The Speculative Realist end of the blogosphere is a flutter with intellectual butterflies thanks to a comment from Graham. Party lines have been drawn as to the possible future of SR:
“There would be the eliminativist wing with a heavy cog.-sci. bent. There would be a Meillassouxian wing generating fascinating philosophical proofs out of a radicalized correlate (and with Zizekians, Lacanians, and Badiouians in the vicnity). There would be a Grantian wing with a more vitalist/materialist approach and more of a Deleuzian flavor than the others. And then there would be an object-oriented wing, with Latour as a key patron saint and a flat ontology as the price of admission.”
I’ve thought about this for some time (although excluding Brassier as I’ve never read any of his work…) As I’m sure must be painfully obvious based on my blogging history, I would fall in line with the Vitalists. Fortunately, I’m not alone as Ben over at Naught Thought also claims to be in the same camp.
Ben points out something else I’ve noticed people blogging about in terms of vitalism, that is, the possibility of a “cold vitalism.” Some are even using the term “mechanistic” (which, based on the history of vitalism sounds ridiculous; vitalism is diametrically opposed to mechanistic science and philosophy). I see no problem with having a cold vitalism, however, the claim that this new vitalism would be non-biological seems odd. I wouldn’t say that vitalism is biological per se, but that both vitalism and biology are (and must be) organic. Ben seems to champion a more pessimistic view than Deleuze, and that’s fine, I do too. I think a marriage between Lovecraft and the early Schelling may be ideal. I would say the problem arises in vitalist thought when human beings become the apex of Nature, as Schelling claims (I would argue) as a result of his Christian turn (which as I have said before, has taken place by 1802 at the latest).
What do I view as the essential qualities of vitalism? I wrote a paper recently on Schelling and vitalism, and this is how I defined it then (I won’t post the complete paper, I’m no longer happy with it):
“To understand exactly what I mean by Vitalism, we turn first to Scott Lash’s essay “Life (Vitalism),” written as an encyclopedia entry for Theory, Culture, & Society. It is perhaps best to understand Vitalism in terms of what it is opposed to: Vitalism is first and foremost essentially anti-mechanistic, typically anti-dualistic, and largely anti-humanistic. While mechanistic systems view causality as purely external (matter impacting matter for example), one of the principles of Vitalism is “self-organization” (Lash 2006: 324), that is, “life” is irreducible to purely mechanistic properties and must be understood as the principle force of self-organizing material bodies: causality arises from within. There is also an important element of indeterminacy in Vitalism, as life is not predictable in the way a mechanistic determinism is. There are varying degrees of self-organization, as Lash explains:
Inorganic matter has the lowest level of self-organization, though it also is partly self-organizing. Organic matter in plants has higher levels of self-organization; animals still higher; human beings still higher; and immortals the highest. . . . in vitalism, the power of self-organization is extended from humans to all sorts of matter (Lash 2006: 324).
Dualism often has the problem of juggling between a mechanistic world and an immaterial self or soul. This dates back to the problem of form and matter of the Greeks, but continued to be a problem that Schelling saw in thinkers such as Descartes. Vitalism attempts to solve this problem by proposing a form of Emergentism, that is, that form exists but emerges from the natural self-organization of matter (Bergson describes this as life creating form for itself to fit different circumstances, that is, adapting). Since all matter possesses some sort of self-organization, human beings are no longer to be thought of as unique or “special,” leading Vitalism to the aforementioned “anti-humanism.” Perhaps most important for our study of Schelling’s metaphysics of nature is that Vitalism claims that Being is not static, but that it’s proper name is Life (or at least Becoming) and that it is creative. What this means is that metaphysics is not a study of fixed forms or concepts, but that just like organisms, all is changing and adapting over time. One of the greats in the Vitalist tradition, Henri Bergson, tells us that “life is. . . a tendency to act on inert matter. The direction of this action is not predetermined; hence the unforeseeable variety of forms which life, in evolving, sows along its path” (Bergson 1913: 96).”
(Here are the sources as well:
Bergson, Henri. 1913. Creative Evolution. Trans. Arthur Mitchell. New York: Henry Holt.
Lash, Scott. 2006. “Life (Vitalism)” in Theory, Culture, & Society (SAGE Publications) Vol. 23 (2-3): 323-349.)
So what does this mean for a new or a cold vitalism? Nothing really, so long as it adheres to these simple principles (anti-mechanistic, anti-dualistic, and anti-humanistic), I would consider it comfortably within vitalism. My own position is perhaps stranger than a cold vitalism, being a spectral vitalism, emphasizing the significance of quasi-beings, memories (which are not strictly human), and ghosts as opposed to the usual vitalistic emphasis on the strong, the dominant, the powerful. I’m more interested in the fact that there is often no clear/clean distinction between Being and Non-Being, and that that which “does not exist” in some sense still goes on living.
Addendum: In the comments, Ben also suggests a relation between vitalism and existentialism. I think this is spot on; I think vitalism needs to be an existentialism for the non-human, including the non-existent!