EcoMaterialisms: Maupertuis and Buffon

This year, the EcoMaterialisms Collective is working through a three-part nexus: histories and theories of the organism in the fall, of ecologies in the winter, and of cosmologies in the spring. Every now and then I’ll post my reflections to the week’s readings along with what those readings were:


  • Pierre Louis Maupertuis (1698-1759): The Earthly Venus
  • Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788): Natural History, General and Particular
    • Ch. 2. Of Reproduction in General.
    • Ch. 4. Of the Generation of Animals.
    • Ch. 9. Varieties in the Generation of Animals.
    • Ch. 10. Of the Formation of the Foetus.
    • Ch. 11. Of the Expansion, Growth, and Delivery of the Foetus.


Also discussed: Foucault’s The Order of Things and Hans Jonas’ The Phenomenon of Life.

There are a few issues I would like to address this week, putting Maupertuis and Buffon into conversation with last week’s readings from Foucault and (in the suggested readings) Hans Jonas.

First, I want to complicate Foucault’s reading of natural history in the classical age as “nothing more than the nomination of the visible” (Foucault 132); that at the basis of this production of knowledge was a somatic phenomenology dedicated to the elaboration of morphological differences between organisms. The thesis, it seems, is simple: natural history in the classical age, among which Maupertuis and Buffon are included, is a description of perceptible surfaces in which “the fundamental arrangement of the visible and the expressible no longer passed through the thickness of the body” (137) — a particularly strange claim considering one of the properties of the body Buffon suggests is that of impenetrability (Buffon 4).

My problem is that this attributes to Maupertuis and Buffon a degree of positivism that I don’t find particularly convincing. Now, I do think, in their insistence that they approach their readers as anatomists and physicians rather than metaphysicians, that this might have been the claim of both authors, but it is a claim that is nonetheless undermined by their metaphysical constructions of such concepts as organic molecules, the internal mold, seminal spirits, Nature, the vital principle, etc.

And so I find myself in agreement with both the articles from Hoffenheimer and Farber, which bring attention to the philosophical and metaphysical work that underwrites the work of Maupertuis and Buffon. Writing on both, Hoffenheimer argues that while the double semence theory accounted for certain hereditary phenomena, “the actual mechanism of the generative process proposed by [Maupertuis and Buffon] was dependent on the direct introduction of metaphysical speculations alien to the increasingly empirical tradition of French naturalism” (137) — though I’m curious just how alien metaphysical speculation is/became. Writing on Buffon, Farber argues that although “Buffon neatly avoided any metaphysical commitment with his first definition of species, in the same volume he nonetheless laid the groundwork for a more philosophic understanding. He did this by describing a new set of ontological entities proposed to explain organic generations [i.e. organic particles and the interior mold]” (263).

It seems, then, that the avoidance of metaphysics claimed by both authors indicates a general movement: from a metaphysics grounded in theological claims to a metaphysics grounded in a method of transcendental empiricism. I understand ‘transcendental empiricism’ in a similar fashion to Deleuze as a method which begins at the level of empirical bodies to speculation on the conditions of possibilities for those bodies — and categories like the interior mold and organic molecules are devices for thinking about those conditions. So where Foucault suggests that classical natural history limited itself to the surface of the visible, I would suggest the visible is, at least in this week’s authors, but a starting from which to begin speculation. Furthermore, I think there’s some evidence for this in Buffon’s text: he argues that when we turn from the questions as to why species propagate (which is unsolvable) and how species propagate (which is solvable but only descriptive and factual), we can ask by what secret cause Nature enables beings to propagate their kind and this “question is very different from the first and second. It admits of nice scrutiny, and even allows us to employ the powers of imagination” (Buffon 29; my emphasis).

I only have a note on Jonas:

In The Phenomenon of Life, Jonas suggests that Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy of organism is incapable of a positive, fundamental contribution to the field of biology. To understand this, we have to understand Jonas’ markedly Heideggerean conception of life: “So constitutive for life is the possibility of not-being that its very being is essentially a hovering over this abyss, a skirting of its brink: thus being itself has become a constant possibility rather than a given state, ever anew to be laid hold of in opposition to its ever-present contrary, not-being, which will inevitably engulf it in the end” (4). The problem for Jonas, then, is that Whitehead’s ontology does not contain a proper conception of being-towards-death which would allow for a “proper” understanding of life. He writes,

[W]hile the polarity of self and world, as also that of freedom and necessity, is taken care of in Whitehead’s system, that of being and not-being is definitely not — and therefore not the phenomenon of death (nor, incidentally, that of evil): but what understanding of life can there be without an understanding of death? The deep anxiety of biological existence has no place in [Whitehead’s] in the magnificent scheme…his metaphysics [is] a story of intrinsically secured success: all becoming is self-realization, each event is in itself complete (or it would not be actual), each perishing is a seal on the fact of completion achieved. (96).

Jonas’ argument is that because, in Whitehead, there is no death but only the disaggregation (or de-concresence) of entities, he provides us with very little insight into the study or question of life. My only note is to point out Buffon as an interesting precursor to Whitehead:

We shall show, that there are in Nature infinite numbers of living organic particles; that Nature produces them without any expense, because their existence is constant and invariable; that the causes of death disunite these particles only, but do not destroy them. (Buffon 41; my emphasis).

And again:

From the experiments and observations formerly made, it is apparent, that all animated beings contain an amazing quantity of living organic particles. The life of an animal or vegetable seems to be nothing else than a result of all the particular lives (if the expression be admissible) of each of these active particles, whose life is primitive, and perhaps indestructible. (Buffon 281; my emphasis).

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