Recursivity and Contingency
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Recursivity and Contingency

Yuk Hui

  1. 288 páginas
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Recursivity and Contingency

Yuk Hui

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This book employs recursivity and contingency as two principle concepts to investigate into the relation between nature and technology, machine and organism, system and freedom. It reconstructs a trajectory of thought from an Organic condition of thinking elaborated by Kant, passing by the philosophy of nature (Schelling and Hegel), to the 20 th century Organicism (Bertalanffy, Needham, Whitehead, Wiener among others) and Organology (Bergson, Canguilhem, Simodnon, Stiegler), and questions the new condition of philosophizing in the time of algorithmic contingency, ecological and algorithmic catastrophes, which Heidegger calls the end of philosophy. The book centres on the following speculative question: if in the philosophical tradition, the concept of contingency is always related to the laws of nature, then in what way can we understand contingency in related to technical systems? The book situates the concept of recursivity as a break from the Cartesian mechanism and the drive of system construction; it elaborates on the necessity of contingency in such epistemological rupture where nature ends and system emerges. In this development, we see how German idealism is precursor to cybernetics, and the Anthropocene and Noosphere (Teilhard de Chardin) point toward the realization of a gigantic cybernetic system, which lead us back to the question of freedom. It questions the concept of absolute contingency (Meillassoux) and proposes a cosmotechnical pluralism. Engaging with modern and contemporary European philosophy as well as Chinese thought through the mediation of Needham, this book refers to cybernetics, mathematics, artificial intelligence and inhumanism.

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Critical Theory
Chapter 1
Nature and Recursivity
Nature loves to hide.
—Heraclitus, Fragment 123
Contingency is always contingent upon something, as long as this something is considered probable or even necessary in time—for example, laws of nature. Not all laws of nature are in themselves necessary, though they are only laws insofar as they are considered to be so. Laws of nature remain necessary until they are disproved by exceptions. In this case, they become contingent, meaning things can be otherwise. It ceases to be a law and is now a fact. It is this particular relation between nature and contingency that we would like to elaborate as a point of departure for reflecting upon the realization of systemic thinking and, finally, technical systems. We are going to examine two fundamental points:
1. Contingency is fundamental to the understanding of nature, not least because nature demonstrates an irregularity deviating from rules that are derived from empirical observations. In order to develop a philosophy of nature, it is necessary to recognize such contingency as a necessity.
2. Any systemic philosophy, either ideal or real, will have to address nature external to the mind (the “I”), and in consequence is obliged to deal with the question of contingency,1 since contingency challenges the very foundation of such systems: If the foundation of a system is contingent then all knowledge might be suspended and deprived of its validity. Systemic philosophy will have to render contingency necessary, not only factually but also logically.
These two motivations are key for reflecting upon eighteenth-century Naturphilosophie and its successors. (As we will argue in this chapter, its twentieth-century successors are organicism and the Gaia theory.) If philosophy wants to become a system, it will have to develop a mechanism allowing it to resolve the threat posed by contingency. If the a priori laws become contingent, then the system will collapse immediately. The system would therefore better respond to contingency by not having predefined rules, and instead allow rules to emerge during its confrontation with contingency and irregularity. We pass here from a transcendental characterized by rules to a transcendental characterized by teleology, analogous to the movement from Kant’s first to his third Critique. At the center of this systemic thinking is the concept of the organic, which comes from discoveries in the natural sciences, especially biology. Being organic is not merely maintaining part-whole relations, but also designates self-organization and autopoiesis, which we want to call recursivity. And if we want to address the question of technical systems, it is necessary to examine the history of the concept of nature, which is always the other of itself in the Hegelian sense. It is only through a close examination of the concept of nature that we can see clearly the question of technology, since the two have been opposed throughout the history of philosophy. In other words, without understanding the relation between nature and system, we will not understand technical systems: as Heidegger says, “technics: history of nature” (Technik: Historie der Natur).2
§9. Kant and the Model of System
I would like to refer to a very intriguing quote from Schelling’s late philosophy here in order to open up the question of contingency, not only because Schelling will be guiding us throughout this chapter, but also because it in a certain sense reverses our conventional concept of necessity:
The first impression (and this is decisive not only in life, but also in knowledge) of this thing, on the whole and in the particulars so highly contingent, that we call the world—this cannot possibly be the impression of something that has arisen out of rational necessity, that is, through a mere logical emanation. The world resembles nothing less than it resembles a product of pure reason. It contains a preponderant mass of unreason, such that one could almost say that the rational is merely the accidents.3
This seems to be a conclusion that Schelling has given to his early career of systemizing nature, an attempt made between 1794 and 1833 and continuing for a period of almost forty years. Schelling’s verdict is astonishing, not only in his rejection of rational necessity as the ground but also in his consideration of the rational as merely “the accidents.” This contingency is not only related to the particular, to the very instantiation, but rather concerns the whole, the system. We may conceive the system that Schelling is referring to here as a system regulated by the laws of nature. Schelling’s critique is very radical, probably even more so than that of Boutroux, author of the classic On the Contingency of the Laws of Nature (1874). Boutroux argued in this work that contingency is omnipresent, and that each law of nature always contains contingencies that can be logically deduced. It is also different from what we know today as Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, since what Schelling is claiming is that contingency is probably the ground, the “substantial,” while the rational is nothing but its accident, and remains one of its expressions. In other words, if contingency is the original ground (Urgrund), it is also a nonground (Ungrund), or an abyss (Abgrund).
One may want to ask, doesn’t this conceptualization in the late Schelling contradict the usual impression of the regularity of the concept of system—a philosophical credo of eighteenth-century philosophy? The task of creating a system, or taking philosophy as a system, can be seen as an effort to revive metaphysics after the domination of science and the French Revolution. Schelling stands out as one of the most systemic thinkers—probably even more systemic than Hegel—especially in his last publication, Treatise on the Essence of Human Freedom, often referred as the Freiheitschrift. In this essay Schelling famously declares that the system is not able to get rid of evil; on the contrary, evil is always present in the system as the possibility of freedom. It is sufficient to see that contingency, which can be evil or a state of exception, is immanent in the system. It is of our interest here to carry out a historical-critical exposition of Schelling’s Naturphilosophie, since it is an effort to eliminate oppositions (real-ideal, subject-object, contingency-necessity) through the construction of a generic system, which we can call, following Schelling, the general organism (Allgemeiner Organismus).
It is within such a conception that the system as an organic being is postulated, and from there we would like to understand it as a precursor of cybernetics. When it is seen in this way, nature is dissolved in cybernetics: the end of nature. It is such an end in the sense that an innocent, Romanticist, productive nature ceases to be; it is succeeded by cybernetics, as what happened to philosophy in general according to Heidegger.4 However, what exactly is a system, and in what sense can subject and object (nature) be reconciled?
Before Schelling, other philosophers, notably Kant, had already attempted to answer this question. In his three Critiques, Kant laid down two fundamental methods of systematization. In the first Critique he proposed his famous architectonics to analyze the relation between nature and subject. Nature appears to the subject as phenomenon, the transcendental faculties regulating the apperception of it. The transcendental deduction of categories of the understanding defines the limit of the understanding as well as the limits of the appearance of phenomenon according to the four groups of categories: namely, quality, quantity, relation, and modality. The model presented in the first Critique is constitutive, in the sense that nature must be submitted to concepts legitimated by the transcendental deduction. Kant’s strategy can be understood in two points: On the one hand, Kant wants to avoid the phantasm of speculative reason, the well-known Schwämerei, hence reason is confined to the unification of rules of the understanding under principles5; second, Kant was obliged to develop a new mechanism or heuristics capable of addressing the Humean challenge on the “contingency of necessity.” A second model is mentioned in the appendix titled “The Amphiboly of Concepts of Reflection” in the first Critique,6 in the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals,7 and more precisely again in the Critique of Judgement, in which reflective judgement is elaborated. The reflectivity here is regulative instead of constitutive, since it is no longer about the submission of nature to the mind according to concepts, but rather a heuristic (as Lyotard describes it) in search of an un-predefined end and its purposiveness (Zweckmässigkeit).8 In Kant’s own words, determinative judgment is the imposition of the universal on the particulars, whereas reflective judgment is the search for the universal in the particulars. Simondon was very sharp to point out that in the first two Critiques, criticism was not able to think cybernetics since, like Auguste Comte’s positivism, Kant’s criticism still tends to think in terms of structure. It is only in the Critique of Judgment that Kant was able to address the question of cybernetics.9
The second book of the Critique of Judgment is dedicated to teleological judgment, in which Kant presents an organic model. Kant’s writing on teleological judgment had a profound impact on the natural scientists of his time,10 as well as on the next generation of philosophers such as Fichte, Novalis, the Schlegel brothers, Schelling, and Hegel (among others). The clearest definition of the organic form can be found in §64, where Kant defines the organic being as follows: “a thing exists as a natural end if it is (though in a double sense) both cause and effect of itself.”11 Kant then provides the example of a tree, highlighting three elements that define it as an organic being. Firstly, the tree reproduces itself according to its genus, meaning that it reproduces another tree; seco...


  1. Cover
  2. Half-Title
  3. Series
  4. Title
  5. Copyright
  6. Dedication
  7. Epigraph
  8. Contents
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. Preface, by Howard Caygill
  11. Introduction: A Psychedelic Becoming
  12. 1 Nature and Recursivity
  13. 2 Logic and Contingency
  14. 3 Organized Inorganic
  15. 4 Organizing Inorganic
  16. 5 The Inhuman That Remains
  17. Bibliography
  18. Index
  19. About the Author