Teleology and Immaterial Substance after the Physico-Chemical Turn in the Life Sciences

I am posting a paper (click here) I have been playing with for a little while.  I generally don’t post anything that I might publish, but, with some added input and further vision in formulating it, I may be able to turn this into something worth publishing.  The essence of the paper is on vitalism and how teleology has not been stripped out of the original nascent formation (i.e., romantische Naturphilosophie) of the biological discipline.  The paper grew out of my reading of Timothy Lenoir’s The Strategy of Life: Teleology and Mechanics in nineteenth-Century German Biology.  In an instance of virtual eidetic memory, I recalled a very small blip from a book by Henry Margenau, which commented on the teleological nature of the principle of least action, which is principle that governs the evolution of physical systems.  Lenoir’s book proposes that Hermann von Helmholtz represented a point in history in which physio-chemical reduction advanced to the point of completely doing away with teleology.  However, as I explain in the paper, that’s not so; in fact, Helmholtz, at best naturalized teleology by way of sewing the physical principle into chemical and biological systems.

I didn’t want to write a paper attacking Lenoir, just because Lenoir’s book has been beaten from pillar to post, over that past three decades.  Then again, I am not sure there is an equally sufficient and well-motivated way to develop this paper.  My alternative —a extraordinary expenditure of time— is to write the history of biology and the transformation of vis viva, its conflation and semi-merger with the liebenige kraft (and so on), and then stitch the philosophy into the historical narrative to bring full context to the philosophical development.  Rounding out the paper would involve delving deeper into Helmholtz’ technical works on chemistry, etc. to illustrate the institution of the principle of least action.  It would be quite an involved process, rereading and organizing the mountain of texts I have gone through (e.g., Lotz’, Roux, du Bois Reymond, Müller, and so on).

One additional point I have to make, being a philosopher of physics, is that the teleological component of the paper is contingent upon the nature of time and causality, the former being crucial.  For instance, if the world is structured as block universe, then there is no teleology (all within the paper accepted).  I don’t just mention this for the sake of completeness, but for stimulation, as I think what comes out of this paper —the conclusion regarding teleology persisting in biology— could have a broader impact on the philosophy of physics.

Feel free to supply any suggestions on possible approaches I can take with the paper, suggestions on structure or narrative, or even email me if you’d like a Word doc version to supply comprehensive remarks, etc.


Filed under History and Philosophy of Science, History of Physics, History of Science, Natural Philosophy, Philosophy, Philosophy of Physics, Philosophy of Science, Physics

6 responses to “Teleology and Immaterial Substance after the Physico-Chemical Turn in the Life Sciences

  1. Just beginning to read the paper now… As you know from reading my booklet “On the Matter of Life,” I’m very interested in the status of purpose in living systems. And not just as a way to pass the time–I think the question of the ontological status of purpose in nature has major implications for ecological ethics and economic theory.

    The pejorative label “vitalist” gets thrown around a lot, usually to depict those theorists who add an extra immaterial substance to the physical stuff so as to get this stuff to take on and maintain form. Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is certainly teleological, but not “vitalist” or dualist in the sense described above. His philosophy of nature was an explicit rejection of any such Cartesian holdover. He rejected the notion of a pre-given material universe just like he rejected the antithetical idealist notion of a pre-given/a priori conceptual overlay on things. I read him as the first process philosopher of the modern age (i.e., post-Descartes) to think beyond this substance dualism. He wanted to explain the various physical and conceptual products of nature (Newton’s inert bodies, Kant’s given categories) as actualized potencies emergent from an underlying and unformed but form-generating activity. As “form-generating,” this activity can only be understood as a kind of creative intelligence with ends in mind. Not the sort of divine mind that stands beyond and designs from afar, but a more incarnational sort of intelligence, integral to the energetic unfoldings of nature rather than apart from them.

    • I think Lenoir wanted to cast Schelling as a vitalist by grouping him in a slightly more nuanced category of vitalism that entailed any sort of dynamic forces, such as those Schelling took from Kant’s “Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Philosophy,” despite (and, I think, acknowledging) that Schelling rejected a life-force notion, in his “Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature.” Ultimately, Lenoir overreached in his nuancing of distinctions, horribly misinterpreting many thinkers to stitch them into his preconceived historiography.

      If you are interested, I wrote a brief Amazon review for “The Strategy of Life: Teleology and Mechanics in Nineteenth-Century German Biology.” Essentially, the book is useful, if you can recognize all its subtle errors, otherwise, it will just confuse. Also, if you would find it useful, I could email you the syllabus from last semester’s seminar on “Organicism and Teleomechanism,” which provides nearly everything needed to be able to see the pitfalls in the book.

      • I’d definitely like to take a look at that syllabus.

        For a more Deleuzean materialist reading of Schelling, check out Iain Hamilton Grant’s “Philosophies of Nature After Schelling.”

      • I will have that syllabus off to you soon. I am familiar with Grant and, for that matter, all participants in the 2007 Goldsmiths College conference from 2007. I do quite a bit of speculative realism, particularly Meillassoux, so I am interested in them. Haven’t read the whole of Grant’s book, but it is important for my (and Harman’s) concern that Meillassoux’s philosophy must be a form of idealism, for instance.

  2. Finished the paper. Fascinating research on energy. You’ve also got me thinking a great deal about the ontological status of mathematical objects/relations in Kantian transcendental idealism v. Schellingian philosophy of nature…

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