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Virtuality Beyond Reproduction. Remarks on the History of Metaphysics

  • Simone GuidiEmail author
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Part of the Numanities - Arts and Humanities in Progress book series (NAHP, volume 11)

Abstract

This essay focuses on the ontology of the virtual, looking especially at its historical connection with today’s technology. The work begins by discussing the metaphysical structure of the Aristotelian dynamis, understood as the conceptual root of the Latin virtus. Reading Aristotle, especially through bergsonian concepts, I show how his dynamis allows a proto-deterministic account of spontaneity, strictly related to goal-oriented processes of human serial production and with the possibility of a homogeneous area of manipulation. Thus we stress how the ‘reproductive’ model works in every ontological account of the virtual and especially in the Renaissance ones, connected with the idea of a full “enginerization” of the real. The core of metaphysical virtuality seems to lie rather in an ontological account of “form” that denies its processual becoming and its process of stabilization through an infrastructure. Finally, I reject any ontological use of the virtual in teleonomy, especially in its metaphysical attempt to identify autopoiesis and mechanism, and I conclude by stressing how current digital technology is fully oriented to the reproductive model, conceptually rooted in a metaphysical account of the virtual.

12.1 Introduction

In the popular understanding of technology, “virtual” and “digital” can be treated as synonyms, even though the two notions cover different conceptual fields: digital technology always belongs to the “virtual”—that is, it finds in the “virtual” a higher, ontological possibility of realization—but not everything “virtual” finds its realization in digital technology—that is, the “digital” is a specific kind of enactment of a wider region of the “virtual”.

Such a structure inherits the premise of a classic metaphysical hypothesis about the reality-technology relationship, that is the demand to think of technological activity—and especially of technological representation—as placed within an already onto-technical area (the “virtual”). Reality would be ontologically (and not only practically) manipulable, that is it would be naturally used in goal-oriented processes; accordingly, there would be a specific region of reality that is homogeneous to the processes of technological transformation, allowing us to understand the latter as provided with its own, “secondary” reality that can be put in continuity with the “primary” one. By operating within the domain of the “virtual”, technology would establish a stable and complete area of reality, a “world”, provided with its own objects and activities. Hence, the technological “world” would own an independent, internal phenomenology, able to make of it a fully technological and virtual “secondary” reality.

In the following pages, we critically examine such a specific understanding of virtuality, trying to show that: (1) the idea of the “reality” of a technological simulation comes from the improper, ontological qualification of the concept of “virtual”; (2) that of the “virtual” is nothing but a regulative concept and its ontological understanding is the root of many metaphysical misunderstandings; (3) the very concept of “virtual” strictly depends on the way of operating of technological infrastructures and it even represents, from an abstract point of view, the improper ontologization of this way of operating.

12.2 Rejecting Spontaneity: Aristotle’s Mirage

Our common meaning of the “virtual” finds its roots in Aristotle’s thought, even if it actually does not come entirely from him. The very invention of the word virtus must actually be attributed to medieval Aristotelianism, pushed to coin such a concept for philological and theoretical reasons. They were seeking a name for a notion that Aristotle theoretically introduced, leaving it without a specific name.

Medieval philosophers derived the world virtualis from the Latin vis (power), from which the word virtus, “capability, strength”, derives. That of “capability” may nowadays seem like a familiar concept, but—rather than its self-evidence—such a popularity shows its nature as a metaphysical fossil. The genesis of the Latin virtus is nevertheless tied to a major conundrum in the History of Philosophy, as virtus is actually thought of as a specific translation of the Greek dynamis—the Aristotelian potency—as it is taken in contrast with the passive form of the verb, the dynaton—the Aristotelian “possible”. The latter is something that can be produced, enacted, by a power that Aristotle demands to be in a dynamis understood qua dynamis, that is before the very, actual process of the energhein. Thus, the word virtus gives a name to a paradoxical “active power” of being a potency (see Met. Θ 1, 1046 a 19–29) that did not have a specific term in the Greek doctrine, even if it was partially theorized by its author.

Among many texts, Heidegger’s reading of Metaphysics Θ, 1–3 (1995) is the sharpest in showing how crucial is the context in which the concept of capability is philosophically justified. From a theoretical point of view, Aristotle’s point is by no means obvious, and it actually represents one of the most crucial theoretical choices in the entire History of Metaphysics, that is the granting to the concept of act and potency an ontological value, rejecting the possibility of a true spontaneity.

The act-potency couple allows many possible uses and interpretations. Among them, there is one consistent with a fully non-Platonic idea of nature: a descriptive, non-ontological value of both the concepts that understands the process of transformation qua process, and avoids introducing any transcendental, prescriptive entity, or making this process a stable region of being. Let us read this concept in the words of Henri Bergson, the first author that directly superseded the ontological approach of Plato and Aristotle:

This reality is mobility. Not things made, but things in the making: not self-maintaining states, but only changing states, exist. Rest is never more than apparent, or, rather, relative. […] All reality, therefore, is tendency, if we agree to mean by tendency an incipient change of direction (Bergson 2002: 274).

According to this conception: (1) all processes would be ontologically free and spontaneous; (2) in their being, it would be impossible to isolate any “moment” or “part” from the whole of their “being-a-process”; (3) act and potency, entelechia and dynamis, could be individuated only relatively, since their individuation would be logical, and not ontological; (4) the entelechia and the dynamis will be nothing but two indivisible sides of the same entity; (5) the essence of such a reality, as well as the essence of all its objects, would be the radical multiplicity resulting from the multiple “moments” making up each event.

In this world, there would not be room for any ontological or metaphysical understanding of conservation and substantiality that could easily be reduced to the continuous repetition or variation of the same-but-always-different process. The concept of “repetition” is here borrowed from the lexicon of Bergson, Tarde and Deleuze (see Jankélévitch 1959, Ansell-Pearson 2001, Vitali-Rosati 2009: 163–69; 2012) where it is used as a synonym of variation and as an opposite of “replication” and “reproduction”.

Substantiality does not lie in the concretization of an abstract similarity—the replicability of something previously prepared for happening—but rather in variation, a repetition that keeps its internal multiplicity unaltered, as well as its continuous difference and novelty:

The likeness between individuals of the same species has thus an entirely different meaning, an entirely different origin, to that of the likeness between complex effects obtained by the same composition of the same causes (Bergson 1944: 247).

Two stones can fall in the same way, but this does not imply that their “sameness” has an ontological value. They act regularly without expressing any metaphysical “regularity”. Even the common or recurrent causes of that behaviour can be clearly understood without granting to their causality any ontological or prescriptive value (X is the cause of Y), but only a descriptive one (X acts as the cause of Y).

Such a model understands indeed physical phenomena without assuming their inner intelligibility, and strictly reduces their essence to their behaviour. From an ontological perspective (what phenomena are), it is misleading to postulate in physical things a (metaphysical) essence, a cause or a “reason” of their behaviour; instead, on a practical level (what phenomena do), one can easily and rightfully describe them from their “effects”.

Conversely, the “Aristotelian” understanding of physical change finds its roots in the (still-Platonic) demand for a logical preeminence (see especially Met. Θ 8) of the state of actuality (the effects); and, accordingly, for the idea of a previously, teleological determination of every process (the “causes” and their actualization) towards their outcomes (X acts as the cause of the generation of Y, since it metaphysically is its cause). Such a structure asks Aristotle for an ontological understanding of the potency (X is the potency of Y, instead of X makes Y), able to individuate in the process X some specific and ontological causes for the generation of Y (and not Z), as if the process could be reversed and started again ad infinitum.

In this sense, Aristotle’s turning point comes especially in Metaphysics Θ 3, with the confutation of the Megarics’ doctrine (1046 b 29—1047 b 37). Here he denies any possibility for the potency to be reduced to its enactment, and thus to an actual energheia (the making, not ontologically) oriented toward its entelechia (Met. Θ 3, 1047 a 18—1047 b 37). A musician is a such even when not enacting his playing, as his capability persists beyond the end of its actualization.

As Heidegger argues, the Aristotle-Megarics debate is developed along the internal modulation of a common philosophical parenthood. Their common term is a philosophy of being rooted in eleatism, including its need to explain movement and generation within an ontological conceptual framework. Heidegger’s idea is that Aristotle pursues Plato’s breaking with Parmenides’ denials of movement, providing a new perspective, able to give dignity to change in being. But he seems to forget that providing an explanatory model of something does not coincide with the understanding of it. Aristotle’s account comes actually within a (very refined) version of the same eleatic model, and this makes his solution nothing but a reduction of the problem to its demanded explanatory framework.

What Heidegger disregards is indeed that the background of Metaphysics Θ 3 is not the simple “presentialist” account of becoming—in which Aristotle and the Megarics are actually opposed (as the first predicates the reality of the potency and of change whereas the second argue its continuous reference to the act)—but rather a common eleatic denial of a pure spontaneity of generation and kinesis. Both Aristotle and the Megarians exclude a priori the possibility of a radical, uncontrolled and unfinalized process of change (that nevertheless has a specific outcome), inseparable from that actual reality it continuously renews.

The Megarians’ solution is to think of generation as strictly predetermined by the act: potency has no reality but that of the enactment (as energeia). By a more subtle strategy, Aristotle does nothing that is actually different. Even in theorizing an ontological independence of the dynamis qua virtus from its actual enactment (Met. Θ 3, 1047 a 17–24), he introduces in the logic of the process the need for the dependence of the potency on a logical (Met. Θ 8, 1049 b 12–19) and a teleological (Met. Θ 8, 1050 a 7–10) pre-determination, which makes it fit perfectly with the subsequent act.

Paradoxically, the Aristotelian dynamis qua dynamis, the principle of change, is always logically the virtus of something pre-determined (playing, swimming, reading, living, etc.…) whereas, from the ontological side, it is conceived in a the “negative” form of the unenacted capability (see especially Agamben 2014): the musician is the one who may not be currently playing, as the eyes are able to not see anything (for the possible as non-impossible see Met. Θ 4). Anyway, this account of the dynamis excludes the possibility of a pure, spontaneous (that is: not logically pre-determined or ordered) dynamis (that would coincide, instead, with the very act of “being in the making”):

that which is ‘capable’ is capable of something determined and at some time in some way (with all the other qualifications which must be present in the definition). (Met. Θ 5, 1047 b 35–1048 a 2)

Thus, Aristotelian processes of change are self-controlled and self-ordered but not spontaneous, since they are meant as actualized by an agent that has the virtus of something logically represented exactly as it would be in an act. Accordingly, the act is doubled: it is (1) in the act itself as the actualization of a “potency”, and (2) in a previous potency, prepared to it from its very essence. Using Deleuze’s words, “to the extent that the possible is open to ‘realisation’, it is understood as an image of the real, while the real is supposed to resemble the possible” (Deleuze 1994: 212).

In such a way, Aristotle manages to reserve an ontological dignity for a specific model of spontaneity (or random happening) that he calls automaton (Ph. II, 4, 195 b 31). This word can be translated as “acting by itself”, since it comes from the Greek autós and the indo-european Open image in new window (méntis, thought), meaningfully revealing the idea of an action continuously led by an inner logical principle that pre-orders its own activity. According to Aristotle’s famous explanations (Ph. II, 5–6; Met. Z, 1032 b 22–31), spontaneous “automatic” activities (like those happening by chance) are nothing but teleologically (previously) oriented processes, deviated by accidents towards the failure of the expected outcome (see the “in vain” of Ph. II, 6, 197 b 23–32) and the constitution of another teleological-like event (a goal).

Significantly, Aristotle holds that accidents are (accidental) causes of spontaneous goals, but since they have no determined cause, their cause is undetermined (Met. ∆ 30, 1025 a 24–25; Met. E 2, 1027 a 5–8) and they are even “akin to non-being” (Met. E 2, 1026 b 21).

Because of their nature, accidents cannot operate on the level of the “natural” teleo-logic of the virtus, which continuously determinates the substantial events. Accordingly, Aristotle theorizes what we might call a logical determinism (every process is logically finalized), even if not a physical determinism (within such a logical structure, the becoming can or cannot go towards a specific direction (see the famous De int., 9, 19 a 30–33) and can be altered by accidents). Therefore, all “normal” processes are thought of as ruled by an “operational scheme” finalized to the goal of a determined outcome, which Aristotle improperly attributes to the level of being, instead of to those of action.

12.3 Teleologies, Homogeneity and the Symbol

A masterful analysis of such a misunderstanding is provided again by Bergson in Time and Free Will (2001 but see also the very relevant Bergson 2016: 17–68, for a comprehensive analysis of the discontinue nature of symbols; see already Bergson 2014). Here Bergson dealt with the metaphysical rejection of spontaneity, describing it as the reduction of “sequences” to “simultaneities”, as the transformation of “progresses” and “directions” into “things” (Bergson 2001: 113), and as the substitution of the “trajectory” for the “path”. The conversion of freedom into the “mechanical oscillation between two points”—two pre-figured choices—is nevertheless, for Bergson, the common core of determinism and dynamism, as it shows a teleological structure. “Once the figure is constructed”, explains Bergson, “we go back in imagination into the past and will have it that our […] activity has followed exactly the path traced out by the figure” (Bergson 2001: 181). The “sequence” of the being-in-making (that is radically multiple, free and not logically pre-determined) is thus substituted by the “simultaneity” of the reconstruction, in which the becoming is divided into “moments”, linked in a succession oriented toward the (already-got) goal.

Such a psychological remark will gain a metaphysical dimension especially in The Possible and the Real, where (inspired by Jankélévitch 1959: 2), Bergson will directly attack the concept of “possibility”:

As reality is created as something unforeseeable and new, its image is reflected behind it into the indefinite past; thus it finds that it has from all time been possible, but it is at this precise moment that it begins to have been always possible, and that is why I said that its possibility, which does not precede its reality, will have preceded it once the reality has appeared. The possible is therefore the mirage of the present in the past (Bergson 2002: 229).

The “possible” which Bergson is referring to is a traditional notion, but it clearly finds in Aristotle’s dynamis qua dynamis a metaphysical turning point. It is not by chance that, in On Interpretation, the dynaton can be found as strictly joined to the virtus, the capability of animated or inanimated things of triggering determined processes, led by logical teleologies:

‘Possible’ itself is ambiguous. It is used, on the one hand, of facts and of things that are actualized; it is ‘possible’ for someone to walk, inasmuch as he actually walks, and in general we call a thing ‘possible’, since it is now realized. On the other hand, ‘possible’ is used of a thing that might be realized; it is ‘possible’ for someone to walk, since in certain conditions he would (De int., ch. 13, 23 a 8–23 a 13).

In both its senses, the logical possibility is thought of as radically connected with the pre-determination—and even with the definition—of its possible actualization. Something can walk since it is actually walking, or because it has the capability to walk, and specific conditions for the actualization are granted (see Met. Θ 5, 1048 a 15–24). Hence, in its purest form, the “possible” is the ontological nihil obstat for the actualization of something logically determined and pre-figured in the current capability of an agent or in a given context (Met. Θ 7, 1048 b 37—1049 a b 18). Such a virtus can later remain unenacted or be enacted, providing two different forms of the same, abstract possibility.

Even the famous sea-fight of On Interpretation, 9 looks like a consequence of that conceptual framework. According to Aristotle, a given X (the sea-fight) can be enacted (XA) or not (X¬A), and even if “no necessity is there, however, that it should come to pass or should not”, “what is necessary is that it either should happen tomorrow or not” (De int. 9, 19 a 29–32). But such a conclusion finds a crucial premise in the representation of the sea-fight as a virtual contingency, independent of both its happening or non-happening (De int. 9, 18 b 20–25). Accordingly, XA and X¬A are thought of as two independent possibilities, whereas the “fork” should rather oppose the actual, positive happening of X (the battle) or the actual, as much positive happening of X1, X2, X3, etc. (something else; Bergson 1944: 254–258). In this case, there is not any ontological necessity that either X and XN should occur tomorrow or not, but only the logical necessity that the abstract, non-ontological possibility of X will correspond or not with an independently-generated, actual, matter of fact.

By the introduction of an ontological abstraction, the virtus—which would intermediate between transformation processes and their result in the entelechia—Aristole manages to explain why, in any process of change, a logical substantiality would be (teleo-logically) kept stable by the regularity of the concrete natural processes of generation. This also allows him to avoid placing the logical level that orders the kinesis, what is possible, as abstracted to the process of generation. In Metaphysics Θ 4, indeed, Aristotle openly established that the dynaton depends directly on what can be really enacted. Hence the logical possibility derives from the capability of the natural agents of doing something (or not); but such agents are already directed towards specific goals, prescribed by their virtus.

It is worth noticing that the metaphysical action of the Aristotelian virtus seems really close to those criticized by Bergson’s concept of “homogeneous time”: an intermediate entity between duration and space through which the process, in its becoming, is always represented “under the form of simultaneity” (Bergson 2001: 180). In “homogeneous time” the sequence, the action, is continuously understood as a line of already-given integral points, a network of simultaneous instants seen from above their flowing. Yet, such an overlapping is made possible especially by a symbolic entity, geometry, that provides an abstract level on which the becoming can be divided and repositioned.

In order to analyze the concept of virtus, the ontology of the fractive–and–reconstructive mechanism attributed by Bergson to the geometrical space is crucial.

According to Bergson, the geometrical space is nothing but an “interruption” of duration, a discontinuity generated from the limitation of the sequence (pure multiplicity), which converts the qualitative into a quantitative dimension. “Extension”, Bergson explains, “appears only as a tension which is interrupted” (Bergson 1944: 267) and geometry is a “diagram of infinite divisibility” (Bergson 1991: 206).

A crucial point is that such an “interruption” is realized by perception in the symbolic activity of coordinating a schematic motion, a reflex movement, with reality. In Matter and Memory, Bergson thinks indeed of perception as fully finalized to action, an automatic scheme of the body that receives the input of external objects and immediately converts it into the output of a re-action. Hence, by acting on the plan of a pure operation, perception uses geometry as an order of “symbols”, a homogenous language able to finalize the mind for matter and matter for the mind. Perception ideally “covers” reality with a Cartesian plane, treating it as if its essence was geometrical, and acting towards its goal in the same language as geometry:

in order to divide the real in this manner, we must first persuade ourselves that the real is divisible at will. Consequently we must throw beneath the continuity of sensible qualities, that is to say, beneath concrete extensity, a network, of which the meshes may be altered to any shape whatsoever and become as small as we please (Bergson 1991: 209–10).

So, unlike Aristotle’s dynamis, Bergson’s homogeneous space does not work as a metaphysical entity but rather as a logical map of finalized action, a symbolic diagram of possible (understood operatively) goals:

The distance which separates our body from an object really measures, therefore, the greater or less imminence of a danger, the nearer or more remote fulfillment of a promise. And, consequently, our perception of an object distinct from our body, separated from our body by an interval, never expresses anything but a virtual action (Bergson 1991: 56–57; see also Ibidem: 144 and Bergson 1944: 228 ff).

Like Aristotle’s the concept of “virtual” is used here by Bergson with the meaning of “possible”; but also, unambiguously, as a circular activity, whose ontology is fully reducible to action. Its virtuality is not ontological, but performative. The virtual is the purpose of a goal launched outside in matter and then teleologically recovered as a relationship between the mind and its object, as measuring. On the “screen” of this map perception can ideally convert the free process in terms of simultaneity, in a collection of crystallized moments of action, as if it was already finished.

Bergson’s concept of space is thus less far than one could think from Heidegger’s ready-to-hand. But what is relevant here is the idea that action can be projected only in the homogeneous, representative space of symbols. Classic metaphysics instead misunderstands the symbol as an “image”, inevitably falling into a deterministic view: “we give a mechanical explanation of the fact”, and a mechanical scheme of action too, “and then substitute the explanation for the fact itself” (Bergson 1944: 181).

Therefore, Bergson’s symbolic homogeneity perfectly describes the performative and “active” ontology of the virtus without including it in reality. The symbolic scheme acts introducing a teleology, and “finalizing” things toward possible actions. Thus, it converts the process into a circuit, spreading its sequence on the “eternal present” of simultaneity and continuously breaking-and-rebuilding the original continuity of the performance into an operative-oriented space. But its improper “ontologization” in the Aristotelian virtus leads us to think of the always-new repetition as an essential repeatability of the phenomenon, based on a teleo-logical capability of its causal conditions.

12.4 The Worker and the Creative

A meaningful question is now: why did classical Metaphysics attribute an ontological value to a scheme that properly works for goal-directed actions? Because the model adopted by Aristotle to think of spontaneous generations is actually taken from human production. It is not by chance that Aristotle’s model is perfectly understandable in explaining goal-directed human actions, but, when it tries to explain the ontological essence of natural, non-human activities, it triggers the paradoxical need to place in the object’s ontology the regulative, symbolic representation of the virtus.

The presence of a hidden technical scheme under Aristotle’s teleological model is nevertheless suggested by Bergson again, and thus developed by Simondon. Bergson’s contribution is crucial especially in pointing out the metaphysical connection between technology and teleology, which Simondon would think of as an “inner resonance” of technological artifacts (Simondon 1958: 20). Nevertheless, in Creative Evolution he criticized teleology as a theory that “likens the labor of nature to that of the workman, who also proceeds by the assemblage of parts with a view to the realization of an idea or the imitation of a model” (Bergson 1944: 99). And again, in The Possible and the Real, he remarked how insurmountable metaphysical problems “arise […] from our habit of transposing into fabrication what is creation” (Bergson 2002: 226).

It is not by chance that Aristotle—save for human free actions led by desire—treats natural and artificial teleological events exactly as having analogous causes of generation, that is the non-rational or the rational agents, whose actions are teleologically oriented. Aristotle openly argues that teleology joins both technical production and natural generation (Ph. II 8; Met. Z 7) and also that artificial goal-directed processes provide us with a model to think of natural ones (Ph. II 8, 199 a 16–19).

It should not be forgotten that, in the Aristotelian world, the main actor of teleology is the eidos, or form. Aristotle seems to be continuing that of Plato, who tried to think of a productive process as aimed at a stable (and even separate) logical goal, and such a goal as nothing but the logical portrait of the “productive scheme” of teleological, artificial processes. As Cassirer remarks in his Form and Technology,

when Plato develops the relationship between “idea” and “appearence” and seeks to justify it systematically, he does not seek to ground it in the shapes of nature but in the products and organization of téchne. The art of the “craftsman”, the “demiurge”, provides him with one the great motifs with which he represents the meaning of the idea (Cassirer 2012: 19).

Simondon (1958: 241) also points out that Aristotelian hylomorphism represents “the transposition into philosophical thought of the technical operation, drawn from labor and taken as the universal paradigm for the genesis of beings”. This “analogic” model of explanation implicitly represents the becoming acting like a workman who shapes some clay, repeating a specific sequence of actions depending on the model he wants to reproduce.

Such a model obviously works fine as long as it is considered as an operative scheme for planning actions, or at least a model to understand spontaneous events as if they were produced by man. Acting teleologically in the world, we introduce-and-find in reality a project that is in our mind, a general “simultaneity” of the process that works only as our “map” in acting (so, it is restricted to the operative ontology of action). We develop our activity following this map, and then we recognize it as if it was previously marked out in reality; a real diagram of production which would come before the process itself.

As in the case of Bergson’s symbolic-driven actions, “animated” actors are able to project and goal-direct a process of production since they can control and use a symbolic apparatus, the mind, which allows them to “homogenize” the external reality and action, thinking of reality as if the action was pre-contained in it. But, as soon as we try to make productive teleology the model for a natural generation process, a paradox arises: where is the symbolic scheme contained? For the Aristotelian dynamis qua dynamis, it lies in the capability of the agent, or, literally, in a current status of things that makes (the nihil obstat) the potency possible. Metaphysics Δ 12 even defines potency as “a source of movement or change, which is in another thing than the thing moved or in the same thing qua other” (1019 a 15). Aristotle’s pure dynamis introduces the idea of a real scheme of the process, a general nihil obstat of reality that converts it to a screen on which the agent can symbolize the action in the form of simultaneity.

Such a “presence” of the potency in another thing, or in the same thing qua other, could be understood in many ways, even if without ever actually going out of the “productive”, teleological scheme in which the virtus is radically thought of.

In its entry for Baldwin’s Dictionary (1902) Peirce, inspired by Scotus (see infra), defines the virtual as “something, not an X, which has the efficiency (virtus) of an X”, being the first to stress how such a notion “has been seriously confounded with ‘potential’ which is almost its contrary”. A virtual velocity, Peirce explains, “is something not a velocity, but a displacement; but equivalent to a velocity in the formula, “what is gained in velocity is lost in power’” (Pierce 1902: 763–4). According to Peirce, a virtual Z is thus a Y able to act in X as a Z, that is producing the same effects as Z. It is not hard to see that Peirce’s definition is also based on the Aristotelian understanding of the virtus as the capability of producing a determined X, based on which a cause Z of X can be replaced by another cause Y, given its abstract equivalence in terms of causation.

Pierce’s entry notoriously inspires Deleuze, who will merge it with Bergson’s concept of virtual, proposing the virtual as an “obscure and distinct” coexistence of multiplicity, an inner difference and—he says—an area of differentiation. Even if coming from Bergson’s and Simondon’s philosophy of the process, Deleuze’s attempt to think of the virtual on a “univocist” ontological background thus risks paradoxically reanimating metaphysical positions.

Especially Badiou (2000) has stressed how the virtual is, for Deleuze, a different name for Being, and how the author reveals a proximity even with neo-Platonism. The Deleuzian virtual would act as a “ground” beneath the actual and as a neoplatonic One, a unity, a totality of differentiation. Ansell-Pearson (2001: 96 ff.) has perfectly remarked that Badiou’s judgement needs to be corrected recognizing that Deleuze’s ‘Being’ is not transcendent nor emanative like the neo-Platonic One.

Nevertheless, Deleuze thinks of the virtual both as an immanent area for differentiation and as the fact that any being cannot get a complete determination. The virtual is this ontological “coexistence”, in which all beings differentiate themselves from others without converting differentiation into this completeness, in an individual substance or differentiation. Such an area is hence a positive place of the difference, and together the condition of a differentiation that is originally thought of as combined with indeterminacy.

Deleuze notoriously opposes the virtual to the actual (but not to the real) because of its non fully completed determination. He argues as if not being fully determined was equivalent to not being fully determining. Deleuze’s virtual thus acts like a cause, and signally as an immanent efficient, productive presence of the formal distinction as the cause of beings thought of as the results of the very formal distinction.

The core of Deleuze’s argument is the overturning of Bergson’s “operative” notion of virtual. Bergson starts to use this term univocally in Matter and Memory, so in the years in which he knows Tarde and his works (see especially 1895, 1910). Inspired by Leibniz, Tarde often uses ‘virtual’ to talk of forces of action or generation, what he defines as “sources of possibilities” (1910: 12) or a “surplus of the potency on the act” (1910: 15). According to Tarde, the laws of physics “virtually” open an ontological door to the many possibilities of bodies’ behavior, like hunger.

This concept again takes its roots in the Aristotelian dynamis, and it seems really close to Deleuze’s account of virtual as an “area of problematization”. Yet Bergson uses Tarde’s notion always referring to activities and never attributing to it an ontological meaning. A single recollection exists, for Bergson, in the state of a virtuality because it can be operatively “extracted” from memory; but memory does not represent—as Deleuze (1991: 55–72) claims—a preliminary ontological area. The ontological preeminence is rather placed by Bergson in multiplicity: quality, memory, sensation are intrinsically multiple, thus single qualities, memories, sensations are virtually enactable from this multiplicity. Furthermore, Bergson’s famous rejection of the “nothing” (1944) coincides with the idea of a pure actuality, in which an act passes into another one. The virtual comes from the multiplicity of the act and not as an inner engine of their difference.

On the contrary, Deleuze makes the virtual and the multiplicity coincide in his concept of “internal difference”: multiplicity would flow out from a demanded ‘virtual’ essence just as the virtual is the “internal” differentiation of a multiplicity; its reproduction. What in Bergson was the “positive” account of difference is an ontological multiplicity that comes before the virtual, and not a logical, even if immanent force, the virtual, with which multiplicity produces itself. We can fairly say, hence, that Deleuze “ontologize[s] the conception of creative evolution” (Ansell-Pearson 2001: 113) and, overall, that he ontologizes Simondon’s concept of “pre-individual”.

What Deleuze seems not to grasp is that the historical failure of classical, fundamental ontology does not mereley lie in its bad understanding as unity instead of multiplicity, but rather in a demanded prescriptive nature, which it takes from a productive, teleological model.

Hence, we can agree with Badiou in seeing a connection between Deleuze and classical philosophy of Being, even if the major reference should be sought in Spinoza and—especially—in Scotus. Deleuze’s “One”, the virtual, is not emanative but immanent only because it develops itself using Scotus’ formal distinction (two beings can be distinguished—or differentiated—even if they are actually unseparated—or not differentiated), which was dormant in Peirce’s definition of the virtual. This would allow Deleuze to think of determination as a pure free process if he did not reintroduce a prescriptive substance. He indeed doubles the formal making of formal distinctness, the ontological virtual understood as Being-only-as-formally-distinct, a condition of possibility for formal distinction, the virtual being understood as the expression of this virtuality.

Such a movement allows Deleuze to retrieve Spinoza too, thinking of the ‘formal’ as a substance, a canvas entirely coinciding with its wrinkles. The doubling of the formal dimension hence entails the reintroduction of an ontological self-causation that is a form of circular predetermination: the formal distinction comes as always contained in its own identity, as it was causally predetermined by its double presence, both in the formal distinction, as the result, and in its coincidence with the immanent distinctness that it funds, as the retrospective cause. A recursive circle here ‘causalizes’ the formal distinction, transforming it into a logical stability. The canvas is made up of its wrinkles. The wrinkles are the cause of a canvas made up of its wrinkles.

It is not by chance that Deleuze’s rhizomatic ontology has been commonly identified with an ontology of autopoiesis (which we will discuss infra), especially of networks and systems, and with an ontological (mis)understanding of cybernetics (Marks 2006). Processes, individuation, organization would be ontological since multiple Being is coincident with the multiple becoming of its beings. But here again the virtual keeps in itself the teleological idea of a productive force recognized ex post, or during the activity; so one can fairly talk of the virtualization of something during an actualization—like Bergson and, for instance, Lévy (1995, 1998)—but we are not allowed to talk of the virtual, as an ontological structure for a new univocity of the Being.

12.5 Infrastructure, Formalization and Control

The analysis of the Aristotelian dynamis qua dynamis revealed its fundamental connection with the idea of a logical “presence” of the future in the present—in the potency of the agent’s capability, or in given, positive conditions of the present state. Nevertheless, according to Metaphysics Δ 12, the “source of movement” and enactment of the potency literally is in the context, as an ontological, symbolic scheme available for the teleological action. Now, such a logical presence of the process’ goal in both the present and the future, seems granted by Aristotle’s believing that: (1) everything has a formal organization that works like the logical driver of teleologies; (2) all the teleologies are forms acting towards other specific forms; (3) the current (innate or acquired) formal organization of things grants them specific capabilities, that can also be found in nature; (5) the virtus would always be the capability of “forming” something; (6) hence, this capability is an ontological feature of things (the musician is capable of playing, even when not actually playing).

Hence, in Aristotle’s idea, the logical (and supposedly real) dimension of the “forms” acts like a natural but abstract, homogeneous “geometry”, through which the becoming is spontaneously divided into “states” or “things”; each of these present segments would be logically oriented by the presence of a capability or a potentiality, towards the generation of other logically-given “states” or “things”. Accordingly, Aristotelian reality develops itself along a logical web of logical connections; and things are continuously wrapped in the virtual dimension of formality: they are themselves but, at the same time, they are also the (re)production of a potency, contained in a previously actual state: they are real but their essence and functioning is logically ideal, the effect of an eidos.

In order to better analyze the metaphysical roots of the concept of “virtual”, we would like to show that the very idea of a stable, metaphysical reality of forms comes from an improper “ontologization” of a teleological model of “production”, and thus from the misunderstanding of a operative stabilization as an ontological stability.

Especially, we will argue that: (1) form can be understood as the emergent outcome of an operative, non-ontological process of “formalization” and as the very process of metastabilization of this process; (2) indeed, the form can be improperly considered as ontologically real—as Aristotle does—only thanks to the real and recursive shaping action of an apparatus of stabilization of this homogeneity, which is an infrastructure teleologically aimed at it. The hidden function of an activity of shaping is thus fundamental to converting something into its formal model, allowing metaphysics to improperly claim that: (2.1) the same X would lie, at the same time, in two different places (the virtual and the actual), as it was originally a reproduction of a model (as if there was not an original); (2.2) that this supposed reproducibility, would be natural instead of the outcome of a recursive process of maintenance-and-repetition.

The specific feature of the metaphysical understanding of the “forms” is the request for a formal reality, that is an environment in which its formality can be considered as real. Reality would be continuously self-formed, self-formal and self-formalizable, a regular environment in which all forms are kept stable and identifiable, and the formal “transferability” of the virtus (Y is in X) from one form to another (YZ has become Z) is granted. Given the constant becoming of things, such a formal regularity can only be the result of an ordering activity that can be thought of: (1) as immanent to nature’s processes (as Aristotle does); (2) as external to nature’s processes. In the first case, we are back to the paradox of the metaphysical reality of forms: how can such a metaphysical activity be naturally oriented towards “productions” and keep forms stable and identifiable without an already-formal environment? Let us consider the second possibility.

In the metaphysical model, implicitly inspired by teleological, productive activities, we have seen that the virtus needs a subject or rather a substratum in which to operate, like an actual context or an agent. The substratum is itself (a given X), but its reality is also used as a formally homogeneous “screen”, whose disposition (or nihil obstat) makes the emergence of the goal (Z) possible, and so it makes the virtus of Z (YZ) “real”.

That is because the metaphysical understanding of the concept of virtus (YZ) improperly recognizes an ontological stability to the process of using a substratum (X: for instance, the Aristotelian hyle) in order to shape and recursively metastabilize the organization, or “formalization” that individuates something else (Z). As Simondon remarks (2005: 46), the hylomorphic scheme takes nothing but the extremities of the technological activity, forgetting the “mediation” of the process itself; such a mediation lies especially in a process that can never free itself from an abstract side (Simondon 1958: 19–49), and that can increase or decrease its level of internal determination, but never really deny its shaping activity (Ibidem: 74–5).

A letter is written on a paper sheet, used as the substratum of writing; its “formal” reality comes not from its metaphysical structure, but rather from the fact that the sign “can” continuously be reproduced thanks to an availability of paper sheets. Only thanks to given conditions—that is to the availability of a passive substratum, is a “matter”—the act of formalization of something (Z) instituted and repeated, making a “form” permanently “possible”. Given the (neutralized) substratum X, the same Z can indeed be obtained at will, converting its concrete “repeatability” into an abstract “reproducibility” and also making possible the emergent, “virtual” presence of YZ in X (that is, the possibility of generating Z at will).

We can formalize, for instance, what ideally happens to a sphere S on a downhill road using Galileo’s inclined plane, P. A collection of single throws (T1, T2, T3, Tn) on a real road would cause single, non-formalizable experiences (“repetitions”); but the availability of P, projected as a homogeneous environment for the action of measuring, makes it possible to understand them as “reproductions” (T1,2,3,n) of the phenomenon; that is: as they would all follow a unique “simultaneous” scheme of (re)production. Thanks to the substratum P, indeed, the “form” T has been logically generated, and the various T1, T2, T3, Tn have been converted into a series, generated by the “virtual” presence of T in P (that is, out of the ontological understanding: the availability of P for the “serialization” of T).

The reality of formalities lies therefore in nothing but their possible reproduction in a substratum, and thus it firstly depends on the possibility of acting unimpededly towards a goal on that substratum. Yet, such a possibility is neither ontological nor strictly logical, but operative—since it is the full and constant availability of a passive substratum for an specific action. Hence, the logical root of form lies in its actual implementation, and the latter is nothing but the fact that we have complete, stable and total control of something that is reduced to a substratum, now aimed at the virtual (re)production of the formalizable X.

But is there something that is ontologically a substratum? Or what makes this substratum a substratum? The idea of an ontological substratum, a pure hyle that virtually hosts all the possible forms and that a virtus can naturally shape in all the directions, is metaphysical and naïve, and it again seems to come from the improper misunderstanding of technical production and natural generation. In the logic of productions the first substratum is obtained from the “capture” of a “resource” (for instance, the geological status of rocks, or the biological life of trees or animals) and from a mechanism of stabilization of such a domain.

This mechanism, which we will call “infrastructure”, always implies the use of a symbolic apparatus that individuates something as a substratum, and teleologically uses on it goal-oriented tools (a hammer, a saw, a fence, etc.). Once it is implemented, the “infrastructure” allows us to deal with the resources as they were naturally aimed at our goal, that is, as they permanently had an essential “form”, teleologically oriented towards a specific production.1 Thus, the substratum is understood as the “matter of”, stabilizing the repeated action as a “capability” and clearing the way for an ontological (mis)understanding of the “virtus of”.

Aristotle’s idea of a given virtus seems indeed to metaphysically portray a society in which the workforce and its maintenance are given and are kept steady and regular by slavery (see Simondon 1958: 86–8). A zero-degree of the system keeps our capability to do some actions unaltered. There is no real change in society, the order is permanent and logic can crystallize, describe and universalize it, discarding the processes that maintain this energy stable.

Like pure dynamis, the slave is, for Aristotle, an “instrument” and “not his own, but totally another’s” (Pol. I, 4). He is part of the social workforce, but he is radically excluded from government and the management of the city (Pol. I, 5). Likewise, the musician is born as a musician, so he does not need to continuously practise to keep his capability. The slave is simply naturally oriented to slavery, he is energy to automatize and teleologically confirm some environmental conditions.

12.6 Allopoiesis Generalis

As we sketched before, a relevant feature of Aristotelian dynamis qua dynamis lies in its supposed capability of processes to teleologically control themselves (as) from the outside, as if they were moved by an inner project and technologically steered to (re)production of logically given “forms”. The “homogeneous”, representative space of the virtual is supposed to be in reality, continuously working in containing spontaneity within a linear chain of reproductive relationships. Over and over again, dynamis would shape the actual in the reproduction of “possibilities” determined by the actual status, ordering the first towards the second.

What is crucial here is therefore how the reality of the dynamis qua dynamis helps Aristotle to metaphysically hypothesize a conservation of an order of the process out of the process itself. Potency would have the capability of being spontaneously under the control of the act, and of transmitting this order to the following one. It ideally keeps stable any generation, converting its spontaneous multiplicity into the flowing of pre-ordered, (re)productive series. It is not by chance that, especially from the Middle Ages, the notion of virtual will be developed in connection with the idea of God as a universal Architect of the world, and his ordered or unordered power of generation.

Historically, the concept of virtual shifts little by little from Aristotle’s dynamis to Scotus’, Peirce’s (and actually Deleuze’s) notion. Since its function is to control processes, it can be reduced to a formal name for a fully overdetermined causation, a formal dimension opened by the statement that the whole of the possible process always happens within a logical order that reflects a real one. Accordingly, virtuality becomes a full teleology (whatever God wants is virtually already done) that wraps and prepares ontology, projecting in it an entire world of possibilities (formally predetermined actions with a virtual existence).

We can find this account of the “virtual” already sketched in Aquinas’ dealing with the distinction between God’s attributes. Such a distinction can be made, even if none of them actually have an independent existence from the others, as well as from God’s substance. Similarly, Aquinas defines as “virtual” the status of the whole of Creation in God’s essence, “in which originally and virtually every being pre-exists in its first cause” (ST I, q. 79, a. 2), and we can especially find the virtual at work in the concept of quantitas virtualis. This expression indicates a position in the space in which something—especially God or angels—can produce specific actions from a distance as if it actually was in the place. Angels (and other metaphysical entities) are thus virtually located in space—as they are not materially extended but—at the same time, they have the ability and power to be causally active on material bodies.

A similar but stronger use can be found in Scotus, through which all modern thought, especially Suárez and Peirce, would receive an account of virtuality focused on ordered and overdetermined production.

According to Scotus, a virtual thing—e.g. the First Object who virtually contains all the truths of the habit of science—“does not depend on another but other things depend on it” and, “in its containing, it does not depend on other things but other things depend on it, that is, that if, per impossibile, all other things in the idea of the object were removed and only it remained understood, it would still objectively contain them” (Duns Scotus 1954, Prologus, a. 2, 144). This is the reason why he claims, regarding perception, that “no object will produce a simple and proper concept of itself and a simple and proper concept of another object unless it contains this second object essentially or virtually”. The first object transcends the second, predetermining and containing in its possible activity all the actual being of the other.

In the light of the reading of Metaphysics ∆ 12, it is not hard to see that Scotus’ “containing” is nothing but the capability of a preeminent cause X to formally (re)produce the entire reality of an effect Y, including its possibile effects Z as a cause. The actual existence of Y and Z is therefore totally reduced to a productive virtus, on which the possible production of Y depends as a totally overdetermined reality. What is relevant is that Scotus’ account is based on the belief that Y exists only as the product of a goal-directed process of reproduction of a given possibility, that is: the virtus of Y makes Y possible and, if enacted, it makes it actual.

Within this model, the sixteenth century would show a tendency to openly declare the link between virtuality and the formal disposition of its instruments. Suárez—who often uses the concept of “virtual”, stressing its continuity with eminence and formality—goes for instance to the extreme consequences of Scotus’ position. The Jesuit significantly uses the notion of “virtuality” especially in his discussion of proximate causes, (Suárez 1856–61, d. 18) claiming that the virtual existence of something is such “only as an external label”, because “that virtual being is nothing but the existence of the instrument” (d. 18, s. 7, § 2). As shown before, virtuality is openly thought of as the idea of a set or a chain of preordered instruments, even reducing its being to the ordered and therefore teleologically aimed chain of instruments.

Scotus’ and Suárez’s understanding of the virtual is on the way to what Heidegger would describe in The Age of World Picture, (Heidegger 1977) as the reduction of the world to its reproductive, technological representation, that is “measurement” or what we called a “formalization”. Basing on the misunderstanding of generation and production, the “analogical” value of the technological explanation is raised to the level of a “real” explanation. Our explanation is, indeed, analogical to technological processes, but generation is analogical to the latter.

Beings are thus conceived as products of a general technological process. They are chains of ordered causes for which each segment is virtually overdetermined by the oriented causality of the previous one and can be replaced by its “formal” productive scheme. Hence, a technologically-driven experience of reality, like the measurements of scientific experiments, can even fully take the place of the access to the real causes, since the artificial, epistemological explanation is able to explain all the effects and it is virtually the same of them. As Cassirer remarks (here especially about Galileo),

the genuine explanation of […] facts is that theoretical activity and technological activity do not only touch each other externally, insofar as they both operate on the same ‘material’ of nature, but, more importantly, they relate to one another the principle and core of their productivity. The image of nature that thought produces is not captured by a mere idle beholding of the image; it requires the use of an active force (Cassirer 2012: 43).

General metaphysics is implicitly converted in a general allopoiesis of the world, which seems to be the root of Renaissance and modern engineering. Reality is represented as a machine, virtually projected and realized by a Great Engineer; thus, engineering can extend, or carry on, God’s work without ever going outside natural limits. These limits are the limits of a virtual that is already identified with the entire ontology, in a general “naturalization” of the technological model. We find a meaningful summary of this view in Browne’s Religio Medici:

…Nor do I so forget God, as to adore the name of Nature; which I define not with the Schools, the principle of motion and rest, but, that straight and regular line, that setled and constant course the wisdome of God hath ordained the actions of his Creatures, according to their several kinds. To make a revolution every day, is the nature of the Sunne, because that necessary course which God hath ordained it, from which it cannot swerve, but by a faculty from that voice which first did give it motion (Browne 1645: s. 16, 31).

Hence, nature can be totally reduced to a “straight and regular line” of (vertically) ordered, productive activity. This because God himself acts according to a technological model, formally disposing and ordering “secondary” causes as (replaceable) instruments:

God is like a skilfull Geometrician, who when more easily and with one stroke of his Compasse, he might describe, or divide a right line, had yet rather do this in a circle or longer way; according to the constituted and forelaid principles of his Art: yet this rule of his he doth sometimes pervert, to acquaint the world with his prerogative, lest the arrogancy of our reason should question his power, and conclude he could not; and thus I call the effects of nature the works of God, whose hand and instrument she only is; and therefore to ascribe his actions unto her, is to devolve the honour of the principall agent, upon the instrument; which if with reason we may do, then let our hammers rise up and boast they have built our houses, and our pens receive the honour of our writing (Ibidem: s. 16, 32).

And, accordingly:

…nature is not at variance with art, nor art with nature; they being both the servants of his providence: Art is the perfection of Nature: Were the world now as it was the sixth day, there were yet a Chaos: Nature hath made one world, and Art another. In briefe, all things are artificial, for Nature is the Art of God (Ibidem: s. 16, 33–4).

In the light of God’s absolute and eternal virtus, nature and art are nothing but two different varieties of production. Reality can thus be thought of according to the model of a formal project that pre-contains all the possible realities, an absolute formal representation, distinct from a mere “imitation” only by the eminence of its Cause.

A project virtually and formally “contains” all the possible behaviors of each of the components of a machine. It virtually is the engine because of its capability of (re)producing in all its possible workings before they happen and as if they had already happened. It does not matter that the machine can actually work only because the (re)presentation has previously prepared its implementation in the logic of simultaneity. A machine’s work is supposed to be in time and out of time at the same time, as it controls the time of the entire process, addressing it to the homogeneous membrane of the virtual.

In the Renaissance context, a new, crucial approach in Aristotelian metaphysics starts to focus on the essential role of the “secondary causes” as the efficient, proximal instruments of an absolute, divine pre-disposition and overdetermination of the world (Carraud 2002). Like an engine, reality would work as a chain of predetermined relationships between efficient causes and their effects, without breaks in their continuity.

The mechanization of space, conceptually converted into the homogeneous language of Euclidean geometry, will complete this identification, straightening the demand for a self-controlled reality, which every pre-controlled instrument, apparatus or environment can “virtually” (re)produce; for instance in Descartes’ theory of “figuration” (Rule XII), which rebuilds in the mechanical model the classic, Aristotelian semiotic of the form; or in Leibniz’s concept of monad as a virtual, tabular container of the whole of reality, in which reality and formalization are continuously overlapping; more broadly, in these Baroque philosophies that reveal the paradoxical equivalence of the formalization with a reproduction in continuously confusing its hermeneutical models, theatre, representation or image with reality itself.

In Symbolic Exchange and Death (1993: 50) Baudrillard would masterfully place this trend as the first of his “orders of simulacra”, basing it on a semiotic of the “counterfeit”—“the dominant schema in the ‘classical’ period, from the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution”—which precedes and allows the semiotic rise of “production” and “simulation”. We might say indeed that Baudrillard’s concept of “hyper-reality” also finds its roots here: in the movement with which the world is, at the same time, thought of as the consequence of a vertical ordering and a free becoming along the lines of this order that continuously reproduces itself.

Especially in early modern mechanism, the Aristotelian virtus seems to finally find a definitive ontological modelization. The virtus is fully exhausted in the always-predisposed structure of a machine-reality, but such a reduction claims there is no actual reality that one cannot convert into its “virtual” representation, that is into a stable, operative pattern. There is no room anymore, for any virtus, power or force that cannot be represented and pre-scribed as a network of causal, proximate relationships, continuously reproducible and reproducing within the same scheme. To paraphrase Korzybski’s famous sentence, the territory has become the map.

Such an exclusion of any difference between reality and its (re)productive representation would mark the final eclipse of spontaneity, gradually reduced to the Aristotelian “automatic” predisposition of the physis to its operative scheme. As Bergson remarked in his Time and Free Will, this principle is thought of as a power, and especially as a power of representation of a prefigured action that can always be (re)produced. As Leibniz said in his Confessio Philosophi, “spontaneity comes from potency, freedom from knowledge” (1994: 83): here we can see at work all the paradoxical identification of change with its representative and reproductive scheme; a Möbius’ strip in which the early modern era (and sometimes the contemporary) would not be able to fully distinguish a truly free actor from a predisposed one.

12.7 Unlike a Machine

Nowadays, an unwitting recovery of the metaphysical virtual can still be found in teleonomy. This concept was widely discussed in biology and cybernetics, especially starting from the ’70s, and often received in ontological, misleading terms.

Unlike Aristotle’s telos, teleonomy’s circular activity of (re)production would not come thanks to a logically external process, since it would be in the system itself as its ontology. A process’s “external” processuality, or even the hidden technological model of the process, is denied not so as to recognize its technological structure, but so as to include it as a part of the working system.

This model seems able to keep a homogeneity between technology and spontaneity, applying to the second the circular form of the first. Natural systems are supposed to have a natural capability of balancing themselves, and to be able “by nature” to virtually reproduce the environment and interact with it. They are supposed to be intentional and to reveal that spontaneous goal-directed actions come from the same operative dispositions as the structure. The virtual dimension establishes a homogeneity, an equivalence in the effects that allows us to postulate an equivalence of the causes.

There are two points we would like to stress regarding this perspective: 1) stability and ergonomics cannot take on the form of an essential property or a telos; this would be to mistake progress and performance with a thing—as Bergson claimed—giving an onto-teleological justification of currently working systems. As we said, virtual-actual processes are at most teleological tendencies, circuits of actions that simulation allows us to repeat and that may continuously need to (re)stabilize themselves. They are able to enhance or weaken their activity, but never to reach an ontological independence from the environment they take as their substratum.

As Suárez openly admitted, the Aristotelian virtual is completely solvable in the maintenance of a teleological order of the tools (they are disposed for the goal); there is not any stable, separated “capability” in things, even if we can processually stabilize (but not “ontologize”) this tendency isolating the action within the boundaries of a productive (re)presentation, that follows the supposed capability or virtus. This means that they need to be intrinsically eco-logical, since they are bound to the oikos in which their activity lies; 2) the base of interaction remains a (re)productive formalization, renamed as “information” or “communication”.

Like Aristotle’s dynamis, teleonomy also seems to implicitly sneak the technological pattern into spontaneous processes. Recognizing them as spontaneous-as-purposeful; spontaneity would be intrinsically techno-teleo-logical, and the goal-oriented model an ontological model for reality.

Some crucial remarks on this point are obviously those by Maturana and Varela in their Autopoiesis (1980). Autopoiesis, the phenomenon in which systems “maintain constant, or within a limited range of values, some of their variables” thanks to a feedback effect “internal to them” (78) is for them fully separable from teleonomy, a “descriptive and explanatory” (85) notion, “adequate for the orientation of the listener towards a given domain of thought” (86) but completely useless as causal elements in the functioning of this phenomenon. The use of the machine “belongs to our description of the machine in a context wider than the machine itself” (77–8).

Maturana’s and Varela’s rejection of teleonomy is epistemologically crucial since it helps us to think of automation beyond its metaphysical analogy with human technology and its teleological patterns. Automata can maintain a stable homeostasis even if they are not programmed to this behavior as their specific purpose. They can be phenomenologically described as machines only for their regular behaviour—and this also involves the possibility of a range of regularity—and as long as such regularity is expressed. In this perspective, every regular behaviour can be analogically considered an automaton: the Solar System, cells, the water cycle, etc.

Such a perspective implies avoiding the use of “machine”, rather adopting a non-ontological category of “automata”. Machines (including Aristotelian automaton) do indeed work thanks to their project; automata are, by contrast, systems producing stable patterns. It is possible that something stays stable without being designed to be stable, without attributing such a possibility to its ontological capability.

Thus, we can more easily talk of: (1) onto(teleo)logical automata, or machines—this concept entails the ontological, original virtuality of their project as the core of their functioning; (2) analogical automata—regular, spontaneous things, that simply show, without any ontological commitment, a regularity in their behavior, or in specific relations, without postulating a metaphysical capability.

In the first case, ontology can easily be converted into simultaneity without any loss of reality. In the latter case, regularity is the outcome of a completely different account of simultaneity: the regular behavior of these automata can indeed be recognized only from the synchronicity between two different processes (external simultaneity, say a cell and a clock), or as a simultaneity between multiple sub-processes in the same process (internal simultaneity, say several chemical bonds that constitute the same cell); yet such a simultaneity comes not before the processes but during them, as their effect. They are not coordinated, but they are coordinating.

This organization is formal since it does not follow a previous scheme but rather because we are here epistemologically isolating (in the definition) only its simultaneous elements. Accordingly, such an “analogical” simultaneity is not a homogenous, ontological area of virtuality pre-existing before the processes involved, but rather an emergent homogeneity and virtuality opened, in a general perturbation, by the simultaneous, non technological coexistence of spontaneous and different processes or sub-processes.

Under “Aristotelian” influence, Western culture is instead so used to overlapping the two concepts, and so the two kinds of simultaneity, that even Maturana and Varela’s discussion seems to lack the proper difference between “machines” and “automata”. According to them, the reason for an epistemological distinction between machines and living systems “can be easily disqualified” because it would imply a previous, undemonstrated belief, “that living systems cannot be understood because they are too complex […] or that the principles which generate them are intrinsically unknowable” (83).

Maturana and Varela’s argumentative strategy is to reduce living beings (analogical machines) to autopoietics, in order to demonstrate an identity between autopoiesis and machines (onto-teleological machines) and thus to argue the equivalence between living beings and machines. Once again, it is the implicit introduction of virtuality in the explanation of autopoiesis that allows commutation. Although the two authors strongly reject teleonomy, their demand for an equivalence between living autopoietic systems and machines is achieved through an only partial reduction of autopoietics to its functioning. In shaping their concept of “autopoietic machines” Maturana and Varela define them as:

a machine organized (defined as a unity) as a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components that produces the components which: (i) through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produces them; (ii) and constitute it (the machine) as a concrete unity in the space in which they (the components) exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network (Ibidem: 78–9).

Focus especially on the first part. The definition introduces an element, organization, that is “descriptive and explanatory” at least as teleonomy. Autopoietic systems would be organized—rather than organizing—toward the process of production of something. This “something” is nothing but themselves—we recall that Aristotelian dynamis also worked “in the same thing qua other”—in their “fundamental variable which they maintain constant” (78). They would have a capability, a virtus, that comes from their organization, to “continuously regenerate” themselves as the cause of their following regeneration.

Focus now on the second part. Here Maturana and Varela try to avoid a retrieval of teleology by reducing this organization to the spatial topology to the components. But these components are previously thought of as organized. At point (ii) the definition specifies that the constitution is that of the machine, but it is actually that of the machine “organized as a network of processes, etc.”. So the machine is considered here twice: (1) as the organized machine (the virtual machine, the machine as organization); (2) as the supposed non-teleological machine that follows the virtual, the abstract organization of the first, recreating it in space and topology (actually).

The reduction of the machine to the (organized) components is nevertheless, nothing so new. It can already be found, as we showed, in Scotus’ and Suárez’s definition of the virtual. The virtual is formally nothing but “the [ordered] existence of the instrument” (Suárez). Accordingly, such a topological organization would virtually contain (Scotus) the real object and even its reality.

Likewise, Maturana and Varela’s definition places organization in a leading position in relation to topology, making their “machines” “self-referential, self-reproductive monadic entit[ies]” (Ansell-Pearson 1997: 141–142). As Simondon remarked (1958: 47), every equivalence between autopoietic beings and machines is ontologically misunderstanding, since the logical structure of human technology implies teleological goal-directedness. Accordingly, if living beings are analogous to human apparatuses, they are intrinsically teleological; if they are not teleonomical—as Maturana and Varela accepted—they are machines in an equivocal meaning, that is that of what we called “analogical automata”. Outside of the conceptual tools of “classical” metaphysics, autopoietic systems do not show an onto-teleological capability—a metaphysical assumption—of reproducing and maintaining themselves; they show the fact that they are continuously reproducing themselves.

Another interesting example of the surreptitious reintroduction of the virtual into living systems through a ‘mechanical’ account of teleonomy is Monod’s. In the renowned Chance and Necessity Monod (1972) presents teleonomy as able to finally found an “objective” model of nature, that systematically rejects any goal-directedness (20–2). At the same time he still defines teleonomy as the “transmission of content of invariance” (15), basically reducing teleonomic structures, organization and performance to information.

Monod is really accurate in thinking of teleonomy as a process—which he defines as “oriented, coherent and constructive” (45) and not as a preconceived project—but he seems not to grasp the need to distinguish, on these very bases, between living automata and human machines. The ontological overlap between the two is argued for again because of an ontological use of information, which is nothing but the Aristotelian virtual. Information is able to codify and transmit an invariable teleonomical organization, yet such an invariance is not contained in information, as a property, but rather through some information, as an always new reproduction process.

Baudrillard (1993: 59) would attack Monod’s position as a “metaphysics of the code” in which “life is […] ruled by the discontinuous indeterminacy of the genetic code, by the teleonomic principle”. In such a model “finality is no longer at the end, there is no more finality, nor any determinacy. Finality is there in advance, inscribed in the code”. According to Baudrillard Monod indeed entails a “phantasm of nature” that is “no longer a metaphysical sanctuary for the origin and substance, but this time, for the code”. Monod is thus a “strict theologian of this molecular transcendence”, in which

the phantasm of the code, which is equivalent to the reality of power, is confused with the idealism of the molecule. Again we find the hallucination or illusion of a world reunited under a single principle – a homogeneous substance according to the Counter-Reformation Jesuits (Baudrillard 1993: 80).

By contrast, outside of any substantialism, we can say instead that spontaneous systems teleonomically stabilize a previously non-teleonomical organization using information, whereas human machines are completely reducible, from the beginning, to their informational structure; they were designed as an information-simulation diagram. Nevertheless, as Simondon stressed, a “perfect” mechanical automatism has its core in a total reduction of indetermination (the demanded, never-really-achieved ontological coincidence between the system and its information), but such a reduction implies the erasure of any possible variation, with the consequent loss of any signification (Simondon 1958: 139–40). The machine becomes a project expressing nothing but a process itself (as in Deleuze’s Spinozism).

To avoid any misunderstanding, we stress that we are not denying mechanical patterns in nature, but rather that it can be assumed as ontological. Mechanism can spontaneously flow from freedom, or chance, practicing and maintaining an order in it, but it cannot exhaust it as its ontological scheme. What biology stresses is that living systems (not ontologically technological or reducible to technology) are seen to practice some reproductive, teleonomical patterns, shared, as a scheme of action, by both analogical automata and ontoteleological machines.

This realisation does not require or allow us to reduce the whole ontology of these beings to the mechanisms they produce. This would lead us to reintroduce an ontological virtuality—what metaphysics did—as a common plan for the equivalence of the two. We must rather say that both, in equivocal ways (the first is a production and a use, the second is the very structure) perform these patterns.

Unless we want to represent these mechanizing systems as given, that is created, we are forced to recognize that they come from a non-already-mechanized process. Otherwise, we illegitimately identify autopoiesis (the process), with cybernetics (the control system). These systems organize themselves using cybernetic practices, although they are not this organization.

As a branch of technology, cybernetics can legitimately work to achieve more or less complex control-systems, as well as try to reproduce, in technological terms, what one can find in spontaneous systems. But as soon as it appoints itself as an ontology of non-technological systems, it immediately falls into the mistakes of “engineering” metaphysics. Onto-cybernetics cannot find a real distinction between a thing and its reproduction and it is forced to start an infinite work of recursive optimization trying to epistemologically reproduce what actually is an ontological level; every time it finds something interesting, it claims it has discovered something about natural systems.

Conversely, non-mechanist autopoiesis recognizes that spontaneous processes (automata) can control and organize themselves without this previously being an aim for which they are set up. It is all about recognizing that such order does not come from an ontological scheme but rather on an epistemological practical, level. It is all about reducing automatism to an emergent form of spontaneity (translated by autopoietic mechanism in terms of perturbation) and avoiding any ontological equivalence between spontaneous technological processes and our cybernetic organizations.

As we claimed, the definition of automata as analogical apparatuses is fully based on their internal or external simultaneity and the latter opens an emergent virtuality, which equivocally allows us to categorise them as machines. Such virtuality indeed represents a space in which an organizing simultaneity, without losing its nature as a process, can be actually stabilized through an organized topology. The machine is hence organized by the process and within the process, in the stabilization and control of some of its free patterns.

12.8 Digital Baroque

Even if the idea of a “technological” nature properly represents a philosophical misunderstanding, technology has found in it—and especially in the metaphysical account of the virtus—a complete validation of its inner (operative) ontology, as well as of its operative structure, oriented towards the concepts of simultaneity and reproduction.

Digital technologies seem especially to concretize, in the form of technology, the metaphysical idea of a stable—rather than stabilizedvirtus.

Software packages are fully-controlled and fully-formalized environments, able to overdetermine all their possible, formal objects, funding an actual virtual ontology. Technology would be finally capable, by themself, to institute a “new reality”, or a “secondary” reality, within the specific domain of a “formal” reproduction.

Moreover, objects filling this ontology are entirely formal, and entirely manipulable, as they were intrinsically products of the shaping system, and their reality would entirely depend on the “efficiency” of that system. In this, digital technologies take to its extreme the idea of an inner and infinite reproducibility of things, and especially that this reproducibility is always a copying. Thanks to the fully controlled and ordered nature of the system, the software owns an ontology in which one can copy a file losing every distinction between the original and the copy. The object is taken as “a file”, that is in the natural reproducibility of its “form”, abstracting from any physical circumstances of individuation.

Just because of its direct derivation from the metaphysical model of technology, such a view keeps hiding the “real” virtus, that is the availability of a controlled substratum. In this sense, the digital actually is a vertical, ordered sequence of instruments; but its functioning and ontology should be understood exactly as opposed to how metaphysics understood it. Its movement does not start from the above, that is from a logical overdetermination of a production, but rather from below, that is an operative process of “shaping” and technological formalization of nature.

Behind the “virtual worlds”, the “virtual objects” and the full, homogeneous control of the “digital” environment, lies a permanent process of maintenance of an “infrastructure”, which keeps stable the organization of the conditions required for the digital technologies’ functioning. These conditions are not taken for granted, as they rely on the availability of other substrata and infrastructure. From this perspective, they are the outcome of a process that happened between the seventeenth and the twentieth century, when mechanization and engineering have taken on a leading role in the homogenization of chronological, geographical, anthropological, economic coordinates and many others. Such a development of infrastructures provided to technology an entire and stable operative ontology; a general system—and a general, concrete metaphysics—which meant thinking of humans, animals, artifacts, natural events, biology, as different sketches on the same diagram.

Hence, the digital represents the conclusive form and the apogee of a process of “naturalization” of technology that starts with the process of industrialization, able to transform environment, spaces, work, living, into the working parts of a great machine, (re)producing itself by the means of everyday life, correcting and “forming” spontaneity in a designed totality. Such an “idealism” of the machine has been able to hide the organized work of millions of living beings, representing its outcome as an ontology, as a category of a supposed natural economy or natural cybernetics.

On that previous mechanization, the digital sets its virtus, but formalizing all its substrata as mere infrastructures. Laid on this transparent homogeneity, the digital exists nowadays as “the” virtual, as a pure simulation, as a pre-controlled system of ordering, as a reproduction of a mechanical disposition of the “parts” and, finally, as the reproduction of this disposition in every field of society and nature.

It is not by chance that such a totality took, in a first phase, the form of a new Baroque. The first part of the history of digital virtuality—especially most of the VR projects from the ‘60s to the ‘90s: Sensorama, Aspen Movie Map, Active Worlds, Second Life—are characterized by this open simulation form, and so by the aim (not so far from Browne’s view) of building a virtual-as-fictional reality. Their virtuality is hence essentially interface-based, as a pure manipulability given in its simplest form.

Baroque machines acted by pre-controlling the interaction patterns of viewers. Their main tools were visual “machines” like anamorphosis, perspective, deformation, but these tools ask the viewer to take a specific posture. Accordingly, the early digital started working by persuading users they had an additional power that kept their previous organization unaltered (a “second” life), but it basically took billions of people in front of a screen, set on a chair. It reorganized our daily spaces and times placing them on the homogeneous, formal plane of simultaneity, and converting them into infrastructures of the functioning of the digital. Here—that is starting from this technological premise—it unchained new forms of differentiation, identities and economies.

Such an operative strategy also had other applications than the “digital” and did not leave today’s technology even in its further, current evolutions.

Like Baroque machines, the aim of contemporary robotics, cybernetics and AI is nevertheless that of “replicating” living automata, starting still from their efficiency. Robotics “virtually” understands man as a set of capabilities, and “formalizes” it trying to replicate these spontaneous behaviours and activities. According to such an old scheme, the equivalence in the effects (the “performance”) provides a “formal” notion, or a “formula” of man, that would allow us to “reproduce” it at will. Hence, measurement acts like a “homogeneous” symbolic plan, on which the actual behavior can be transposed, “formalized” and reproduced.

Even the main goal of Artificial Intelligence seems not that of developing a new, non-human form of consciousness and thinking, but rather that of reproducing its performances, until they are indistinguishable. It is not by chance that Turing’s famous test finds its roots in a Cartesian paradox, that of “parroting”, that is to establish if a machine-animal, able to talk (“performance”) is also able to think (“causes”). According to Descartes, these machines

could never use words, or put together signs, as we do in order to declare our thoughts to others. For we can certainly conceive of a machine so constructed that it utters words, and even utters words that correspond to bodily actions causing a change in its organs. […] But it is not conceivable that such a machine should produce different arrangements of words so as to give an appropriately meaningful answer to whatever is said in its presence, as the dullest of men can do (AT VI, 56–7; CSM I, 240).

Descartes’ idea was that speaking is not uttering, since the first reveals a different capability of “reasoning” and the latter only expresses (in men) or imitates (in animals and machines) such a virtus, that is a conscious intelligence (and, for Descartes, a substantial consciousness). Therefore, Descartes’ machines are not humans since they cannot reproduce or imitate such a given capability, and this reveals that they do not possess it. The reproduction and even the imitation of a performance would require, indeed, a specific capability, and only beings provided with this capability are able to do that. Actually, for Descartes, one cannot reproduce intelligence without showing intelligence, and so being actually intelligent: there is no proportionality between being intelligent (mechanical) and non intelligent.

The approach of AI uses intelligent behaviors as a stable maximum grade for generating a scale of intelligence, and, on that measurement, for formalizing it. Human intelligence is previously considered, repeating a metaphysical understanding of the concept of capability, as a “formal” cause of such a maximum grade, as if the effects shown in the intelligent behavior would depend on an “efficiency” able to re-produce them in the scheme of simultaneity. Thus, conscious and intelligent thinking would be not an action, but the effect of a pre-determined capability that can be reached. Accordingly, software that is able to reproduce the effects of human intelligence would thereby be considered as really “thinking”, even if such an attribution can be only analogical. It can be said “thinking” like humans can be called “thinking”, on a scale that has previously understood thinking as a “capability” inferable from “effects”, placing humans at the top of such a scale. Just as in the Baroque model, the analogy is coined on the level of “effects”, then it is transposed back to the “formalization” of a supposed natural “efficiency”, and finally it is “naturalized” in arguing the common descendence of both the artificial and the natural from a given virtus.

But the “ghost” of the Baroque can be found also in today’s mobile communication technologies where the Baroque machine is parceled out, taking the new-old form (as much Baroque) of the symphony. Billions of devices, or infrastructures, are coordinated, and always pre-ordered, by a general simultaneity, acting as parts of a single formalizing apparatus, and as multiple enactments of a single, general virtus. This simultaneity is again still granted by a formalization that relies on common infrastructures able to provide a technological form of memory.

It is worth noticing that, for Bergson, memory represents the ultimate form of (non-classic metaphysical) virtuality, since there the past information is contained as an indefinite plurality that at most can be used by the virtual action conceived by perception:

Whenever we are trying to recover a recollection, to call up some period of our history, we become conscious of an act sui genesis by which we detach ourselves from the present in order to replace ourselves, first in the past in general, then in a certain region of the past – a work of adjustment, something like the focussing of a camera. But our recollection still remains virtual; we simply prepare ourselves to receive it by adopting the appropriate attitude. Little by little it comes into view like a condensing cloud; from the virtual state it passes into the actual; and as its outlines become more distinct and its surface takes on colour, it tends to imitate perception. But it remains attached to the past by its deepest roots, and if, when once realized, it did not retain something of its original virtuality, if, being a present state, it were not also something which stands out distinct from the present, we should never know it for a memory (Bergson 1991: 133–4).

According to Bergson memory is therefore

essentially virtual, it cannot be known as something past unless we follow and adopt the movement by which it expands into a present image, thus emerging from obscurity into the light of day. In vain do we seek its trace in anything actual and already realized: we might as well look for darkness beneath the light (Ibidem: 135).

Conversely, technological memory is conceptually close to what Bergson terms “memory image”, or memories associated with a scheme of recognition-and-action. This memory is virtus, fully aimed at the recall of a virtuality that is already prepared by the operative schemes of perception. Likewise, technological memory is essentially a “formalized” scheme of (re)production of data, as here information is stored within an ontology (that of the software) that gives its objects the structure of the reproducible “form”. Data are thus goal-oriented virtualities, ready to be copied, visualized and reproduced, but first of all they are “analogical” reproductions of something happening in the physical, natural environment, captured and “formalized” in the form of data.

Mobile devices act as a swarm of measuring infrastructures, appointed to “formalize” reality in its technological, reproducible form. Thanks to them, the theatrical, “virtual” Baroque of the ’60s has been converted into a dynamic theatre in which real and virtual actions are basically inseparable. Digital devices import reality into the symbolic apparatus of technological memory, making it manipulable, and overall aimed at an unlimited reproduction. It is indeed such a reproducibility that makes of images, sounds, texts, and many other experiences a homogenous “stage”, the analogical model and a measure for the understanding of reality.

The user acts as if this reproduction was the equivalent, the “virtual” representation of real, and he teleologically aims his actions at this reproduction, at such a formal, reproducible image of reality. On the ubiquitous stage of this analogy, of this multimedial theatre, the user is both the actor and the audience of such a reproduction, and, little by little, he becomes at the same time the substratum and the agent of the reproduction of this form:

Thou seest we are not all alone unhappy.

This wide and universal theatre

Presents more woeful pageants that the scene

Wherein we play in.

(William Shakespeare, As You Like It—Act II, Scene VII, 6)

Footnotes

  1. 1.

    Later, the concept of “infrastructure” can be also be used relatively and mereologically, since it can individuates an already-formed techno-teleological apparatus—for instance, the collection of technologies A1 (A1.1 + A1.2 + A1.3, etc.)—ordered in the view of the formalization (that is, the “reproducibility”) of a “secondary” one, A2 (in turn, A2 can be the “infrastructure” of A3, as well as A0 could be the infrastructure of A1, and so on).

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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Instituto de Estudos FilosóficosUniversidade de CoimbraCoimbraPortugal

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