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 had an influence on various 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, only one of his major works, On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, has been published in English (although a forthcoming translation of his main thesis, Individuation in Light of Notions of Form and Information, is set to be released this summer). 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 centre 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 an 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 the 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, growth 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).
Christianity and Cartesianism
In the second lesson of his book Two Lessons on Animal and Man, Gilbert Simondon begins to trace what he regards as the beginnings of a substantial break from the thinking of Antiquity, which came in the form of a marked focus on spirituality, in particular Christianity and the development of Cartesianism. During these years, thinkers such as St. Augustine, Descartes, and Malebranche would work on the idea that there is a particular ‘interiority’ that is peculiar to man, and thus separates him from animal life:
… the intervention of the doctrine of spiritual activity, starting with Christianity, but much more still at the interior of Cartesianism, constitutes a dichotomous opposition, an opposition that affirms two distinct natures and not merely two levels. (p.59)
The Apologists to St. Thomas
Simondon notes that the Apologists, Tatian, Arnobius and Lactantius, were concerned with creating an ‘extremely powerful ethical dualism’ that would seek to establish Christian ethics not just between animal and man, but between Christian and non-Christian. St Augustine reaffirmed the idea that animals have souls that are comparable to humans, yet to St Augustine, these are ‘sensitive souls’; souls that can suffer and dream but are essentially acting purely out of instinct. St Thomas also denied the concept of reason in animal life, yet argued that animals in some respect had intentions, i.e. ‘distant ends for which they work, and which are consciously perceived by them’.
Next, during the period of the Renaissance, came ‘a renewal in the relation between the animal and human psyche’. Simondon argues that this interest was driven by a desire to avenge the dualism of the Apologists in order to restore the importance of the animal Psyche ‘in order to teach us lessons’. Giordano Bruno describes an all-encompassing theory of animation which leads Simondon to refer to him as ‘one of the most powerful philosophers of the Renaissance’:
According to his doctrine, animation, which is to say life, is not merely a fact for beings at the scale of life as we know it, but can also be a fact for stars … life can exist in elements where we don’t believe it to exist … To this extent, it is certain that animals … should not be considered inferior beings or caricatures of man. (p.67)
St Francis of Assisi took up this theme of harmonious unity by positing the notion of the Great Being. Animals are part of the entirety of Creation and thus, in their own way, adore and honour God. Montaigne also rejected the dualism of animal and man, and thus adopted a monist perspective by observing that all psychical faculties in animals are the same as those existing in man. For Montaigne, animals are superior because they do not have to pose the question of knowing what to choose since they act out of instinct, an instinct that can’t make mistakes.
Yet, this move signals a break in the previous thinking; in stating that animals did not have to pose the question of knowing, the supposition is that rationality is fundamentally different to instinct, which, in Simondon’s words, ‘is the door to dualism’ which will lead us to Descartes and Malebranche.
Descartes and Malebranche
…according to Descartes, animals possess neither intelligence nor instinct. The animal is a machine, an automaton … Descartes is the first who said animal behaviours are not instinctive… they are mechanical. (p.73)
So, as Simondon describes, animals act not out of instinct, something that could at least be comparable to man, but out of pure automatism of the body; they do not operate on a psychological frequency any more than machines do. Animals are, thus, res extensa, without consciousness and without interiority whereas humans are res cogitans.
Similarly, Malebranche took up the Cartesian doctrine in one of it’s strictest forms, he argues that animals cannot suffer, desire, or know anything whatsoever, however, he puts forward a touching theological explanation for this:
…animals cannot suffer, because pain is the result of original sin, and nowhere is it said that animals ate the forbidden fruit, and as a result, animals cannot suffer, it would be an injustice towards them because they did not commit this sin. (p.77)
To Simondon this doctrine is ‘excessive, bizarre, scandalous’ however he argues that it was Cartesianism that dialectically paved the way for 19th-20th century science to study human behaviour. Descartes was the necessary stepping stone for our modern understanding of animality (which of course is still highly debated).
Bousset and La Fontaine
Simondon concludes with a brief outline of these two lesser-known thinkers. Wilhelm Bousset, a German theologian, argued vehemently against Cartesianism, stating that ‘Man is an animal. We have the experience of what is inside us and what comes from reflection and reason. The grandest, most complete being is man. And man is an animal.’ This argument essentially tries to reconcile Cartesianism with the thinking of St Thomas.
Jean de La Fontaine similarly defended the animal kingdom through his fable-like poems, considering it to have been violated by systematic thinking and Simondon quotes a substantial portion of his poem ‘Address to Madame de la Sabliere’ which can be found here.
So what we have in this short book is a critique of the notion that ‘what is newer is better’, and the idea that we have witnessed progress in human thinking in regards to the relationship between animal and man is severely challenged through this dialectical journey; a journey which explores and questions both critically and imaginatively the foundational assumptions that underpin concept formation in both psychology and philosophy, revealing stories and influences that, in some cases, both disciplines may have initially ignored.
It’s a great shame that there is not more of Simondon’s work translated into English but this book gives us a small insight into the mind of one the most under-appreciated thinkers of the 20th century.
Matt Bluemink is a philosopher and writer from London. His main interests are the connections between philosophy, literature, technology and culture. He is the founder and editor of bluelabyrinths.com.