Expressive Organicism

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Otto Paans:

"I’ll now briefly sketch a seven-point picture of expressive organicism.

First, the “organism’s point of view” is a tremendously important viewpoint, but at the same time, in formulating an acceptable system of metaphysics, I think it cannot be focused on humans and organisms only. An anthropocentric orientation may lead to a classical and all too narrow anthropocentric conception in which the “rational human animal,” or, on a broader scale, “living being,” is taken as the measure of all things, and so we end up running headlong into the Objection from Egoism or committing all the mistakes of the “Man is the measure of all things” thought-shaper again. Yes, we are embedded and embodied in a universe that is materially continuous with our mental experiences, so the challenge is to think from different perspectives found in the universe, without falling back into the following dichotomy: either (i) a “God’s eye” viewpoint, i.e. the classical Cartesian scientistic position whereby we become “lords and masters of nature,” or (ii) the universe conceived as a mere aggregate or sum total of individual viewpoints that never touch one another, i.e., a kind of dispersed idealism, a variation on Leibnizian windowless monads, or very radical perspectivism that leads straight back to Berkeleyan subjective-idealism-without-God.

Second, and contrastively, expressive organicism should be framed in terms of (i) the genesis of organisms/entities and ultimately life itself: broadly following Hegel, Gilbert Simondon, and Gilles Deleuze, it emphasizes temporal/material continuity and the genetic account and/or developmental history (Entstehungsgeschichte) in order to interpret the nature of any entities and their relations, (ii) The enabling and inhibiting conditions that make further development/evolution possible, ultimately providing a systemic map of adjacent (possible) design spaces for creativity, and (iii) the resulting combinations of genealogical/developmental/inherited traits of organisms/entities with their capacity for (free) agency.

Third, it seems to me that each entity in the cosmos treads a very thin line between being able to affect and to be affected (and in some cases this means “to be determined by”). This thought broadly lines up with Nishida’s idea of the universe as a form of self-expression, but equally well with Spinoza’s thought, and his rich and refined monism that combines the mental and the material. Here, a crucial link with verson (2) of organicism and the idea of an “Absolute” comes in. The idea that the Hegelian Absolute (or absolute in any sense) is a closed system derives from a certain way reading Hegel. The fact that Hegel is so unclear about it does not help either. Notably Karl Popper, Gilles Deleuze, and Bertrand Russell each—and and for different reasons—have contributed to the image of Hegel as the thinker who postulates an essentially closed “mega-mind” as the ground of the universe, which leads to a standard objection to cosmic organicism.

In oppositon to that, the Hegelian notion of the “Absolute” should be interpreted not just as totalität (totality) but as zusammenhang (relationality). It is a kind of open system that continuously develops within a set of laws within which new creative spaces can be opened. It is perhaps comparable—albeit superficially— with frost patterns forming on a windowpane: the process itself is subject to laws, but within those constraints the development of quite a lot of differences is possible. And even the laws may be able to change, given the right circumstances; or alternatively, they might give rise to surface phenomena that are so different that they seem to belong to different laws altogether. Hegel himself is at once at his most obscure and most clear about this point in the closing chapter of the Phenomenology: the Notion requires the content to be the Self’s own act (Hegel, 1977: p. 485). Or, if we put it in Nishida’s term, such acts are expressions of the world and of the self simultaneously. And is the entire final chapter not a processual description of the self externalizing itself, returning to itself, positing the world as an object, and ultimate Other, and finally overcoming this predicament by entering into a new developmental stage? Is this not the ultimate expressive act?

In fact, many natural processes tend towards the production of what Deleuze called “difference”: the innate propensity to create variation. With certain changes (i.e., the evolution of deliberative reasoning), entire new spaces of creativity open up. On this reading, Hegel’s “Absolute” and Deleuze’s “difference” sit comfortably together, although it takes a shift in interpretation to fit them together on one couch. Or, as Hegel—surprisingly concisely—puts it: “[the I] has a content which differentiates from itself; for it is pure negativity or the dividing of itself, it is consciousness” (Hegel, 1977: p. 486). In other words, it is in the nature of consciousness to differentiate. But why? Because it is a precondition for consciousness to divide itself, and to establish a world-I relation. No matter how rudimentary this relationship is, it is the beginning of consciousness because it cannot be that a form of consciousness arises that does not possess it. But this relationship is always caused by an originary phenomenon: that of ceaseless, creative positing or expression. This expression does not only take the form of a subjective division within consciousness, but it drives consciousness onwards to develop and to strive.

This creative drive is the universal expression of the universe, the manifold and variegated realization of its immanent possibilities and potentials. But Hegel drove this point only home with regard to human consciousness, even while he ascribes grandiose properties to it. It would have been more prudent if he had taken his argument one step further and would have argued that matter itself possesses the creative drive all the way down. His “substance becoming subject” would have acquired an additional layer of depth not constrained to conceptual selfunderstanding, but to full (Nishidean) expression in a universe of meaning, a meaning that exists only through its ceaseless expression. Or, put differently, through a kind of Schopenhauerian form of objectivation and affirmation that is immanent in nature itself.

Planning ahead and conceiving future possibilities were enabled by certain evolutionary developments that may or may not have evolved for entirely different reasons, but that nevertheless opened up a new space. In turn, what happens in this new space may overcome, work around or otherwise cancel even the direct effects of the laws that were operational in the first evolutionary space.16 Darwin was therefore right to emphasize spontaneous variation as a core factor that underlies evolution, but he grasped only half of his own idea: the tendency towards variation is a universal process. Even the type of evolution of life (in our case: carbon-based life forms) is one path among many. While Darwin confined the creation of differences to the natural realm and called this principle “evolution,” the same differentiating principle might run far deeper than that, all the way into the properties of matter itself (see also Sheldrake, 2009; and McGilchrist, 2022).

Fourth, now siding with empiricist-pragmatist organicism, the worry that the entire enterprise of the universe has no (logical) consistency can be dispelled to the degree that there may be no overarching meaning to it all, except the one we give it.

The set or sets of laws that makes or make up the universe might develop themselves—this was actually Newton’s idea—but might also be fully intelligible to us someday. Whether the universe realizes some sort of moral dignity, we do not know. If we were to assume that uncritically, we would be sliding back into the idea that the universe has an ultimate goal—i.e. the “bad Hegelian” reading of cosmic organicism. In the absence of any such guarantee, we best remain agnostic, and cannot use this as a philosophical foundation.

The worry that the whole development of the universe has (or realizes) no goals stems probably from the fear that all this leads towards an unconstrained moral relativism. Thus, it leads us back to the Objection from Egoism. Or, again, phrased differently, if the universe has no goal, why should we care at all? Why should we strive to live a good life? Nevertheless, we can freely choose to be self-legislating agents in the best Kantian sense. Nowhere has a civilization been found that operated entirely on egoistic principles. We should care because we live together, and the prospect of a “nasty, brutish, and short” life is certainly instrumentally worse than the formation of regularly ordered societies. The fact that we can choose to self-legislate opens a pathway for us to make life universally better. The fact that we don’t do it shows that not all of us care about it, or at least not to the same degree.

Fifth, to complicate things further, I agree with Andreas Keller that we may be somehow condemned to some form of moral relativism, even if there are remarkable similarities between different moral systems everywhere around the globe.

However, I can provide three responses to that worry.

  • First, even if the universe does not steer itself towards some highest good, we

can voluntarily set our own goals. As such, it is no problem to think of dignity as a representational instead of metaphysical quality. In practice it makes little difference whether we think that dignity is metaphysical quality and act on it, or whether we represent a quality called “dignity” to ourselves and apply that belief in our dealings with others. In that sense, the notion of dignity is a regulative ideal in the Kantian sense.

  • Second, there are cases in which something emerges from our creativity that is

so universal that it resonates beyond mere taste or preference (i.e. on a universal level in the Kantian sense of the term) changing the way we see the world. These experiences may be shared or individual, but they transcend our everyday experience massively. All human persons have this capacity for the “transcendent,” but it takes various forms, depending on culture and personal disposition. However, the capacity to experience it is universal, and may be triggered by singular events, artworks, but broadly insights that are not confined to a single culture.

  • And third, what seems also universal is our capacities for altruism and empathy.

This also, we find across all cultures. It comes with an attached burden, however: just as universal is our capacity for destruction, cruelty, and egoism. “Human, all too human” is the universal condition in which we find ourselves. To deal with this predicament, we use free agency to choose self-legislation over egoism. It should be said, however, that the reverse is equally true: we have just as many times chosen cruelty over caring, destruction over caring and unbridled egoistic hedonism over self-restraint.

Sixth, as to the worry that the broadly self-annihilating or Buddhist version of cosmic organicism is too quietist, this is certainly a danger. Suppose that in the course of the “cosmic dance” of the cosmos, you happen to run into my dagger: this would be all too convenient for me, and it would relieve me of all responsibility as an agent, especially when I also happened to view you as an enemy. In its superficial version, this type of thought amounts to the denial of personal responsibility, and of caring for others in general. However, closely reading the Kyoto school philosophers, like Kitarō Nishida, Ueda Shizuteru, Hajime Tanabe and Keiji Nishitani, Buddhism in the serious sense bears little resemblance to the utterly watered-down version that we are unfortunately presented with in the West, especially “Buddhism” in the diluted, existentially comfortable sense that is presented as a burn-out antidote to middle-class managers who habitually spend their time causing burn-outs in their employees.

Overcoming the self seems to be hard work, after all, but it’s an insight that can be found in many religions. It’s on a par with overcoming egoism, fighting one’s worst impulses, and finally fully, courageously and unflinchingly seeing, accepting and acting from the finitude of our existence—these are all strategies for living that sit well with Kantianism, organicism and existentialism alike. It’s phrased in a different (i.e., Buddhist) terminology, but it’s not fundamentally different from, let’s say, active Christianity or secular humanism. The idea is simply that overcoming the self is finding the true self, or, as Nietzsche put it in Ecce Homo: to become what one is. The Buddhist would probably say “to become what one truly is,” because the self is essentially something that must be painstakingly laid bare, the result that subsists once everything superficial has been stripped away by rigorous moral practice and moral life, but that is equally created through relentless discipline. And once one meditates deeply on it, it is this very self that must disappear in the Great Death—thereby fulfilling the organicist cycle with which we started—everything grows, flows, reposes, and repurposes .

Seventh and finally, with the notions of moral practice and moral life, we van establish the connection between organicism and morality. To practice in a moral way, and to live morally is to be active, to develop, and to grow, and then to repose in order to grow again. From a Lebensphilosophie (“philosophy of living”,) we naturally move on to a Strebensphilosophie (“philosophy of striving”). And that “praxis of life” (to use Michel Henry’s words once again) seems to me the animating core of any type of organicism, whether anthropocentric, cosmic, or empiricist-pragmatic, but especially the core of expressive organicism. We cannot engage in life’s practices or live without developing. Therefore, we must strive in order to realize our goal. And that is the unavoidable existential predicament that makes us perilously balance above the chasm of meaninglessness, perched on a rope bridge of morality."