9 Jan 2013

Pt3.Ch8.Sb5 Somers-Hall’s Hegel, Deleuze, and the Critique of Representation. ‘Hegel, Cuvier, and Comparative Anatomy’. 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 5: Hegel, Cuvier, and Comparative Anatomy

Brief Summary:

Cuvier, like Hegel, thinks that animals should not be classified in terms of differences of degree. Unlike Hegel, he uses a non-unified system, one with four branches. Nonetheless, like Hegel, Cuvier’s system is functional and teleological, meaning that organisms’ anatomical structures can be understood in terms of their functional purposes.


Previously we saw 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.


Now we turn to Hegel’s treatment of Cuvier to see how types of organisms’ structures are determined in different ways according to the organism’s needs. Cuvier was a highly influential 19th century French anatomist. He worked toward the “formation of the orthodox view of anatomy”.  (221) He helped turn anatomy into its own natural science.

At the root of this transformation was the intuition that by comparing the anatomy of animals from different species, it would be possible to build up a taxonomical system that classified animals according to rational determinations, rather than simply placed them in groups arbitrarily. (221)

His system of classification has two central principles: [1] the four embranchements and [2] the functional account of the organism’s structure.

The four embranchements:

For Cuvier, Hegel’s systems of sensibility, irritability, and reproduction as features of the organism were inadequate for a system of classification. Instead, Cuvier proposes four embranchements of animals, which are are four fundamentally distinct provinces. They are “defined according to fundamental differences in the structure of the nervous system.” (222) [1] vertebrates [2] articulates, [3] the mollusks, and [4] the radial embranchements. Because the differences across these branches is so extreme, we cannot compare them. Unlike Hegel, Cuvier does not think we can find a central plan, like humans, to characterize all organisms’ structures. But Hegel and Cuvier share the view that species should not be defined in terms of difference in degree.

According to Cuvier, “there are certain general laws that are logically prior to the actual existence of the organism that govern its structure.” (222) These laws are derived from the purposive nature of organisms.

The conditions of existence define a harmony in the functioning of the organism as a whole, which leads to the hypothesis that the nature and distribution of the parts of the organism can be discovered simply by reasoning from their place in the functional unity of the organism. (222)

Hegel also expressed this view in the Philosophy of Nature.

This is a teleological account similar to Hegel’s. Cuvier’s method was highly effective, “particularly in the field of paleontology, where Cuvier was able to prove the possibility of extinction by reconstructing now extinct species from fossilized remains.” (222) He could also conclude anatomical features on the basis of animals’ level of activity. “Thus birds, which are very active, of necessity had to be completely surrounded by air, as well as have air inside them, in the form of hollow bones.” (222) For Cuvier, like Hegel, there is a purposive nature of organs and nature herself.

As Cuvier goes on to write, "it is in this dependence of the functions and the aid which they reciprocally lend one another that are founded the laws which determine the relations of their organs and which possess a necessity equal to that of metaphysical or mathematical laws." We can see from this that Cuvier was further in agreement with Hegel that the kind of purposive account proposed by Kant need not be understood as a purely regulative form of understanding, but in fact told us something fundamental about the nature of the world as such. (223)


But there are important differences between Hegel’s and Cuvier’s accounts. For Cuvier, we can understand the organism’s structure on the basis of its functional needs, but only for more developed animal life forms. Also, there can be structural features that have no function [as circumstances have changed and the creature no longer needed that organ.] Also there are purely accidental mutations in nature that have no function. Yet

In spite of these differences, it is still the case that Hegel's account is teleological and | functionalist and that where he departs from Curvier, it is in order to claim either that a given feature is contingent and therefore inexplicable or else is governed by teleology operating at a different level. (223-224)

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

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