Gilbert Simondon (1924 – 1989) was arguably one of the most original and innovative thinkers in contemporary French philosophy. A student of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simondon’s work has has had an influence on a wide variety disciplines ranging from philosophy and anthropology, to media and cybernetics. As Aislinn O’Donnell describes: ‘On one page, he may describe an electrical field, on another, detail the genesis of the crystal, and on another, reflect on anxiety, anguish and spirituality.’
Although readily available in French, none of his major works have yet been published in English. For many of us who are familiar with his work through Gilles Deleuze or Bernard Stiegler, it is a real shame that a thinker who has been so influential to some of the most important philosophers of our era still remains inaccessible to so many readers.
However, what we have here in Two Lessons on Animal and Man is two lectures Simondon gave as an introduction to a course on ‘general psychology’ at the University of Poitiers in 1963-1964 –it is the first book length work of Simondon’s to be translated into English. This book is, in the words of O’Donnell , ‘a wonderful dance through centuries of philosophy’, that outlines the dialectical history of Man’s constantly developing ideas on the distinctions between human, animal and plant life from antiquity up to the 17th century.
After a neat introduction by Jean-Yves Chateau which tries to elucidate this book within the broader context of Simondon’s work on psychic and collective individuation (something I won’t elaborate on here) we come to the first lesson: Antiquity.
Socrates and Plato
In this chapter Simondon tracks humanity’s thought on animal and man from Pythagoras, through Plato and Aristotle, up until the stoics. Simondon argues that the Presocratics, interestingly enough, didn’t consider the human soul to be fundamentally different in nature from the souls of animals or indeed vegetal life. In fact, all living creatures have a vital essence which implies that the important distinction is not between human, animal, and vegetable but merely between all things living and those non-living. Here we can see some glimmers of Simondon’s work on individuation starting to shine through.
In any case, what is revealed by this story is the basis for a partially primitive belief in the transmigration of souls at the origin of our western civilization, which implies that the soul is not a properly individual reality. The soul individualises itself for a certain length of time under the guise of a certain existence, but before this existence, it has known other existences, and after this existence, it could experience more still. (p.34)
He argues that this idea was a consistent feature of thought in antiquity up until the time of Socrates and Plato. It was Socrates, through the writing of Plato, who initially made the distinction between animal instinct and human intelligence; in particular between nous (reason), thumos (heart, elan) and epithumia (desire). Plato argued in the Timaeus that Man should be thought of as the center of the universe. It is therefore through a process of ‘reverse evolution’ from Man that all other forms of being have essentially been degraded. We could imagine a evolutionary tree with Man at the top, followed by women, animals, and finally plants:
At the source was man, which is the most perfect and which manifests in himself all the elements that allowed to create by degradation of the different species. … This idea from the Timaeus, which is in a sense monstrous, and in a sense genius, is the first theory of evolution in the Western world. Only, it’s a reverse theory of evolution. (pp. 39-40)
So, to Simondon, the views of Pythagoras through to Plato can essentially be seen as ‘axiological and mythological’, however an important dialectical shift from this way of thinking came via Aristotle.
Aristotle was the first thinker of Antiquity to formulate a theory of man, animal, and the vegetal that was an ‘objective naturalist doctrine of observation’ rather than the previous mythological, or axiological doctrines. Aristotle observed that the vegetal already contains a soul which relates to the developmental functions and growth i.e. plants take something from soil, air and light, in order to provide nutrition for themselves, but they also reproduce; their developmental functions are functions of growth but also of reproduction.
Through this observational understanding of plant life in relation to, and through the relationships between, vital functions, Aristotle had founded a new way to compare the similarities and differences between the human, animal and vegetal world. But importantly, he also saw that there was a notion of equivalence between these three worlds; although each species has their own defining characteristics (which, in the case of humans would be reason) we must admit that ‘there exist continuities and functional equivalents within the various levels of organisation between the different modes of living beings.’ For example, the growing in plants is a functional analogy to instinct in ants as habit in animals is analogous to human prudence.
However, as we trace this dialectic once more we come to the Stoics who returned to the ethical foundations laid down by Socrates and Plato:
The Stoics, in effect, deny intelligence to animals and develop the theory of instinctive animal activity. They contrast the human functions of liberty, rational choice, rationality, knowledge and wisdom, with animal characteristics that come by instinct. … They want to show that the human is a being apart from the rest of nature. (pp.52-53)
In other words, they opposed intelligence with instinct, putting intelligence, or nous, once again on a higher plane. So while animals may be superior to man in their attributes and instincts that are specifically adapted to surviving in nature, man is superior to animals by virtue of his reason. So, with the Stoics we have:
… a notion of instinct, [which is] essentially comprised of automatism. What the animal does that resembles man, it does by instinct. Whatever this may be, man does it by reason. Consequently man is of a different nature than animals and plants. (p.55)
However, at the end of Antiquity, Simondon observes that we are left with a legacy where, even though human intelligence and animal instinct are opposed, nevertheless ‘what occurs in man and what occurs in animals are comparable…not identical, but comparable’ (p. 58).