John J. Compton *
Marjorie Grene and the Phenomenon of Life
PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the
Philosophy of Science Association, Vol. 1984,
Volume Two: Symposia and Invited Papers, 1984, 354-364.
In the house of philosophy of science are many mansions, and Marjorie Grene has lived - or at least taken rooms - in most of them. She has done everything from studies of concepts and presuppositions within particular sciences, chiefly the biological sciences, to analyses of notions such as explanation and reduction, which cut across many sciences, to extended reflections on scientific knowledge and practice Uberhaupt. In an important sense, however, Marjorie Grene is not a “philosopher of science” at all, if one means by that a practitioner of some technical specialty, but simply a philosopher - or, as she likes to put it, a “teacher of the history of philosophy” - who takes scientific inquiry seriously. Indeed, one of her major contributions has precisely been to insist that renewal in philosophy of science is inseparable from a fundamental rethinking of the tradition of modern philosophy generally. It is this rethinking that has occupied her over more than three decades.
Marjorie Grene has seen that what we like to call “the new philosophy of science”, right-headed as it is in its emphasis on the social and historical context of inquiry, will not finally become viable until it is rooted in a fresh understanding of the entire meaning of the “knower and the known”. Such an understanding must decisively break with the Cartesian dualisms of mind and matter, reason and sense, self and other, human and animal, which led philosophy of science to the “dogmas of empiricism” in the first place and which seem to underlie the almost equally dogmatic swing to historicist, counter-empiricisms as well. What Marjorie Grene has chiefly sought to do is to help bring such a fresh epistemological and ontological understanding to birth. This task led her, early on, to the thought of Michael Polanyi and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. It is what holds her work in the philosophy of biology together with her appreciative portrayals of Aristotle and her critical studies of Descartes, the empiricists, Kant, and Sartre. And it is this task which has led her to explore philosophical anthropologies such as those of Adolf Portmann and Helmuth Plessner, to appropriate the ecological psychology of J.J. Gibson, and to recognize - even if grudgingly - her considerable debt to an early encounter with the phenomenological ontology of Martin Heidegger.
* Vanderbilt University
The question for us, of course, is how to see the unity of these elements. Marjorie is fond of protesting that she really has no ideas of her own, but has merely brought together the ideas of others. I beg to differ. Marjorie Grene has drawn on extraordinarily diverse resources in order to express some extraordinarily important, orienting insights for philosophy of science. No doubt, she has been unable to explicate them to her satisfaction - or perhaps, to that of others. But, as Polanyi used to say, we can know more than we can say. What I want to try to do is to say something, at least, of what I think Marjorie Grene knows! In doing so, however, I am reminded of Aristotle’s observation that knowledge is somewhat like the proverbial target which one cannot easily miss, but which it is difficult to hit dead center. Marjorie Grene is such a vigorous, incisive, and forthright thinker that one cannot easily miss what she means to say. But locating the center, the fundamental basis of her knowledge, I have found much more difficult. I can only offer my risky conjectures!
I would place first on my list of contributions Grene’s diagnosis of the contemporary situation. She has articulated the central and most inclusive task confronting philosophers of science with utmost clarity and has pursued it with utmost commitment. That task, as she has seen it, is to appropriate the obvious strengths of recent historical and process-oriented analysis of inquiry by showing that doing full justice to them does not require a rejection of the cognitive claims of science, but, on the contrary, follows naturally from an adequate understanding of what is cognitive about those claims. One needs to be able to show how scientific claims are cognitive because of the fact that they are human claims and are strongly historically contingent, not in spite of it. As she put it in a recent paper,
The option I am proposing ... does not constitute an abandonment of the reality of science as a collection of cognitive achievements or of the authority of science in its appropriate sphere but an effort to see science as real and as authoritative because it is an important collection of human activities pursued out of motives we consider honorable and with results we respect and admire. Above all, it is a reasonable and rational pursuit, of which we can give a reasonable, and indeed a rational, account, even though - or just because - it is historical and social in its existence and its nature. (Grene 1985, p. 18, underlinings mine.)
For example, we now acknowledge the non-existence of algorithmic rules for theory choice. This should encourage us to see sciences “not as logical systems but, as ‘forms of life’” (1985, p. 11) and thus to affirm the role of flexible, competing, empirical and theoretical “values,” as well as risky, conflicting, personal commitments, in scientific judgment. We now also tend to affirm the “disunity” of the sciences and to recognize the appropriateness of many levels of analysis, of multiple disciplinary contexts, and of diverse experimental and theoretical techniques in scientific work. This should allow us to see sciences less as the application of some single, magical method and more as apprenticeship to and skillful command of a
wide range of limited, but remarkably effective, institutionalized practices. We now tend to accept the non-linearity of scientific progress as well. This should permit us to see both continuity and discontinuity in scientific growth, and should show us how discontinuity and a dialectic of mutual criticism among research traditions are necessary in order to develop a more and more penetrating and inclusive understanding of nature. We now readily acknowledge that even the best available scientific theory provides an account of the world only relative to some historically contingent frame of reference. And this should suggest that a relational and perspectival objectivity is the only sort of objectivity to be found in the sciences.
But, unhappily, such conclusions have not been part of our familiar scientific epistemology; to draw them requires a fundamental shift of presuppositions. The result, as Grene points out, is that because we cannot make this shift easily, we seem to have become obsessed with what we call the problem of epistemological “realism” - that is, how to assure ourselves that the many-faceted practice of scientific investigation, dependent as it is on individual judgment and on an uncertain and changing communal consensus, however self-critical and progressive it may be, does, in fact, lead to reality, to natural knowledge. And at this point, I think, one finds a second, important thesis in the “wisdom of Marjorie Grene”.
It is simply that the only way to “solve” the “problem” of “realism” is to change the subject, to start in a different place. It is to show that human beings who engage in the practice of science are in a different place, a place so firmly and clearly both historical and contingent, on the one hand, and disclosive of the natural world, on the other, that realism is not a problem at all. From the time of the book The Knower and Known (first published in 1966) on through her most recent papers, Grene has pointed out that we do not have to define the problem of scientific knowledge in Cartesian terms, in terms of getting from some subjective starting point - whether individual or collective, mental or linguistic - to the real world. Rather we have only to explicate how human being, as Heidegger put it, is already “being-in-the-world”, and then, by modifying and extending this insight well beyond him, to show how the practice of natural science may be understood to be a well-motivated form of that sort of “being-in”. She has insisted, in this way, that “a renewal of epistemology is necessary if we are genuinely to overthrow our Cartesian heritage.” (1966, p. 224). But I add that, on her own showing, it will be a renewal in epistemology made possible only by a new ontology.
Grene characterizes the needed epistemology, using Polanyi’s term, as a “comprehensive” realism, one sharply distinct from the problematic, inferential or “thin” realism inherited from the tradition (1983, pp. 93ff; 1985, p. 6). In this new realism human beings are to be taken, from the start, to be comprehended within and to comprehend themselves as comprehended within a real, natural and social world. But “world” here has a distinctive meaning. It is world in the sense of the worlds of baseball and business - and, of course, of science too. World in this sense is not somehow independent of human involvements, but rather that in and with which humans are
involved. Special worlds, such as those of science and sport, arise through special involvements. And “the world” is simply the whole structure of those involvements, the indefinitely extending, open-textured field of possibilities within which human beings interact with other beings, events, and processes in their many perceptual, communal, and historical ways. It is what Dilthey and Husserl called the “life-world”.
Scientists, then in Grene’s words, are just “real people trying, like other creatures, to solve problems presented to them by some aspect of the world that specially concerns them.” (1985, p. 2). To be sure, these problems have come to be defined by the general interests and expectations and the particular research traditions specific to Western science. These constitute the scientific world or worlds. But in the course of inquiry, in and for such historically contingent orientations, new features and structures of the world are disclosed. Any disclosure or comprehension of the world is orientational - that is, it can take place only in some respect, for some contingent bodily, social and historical standpoint. Our ordinary dealings with the world, ordinary perception and action, already show this character. Perceived things cannot be given to us at all save for or from some particular spatio-temporal situation and, at the same time, because things are so given, they invite our further perceptive and active dealings with them. Perceptual perspectives disclose what we call “objective” features of things only because each is from some limited point of view which connects in a coherent way with other limited points of view. It can be no different in the sciences. Thus, the world for natural science is not to be thought to be some world “behind”, “beyond”, or “other than” the world in which humans ordinarily live; rather it just is that common, environing life-world explored, interpreted, disclosed, and enriched in specifically scientific terms.
Now, however, one can begin to appreciate the full dimensions of the shift in thinking which Grene’s approach demands. Her view can only be expressed by using a distinctive family of concepts such as “involvement”, “being-in”, and above all, “world”; and as we have found, the concepts of “orientation”, “environment”, “life-world”, and of “life” itself are not far behind. What Marjorie Grene has seen, and has urged with more incisiveness than anyone else, is that in order for the sort of realism she is calling a “comprehensive realism” to be understood - in order for it to find conceptual room - it will be necessary to reinstate life, or better, living, as an irreducible mode of being. This has nothing to do with reviving vitalisin, or, on the other hand, with founding philosophy on biology. It doesn’t even have to do with the philosophy of biology, strictly speaking. It has everything to do with the critical thesis, á la Kant, that the Cartesian ontological dualism - by admitting no mediation between the world of physics and the experience of human subjects - has created an impossible epistemological predicament, and that only an ontological framework giving living beings their due will provide an adequate account of the conditions for possible experience or possible science. This is because living organisms, and in particular animals, not only define a level of reality “between” mentality and the physical, but
because the very process of living, and in particular animal behavior, is itself a process of mediation between them: The responsive activity of an animal in its environment is just the sort of “being-in” or “inhabiting” a world which we need to understand in order to understand human knowing.
It is this evocation of life at the center of being and knowing which is, I think, Marjorie Grene’s most distinctive contribution to philosophy of science. In one of her earliest papers dating from 1947, we find her arguing that both the Cartesian “separation of men and brutes” and the Hobbesian virtual “identification of the desires of men and brutes” are wrong, and that we need to understand how humans are both like and unlike plants and animals which, in turn, are both like and unlike physical and chemical systems (1947).
In a later essay of 1974, she exclaims that “to put finally to rest our Newtonian delusion, to renew our conception of nature as living, and so to see ourselves once more as living beings, constitutes, it seems to me, the major task of philosophy in the twentieth century.” (1964, p. 173). And in the as yet unpublished introduction to a collection of essays in her honor she reflects that her effort throughout has been of a piece with those who have sought to “... ground knowledge in life, in human existence as one form of animal existence... ((to)) reflect about fundamental problems of knowledge, of action, of being, within our place in nature, and, within that place, in culture.” (1984, p. 7). It is this effort that has motivated her virtually from the beginning and has led her to find common ground in the ontologies of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, the epistemology of Polanyi, the various continental ethologies and anthropologies, and in Gibson’s psychology as well, notwithstanding their considerable differences and many limitations. And it is this effort which we must come to understand if we are to understand the center of her thought.
In doing so, two issues require attention. The first is how life, or better, living, is to be described - how we are to understand what one might call the phenomenon of life. The second concerns the role of this phenomenon; that is, how the “primacy of life”, as Grene, in one place, puts her thesis, is to be understood (1984, p. 6). As for the first, the characterization of life is not a matter of making some absolute “cut” between the living and the non-living. Nor is it one having to do with the physical basis of life, although there will be implications for interpreting this. Rather, as Grene believes Aristotle saw, and as more recent philosophical biologists such as Plessner and Portmann have emphasized, it is a question of exhibiting life as a distinctive form of order among beings, a distinctive way of being and being - together with other beings (1972, pp. 89-92; 1974a, p. 226; 1969a, pp. 3-54; 1967b; 1966b). Living is preeminently an affair of a sort of behavior, indeed of the presence of “behavior” in any meaningful sense at all. Every living being, for example, seems to orient itself in some way to the world, to shape it, and to be shaped by it. Animals and, by plausible extrapolation, plants, are centers of activity in and for their worlds in a manner different from that of typically physical entities, but without being self-conscious or explicitly intentional about it. And the worlds of animals and plants, without
becoming in any nasty sense “subjective”, are structured by features having a bearing on the distinctive activities of those animals and plants. The very notions of “orientation” and “activity,” of “centeredness”, and of “world-relatedness”, as I earlier noted, seem to have their primary meaning in reference to living things. Living beings-in-their-worlds, moreover, are historically contingent beings, although, at the same time, they show considerable stability and typicality. Their behaviors have become institutionalized as species-specific skills and, in the higher animals, as social practices, which are typically effective in their worlds. And these types of beings-in-their-worlds nest into one another in multiple ecological ways, forming an indefinitely extending, interconnected, multileveled field of life-worlds. This wide and varied field of life-worlds is what constitutes the “phenomenon of life”,
As for the thesis of the “primacy of life”, it seems simply to be that it is in the midst of living beings as we have just characterized them that human beings are found, and that it is as a form of living being - although as Plessner put it, as an “eccentric” form - that humans are primarily to be understood. To be sure, human beings are gifted (or cursed) with a capacity (the inevitability?) to de-center their life-worlds and to live through their times and places, feelings and social relations, in varied, imaginative and symbolic ways. Among these ways, of course, is science itself. But these freer, cultural creations are still forms of orientation to the world. “All knowing,” Grene can say, “is orientation.” (in Polanyi 1969). The point for philosophy of science is that, by viewing human knowing in this way, one can come to recognize that “Scientific investigations and extrascientific explorations alike begin with the use of the organism’s perceptual systems, move to higher levels of abstraction through processes analogous to perception, and return to perception, or instrument-mediated extensions of perception, for their substantiation.” (1985, p. 3). And by pursuing this likeness, one should be able to show that, while scientific objectivity is an imaginative artifact, its principles - its demands for theoretical simplicity and coherence, for example, and for ever - extensible empirical application - are grounded in an impersonal, animal, perceptual objectivity through which we directly deal with the world. One would, in this way, be able to liberate one’s epistemology from Cartesianism. One would be able to “ground knowledge in life”. (1984, p. 7).
Now clearly - at least, clearly to me, the effort to provide such a grounding is terribly important. But it is also terribly precarious. For such a grounding of science in life must inevitably turn back upon itself in the sciences of life. Everything depends, it seems, on the ontological status of what I have called the “phenomenon of life”. Two sorts of questions arise: First, questions about whether, in fact, living beings are best understood in terms of this phenomenon or whether, as the dominant tradition of philosophical and scientific thought has held, the phenomenon is merely that, a phenomenon, an accident of description at an intermediate level of physical size and in anthropomorphic terms. The second is the intimately related meta-question, that is, how one is to adjudicate the first
question: In the face of continuous controversy over the proper understanding of living beings, how is one to justify insisting on the ultimate authenticity or validity of that phenomenon?
Questions of the first sort appear directly within the biological sciences. If the “primacy of life” thesis is correct - if human being, human activity, and scientific activity in particular, are forms of life, where life is understood as Grene and others have described it, then many, perhaps most of the prevailing scientific accounts of life must be mistaken, or, if correct, misinterpreted, since they are, or seem to be, incompatible with it. It is clear that reductive approaches in genetics have dominated the field just as a different, but analogous reductivisin has long dominated evolutionary theory. Both, as Grene insists, are rooted, in principle, in a one-leveled ontology in terms of what we now understand to be physics and chemistry. They share the conviction that explanations at this level are or will be sufficient to account for all of the phenomena of life and that, ontologically speaking, these phenomena are, or will be, eliminable in a comprehensive and unified science of the material world. If the “primacy of life” thesis is correct, however, these claims must either be false or true only in some quite restricted sense. Again and again, Marjorie Grene has attacked these tendencies of thought. She has sought to show that reducibility is, in her words, “a side issue”, arising, in part, from a misleading “deductivist” mentality in philosophy of science (1971).
She has argued that a multi-leveled ontology - including some distinctive concept of biological organization - is in fact necessary in order to understand molecular-genetic explanation and is needed for evolutionary theory as well (l967a, 1958, l974a). And, in the face of what she calls the “lingering authority of the machine analogy”, she has defended the essentially telic character of living things (1964, pp. 178-179; 1972; 1966a). These are clearly positions of the sort that must be maintained if the “primacy of life”, in Grene’s sense, is to be accepted.
The most fundamental issue, however, is the meta-philosophical one, namely, what, in the final analysis, is the basis for insisting on the primacy - on the ontological primacy - of life? Where does Marjorie get her nerve, after all? By what right, as Kant might ask, does she, or anyone else not technically involved in scientific work, take positions which seem to contradict such long-standing tendencies of thought? Of course, the issues at stake are not narrowly biological, they are also philosophical; they have to do with the heuristic orientation and critical interpretation of science; they are fair game for knowledgeable and thoughtful philosophical argument. To refute molecular reductionism, for example, Grene adduces accepted biological facts, points to unacknowledged assumptions, and charges inconsistency, all in standard philosophical style (1967a, pp. 44-52). More power to her! But what, at bottom, is the basis for her confidence that she is right? The answer, I think, is one of the things that gives her philosophy its special force and its special riskiness. Marjorie Grene is a philosopher of science of a rare and precious sort: She does not see the philosophic role to be that of the Lockean or positivistic “underlaborer” who simply clears away conceptual rubbish or constructs categoreal scaffolding so that the work of the practicing scientist may stand gloriously by itself. On
the contrary, she holds, I believe, that there are normative constraints upon science which are derived not simply from logic, but, broadly, from human experience - experience of a sort more fundamental and pervasive than that exercised in the special sciences. Near the close of her book, A Portrait of Aristotle, she had already expressed the point very clearly:
Life, we surmise, at least life as we know it on this earth, is but a tiny accident of chemistry on a tiny speck in a world among countless worlds. Why magnify it? The answer is: because we are it, and the only place to begin thinking is where we are. And we are... in the midst of life. Not only evolution, but embryology, comparative anatomy, common experience itself if unperverted by Cartesian prejudices, show us our kinship with all living things. This is a common ground, broad enough for generalization, narrow enough for some degree of empathy, from which to consider who and what we are, what and how we can know of the realities about us. (1963, p. 228).
I take this to mean very simply that before human beings engage in any science, they know some things about nature - about themselves and the beings with which they interact. “Know” not in the sense of Cartesian certainty, but in the sense of shared and tested experience. One task of a philosopher of science is to bring forth those things, to explicate them, and to confront the sciences with them, like it or not. And among the things we know, if only in a tacit way, is life - not simply that we are alive, but what it is to be alive. Of course, this does not mean that we know, before any science, such things as the chemistry of life, or the many forms of life, their origins or history. But we do know “what life is” in the sense of its form or structure as lived through, by us and by at least some kindred living beings. We know the outlines, at least, of what I’ve called the phenomenon of life. Simply because we are alive and are in the midst of life, in so far as we reflect at all, we experience ourselves as living beings in a world of other beings, among them living beings. Because this experience is so widely shared and so fundamental, it quite properly has a strong presumptive truth; indeed, as Merleau-Ponty put it, it defines the basis of truth for us in the sense that it is paradigmatic for other truths, and in particular for the truths of the sciences. We should thus be able, as we saw earlier, to understand scientific knowing as itself a form of life. But, just as fundamentally, the upshot for the content of science would be this - that no scientific account which fails to incorporate the experience of life - in the requisite sense - can be adequate. Or put positively: Any adequate science must understand human being, and living beings generally, in such a way as to be coherent with this fundamental experience, that is, with the phenomenon of life. This is just what all forms of physical reductionism fail to do (1967a, p. 44; 1971, p. 55).
Now I confess that I have not anywhere found Marjorie Grene putting her methodological cards on the table in quite this way. But I believe that such an account, or something very like it, has to be the basis of her critical approach to biology and to philosophy of science generally. Throughout, she has sought to remind us of our experience of ourselves as living-beings-in-a-world-among-other-
living-beings and to examine the contours and implications of this experience. This philosophical project defines an entire program of investigation which Grene believes is crucial for the human and life sciences and for the philosophy of science generally (1969a). For example, we need to explore the convergences between accounts of the structures of the life-world provided by phenomenology, ecological psychology, ethology, and anthropology. For, while the core experience of what it is to be a living being may be widely shared and well-founded, its meaning is not fully clear. It needs careful separation from misleading associations and inadequate descriptions. And it needs to be critically elaborated and revised through following its detailed application to aspects of human perception and social interaction as well as to diverse animal life-worlds. In such a project, philosophical analysis and scientific case study are delicately inter-dependent - precisely as in F.J.J. Buytendijk’s and Helmuth Plessner’s examinations of the distinguishing features of living things as perceived objects, in Konrad Lorenz’s and Adolf Portmann’s interpretations of animal social behavior, and in Merleau-Ponty’s, Erwin Strauss’s, and J.J. Gibson’s studies of orientational space perception. Much further work of this sort is necessary. What Marjorie Grene has shown, however, is how philosophically fundamental and fascinating this whole project can be. Speaking as one struggling counter-Cartesian, post-Postivist philosopher - and, at the same time, I believe, speaking for many others - I am proud to confess myself immensely in her debt.
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