Tracing certain concepts back into the murky pool of influence can be both interesting but at the same time troubling. The more I study Deleuze the more perplexed I become. Was he a vitalist as some suggest? Or, was he against such notions in his conception of life? Trying to understand just where the truth is to be found has taken me into the work of two other French thinkers, one a philosopher of the sciences, Georges Canguilhem; and, the other, a philosopher of technology, Gilbert Simondon.
We learn from Wikipedia (here) that Canguilhem’s principal work in philosophy of science is presented in two books, Le Normal et le pathologique, first published in 1943 and then expanded in 1968, and La Connaissance de la vie (1952). Le Normal et la pathologique is an extended exploration into the nature and meaning of normality in medicine and biology, the production and institutionalization of medical knowledge. It is still a seminal work in medical anthropology and the history of ideas, and is widely influential in part thanks to Canguilhem’s influence on Michel Foucault [and, thereby, indirectly on the work of Gilles Deleuze]. La Connaissance de la vie is an extended study of the specificity of biology as a science, the historical and conceptual significance of vitalism, and the possibility of conceiving organisms not on the basis of mechanical and technical models that would reduce the organism to a machine, but rather on the basis of the organism’s relation to the milieu in which it lives, its successful survival in this milieu, and its status as something greater than “the sum of its parts.” Canguilhem argued strongly for these positions, criticising 18th and 19th century vitalism (and its politics) but also cautioning against the reduction of biology to a “physical science.” He believed such a reduction deprived biology of a proper field of study, ideologically transforming living beings into mechanical structures serving a chemical/physical equilibrium that cannot account for the particularity of organisms or for the complexity of life. He furthered and altered these critiques in a later book, Ideology and Rationality in the History of the Life Sciences.
Giuseppe Bianco in the The Origins of Georges Canguilhem’s ‘Vitalism’: Against the Anthropology of Irritation (here) tells us that Canguilhem’s vitalism “rests on a double deontological dogma: a ‘vitalism of norms’ and, as a consequence of this, a ‘normative vitalism’”. Canguilhem himself in The Normal and the Pathological stated that vitalism in itself may not be true, but that it holds a role that is “essential as an ‘indicator’ in the history of biology”. First, as a theoretical indicator of problems to be solved; and, second, as a critical indicator of reductions to be avoided.(18) As Bianco says in his abstract:
According to Canguilhem, life consists in the plastic power, proper to all organisms, of creating qualitatively new norms; if life is essentially a potentiality, then this means that the living being is not simply a machine, an assembly of pieces reacting to the environment, but is what modifies and creates it. If the organism is not a mechanism, then it also means that pathology cannot be described as a deficit or a disorder of a supposed normal state, but it is just a qualitatively different norm proper to the living being confronted with an obstacle.
This simple stance also entails an anthropology: both Canguilhem’s theory of knowledge and social theory are vitalist insofar as they are deeply rooted in this minimal definition of life. Both technology and society are conceived as external organs (prostheses) created by the human animal and science and morals, value judgments and judgments of fact are a reflection on the reason for the failure of those organs. On a deontological level (methodological and ethico-political), it follows, finally that, from the perspective of life, ‘vitalism’ as a doctrine is the most ‘vital’ stance one can adopt both epistemologically and politically.
Yet, as Bianco remarks that if we take in the trajectory of his work as a whole one will discover that Canguilhem rather than being a defender of vitalism was in fact “a harsh critic of vitalism and finalism and a strong defender of “transformism” in its strictly mechanistic, Lamarckian version”.
Lamarck was interested in unicellular organisms and invertebrates. His observations led him to think that species are becoming increasingly complex as they evolve. According to their hypothesis, the evolution is the result of two forces combined: acquired characteristics, which in its opinion may be transmitted from father to son, and the existence of a universal creative principle which makes the species reach increasing complexity in its evolution. Regarding the first of these forces, Lamarck held that an individual organs are strengthened or weakened, as do regular use of them or not, but also believed that these characteristics of a particular individual can be transmitted to your offspring. Along with that engine of evolution was a universal creative principle, which was, according to Lamarck, the species had to meet increasing complexity.
Lamarck had noticed a clear relationship between fossil and modern organisms. From these observations concluded that the most recent fossils were related to modern organisms. He outlined a theory of biological evolution can be summarized as follows: individuals change physically during his life to adapt to the environment they live; organisms acquired characters had no parents. These changes or acquired characteristics +are due to the use or disuse of organs; acquired characteristics are transmitted by heredity to their offspring the sequence of adaptive changes shows a tendency toward complexity and perfection.
Lamarck’s theory was strongly criticized by the scientific community of his time, mainly by Cuvier, who, besides being an eminent scientist, he served as Inspector General of Education in France. This and his contemporaries insisted that the species had been independently created and were immutable. To prove it, made several experiments. One of them was to amputate the tail of mice, even after 20 generations have been subjected to such change, produced offspring with tail. In other words, showed that the characters acquired by interaction with the environment (such as loss of tail) is not transmitted by heredity. In this, the vision of Lamarck, based on the process of inheritance of acquired characteristics was not appropriate, but the general intuition that species evolve was correct. (see Lamark transformism)
Gilbert Simondon (Wikipedia) was a student of philosopher of science Georges Canguilhem, philosopher Martial Guéroult, and phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He studied at the Ecole Normale Supérieure and the Sorbonne. He defended his doctoral dissertations in 1958. His main thesis, L’individuation à la lumière des notions de Forme et d’Information (Individuation in the light of the notions of Form and Information), was published in two parts, the first in 1964 under the title L’individu et sa génèse physico-biologique (Individuation and its physical-biological genesis) at the Presses Universitaires de France, while it is only in 1989 that Aubier published the second part, L’individuation psychique et collective (Psychic and collective individuation). While his main thesis, which laid the foundations of his thinking, was not widely read until it was commented upon by Gilles Deleuze and, more recently, Bruno Latour and Bernard Stiegler, his complementary thesis, Du mode d’existence des objets techniques (On the mode of existence of technical objects) was published by Aubier immediately after being completed (in 1958) and had an instant impact on a wide audience.
In L’individuation psychique et collective, Simondon developed a theory of individual and collective individuation, in which the individual subject is considered as an effect of individuation, rather than as a cause. Thus the individual atom is replaced by the neverending process of individuation. Simondon also conceived of “pre-individual fields” as the funds making individuation itself possible. Individuation is an always incomplete process, always leaving a “pre-individual” left-over, itself making possible future individuations. Furthermore, individuation always creates both an individual and a collective subject, which individuate themselves together. Simondon criticized Norbert Wiener’s theory of cybernetics, arguing that “Right from the start, Cybernetics has accepted what all theory of technology must refuse: a classification of technological objects conducted by means of established criteria and following genera and species.” Simondon aimed to overcome the shortcomings of cybernetics by developing a “general phenomenology” of machines.
In a previous post I reblogged an excellent post by Andrew Iliadis from Philosophy of Information & Communcation, which develops many of the influences of Gilbert Simondon on Deleuze’s thought (you can read his excellent essay here). I want add anymore from that since it is freely available. The only thing worth mentioning is Iliadis presents Simondan’s critique of Aristotle’s hylomorphic theory of form and matter, along with the solution to this problem by Simondon himself in his theory of individuation and the use of such concepts as information and disparation.
I’ll leave it to the reader to follow up on this, instead I’ll follow another trail in the new work of John Protevi Life, War, Earth: Deleuze and the Sciences. As Protevi relates it He continues:
For Simondon, crystallization is a paradigm of individuation: a supersaturated solution is “metastable,” and from that preindividuated field— which is “differential” in the sense of being replete with gradients of density that are not crystalline in form but are only “implicit forms” or “potential functions”— crystals are individuated via a process of precipitation. The reason crystallization is only a crude image of other individuation processes is that crystals form in homogenous, albeit differential, solutions, while the Deleuzian virtual involves differential relations among heterogeneous components whose rates of change are connected with each other.
To explain this he uses the analogy of a hurricane formation telling that in such a heterogeneity – the hurricane – “it is intuitively clear that there is no central command but a self-organization of multiple processes of air and water movement propelled by temperature and pressure differences” (ibid.). He goes on to explicate:
All hurricanes form when intensive processes of wind and ocean currents reach singular points. These singular points, however, are not unique to any one hurricane but are virtual for each actual hurricane, just as the boiling point of water is virtual for each actual pot of tea on the stove. In other words, all hurricanes share the same structure, and that structure (the Carnot cycle) also underlies any heat engine. Finally, in a still more complex social example, Deleuze will interpret Foucault’s notion of “discipline” as a multiplicity that allows for the control of any human population. The differential relations here are linkages among rates of change of spatial position, coded movements, complex individual training exercises, and teamwork exercises (Foucault 1977, 167– 69). But this multiplicity serves as a “diagram” that guides many different concrete social “assemblages” such as schools, barracks, hospitals, factories, and prisons. (Protevi, Kindle Locations 224-226)
Protevi sees in Deleuze as radicalizing of what we might call the Bergsonian, Whiteheadean, and Simondonian influences that leads to a total panpsychism in Difference and Repetition that surpasses the biological (Protevi, KL 3122-3123). But is this true? Was Deleuze a pansychist? David Skrbina tells us that the mechanistic world-view has over time become naturalized in our collective psyche. For several hundred years the dominant orthodoxy has implicitly assumed that inanimate things are fundamentally devoid of mental qualities. … The mechanistic world-view once liberated humanity from religious dogma. The mechanistic framework has three main pillars: first, all nonliving things, and most living things, are utterly devoid of sentience and mind; second, there is an objective aspect to things, such that a physical and mathematical description is possible for the whole of the visible universe; and, three, the human psyche or soul which for early thinkers existed in its own right and separate from the body was replaced by the mechanists with ‘Mind’ as the central repository of those physical processes once determined as soul.2
Protevi tells us that when “we realize that each spatiotemporal dynamism for Deleuze has a larval subject, we are forced to tackle the question of panpsychism” (Protevi, KL 3388-3389). Quoting Deleuze from Difference and Repetition on this notion of the larval subject:
Dynamisms are not absolutely subjectless, though the subjects they sustain are still only rough drafts, not yet qualified or composed, rather patients than agents, only able to endure the pressure of an internal resonance or the amplitude of an inevitable movement . A composed, qualified adult would perish in such an environment. The truth of embryology is that there are movements which the embryo alone can endure: in this instance, the only subject is larval. (Protevi, KL 3392-3395, Deleuze, 97)
Protevi relates that even though Deleuze sees this theoretic in the light of what he terms a ‘technical model’ we can apprehend pansychism in his use of Simondan’s conception of individuation as “embryonic” in which “we might say, even rocks: “On the scale of millions of years which constitutes the time of their actualization, the hardest rocks in turn are fluid matters which flow under the weak constraints exercised on their singularities”. Now if rocks and islands as individuation processes are embryonic, then they, too, have a psyche: “every spatio-temporal dynamism is accompanied by the emergence of an elementary consciousness”. By the time of Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari explicitly thematize that the syntheses they investigate are fully material syntheses, syntheses of nature in geological as well as biological, social, and psychological registers. Not just organic syntheses, but inorganic ones as well, are spatiotemporal dynamisms.(Protevi, Kindle Locations 3435-3442).
Protevi acknowledges problems with this pansychism and the objections against it in the use of the principle of parsimony which states that we cannot push parsimony too far because the fewer principles we have, the more we risk stretching them beyond their useful extension (Protevi, KL 3354-3455). Ultimately as he relates it for any conception of Mind if we accept the notion that self-organization is a univocal concept, that is, if there is a nontrivial shared structure between convection currents and neurodynamics, then we have identified a fundamental principle that links the inorganic and organic registers. So we are back to the cybernetic challenge: is information transfer and self-organization capable of being called “mind” in a defensible fashion?(Protevi, KL 3458-3460).
Yet, as Marie-Pier Boucher in a recent essay Infra-Psychic Individualization: Transductive Connections and the Genesis of Living Techniques (see Gilbert Simondon: Being and Technology, 92)3 argues in her description of Simondan’s notion of ‘living techniques’:
Living techniques are techniques of emergence whose process of becoming is ontogenetic. Living techniques are not necessarily biological in the literal sense. They are relational techniques whose processes ultimately bring to life. The process as a whole is not conditioned by peculiar forces. Living techniques’ individuation is neither a vitalism, nor a substantialism. It is a dynamic form, a form of process, a mode of relation, a performative in-between – one that folds exteriority into a womb already pregnant with a past-futurity, an incipient process already present in the fringe of the indeterminacy of its driving force of tendency. Transductive connections are at play in the laboratories of protocells’ midwives, and they are amplifying; they are techniques of bringing to life. ‘Cut away the future, and the present collapses.’ (GS, 107)
Is this not a better explanation of very processes of intensity and becoming that Deleuze describes. What Manuel DeLanda describes as the relations among component parts within an assemblage typifies much of this process. As he explains it the main theoretical alternative to organic totalities is what the philosopher Gilles Deleuze calls assemblages, wholes characterized by relations of exteriority.4 He goes on to say:
These relations imply, first of all, that a component part of an assemblage may be detached from it and plugged into a different assemblage in which its interactions are different. In other words, the exteriority of relations implies a certain autonomy for the terms they relate, or as Deleuze puts it, it implies that ‘a relation may change without the terms changing’. Relations of exteriority also imply that the properties of the component parts can never explain the relations which constitute a whole, that is, ‘relations do not have as their causes the properties of the [component parts] between which they are established …’ although they may be caused by the exercise of a component’s capacities. In fact, the reason why the properties of a whole cannot be reduced to those of its parts is that they are the result not of an aggregation of the components’ own properties but of the actual exercise of their capacities. These capacities do depend on a component’s properties but cannot be reduced to them since they involve reference to the properties of other interacting entities. Relations of exteriority guarantee that assemblages may be taken apart while at the same time allowing that the interactions between parts may result in a true synthesis.
This explains why the notion of vitalism and pansychism is inaccurate in connection with Simondan or Deleuze. They both affirm the irreduction of the properties of the whole cannot be reduced to those of its parts, because it is not an aggregation of the components’ own properties but of the actual exercise of those capacities. But what is Simondan’s and Deleuze’s idea on what capacities are? This would seem to be the heart of the issue: we need to know how both men used this concept in their actual work.
The concept of capacity can be traced back to Aristotle. Etymologically taken, capacity should be associated with power, strength and mastery. The analysis of the term and the basic forms connected with it refer to ‘ruling’, ‘strength’, ‘being able’ and ‘potency’. The Liddell-Scott-Jones dictionary gives seven different meanings of the term. The original use of capacity shows its magic meaning: as a mysterious power (of holy places, people or things). It appears in two semantic contexts: the first concerns nature and is tied, in a way, with theory and cognition; the second concerns human beings and has a practical dimension, since it covers human abilities and capacities, like agency, perceiving, speech or ruling. For Aristotle the concept of capacity was defined as a kind of ability to accept or receive form.(see Piotr Makowski METAPHYSICS OF PRACTICAL PHILOSOPHY. THE CONCEPT OFCAPACITY IN ARISTOTLE)
In our own time the notions of potential were taken up by both Simondon and Deleuze. “For Simondon the notion of a capacity or potential is related closely with his theory of individuation. Simondon’s most basic argument is that the “individual” is never given in advance; it must be produced, it must coagulate, or come into being, in the course of an ongoing process. This means, first, that there is no “preformation”; the DNA in a just-fertilized egg cell, for instance, does not already determine the nature of the individual who will be produced in the course of nine months of gestation and years of growth after birth. DNA is not just a code, it is also a set of potentials, which can unfold in various directions, and which do not attain form except in the actual process of unfolding. Everything always starts in the “preindividual” realm. The preindividual is not a state in which identity is lacking — not an undifferentiated chaos — but rather a condition that is “more than a unity and more than an identity”: a state of radical potentiality, of excess or “supersaturation,” rather than one of negativity. Simondon rejects fixed entities as much as any dialectician; but he offers an account of process that is radically different from the Hegelian or “dialectical” account”. (see Steve Shaviro Simondon on individuation)
Before turning to Deleuze we might first listen to what Whitehead once said of potential. In Process and Reality Whitehead writes:
…we always have to consider two meanings of potentiality: (a) the ‘general’ potentiality, which is the bundle of possibilities, mutually consistent or alternative, provided by the multiplicity of eternal objects, and (b) the ‘real’ potentiality, which is conditioned by the data provided by the actual world. General potentiality is absolute, and real potentiality is relative to some actual entity, taken as a standpoint where the actual world is defined. It must be remembered that the phrase ‘actual world’ is like ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow,’ in that it alters its meaning according to standpoint. The actual world must always mean the community of all actual entities… (65)
This distinction between a general and a real potentiality is in some ways the distinction between virtual and actual as defined by Deleuze in Difference and Repetition:
We opposed the virtual and the real: although it could not have been more precise before now, this terminology must be corrected. The virtual is opposed not to the real but to the actual. The virtual is fully real in so far as it is virtual. Exactly what Proust said of states of resonance must be said of the virtual: ‘Real without being actual, ideal without being abstract’; and symbolic without being fictional. Indeed, the virtual must be defined as strictly a part of the real object– as though the object had one part of itself in the virtual into which it plunged as though into an objective dimension… The reality of the virtual consists of the differential elements along with singular points which correspond to them. The reality of the virtual is structure. We must avoid giving the elements and relations which form a structure an actuality which they do not have, and withdrawing from them a reality which they have. We have seen that a double process of reciprocal determination and complete determination defined that reality: far from being undetermined, the virtual is completely determined. When it is claimed that works of art are immersed in a virtuality, what is being invoked is not some confused determination but the completely determined structure formed by its genetic differential elements, its ‘virtual’ or ‘embryonic’ elements. (DR, 208-209)
So for Deleuze the capacity, potential, virtual is related to structure and the structuring process, or what Simondon might have termed the pre-individual field. As Taylor Adkins tells us Simondon’s real project is the radical critique of autopoesis. Simondon takes on the cyberneticists at their very foundation, in the very idea of a system. He reminds us that even though we may unravel the series of temporal sequences and structures in an individual system, there will always be something left over. In particular, there will be what Simondon calls a pre-individual field of singularities — a heterogeneous manifold of potential differences. (see Simondon and the Machine: Technology, Individuation, Reality) Adkins goes on to say:
Without this milieu, this field of tensions, there could not come to exist a system of relations, or a machine, an organism, a body, a crystal, or an individual of any sort. The process of individuation requires a field of singularities, it plays upon these intensities; individuation is the transformation of these tensions into structures, and necessarily produces a new differential milieu in this doubling and unfolding of structures and series. The pre-individual field is called “pregnant” in its intensity with the potential for individuation. Relationships are always relative, never pre-existent. Rather, they emerge transductively through differentiation . An individual is always within the pre-individual field which was the condition for its genesis which precedes it ontologically.(ibid.)
This notion of the pre-individual field as “pregnant” only needing something to activate its potential seems to align with Deleuze’s notion of the virtual becoming actual through the process of intensive relations as both structure and structuring process. I would need a lot more space than this short post to dig deeper into all these connections, but I do believe there is a fruitful connection among these three philosophers who shared a common set of threads that seem to have taken on varying hues of difference but were in fact variations on a thematic set of underlying ideas. Whereas Taylor Adkins in another fine essay on his translation of Jean-Hugues Barthélémy on Simondon, Bergson and Teilhard de Chardin sees a connection between Bergson and Simondan, I believe instead that it is through the work of Simondon’s teacher Georges Canguilhem that we must find connections. And it would be Simondon’s transformations and mutations of his teacher’s concepts and ideas that would eventually resurface in other forms within Deleuze’s own framework. This is not to dispute that Simondon might have been persuaded of Bergson and his vitalist tradition, it is just to suggest that Simondon was closer to his teacher and his knowledge of this whole vitalist tradition as well as Canguilhem’s own critique of it that might have held a greater influence on the young Simondon.
1. Protevi, John (2013-07-01). Life, War, Earth: Deleuze and the Sciences (Kindle Locations 218-224). University of Minnesota Press. Kindle Edition.
2. David Skrbina. Pansychism in the West (Firs MIT Press, 2005)
3. (2012-01-13). Gilbert Simondon: Being and Technology (p. 92). Edinburgh University Press. Kindle Edition.
4. DeLanda, Manuel (2006-09-14). A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity (Kindle Locations 210-211). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.