9 Jan 2013

Pt3.Ch8.Sb6 Somers-Hall’s Hegel, Deleuze, and the Critique of Representation. ‘Deleuze, Geoffroy, and Transcendental 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 6: Deleuze, Geoffroy, and Transcendental Anatomy

Brief Summary:

Geoffroy offers a theory of anatomy based on homology. There is a transcendental unity of parts to which actual empirical cases correspond isomorphically. The theory was most demonstrable in application to embryonic forms. Thus both fish and human embryonic skeleton’s share a one-to-one correspondence to a transcendental arrangement of parts. This goes against Cuvier’s anatomy, and Hegel’s as well, because for them, anatomical parts are understood teleologically, in terms of their purposes or functions for the organism. So a fin and arm in Cuvier’s and Hegel’s approaches would not share the same designation, because their functions are different, however in Geoffrey’s they will. The relation between transcendental and empirical resonates with Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism.


Previously we saw how 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.

Now we turn to Deleuze’s connection with Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire to better see Deleuze’s account of the organism. Geoffroy proposes a transcendental anatomy.

Geoffroy was a contemporary of Cuvier. They first worked together but later sharply disagreed. Geoffroy rejects two important tenets in Cuvier’s anatomy. (224) [1] Geoffroy favors the principle of morphology over teleological function. He was concerned more with the connections between parts and with the parts’ genesis.

First, Geoffroy rejected Cuvier's principle of the correlation of parts in favor of his own "principle of connections." Rather than arguing that comparisons between organisms should be grounded in an analysis of the form or function of their parts, Geoffroy instead proposed that anatomical classification should proceed along morphological lines. In rejecting form and function, Geoffroy argued that what was key was the relations between parts themselves. Parts were therefore understood in terms of their connections with other parts and their genesis, according to an abstract schema. Such an account presented a radical break with teleology. (224)

We will contrast Geoffroy’s approach with that of comparative anatomists. For comparative anatomists, if parts between species share the same form and function, they may be given the same name.

For the comparative anatomist, the names of the parts of animals are, to a certain extent, derived analogically with those of other animals, archetypally with man. Thus, for instance, we can apply the term legs to other animals as they share certain characteristics of form and function with human legs. When the function or form of parts differs from those of man, however, a different term must be assigned to the part in question. Thus, although there is a similarity between the fins of a fish and the arm of a man, on a teleological account, the functional and structural differences mean that different terms must be applied to each. (225)

For Geoffroy, however, “parts in different animals may play different functional roles but may nevertheless be classified as essentially the same.” (225) This means that fins and arms could be classified together, even though they have different functions. A homology is a similarity across different organisms. But we are here rejecting the teleological account of anatomical function as the basis for classification. The teleology, purpose, would explain similar features in different species (like leg in men and dogs). But now we need some other rational ground to explain such similarities for parts whose functions might differ. Geoffroy proposes the ‘principle of the unity of composition.’ (225) [It is not specified yet, but parts are similar according to similarities to an abstract model for the part.]

The principle that Geoffroy employs for this role is the principle of the unity of composition. In order to posit similarities, Geoffroy posited an underlying abstract structure for particular animal forms. This structure was not to be understood in teleological terms, the function of the structure emerging depending on the particular form this structure took in the animal in question. The underlying plan allows the homology to be defined without reference to teleology. The British comparative anatomist Richard Owen was later to define it as "the same organ in different animals under every variety of form and function," whereas Cuvier's analogies were defined as "a part or organ in one animal which has the same function as another part or organ in another animal." Thus, to use Appel's example, the legs of a crab are analogous to those of a quadruped, as they share the same function, but they are not homologous to them. Fins and arms, on the contrary, would be homologous without being analogous. (225)

A classical example of Geoffroy’s method is fish skeletons. We are concerned with similar connections of parts in different creatures.  There needs to be a one-to-one correlation. Geoffroy shows such a correlation between fish and human skeletons, although because there are more bones in the fish, he examined the creatures in their embryonic state. “Despite the differences in the final number of bones, the same number of centers of ossification were found in both types of embryos, although these fused together as mammalian embryos developed.” (226) One difference is the bone structure of the gill cover in fish, not apparently found in humans, but Geoffroy thinks it is homologous with the human hearing bones in the ear. “That is, the bones that provided the function of hearing within mammals were part of the respiratory system of fishes. Thus, the field of homologies extended beyond those that could be discovered by teleological means.” (226)

Deleuze takes interest in Geoffroy and in his difference with Cuvier. Their 1830 public debate was about how Geoffroy was supporting a paper that demonstrated a homology across two of Cuvier’s embranchments, which in Cuvier’s system, were incomparable (specifically between vertebrates and mollusks.) Cuvier showed the flaws in the paper’s argument. The argument was over three points, “the distinctness of species, the question of method, and the question of political control of the academy,” but we are here concerned with the first two. Cuvier won the first argument over the distinctness of species, by showing that the homologies cannot be found between mollusks and vertebrates in the way they are in the paper. (226-227) Also, under Cuvier’s teleological system, minor changes in the structure of one organ “would necessarily lead to reciprocal changes in the remainder of the organism,” meaning that there are not intermediaries between species.

Thus there is not a continuity of species for Cuvier and hence also not a transformation of species “as changes would have to cut across the dead zone of teleological imperfection surrounding a given species.” (227) However, “On Geoffroy's account, however, it was possible to see species as forming a continuity, since unity was defined by the connection of parts, rather than their particular instantiation in a teleological nexus.” [Thus a small variation in a part would not mean a drastic anatomical change, because functioning is not the basis for determining the anatomy.] The second part of the debate was about method, and it has two parts. Cuvier thought anatomy is a science that can only focus on the facts and their categorization. Geoffroy thought that after determining the facts, their scientific consequences must be assessed. Cuvier thought that there is a difficulty in formulating Geoffroy’s unity of composition. Cuvier thinks that homologies lead to absurdities, but teleology is consistent, also, some of Geoffrey's examples were mechanically impossible.

Cuvier argued that if homologies were to be understood as the identity of an organ across different species, we were led to absurdities, but if we rejected the idea that homologies were strict identities, then instead, we simply had a concept of analogy, such as that formulated by Aristotle, between different species. Following on from this criticism, Cuvier argued that many of the homologies proposed by Geoffroy were in fact mechanically impossible to perform on a given organism, such as the reversal of position of several key organs in fish compared to mammalian vertebrates. (227)


There is a transcendental at work in Geoffroy’s theory. There is a transcendental unity of organization expressed in different species.

Contrary to Cuvier's characterization of homologies as involving direct relations between actual creatures, homologies instead refer to the transcendental unity of composition. It is because particular structures in different organisms are an expression of this same transcendental unity of organization that the homology exists between them. (227)

Geoffroy does not think we can characterize the unity of composition on the basis of some particular structures of actual organisms, because it is a matter of a transcendental unity. So Geoffroy is concerned more with how the transcendental unity relates to empirical unity, and not how the parts of some actual creature’s body part relates to another one. This is why Deleuze finds resonances of Geoffroy’s ideas in his own work. “Thus, Cuvier's criticism fails to hit its mark, as Geoffroy's account does not deal with relations between actual terms but between the transcendental and the empirical. The identities directly between actual organs that Cuvier attributes to Geoffroy simply do not occur, and hence neither do Cuvier's supposed absurdities.” (228) Now we may distinguish Hegel’s from Cuvier's approaches. Both Hegel and Geoffroy have something like an archetypal animal [for Hegel, man, for Geoffroy, the transcendental unity of anatomical parts.] But unlike Hegel, Geoffroy does not propose that the archetype is an actual species. “Geoffroy's abstract animal instead could not be actualized without a radical alteration in kind.” (228) Also, Hegel’s approach has a hierarchy going from least to most differentiated. Yet, “Geoffroy's account does not prioritize any actual form of life; instead, all vertebrates relate to a transcendental unity of composition.” (228) Hegel’s approach is teleological, but Geoffroy’s is not, because the same anatomical part can have a different function in other animals. Thus Hegel’s approach is closer to Cuvier’s, with the exception of the four embranchments. (228)

Cuvier notes that certain homologies involved mechanically impossible transformations. Geoffroy’s solution was turning toward embryonic structures. “Certain structures that would later appear very dissimilar could be | discerned to develop from the same embryonic structures.” (228-229)

Because Geoffroy gives an embryogenetic account, he could trace the development of structures, which was not possible for prior anatomies. Also, in Cuvier’s approach, an aberration is considered a deviation from the plan of a species. Geoffroy’s approach could give a more positive description.

Geoffroy therefore took up Serres' theory of arrests of development, which held that deformity was caused when the development of a particular organism was arrested at a lower form of organization, forcing this form of organization to perpetuate within the organism. This can be combined with the fact that the unity of composition, as it was not understood teleologically, was able to give a positive account even of deformations that reduced the effectiveness of the organ in question. The science of aberrations, known as "teratology," in fact plays an important role in the formulation of the theory of evolution and will be central to the evaluation of the limitations of Hegel's account. (229)






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

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