Philosophy of nature and organism’s autonomy: on Hegel, Plessner and Jonas’ theories of living beings

Abstract

Following the revival in the last decades of the concept of “organism”, scholarly literature in philosophy of science has shown growing historical interest in the theory of Immanuel Kant, one of the “fathers” of the concept of self-organisation. Yet some recent theoretical developments suggest that self-organisation alone cannot fully account for the all-important dimension of autonomy of the living. Autonomy appears to also have a genuine “interactive” dimension, which concerns the organism’s functional interactions with the environment and does not simply derive from its internal organisation. Against this background, we focus on a family of natural philosophical approaches that historically have already strongly taken in account this aspect of autonomy, notably going beyond Kant’s perspective on self-organisation. We thus review Hegel, Plessner, and Jonas’ different perspectives on living beings, focussing in particular on four points: the distinction between organic and inorganic, the theory of biological organisation, the processuality of the living, and the “boundary” between inside and outside, through which the organism establishes its relationship to the environment. We, then, compare the three perspectives on these four points, and finally address the question of what advantages their contribution present—especially compared to Kant’s theory—with respect to the topic of organism’s autonomy. This could help—we hope—to better understand what is at the stake still today.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    If not otherwise noted, all translations from this text are our own.

  2. 2.

    Things that cross boundaries are not identical to things that have a “restriction” (Schranke) in Hegel’s sense of the term, since in Plessner’s view plants are also things that cross boundaries—without however possessing a feeling of their own restrictedness.

References

  1. Allen, C., & Bekoff, M. (1995). Biological function, adaptation, and natural design. Philosophy of Science, 62(4), 609–622.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Arnellos, A., & Moreno, A. (2015). Multicellular agency: An organizational view. Biology and Philosophy, 30(3), 333–357.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Barandiaran, X., & Moreno, A. (2008). Adaptivity: From metabolism to behavior. Adaptive Behavior, 16(5), 325–344.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Breitenbach, A. (2009). Die Analogie von Vernunft und Natur. Eine Umweltphilosophie nach Kant. Berlin, NY: Walter de Gruyter.

    Google Scholar 

  5. De Mul, J. (Ed.). (2014). Plessner’s philosophical anthropology. Perspectives and prospects. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Depew, D., & Weber, B. (2011). The fate of darwinism: Evolution after the modern synthesis. Biological Theory, 6, 89–102.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Di Paolo, E. (2005). Autopoiesis, adaptivity, teleology, agency. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 4(4), 429–452.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Di Paolo, E. (2018). The enactive conception of life. In A. Newen, S. Gallagher, & L. de Bruin (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of cognition: Embodied, embedded, enactive and extended (pp. 71–94). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Di Paolo, E., Rohde, M., & De Jaegher, H. (2010). Horizons for the enactive mind: Values, social interaction, and play. In J. Stewart, O. Gapenne, & E. Di Paolo (Eds.), Enaction. Toward a new paradigm for cognitive science (pp. 33–38). Cambridge: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Driesch, H. (1970). Parapsychologie. München: Kindler Taschenbücher.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Fisher, M. (2008). Organisms and teleology in Kant’s natural philosophy, Philos. Disser.. Atlanta: Emory University.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Ginsburg, H. (2015). The normativity of nature: Essays on Kant’s critique of judgement. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Goy, I., & Watkins, E. (2014). Kant’s theory of biology. Berlin, NY: Walter de Gruyter.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Grene, M. (1966). Positionality in the philosophy of Helmuth Plessner. Review of Metaphysics, 20, 250–277.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Hegel, G. W. F. (1982). Naturphilosophie. Band I. Die Vorlesung von 1819/20. Napoli: Bibliopolis.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Hegel, G. W. F. (2004). Philosophy of nature. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Hegel, G. W. F. (2010). The science of logic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Honenberger, P. (Ed.). (2005). Naturalism and philosophical anthropology: Nature, life, and the human between transcendental and empirical perspectives. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Houlgate, S. (Ed.). (1999). Hegel and the philosophy of nature. New York: Suny Series in Hegelian Studies.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Huneman, P. (Ed.). (2007). Understanding purpose: Collected essays on Kant and the philosophy of biology, North American Kant Society Publication Series. Rochester: University of Rochester Press.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Huneman, P. (2008). Métaphysique et Biologie. Kant et la Constitution du Concept d’Organisme. Paris: Kimé.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Huneman, P., & Wolfe, C. (2010). Introduction: The concept of organism: Historical, philosophical, scientific perspectives. History and Philosophy of Life Science, 32(2–3), 147–154.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Jonas, H. (1966). The phenomenon of life. Toward a philosophical biology. New York: Harper & Row.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Jonas, H. (1974). Philosophical essays: From ancient creed to technological man. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Jonas, H. (1992). Philosophische Untersuchungen und metaphysische Vermutungen. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Juarrero-Roqué, A. (1985). Self-organization: Kant’s concept of teleology and modern chemistry. Review of Metaphysics, 39(1), 107–135.

    Google Scholar 

  27. Kant, I. (2000). Critique of the power of judgment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Kauffman, S. A. (1993). The origins of order. Self-organization and selection in evolution. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  29. Laubichler, M. D. (2000). The organism is dead. Long live the organism! Perspectives on Science, 8, 286–315.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Lennox, J. (1992). Teleology. In F. Keller & E.-L. Elisabeth (Eds.), Keywords in evolutionary biology (pp. 324–333). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Levins, R., & Lewontin, R. (1987). The dialectical biologist. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  32. Marques, V., & Britos, C. (2014). The rise and fall of the machine metaphor: Organizational similarities and differences between machines and living beings. Verifiche, 43(1–4), 77–112.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Maturana, H., & Varela, F. (1980). Autopoiesis and cognition. The realization of the living. Dordrecht: Reidel Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Mayr, E. (1974). Teleologic and teleonomic: A new analysis. Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, 14, 91–117.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Mayr, E. (1992). The idea of teleology. Journal of the History of Ideas, 53(1), 117–135.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. McLaughlin, P. (2001). What functions explain: Functional explanation and self-reproducing systems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  37. Michelini, F. (2012). Hegel’s notion of natural purpose. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science. Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 42, 133–139.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Moreno, A., & Etxeberria, A. (2005). Agency in natural and artificial systems. Artificial Life, 11(1–2), 161–176.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Moreno, A., Etxeberria, A., & Umerez, J. (2008). The autonomy of biological individuals and artificial models. BioSystems, 91(2), 309–319.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Moreno, A., & Mossio, M. (2015). Biological autonomy. A philosophical and theoretical enquiry. Dordrecht: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  41. Moss, L. (2009). Detachment, genomics and the nature of being human. In A. M. Drenthen, F. W. Jozef Keulartz, & J. Proctor (Eds.), New visions of nature: Complexity and authenticity (pp. 103–116). Dordrecht: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  42. Moss, L. (2014). Detachment and compensation: Groundwork for a metaphysics of ‘biosocial becoming’. Philosophy and Social Criticism, 40, 91–105.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Mossio, M., & Bich, L. (2017). What makes biological organisation teleological? Synthese, 194(4), 1089–1114.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Mossio, M., & Moreno, A. (2010). Organizational closure in biological organisms. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 32(2–3), 269–288.

    Google Scholar 

  45. Pepper, J., & Herron, M. D. (2008). Does biology need an organism concept? Biological Reviews, 83, 621–627.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Pittendrigh, C. S. (1958). Adaptation, natural selection, and behavior. In A. Roe & G. G. Simpson (Eds.), Behavior and evolution (pp. 390–416). New Haven: Yale University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  47. Plessner, H. (1928). Die Stufen des Organischen und der Mensch. Einleitung in die philosophische Anthropologie. Berlin, NY: De Gruyter. [1975 3ed].

    Google Scholar 

  48. Rosen, R. (1991). life itself. A comprehensive enquiry into the nature, origin and fabrication of life. New York: Columbia University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  49. Ruiz-Mirazo, K., & Moreno, A. (2004). Basic autonomy as a fundamental step in the synthesis of life. Artificial Life, 10(3), 235–259.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Stederoth, D. (2001). Hegels Philosophie des subjektiven Geistes. Ein komparatorischer Kommentar. Berlin: de Gruyter.

    Google Scholar 

  51. Strawson, P. F. (1959). Individuals: An essay in descriptive metaphysics. London: Methuen.

    Google Scholar 

  52. Thompson, E. (2007). Mind in life. Biology, phenomenology, and the sciences of mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  53. Toepfer, G., & Michelini, F. (2016). Organismus. Die Erklärung des Lebendigen. Freiburg: Karl Aber Verlag.

    Google Scholar 

  54. Van den Berg, H. (2014). Kant on proper science. Biology in the critical philosophy and the Opus postumum. Dorohecht: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  55. Varela, F. J. (Ed.). (1979). Principles of biological autonomy. North Holland, NY: Elsevier.

    Google Scholar 

  56. Varela, F. J. (1997). Patterns of life: Intertwining identity and cognition. Brain Cognition, 34, 72–87.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  57. Walsh, D. M. (2006). Organisms as natural purposes: The contemporary evolutionary perspective. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 37, 771–791.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  58. Weber, A., & Varela, F. J. (2002). Life after Kant: Natural purposes and the autopoietic foundations of individuality. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 1, 97–125.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  59. West-Eberhard, M. J. (2003). Developmental plasticity and evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  60. Wolfe, C. (2010). Do organisms have an ontological status? History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 32(2–3), 195–232.

    Google Scholar 

  61. Wuketis, F. (1980). On the notion of teleology in contemporary life sciences. Dialectica, 34(4), 277–290.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  62. Zuckert, R. (2007). Kant on beauty and biology. An interpretation of the critique of judgment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

Sections 1, 4, 6 have been drafted by Francesca Michelini; sections 3 and 5 by Matthias Wunsch; section 2 by Dirk Stederoth. This paper was written in the context of the International Biophilosophical School (University of Padua, 27–30 April 2015) as part of the “Integrative Biophilosophy” research project located at the University of Kassel. Funding by the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) is gratefully acknowledged. Many thanks to Tessa Marzotto for the linguistic revisions.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Francesca Michelini.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Michelini, F., Wunsch, M. & Stederoth, D. Philosophy of nature and organism’s autonomy: on Hegel, Plessner and Jonas’ theories of living beings. HPLS 40, 56 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40656-018-0212-3

Download citation

Keywords

  • Philosophy of nature
  • Hegel
  • Plessner
  • Jonas
  • Organic–inorganic relationship
  • Organisation
  • Process
  • Boundary
  • Biological autonomy