CEPA eprint 2495

Life and exteriority: The problem of metabolism

Barbaras R. (2010) Life and exteriority: The problem of metabolism. In: Stewart J., Gapenne O. & Di Paolo E. A. (eds.) Enaction: Toward a new paradigm for cognitive science.. MIT Press, Cambridge MA: 89–122. Available at http://cepa.info/2495
In the French language, the verb vivre means both “to be alive” (Leben) and “to have an experience, to feel something” (Erleben): it is neutral with respect to the distinction between the transitive life that we call consciousness, and the intransitive life of organisms that merely keep themselves alive. In this text, we put forward the hypothesis that this neutrality, far from being a simple accident of language, is highly revealing as to the primordial status of life; it thus indicates the direction that a phenomenology of life should take. The question that a phenomenology of life has to confront is thus the following: what is the primordial meaning of life such that it precedes the distinction between intransitive and transitive life, and thereby makes this distinction possible? In other words: what is life such that the possibility of consciousness is grounded therein? From the moment we consider that consciousness is basically characterized by intentionality, primordial life must already contain the germ of a fundamental transitivity where intentionality can be grounded; it follows from this that the question of the Being of intentionality, and that of the mode of Being of life, are one and the same question.
The philosophy of life presented by Hans Jonas seems to indicate the route to follow. His book The Phenomenon of Life opens with the following declaration: “Contemporary existentialism, obsessed with man alone, is in the habit of claiming as his unique privilege and predicament much of what is rooted in organic existence as such: in so doing, it withholds from the organic world the insights to be learned from awareness of self” (Jonas 1966, ix). In other words, in Jonas’s view, the “insights” that derive from consciousness should properly be attributed to organic existence as such; the task that Jonas sets himself is to conceive of life in such a way that intentional consciousness can find a true grounding therein. Jonas considers that the concept of metabolism, by which he characterizes living organisms, meets this requirement. A phenomenology that is concerned with the conceiving of life on the horizon of intentionality must thus examine closely the concept of metabolism in order to evaluate whether it is indeed sufficient to fully account for life, and in particular for that opening toward exteriority that characterizes living experience. If it should turn out that the concept of metabolism, as developed by Jonas’s philosophy, does not succeed in giving a fully adequate account of life, then the identification of its limitations will represent a positive step toward defining the conditions for a true phenomenology of life.
Jonas defines life on the basis of metabolism, but this requires, of course, that we are clear about what the term “metabolism” actually means. It turns out that the function of metabolism, as employed by Jonas, is not actually to define life itself, because other physical realities are characterized by identical processes; it is, rather, to give a key to the essence of living organisms precisely to the extent that they escape from strictly material processes. The term metabolism designates the process by which a “whole” maintains itself as such by means of the incessant renewal of the material components of which it is made up. And it is indeed in the very nature of living organisms that their form is maintained in spite of (and in fact because of) an incessant exchange of matter with the environment. Thus, although at any given moment the form does coincide with its matter, over the course of time the form transcends matter, because it remains the same whereas the matter changes. Always different concerning its material constitution, a living organism is always identical concerning its formal identity; namely, it remains the living organism that it is. A signal characteristic of life is that at two moments in time that are sufficiently far apart, its matter cannot be the same; this means that conversely, if the material content is indeed identical at two different moments in time, then we are dealing with an organism that has stopped living and is dead. This is the description that we can give of life as a process, if we restrict ourselves to matter and the laws that govern configurations of matter. In a striking image, Jonas says that if “God were a mathematician” endowed with complete and perfect knowledge of the laws of the physical universe, this is the vision of life that He would have. The question now is whether such a God would really have knowledge of life; in other words, whether metabolism is adequate to characterize life itself. Put the other way round, the question is whether it is possible to attain the essence of living organisms strictly in the domain of material processes, which is the domain of metabolism. Now it must be admitted that other physical realities come under this definition, so that God the mathematician would be quite unable to distinguish them from living organisms. A wave, for example, is a dynamic whole that over time is distinct from its material components, that is, the water particles over which the wave passes but which do not themselves move: “the oscillating units of which it successively consists in its progress perform their movements singly, each participating only momentarily in the constitution of the individual ‘wave’; yet this as the comprehensive form of the propagated disturbance has its own distinct unity, its own history, and its own laws” (Jonas 1966: 77). This means that in spite of the temporal difference between the wave and its material components, the wave has no reality other than that of the events that compose it; it follows that the wave can be entirely explained on the basis of these events. The wave maintains its form only by means of the incessant renewal of its material parts; it is only temporally distinct from these local processes. This amounts to saying that the permanence of a configuration via renewal of its parts is a mere abstraction, because it has no reality other than that of its parts. Now on the face of it, at least from the point of view of a mathematician-God, living organisms seem to fit this description exactly. There is no reason to invoke anything other than the laws which govern the movements of the parts that, through their renewal, give rise to a permanent configuration.
However, the fact remains that a wave is not a living organism. Jonas concludes that what actually characterizes life itself must be revealed to me in a different domain, namely the experience that I have of my own life. His description of life is situated at the point of convergence between a physicobiological approach to living organisms, which identifies them as forms of metabolism, and an anthropocentric approach, which we might also describe as a phenomenological approach, which makes it possible to specify the metabolism of living organisms by adding a dimension to which we have access only through our own first-person experience. This is the dimension of true individuality, of internal identity through self-constitution or self-realization, and in truth it is here that the real definition of life resides. As Jonas says, “On the strength of the immediate testimony of our bodies we are able to say what no disembodied onlooker would have a cause for saying: that the mathematical God in his homogeneous analytical view misses the decisive point – the point of life itself: its being self-centered individuality, being for itself and in contraposition to all the rest of the world, with an essential boundary dividing ‘inside’ and ‘outside’” (Jonas 1966: 79). Thus, being ourselves living organisms, we experience something that a mathematician-God, by His very essence, does not and cannot know: to wit, life as active interiority. Contrary to what a mathematician-God might think, it is not at all the case that a living organism is a consequence of metabolism; it is just the opposite, a vital metabolism is itself a production of an organic unity: “Here wholeness is self-integrating in active performance, and form for once is the cause rather than the result of the material collections in which it successively subsists. Unity here is self-unifying, by means of changing multiplicity. Sameness, while it lasts (and it does not last inertially, in the manner of static identity or of on-moving continuity), is perpetual self-renewal through process, borne on the shift of otherness” (Jonas 1966: 79; see also Jonas 2000: 39). The essence of a living organism resides in the feature that the form is not the consequence but the cause of the renewal of matter. The persistence of a form, the metabolic continuity, is the result of an act: the unity of a living organism is a unifying unity and not a unified unity.
This initial analysis of life calls for a number of remarks. First of all, the dimension of self – the internal identity to which we have access in our own experience – can be reinvested in the external description of living organisms only on the condition that it is considered as an act. It is not the interiority of an intellectual substance, or even the interiority of a lived experience, and this is what distinguishes Jonas from the spiritualist tradition that he criticizes. According to that tradition, life proceeds by adding a sphere of interiority to a certain sort of physical processes. However, when interiority is understood as an act, it can be integrated with exteriority; it can take its place in a physical process precisely as that which gives an impulse to the process. Life thus appears as the cause that was missing for a full explanation of living metabolism. In other words, it is because the internal identity is straight away identified as a vital activity that it can be invested in exteriority, and profitably employed for the requisite clarification of what “metabolism” actually means.
Second, this theory of life refers to a theory of individuation. The fundamental presupposition here is that a living organism is an individual, and that a living individuality is the only authentic form of individuality. And indeed, the mere unification of diversity, whether by virtue of a synthetic perception or by the play of forces that unite material particles to constitute a form that lasts over time, never gives rise to an authentic individuation. In that case, it is a mere external or abstract unity, that is only the result of an act of synthesis or a play of forces: such individuality has no reality in itself, but is only the product of the multiplicity that is unified. Jonas concludes that the only true form of individuality is internal, as an essentially active unity that engages in the process of unifying its elements; the only true individuality is that of an act of individuation. This is why there is a reciprocity in the definition of living organisms and individuality: “Only those entities are individuals whose being is their own doing (and thus, in a sense, their task): entities, in other words, that are delivered up to their being for their being, so that their being is committed to them, and they are committed to keeping up this being by ever renewed acts of it. Entities, therefore, which in their being are exposed to the alternative of not-being as potentially imminent, and achieve being in answer to this constant imminence” (Jonas 1968: 233; see also Jonas 2000: 30, 43). This definition of individuality as act, which is just as much a definition of life, situates life in an essential relation with exteriority. Because the only individuality is that which proceeds from a movement or an act of individuation, to be rigorously accurate it must be concluded that the relation – in other words, the tense polarity between interior and exterior – is primordial with respect to the terms of the relation. The individuality that characterizes a living organism is the realization of self by “self-isolation” from the rest of reality, a self-isolation that accomplishes itself in and by a unification of self or a “self-integration” (cf. Jonas 2000: 39–43). Now, as is clearly apparent in the text which we have just quoted, this activity that is constitutive of individuality has a meaning only because it is exposed to an opposing force of dispersion and dissolution: this individuality is a conquest gained against the risk of falling back into continuity with external nature, which is neither more nor less than the risk of death. To say that individuality is active is to say that it must be ceaselessly restored and renewed, and this because it is permanently exposed to the eventuality of nonbeing. Thus, the distinctive difference of living organisms is a conquest over continuity with the rest of reality: it is not because a living organism is individuated that it is other than physical nature; on the contrary, it is because it is other than physical nature, on an active mode that requires ceaselessly separating itself, that a living organism is individuated. Life proceeds from a “primordial act of separation,” so that it can only be conceived on the basis of a tension between being and nonbeing, which reflects the dual polarity of its relation to the world: a relation of separation, which has to be continually reestablished, and a relation of fusion, which is continually imminent. In the light of this initial analysis, it already appears clearly that according to Jonas life is conceived essentially as survival, as perpetuation of self by self-isolation, in other words as conservation by living organisms of their identity and thereby their very being: life is fundamentally preoccupation with self – that is, life is need.
Our third remark bears on what seems to us to be a major difficulty in this first stage of Jonas’s investigation. As we have said, it is the passage by the experience that I have of my own life, an experience which distinguishes me from God the mathematician, which enables me to have access to this interiority which in the end is what characterizes the reality of living organisms. In this sense, as Jonas repeats following Canguilhem, the observer of life must be prepared by life: life can only be known by life (Jonas 1966: 92, 99). But after this passage by the experience of my own life, we still have to understand the inverse movement by which I will invest this experience in a way of knowing metabolism that will distinguish what exists as an organism. At this point, Jonas invokes an “interpolation” by which I attribute to metabolic processes seen from the outside with the sort of interiority that I have discovered in myself. The determination of the life of living organisms as “individuation by self-integration” rests, finally, on this interpolation: “It is by this interpolation of an internal identity alone that the mere morphological (and as such meaningless) fact of metabolic continuity is comprehended as an incessant act; that is, continuity is comprehended as self-continuation” (Jonas 1966: 92; see also Jonas 2000: 43). Now like all theories of projection, this solution raises the following problem: what is it, in the domain of exteriority, that will motivate my interpolation? Why will I attribute this active dimension of perpetuation of self to a plant, but not to a wave? This difficulty stems of course from the initial cleavage between interiority and exteriority. Nothing in the domain of exteriority justifies such an interpolation because, at the material level, there is nothing that distinguishes a wave from a living organism: the “interpolation” would seem to be impossible. But here is the rub: if the interpolation were possible, it would ipso facto become useless – because now it would have to be admitted that there is something in the domain of reality that motivates the interpolation … and it would be this something that motivates the interpolation, and not the interpolation itself, that would provide the proper definition of life. In other words, the recourse to an interpolation does not explain anything at all, because it presupposes what it was supposed to provide a basis for, that is, a distinctive characteristic of living organisms in the domain of exteriority. This difficulty springs from the split between interiority and exteriority, a split that Jonas maintains and that is the consequence of a resolutely materialist ontology.[Note 1] Life is identified first of all in the domain of exteriority, via the concept of metabolism; because this determination is manifestly insufficient, Jonas is then obliged to appeal to the interiority of experience, but finally the articulation between this interiority of experience and the exteriority of metabolism remains totally problematic. Jonas aims to characterize life, but he first misses the mark by undershooting it – there is a lack of interiority with the concept metabolism, and then by overshooting it with the notion of interiority or “self” – an excess of interiority now leads to a lack of exteriority. It is true that the characterization of this “self” as an act reduces the gap, but this is insufficient to properly close the gap, because this act, first identified within myself, must then somehow be attributed by “interpolation” to external processes. In spite of the real advance represented by the dynamic determination of interiority, Jonas continues to conceive of action as an act performed by a self, rather than conceiving the self as action.
The essence of life consists of metabolism, and the latter is to be understood as the incessant act whereby a living individual perpetuates itself by renewing its matter. The difference between the form and the matter, which qualifies the form as such, is not at odds with the identity between form and matter, because the form can exceed one particular material state only by coinciding with a new material state. The transcendence of the form is only temporal: it never exceeds the domain of matter, but only a particular present state of matter. Thus, the act that is the essence of a living individual can well be defined as freedom, but Jonas emphasizes that it is a dialectical freedom because it is mediated by its opposite, because the act only detaches itself from matter by totally relying on it: organic freedom is a freedom in necessity. The force and the strength of life is the reverse side of its indigence and weakness; it is an act that proceeds from a fundamental lack, because a lack or failure of matter would also signify a negation of the form.
From this analysis of metabolism, Jonas deduces two other constitutive attributes of the essence of life. First, to the extent that living organisms ceaselessly renew their own matter, they must be in a position to obtain new matter; they are therefore primordially in relation with the external world, the inexhaustible source from which matter can be drawn. In other words, the temporal transcendence of the form with respect to its current matter implies a spatial transcendence, that is, a relation with exteriority wherefrom it can draw the wherewithal to renew itself. As Jonas sums it up, in a formulation to which we will have occasion to return, “its selfconcern, active in the acquisition of new matter, is essential openness for the encounter of outer being. Thus ‘world’ is there from the earliest beginning, the basic setting of experience – a horizon of co-reality thrown open by the mere transcendence of want which widens the seclusion of internal identity into a correlative circumference of vital relationship” (Jonas 1966: 84). It follows immediately that because this description concerns an essence which applies to vegetable life just as well as to animal life, the transcendence which is in question refers to a simple exteriority vis-à-vis the interiority of living organisms; it could quite well be an exteriority without distance, in continuity or in contact with the living organism.
The second essential attribute of living organisms proceeds from the previous one. The relation of a living organism to exteriority cannot be completely indiscriminate; a living form requires a certain sort of matter, which means that a living organism must have the capacity to distinguish, within the world, what is adequate and appropriate to satisfy its needs. The minimal experience of a satisfaction or a frustration is the condition for a discrimination in the domain of matter to be possible, and this experience itself requires something like a subjectivity: “There is inwardness or subjectivity involved in this transcendence, imbuing all the encounters occasioned in its horizon with the quality of felt selfhood, however faint its voice. It must be there for satisfaction or frustration to make a difference” (Jonas 1966: 84). Because it proceeds from a freedom, the relation of living organisms to the world implies a subjectivity, which is not simply postulated but which Jonas presents as being deduced from metabolism: the necessity of matter implies a relation to the world, but the necessity of this or that particular sort of matter that is relevant for the form implies that this relation be a subjective one. One could therefore say that this subjectivity is a correlate of the individuation of living organisms: interiority exists only as an act, and this is why life is transitive, but there is an act only if it is oriented and selective, and this is why life is subjective. Thus, the “felt selfhood” and the opening toward exteriority are the two sides of the same coin, the two facets of a single existence which is nothing other than metabolism itself. This amounts to saying that life is necessarily consciousness, but in a sense that is not necessarily that of the perception of an object as such: it is a vital consciousness, that is, a sensitivity to that which is other than self. As Jonas writes, “Whether we call this inwardness feeling, sensitivity and response to stimulus, appetition or nisus – in some (even if infinitesimal) degree of ‘awareness’ it harbors the supreme concern of organism with its own being and continuation in being” (Jonas 1966: 84). The kernel of this vital consciousness is thus concern: a being centered on self, a being in intimate proximity with self, a being inherent to the form, because the act of this being is to lastingly sustain itself in its own being. Life as conservation of self by renewal of its own matter implies something like a concern for self, which manifests itself in minimal fashion by the discriminating and oriented nature of the response to external stimuli: the organism “knows” what suits it and what does not suit it. This vital consciousness thus has a meaning which is inseparably intentional and affective: it experiences itself through the recognition of what does or does not suit it in the world; it engenders itself passively in its affectivity by virtue of the responses that it gives to what affects it. We must therefore give Jonas credit for a conception of life that accounts for the coming forth of consciousness: in the form of metabolism, life englobes a minimal sensitivity, from which consciousness as such draws its condition of possibility. It is not so much that sensitivity is a mode of consciousness; rather, consciousness is a mode of sensitivity, which itself refers to vital concern.
The characteristics which we have just examined circumscribe the essence of life, which means that they apply just as much to plants as to animals. It therefore remains to specify these characteristics according to these two kingdoms, in other words, to account for the difference between plants and animals on the basis of metabolism. This point is decisive because, as we shall see, the way in which this difference is described reveals a fundamental decision concerning the essence of life. The difference concerns the mediate or immediate nature of the relation to the environment, which amounts to saying that the emergence of animality proceeds from the coming forth of distance. The metabolism of a plant is indeed characterized by its capacity to draw its subsistence from the mineral reserves of the soil with which it is always in contact, in short, to synthesize organic components directly out of inorganic matter. This is what animal metabolism is not capable of; animal metabolism requires nutrients that are already organic, which implies a free mobility. For Jonas, then, vegetable life is already a fully accomplished form of life, which is in no way inferior to animal life; one could even say that it is in vegetable life that metabolism can be perceived in its purest form, as plants continually absorb the matter that it synthesizes to perpetuate its form. Plants are thus “relieved” from the necessity of movement, because they are permanently linked to the source of their nutrition by their roots. Because of this continuity with the environment, a continuity that takes the form of contiguity, there is no distance between the living organism and the matter which nourishes it, and consequently there is no delay between the need and its satisfaction. We may nevertheless note that one cannot simply oppose animal and vegetable as the difference between a capacity and an incapacity for movement. There is a singular vegetable form of motricity (motor function) that is inherent to the fact that in spite of the spatial continuity there remains an ontological gap between the plant and its environment, a gap that is itself the expression of a difference between its form and its matter: this is the explanation for phenomena such as growth, renewal and tropism. It remains nonetheless that the advent of animal life corresponds to the advent of a radically new sort of movement. Whereas in the case of plants movement was confounded with metabolic activity as such – it is always a movement of restoration[Note 2] – in the case of animal life, there comes forth an entirely new sort of activity (Jonas 2000: 54): an activity in the world that prolongs metabolic activity, and that certainly serves metabolism, but that is not at all confounded with it. An animal is the subject of its own movement, and is entirely carried along by it, which never seems to be the case with vegetable movement. In any case, animal life corresponds to the coming forth of a split between the organism and the environment, a split that is not only ontological but spatial: the birth of animal life is the birth of space. This coming forth is in a sense accidental; it does not seem to be intrinsically called for by the essence of life: “a particular branch of it evolves the capacity and the necessity of relating itself to an environment no longer contiguous with itself and immediately available to its metabolic needs” (Jonas 1966: 102).
Now what at first appears to be a defect with respect to vegetable life will give rise to the appearance of properties that vegetable life does not posses, simply because it has no need of them. The distance that characterizes the environment of an animal, and the mediated nature of the relation to the environment that defines animal existence, profoundly transform the nature of its metabolism. Animal metabolism demands that the distance that separates it from the matter that its form requires should be overcome. This is precisely the function of animal movement: it comes in a sense as the replacement of the contiguity which made osmotic exchange possible. But effectively overcoming distance requires a relation to that which is distant, both as being distant but also as that which must be reached, in other words, as the goal of the movement. This is why, with animal life, living sensitivity becomes genuine perception, an apprehension of that which is far away. On the other hand, that which is perceived at a distance can only be grasped as a goal, as that which must be reached, by means of desire. It is this desire that gives an impetus to movement and maintains its continuity, by relating it to the goal that is perceived independently of the movement itself. Thus, according to Jonas, all living organisms are characterized by need, but desire as such springs from the distance, inseparably spatial and temporal, between the need and the object which satisfies it. Desire does not denote a different relation to the object – there is only one such relation, which is commanded by the concern with self – but a different status of the object, to wit, its appearance at a distance. This new status of the object corresponds itself to a new situation of the subject, a situation which is that of a deficiency, to wit, the incapacity to synthesize organic matter. Desire is thus not something other than need, but need itself insofar as its object is spatially other, that is, at a distance. Jonas makes a careful distinction between the fact that the object is given spatially in perception, and its temporal apprehension in the form of a goal with respect to a need. He thus uses the classical distinction between perception and emotion, between cognition and pathos, in order to refer it to the dimensions of space and time. He is perfectly explicit about this: “Thus desire represents the time-aspect of the same situation of which perception represents the space-aspect. Distance in both respects is disclosed and bridged: perception presents the object ‘not here but over there’; desire presents the goal ‘not yet but to come’: motility guided by perception and driven by desire turns there into here and not yet into now” (Jonas 1966: 101). However, we have to ask the question as to what this perceptual given-ness of the object, as distinct from the affective apprehension in desire, could actually consist of. Is the object really apprehended as an object in the world before and independently of being apprehended as a goal in desire – as though the Husserlian primacy of objectifying acts over nonobjectifying acts held sway in the animal world? In what sense are this perception and this emotion both forms of consciousness – how can the consciousness of perception, and desire, both be referred to some primeval form of consciousness? Should we not rather seek in desire itself, as being grounded directly in metabolism, the condition truly intrinsic to life itself for a primordial consciousness that will only subsequently become properly perceptual? Is it not exclusively in desire itself, as relating straight away to a goal pursued by a living organism, that a thing is primordially given to an animal?
Jonas certainly shows, in conformity with his description of metabolism, that a living organism has to obtain from the external world the matter that is required for the conservation of its form. But does his description of metabolism really make it possible to ground the relation of living organisms to exteriority as such? In other words, does Jonas really characterize life in a mode such that the consciousness that it is, originally, will be a truly intentional consciousness? In this respect, there is a certain vagueness, not to say incoherency, in Jonas’s formulations concerning the opening toward exteriority. He emphasizes, as an immediate consequence of metabolism as he has just characterized it, that “‘world’ is there from the earliest beginning, the basic setting of experience – a horizon of coreality thrown open by the mere transcendence of want which widens the seclusion of internal identity into a correlative circumference of vital relationship” (Jonas 1966: 84). And Jonas recalls the temporal grounding of the spatial transcendence: “It is important to see that this ‘spatial’ selftranscendence, opening into an environment, is grounded in the fundamental transcendence of organic form relative to its matter” (Jonas 1966: 84; cf. Jonas 2000: 46, 48). Jonas affirms that a “world” (it is true that he uses quotation marks) is opened by the transcendence of want, a world that he specifies in coherent fashion as a horizon: we must understand by that a coreality, that is, the given-ness of a reality that exceeds the actual object of want, a reality that is the ground on which this object comes forth and that makes it possible to grasp the object as exterior or transcendent. Jonas does therefore recognize, at least implicitly, that a living organism could not go outside in search of the matter that it needs unless it were originally in relation with exteriority; he recognizes that the appropriation of this or that object is possible only in the framework of a world. Pursuit or flight, guided by appetite or fear, correspond to a vital choice, but such a choice is conceivable only if it is possible to encounter objects that are a priori neutral with respect to vital requirements, which present themselves as external objects before being qualified by need. Thus, the discriminative dimension of metabolism requires an opening to the world that must be in the first instance neutral, and that will ground the possibility of the satisfaction of a need rather than relying on it. An object can only be pursued or fled from if it emerges on the ground of a world, of a coreality; the latter cannot then be constituted in and by the pursuit or flight. But it is here that the text we have quoted presents a difficulty, because Jonas claims that this world, as a horizon of coreality, is opened by the transcendence of want or need; a little later he specifies this world as an “environment.” In the light of what we have just said, this formulation is totally incoherent: the world as such cannot be opened by the transcendence of need because we have just established that this need itself, which calls for a certain mode of satisfaction, presupposes the transcendence of a world. As soon as the object of need is indeed what is chosen or selected by a living organism, it refers to a world that must already be given and that therefore cannot be constituted by need. One might try to retort – and this would indeed be the only way to save the coherency of the statement – that Jonas makes a distinction here between need as such, which is inherent to the temporal transcendence of the form vis-à-vis its matter, and particular, finite modes of satisfying need. Thus need, understood as a sort of requirement that is initially indeterminate, would open a world within which this or that specific need would find an object which could satisfy it. But, precisely, the concept of need does not lend itself to such a distinction; on the contrary, it is rather what obliges us to contest this sort of distinction. It is intrinsic to a need that it is determinate or qualified: a need corresponds to a definite, circumscribed lack and so it is always a need of something in the sense of a definite object. It is therefore impossible to distinguish, within the domain of need, between a moment of aspiration that is yet undetermined (i.e., without any specific content) on the one hand, and its specification in the form of a determinate necessity on the other: what characterizes need is that only a circumscribed object can awaken it. In other words, a need is entirely turned toward its satisfaction; it aims at nothing other than what would make it cease: it is not so much the expression of an aspiration as the sign of a want which must imperatively be satisfied. A need is always “vital” in the sense that it is indeed the very existence of the subject who experiences it that is at stake. In short, it is the same to say that a need is the expression of a want or a deficiency; that it is always assigned to a determinate object; and that what it pursues is its own satisfaction, which means its own annihilation, of which the object is finally only the means. It is intrinsically characteristic of a need that the distinction between the form (the aspiration as such) and the content, between the general and the particular, is totally inoperative: it is impossible in principle to discern in a need a tension or an aspiration that would exceed all finite objects so that it could never be completely satisfied. This means that a need could be only a need of nothing (in particular), and thereby become the principle that opens a world, if it ceases to be a need … and becomes desire. We can foresee already that recognizing the necessity of an opening toward exteriority as a precondition for a need that is always selective forces us to introduce a distinction between an aspiration without any determinate content and thus beyond any possible satisfaction on one hand, and an imperative necessity of satisfaction, of filling a want on the other – in short, a distinction between desire and need.
In truth, this conclusion follows from metabolism as it is described by Jonas. As he never stops saying, it is in the temporal transcendence of the form vis-à-vis its matter that the “spatial transcendence of self” (i.e., its opening toward exteriority) is grounded; the possible of this opening therefore refers to the precise status of this temporal transcendence. Now, metabolism is freedom in necessity, which means that the form can constitute itself and maintain itself as such only in and through its coincidence with its matter. A living organism abandons its current matter only in order to substitute for it another matter: the disparity with respect to its matter is subordinated to a coincidence; the difference is subordinated to an identity. If there is a temporal transcendence of the form with respect to its current matter, it is therefore not because a living organism is always in excess with respect to its material determination, as though no matter could ever be fully adequate for it: it is simply because the unity that a living organism realizes with its own matter is constantly undone and must therefore be continually restored. In other words, the excess of a living individuality with respect to its matter is only the reverse side of a deficiency in this matter with respect to its form; its (formal) transcendence is only the other side of a material restoration that is always to be reaccomplished over and over again. The transcendence of a living organism, as identified with its metabolism, is not a positive transcendence, and it does not mean that a living organism is turned toward something beyond any determinate matter: it is only the counterpart to the fleeting, fragile nature of its matter.
Now, the status of a living organism’s spatial transcendence follows from that of its temporal transcendence. All that we have just recalled amounts to saying that the excess of a living metabolism cannot have any specification other than the contents of its need; that the transcendence of a living organism always corresponds to a want and therefore to the necessity of restoring a determinate content. Need can in no wise be described as an aspiration or a tendency that is as yet indeterminate, which this or that particular content would come to fulfill (but which it could only partially fulfill), and this is why need cannot be the ground for an opening on a world or a horizon that would be distinct from the objects that can subsequently come to specify it. Just as the temporal transcendence of metabolism can only sketch a future which is already this or that determinate future, that is, the presence of a certain organic component, so the spatial transcendence for which it provides the foundation can concern only the partial objects of need and never the ground or horizon from which these objects must nevertheless be able to detach themselves. Just as there is no veritable temporal transcendence – because a living metabolism never surpasses itself but only, so to say, catches up with itself – so there can be no veritable spatial transcendence. The constitution of a world, as distinct from the realities that a living organism can find in it, would require an authentic temporal transcendence, in other words, a temporal transcendence taut with the drive toward an indeterminate future, an excess that is not merely the reverse side of a deficiency, an aspiration that is not the consequence of a want. We are thus forced to admit that Jonas’s description of the relation to exteriority that follows in the train of metabolism is branded by a fundamental inconsistency: the opening toward a world as the horizon of coreality for an object of need can in no way be grounded in metabolism. The tran-scendence that follows from metabolism never has the scope of a world – the exteriority that is the correlate of need is that of a circumscribed object; it does not ground a world but presupposes it. This exteriority has no status other than that of a mediation in the relation to self: it is momentarily opened by the temporal disparity between matter and form – but this opening is a false one, because this disparity is only a moment in the frame of coincidence, a fleeting disparity that is always already made good. This is to say that if Jonas does indeed show why living organisms have to seek outside themselves the wherewithal to restore their completeness, he does not show us how such a thing is possible, that is, how there can be an exteriority for a living organism. This is to say that, contrary to what it seemed at the outset, Jonas’s philosophy of life does not enable us to account for intentionality, without which consciousness can never be authentically conceived. Even if, thanks to his theory of metabolism, Jonas reveals at the heart of living organisms a dimension of incompleteness and therefore a principle of exteriority, he does not succeed in grounding therein the possibility of a consciousness that would be fundamentally a relation to otherness, a pure opening on the world.
Nevertheless, in spite of this serious inadequacy, Jonas does indicate the way to be followed. It is assuredly on the basis of a conception of life as characterized by a flaw or a deficiency that we will manage to account for its ex-static dimension, but on condition of conceiving of this flaw or defect in such a way that it grounds the opening toward an authentic transcendence, in other words in a much more radical way than Jonas does. It is therefore in a dimension that exceeds that of need or want, which will lead us to contest Jonas’s determination of living organisms as metabolism, that we will have to seek the principle of a veritable intentionality.
As we have seen previously, movement is the primordial dimension on which the relation to exteriority rests, or rather, movement is the actualized form of that relation. From the point of view of a phenomenology of life, the fate of intentionality is inextricably linked with that of movement; this amounts to saying that it is rigorously impossible to conceptualize the intentionality of living consciousness without taking into account its fundamental mobility. Consciousness is only a manifestation in the process of advancing toward that which is manifest; a phenomenology of life, identified with the neutrality of its origins, is necessarily a phenomenology of movement. It follows that the failure of Jonas concerning the question of the relation of a living organism to that which lies outside or beyond it – in other words, the question of the intentionality of consciousness – must derive from a difficulty at the heart of his conception of movement. If the very possibility of a relation to anything other than the self is compromised by Jonas’s theory of metabolism, it is because this theory makes it impossible to fully account for the fundamental reality of movement as such.
It is to be noted that in the chapter of his book devoted to metabolism, Jonas does not explicitly mention movement. Jonas defines metabolism as the restoration of matter by form, and from that deduces the necessity for a living organism to “turn itself to the outside,” to “direct itself outwards”; however, this “essential opening for the encounter with an external being,” this spatial transcendence, is at no point specified as movement. Jonas does insist on the fact that a living organism is not self-sufficient, that it must maintain a relation with that which is not itself in order to survive: a living organism is fundamentally related to an environment. But this relation does not necessarily imply motricity, in the case where everything that the organism needs is immediately accessible and not at a distance. This is exactly the situation of a plant, which exists in virtual continuity with its environment in the sense that it is capable of synthesizing its organic components out of inorganic matter. As we have seen, in the vegetable world, there is no delay between a need and the satisfaction of the need, because there is no distance between the individual and the environment which nourishes it; consequently, there is no movement worth speaking of. From this point of view, motricity appears only with animal life; correlatively, perception and emotion – in other words, a sensitivity at a distance and desire – also appear.
Now this specification of metabolism with respect to these three related terms – motricity, perception, emotion – has a corollary: the emergence of animal life would seem to be a considerable singularity, characterized by a greater precariousness. This analysis by Jonas is apparently rigorous and coherent, but it raises a serious problem, which can be formulated thus: is it possible that something as fundamental as movement could arise as a simple subsidiary specification of metabolism, correlated with a rather contingent feature of the situation in which the living organism finds itself? This question has two facets, one concerning the essence and the other the genesis. How is movement possible, from the point of view of metabolism? And how can movement, here identified with animal life, have arisen in the course of evolution? These two aspects are profoundly connected. If it should turn out that movement as such can be properly conceived only on the basis of a quite different construal of metabolism than that proposed by Jonas, then the strictly evolutionary approach to animal life – according to which the animal kingdom is only a special subbranch of life characterized by metabolic precariousness – will have to be criticized and profoundly revised.
In substance, Jonas says that an animal moves in order to find what is necessary to maintain its form by renewing its material composition, that is, to go to the place where there is food or to pursue a prey. Movement is thus subordinated to a need, and replaces the osmotic exchange with the environment that characterizes plants; the difference is that there is no longer contiguity, but distance. It follows that movement is not rooted in the basic essence of living organisms as such (plants do not move), but in distance, which is a special situation characteristic of animals and in particular the object of their needs. Thus, for Jonas, movement is extrinsic to the essence of life: it is grounded not in life itself, but in a specific defect of being, to wit, the defect of matter due to the exposure of the organism to a hostile environment. More precisely, movement corresponds to a double defect: a defect of matter with respect to its form – this feature is characteristic of metabolism itself – and a defect in the proximity of the object that could compensate for the first defect. In short, a living organism is not mobile in itself, but on the contrary, only to the extent that it is not quite itself: movement comes to fill the ever-forming gap between itself and itself. This is why, in the point of view put forward by Jonas, the final aim of movement is to cease: movement tends toward rest. Expression of a defect of being, as for the Greeks, movement is only accomplished in the form of its own negation. From this viewpoint, movement appears to be as ontologically impossible as it is biologically necessary. Indeed, it is quite impossible to understand how a being which is not already movement, in its very essence, could suddenly start to move; how movement could be triggered by a need if it is not already included as a constitutive possibility in life itself. It is important to emphasize here that movement is ontologically irreducible. With movement, we enter into another order of reality: in classical terms, movement cannot be a mode or an attribute; it is always substantial and necessarily engages the essence of the subject. It is thus not possible to conceive of the movement of animals as something that accrues to them because of their special situation, because of a need, because of something external to their essence. It is quite intrinsic to movement that it does not and cannot arise from something foreign to it; movement is not a mere contingent modality; it is not possible to enter into the sphere of movement if one is not already in it. Of course an empirical movement can start, but that is because it has always already started, because it is preceded by a form of fundamental, constitutive mobility, by what we should call a transcendental mobility. We may add that if movement never starts, it never stops, either; so that rest is not a negation of movement, but a constitutive moment of movement. A being that in its essence is movement can no more leave movement than it can enter it. Thus, a being can move itself only if it is able to move itself, in other words, to bring itself forward within the realm of mobility. A being can enter into movement empirically only on the condition of being characterized by a fundamental mobility: it has a movement only insofar as it is in some sense movement. It is only for nonliving entities that movement can, indeed, be merely a state, that is, a mode that does not affect their essence. Interpreting the movement of living organisms as something extrinsic to the essence of life therefore amounts to interpreting living organisms on the model of nonliving entities: it is to completely miss the phenomenological specificity of life. An essential feature of animals is that they move themselves, which means that they are the subject of their own movement. But this is to say that they are ontologically situated in movement, that they are on the side of mobility, that they are essentially capable of movement. To sum up, one will never understand how a living organism whose essence does not already include motricity could one day start to move in order to satisfy its needs. The conditions of being at a distance, which Jonas considers to be the cause of movement, would not cause anything at all if animals did not already exist in the sphere of movement. This is to say that – far from emanating from the satisfaction of a preexisting need – movement is the condition for need itself. It is not because living organisms need something situated at a distance that they start to move; on the contrary, it is because they are essentially movement that they can enter into relation with something at a distance on the mode of a need, that is, that they can actively appropriate it.
These considerations concerning movement converge here with our previous remarks concerning exteriority. The object of need toward which a living organism advances appears on a transcendental ground, and this ground can be constituted only in and by the essential mobility of living organisms. In and by this transcendental mobility, which is not yet movement toward any particular determinate object, the horizon of the world is constituted. This horizon, which is not yet specified as an object of need, is required by any object whatsoever as the form or the element of its own exteriority. We are, in a way, faced with a choice. Either living organisms are indeed capable of advancing toward distant entities in order to appro-priate what they cannot synthesize – in this case, it must be admitted that the essence of living organisms envelops mobility, so that Jonas’s description of metabolism is radically inadequate – or the alternative is to retain Jonas’s description, but in that case one is forced to conclude that movement, although necessary to satisfy a need, is nevertheless ontologically impossible. According to Jonas, a living organism remains fundamentally a complete individual; it is substance rather than force or dynamism, and movement can have only the accidental, contingent status of that which restores completeness. The hitch is that, for the major ontological reasons we have presented earlier, if movement is only that, it is not even that: it does not exist at all. Conversely, the entry of living organisms into the sphere of movement – that is, the essential mobility required by the empirical mobility exhibited by the satisfaction of needs – means that we must undertake a profound renewal of the essence of life that Jonas referred to as metabolism. The foregoing considerations indicate already the direction that this renewal should take.
First of all, as Jonas has shown concerning animal life, living movement is a correlate of the feature that the world with which the living organism is related is situated at a distance. To this extent, conceptualizing living organisms on the basis of their constitutive mobility leads to recognizing that their lived world is characterized by an irreducible Distance. Affirming that the intrinsic nature of living movement is such that it cannot be abolished, but on the contrary is ceaselessly renewed, amounts ipso facto to recognizing that this movement never completely attains what it aims at, never comes to possess what it seeks to grasp; the object of this movement is irremediably situated at a distance. Because this Distance is manifestly irreducible, it is not spatial, which amounts to saying that this Distance is not to be confused with a simple empirically measurable length. Even in the case of plant life, proximity never abolishes vitality, which we here equate with mobility. Thus, this Distance is ontological; it may give rise to a spatial approach, but it can never be abolished. In other words, there is an otherness about the world of living organisms that, far from being an obstacle or a threat to life, is in reality its very condition of possibility. It follows from this first remark that the whole difficulty will be centered on the status of this Distance, which – although it can give rise to approaches and the crossing of frontiers – nevertheless remains irreducible. The life of living organisms brings us face to face with the enigma of a primordial spatiality: ontological Depth maintains a distant otherness at the very heart of an approach, precisely that distant otherness without which life would not be possible.
Next, Jonas establishes that in the sphere of animal life, the object that appears at a distance in perception is given in desire as a goal to be pursued. Desire is thus the emotion that is specific to animal life as pertaining to a future. Nevertheless, for Jonas, this desire is a sort of modified need: it is what a need becomes when its satisfaction is deferred so that the difference between need and desire is only a matter of degree. If now we revise Jonas’s account by considering living organisms according to their essential mobility, in their relation to an object which is irremediably distant, we see that their fundamental “emotion,” the basic form of their intrinsic subjectivity, must be characterized as desire. However, this desire is no longer a simple modification of a need. A need is something that is lacking, but that can be satisfied given the delay required to approach the object in question. Desire is quite different, because the Distance that lies between the organism and the object is such that it cannot be obliterated. Thus, instead of desire being a derivative of need, it is desire that is the primordial emotion from which need will proceed. The object of desire should not be defined as the object of need placed at a distance; on the contrary, need should be defined as that which springs from desire when the irreducible Distance takes the form of an object. Need surges forth as the need for an object that is a lure for desire, but this lure is necessary because desire is not a pure, empty aspiration. Desire tends toward its own satisfaction, and must therefore refer to objects of which it will be said that they are needed – even if none of them could sooth the aspiration or interrupt the mobility. Need is thus to Desire as the object to that Distance that it figures, that is, both reduces and conserves.
Finally, by putting forward the essential mobility of living organisms, we are led to rethink the whole relation between animal and vegetable. The question of movement engages the very possibility of animal life, that is, the surging forth of movement in the course of evolution. Now in view of what we have already established, it has become quite impossible to consider that movement “arose” and hence that animal life could be born: if movement is constitutive of the very essence of living organisms, as we have argued, then a living organism without motricity is literally inconceivable. More precisely, we have established that animal movements must be referred to an essential mobility. But precisely because it is essential, this mobility cannot have arisen as a simple empirical event at some contingent point in the course of evolution. Just as empirical movements proceed from a constitutive mobility of animals, so animal mobility itself proceeds from an essential mobility in all living organisms; this amounts to saying that mobility characterizes the essence of living organisms. This point can be put another way, from the point of view of the essence of movement: if movement does indeed belong to a specific ontological register – in other words, to an irreducible mode of being – it is impossible to separate living organisms according to the presence or absence of movement. Life is the incarnation of this mode of being, which attests to its reality, and so movement is the very substance of life. In short, one cannot infer from the apparent, empirical absence of local movement that movement is not constitutive of living organisms in their very being. But this now raises the question of vegetative life: how are we to understand the relation between plant and animal life?
We can summarize the meaning of the theory of metabolism by saying that, for Jonas, plant life remains the prime model for living organisms, so that animal life is fundamentally conceptualized on the basis of plant life. An animal seems to be a plant plus something – motricity, perception, emotion – because Jonas considers that an animal is, in truth, a plant minus something – to wit, the capacity to synthesize organic components out of inorganic material. It is true that Jonas recognizes that a “radically new sort of action” appears with animal life (1966: 116); this is mediate action – action in an external sphere. However, as the term itself indicates, this “mediate action” arises as a modification of the previously existing immediate action that characterizes vegetable life. All we can say is that, with animal life, the characteristics of organic life that have been demonstrated at the level of plant life “come into full light” (Jonas 2000: 49). It is hard to deny that the vegetative mode of existence constitutes the model from which the concept of metabolism has been constructed. Metabolism basically refers to the activity by which a form maintains itself as such by ceaselessly renewing its matter via a continual exchange with its external environment. And indeed, one cannot better describe the vegetative mode of being, whose individuality presents itself as a morphological unity, and whose essential activity consists of ensuring the requisite exchanges with the external environment, in words other than reconstituting its own substance by synthesizing it out of inorganic elements. The concept of freedom in necessity is eminently suitable for plant life, which can free itself from matter only by renewing it, and which thus does not so much free itself from matter as from a particular, actual set of matter.
However, if we think about it, this is not what is salient if we consider the existence of animal life, which rather manifests a freedom emancipated from necessity. Indeed, an animal manifests an activity that does not seem to be subordinated to the mere reproduction of self: an animal plays, explores, fights, rests. Thus, even if biologists can ultimately refer many of the movements of an animal to the requirements of reproduction (of the self and of the species), in truth one has rather the feeling that metabolic activity is a limited, subordinate process, a mediation in the service of a profuse activity whose meaning goes way beyond the simple aim of reconstituting the individual. To put it another way, an animal can be brought down to the level of metabolism only if it is considered at the strictly biochemical level of molecular synthesis and cellular reproduction, that is, the level that animals do share with plants, but this can be done only to the detriment of the “psychological” and ethological level, where the animal appears according to its own characteristic behavior and mode of being. Now it is clear that no mobility will ever be discovered at the level of biochemical analysis. Thus, contrary to what he claims, when Jonas puts forward the concept of metabolism, he does not describe the true phenomenon of life. On the contrary, he approaches life at a level that is not phenomenal, but objective (in the sense of scientific objectivity) – even if he does integrate, after the event, several elements that are borrowed from the phenomenal domain. The metabiological, philosophical subordination of the animal to the plant is in fact commandeered by an underhand subordination of the phenomenal order to the objective order, of the phenomenological to the biochemical. It is indeed at this objective level that a precise determination of vegetative life is possible.[Note 3] And however this might be, when Jonas describes metabolism, he has in view the vegetative mode of being. The fundamental activity of this mode of being consists of the incessant reconstitution of the self, of maintaining a form that is an exception in the physical universe and that is thus always threatened by a continual renewal of matter.
We may emphasize here, to anticipate, that this choice of vegetative life is coherent with a certain idea of life as conservation, as survival. The choice of vegetative life as the matrix of all living organisms, and the characterization of life as conservation of self against the permanent threat of negation, are the two faces of the same theoretical decision that finds articulate expression in the theory of metabolism. In this perspective, it follows that the animal is a “super-plant,” that is, a plant that just because of an initial inferiority – its incapacity to synthesize organic substance – has developed “faculties” (movement, perception, desire) that enable it to largely mitigate this initial defect and to conserve its individuality. Jonas emphasizes that this gain in complexity and freedom has the counterpart of an increased precariousness. To sum up, animal life is fundamentally conceptualized by reference to plant life, so that for Jonas it must be possible to reduce the qualitative gulf that separates animals and plants on the phenomenological level to a mere difference of degree. The “distance” that corresponds to the emergence of the animal mode of being is only a distension of osmotic continuity: an animal is a plant that has lost contact, and that must therefore find a way of appropriating that which is no longer in contact. Thus, Jonas considers that perception arises from a primordial sensitivity by spatial distancing of the object, that desire arises from need by temporal delay, and finally that movement arises from immobility or, more precisely, from a displacement of osmotic exchange.
Now this is precisely what we have shown to be impossible. From immobility, no movement can come forth; a vegetative form of life cannot transform itself into active domination of the world. The fact that living organisms are capable of movement therefore means that movement belongs to the very essence of life: movement arises with life, and never from within life. But it is important to draw all the consequences of this. Saying that movement is constitutive of living organisms as such amounts to saying that animals, so clearly characterized by their mobility, are the prototype of living organisms, the very model of living organisms. It follows that plant life should be conceptualized with reference to animal life. Taking movement into consideration as a condition of possibility for life itself leads to a direct inversion of Jonas’s position. Animal life is not to be referred to as a specialization or complexification of plant life; on the contrary, animal life is itself the reference from which plant life is to be conceptualized – otherwise we will never gain access to the animal mode of being. An animal is not a living organism that would possess something more than a plant (on the basis of a metabolic inferiority); on the contrary, it is the plant that possesses something less than the animal, the latter representing the archetypal mode of being of living organisms. This leads us to engage in what we may call a deprivational botany, which is a sort of echo to Heidegger’s “deprivational zoology.” Just as “the ontology of life is accomplished by way of a privative Interpretation; it determines what must be the case if there can be anything like mere-aliveness [Nur-nochleben]” (Heidegger 1962: 75), the task of the metabiology of plant life is to determine what must be, in order for something that exists only in the vegetative mode to be possible. Just as it is starting from the Dasein that by taking away certain features one arrives at that which is only living, so by starting from the animal one arrives, by taking away certain features, at the mode of being of the plant: it is the animal that must exist, in order for something that exists only on the vegetative mode to be possible. Animal nature thus delivers the essence of life, of which vegetable existence appears as something like a minimal modality. This inversion, which is required by considering what is required for animal movement to be possible, leads to a subordination of the biochemical level relative to the phenomenological or existential level. This is precisely what Jonas’s approach did not allow.
The task that confronts us now is thus to apprehend life, taking animal life as our prototype, as a certain manner of existing characterized first and foremost by movement, and to do so in such a way that the mode of being of plants will also be described phenomenologically so that metabolism, which Jonas put to the fore, will be definitively relegated to the background. This approach leads us to reverse the signs of Jonas’s description. It consists of considering plants as lacking something compared to animals, as animals minus something. Thus, distance is no longer a distension of osmotic continuity; it is rather a general characteristic of the relation between a living organism and its world, and thus proximity or continuity with the environment, which is specific to plants, now becomes a lack of distance. It follows that the simple, immediate satisfaction of needs, also characteristic of vegetative existence, is to be understood as a degraded form of desire: a desire lured by possession of the object that is supposed to appease it. Desire is not a need whose object happens to be at a distance; rather, need is a desire whose object happens to be in the immediate proximity. And even this proximity is a false proximity, because the relation to transcendence is constitutive of the very existence of living organisms. It follows that setting up a spatial contiguity, as is characteristic of plants, does not and cannot mean the suppression of Distance. What is to be understood here is that the primordial meaning of Distance is not spatial: space is not an a priori condition for Distance; on the contrary, space is a specific modality that derives from Distance. It is not because things are in space that they can be far away; on the contrary, it is because they are far away – because Distance is what characterizes their mode of being – that they can be in space. Thus, by nullifying the spatial distance that characterizes the objects of animal desire, plant life does not overcome its fundamental Distance, which indeed cannot be overcome, because it is, in a sense, interior. The distinction between animal and plant life cannot refer to the particular spatial position of their objects (at a distance or in contact), because this position is derivative with respect to a fundamental “farawayness.” Spatial distance and spatial contact are only two “geometrical” modalities of a “far-awayness” or “depth” that are, so to speak, pregeometrical and prespatial. It is precisely this far-awayness that animal existence exhibits in exemplary fashion: the spatial distance of its object reveals an ontological Distance. More precisely, the instability that char-acterizes animal movements, and the insatiability that is revealed by animal desire, are manifestations of the fact that underlying their relation to spatial distance, animals relate to a Distance that is ontological and therefore irreducible.
Finally, just as vegetative need is to be understood as a degraded, limited form of animal desire, so the relative immobility of plants should be understood negatively from the point of view of the movement that is constitutive of life itself. This amounts to saying that plants are not really immobile, that they are not strangers to the realm of movement; their activity is not a nonmovement but rather a lesser movement, an inchoate movement. One should not say that movement arises with animal life, but rather that movement is limited, hemmed in, hampered in vegetative life. Actually, Jonas himself does recognize that there is a form of vegetable mobility, even if it is marked by its slowness, by an absence of displacement, by continuity and irreversibility (Jonas 1968: 202). The time has come to recall that movement must not be reduced to mere local movement, which is only one modality among others of change. Change can be substantial and ontological, in which case it gives rise to a birth or a disappearance, but change can also be qualitative (alteration) or quantitative (growth). And it is doubtless because Jonas did not introduce these distinctions with sufficient care, which left him a prisoner to the spontaneous reduction of movement to mere local movement, that Jonas refrained from including movement in his general description of metabolism and reserved it to animal life alone. And indeed, vegetable activity does constitute a form of movement, but this vegetable movement expresses a relation to distance that is ontological rather than properly spatial. This is why vegetable activity does not develop in the form of displacements, at least not in displacements that carry along the living subject as a whole. In this sense, vegetative life represents a sort of minimal, purified form of vital movement; the fully spatial movement of animals is then a more fully accomplished deployment of this same vital movement. Vegetative life represents a sort of primordial discovery of exteriority, of an initiation to the world, of an entry into space: whereas animals move themselves in a world that is already available, already constituted, plants – so to speak – deploy space by occupying it, that is, by their own development. It is in this sense that the considerations of Scheler concerning vegetable life can be understood, even if the context of his discussion is quite different. In Scheler’s view, “life, considered in its ‘vegetative’ essence as in plants … is an impulse which is exclusively directed towards the outside. The ‘emotional impulse’ of plants is thus ‘ex-static’” (Scheler 1951: 27). What Scheler means by this is that vegetable movement is not centralized, that it does not turn back on itself, that it is exclusively deployed from the center toward the periphery.[Note 4] Now this ex-static movement, which corresponds to vegetable growth, manifests an inchoate relation to exteriority; it is the discovery of a transcendence that is primarily ontological (growth is an aspiration to an outside, an advance toward otherness) rather than strictly spatial. Just as the continuity of vegetative life with its environment is a negation of distance, and its need a negation of desire, so the ex-static movement of plants should be understood in terms of deprivation with respect to animal movement: the latter is deployment and mastery of space, whereas plant movement is simply an entry into exteriority. Understanding that the mode of being of living organisms must be referred to the mode of being of movement – without this, the movements of animals and the primordial exteriority underlying them become definitively incomprehensible – is to understand that the only true botany is deprivational.
It follows from all this that it makes no sense to affirm that animal life “came forth.” Openly basing himself on evolutionary theory, Jonas claims that “a particular branch of life” developed a capacity to enter into a dynamic relation with the environment, but this is unacceptable. Understanding that movement cannot start at some contingent point in history, that it is constitutive of life itself, amounts to recognizing that genesis refers back to essence, that the genetic order of coming forth reveals a constitutive precession. Jonas actually recognizes this himself because, although he subscribes to the Darwinian scheme, he interprets it in the opposite direction to current versions: rather than making it possible to reduce man to an animal, Jonas interprets the scheme as revealing a precession of human features at the heart of even the most elementary animal forms (Jonas 1966: 67). The hitch is that Jonas does not go the whole way, and does not fully draw the consequences of this concerning the relation between animal and vegetable life. He does, certainly, construct a theory of metabolism that is supposed to account for the possibility of animal life; to that extent, he does establish a mode of precession of the “superior” in the “inferior.” But he does not take full measure of the implications of the animal mode of being and the ontological significance of movement which characterizes it, which amounts to saying that Jonas is implicitly dominated by the model of the plant. From this there follows a sort of imprecision, not to say incoherence: his theory of metabolism presupposes a primordial exteriority for which it provides no grounds, and it presupposes animal movements that cannot be explained because they have no ground-ing in any intrinsic mobility. Thus, by considering animal life as a mode of being to be conceived on the basis of the sort of purified metabolism exemplified by plant life, Jonas is in the end unable to account for the specificity of animal life.
Now this relative phenomenological failure reveals some presuppositions concerning both the meaning of life and the meaning of reality, and we shall conclude on this point. The activity that Jonas describes under the concept of metabolism corresponds to a theoretical formulation of a highly traditional concept of life: life is through and through a struggle for the preservation of life; it is the act of keeping itself alive. The reverse side of the existence of a living individual, of its vital activity, is its absolute submission to the pressure of need: the counterpart to its freedom is necessity, the counterpart to its force is its mean dependence. This amounts to saying that life is fundamentally survival, that life has no other goal than the preservation of living organisms, in other words of life itself. This concept of life is characterized by a logical circularity, as life is presupposed in its own definition (to live is to keep oneself alive), but this circularity is not a logical vice – it is the condition of life itself. Life is always that which presupposes itself, but in the last resort this amounts to saying that life is that which cannot have a meaning.
Now in Jonas’s own account this concept of life, which underlies the theory of metabolism, comes together with an approach which addresses life from the point of view of its relation to death, with the horizon of its own destruction. Life is that which is fundamentally exposed to the risk of its abolition: it is right from the start a relation to its possible negation and so can only exist as a negation of that negation. We will here quote at length from a text that is particularly striking in this respect (and to which we will have occasion to return):
The privilege of freedom carries the burden of distress and signifies: existence in danger. Because the fundamental condition of this privilege resides in the paradoxical fact that, by an original act of separation, living substance has detached itself from the universal integration of things in the totality of nature so as to position itself in front of the world, thereby introducing, into the indifferent security of the possession of existence, a tension between ‘being and not-being’ […]. Qualified at the most intimate level of its being by the threat of its negation, the being must here assert itself, and a being which asserts itself is existence in the form of a request. Thus, the living being itself, instead of being a given state, has become a possibility that must be constantly achieved, that must ceaselessly regain over its opposite which is always present, the non-being, which in the end will inevitably end up by engulfing it. (Jonas 2000: 30)[Note 5]
Thus, in spite of his proclaimed intention to describe the phenomenon of life as such, Jonas manages only to conceive of life with reference to death: he does not grasp life in itself as an affirmation with a meaning that remains to be identified, but rather on the basis of what is not life, as a negation that does not have any meaning besides its own activity. To live is to be in a relation with one’s own death; it is to counter the perpetual threat of obliteration. This initial conclusion calls for at least three remarks.
Jonas seems to take up here, in a manner that is obviously much more fully developed, a naïve (and historically overwhelming) conception of life that aligns it with survival and thus reduces it to the active satisfaction of needs. However, at the same time, his formulations seem to echo certain statements of Heidegger,[Note 6] so much so that at times one has the impression that we are dealing with a transposition, into the domain of life in general and in the framework of a realist ontology, of certain fundamental features of the analytics of the Dasein. It may be this continuing dependence on Heidegger[Note 7] that, even more than the “pragmatic” conception of life that underlies evolutionary theory, explains why the relation with death is such a pregnant theme in Jonas’s approach to life. At any rate, this is the lucid suggestion of Nathalie Frogneux in her book devoted to Jonas: “Even though his aim is to ‘correct’ the idealistic defect in Heideggerian existentialism by grounding it in living matter, his philosophy of biology turns out to be deeply marked by existential themes (care, being for death, solitude). The question which must be asked is whether he does not concede too much to what he denounces as an aberration of contemporary idealism in order to really claim to have overcome it” (Frogneux 2001: 162).
However – and this is our second remark – precisely to the extent that Jonas places himself in the domain of living matter, the relation of living organisms to nonbeing appears to be eminently problematical as to its very possibility. Thus, the fact that living organisms manage to separate themselves from inert matter, so that they are objectively subject to the equalizing, dissolving power of the forces of inert matter, in no way implies that living organisms are exposed “in their own terms” to this threat of negation, that is, that they are themselves in relation with nonbeing as such. In other words, Jonas passes by sleight of hand from an external negation to an internal negation: he speaks as though the objective risk of destruction of living organisms, which is inherent to the laws of matter, implies that living organisms actually experience a threat, a fragility – in short, a relation to nonbeing as such. But this passage is highly problematical, to say the least: the “nonbeing” that is supposed to be the constant preoc-cupation of living organisms, with which their being is supposed to lie in precarious balance, does not actually have any positive content other than the existence of a physical nature; in other words, “nonbeing” as such has no content for a living organism. The negation in question is only external; it corresponds only to the tension between natural forces and a living individual, and this tension is only objective – it has a meaning only for the scientific observer but not for the living organism itself. A living organism could establish a relation with this nonbeing only if it could occupy the position of an observer and look at itself from outside – but this would be in contradiction with its essence. The tension and the objective risk of destruction are inherent to the distinction between the living organism and the world; in other words, they are inherent to the ontological closure of the organism, but from the point of view of the living organism itself, it is impossible to understand how this tension and this risk could be interiorized and actually experienced as a tension between being and nonbeing. The “nonbeing” has no content other than the existence of the world from which the living organism has separated itself by constituting itself as an individual; the negativity of external nature is only the counterpart to this first negation, which consists of this act of separation. In short, there is no negation other than the original separation on which the being of a living organism rests. But then, if “nonbeing” has no other reality than the very being of the individuated living organism, one does not see how a living organism could “waver on the edge between being and nonbeing,” how nonbeing could be “an alternative contained in being itself” (Jonas 2000: 30).
Now this objection is extremely serious, because the vital dynamics of living organisms spring from this very tension. Jonas says, “Qualified at the most intimate level of its being by the threat of its negation, the being must here assert itself, and a being which asserts itself is existence in the form of a request. Thus, the living being itself, instead of being a given state, has become a possibility that must be constantly achieved” (Jonas 1966: 30). Life consists of an affirmation, the need (the request) that pushes it towards new matter, and this “affirmation” depends entirely on the fact that the threat of negation qualifies living organisms “in their most intimate nature.” But in this case, the impossibility of a real relation to nonbeing radically compromises the possibility of metabolism itself: in the end, one does not see what incites living organisms to renew their matter. What is at stake here is Jonas’s pretension to give a description of metabolism as an objective phenomenon; he introduces an underhand confusion between an objective, scientific point of view on one hand, and a phenomenological point of view, that of the living organism itself, on the other. In the objective domain, a relation to nonbeing is inconceivable; a “threat” can be inscribed at the heart of life only by renouncing an objective point of view. Finally, we are on the horns of a dilemma. Either we restrict ourselves to an objective approach, in the guise of a theory of metabolism – but in this case one cannot understand how a metabolism, consisting of simply satisfying needs, is possible, or else one recognizes that life is indeed a “possibility to be realized” rather than a “state,” that its being is so to say entrusted to it as that which it must ceaselessly perform – but in that case it is necessary to introduce at the heart of life itself a dimension of negativity or defect which exceeds the bounds of the objective domain and therefore renders the theory of metabolism inoperant. The real question is thus the following: what is the meaning of the existence of living organisms as being capable of incessant activity, as being drawn toward its own continuation? The difficulty is that the conditions undermine that of which they are the condition, they denounce as mere appearance that which presented itself as the reality in question. Thus, Jonas limits himself to the description of a minimal vital activity, but this minimal activity can be conceived as vital only if a certain negativity is introduced at the heart of life as its very mode of existence. What could this mean, if not that living organisms only move and survive because nonbeing is at the heart of their being, that their very mode of existence is characterized by a fundamental defect? A living organism lives only to the extent that it is not what it is, or rather to the extent that it is what it is on the mode of a defect or a lack, on the mode of what it must everlastingly but unavailingly become. This defect is not objective; it is constitutive of the mode of being of living organisms and this is why it is irreducible. Thus, the tension between being and nonbeing can make up the fabric of life only on the condition that it forms an identity – the being of a living organism is that of a negation – which is effectively realized as a defect. There is nothing that is lacking for a living organism; nothing is missing, not because living organisms are characterized by their completeness, but on the contrary, because their whole being is situated on the mode of a defect or a lack. In short, what Jonas does not see is that a living organism can only entertain a relation with non-being, can only have such a relation by being it. This amounts to overcoming the alternative between being and nonbeing – an alternative that remains abstract because it derives from objective thought – in favor of a more profound mode of being that phenomenology has the task of elucidating. It is indeed the task of philosophy to identify the conditions of possibility that lie behind a given reality. But in the present case, we find that the conditions are incompatible with the very reality that they are supposed to make possible. By subordinating needs to this singular mode of existence that we have called “lack of self,” we have overshot the mark. If living organisms exist on the mode of their own defects – that is, by not being what they are – their life cannot be reduced to the satisfaction of needs. When leaving the objective domain for the sake of an existential domain, we discover that the concept of “need” has no biological relevance. Insofar as what is lacking for a living organism is its own being (and not just a material part that is necessary for the constitution of its form) – and it is only in this sense that a living organism can be qualified by nonbeing – it is evident that its life cannot consist in the pursuit of this or that substance. To say that it exists on the mode of a defect of self amounts to saying that nothing can remedy the defect, so that life cannot consist of simply pursuing something. The whole question is then to understand on what mode this existence marked by the sign of negativity can effectively be realized, to identify what living organisms relate to in a primordial sense, to specify the positive side of the medal whose reverse side is the mode of defect. Thus, the negativity that Jonas rightly introduces into living existence can be conceptualized only on the condition of renouncing the objective approach, and hence renouncing the theory of metabolism as an activity of restoring the vital integrity, that is, of satisfying needs.
This leads us straight to our third remark. The problem comes from the notion that there is a vital integrity which requires restoration, that is, that a living organism is to be characterized as an individual. This is the fundamental presupposition of Jonas’s description: that the reality of a living organism is that of an individual, of a self (that is to say, in fact, of a form) that constitutes itself by self-isolation from the rest of reality; when we come to think of it, vital activity is wholly at the service of this individuality that must ceaselessly be preserved and reconstituted. More radically, as we have seen, the only true individuality is that of a living organism – “only those entities are individuals whose being is their own doing” (Jonas 1968: 233) – so that being alive and being an individual are purely and simply equivalent. As soon as the being of a living organism is conceptualized as a process of separation, of segregation and thus of isolation from the rest of matter, its individuality implies doing, a continual recreation of the separation. The objective approach to living organisms as arising from a process of separation, their characterization as individuals, and the definition of their mode of being as metabolism are profoundly interconnected. But the question is: should living organisms be thought of as individuals? Our previous remarks concerning the specific mode of existence of living organisms obviously lead us to doubt that this is so. If a living organism exists on the mode of its own defect – that is, it is always less than itself – it cannot be thought of as an individual; on the contrary, its defect of being is ipso facto a defect of individuality. This does not mean that a living organism dissolves into an anonymous generality, but rather that its existence is precisely a process of individuation. A living organism is always in movement toward an individuality that always lies ahead, so that vital activity is neither more nor less than the movement of individuation. Let us be clear: a living organism is not engaged in a quest for an individuality that is both already constituted and always threatened, as is the case with Jonas’s work. Rather, a living organism is engaged in producing or achieving an individuality that is always pushed further away by the very achievement, an individuality that exists as its own horizon or its own imminence.
All these considerations converge toward a single critical conclusion: in his writings about life, Jonas does not escape from an ontology of death, even though he himself has drawn the contours of this ontology. There are two senses in which this is so. First, Jonas addresses life in terms of its negation rather than on its own terms: the presupposition that life is the negation of death continues to underlie the concept of metabolism. Second, life is also defined as a negation of death, because it is thought of as proceeding from an “original act of separation,” as being “demarcated from the universal integration of things into the totality of nature, so that it exists in opposition to the world.” Thus, life is situated in the bosom of an objective nature wherein it appears as an exception. By approaching life from the point of view of that which is not life – that is, on the basis of what is “life-less” – Jonas repeats the initial gesture of the ontology of death. It is because Jonas approaches life from the viewpoint of that which is not life – that is, the viewpoint of an inert nature – that life will be defined as an opposition to its own negation: the constitutive relation of life to nonbeing results from this initial gesture of rescuing life from the clutches of inert matter. This double negation – a negation of the inert by separation from it, and an active negation of the threat of destruction that the physical world represents – exactly delineates the space of an ontology of death, which, after all, is only another name for the realist or naturalist ontology that Jonas fully accepts (Jonas 1966: 30). It is true that Jonas, fully conscious that such an ontology leads to a total impasse concerning life, subsequently sets himself to demonstrate that living organisms are ontologically irreducible, but it is by then too late. The ontological irreduc-ibility of living organisms can be grounded only on an act – distinguishing metabolism from other similar processes – that presupposes a self, in other words, that reintroduces the dimension of a soul or a spirit. Jonas is thus inevitably led, willy-nilly, to a dualist metaphysics that is always the consequence of an ontology of death. We are lead to the conclusion that we will be able to gain access to the meaning of life only on the condition of performing an epokhe of death, in the twin forms of a suspension of the death to which life is exposed, and a suspension of the naturalist ontology from which this definition of life proceeds.
Frogneux N. (2001) Hans Jonas ou la vie dans le monde. Bruxelles: De Boeck.
Heidegger M. (1962) Being and time. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. Oxford: Blackwell.
Jonas H. (1966) The phenomenon of life. New York: Harper & Row.
Jonas H. (1968) Biological foundations of individuality. International Philosophical Quarterly 8:231–251.
Jonas H. (2000) Evolution et liberté. Trans. S. Cornille and P. Ivernel. Paris: Rivages.
Scheler M. (1951) La situation de l’homme dans le monde. Trans. M. Dupuy. Paris: Aubier.
This is not in contradiction with the “spiritualism” that Jonas has often been criticized for; in fact, it is simply the reverse side of the same coin.
It should however be emphasized that plant growth can often exhibit an exuberance and a profusion that exceed the bounds of mere restoration. We shall come back to this point, which calls perhaps for a different view of the significance of plant life.
Even though, as Scheler in particular has shown, an expression of the primordial phenomenal order can already be found at the level of vegetative existence (cf. Scheler 1951: 28).
This is why there is no vegetable consciousness. Consciousness requires a reflection, a turning back to self; plants are incapable of this because they are entirely outside themselves, carried away by their own movement.
The term “need” would have been more precise here than the term “request.”
Thus, concerning the individual: the only beings who are individuals are “only those entities are individuals whose being is their own doing (and thus, in a sense, their task): entities, in other words, that are delivered up to their being for their being, so that their being is committed to them, and they are committed to keeping up this being by ever renewed acts of it. Entities, therefore, which in their being are exposed to the alternative of not-being as potentially imminent, and achieve being in answer to this constant imminence” (Jonas 1968: 233). Elsewhere, life is defined as “preoccupation with self” (Jonas 1966: 93) characterized by “anxiety” (Jonas 2000: 31) and concern: “to an entity that carries on its existence by way of constant regenerative activity we impute concern” (Jonas 1968: 243).
*We may recall that however severely Jonas criticizes Heidegger in The Phenomenon of Life, he was first of all Heidegger’s pupil.
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