11 Oct 2009

Habits of Successful Plants. Samuel Butler. Life & Habit. Chapter 5: Personal Identity. pp.78-82

Corry Shores
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Habits of Successful Plants

Samuel Butler

Life & Habit (1910)

Chapter 5: Personal Identity


The more times we practice something, the better we get at it. In a sense, we are contracting all our past performances into a present habit. [For more on habitual contraction, see §39 & §40 of Bergson’s Matter and Memory, and §215, §218, §219; §234; §310; & §333, §352, §355 of Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature]. Now consider also how corn plants have the ‘habit’ of growing outward towards water, nutrients, and light. In a sense, they presuppose these things, so in a way, a plant ‘contemplates’ those things it reaches-out for. And then it brings these presupposed things into itself, contracting with them. Such an example illustrates Deleuze’s notion that habitual contractions cerebral or not are ‘contemplative.’ In Difference and Repetition, he draws this illustration from Samuel Butler’s Life and Habit. Deleuze writes:

No one has shown better than Samuel Butler that there is no continuity apart from that of habit, and that we have no other continuities apart from those of our thousands of component habits, which form within us so many superstitious and contemplative selves, so many claimants and satisfactions: ‘for even the corn in the fields grows upon a superstitious basis as to its own existence, and only turns the earth and moisture into wheat through the conceit of its own ability to do so, without which faith it were powerless ...’. Only an empiricist can happily risk such formulae. What we call wheat is a contraction of the earth and humidity, and this contraction is both a contemplation and the auto-satisfaction of that contemplation. By its existence alone, the lily of the field sings the glory of the heavens, the goddesses and gods – in other words, the elements that it contemplates in contracting. What organism is not made of elements and cases of repetition, of contemplated and contracted water, nitrogen, carbon, chlorides and sulphates, thereby intertwining all the habits of which it is composed? [Deleuze Difference and Repetition 1994:75a.b]

Nul mieux que Samuel Butler n’a montré qu’il n’y avait pas d’autre continuité que celle de l’habitude, et que nous n’avions pas d’autres continuités que celles de nos mille habitudes composantes, formant en nous autant de moi superstitieux et contemplatifs, autant de prétendants et de satisfactions : « Car le blé des champs lui-même fonde sa croissance sur une base superstitieuse en ce qui concerne son existence, et ne transforme la terre et l’humidité en froment que grâce à le faire, confiance ou foi en soi-même sans laquelle il serait impuissant »1. Seul l’empiriste peut risquer avec bonheur de telles formules. Il y a une contraction de la terre et de l’humidité qu’on appelle froment, et cette contraction est une contemplation, et l’autosatisfaction de cette contemplation. Le lys des champs, par sa seule existence, chante la gloire des cieux, des déesses et des dieux, c’est-à-dire des éléments qu’il contemple en contractant. Quel organisme n’est pas fait d’éléments et de cas de répétition, d’eau, d’azote, de carbone, de chlorures, de sulfates contemplés et contractés, entrelaçant ainsi toutes les habitudes par lesquelles il se compose ?

1.Samuel BUTLER, La vie et l’habitude (trad. Valery LARBAUD, N.R.F.), pp.86-87.[102b.d]

According to Butler, we might think our personalities to be some unified aspect of us, which we may cleanly define. Personal identity, could however, be quite the opposite.

But in truth this "we," which looks so simple and definite, is a nebulous and indefinable aggregation of many component parts which war not a little among themselves, our perception of our existence at all being perhaps due to this very clash of warfare, as our sense of sound and light is due to the jarring of vibrations. [Butler 1910:78d]

There are component parts to our personality. But they change moment-to-moment. That means our personality depends on our current state. Yet, the present is evanescent. Just as soon as we try to get it in our grasp, it has slipped away. And also, our component parts are inextricably bound-up with things in the world around us. [Is the air exhaling from our lungs a part of us? Can we regard the personality of a loving father without also considering his relation to his children?] So we are never able to draw determinate lines around us to delimit who we are.

Our bodies are essential to our personalities: when we die, so goes our personhood, and when we modify our bodies, we modify our personalities as well. But our bodies are ridding themselves of wastes on a daily basis. Are they a part of our personalities? If we amputate our limbs, our soul or self seems to remain somehow.

And if we are starving, and then eat, this drastically changes our personality. But there is no clear point in the digestive process when we can say the food has become a part of us.

Some of our parts seem separable. We awake to the cold morning. Our clothes lie upon our chair. When we dress, our clothes become a part of us like food does. Without our clothes we could die from the harms of the cold. And when we dress-up, that changes how we behave. We see then there is no scientific definition for our personhood. We normally deal with our ignorance of the true meaning of personhood by merely presuming everybody should already know what their self is, and leaving the burden of definitions for the over-curious.

When we assume without evidence that everybody knows the meaning of personality, we are being superstitious. Parenthetically, Butler adds that superstition is the cause for the actions of all life forms. Consider when we plant a corn seed. As its roots and stem move outward, there is a presumption in its movement. Its movements presume that if it extends and processes water, nutrients, and sunlight, it will continue to grow and flourish. Otherwise, it would not even begin to expand itself. So the corn has the superstition that it will have the power to perform these feats. The corn operates under a theory: adding and processing these things will empower me. So it implicitly contemplates the water, nutrients, and sunlight as it reaches-out for them. This contemplation is also a contraction. Plants contemplate water as they absorb and contract it into themselves. Butler writes:

Assuming, then, that every one knows what is meant by the word "person" (and such superstitious bases as this are the foundations upon which all action, whether of man, beast, or plant, is constructed and rendered possible; for even the corn in the fields grows upon a superstitious basis as to its own existence, and only turns the earth and moisture into wheat through the conceit of its own ability to do so, without which faith it were powerless; and the lichen only grows upon the granite rock by first saying to itself, "I think I can do it;" so that it would not be able to grow unless it thought it could grow, and would not think it could grow unless it found itself able to grow, and thus spends its life arguing in a most vicious circle, basing its action upon a hypothesis, which hypothesis is in turn based upon its action) [...]. [Butler 1910:82a.b]

Original text [click on images for an enlargement]:

Butler, Samuel. Life and Habit. London: Fifield, 1910. Available online at: http://www.archive.org/details/lifehabit00butluoft

Deleuze, Gilles. Différence et répétition. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1968.

Deleuze, Gilles, Difference & Repetition. Transl. Paul Patton. New York: Columbia UniversityPress, 1994.

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