Essences Extend beyond Individual Bodies
Varieties of Intuition
The Human Essence
Experience Is Extended Function
Science and the Extended Mind
The Extended Self
Through an examination of love I established in Ecomysticism that universal life is the substance of all that exists. While my exposition is new the conception itself is a long-held belief of environmentalists, figuring also in some traditional Eastern thought. Though it inspires a virtuous attitude this notion nevertheless fails to provide any detailed understanding of the kinds of things in the world, how they operate, how we know about them and what we should do. Presently we rely on science for most of this specific knowledge. Science does indeed furnish immense and elaborate information about nature, and much of this is invaluable. Yet it conflicts with the vitalistic viewpoint in being operational and reductionist, embodying the purpose of modern science which is human control of nature. Biology and environmental science are partial exceptions, recognizing the specifically organic character of living things and understanding that they are systematically organized internally and with their environments. But this view of living systems is still oriented toward human control and ultimately reduces them to inorganic substances and processes. Although human nature too has been translated into the terms of ecological science, in the general popular mind it remains defined by liberal and neoliberal ideologies, even Biblical Dominionism. According to these doctrines people are radically individualized subjects whose purpose is to exercise mastery over nature. A full vitalistic understanding of the world is possible, indeed necessary, to provide not only an alternative ontology, epistemology and psychology but most urgently, a total life-affirming moral and political philosophy. This essay presents such a system, focusing on the first three topics, with the full account of the second two following in my next essay Justice.
My approach is neither obscure nor new, being basically a synthesis of some ancient and more and less recent philosophy and science. Its foundation comes from Aristotle, who explained things in terms of natural functions. He called the unified inherent functions of things their essences, and these were known to humans in acts of intuition by which they were immediately apprehended. Essences are not hypothetical or things that existed in the past but no more, much less extinguished by the modern scientific paradigm. Rather, they are self-evident objects of everyday experience. Directing my attention to the things around me I don’t just see colored shapes as the strict empiricists and phenomenologists insist. I’m aware, for example, of my cat as a living thing, which is to say that I’m aware of its essence in an act of intuition.
Aristotle’s viewpoint was standard in Western civilization for two thousand years prior to the Enlightenment, while variations of it probably prevailed in every other human culture until they converted to the scientific outlook. Enlightenment philosophers and scientists dismissed and discounted essentialism as superstition. Never disproving it, they merely replaced it with their own reductionist, deterministic and empiricist views. The system they rejected portrayed a natural world that abounded with organisms living with purpose. Among these were humans whose essential purpose included the exercise of reason, virtue and governing their polity.
Enlightenment scientists demolished this vision, giving us instead a picture of a fundamentally nonliving world composed of elementary material particles all necessarily acting in accordance with Newton’s Laws. Human awareness of this world was composed solely of sense perceptions and cognitive structures. People were redefined as collections of particles that, absolutely controlled by the law of inertia, necessarily pursued their individual self-interest.
In addition to eliminating life from the universe, the reductionism and determinism of modern science has had two other disastrous consequences. The first is that it has destroyed personal human agency, as it originally asserted that the active entities in the world are the elementary particles which combine to produce certain collective effects. Over time new sciences have advanced other ultimate causes of human action: psychology has operant conditioning; economics has rational choice, and evolutionary biology has fiercely competitive DNA. According to these sciences it isn’t the individual person who makes decisions and acts, but components or forces within them. Second, although the Enlightenment exalted human freedom, the determinism of its science actually destroyed that as well. Strict mechanism has the person necessarily seeking their individual self-interest. At the same time that they considered humans to ultimately be collections of Newtonian atoms Enlightenment philosophers made a wild conceptual leap with their notion of the human state of nature. They imagined that people in this original state possessed God-given freedom to live as savages, which meant that they necessarily acted according to their savage impulses. Joining in the social contract limited some of their original freedom, but it left the rest as it was – deterministic pursuit of each one’s individual self- interest. Current neoliberal ideology similarly extols freedom as it assigns absolute control of human affairs to the God-almighty market.
The purpose of deterministic science is human control of nature and people. It may be argued that Enlightenment was the first propaganda campaign, whose goal was to overthrow the existing feudal order. In any case the upshot of the present views of natural science, psychology and political economy is that people generally believe that their proper function in life is to compete in the neoliberal economy and indulge their senses with consumer products and services. They have been manipulated into believing these things by masters of marketing and propaganda practicing their sciences of human control. Meanwhile all of life is now at dire risk from pandemic, environmental destruction and authoritarianism. Effectively responding to these threats requires concentrating our attention on life in all of its forms and putting modern scientific understanding in its place for the purpose of restoring rather than destroying life.
As a self-evident fact of experience intuition grasps or apprehends the very life of an object, for example, my cat. While the outline of the visual image of it is distinct, my intuition does not have distinct spatial boundaries because the cat’s life is not so spatially limited. Its body rises and falls with its breathing, which is an exchange of gases outside its body, and it radiates heat. I intuit the cat’s life as occupying an indefinite three-dimensional spatial zone whose center is its body. Intuition is subtle, and its strength tends to be proportional to the magnitude and vigor of its object plus proximity to the subject. Thus people may be especially aware of the lives of large animals, noting a certain mystique about whales at close range. Big old trees are other recognized objects of salient intuitions.
The very lives of organisms which we intuit were known to Aristotle as their essences.1 Things of course have properties which we call “mass,” “velocity,” and so forth, and there is certainly order in nature; “cosmos” means “order.” So things do have all the properties that they are reliably known to possess, but they are not just bundles of properties, much less of elementary particles. We can perform different operations on things, conduct experiments and put their properties and substances to technological use. All these functions reveal their use and relationship to human beings, and in this connection it must be admitted that even intuition presents things as they are for an intuiting human subject and is therefore also relative to a degree.
Intuition is not distinct, so understanding essences requires that we focus on their functions. This was Aristotle’s way: according to him the essence of a thing is its unified essential functions by which it is defined. He also called the essence the form of the thing or its formal cause, distinguishing it from the thing’s matter or material cause. A chair, for example, has as its formal cause its function as a seat for a person. Its material cause is the wood of which it is made, so the chair is not wood, but a wooden chair. When the wood is fashioned into a chair it no longer has the primary essence of wood but the essence of a chair whose material nature is that of wood. If the chair burns its function as a chair ceases, and its primary essence as wood is re-actualized. Then, as it becomes smoke and ashes its essence as wood passes away as well. The ultimate matter for all things according the philosopher is the four elements earth, fire, water and air, each of which successively passes from being potentially to actually each of the others. For him natural objects have two other causes. One is the efficient cause which in the case of the chair is the craftsman who converts the wood into the artifact or the fire that transforms the wood to smoke and ashes. His fourth cause is especially important for our purpose, as it was obliterated by the Enlightenment. This is the final cause or purpose of the thing which is literally its drive to achieve that purpose.2
The Greek term for this aspect of things is telos (τέλος), and the living drive to attain the telos is known as entelechy – “end within.” A good illustration of telos or final causality is the growth of a white pine tree. According to Aristotle it possesses the entelechy, that is, dynamic urge or desire to become and be a white pine tree, indeed a perfect one. The tree normally has a single main trunk from which the branches grow in whorls, with new growth beginning as tender upright “candles.” If the candle at the top of the tree is broken off the main trunk will no longer grow from that point, and one of the branches will grow upward to become the new main trunk. It may also happen that several branches compete to become the main trunk. Thus even if the top candle is broken and the tree’s growth is detoured, its urge is still to be perfect despite its body now being impaired.
Another term Aristotle used in discussing the functions of living things was soul (ἄνεμος),3 and he distinguished between vegetable, animal and human souls. The vegetable soul includes the functions of nutrition, growth and reproduction; the animal soul includes these plus motion and perception, and the human soul is the animal soul plus reason. These integrated functions inhere in the bodies or matter of the various organisms. So the soul of the pine tree is its vital functions which involve an active striving to become a perfect pine tree.
A seed is not a tree but a part of a tree and also potentially a new tree, so when it is “moved” by the efficient cause of moisture at the proper temperature, it sprouts, ceases to be a seed and becomes an infant tree. Now its function is to absorb nutrients, grow and ultimately reproduce as a member of its species. Its body, matter or material cause is the substances it has absorbed and metabolized, therefore a tree is not “made” of wood but rather water, nutrients and carbon dioxide. Nor is it these substances, although they form its material nature. Insofar as it continues to live, it is a tree, but if it is cut or dies, it ceases to be a tree and becomes wood.
As the material of the tree has natural properties its functions are conditioned by them. Thus the pine’s failure to restore a broken candle is not due to its failure to strive for perfection, but to the nature of its material. To the extent that the tree does not achieve perfect form, it is not one hundred per cent a pine tree, but partially matter. Branches break in storms; animals, especially insects, alter trees in countless ways, and diseases take their toll. Plants and animals usually suffer some damage in their environments, and insofar as they are impaired, their bodies are matter and not fully realized form. The partially broken branch does not fully function as a branch; the insect-damaged leaves do not fully function as leaves and the top of the white pine does not function as an intact candle, but as a broken candle. Yet despite their infirmities, organisms continue to strive to obtain nutrition, grow and reproduce. The persistent drive to achieve perfection is seen in the normal initially intact character of their offspring, for while the environment takes its toll over time, the seeds of plants and the babies of animals are clean slates for the species to begin anew. So what Aristotle called the essence, form or formal cause of a thing is its unified vital function, which is teleological.
Essences Extend beyond Individual Bodies
The philosopher concerned himself with primary essences which he identified as the species of things embodied in their individual members. His essences consists of all of the essential functions of their genus plus certain additional functions that make each species distinct As the essences of inorganic things are their essential functions those of organisms are their very lives. Both kinds of essences are contained in the objects or living bodies and limited by their material and spatial extensions. But as form is function, it is evident that lives are not limited by the boundaries of bodies because the actions of living things are processes in which organisms relate to their environments. Respiration is an obvious example: animals with lungs inhale and exhale, and these functions are vital to their lives. Carbon and nitrogen cycles reveal much: substances pass in and out of organisms. Physical conditions are also parts of the vital functioning of organisms, and these include air pressure, gravity and atmospheric temperature. Terrestrial animals stand, walk or rest on some durable surface; the habitat of aquatic animals is water, and that of birds is air. Warm-blooded animals radiate heat and cold-blooded ones absorb it. In addition, animals feed off other organisms. Aristotle acknowledged the temporal continuity of lives with reproduction but omitted the bilateral or multilateral function of sexual reproduction which, in the case of angiosperms, requires the services of members of not only a different sex but a different classificatory kingdom.
Through their functions organisms are vitally connected to other things existing outside as well as inside their bodies. A fascinating illustration of the last phenomenon is the recent discovery that only about half the cells in our bodies are human. The rest are microorganisms— bacteria, fungi, protozoans and viruses — that are on and inside it. An average human gut contains about 38 trillion microbes that serve to synthesize vitamins, aid digestion as well as influence the brain and behavior.4 Most of the more than 10,000 species of microbes that have been found in humans are either harmless or useful, so the body can be regarded as a habitat for its resident microbes. Families and households that include pets are such habitats also, as beneficial microbes are known to be transferred between mothers and babies and dogs and children.
Like organisms, inorganic things relate to organic ones and to other inorganic ones. A rock, for example, rests on the earth and falls to it if unsupported at a higher elevation. So the places of things can figure in their essences, as place is not space, but rather what is under or around the thing whose place it is. Thus, sea ice is ice that floats on the sea, especially in polar regions; petroleum is something that naturally exists far inside the earth; the atmosphere encircles the earth, and so on. All these things are what they are in virtue of what is under, above or around them.
Actuality and potentiality are key concepts for Aristotle,5 and they are especially relevant to human use of objects. The tree, for example, is a living tree and can be intuited as such, but being potentially wood, its material nature may be the object of intuition for someone who wishes to cut it for lumber or firewood. Meanwhile, dirt is a potential medium for seeds; manure is potential nutrition for plants; the latter are potential food for animals, and certain animal species are potential food for others. All these potentialities are fulfilled when they are actually utilized by other organisms. While natural things have innumerable potential uses for organisms the potential functions of artifacts are far more limited and are only actualized when they are used for their specific intended purpose. A hammer is only a hammer while someone is hitting nails with it. Otherwise, even if it is used for some other purpose such as a paperweight, it is a piece of metal attached to some wood, in other words, its material cause or matter.
Things therefore have multiple identities, that is multiple natures insofar as they are functionally related to other things. Aristotle’s term for this phenomenon was “equivocity.” Pollen is the sperm of a flowering plant, but it is also food for bees. Pollination is the means whereby bees deliver pollen from the pistils to the stamens of flowers during the process of collecting it to feed themselves. Pollen is therefore actually sperm that potentially fertilizes the egg and is also potentially food for bees. This latter function is realized when the bees actually eat it. The potential of the pollen in the plant’s reproductive function is realized when the sperm joins with an egg in the ovule.
Insofar as the lives or essences of things are their functions, it is seen that their lives or functions are literally fulfilled by means of other things. My breathing is a vital function fulfilled by the presence of oxygen; my walking is fulfilled by the presence of a hard surface under my feet. Both of these functions depend on a specific force of gravity which we attribute to the mass of the earth and its proximity to other celestial bodies.
Pollen contains the male gamete of the plant and is therefore an organic part of it in the same way that a leg is a part of an animal body. In addition to such whole essences composed of spatial parts there are also temporal wholes composed of successive parts exemplified by the metamorphoses of butterflies and amphibians. The organic parts and whole essences of individual living things are familiar to us, but there are also larger organic wholes of which individuals form parts. A clear example is the beehive, in which the animal functions of nutrition, reproduction and motion are divided among the queen, drones and workers. Populations of organisms within which breeding is mostly confined are comparable. Such organic wholes are not just spatially extended but temporally as well because reproduction continues the life of the species beyond the life spans of particular individuals. The model large-scale organic whole is the intact ecosystem, however even this has indefinite and porous boundaries as some plant and animal species inevitably disperse.
Peter Wohlleben has described how individual trees in a forest transfer nutrients between each other through a network of fungi in the soil.6 This is analogous to pollinator insects performing cross-pollination for flowers. In cases of symbiosis among individuals of the same species and different species such as these, the notions of individuality and even distinct species become relative.
Varieties of Intuition
Having defined the essences of things as their unified functions it is now evident that insofar as these functions extend beyond the boundaries of their bodies and intersect with other objects, so do their essences. This is apparent to intuition, as seen in the example of the intuition of my cat: it fades, so to speak, into the space around it. Meanwhile, I can intuit collective essences such as a beehive. Separately focusing attention on the essential individual functions of a single member of a swarm I can intuit it as an individual bee. Alternatively, focusing on its functions specifically as a member of the swarm I can form the intuition of it as a part of the whole swarm. In this intuition I apprehend the single bee more distinctly against a less distinct intuition of the rest of the swarm.
As I can intuit whole essences such as certain animals, so I can specifically intuit their parts as parts, for example, the cat’s tail. As I focus my attention on the tail the rest of the cat is less distinctly present in this intuition. The intuition of an initial or intermediate temporal part also involves some awareness of what the thing will ultimately become, that is, its final or formal cause. An attribute of an essence can also be the central object of an intuition, for example the cat’s activity of stalking a mouse, wherein I intuit the cat less distinctly as its ground. Intuitions can thus be focused on fewer or more functions including generic ones. Accordingly I can intuit an insect as a bee or more specifically as a carpenter bee. An object can also be intuited as an individual of a certain kind which focuses on the attributes that individually distinguish it from others of its kind.
The intuitions that I have described are perfectly common and especially apparent in our experience of people. Those we know are apprehended as particular individuals, while strangers are intuited generically as humans. Attending to certain functions we may intuit people as waiters, nurses and in so many other distinct capacities. We also intuit human collectivities such as sports teams, the town council and so forth. As with the beehive people in groups can be intuited in different capacities. Thus, I may look at a family eating dinner together and intuit them as a whole family. Then I turn to one of the members who is passing a dish of food or engaged in a family conversation. Focusing my attention on them performing the function I have an intuition of them as part of the family. In this intuition the person is spotlighted, so to speak, against the background of my less distinct awareness of the rest of the family. Finally, attending to either their generic or individual characteristics, I intuit the same person as a human being or individual rather than as a member of a family.
I have expanded Aristotle’s understanding of essences to incorporate things that are external to individual people and objects with which they are functionally united. Although he was undoubtedly conscious of interdependence in nature he went too far in trying to fit everything into a closed system which also included a rigid method of reasoning. My account brings his essentialism into line with environmental awareness. Doing this does blur his distinction between form and matter. For while I make his essences primary, some the relational functions I have mentioned involve potential functions and the material nature of things. However, insofar as things have multiple actual identities, there is in fact always a multitude of functions going on in a particular thing that are essential to various identities. So as I expand essences into the space beyond their immediate physical extension, I also incorporate into them all of their functions, taking care to refer each to their specific identities.
The Human Essence
Restoring life to our understanding of the world is the first benefit of my updated Aristotelian essentialism with the second being the correlated view of human life. The philosopher asserted that the fundamental nature of living essences is to live, to continue their lives into the future and to strive to perfectly fulfill their nature. Stressing final causality, Aristotelianism is at bottom a moral philosophy. Not only do materialistic sciences err in reducing life to nonlife; their supreme failure consists in being amoral, ultimately immoral. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno declared that the sole final causality in material philosophy and science is progress.7 Well, we now see how destructive this progress has become. With climate change and all the rest, no subject can be more important to us than life, specifically moral life.
According to Aristotle non-human organisms strive to achieve the perfect fulfillment of their essential functions which for plants are nutrition, growth, and reproduction with motion and perception also belonging to animals. While humans possess the unique faculty of reason their fulfillment further includes virtue which consists of courage, temperance, justice and wisdom. It is human nature, he explained, to strive to achieve perfect virtue. To the extent that a person does so, they attain human form, and to the extent that they fail, their form is not human but animal as they function at that level. Throughout ancient and medieval times, philosophers and theologians distinguished between the higher and lower instincts of people, adhering to Aristotle’s basic view. The higher nature is another part of the philosopher’s system thrown out by the Enlightenment, which has now devolved into neoliberal consumer culture.
Telos, or active striving toward a certain fulfillment, is desire to attain it. The animal desires to eat, reproduce and feel comfort, for these functions represent the condition of its life. Insofar as they are animals, humans also desire these things, and consumer culture would have us confine ourselves to these wishes. Indeed, today humans are generally understood to be no more than beasts with opposing thumbs. Beyond this, for Aristotle it is human nature to want to be good, to be virtuous, despite this notion being virtually extinct in our time. Many people have particular good impulses – to serve family, the poor, the environment, peace, to be a good Christian and so forth, but we see that these separate good intentions divide them into interest, religious and political groups.
Like other species humans are organized in aggregates, indeed multiple ones in increasingly inclusive hierarchies. Aristotle denied that such collectivities had essences, although he did recognize the family as a natural group. The historical record of civilizations and Indigenous cultures is unequivocal: human beings exist in larger social bodies which range from tribes to villages, cities and nations with every such group and collection of them involving functions of governance. In his time the unit of governance was the city-state, and it was his own, Athens, that established the historical precedent for democracy.
Although he did not consider the city-state or polis (πόλις) to be an essence, he declared that man is by nature a political animal, an animal of the polis (ὁ ἄνθρωπος φύσει πολιτικὸν ζῷον).8 I fully agree with this position and further affirm in my expanded Aristotelian essentialism that polities are distinct essences and wholes of which individual people with respect to their political nature are parts. This political nature belongs to the human essence and consists in the performance of the functions of citizenship. I use the term “polity” broadly to refer to democratic jurisdictions, deriving this position from the fact that the democratic model alone permits each person to achieve their highest fulfillment both as an individual human being and as a citizen.
The faculty of reason which for Aristotle distinguishes humans from animals includes multiple functions. One is strict reasoning according to his syllogistic logic. He further identifies practical wisdom9 which is applied to everyday decisions and involves choosing the mean between too much and too little on a continuum. Exact means exist in mathematics and figure in numerous human productions such as music, architecture and engineering. Much other human activity involves selecting the “right” amount, pressure, speed, time and so forth, with most of these determinations being inexact. A pinch of salt is not precise, but it is a standard measure in cooking, as are “barely covered” in seed planting, “room temperature” for storage and countless other practical measures.
Political wisdom is practical wisdom applied to the affairs of the polis.10 Aristotle believed that exact means exist for every choice, recognizing also the complexity and risk of error in political matters. So, having commended democracy throughout the Politics, he concludes the work by saying that the polis must have a philosopher king who alone can discern the exact mean in political decisions. I deny that anyone has the ability to make such ideal determinations and maintain that it can only be a matter of best, not perfect judgment.
For him the function of the philosopher-king was the highest fulfillment of human nature, available of course to only one person at a time in a polis. Moreover it was imperative that this person be perfect or the polis as a whole would be defective. Two millennia later the Enlightenment managed to establish that monarchy is inherently bad for governance. Like most of his heirs in the Western philosophical tradition, Aristotle tried to construct a perfectly consistent and practical system, something that we now know is impossible.
According to my expanded essentialism the highest fulfillment of every human being is active citizenship in their local polity and every higher jurisdiction of which it is a part. This means that a person’s primary identity is as a citizen. The function of citizenship like all other essential functions is teleological: it is a striving for perfection driven by desire. As parts of the polity citizens strive for their own perfection as citizens and also the perfection of the polity as a whole. Being a living essence the polity can be compared to a body whose cells correspond to the citizens. It is the function of each cell to serve itself and the whole body composed of all the cells, which ultimately means each individual cell serving every other individual cell. Never fully attained, perfection of all the parts and the whole polity is the ideal or goal toward which each citizen strives, applying their practical and political wisdom or educated best judgment at every moment along the way.
For Aristotle essences are the unified functions of things distinctive to their species that inhere in individual members and are bounded by their material limits. In fact however the actions of living things are processes in which they relate to their environments. Such relationships extend their essences beyond the boundaries of their bodies where they interact with the essences of other substances and objects. Not recognizing such vital functional connections, neither did the philosopher regard as essences organic systems of which individuals form parts, exemplified by the beehive, polity, natural communities of nonhuman organisms, ecosystems and the biosphere. Both in terms of functions and systems, the vital continuity of things with their environments is today an accepted fact. I have articulated our current view in terms of modified Aristotelian essences that align with current progressive thought, stressing the multiple identities of things as parts of multiple whole living systems.
The essential functions of things that I have discussed so far are what are commonly regarded as the physical functions of inanimate objects and the physiological ones of organisms. Aristotle’s animal essences also include the function of perception, while the human essence manifests reason as well. Throughout the history of Western civilization the subject of consciousness has bedeviled thinkers, and no satisfactory explanation of it exists to this day. Three basic reasons account for the failure. First is the reductionist method of science that began with the Enlightenment’s attempt to explain everything in terms of material particles and their motions. This has evolved into today’s model that attempts to define consciousness as some form of physical energy. The second reason is that for materialists and essentialists conscious functions are located strictly inside the material body. Thirdly, for essentialists, dualists and idealists the rational mind is immaterial.
All these positions are refuted by self-evident facts of experience. The first of these is the experience of love which, as I explained in Ecomysticism, is a spatially extended awareness of the conjoined lives of the lover and the beloved. A less salient form of this is a person sensing their unity with a place and the things in it, usually in some remarkable natural setting. In the previous section I listed several functions of essences which extend beyond the commonly recognized boundaries of objects and organisms and further included them as functional and systematic parts of more spatially extended whole units. As the universe consists of an infinite multitude of graduated and intersecting functional systems of which individual things constitute a variety of parts, we should expect that the character of the essential functions of consciousness be consistent with the rest. That they do accord is a self-evident fact of experience for, as I shall presently explain, things are intuited and seen out there, where they apparently are physically located in the three-dimensional space of my experience. This space includes my body, as my intuitions and sense perceptions aren’t in my body, but rather, my body is in my experience.
Synthesizing ancient understanding with more and less recent science I now add conscious functions to my expanded essentialist interpretation of the world. I have already used the phrase “space of experience” and want to make clear at the start that this space is not what we commonly understand as the physical space in which objects have definite locations and volumes, for example the physical extension of my cat or the mass of a mountain. Rather, the space of experience is primarily the felt extension of my body plus the field of my visual and auditory perceptions which is populated with intuitions, visual images and sounds. Without question the space of experience is not the space of physical objects, as the former is perspectival and private to the subject, which the latter is not.
The previous section focused on essences and intuitions of them, omitting sense perception, which was extensively explored in The Ecological Inclination. In that essay I followed the standard empiricist and phenomenological method of regarding sensory images as images. If I look at something specifically as a visual image, what I see is two-dimensional. Admitting intuition of essences into experience restores its normal depth. Looking at my cat I see its colors and three-dimensional shape and am immediately aware of its life as having some volume. Both the visual image and my intuition are over there, across the room, where I see the cat and apparently where it is.
The usual explanation of depth perception is that it comes about from light entering two eyes, each of which receives two-dimensional images but which in combination produce the experience of a three-dimensional image located inside the head. It is also noted that rapid movement of the gaze and variable focusing indicate the physical distance between perceived objects. Though scientifically recognized these explanations leave the basic point untouched, which is that immediate experience reveals that the body is in experience, not that experience is in the body. No amount of neurophysiological research or theorizing alters this fundamental self-evident fact. Ultimately, which is more plausible – that the panorama that I see is inside my head, which is a small, dark place, or that it is outside my head, in the big, luminous world?
Of course science also denies the intuition of objects, which is another immediate fact of experience. It would have us believe that experience is strictly empirical, consisting of sensory perceptions and feelings. First insisting that our experience is limited to sense perception, science then proceeds to speak about material things that exist independently of our images that represent them. However Kant was right: if one insists that the sole access to a material world is sensory images, then all one knows is those images and not what material things are apart from them or if material things even exist. Science compounds its contradiction by claiming that sense perception is a material process: light stimulates the optic nerves which causes sight to magically happen in the brain. Nobody has ever looked at brain tissue and seen the image there that the person whose brain it is sees.
Ultimately science admits that it is a model which has a measure of empirical confirmation. So it doesn’t claim that it is unconditionally true and alternative models are false. Science deals with the phenomena of the senses and is also directed at controlling its objects. Yet it is not exhaustive, nor is it moral. Its purpose is the control of nature, and this power to control is used with both good and evil intentions, all claiming to represent “progress.”
Empirical science is in fact operational, defining things’ spatial extension as their extension for my sight, with a ruler laid beside them, or for my touch, as I run my fingers over and around them. Their mass is the figure shown on a scale as objects are placed on it and so on. Things obviously have the natures which science attributes to them. Engineering proceeds chiefly according to Newtonian mechanics, and objects remain as they are built and don’t break apart. Science is not false, it just represents a certain order in nature specific to human manipulation and control of it.
I have expanded Aristotle’s notion of essences to bring it into line with environmental awareness. While he erred in trying to fit everything into a perfectly consistent total system our age has in fact gone to the opposite extreme, honoring not only all the cultures and beliefs of the present, but also virtually all of those of the past. Postmodern relativism does have the virtue of contending that none of them can claim to be uniquely true. However, it doesn’t do to throw the baby out with the bath and reduce everything to the Big Lebowski’s “That’s just your opinion, man.”11
Early in the twentieth century one philosopher had the courage to say not that no contrary beliefs were true, but that diverse systems of thought were equally true because we exist in a pluralistic universe. William James asserted that multiple orders coexist and are irreducible to each other.12 Although people usually hold only one and not multiple faiths, those who do accept and are perfectly comfortable with recognizing separate material and spiritual dimensions in the world. The pluralistic universe is in fact a matter of common belief.
What we normally take to be individual things are objects whose essences are their unified functions. Being radiant centers and sources of action they function as whole objects and parts of other wholes. Their action intersects with that of other objects around them and is therefore spatially and temporally continuous. Both in terms of a kind of reverberation throughout the world and being a nondiscrete functional part of the whole world, each thing is indivisible with it.
I am therefore not just my body with my experiences locked inside it, particularly in my brain. My physiological functions are relationships between my body and things outside and inside it, thus my skin is not the absolute but merely relative boundary of my self and its functions. This fact is obvious in experience, as the intuition and visual image I have of some object is over there, where they are in the space of my experience and outside my body. Seeing an object consists of a relationship between my body (my eyes are open and properly functioning), intervening light and the object insofar as it is visible. This active relationship occurs in a continuous natural universe, so there is no reason to locate it inside my head instead of out there where the intuition and image are actually experienced.
Experience Is Extended Function
The view that visual images are located where they appear to be, that is, outside the body, was cogently set forth by Henri Bergson in his 1896 Matter and Memory.13 For him, the universe is composed of energy in continual flux. Unlike high-intensity forms such as light, material things are low-intensity forms of energy with particularly repetitive patterns or rhythms. A rock, for example, does not move and persists in being a rock, while in organisms, notably animals, this rhythm constitutes habitual activity. As configurations of energy living bodies are radiant centers of action that are ultimately continuous with the rest of the world.
Senses project into the space around the body energy which is nascent habitual bodily motion, that is, bodily memory, which scopes out, so to speak, the environment for such action. Where contact occurs between a subject’s projected energy and objects images are formed which are connected with the body by way of the projections. Conditioned by the properties of the objects, images are reflections of the subject’s potential action on them. Insofar as that potential action is bodily memory, images consist of visual memory, and objects are recognized as kinds of things or particular ones. Sense perception projects bodily action in a potential state in order to survey choices for action. Making the choice consists in one of the projected potential actions passing into actual bodily motion.
There is always novelty in the world, and this arouses focused perception. As I walk through the woods my attention is on the trail, for I wish to walk on its even surface while avoiding such objects as big rocks, logs and puddles. My perception involves projecting the energy of relevant generic bodily memories onto the trail and having them reflected as images of the kinds of things I am looking for, noticing their particular features only so far as they relate to my movement. A rather different case is when I want to fetch a certain book from my shelf. Scanning the shelf, my particular bodily memory projection passes over other books, eventually “finding” its match, at which point I reach out and grasp that book.
Although it is primarily repetitive motions, at every moment the body undergoes changes, especially with respect to its sensory functions, and these are preserved in its ongoing action. Such preserved motions are reactivated as bodily memories projected onto present objects. Sense perception is a matter of exploring options for bodily action with a more or less specific intention, only forming images of objects that hold some interest. I can sit in my chair and passively see the image of the room around me that presents a multitude of possible actions for my body. Or I may be engaged in some more active exploration as I hike through strange wild terrain. I carefully focus my attention on certain objects, drawing on the depths of my past experience to enable me to distinguish such things as rabbit holes, snakes, poison ivy, camouflaged frogs and turtles. This inspection consists of summoning and projecting so many progressively specific bodily memories onto their objects which in turn disclose further features of themselves in my images of them. Thus, as I examine a mass of dead leaves with increasing attention to detail, the image of a frog appears among them, signaling that I must not place my foot upon it.
Science and the Extended Mind
Scientists have long located external sense perception inside the head for two principal reasons. One is that such perception depends on the proper functioning of the senses, the brain and the nerves connecting the two. Being a relationship between the perceived object and the perceiver’s sensory apparatus, it is obvious that all must properly function, for eyes must actually see, while optic nerves and the appropriate parts of the brain must be intact. At the same time there must be light, and the object must be present and visible. So both inside and outside conditions are essential to the production of vision.
The second reason that actual sense perception has been situated inside the head is the existence of images associated with dreams, imagination and memory. However when we have these images, we don’t specifically locate them inside our heads. That is, we don’t see them inside our heads as in the way we see objects inside a room. With regard to memory, it makes no sense to say that memory images are “stored” in our brains or inside our heads because if this were so we would always be conscious of them.
Aristotle explained sense perception as physiological functions that take place inside the body. In the case of vision color “moves” the air which, forming a continuous medium, in turn moves the eyes to actualize perception of the color.14 Otherwise the human function of rationality or mind was to him immaterial. He declared that the forms or essences of things exist potentially in the individual’s mind, and when their body encounters a physically embodied essence, the form becomes actualized there.15 Because the mind is unextended, the actualized forms in the mind are also unextended.
The notion of the unextended mind persisted into the seventeenth century with Descartes and Spinoza maintaining dualistic views while Leibniz and Berkeley were idealists. Kant was a critical idealist and Hegel a full-blown one. Only the British empiricists considered mind to be something material inside the body functioning according to the laws of nature governing all material objects. Their theory was and remains of course only a model which is contrary to the immediate evidence of experience.
Quantum biology is now providing better insight. It has determined that the migration of the European robin is directed by an interaction between the earth’s magnetic field and certain quantum particles in the bird’s eyes. Quantum phenomena also account for the particular qualities distinguished by some animal’s sense of smell, even at incredible distances. Exhibiting “spooky action at a distance,” quanta occur in “entangled pairs,” which are spatially separate yet linked and in which change to one correlates with instantaneous change in the other, however great the distance between them. Quanta are both particles and waves, which makes them point sources of energy whose fields are indefinitely extended and form indivisible parts of the whole universe.
In their 2014 book, Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology,16 Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden explain that quantum processes figure in the functions of enzymes, respiration, photosynthesis and specifically adaptive rather than random mutations of DNA. These processes occur at the ultra-micro level of individual molecules where key actions are performed by particles that briefly assume wave form. Under common thermodynamic conditions quanta exist in particle form. For their wave manifestation requires an extreme degree of coherence or order within the surrounding matter. As living cells consist mostly of liquid and therefore molecules in fairly random motion, the secret of quantum biology is the orderly vibration of those molecules.
The authors explore the possibility that consciousness is a quantum phenomenon. They note that the brain, indeed the whole body, is surrounded by an electromagnetic field which physically affects the body’s immediate environment, producing a measure of coherence with the body. The brain’s external electromagnetic field evidently coordinates nerve firing within it. In experiments the firing of brain neurons registers as disorderly or asynchronous when one is searching for an object “in plain sight” but then becomes synchronized when that object is visually distinguished from its surroundings.
Quantum biology represents life as a physical process that not only organizes inanimate matter, but also creates and sustains harmony and balance among its manifold parts which, insofar as they are quantum entities, are not totally distinct. Life also reproduces itself, displaying intentionally adaptive continuity in time. Al-Khalili and McFadden speculate that death occurs when the mechanism for preserving vital balance and harmony fail.
Bergson’s explanation presents a picture of physical processes that produce conscious images in the space around our bodies, connected with them by streams of energy. He devotes considerable attention to the apparatus for these processes constituted by the human nervous system. Undoubtedly this complex structure has a purpose, and it gives him a means of explaining sense perception and bodily motion entirely in terms of local causality. We do understand that electromagnetic energy travels in paths through space and also that signals are transmitted about the pathways of the nervous system. In Bergson’s time the non-local causality of entangled pairs of quantum entities was not yet on scientists’ radar, and eventually even Einstein denied such spooky action at a distance. Today quantum biology reinforces the role in external perception of the electromagnetic field surrounding the body. Still there is no need to reduce conscious phenomena to such things and processes that we do not directly perceive. It is enough for philosophical purposes to simply understand experience in terms of vital functions, especially for the reasons I have given for opposing reductionism.
In his later work Creative Evolution17 Bergson asserted that the fundamental substance of the world is the élan vital or creative universal life force. According to this view each individual organism is the continuation of its evolutionary history and its spatial context. An especially striking illustration is the insect that first paralyzes its host and then lays eggs in the live body, providing fresh nourishment for the young when the eggs hatch. Bergson argues that this symbiosis could never have come about through Darwinian natural selection. Instead, he describes evolution as the progress of a single universal life force that “condenses” into actual and intimately linked members of species. In some places life lapses into habit and remains unchanged for very many generations or even eons. In others the absolutely creative élan vital surges forth, producing new forms of life integrated with already existing ones. After the initial creative burst, entropy sets in and preserves the new forms.
According to my expanded essentialism objects are radiant centers and sources of action indivisible with the universe. Certain of their functions such as an animal’s sensory activities extend beyond its material body into a zone around it. The intersection of that zone with those of the sensible functions of external objects produces sensory images that reflect the natures and present intentions of both.
Bergson describes the process of sense perception as involving an active subject and a passive object, but in my expanded essentialism the object’s essence is extended like that of the subject. We commonly understand that the visibility of an object consists in its reflection of light which is then sensed by a subject. Insofar as this is true, it is evident that reflecting is a function of the object, and the reflection belongs to its extended essence. Moreover the subject does not just see an image, they see an image of the object; in fact the purpose of the object’s function of visibility is to be seen. Therefore this function is fulfilled not only by the reflection of the light from it, but the actual reception of that light by the sensing subject which constitutes the image. So the reflected light and the image are parts of the object’s extended essence, mirroring the structure of the subject’s extended essence with which it is conjoined in the image. As the image is specific and private to the subject, so the object’s end of the process is also particular, embodying a particular intention with respect to the subject.
Obviously the object’s function of visibility is not directed exclusively at me, for as the thing continually reflects light it is potentially visible to whatever animal comes into its range. Yet like my seeing it, the actualization of its visibility is particular to each of them. Further, I don’t just see one object but rather an immense multitude of them, with each one performing a particular act of visibility directed at me. Visual perception displays a Gestalt character, so while the subject’s action organizes the components of images, the objects organize their visible attributes among themselves. As I examine an object it reveals more of itself to me, thus the alteration observed in the images involved reflects the action of both the subject and the objects as they continually condition each other through their conjunction in those images. This process obviously isn’t always initiated and directed by the subject, for objects impose themselves on my consciousness all the time, with me being mostly prepared in at least a minimally alert state.
Human experience is not merely sensory, for we also intuit essences and know love. These are clearly functions that mostly occur beyond the boundaries of the body, also in the private three-dimensional realm of one’s experience. Sense perception reveals the physical and superficial qualities of objects, especially their spatial characters. Differently colored surfaces indicate separate visual objects and their extensions, while their perspectival features indicate their locations relative to the body. As intuition is qualitatively indistinct things are usually specifically identified by their sensible qualities, especially color and shape. For its part intuition reveals the intrinsic natures or essences of objects which are not perceptible to the senses. It too has a perspectival character, as its strength lessens with increasing distance between the subject and the object while the latter’s three-dimensional size also shrinks. Normal experience is a combination of intuition and sense perception. Thus, planting flowers I am aware of their lives as I dig a certain number of holes of a certain depth and, feeling them with my hands, place them a certain visual distance from each other. Doing this I am also in a state of love for my garden, being aware of the unity of my life with it.
Like sense perception, intuition represents the intersection of my life with that of the object. So as with the sensory image, what is presented in the intuition is the essence of the object as it is for me, the subject. Still, insofar as being intuited by me is a function of the object it conditions that intuition with its intention. For example, I intuit a bear in a pen at a zoo as a magnificent animal, while one that is charging at me in the woods is experienced as a fierce predator that threatens my life.
This fact reflects the equivocity of essences and the reality that all activity in the universe is willful. Each thing has innumerable relationships with other things which manifest their multiple teleological natures. A bird, for example, perching on a twig of a tree constitutes a conjunction of the essences of it and the tree. In this the bird willfully employs the twig as a perch, while the twig in its capacity as a rigid horizontal part of the tree’s matter willfully provides the perch to the bird. All relationships in the universe involve such conjunction of wills. A less sympathetic example is that of a predator and its prey. While both have individual natures and will to live their lives this relationship involves the prey’s secondary nature as potential food for the predator. So the predator in its primary nature sees the prey. The latter in its primary nature sees the predator and tries to escape it, yet in its secondary nature it reveals itself as prey for the predator.
Human intuition of essences relates to functions which are commonly the use of objects. Thus I intuit a chair as a potential seat for a person, experiencing a subtle desire to go and sit in it. All my experience involves desire, and I move about with specific intentions directed at the relevant aspects of things that I intuit. While the primary essences of objects can be intuited, for example a tree, its material nature can also be intuited as timber for lumber or firewood. My intuitions reflect objects’ specific responses to the intentions with which I approach them. So, when I wish to intuit the tree as a tree, it willfully presents its full living essence to my consciousness. To a logger with a different intention its material nature willfully presents itself as timber.
The interchange found in intuition is also manifested in sense perception: I reach out to objects as a seeing subject, and they present themselves as visible things. That is, at my bidding they reveal themselves to me. This is especially evident in the process of examining objects: as I seek to discover details of their appearance, applying effort and concentration, they willfully oblige me.
Broader mutuality of intention is exceptionally illustrated in Aldo Leopold’s “The Alder Fork”18 which I discussed in Ecomysticism. In that event the fish in their secondary nature as food for him willed to be caught. Of course they didn’t just jump into his creel; it took a great deal of effort, concentration and skill to catch them, and this reflected the multiplicity of the fishes’ nature, the man’s and that of each of the objects involved in all of their manifold relationships. For each thing is always desiring to fulfill multiple natures which intersect with the natures of other things. “The Alder Fork” represents the exquisite conjunction, indeed harmonization, of intentional acts by multiple lives for the benefit of one of them, Leopold.
Being members of species and kinds of things essences have generic features, yet each one is particular chiefly with respect to its place in the world and history. They all intersect with the things around them, and they condition each other, so what they do and how they are conditioned by other things alters them, continually adding to their history. With their full lives included in them essences are individual variations of their species. A person is a human being in a particular place and with a particular history which has accumulated in their body and experience.
My history is preserved in my total life. As my bodily activity involves intersection with other things which generates intuitions and sensory images, so, as occasions call, I can recreate images perceived in the past from its accumulation which constitutes my present essence. These are memory images which are evidently not present images in virtue of their dim and fleeting character. They are taken to be records of the past because they “fit” with my experience overall. As life is purposeful and creative, bits from the past can be recreated and recombined, producing images of imagination. Such activity can occur involuntarily, producing the experience of dreams. Where the images of memory, imagination and dreams are located is a moot question, for they are in the space of my experience.
Still, my expanded essentialism provides an explanation of these experiences in terms of functions. A visual image represents the intersection of my essence and that of the object and is therefore a joint function of these two. My essence includes innumerable particular potential functions, and every function I perform is the actualization of one of them. Potential functions may be actualized for the first time or be repeated as, for example, I learn the moves in a sport and then practice them. Being a function of my essence each particular act of seeing which produces its image also initially exists in a potential state. It differs from a mere bodily function such as waving my arm in that it is completed by the object. As my essence performs part of the function of producing the image, so it can reenact that part when the object is not there to do its share. Further, since every action and interaction of my essence modifies it somewhat, the reenaction is the original action as it was modified by the object. Thus it partially reproduces the original image in the form of a memory image. This may be vivid and detailed but still insubstantial on account of the absence of the object. Memory of intuitions works the same way.
Furthermore, remembering involves a purpose, for example, recalling someone’s name. When I see their face the name doesn’t automatically come to me like an habitual action. Instead, a succession of memories which are mostly nascent speech come into consciousness until one of them gives me a sense of fit between it and the face. At that point my desire to remember the name is fulfilled, and I say the name silently or out loud, recreating the association of the name and face from my history.
A more creative pattern is found in thinking, which consists in finding the answer to a question or the solution to a problem. As with the simple act of remembering a name, the point of reference need not be the image of the person present but can be a memory image of them. So for thought the question or problem can take the form of nascent speech, an image of memory or imagination as well as something like an arithmetic problem on a piece of paper. Thinking does in fact tend to consist largely of nascent speech, which is normally taken to be talking to oneself in one’s head but is actually subtle movements in the mouth – literally tentative actual speech. In the thinking process so much nascent speech comes forth, along with images of memory and imagination as well as intuitions in an apparent association of ideas. Lines of reasoning are followed, and the matter is more deeply delved as in focused perception. Unlike with this last function there is no external object revealing itself to one’s consciousness. Rather, the subject is creating the answer or solution with material drawn from memory or beyond. At length some of the conscious objects come together and join with the representation of the question or the problem to form a unity which constitutes the answer to the question or the solution to the problem. Fulfilling the desire that drove the thinking process, it may then pass into some bodily motion such as speaking, writing, drawing or building.
As the solution coheres with the problem, so its parts cohere among themselves. Moreover, while the solution to the problem is a newly-created object in the universe, it fits into the rest of it. Much of a thinking process can consist in bringing a potential solution into relation with established facts and logic to determine if it will fit into the whole, selecting and adjusting contents to ensure that it will.
As with the production of sensory images, the object of thought that is formed may have a stock character if it is constructed mostly of memory images reflecting bodily habits. Professionals do this every day – create slight variations of previously created objects and solutions to problems. Although for Bergson the source of one’s memories and hence material for thought is their entire past, one’s resources in fact are not so limited. Thought constitutes an active relationship with the universe, which in processes of problem solving, reveals itself to the subject, creating new thought objects consisting chiefly of novel nascent speech and imaginary images. These are new arrangements of language and memory images which become material for the creation of yet more thoughts, objects and actions with the process mirroring that of Bergson’s creative evolution of life forms.
Not all is ideal, for an object of thought initially accepted as a solution may in time be discovered to be defective: one senses that something isn’t right or some application of it fails. In these cases, the process starts again, and this is precisely dialectical thinking. In this connection I note that fantasy is strictly an act of imagination, not thinking, and is therefore not subject to reality checking.
Meanwhile, as the postmodernists have insisted, thinking always involves some “frame,” if only the basic form of language. The potential for developing thoughts following a certain formula is unlimited – science, ideology and propaganda being prime examples of this. Thought is creative, and people can obviously make all kinds of claims and elaborate them indefinitely, even venturing into the realm of fantasy. At this point I shall state that although this essay is such an elaborate creative account of the world the framing elements in it are minimal. For it consists of experience examining itself, starting with self-evident facts of experience. As the examination has proceeded the universe has revealed content about itself which adds up to a fully coherent systematic explanation of the world that is consistent with logic and reality.
The universe is ultimately a single temporally and spatially continuous life which is animated by a universal life force, the telos of which is precisely to live. Propelling, perpetuating itself into the future, it continuously creates itself, changing in a kaleidoscopic manner. Thus change in any part involves change throughout, something we immediately observe as every motion of our bodies is accompanied by total change in our field of vision, if only in regard to the perspectival aspect of images. Contained within the universal life are infinitely numerous nondiscrete parts which are each creative centers and sources of action organized as countless graduated and intersecting parts and wholes. By nature all of these parts purposefully act to serve the harmonious functioning of the whole, and they do this in all of their manifold characters as wholes and as parts of all the wholes in which they are included.
This conception of the universe can be grasped by considering how an organism works. The coordination of its functions is not ultimately the effect of local mechanical causality like the heart moving the blood through the circulatory system. Rather, the right hand is coordinated with the left hand, and the eyes are coordinated with the hands because, as parts of a whole indivisible system, it is their nature to function in unison. Transmission of signals quite evidently plays a role, but it must be noted that in some matter such as eye-hand coordination the signal transmitted through the eyes and the nerves has its particular effect on the hand because it is the systematic function of the hand to receive that signal and move accordingly. In fact at every point in such transmission bodily parts perform their specific functions because they are parts of the whole functional system, as is too the signal.
Experience displays the same character. For everything is particular, if only in virtue of its unique place and history. My seeing is directed at particular objects; for example I aim my gaze at the trail to see the objects on it. At the same time the trail’s function of visibility is directed particularly at me. The intersection of my nature as a seeing subject with a particular intention with respect to the trail and its nature as a visible object with a particular intention with respect to me is the image. This particular bilateral relationship accounts for why the image is private to me, that is, my visual perception and no one else’s. The subject and the object form an organic functional unit and are parts of an indivisible whole in the same way that organs are parts of indivisible whole bodies. What I have just said about sense perception also applies to intuition which, like the former, is a function of my essence: when the functional field of my essence intersects with the functional fields of other objects intuitions arise, accompanied by sense perceptions. Sensory examination of objects that reveals new images has an intuitive component as seen in the example above of the frog among the leaves: when discovered it is not merely seen but also intuited.
Still, I see and intuit some things without specifically looking for them. For example, I am not interested in the wall over there, but I see it because my body has a material nature which is subordinate to its human nature. In its material or physical capacity it can’t move through the wall. Motion is relative, so as my body would fail to move the wall, the wall would fail to move me. It is therefore an obstruction to my motion and presents itself as such to my vision and touch. At the same time I intuit the wall as a human artifact whose function is to enclose a room. I use it accordingly by moving about within the confines of the room, entering and exiting through the door rather than walking into the walls or trying to break through them. There are also objects in my experience that have no apparent bearing on my activity. Thus, while I see and intuit the blue-colored distant mountains I have no intention of ever having any bodily interaction with them. Still, my seeing and intuiting them indicate that I have at least a minimal interest in being aware of such things around me. At the same time their presence in my consciousness indicates that they have an interest in me being aware of them.
Every object embodies a multitude of particular intentions of that object in the different capacities of its multiple natures all directed at particular other objects in the different capacities of their multiple natures. This is akin to how the universe is represented by field theory, most simply in terms of the particular gravitational forces that exist between all particular things. It is also why life, as it is intuited in love, presents itself as an infinitely vibrant manifold.
Experience presents options for action, and casual sense perception guides habitual action. Both intuition and perception precede bodily actions, serving to scout out the territory. Intuitions and images represent the intersection of the subject’s conscious nature and the object’s nature as perceptible or intuitable, that is, exploratory conjunctions of their essences. The exploration culminates in bodily motion exemplified by a handshake – a bilateral action in which two persons form parts of a functional whole.
Suspending the progress of actions to study objects brings memory into play in the process of choosing how to act. Human deliberation is a luxury in which people can take their time and delve the depths of their experience to illuminate some matter of choice which is the immediate continuation of their life. The extent of the experience that is drawn upon provides the degree of freedom of the choice. For Bergson supreme freedom consists of action that proceeds by the direction of one’s total life. He considered action unfree, in fact, mechanical, insofar as it consists of the minimally conscious repetition of habitual behavior.19
One’s options are not in fact limited to their own past experience, as consciousness can plumb the resources of universal life in thought. More directly, one has access to certain whole objects of which their essence forms parts as they act, for example as a member of their family or as a citizen of their polity. All things have multiple natures and constitute parts of multiple intersecting and graduated whole essences, therefore insofar as one’s action takes so many things into account it is one’s own action as parts of the functional wholes that include them all.
The Extended Self
My expanded essentialism has established that a person is ultimately a unitary and individual human life or essence which extends into the physical space around their body and includes a private three-dimensional space of experience. The sensory images in this latter space belong to them, are parts of them. People in fact normally believe this, except they imagine that their images are inside their bodies, with contact between external objects and themselves mediated by light. In my view images and intuitions belong to them and are their possessions rather in the way that parts and functions of their bodies are. Of course people regret losing such things as their teeth, organs, appendages and faculties of sight, hearing and motion. But less dramatically they can and do feel personally violated by the destruction of sensory images that they enjoy such as those of landscapes and the songs of birds as well as the introduction of unpleasant sights and sounds into their environments.
As one’s images exist at the intersection of their essence and those of objects they functionally conjoin them, for the production of the image is a shared function in which the subject and the object both participate. Though the image is private to the person and is a part of them, they are essentially in contact and connected with the object through it, making them aware of the continuity of their essences or lives.
Conscious experience is but one function of the physically and spatially extended essence or self, the rest of whose relations with other essences mirror those of experience. Substances and objects involved in one’s vital functions are both theirs and shared with other essences. Thus, the air that they breathe belongs to them, is theirs, a personal possession, while it is also shared with other essences.
I intentionally use the term “possess,” which is generally associated with the concepts of private property and rights. After all, the Green Amendment to Pennsylvania’s state constitution establishes rights to clean air and pure water. My notion of the expanded essence or life puts such rights on a level with the individual’s fundamental right to life. To take the case of water: drinking it is an essential human function, yet to drink it requires that one must obtain it, and this in turn requires a supply. So a human’s extended essence includes the function of obtaining water from a supply with which their essence is continuous in the performance of that act. As the function belongs to a way of life, people and water supplies form parts of larger functional wholes or essences.
In claiming ownership, so to speak, of substances and objects essential to their life, a person also assumes responsibility for them. So we arrive at the matter of the action of bodies, through which people are continuously connected with other objects in the world including other human beings. One’s self is not separate from other things and people in the world as Enlightenment thought would have it. Nor is it alienated from them, as liberal and neoliberal ideologies maintain. While the essences around a person are targets of actions which embody their intentions toward such things and people, that person is simultaneously a target of the latter’s actions which embody their own intentions toward them.
Because materialist ideology reduces the whole world to brute, inanimate matter and portrays human action merely as applying physical force to external objects, we see people every day operating at that level. However, especially among living essences, both individual and collective ones, it is evident that they have intentions distinctive to their higher natures which they willfully present to our intuition, inspiring our respect and admiration. This is not just a matter of romantic interest, for, as seen in the Alder Fork illustration and Indigenous wisdom in general, high-level intentions of different essences can harmonize to produce optimum outcomes for all, accompanied by sublime human joy.
One of the effects of the modern scientific outlook is the habit of generalizing. It claims that everything is fundamentally the same stuff and, up and down the chain of being, things are only generically different. Much of the appeal of science is precisely how it paints everything with the same brush, leading people to ignore the particularity of things which is the real capacity in which they function, where the action really is. I am not some generic human existing in a vacuum, but a particular one who acts in relation to the things immediately around me. People respond to being objects of generalization with efforts to distinguish themselves as individuals, then proceed to take a generalizing attitude toward everything else under the sun. This is especially evident in public affairs which deal with matters in terms of uniform policies and blocs of people. The final transformation under my expanded essentialism is therefore the recognition of things as essences having generic natures but also existing in particular places into which their essences extend and in particular periods of time, bearing the history of their essences over those periods.
I have established that a person’s life extends into the world around their body, giving them a kind of possession of external things which they share with other extended essences. Gaining such possession brings responsibility for the things, and this is shared with the others to whom they belong. Being indivisible with the universe, one’s action is always joint action between the self and other essences, involving the multiple natures of them all. By nature the action of all things harmoniously serves the life of the whole, so as we face the reality of a dying planet, we must act individually and collectively to restore that order. We come then to the perennial moral and political question: What should people do?
Our action must not be haphazard or fragmented, and here again Aristotle provides a plan for rescuing the earth with his hierarchy of functions. We observe that among living beings, higher ones have more capacity for acting than lower ones, and obviously too living things are higher on the chain of being than nonliving entities. Ultimately however the status of a thing is determined by the measure in which its potentiality is actualized. Insofar as the potentiality of something is not actualized that thing is impaired, degraded or degenerate.
While the philosopher’s essentialism is tremendously beneficial in providing a view of a living world, its supreme virtue is its teleology. For today much of what we see in the nonhuman and the human world before us is severely degraded. Being potentially a desert a forest may be destroyed by drought and actually become one. However its primary essence is a forest, the thing it strives to be, so becoming a desert is its ultimate degradation, indeed its death. Similarly the reduction of human functions to those of mere animals is degradation or degeneration as well. Insofar as our culture not only permits this but sets it as the standard our so-called civilization is obscenely degenerate. This is true according to the limited essentialism of Aristotle’s original thought, for people do not strive to practice the classical virtues, much less actually succeed in doing so. Reason has been replaced by hypothetical models, branded mindsets, propaganda and “It’s just your opinion, man.” With the rampant spread of irrationality the law of noncontradiction has effectively been repealed in some quarters.
Further, in terms of my expanded essentialism humans are by nature parts of collective essences which include but are not limited to families, communities, ascending levels of polities, local ecosystems and ultimately the biosphere. With the exception of the last, which is severely degraded, today these essences don’t even exist, as people function as radically separate individuals. Behaving as animals they usually relate to things in instrumental ways: other organisms are mostly potential food to be raised and processed by mechanical means, and they primarily interact with inanimate objects such as computers and other lifeless, limited- or single-function artifacts. So many jobs such as warehouse work, food service, driving taxis and trucks are performed at the level of mechanically-functioning matter, making them prime targets for automation.
The full essence or formal cause of a human being is the unity of all the functions of all their natures, while the final cause is the striving to perfectly fulfill the highest human function. This is citizenship, that is, being a perfect part of a perfect polity, the purpose of which is to secure the well-being of the community and all its residents. As the community is a part of so many natural systems, the polity acts to secure the well-being of these systems as well. Higher levels of government deal with larger systems, with each citizen serving accordingly. Citizens and polities are nested essences within so many other graduated and intersecting natural systems and ultimately nature as a whole. By nature humans strive in their individual and collective capacities to attain the perfection of the total hierarchy of systems. Citizenship is not performing generic functions as an individual, but rather serving as a part of their living polity – interacting with particular people and things in their capacities as parts of all the living systems in which they are included.
This teleology was implicit in my account of life in Ecomysticism which presented a broad attitude for the conduct of life. The present work explains more specifically what things are and how they operate, establishing that people’s primary identity is that of citizens. My next essay Justice provides more detailed guidance for acting as a citizen to serve one’s individual self, community, nation and planet.
From the self-evident facts of sense perception and intuition I have demonstrated the unity and continuity of the living universe. These essential attributes of the world are not matters of theory or vague feeling but are immediately given in common experience. My body is a center of action that extends beyond its boundaries and intersects with other such objects around it. All of my functions embody particular desires, as likewise everything else in the universe acts with specific purposes. Thus all functions are mutual among different objects having manifold natures as they form a multitude of systematic living wholes of which the objects within them are parts.
My account of experience has distinguished the subject and the object. However the universe is a total organism, so at least on the highest level all experience and action are internal functions of this unitary being of which the subject and object are indivisible parts. One can apply one’s individual human faculties to a matter before one and perform an action which may consist in producing an idea or object. That can exhibit novelty, reflecting the particularities of the situation and the performer. Or, the action can arise from the depths of universal life as an act of absolute creativity that emanates into material reality. Universal life is known in universal love. Ultimately one lives and is also free to the extent that they are animated by universal love, something that I will next show entails major transformation of our current mode of life.
1. Aristotle, Metaphysics Book V.
2. Ibid,Book I.
3. Aristotle, De Anima Book II.
4. Carl Zimmer, “Germs in Your Gut Are Talking to Your Brain. Scientists Want to Know What They’re Saying” New York Times January 28, 2019.
5. Aristotle Physics Book III.
6. Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World, trans. Jane Billinghurst (Vancouver, Canada: Greystone Books, 2016).
7. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York: Continuum, 2002).
8. Aristotle, Politics.
9. Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics Book VI.
11. Coen, Ethan and Joel Coen, The Big Lebowski. Film. Directed by Joel Coen. Universal City: Gramercy Pictures, 1998.
12. William James, A Pluralistic Universe Hibbert Lectures on the Present Situation in Philosophy (New York: Longmans, Green, & Co. 1909).
13. Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory, trans. Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1911).
14. Aristotle, De Anima Bk II Ch. 7.
15. Ibid.,Book III.
16. Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden, Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology (London: Bantam Press, 2014).
17. Bergson, Creative Evolution,trans. Arthur Mitchell (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1911).
18. Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac with Essays on Conservation from Round River (New York: Ballantine Books, 1970), 40-43.
19. Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. T.E. Hulme (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1912).