PHYSIS AND ANTIPHYSIS: RECONSIDERING RELATIONS BETWEEN HUMANS AND NON-HUMANS
This text was composed as an introductory talk to the FIND Forum Transcultural Encounters 2019, in which the conceptual opposition physis and antiphysis was discussed from a transcultural point of view. It is now published with minor changes in order to emphasize FIND’s commitment to urgent and fundamental questions concerning ecology, but going way beyond the usual instrumentalist approach and tackling important philosophical, religious and spiritual problems behind it that point to a change of paradigm in today’s humanity.
EPIGRAPH: A VOICE FROM ELSEWHERE (WITHIN)
Mes dessins donc reproduisent […]ces mondes de prodiges […]/ où la Voie / est faite
et ce qu’on / appelait le Grand Œuvre […]/ car nous ne / sommes plus dans
la chimie /mais dans la / nature / et je crois bien / que la / nature / va parler
(Thus my drawings reproduce these worlds of wonders / where the Path / is traced
as well as / what is called the Great Work / since we are no / longer in
the field of chemistry / but in / nature / and I really believe / that nature / will speak)
Antonin Artaud, 31 January 1948
With these verses, I would like to open a possible perspective that is incommensurable to its context (meaning that, at the same time, it exists potentially in the context that rejects it). After an unparalleled catastrophe (World War II) and in a pathetic state (after three years at the psychiatric clinic of Rodez), Antonin Artaud proclaims – with his “magic drawings” – a reversal of things: chemistry, having condemned as superstition any spiritual technique concerning matter, known as “alchemy”, can preserve its power position only if the world adapts itself to a “unique” perspective in which the elements are detached from their source (Nature). But Artaud tells us that, in reality, the world cannot be reduced to such a decoding method. There is a path already traced, a path that re-traces the steps and reshapes time against chronology to re-enact the powers and latent forces from the abyss to which they were confined. “I really believe that nature will speak.” Artaud anticipates a crisis, the crisis of the blindness of the West, which has become flagrant today, though not in the sense that retrograde traditionalists believe. We could ask ourselves what his destiny would have been if he hadn’t been treated by Gaston Ferdière (with his psychiatric reduction of energy to the brain, epitomized by electroshock), but by Tobie Nathan (with his ethno-psychiatric amplification fed upon a profoundly artistic bent). In any case, this question does not concern the destiny of a single individual, but rather that of life on this planet as a Life source, a planet whose mythological name (Gaia) was paradoxically rescued by an English chemist, James Lovelock, and associated with the proliferation of new forms of religiosity. Religiosity and religion. The usage I make of the term relates to a global crisis, since with the new-age phenomenon, religion has become deranged. I would therefore venture a provisional definition partially linked to a controversial etymology: I would like to consider religion a system of techniques (both in the sense of “individual techniques” and “collective techniques”) to reconnect with a source of Life going beyond human individuality – which presupposes that the individual has severed himself from that source.
Physis and Anti-Physis: the Dispositive
Allow me to trace a figure of thought that will at the same time introduce the story of the impasse of the European-Christian West and its reverse side, since it is at this point of inexpressible fluctuation between the two that the transcultural exercise of FIND seeks dialogical accomplishment. I begin with Martin Heidegger, whose obsession was to recapture the original Greek modality of thinking prior to Plato’s metaphysical closure. To simplify matters: the metaphysical closure is a radical division between the sensible (i.e. the domain of world immanence) and the supersensible (i.e. the domain of transcendence with regard to the limitations of the material world). This division can already be seen in the term “metaphysics”, since the Greek phrase tà metà tà physiká presupposes that “physical things”, that is, things related to nature, are limited and do not enable us to realise the truth of our being. According to Heidegger, one must restitute the original meaning of the word physis, which concerns being in its totality, that is, encompassing all events that make up what is called “cosmic dynamics”1. Heidegger does not ignore the etymology of the term, related to the notion of “growth” and “expansion”. Physis is therefore an expansive and perpetual modification of an originary power (arché) that knows no exteriority. In the expression “metaphysics”, there is a displacement and a transformation of the idea of physis: it is fixed and reduced to “physical things” (tà physiká), the limit of which also implies an exteriority – where the power of origin is transferred. For this reason, Heidegger’s critique of metaphysical thought is at the same time a critique of epistemic thinking (unable to think of being without objectifying it) and a clear shift of focus away from a religion based on the idea of a transcendent God who cannot be confused with His creation.
But Heidegger does not only try to think differently about (pure) being; he criticizes a whole civilisation project, since the effects of the Platonic division between the sensible and the intelligible (or supersensible) play a decisive role in the history of the Christian religion and have essentially contributed to the configuration of Western thought. Physis, reduced to the domain of limited, imperfect and perishable things, was placed on the side of Evil by the religious thought of the Middle Ages. In modern thought, the situation has not improved much. In his Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant reduces nature to a set of objects the intelligibility of which depends on sensible intuition, framed in its turn by the coordinates of space and time 2 . Even when Kant shows a certain sensitivity towards the beauty of nature, for example in his Critique of Judgement (1790), he says that the products of nature are not opus but only effectus, that is, not creative work but only mechanical effect3. The real catastrophe comes with Hegel. In his Lectures on the Philosophy of History (1837), he places “nature” and “Spirit” in opposition. In the light of this opposition, the whole transformational dynamics of nature appears as nothing but a blind mechanics of repetition – his sentence ends with the Biblical phrase “nothing new under the sun” 4–, whereas he declares that the essence of the Spirit is freedom. Hegel re-enacts herewith the Kantian opposition between the sphere of instincts (Natur) and the domain of reason (Vernunft) and at the same time couples human reason with divine providence. Religion has nothing to do with nature, but with culture, that is, with the development of the Spirit. With such reflections, Hegel resumes the monotheistic motif summarised in the Latin phrase homo imago Dei and turns a philosophical truth on universal history into the anthropocentric dimension of biblical heritage: humans are the centre of creation with nature at their disposal.
Physis, reduced to the domain of limited, imperfect and perishable things, was placed on the side of evil in the Christian Middle Age.
The development of this figure of thought leads me to consider the term anti-physis. Although this term has already been used by François Rabelais with the meaning of something antagonistic to nature, I prefer to emphasize the modern meaning of the term, which blossomed in the avant-gardist arts of the XX century and in modern theories to indicate culture in radical opposition to nature. In this sense, anti-physis points to the domain of subjectivity, that is, to the constructions and creations of the Spirit whose aim is its indefinite expansion (as in Marxism, where physis means the domain of necessity as opposed to anti-physis as the reign of freedom). But the purpose of this brief reconstruction of the oblivion or repression of physis is to show that the cultural roots of anti-physis are in fact prior to the modern age, that they may perhaps be traced back to the ancient separation between the sensible and the supersensible5.
Physis, Antiphysis, Religion: some paradoxes
There can be no meta-physics without a reduction of the domain of nature (physis as an expansive, ordered and totalising dynamics) to something limited that needs an external source to be completed and well-grounded. In the context of monotheism, this source is God, the one and only Creator of the universe (which makes nature a mere ens creatum, that is, it deprives it of all its intrinsic forces). In secular modern thought, human beings are the depositary of the order of the Spirit (or culture), as opposed to the material (objectifiable and quantifiable) reality of nature. We could say that the transcendence of the divine Spirit is introjected into human beings, with the result that the latter become the masters of living beings. This becomes quite evident in the context of liberalism (in the XVIII and XIX centuries), where the order to culture becomes absolute and turns into a “second nature” – that is, a new source for human beings, but in this case (as many thinkers have pointed out, from Max Weber to Karl Marx), rather a source of alienation. This historical moment is also characterized by the rise of secular religions and colonial expansion – which, interestingly enough, replace the imposition of monotheistic truth on local religions outside European territory by the imposition of the only form of valid civilisation upon the “barbarity of strangers”.
In his book Nous n’avons jamais été modernes (1991), French sociologist Bruno Latour says that modernity was simultaneously the birth and the death of humans, because with the consolidation of European humanism, non-humanity was also born6. Nature, a domain of living beings (with magic, mystery, spirits and gods), was transformed into an inventory of “things”, and God was crossed out of the game. What did the modern project consist of? According to Latour, a double operation characterises modernity: on the one hand a tripartite structure of critical knowledge: naturalisation, socialisation and deconstruction; on the other hand, a basic dichotomy: the human as the subjective domain – or the domain of “beings” – and the non-human as the domain of the objective – or the domain of “things”. Now, this division of knowledge into three paradigmatic categories prevents us from having any integral access to the real. The examples given by Latour are quite clear: “natural facts” as exclusivist truth criterion (naturalisation, cf. Jean-Pierre Changeaux and his “neuronal man”), “power” as an all-encompassing hermeneutical device (sociologisation, cf. Pierre Bourdieu and his “social absolute”), and “discourse” as the constitutive instance of the real (deconstruction, cf. Jacques Derrida and his “archi-textuality”)7. The dispositive of conquest employed by modernity is totalising but also fragmentary, since one single discourse cannot re-unite the three domains of the tripartite structure. Latour’s central point is that this problem is not epistemological but ideological. It suffices to analyse a product of colonialism that became its radical opposite: ethnology. It is by this science that the crisis of modernity is triggered.
One of the main aspects of Daniélou’s view on Shiva and Dionysos is his insistence that Nature is not only a quantifiable set of objects (trees, plants, animals, etc.), but a mystery-field full of divine forces.
The first paradox is that ethnology could do what modernity forbade, but with other civilisations. It produced a scholarly discourse in which myths, genealogies, politics, religion, etc. are closely related to each other. In “archaic” or “primitive” cultures, these elements are at the same time real, social and narrated8. But precisely because of that, ethnological descriptions of our own culture were not possible until the end of the XX century. In Western modernity, a myth is not a scientific treatise, and scholarly knowledge has nothing to do with liturgy or with initiation rites. Modern anti-physis could break into the mythic domain of the archaic physis, but nothing coming from that order could possibly contaminate the purity of objective knowledge deployed by this totalising dispositive of power.
The second paradox is that a second type of ethnology emerged from the first, and this second type of ethnology ended up questioning the foundations of power of anti-physis. In a lecture held in Montreuil in 2007, French anthropologist Philippe Descola summarized the ideological character of the universalist project in Western modernity as follows: “Our [modern] world-vision made science possible, but we should understand that it is not the product of scientific activity, but a specific way of classifying and distributing the multiplicity of beings in the world born at a certain point in history and enabling scientific research to develop”9. This is a clear example of an ethnologist questioning the ideological character related to the roots of scientific practice without abolishing its local effects. While it is true that the Europeans of former centuries merged the desire of knowledge (ethnology) with the desire of subduing (colonialism), the present challenge would be to work on a progressive divorce – with full awareness that a divorce is a crisis.
Some events – and even dates – are in this sense very telling. 1989, for example, which Burno Latour calls “the miraculous year”, seems to condense the problematic. What are the events? Capitalism triumphed on a global level with the fall of the Berlin wall. This victory implied the globalisation of the liberal-economic project (including the religion of the market and the merchandising of religion: from then on, religion would be fully coupled with anti-physis). But 1989 is also the year of the first conferences on the global condition of the planet, the year in which the first ecological reports took place warning against a possible extinction of nature as a “limited resource”, confronted with the unlimitedly predatory will of humans10. In the same period, French anthropologist Philippe Descola was working on a book that would revolutionise the field of ethnology: Les lances du crepuscule. Sur les Jivarons de l’haute Amazonie. In this work, Descola speaks of the animistic cosmovision of the Achuars (whom the colonisers pejoratively called “Jivaros”, that is, “barbarians”) in a way very different from the anthropology of the XIX century, and this becomes a crucial point in his later work. In fact, the animistic world-view is no unsubstantiated belief to be corrected through science, as postulated by anthropological reductionism. It reveals to us (if we dare perform an exercise in self-critique) the reverse-side of our own modality of relationship with other (human and non-human) beings in the world. The conviction of modern man is that only humans have interiority, spirit, and culture, and that they are faced with a “natural world” devoid of those qualities11. The animistic world-view shows another way of interacting with humans and non-humans, an open-ended field of multiple relationships where no form of intellectual reductionism (from metaphysics to science) has the upper hand. It shows us that the so-called “primitives” are not the children of history, but an alterity demonstrating our own provincialism.
The Challenge of Connexions
Descola’s work opens some central questions concerning other traditions and especially our way of understanding them. Although there is some truth in the sentence “the pretention of universality is always a justification of conquest”12, it is necessary to rethink “objective knowledge” as well as its exteriority, since the coupling of knowledge and power is inevitable, but mainly because there are entire worlds outside the domain of objective knowledge. Modern Western culture has chosen to ignore such worlds, but it has recently become clear that they are part of the same (global) context, that is, that we are in some way or another confronted by them. With regard to religion, it is widely known that monotheism merged an exclusivist truth criterion with a politics of proselytism, and that the exercise of it (especially in the universalistic variants of monotheistic religion: Christianity and Islam) took many lives (not only on the human level). Now, the fact that the condition of this truth is a radical separation from Nature is not something we should overlook. We also know that certain “alternative” (usually self-proclaimed “esoteric” or “traditionalist”) movements turned the equation upside down and sought in an imaginary East (or an unlocalised Gnosis) the solution to the problem of Western civilisation. Such movements reproduce the universalist illusion reversed: they choose to ignore the complexity of the problem rather than working towards an integration of different types of knowledge and experiences – a very difficult challenge demanding intellectual rigor, openness of mind and a true interdisciplinary bent. Such integration seems to me very difficult but not impossible, since the globalised world implies, among other things13, a drastic reduction of incommensurabilities.
I shall give two examples to illustrate my point. The first one concerns India, a culture that sheds further light on the problem that I have just attempted to expound. In my opinion, we can observe in India a (Neo-)Vedāntic closure with similar characteristics to Platonism in the West. This closure was not so serious within the Indian tradition (even if the philosophical effects of Śaṅkara eclipsed to a certain extent the richness of the Brahmanic tradition15), but the exporting of Vedānta to the West (which Alain Daniélou never ceased to criticise) took on the dimensions of a reverse colonialism, with regrettable consequences not only in the West but also in India. What I call “Vedāntic closure” does not mainly concern the reduction of the pluridimensionality of Brahmanism to the orthodox system of Vedānta as it consolidated itself in the VIII century CE, but rather a later configuration of anti-physis in terms of a religious and cultural influence (stemming from India) in a foreign context (Europe at the end of the XIX and the beginning of the XX century). In any case, there is a philosophical key to the problem which should be borne in mind: the subtractive re-interpretation of brahman (known as Vedāntic acosmism)16. Many instances of Śaṅkara’s transformation of early Upaniṣadic thought can be recalled. I shall limit myself to a decisive one: his commentary on a very well-known passage of the Bṛhdāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (5.1.1.) dealing with the ontological fullness of Brahman. The passage reads: “That is full, this is full. From fullness stems fullness. Having taken fullness from the fullness, merely the same fullness remains [pūṇamadaḥ pūrṇamidaṃ pūrnāt pūrṇam udacyate / pūrṇasya pūrṇam ādāya pūrṇam evāvaśiṣyate]”. The contrast of the pronouns adas (that) and idaṃ (this) indicates the difference between the non-qualified and the qualified Brahman, but the predicate pūrṇam connects both terms and makes clear an inclusive conception of transcendence. In fact, the different declensions of the term pūrṇa (nominative, ablative, genitive and accusative) express the all-encompassing nature of Brahman, the qualified version of which does not appear severed from the plenitude of the unqualified. In other words, Brahman is the whole of the cosmic order and at the same time the non-manifested core of manifestation. It is interesting to see how Śaṅkara turns the affirmative relationship between ontological surplus and all-encompassing cosmicity into a dissevered core beyond manifestation. A passage of his Bṛhdāraṇyaka-Upaniṣad-Bhāṣya (5.1.) is in this respect quite instructive: “It is impossible to ascribe eternity to something having parts and subjected to action [sāvayavasyā nekātmakasya kriyāvato nityatvānupapatteḥ]”. Here Śaṅkara takes a decisive step towards acosmism: the ontologically real is (dis-)placed outside Nature, outside the cosmos, outside the totality and multiplicity of manifested reality – the latter being reduced to the sphere of mere relativity: nāmarūpa. If we analyse the soteriological implications of this movement, it becomes clear that it leads humans to a radical separation from the rest of living beings, which was not the case in the thought of the early Upaniṣads – where the ritual dimension of the Vedic past still played a decisive role.
In my view, the effects of this closure became dramatic in the Western reception of Shankara’s ideas and their ideological reimporting by India, since the complexity of the Brahmanic dispositive was no longer taken into account as a result of it. Needless to say, this simplification extended itself beyond the scope of Brahmanic tradition, for example, in the hostility of a “universalised” Advaita Vedānta towards the growing interest in Tantric traditions.
The second example concerns the vicissitudes of religious experience. Since the rise of Western modernity, religiosity has left institutions and concentrated itself on individuals and small groups, but in the face of the crisis that I have tried to sketch, it has broken out once again with unthought-of power. I said earlier that religion has become deranged. What I meant by that is that there is no traditional framework to channel this expression. The logical consequence is a proliferation of rootless fragmentary movements. We should not be surprised by the fact that, in such a context, there is – for different reasons – a very strong attraction to Shamanism. First of all Shamanism proposes a revival of the imagination far beyond the modern scientific opposition of the “real” and the “imaginary” with a supplementary expansion of perception. Secondly, the cultural aspect of Shamanism presents, among other things, a collective organisation in which certain techniques to communicate with the (invisible) powers of Nature are socially cohesive and relevant. Thirdly (and most important): in our times Shamans have abandoned their forests (in view of ominous ecological catastrophes) and tried to bring a local message to a global context. Are they adding another piece to the confusing puzzle of modern esoteric trends? Perhaps they are, nolens volens, because of the very logic of post-modern appropriation – and transformation – of traditional knowledge. However, there is a difference even between Neo-shamanism and former esoteric movements (like new Gnosticism, Theosophy, Anthroposophy and Rosecrucianism). The latter are fed by the idea of radical transcendence – an idea inevitably fed in turn by the metaphysical closure I have tried to expound throughout this essay. As opposed to them, Shamanism – at its roots – is based on a connexion and interaction with Nature that has become a desideratum for the human race in this century. This can be taken quite superficially as abstract romanticism or an alternative gesture remindful of the hippie movement of the 1960s, but it can also be taken seriously in view of the specific challenges awaiting us. The study of a different world-view and life-attitude, when not merely an intellectual exercise of the academician, shakes the dusty straitjacket of our prejudices and assumptions about reality and the world. One of the most important aspects of Alain Daniélou’s work and heritage is his effort to understand the world beyond our own conditioned framework of beliefs and convictions, since they are always related to the culture in which we were born and can be enriched through an integration of “the other”. The main challenge today is to de-objectify Nature and give it back its mystery and subjective richness instead of continuing to pursue a double wrong track: the cold (and blind) scientific vivisection and technical manipulation of “resources” on the one hand, and the long-standing metaphysical subjugation of chthonic forces in the name of some being, reality or principle giving us the right to impose ourselves on living non-human agents – as if we were directly and ultimately endowed with the power of a monotheistic god.
- Cf. Martin Heidegger, Gesamtausgabe, Band 28: Der deutsche Idealismus , Frankfurt 1997, pp. 23-27.
- Cf. Immanuel Kant, Kritik der reinen Vernunft, §§ 1-8, in: Werke in sechs Bänden, Band II: Kritik der reinen Vernunft, Darmstadt 1998, pp. 69-96.
- Immanuel Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft, § 43, in: Werke in sechs Bänden, Band V: Kritik der Urteilskraft und Schriften zur Naturphilosophie, p. 405.
- Georg Wilhelm Friederich Hegel, Werke 12: Vorlesung über die Philosophie der Geschichte, Frankfurt 1986, p. 74
- This dichotomy had terrible consequences also if we consider its reverse side. Aristotle’s reaction against Plato, for example, was one of the main sources of repression of the creative role of imagination by means of the opposition between the real and the imaginary, a consideration that has cut across the whole of Western mainstream philosophy – with very few exceptions – up to Jean-Paul Sartre and his theory of imagination as an organ creating unrealities. It is thanks to ethnology and the study of Shamanic cultures that a new consideration of this problem arose. Cf. the exemplary work of Charles Stépanoff, Voyager dans l’invisible: techniques chamaniques de l’imagination, Paris 2019.
- Bruno Latour, Nous n’avons jamais été modernes, Paris 1997, p. 23.
- Bruno Latour, Ibidem, pp. 12-13.
- Bruno Latour, Ibidem, p. 15.
- Philippe Descola, Diversité des natures, diversité des cultures, Montrouge 2010, p. 69.
- Cf. Bruno Latour, Nous n’avons jamais été modernes, pp. 17-18.
- Cf. Philippe Descola, La compositions des mondes. Entretiens avec Pierre Charbonnier, Paris 2014, pp. 206-207.
- Tobie Nathan, Lucien Hounkpatin, cf. La parole de la forêt initiale, Paris 1996, p. 11
- Philippe Descola already pointed to the mistake of homologating globalization with “westernization” (in the worst sense of the term): “If people like the Achuar or other Amazonian Amerindians begin to interact more fluently with national Ecuadorian society, they won’t become automatically McDonald consumerists” (Philippe Descola, Diversité de natures, diversité de cultures, p. 72). Even if one cannot deny the potential danger of a neutralization of traditional local knowledge in the hands of the disintegrating tendency of a “global economy”, it is also a fact that the interaction of cultures today has been deeply transformed, and that such transformation also enables further attempts in the opposite direction than that of indiscriminate mixture and disintegration.
- A richness consisting in the combination (and tension) between ritual and knowledge, something that extends itself from the Brāhmaṇa literature (especially the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa, around 800 BCE) over the principal Upaniṣads up to the Brahmasūtra literature (at the beginning of the common era). Śaṅkaracārya’s systematic radicalization of the soteriological core in the brahma-vidyā device could be read as a remarkable transformational but also reductionist machinery encompassing the whole field of the problematic, since he wrote commentaries to Bṛhdāraṇyaka, Chandogya and Taittirīya Upaniṣads as well as to Brahmasūtra (it should not escape us that the Bṛhdāraṇyaka Upaniṣad is the final section of Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa).
- One example of many: “In our days, both in India and in the West, the accent laid on a westernized Vedānta to the detriment of more concrete forms of thought than what is found in modern approaches seems incomprehensible to the traditional pundits of India, who are used to strenuous disciplines related to the different darśanas (Alain Daniélou, Shivaïsme et tradition primordiale, Paris 2006, p. 59, this paragraph is lacking in the English translation, which I quote subsequently).
- Alain Daniélou’s critique of Vedānta is without any doubt related to this point. He even qualifies Śaṅkara’s systematization as a dogmatic trend, “which, in seeking to synthetize, destroyed a complex system of investigations into the nature of the world and the divine” (Alain Daniélou, Shiva and the Primordial Tradition, Rochester/Vermont 2007, p. 18).