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The Paradox of the Living: Jonas and Schelling on the Organism’s Autonomy

Francesca Michelini
p. 139-157


After preliminarily pointing to the undeniable differences between Jonas’ philosophical biology and Schelling’s philosophy of nature, I contend that, besides their divergencies, the two philosophers agree on several important points. I then show to what extent, based on these elements of convergence, their two approaches could even be taken as complementary. In the core of my paper I lay emphasis on what I believe to be the main ground for the complementarity of the two philosophical inquiries, that is to say, their common radicalization and superseding of Kant’s principle of self-organization. In this respect – all differences considered – they both can be said to delineate a philosophy of the organic that can fruitfully contribute, even better than Kant’s input, to the currently widely discussed topic of biological autonomy.

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Schelling, Jonas, Organism
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I. The need for a philosophical biology: Some points of agreement between Jonas and Schelling

  • 1 Jonas 1974, xiii.

1In 1974, in his Philosophical Essays, Jonas complains that on the outset of modern times the «very idea» of the philosophy of nature was the object of a process of rejection. The Cartesian divide between res cogitans and res extensa caused philosophy to retreat in the «mental half of the dichotomy» only, leaving the whole of nature in the hands of the «victorious science» and of the epistemology of natural sciences, now occupying the place once held by the philosophy of nature.1 This does not mean, nevertheless, that Jonas’ aim is to go back to a pre-Cartesian philosophy of nature.

2As matter of fact he is caught up, so to speak, in between two extremes. He argues indeed that the philosophy of nature in its traditional form is no longer a viable option, and yet his biophilosophy is not, strictly speaking, a philosophy of biology in the current meaning of this term – this latter being normally understood as a specialized branch of epistemology, and not as the study of the meaning of nature or of the organic itself.

  • 2 On the topic see Michelini 2020 (forthcoming).
  • 3 Heidegger 2011. It should be added, though, that Jonas chose to write his seminar essay not on Sche (...)

3At any rate, Jonas’ references to natural philosophy are hardly directly linked to its historical instances,2 and he even fails to openly mention the greatest classic of the philosophy of nature, that is to say, Schelling. There are no doubts, however, that Jonas was familiar with Schelling’s ideas, as we know that he attended Heidegger’s seminar in 1927/28 on Schelling’s Freiheitschrift.3

  • 4 Jonas 1966: 95-96.
  • 5 On the missed relationship between Plessner and Jonas see Michelini 2015.

4The absence of Schelling’s name should not come, however, as a big surprise. First of all because Jonas hardly ever quotes anyone, even when it comes to contemporary authors. He likes depicting himself as the one and only who resurrected the philosophy of nature, or better, the philosophy of the organism, at a time when, he claims, it was completely forgotten – with the only great exception of Whitehead. Jonas in fact overtly acknowledges only Whitehead’s influence and devotes to his ideas a short separate investigation in his The Phenomenon of Life.4 Most notably absent among Jonas’ references are also all those thinkers usually linked to German philosophical anthropology, such as Scheler, and, even more remarkably, Plessner, who already in 1928, in his work The Levels of the Organic and the Human Being, had presented a «new» philosophy of nature as the premise and fundamental requirement to any philosophical anthropology, and whom Jonas could meet in person in 1962/63 at the New School for Social Research of New York.5

  • 6 As acknowledged by Hösle 1994: 108.

5Secondly, in reference generally speaking to German idealism, it should be remarked that Jonas always takes on a critical stance. First of all, he blames it on several occasions for its ensuing subjectivism. Admittedly, this is not a fully appropriate critique, though, as Jonas seems to overlook the actual differences within different forms of transcendental investigation and fails to see that not all of them lead to subjectivistic outcomes. Furthermore, Jonas tends to reject any systematics even remotely reminiscent of German classical philosophy. Jonas’ texts are indeed far from being systematic, despite the fact that the overall intent of his philosophy of biology is clearly that of outlining a general theory of being.6 Overall, and beyond any shadow of a doubt, within Jonas’ inquiries, nature is no longer a whole systematically accounted for by the natural sciences as well as by the philosophy of nature, as it was the case for Schelling and his contemporaries.

  • 7 Very broadly speaking, in the first chapter of The Phenomenon of Life, Jonas presents idealism and (...)
  • 8 Jonas 1966: 95.
  • 9 Jonas 1966: 96.

6A third reason can be possibly added here in order to explain why Shelling is never openly mentioned as one of Jonas’ references. It is very likely that Schelling, according to Jonas, is to be ranked among the supporters of a panvitalistic conception of nature, or, even, as a resurgence of those forms of primitive animism he criticizes in the first chapter of The Phenomenon of Life (Life Death and Body in the Theory of Being).7 From this viewpoint, Schelling’s theory would even display, in all likelihood, some affinities with Whitehead’s process ontology. Jonas considers Whitehead – as I mentioned – a «travel companion» under many respects, but also criticizes him for failing to preserve the crucial ontological difference between organic and inorganic. As he writes in The Phenomenon of Life: «Whitehead, who significantly called his general theory of being a “philosophy of organism”, in effect turned the difference between life and non life from one of essence into one of degree».8 It is worth noting here that, even though the same criticism could apply to Schelling as well, his position is never explicitly taken into account. Jonas refers, instead, in addition to Whitehead, to Hegel. Hegel and Whitehead stand together, in this context, inasmuch as both their accounts in metaphysics put together «a story of intrinsically secured success», where, Jonas adds, no space is left for the phenomenon of death nor for that of evil9 – such a reproach being, I might add, hardly applicable when it comes to Schelling.

  • 10 Jonas 1966: 4.
  • 11 Jonas 1966: 3.

7Besides all speculations concerning why Jonas fails to mention Schelling, it should be made clear that Jonas’ philosophy, differently from Schelling’s, revolves clearly around the difference between the organic and the inorganic. At variance with other approaches, Jonas’ inquiry is not based upon an investigation of the origins of life from matter, but rather on the living organism itself. How from matter life has come about, according to Jonas, is a topic exceeding the scope of purely philosophical inquiries, as it rather belongs to the realm of metaphysical conjectures. He indeed believes that «the mystery of the origins» is totally beyond our reach and «for our purpose we need not to commit ourselves to […] any hypothesis on first origins, from where we start the “first stirrings” have long occurred».10 In Organisms and Freedom, metabolism is then introduced as the fundamental feature of life, which marks the transition – or better the actual breakpoint – between living beings and non-life. This is Jonas’ original but also strongly controversial starting point establishing his philosophical biology. Controversial inasmuch as he does not justify nor further specify it. Metabolism is then some sort of axiom of his philosophy. Jonas simply starts off with it as an «ontological» difference. However, this is also the most innovative aspect of his biophilosophy, inasmuch as he also claims that, hands in hands with metabolism, freedom as well is simultaneously developed for the first time in nature. This statement may well sound puzzling, metaphysical or excessively spiritualistic. In actual terms, what Jonas’ theory suggests is that freedom – traditionally related to human qualities – is already developed on the level of the most basic phenomena identifying the living organism. Freedom does not exclusively characterize, therefore, the intentional and conscious acting of human beings, but it is rather the common factor of everything belonging to the category of organism, clearly differentiating it from inorganic things and artifacts. Freedom is therefore according to him a principle extraneous to suns, planets and atoms.11

  • 12 Schelling 2004: 28.
  • 13 See, for instance, Steigerwald 2013: 51.

8Differently, according to Schelling’s «speculative physics», the primary ontological reality is not the organism but the organization principle, which is the basis for the emergence of life from the inorganic sphere. What is outlined by Schelling is a universal dynamism, based on which each natural being is not a stable product but rather a finite stage in the ever-becoming of things, in the incessant process of production, annihilation and reproduction. As he claims in a famous passage: «The whole of Nature, not just a part of it, should be equivalent to an ever-becoming product. Nature as a whole must be conceived in constant formation, and everything must engage in that universal process of formation».12 While relying on empirical studies developed in the late 18th c. on the material conditions of excitability and generation, Schelling presents each living phenomena as a stage in the dynamic becoming of nature. Accordingly, he also rejects the vitalist approach.13

  • 14 Steigerwald 2013: 52.
  • 15 Fox Keller 2005.

9From this standpoint, one might believe that Schelling, differently from Jonas, is of little use when it comes to explaining the ontological uniqueness of the living organism, since he seems to argue that mechanical, chemical and organic phenomena are but different levels of organization within one continuum, and thus do not necessarily belong to ontologically different kinds. Or, on the other end of the spectrum and equally one-sidedly, one might argue that according to Schelling’s philosophy everything is organism, and therefore the whole of physics can be interpreted in biological terms. Clearly, Schelling «can be regarded as animating the whole of the natural world, conceiving each natural product, inorganic as well as organic, as but a relative stability of opposed active principles».14 According to this second scenario – so to speak – anything belonging specifically to the inorganic would be left by Schelling unaccounted for. In more contemporary words one could ask: is biology being reduced to physics, or is physics being revived by the infusion of life?15

  • 16 Only exception: Rasmussen 2016.
  • 17 Given the focus of this essay, in what follows attention will be drawn to the elements of proximity (...)

10Although these claims – the second one in particular – can possibly be corroborated by Schelling’s writings, I believe that neither of them do Schelling full justice, as I hope the comparison with Jonas will help illustrate at least partially. It can furthermore be argued that, despite the clear differences between their respective ideas of nature, the content of The Phenomenon of Life shows that Jonas owes Schelling much more than he ever cared to admit. These affinities seem to have been up to now widely ignored by the scholarly literature.16 However, as we will see, some similar sounding retelling of Schelling’s formulations allow us to claim that Jonas’ philosophical project can be fairly summed up as the assigning to the living only of most of those characters that Schelling would instead attribute to the whole of nature. Among the most remarkable points of convergence between the two authors, I believe it is worth mentioning at least the following ones:17

    • 18 Jonas 1966: 1.
    • 19 Schelling 1988: 42.
    • 20 Jonas 1966: 37.

    The unity of organism and mind. The opening lines of Organisms and Freedom state that «the organic even in its lowest forms prefigures mind and mind even on its highest reaches remains part of the organic».18 This key claim could be considered as a conceptual transformation of Schelling’s famous sentence: «Nature should be mind made visible, mind the invisible nature».19 At variance with Descartes and most of modern philosophy, both Schelling and Jonas argue that inwardness and selfhood are not the exclusive prerogative of human beings. Notably, Jonas’ main aim is the elaboration of a «new integral monism» based on the phenomenological intuition that discovering «purposive inwardness in one part of the physical order» – that is to say in human beings – is «a valid testimony to the nature of that wider reality that lets it emerge».20

    • 21 Jonas 1966: 2.

    The levels of nature. Human inwardness and its defining mental abilities are for both Jonas and Schelling only the highest level of an ascending natural scale made of several degrees. Whereas it is easy to accept Schelling’s gradualism in the 19th c., Jonas’ confidence in its at least partial validity at the end of the 20th c. might seem puzzling. Jonas openly refers to Aristotle and writes that: «The idea of stratification, of the progressive superposition of levels, with the dependance of each higher on the lower, the retention of all the lower in the higher, will still be found indispensable».21 However, the fact that Jonas makes reference to an ascending scale should not lead one to believe that he interprets it as the story of an unconditional progress. The progression of levels has nothing to do with success stories, or with the ancient representations of the scala naturae having man as its crown. Likewise it is not a biological taxonomy. The notion of levels conveys instead only the idea that the relation of living beings to their environment is mediated in different ways by their different forms of organization. More precisely, the overall principle is that the more mediated and indirect the organism’s relationship with the environment, the greater its detachment from the environment and the greater its freedom. This leads to another theoretical element – closely connected to the first two listed here – that Jonas has in common with Schelling, namely:

    • 22 Jonas 1966: 76.
    • 23 Jonas 1966: 81.
    • 24 See Hauser-Keßler 1992: 396.
    • 25 Jonas 1966: 157 f.

    The topic of freedom. One of the most significant point of convergence between the two authors is that they both envisage freedom as not exclusively pertaining to humans, but rather as the unifying trait between human beings and nature – according to Schelling – or between human beings and the rest of living beings – according to Jonas. As previously anticipated, this topic is for Jonas absolutely crucial: freedom and metabolism are concurrent phenomena. Within the apparently exclusively mechanical process of continuous assimilation and expulsion in relation to the surrounding environment, as established by metabolism – in other words, throughout the continuous exchange of matter and energy (well expressed by the German term Stoffwechsel) – the organism is always the same despite changing all the time. Although from the viewpoint of matter it is clearly never identical, the organism preserves an identical self in virtue of the paradoxical fact of not keeping the same matter. It preserves its identity «by the very act of foreign matter passing through its spatial system».22 The freedom entailed by metabolism is, therefore, the production for the first time in nature» of a real difference between matter and form, or, as Jonas phrases it, the «emancipation of form […] from the immediate identity with matter».23 Human beings’ freedom as well is rooted in this primordial organic freedom. Similarly, Schelling says that human freedom expresses in a more explicit and condensed form what in some respects already belongs to nature. Nature always expresses «intimations» to freedom, all the more clearly the more complex it appears. Furthermore, Schelling believes that the creative productivity of human beings is intimately connected to the process of nature as a whole.24 While Newton’s science leaves man outside of the world as a standing alone spectator, in Schelling’s Naturphilosophie the human being sees himself reflected in nature, and nature reflected in himself. Jonas says something very similar when he presents the dynamic process leading from the earliest form of metabolic freedom – the still «needful» freedom – to the trans-animal freedom pertaining to man as homo pictor.25

    • 26 Jonas 1966: 3.
    • 27 Hauser-Keßler 1992: 396.
    • 28 On realism in Schelling and in general in German idealism see Beiser 2002.
    • 29 Schelling 1800: 85.
    • 30 Jonas 1966: 69.
    • 31 Jonas 1966: 91.

    Realism. Freedom is therefore, according to both authors, something very different from an empty and wholly subjective power of self-determination. According to Jonas freedom is not something that us humans project onto nature; rather it must denote an «objectively discernible mode of being», which is «distinctive of the organic per se»;26 in other words, the organism reveals or exhibits to us the form of freedom. Schelling as well qualifies as realist inasmuch as he proceeds on the assumption that – regardless of man’s faculty to build up a world in theory – nature itself must have created the diversity of organization in reality.27 In 1799, in the Erster Entwurf eines Systems der Naturphilosophie, after claiming that nature possesses an absolute reality, Schelling writes on the margin of his own manuscript copy that: «nature receives from itself its own reality – is its own product – it is a self-organized whole that continually organizes itself». This means that, for Schelling, nature has an intrinsic reality, that does not depend on external conditions, but it is self-creative.28 Both authors’ background realism is reinforced by the widespread reference in both cases to the scientific knowledges of their time. «Kommet her zur Physik, und erkennet das Wahre! [Come to physics, and see the truth!]», writes for instance Schelling in a very famous passage.29 And Jonas’ philosophy of biology cannot be understood without its constant, also polemical, reference to the natural sciences of his time – for instance Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s systems theory and Wiener’s cybernetics. Nevertheless, it goes without saying that in particular the question concerning what life is, for both authors, is never answered in an entirely satisfactory manner by natural sciences. These latter leave out indeed the issues of subjectivity and inwardness of life, which are instead a matter for philosophy. That life cannot be grasped merely in terms of measurements, verifications and analyses is clearly expressed also by Jonas’ well known image of a mathematician God. A divine mathematician, that is to say, a bodiless observer, would not be able to grasp the point of life itself, its «ontological status»,30 since «life can be known only by life».31

    • 32 Snow 1996: 160.

    The rejection of the mechanistic/vitalistic dualism. Schelling is notoriously critical of those theories of his time which point to a Lebenskraft – a special vital power – as to the cause of the whole organization of living beings as well as to the explanation of their unique abilities. He notably rejects vitalism, the hypostatisation of life forces, mainly because it compromises the unity of nature. The vital power, in fact, draws a separation between the physical and biological realms. Also Blumenbach’s concept of Bildungstrieb is rejected by Schelling as just another hidden qualitas similar to the Lebenskraft. In Schelling’s view, what is problematic is that the vital power already presupposes the existence of matter. Also mechanistic positions are said to be affected by a similar mistake. They appear indeed to rely on heavy assumptions concerning, in this case, not life forces but the organism, understood as simply chemical phenomenon to be analyzed. This does not entail, however, that Schelling rejects mechanical causes; on the contrary, to think that Schelling eliminates «mechanism and efficient causality from its philosophy of nature»32 is a common misunderstanding. As is well known, also Jonas acknowledges the limits and risks of both mechanism and vitalism. However, as previously said, differently from Schelling, he takes the living organism to be an exception, an «ontological surprise» in the history of nature. It is true in fact that, as it was for Kant, but at variance with Schelling, Jonas’ starting point are the already existing organisierte Wesen. In so doing, he envisages an ontology of the living understood as an alternative to both vitalism and mechanistic reductionism.

  1. The reference to Kant in the previous paragraph sheds light on one more point of convergence between the two authors – which I wish to investigate in some detail in what follows – that is to say their critique of Kant’s concept of teleology, or, to say it better, their radicalization of Kant’s model of organism and self-organization. This is a key point as in the retrieval and transformation of these elements, starting with Kant up to the most recent times, a very important chapter in the philosophy of the organism is laid out. I will discuss this very topic in the second part of my contribution, starting with a digression on the current strategies of reference to Kant in contemporary philosophy of biology.

II. For a philosophy of the organism: The radicalization of Kant’s concept of self-organization

  • 33 Laubichler 2000.
  • 34 Soto, Longo, Nobel 2016, 1.
  • 35 Among others: Walsh 2006; Depew, Weber 2011.
  • 36 Among others: Pepper, Herron 2008.

11After a long-lasting attention in biology mainly on genes and evolution of characters and populations, recently a revival of the categories of living organism and biological organization has decidedly come to the fore. More generally, the concept of organism has been on the upswing again in the wake of the so-called systems biology, which focuses on the complexity of biomolecular interaction networks, as well as of the synthetic biology, which involves the application of engineering principles to biology. It has been argued that we can witness the rediscovery of the concept of organism starting in the 21st century,33 and that we have transitioned «from the century of the genome to the century of the organism».34 Not only contemporary philosophers of biology,35 but even developmental and evolutionary biologists36 recognize indeed that organism is a category we cannot do without.

  • 37 See Hunemann, Wolfe 2010.
  • 38 Among others: Maturana, Varela 1980; Rosen 1991; Kauffman 1993.
  • 39 Juarrero-Roqué 1985: 111.
  • 40 Weber, Varela 2002.

12It should be noted, however, that such a revival of organism and organization – despite the fact that there is still no unanimous consensus on what an organism is37 – should be dated back already to the ’70s of the last century, that is, to the surfacing of theories of self-organization, complexity, and autopoiesis.38 Precisely following the development of such theories, an increased interest was registered for the biological inquiries of the one philosopher who has been acknowledged by Stuart Kaufmann as «the father of the modern concept of self-organization», that is to say, Kant. Some authors have even suggested to consider Kant’s idea of self-organization as the «first rudimentary system theory».39 And according to one of Varela’s last texts, Kant’s recognition of the very distinctive self-producing features of the organism – based on which each part reciprocally produces the others – anticipates the notion of autopoiesis.40

  • 41 Allen, Bekoff, Lauder 1998; McLaughlin 2001.
  • 42 Pittendrigh 1958; Mayr 1974; Wuketis 1980.

13Kant is generally appreciated primarily for having considered organisms as natural purposes and having sharply differentiated them from artifacts and machines through their internal teleology. The link established by Kant between self-organization and internal purposiveness seems at the same time to provide a viable alternative not only to vitalistic interpretations, but also to the admittedly scientific explanations of teleology in terms of «function»41 or «teleonomy».42 Especially the fact that Kant considers the intrinsic purposiveness of living organisms not as an objective principle, but only as a regulative maxim of the reflective power of judgment – with merely heuristic value – has seemed to many authors to offer a way out from the problems of both a purely mechanistic interpretation of living beings and the ascription to them of ontological purposiveness.

  • 43 Lennox 1998; Weber, Varela 2002; see also Mossio, Bich 2017.
  • 44 See Lennox 1998.
  • 45 Kant 2000: § 65: 247.

14Nevertheless, precisely the simply «regulative» and not constitutive feature of purposiveness, which first appeared as an advantage, actually raises non-negligible problems, especially considering that one of the aims of current organicistic views is generally to develop a naturalized account of teleology.43 For its supporters, teleology has to be intrinsic to the living with no reference to anything external to nature itself, as its source, cause, or principle. Naturalized teleology should equally avoid falling in the pit of backward causation or in the one of vitalism.44 Now, although Kant’s account of the organism as self-producing organization is likely to comply to these requirements, it cannot be understood naturalistically. It has no constitutive value, but only a regulative one; this means that it is not an explanatory concept but one simply allowing us to use a remote analogy with our own causality in terms of purpose.45

  • 46 See Mayr 1992.

15To this preliminary problem, a second closely connected one is to be added. Kant ultimately understands the idea of purpose in analogy with that of project. This stems from the fact that, according to him, since we are unable to think of organized beings as anything but end-directed, whenever we have to represent purposiveness to ourselves, we always end up using an analogy with the human mode of operating. To think as if beings have been planned is, according to Kant, the only way to ground the purposiveness of nature, which bears an analogy, however distant, with the purposiveness of the conscious operations of human beings. We cannot insist here any further on this point, but it is worth remarking that also eminent biologists are aware of it, as Ernst Mayr’s distinctive focus on this issue shows.46

  • 47 See Fox Keller 2005.
  • 48 Muraca 2014: 50.
  • 49 Varela 1997: 75.
  • 50 Di Paolo 2005: 13.

16On top of the above mentioned issues, the simply regulative character of purposiveness and its project analogy, one even more radical problem should be added, that has little to do with the historical Kant, but it is rather connected to how, especially in philosophy of biology, the Kant-inspired concept of self-organization has been understood, even to the benefit of organismic ideas. What is indeed often overlooked is the fact that, given a system which organizes itself by itself, a significant difference is to be taken into account whether the system is an organism or a purely physical entity. In brief, although it is certainly true that self-organization theories as well as theories of chaos should be given credit for providing an understanding of system complexity that breaks free from full-fledged determinism, it is also true that the very key element of Kant’s concept of a self-organizing being has been somehow lost in the way, this element being the self. Theories of self-organization share in fact a common feature in that the concept of self-organization refers to the behavior of a system that, once it has reached a critical threshold, starts organizing itself by itself. The by itself element means in this case that there is no need for any external agency, be it a force or a designer, or even a program in order to explain this process;47 in other words, by itself here means spontaneously. Systems are therefore said to be self-organizing whenever, from a disordered status, they spontaneously reach a dynamic stability, without falling back into thermodynamic equilibrium.48 Differently, self-organization in the case of living organisms is to be understood not simply as the result of spontaneous processes but as the «processes of constitution of an identity»49 or as the self. The adoption of the term self in this sense should not of course be confused with vitalistic concepts nor it must interpreted as the subject of a conscious action. The term self is not at all a supernatural principle. It should rather be interpreted as a «self-constructed unity that engages the world by actively regulating its exchanges with it for adaptive purposes that are meant to serve its continued viability».50

  • 51 Toepfer 2004: 45.
  • 52 Toepfer 2012; for a criticism of this account see also Muraca 2014; Mossio, Bich 2017.
  • 53 See Mossio, Beach 2017: 16.

17However, this undeniable aspect is often forgotten by different current bio-philosophical accounts. A paradigmatic example is provided, in Germany, by Georg Toepfer’s position. Despite his appreciation of Kant’s teleology and self-organization model, according to Toepfer, living beings are characterized by a peculiar form of causality, described as the reciprocal relation between the different parts of a system.51 In his definition, teleology simply bears a cyclic structure, that is supposed to be different from the linear purposiveness pertaining to human minds. While reducing teleology to circularity, at variance with Kant, Toepfer is also forced, for instance, to accept as teleological also inorganic structures that bear circularity, such as rivers and the water cycle.52 However, non negligible issues stem precisely from the fact that not every form of circularity is teleological, and reciprocal causation is not sufficient to describe organisms adequately. The internal teleology of living organisms does not in fact only involve the accomplishing of a circular relation of cause and effect, but also designate the activity of a system that, by producing some effects, contributes to specifying the conditions under which the circular relation as such can occur.53 This clearly excludes cyclic inorganic structures, which should not be taken as teleological in this sense.

  • 54 See, for instance, Fox Keller 2005.

18The reference to teleology ostensibly exceeds the element of simple circularity and includes a dimension of self or – put it otherwise – of agency,54 as unavoidable elements of the autonomy of the organic. In order to fully grasp the implications of these elements, in particular within the framework of the understanding of autonomy in biological research today, the reference to authors such as Schelling and Jonas, who have thoroughly investigated living beings as entities that self-determine themselves, can prove extremely valuable.

19This is so, first of all – as I mentioned in the first part of this chapter – as they both maintain that the teleology of the living is not simply a regulative idea but an ontological one. In addition to that, and most notably, because, going beyond Kant, they establish a stronger connection between organization and teleology by means of the concept of self-determination. The teleology of the living is in this regard not simply understood as physical self-organization but as the activity of incessant self-determination of the organism itself, as I will try now to show in reference to both authors.

  • 55 Schelling 2004: 54 (emphasis in the text).
  • 56 Varela 1997: 73.
  • 57 Koutroufinis 2014: 9.
  • 58 Koutroufinis 2014: 10.

20According to Schelling, the nature of the organism is to be self-caused. Whereas Kant interprets this to mean that organisms are caused by others organisms of the same species, Schelling argues that every organism qua organism should be in a basic way cause of itself. At variance with physiological materialism, which takes life merely as chemical process, and at variance with physiological idealism, which takes it instead as absolute activity and subject, Schelling draws emphasis on the fact that the organism is an activity that combines both sides, that means a productive product, a subject-object. This latter point is for our purposes undoubtedly the most insightful and interesting among Schelling’s bio-philosophical remarks, as its message is one Jonas could have easily looked upon with favor. Schelling’s perspective is indeed not far from the main focus of The Phenomenon of Life, and can be summed up as follows: how is it possible for biological individuality to establish itself against the influence of the surrounding mechanical and chemical nature, as well as against the pressure of the universal organism, without being destroyed by them nor being downgraded to their level? For Schelling, as for Jonas, only one option is available, that is, understanding the living organism as a self-determining incessant activity. In order to establish itself, the organism must be active, must fight, in Schelling’s words, the «individual and universal nature»: «In order that it not to be assimilated, it must assimilate; in order that it not be organized, it must organize».55 The organism then self-delimitates and self-encloses itself; it separates the inside from the outside, and simultaneously organizes itself as closed system, yet in relation – and this is a crucial point – with its own environment. The boundary marking off the internal and external difference between the system and the environment is presented by Schelling as Begrenzung (delimitation/limitation), directly produced, and permanently preserved and reproduced – unlike the inorganic – by the organic system itself. In contemporary terms, this organism’s closure seems indeed closer to autopoiesis theories than to general self-organization theories or chaos theories. According to autopoietic accounts, living beings can indeed be autonomous only in virtue of their self-generated identity as distinct entities.56 Or to say it better «the organismic self» has to be conceived of as a «form of dynamics» that «autonomously makes an important distinction which constitutes the organism – it determines its own boundaries which necessarily defines its own physical surroundings or nonself».57 In this regard, no self is given without a corresponding Umwelt and «this indissoluble connection is not comprehensible from the point of view of a physicalistic metaphysics, since non-living physical systems have neither Umwelt (they have only externally set surroundings) nor self».58

21Now, any reader who is familiar with The Phenomenon of Life will recognize to what extent the dynamic process outlined by Schelling is similar to that taken up by Jonas in his ontology of living organism, notably in the theory of biological individuality and cellular metabolism. It is precisely in connection to the needfulness of organic individuality that Jonas discusses the teleological dimension of the living. Its being – and therefore its very teleology – is the continuous interaction with the environment, through which the living incessantly renews itself. Biological individuality is something, according to Jonas, that has to be achieved each time in the face of extraneous matter and internal constraints. The existence of the organism is taken to be precisely the result of the circumstance of being constantly threatened as an end.

  • 59 Jonas 1966: 86.

This is the root – Jonas writes – of the teleological or finalistic nature of life: finalism is in the first place a dynamic character of a certain mode of existence, coincident with the freedom and identity of form in relation to matter, and only in the second place a fact of structure or physical organization, as exemplified in the relation of organic parts to the whole and in the functional fitness of organism generally.59

  • 60 Jonas 1966: 86.
  • 61 Jonas 1974: 197.

22The inner teleology of the living is more than its simply physical biological organization. It is «in the first place a dynamic character of a certain mode of existence coincident with the freedom and identity of form in relation to matter».60 Teleology is thus ultimately acknowledged as the self-constitutive process of the organic itself; it is «the acting out of the very tension of the polarities that constitute its being».61

  • 62 Mossio and Bich 2017: 19.

23As Mossio and Bich nowadays state, in reference to biological systems in general, these are teleological «because the effects of their own activity contribute to establish and maintain their own conditions of achievement».62 Again, claiming that the organisms are able to determine their conditions of existence does not in the least entail falling back into some kind of new vitalism, nor in the even worse old metaphysical philosophy of nature, but it rather outlines a fully legitimate understanding of teleology, that is to say, a naturalized, yet non-reductionist, concept of it. And with this latter remark, I get to my final overview and conclusions.

III. Overview and conclusions

  • 63 See Heuser-Keßler 1984.
  • 64 See Küppers 1992.

24The aim of this paper was clearly not that of actualizing Schelling’s philosophy of nature as others have done before me. For instance, in the mid-80s, Marie-Luise Heuser-Keßler63 tried to promote a revival of Schelling’s philosophy of nature, drawing attention to some interesting conceptual parallels with Prigogine and Hauken (and also Bertalanffy). She has been sharply criticized, however, by Bernd-Olaf Küppers who disputes Schelling’s scientific significance inasmuch as Schelling establishes the transcendence of ideas as the basis of his biology. Küppers vehemently rejects the element of transcendence and says it has no place in contemporary science.64

  • 65 Heuser-Keßler, 1984.
  • 66 Schelling 2004, 14, emphasis in the text.

25In addition to this not unexpected critique, there are also other, more decisive points which hinder the whole conceptual parallel approach. For instance the fact – acknowledged also by Hauser-Keßler herself – that Schelling accepts nature as the only self-organizing process, while Prigogine and Hauken take into account several different processes of self-organization.65 Furthermore, and this is probably the most interesting point, Schelling’s aim – particularly in On the Soul – is that of exploring in details the origins of life from the inorganic sphere and outline a physics of self-organization: «We must observe what an object is in its first origin», he writes also in the First Outline.66 On the contrary, most of the contemporary self-organization models do not explain how these systems could have emerged spontaneously from basic chemistry. They provide insights into the organization of life, but not necessarily on its origins.

26Nevertheless, all these undeniable differences are not sufficient to prevent Schelling from offering a whole range of conceptual impulses, potentially beneficial to today’s research path. In the first part of the chapter, I have listed a series of theoretical insights Schelling shares with Jonas, while in the second part, I have tried to draw attention to the importance of the organism’s self-determination and teleology, which I believe to be the key to the understanding of biological autonomy. And the relevance of this very topic for today’s debates is enhanced, in my opinion, as soon as Schelling’s account is read in the light of Jonas’ philosophical biology. In line with many elements of Schelling’s theory, Jonas develops an ontology of living organisms based on what he defines as their «needful freedom», that is to say the never-ending re-establishing of their conditions of existence through and against the environment. In this regard, the autonomy of the living should not be mistaken for independency or self-sufficiency, because the organism is not just internally closed off, but this closure is only made possible by its continual openness to the environment, on which the organism depends to maintain its life. Organism are thereby understood as processual beings, whose being is precisely their own doing, whose teleology is the production of their conditions of existence and not their physical organization only.

27According to Jonas, it is precisely the «active self-integration» of life that yields the ontological concept of living, as opposed to the merely subjectivistic-phenomenological one. He indeed claims that phenomenological status only is something that pertains to a stone or a drop of water. That we sometimes think about them as individualities may simply be the result of our perception. In the case of the inorganic, in fact, form is inextricably attached to the «immutable matter» and it can be defined simply as an accident of the matter that persists. On the contrary, as far as a living being is concerned, Jonas envisages it «as a constant exchange of its own constituents», which

  • 67 Jonas 1974: 265.

has its permanence and identity only in the continuity of this process, not in any persistence of its material parts. This process indeed is its life, and in the last resort organic existence means, not to be a definite body composed of definite parts, but to be such a continuity of process with an identity sustained above and through the flux of components.67

  • 68 Moreno, Mossio 2015: ix.
  • 69 Moreno, Mossio 2015: xxx.

28In this regard, to the aim of really understanding the living, the very word self-organization is rather ambiguous, first of all because it also applies to inorganic structures – as Schelling himself shows. Furthermore, it proves to be unsatisfactory – pace Georg Toepfer – as long as it is understood simply as cyclic structure. More useful is in my view the perspective opened by a recent book on theoretical biology by Alvaro Moreno and Matteo Mossio (2015). The two authors insist on the specific nature of the biological organization of living systems, which are more than self-organizing systems only. They emphasize indeed that autonomy has two dimensions: the constitutive one, which determines the identity of the living system, and which fundamentally derives from what they label closure of constraints, and the interactive one, also called agency, which «far from being a mere side effect of the constitutive dimension, deals with the inherent functional interactions that the organisms must maintain with the environment».68 These two dimensions are according to the authors equally important and closely connected: «an autonomous system must interact with its environment in order to maintain its organization».69

29In more placatory terms, I believe that still today the living and its autonomy should be understood as a paradox, or, in Schelling’s terms, as a contradiction, a Widerspruch. This is what one reads, for instance, in the First Outline:

  • 70 Schelling 2004: 68, my emphasis.

Life comes into existence in opposition (Widerspruch) to Nature, but it would dissipate of itself if Nature did not struggle against it. Life, to be sure, ultimately subtends Nature, but it does not support the external pressure, only the lack of receptivity for the external. If, from the outside, the influence contrary to life serves precisely to sustain life, then in the same way, that which seems most favorable to life (absolute insusceptibility to this influence) becomes the cause of its demise. The phenomenon of life is paradoxical even in its cessation.70

30The organism and the Umwelt achieve an always precarious and dialectical balance, which is incessantly perturbed and incessantly reestablished, as to support, precisely in virtue of its contradictory nature, the organism’s life understood as constant fight for its identity.

31The same paradoxical situation pertaining to the organism is also paradigmatically illustrated by Jonas’ account of the dialectics of metabolism, in its incessant exchange of matter and energy. Through metabolism, the living being separates itself from the outside, and everything that is not itself is precisely taken as outside, as beyond itself; at the same time although separating from its environment, the organism is also completely dependent on it. On the one hand, metabolism determines the detachment of the organism from the environment – its closure. On the other hand, through the metabolic process, the living opens up to a relationship with its world – its openness. Finally, its strong relationship with and dependence on the external world is what produces, paradoxically, its own autonomy and its difference from the inorganic.

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1 Jonas 1974, xiii.

2 On the topic see Michelini 2020 (forthcoming).

3 Heidegger 2011. It should be added, though, that Jonas chose to write his seminar essay not on Schelling, but on the problem of freedom in Augustine.

4 Jonas 1966: 95-96.

5 On the missed relationship between Plessner and Jonas see Michelini 2015.

6 As acknowledged by Hösle 1994: 108.

7 Very broadly speaking, in the first chapter of The Phenomenon of Life, Jonas presents idealism and materialism as two by-products of Descartes’ dichotomy, and depicts idealism as a philosophy of consciousness, based on which everything is consciousness, hence as yet another form of panvitalism (Jonas 1966: 7-37).

8 Jonas 1966: 95.

9 Jonas 1966: 96.

10 Jonas 1966: 4.

11 Jonas 1966: 3.

12 Schelling 2004: 28.

13 See, for instance, Steigerwald 2013: 51.

14 Steigerwald 2013: 52.

15 Fox Keller 2005.

16 Only exception: Rasmussen 2016.

17 Given the focus of this essay, in what follows attention will be drawn to the elements of proximity in the two respective theories of nature and of the organic. Exceeding the scope of this inquiry are other potentially very interesting affinities concerning, for instance, their ideas on God. Dews, notably, considers Jonas’ narrative in The Concept of God after Auschwitz as powerfully reminiscent of Schelling (see Dews 2008: 76; few remarks on this topic can also be found in Rasmussen 2016).

18 Jonas 1966: 1.

19 Schelling 1988: 42.

20 Jonas 1966: 37.

21 Jonas 1966: 2.

22 Jonas 1966: 76.

23 Jonas 1966: 81.

24 See Hauser-Keßler 1992: 396.

25 Jonas 1966: 157 f.

26 Jonas 1966: 3.

27 Hauser-Keßler 1992: 396.

28 On realism in Schelling and in general in German idealism see Beiser 2002.

29 Schelling 1800: 85.

30 Jonas 1966: 69.

31 Jonas 1966: 91.

32 Snow 1996: 160.

33 Laubichler 2000.

34 Soto, Longo, Nobel 2016, 1.

35 Among others: Walsh 2006; Depew, Weber 2011.

36 Among others: Pepper, Herron 2008.

37 See Hunemann, Wolfe 2010.

38 Among others: Maturana, Varela 1980; Rosen 1991; Kauffman 1993.

39 Juarrero-Roqué 1985: 111.

40 Weber, Varela 2002.

41 Allen, Bekoff, Lauder 1998; McLaughlin 2001.

42 Pittendrigh 1958; Mayr 1974; Wuketis 1980.

43 Lennox 1998; Weber, Varela 2002; see also Mossio, Bich 2017.

44 See Lennox 1998.

45 Kant 2000: § 65: 247.

46 See Mayr 1992.

47 See Fox Keller 2005.

48 Muraca 2014: 50.

49 Varela 1997: 75.

50 Di Paolo 2005: 13.

51 Toepfer 2004: 45.

52 Toepfer 2012; for a criticism of this account see also Muraca 2014; Mossio, Bich 2017.

53 See Mossio, Beach 2017: 16.

54 See, for instance, Fox Keller 2005.

55 Schelling 2004: 54 (emphasis in the text).

56 Varela 1997: 73.

57 Koutroufinis 2014: 9.

58 Koutroufinis 2014: 10.

59 Jonas 1966: 86.

60 Jonas 1966: 86.

61 Jonas 1974: 197.

62 Mossio and Bich 2017: 19.

63 See Heuser-Keßler 1984.

64 See Küppers 1992.

65 Heuser-Keßler, 1984.

66 Schelling 2004, 14, emphasis in the text.

67 Jonas 1974: 265.

68 Moreno, Mossio 2015: ix.

69 Moreno, Mossio 2015: xxx.

70 Schelling 2004: 68, my emphasis.

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Francesca Michelini, «The Paradox of the Living: Jonas and Schelling on the Organism’s Autonomy»Rivista di estetica, 74 | 2020, 139-157.

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Francesca Michelini, «The Paradox of the Living: Jonas and Schelling on the Organism’s Autonomy»Rivista di estetica [Online], 74 | 2020, online dal 01 février 2021, consultato il 14 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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