organic.

In this talk, I clarify the origins and implications of an organismic notion of cognitive normativity, drawing upon the notion of habit and Jean Piaget’s sensorimotor schemes as elaborated in “Sensorimotor Life” (Di Paolo, Buhrmann, & Barandiaran, 2017). Firstly, I explore the concept of habit as foundational in cognitive normativity. Habits embody a basic sense of normativity as self-maintenance arising from the organism’s ongoing interactions with its environment. A key tension arises between habitual and intentional behavior. While habitual behavior is generally conceived as emerging from repetition, intentional behavior involves goal-directedness. Traditionally, these have been conceptualized as emerging from different neuro-behavioral systems and responding to different normative sources. I explore how these two conceptions of behavior (habitual and goal-directed) can be reconciled and unified under an organicist conception of sensorimotor or cognitive normativity.


13:00–13:15

Discussion


13:15–14:30

General Discussion