9 Jan 2013

Pt3.Ch8.Sb4 Somers-Hall’s Hegel, Deleuze, and the Critique of Representation. Hegel’s Account of the Structure of the Organism’. summary

Corry Shores
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[Note: All boldface and underlining is my own. It is intended for skimming purposes. Bracketed comments are also my own explanations or interpretations.]


Henry Somers-Hall


Hegel, Deleuze, and the Critique of Representation.

Dialectics of Negation and Difference


Part 3: Beyond Representation

Chapter 7: Hegel, Deleuze, and the Structure of the Organism

Subdivision 4: Hegel’s Account of the Structure of the Organism

Very Brief Summary:

For Hegel, the organism is made up of the organic relation between the organism and its organs, and it is best exhibited in humans, which have the greatest differentiation that is still unified.

Brief Summary:

For Hegel, we cannot understand the organism as a mechanically related set of indifferent material parts, because it maintains a characteristic unity and acts spontaneously. Instead the organism is structured on the integration of unity and multiplicity, identity and difference, part and whole, one and many; for, it is organ and organism, with the two mutually dependent on each other [each organ is reciprocally determinate with the others, but also the organism and its organs are reciprocally determining]. The best model for the structure of the organism would be one with the greatest differentiation that is still unified. Plants can be divided and the parts regenerate new plants, so they were not organs so much. Animals go up a scale of differentiation, with humans at the top, because they also have the greatest sense of how each individual is an organ in a social body.


Previously we saw how Hegel’s dialectic of nature is not temporal and thus not compatible with evolutionary theory.

We now see how much Hegel’s theory of the organism is antievolutionary. In the previous chapter we saw how for Hegel, the concept of the universal depends on that of the individual, and vice versa. We will see Hegel in his account of the structure of the organism turning to Aristotle and Kant.

We might regard the organism’s basic building blocks as its constituting matter. “Such an understanding of the organism will allow us to see the organism purely in mechanical terms as the mutual interactions of its parts.” (217) But this explanation “suffers from the limitation that it appears to ignore two central features of the organism: that it is unified and that it is organized.” (217) [But the mechanistic/atomic model will not explain its autonomous self-organization, its spontaneity, etc.]

As these features appear to be essential determinations of the organism, if we are to give an account of them, we need to present an alternative explanatory framework that allows us to explain the structure of the organism. Hegel claims that Aristotle's basic determination of the organism, "that it must be conceived as acting purposively, has in modern times been almost forgotten till Kant, in his own way, revived this concept in his doctrine of inner teleology, in which the living being is to be treated as its own end" (PN, § 360, Rem.). [217]

For Kant, “nature as something commensurate with the understanding implies our seeing nature as created by an understanding.” (218a) [Our understanding sees things in terms of their purposes. Nature for Kant is commensurate with the natural world. Thus things in nature should be seen in terms of their purposes, like grass is there for the cow to eat.]

Kant's argument is therefore that seeing nature a s something commensurate with the understanding implies our seeing nature as created by an understanding. With this move, we open up a whole new category of descriptive concepts that can be applied to nature. If nature is seen as the creation of an understanding, we can view creatures in categories applied to other forms of intelligent creation, such as one would apply to the human creation of art or tools, where the final goal of the object enters into our understanding of the object itself. Thus, according to Kant, if we are to see nature as being commensurate with the understanding, we must see it as purposive. (218)

This presupposition that nature is purposes is not something we learn through empirical investigations but is rather the grounds for our investigation of nature; it is a transcendental principle. It is because we use the category of purposiveness when studying nature that we see it as being more than an “agglomeration of mechanical interactions.” (218)

According to Kant, something is a natural purpose if it is both cause and effect of itself, and it is so in two senses of this. [1] The thing as natural purpose is a member of a species and thus reproduces itself through the species’ perpetuation.  [2] The thing as natural purpose is an individual, and “it reproduces itself through the incorporation of raw matter into its structure and d1rough its self-preservation.” (218) And there are two requirements for the thing to be considered a purposive unity. [a] The parts must depend on their relation to the whole; for, the whole defines their relations to one another, and [b] “the whole must be determined by the reciprocal relations of the parts.” (218) So because the parts, the organs, exists for the sake of the others and the whole, we consider them as instruments [thus purposively]. Hegel takes up Kant’s four features. “The two Kantian notions of self-causation, as an individual | and as a species, form the two determining principles of the structure of the organism for Hegel. These two principles are treated separately by Hegel, although they operate simultaneously.” (218-219)

So we notice the similarities: “The organism consists in a set of parts which reciprocally determine one another in relation to a whole. Furthermore, this whole is simply a product of d1e interaction of the parts.” (219) Now, the particles of matter can exist independently, so the parts of the organism, as reciprocally determining, cannot be seen as mere particles of matter; rather, they are processes.

The organism consists in a set of parts which reciprocally determine one another in relation to a whole. Furthermore, this whole is simply a product of the interaction of the parts. It should be clear from this understanding of the organism that while the organism may be fully physical, the basic elements of the organism, its parts, cannot simply be equated with matter, since particles of matter are at least apparently capable of existing independently of one another. Instead, the constitutive parts of the organism are processes. "It is said that after five, ten, or twenty years the organism no longer contains its former substance, everything material has been consumed, and only the substantial form persists" (PN, § 356, Add.). [219]


So notice the double status of organism parts. [1] they are processes, but [2] their being processual does not mean they lack structure. Hegel follows an idea of Aristotle [I don’t know what that idea is; Somers-Hall says:]

Hegel acknowledges a central point of Aristotle's account when he writes that "in so far as d1e animal's members are simply moments of its form, and are perpetually negating their independence, and withdrawing into a unity which is the reality of the Notion, the animal is an existent Idea. If a finger is cut off, a process of chemical decomposition sets in, and it is no longer a finger" (PN, § 350, Add.) . [219]

And Hegel we have seen is also following Kant. We now need to distinguish two kinds of organic life, plant and animal.

[1] Plant life:

If we separate some part of a plant, that part can grow itself into a new plant. So the parts are not subordinate to the whole, and thus the parts are all individuals and not really organic parts [that are reciprocally determining, thus] plant life does not perfectly embody the Notion.

For Hegel, plant life is not a perfect embodiment of the Notion. Hegel argues that this is because it is possible to separate a part of the plant from the whole and for this part of the plant itself to develop into a complete organism. Thus, the parts of a plant cannot be considered to be truly subordinated to the whole. The plant "unfolds its parts; but since these its members are essentially the whole subject, there is no further differentiation of the plant: the leaves, root, stem are themselves only individuals" (PN, § 337, Add.). "Each plant is therefore only an infinite number of subjects; and the togetherness whereby it appears as one subject is only superficial" (PN, § 377, Add.). [219]

So we will be concerned with animals and not plants, and we will see how “this purposive explanation of the organism expresses itself in the determinate structure of the organism.” (219). There are two stages of this.

First Hegel sets out the basic determinations of sensibility, irritability, and reproduction as they occur in all organisms. Second, he attempts to show how differences in the | determinacy of these moments can be explained through the particularities of the needs of the organism and the extent to which the organism recognizes itself as a moment of the concrete universal of species.” (219-220)


So for Hegel, the organisms basic structure is found in the the interrelation of three of its functions: sensibility, irritability, and reproduction.  On account of these functions, the organism is both unified and differentiated. The self-feeling of the animal is its source of integrity. And sensation affects a small part of the body but these sensations relate to the unified organism as a whole, so sensation combines moments of unity with moments of difference. [220]

When something touches my skin, while the contact is limited to a particular area of my body, I still characterize it as I who have been touched. This functional role for sensibility, irritability, and reproduction in turn gives rise to certain structures within the organism. These moments give rise to the nervous, circulatory, and digestive systems. The distinction between these different systems differentiates the animal from d1e plant, since the animal is differentiated according to a function that is subordinated to the structure of the organism as a whole. Each system is therefore made up of elements that can only exist in relation to the system as a whole. In turn, we discover that each system maintains some of the functional roles of other systems, thus preventing the abstract separation of any one system from the unity of the organism as a whole. The differentiation of the organism into parts plays the role of allowing the organism to move beyond plant life, but it also admits of a series of gradations, from the simplest animals to the most differentiated. [220]

The perfect animal is the human organism.

The human is the most differentiated organism. The three functions of sensibility, irritability, and reproduction are both determined and related to the organism’s unity. Also, advanced species have a sense not only of their own organic parts, but they understand themselves as playing an organic role in the species, like how parents care for their young. There is a unity of process from parent to child, and it is mirrored in the organisms objective structure, for example, the mammal’s breasts which give milk from mother to child. Hegel thinks that humans are the perfect animal and they should be regarded as the model to understand less differentiated animals (this seems to go against his immanent understanding of dialectic and instead think in terms of genus and species.) (220-221) For example, insects have complex motor systems but internally not much differentiation, as “digestive and circulatory systems are completely undifferentiated from one another." (221) As we go down the chain to simpler organisms, internal differentiation becomes less. The least differentiated animals are very close to plants, and if we cut them into pieces, the organism will not die. (221) But we need more than a taxonomical account, because that only tells us the degrees of difference of animals’ structures, but we also need to take into account the particular forms of differentiation too. So Hegel turns to Cuvier.





Somers-Hall, Henry (2012) Hegel, Deleuze, and the Critique of Representation. Dialectics of Negation and Difference. Albany: SUNY.

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