Insights of “living body”: towards a biological phenomenology?

1. Phenomenological “insights”: Merleau-Ponty and Patočka

Not by chance, in Notes de Cours 1959-1961 concerning the interrogation about the status of the contemporary philosophy, Merleau-Ponty examines in depth the XXIIIº appendix of Husserl’s The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Philosophy. Just here, Husserl goes into the merits of a deep reflection on the role of biology among sciences and philosophy, noticing that it constitutes a sort of guide for humanity. Indeed, as for him, the life manifests its essence only through the “self-understanding of its biological dimension”. This way, the biology could be conceived as the only means by which the animal could have a sense.

Furthermore, Husserl specifies, in opposition to Physics and Mathematics that appear “threatened” by the incomprehension concerning their logical and theoretical constructions, biology seems to escape from this kind of imprisonment. Indeed, since the primary aim of biology is that of describing natural phenomena, from the beginning it discards the possibility to become an abstract construction totally disconnected from ingenuous evidences and previous intuitions. In that sense, inasmuch theory of Lebenswelt, biology could never become a “science of artifacts” like, on the contrary, both mathematics and physics appear to be. Definitively, due to its nearness at the early sources of the primary evidences of the Life-World, biology maintains itself within the level of mere “generality”.

In my opinion, the merleau-pontyan interrogation about the living body and his primary concern regarding the presence of a strict relationship between biology and philosophy, must be thought as deep-rooted in the Husserl’s considerations of biology mentioned above. As we can see, indeed, in the Notes de Cours 1959-1961 Merleau-Ponty takes into account the questioning about the role of biology and its theories of living organisms, in the context of the foundation of a new ontology of nature which is capable to explain the living body as a conjunction of physis and logos, matter and spirit, nature and reason.

Elsewhere, Merleau-Ponty states that biology also reveals something about the embodiment of conscience, whereby our body becomes Leib. This way, like for Husserl, as for Merleau-Ponty biology acquires a fundamental ontological meaning: “Is the universe of Physic to be wrapped up in that of life, not vice versa. And since that (the universe) of life is wrapped up in that of the human being, the conscious biology tends towards philosophy. ”1

Also Gilbert Simondon, as we know, achieves the importance of the role played by biology in the context of a global epistemological interrogation about the living being’s cognitive life. Really, in the Cours sur la Perception (1964-1965), with regards to Merleau-Ponty’s conception of perception, Simondon declares:

Les théories phénoménologiques de la perception, particulièrement celle de Merleau-Ponty en France, se rattachent à la recherche de cette compréhension de l’activité perceptive comme une fonction d’ensemble qui s’intègre elle-même dans une existence du sujet inséré dans le monde, selon la perspective organismique de Goldstein ; elles sont assez larges, et n’excluent ni le rôle de l’attitude d’attente du sujet, en rapport avec les conditions sociales et le motivations, ni l’élargissement dans le sens d’une psychologie biologique qui veut découvrir l’univers perceptif de chaque espèce et trouver ce par quoi chaque activité perceptive prend sens dans une situation, selon les dimensions de la défense, de l’agression, de la quête de nourriture, de l’exploration, de la sexualité, comme cherche à le faire von Uexküll. Ces théories contemporaines seront rencontrées ultérieurement ; leur trait commun est d’aborder l’étude de la perception par l’appréhension d’un certain nombre d’effets, au sens que les sciences physiques et biologiques donnent à ce terme, et de considérer le perçu à travers les valences que les situations impliquent.2

Through these words, as we can see, Simondon seems to put himself on the wake of Merleau-Ponty analysis of perception and its main attempt to consider the perceptual structure of a the living body as the real epistemological fundament of our visions and representations of the World (namely, the scientific knowledge).

Indeed, as Simondon announces in his works, the perception should be conceived as an advantaged modality by which the living being interacts (in an active way) with the World. Thus, what Simondon would mean — as Barbaras writes — is that we should analyze our perception from the point of view of its biological and informative significations and powers.3

Actually, as I’ll show, both the analysis of the living body outlined by Merleau-Ponty and Patočka seem to offer a very important contribution to the inquiries on the living beings worked out in the context of the area of contemporary biology that is interesting in founding a pertinent theory of living organisms. In particular, I will refer to the recent works of Giuseppe Longo,4 Francis Bailly,5 Maël Montévil6 and Nicole Perret,7 projected in drawing a new scientific paradigm for the description of living being’s biological dispositions and behaviours. Indeed, as I’ll show, their works disclose a new epistemological openness concerning the explanation of some pre-conscious and biological functions.

However, before going into the merit of their analysis (2), I will briefly point out some main issues arising from the phenomenological descriptions of the living body outlined in Merleau-Ponty and Patočka’s works.

1.1. Merleau-Ponty: the living being as perceptual flesh

In modern natural sciences the living being is understood as a mere physical object and analyzed through the methods of reductionism.

Actually, if we put attention to Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of living being, we’ll see that its main task consists in the attempt to unify the scientific interrogation with a new epistemological perspective, which may be resumed in this way: «how much» the biological level of our living corporeity may be considered as strictly intertwined with the cognitive power to grasp the surrounding world?

In Le Concept de Nature, Merleau-Ponty claims that the science, as though philosophy, must be thought as a field of our experience, since it succeeds in opening a way through the being, allowing us to better understand some articulations and perspectives of things and of their way of being in the world.

Le recours à la science n’a pas besoin d’être justifié : quelque conception qu’on se fasse de la philosophie, elle a à élucider l’expérience, et la science est un secteur de notre expérience, soumis certes par l’algorithme a un traitement très particulier, mais où, d’une façon ou de l’autre, il y a rencontre de l’être, si bien qu’il est impossible de la récuser par avance sous prétexte qu’elle travaille dans la ligne de certains préjugés ontologiques : si ce sont des préjugés, la science elle-même, dans son vagabondage à travers l’être, trouvera bien l’occasion de les récuser. L’être se fraye passage à travers la science comme à travers toute vie individuelle. À interroger la science, la philosophie gagnera de rencontrer certaines articulations de l’être qu’il lui serait plus difficile de déceler autrement.8

Actually, what Merleau-Ponty is saying here, is that the perceived World represents the common space within which philosophy and science meet: in other words, the World as perceived symbolizes the ontological condition of its own intelligibility and translatability. Otherwise said, the World as perceived symbolizes the ontological possibility of its epistemological understanding.

Actually, at a sharper look, the main effort carried out by Merleau-Ponty’s œuvre is the attempt to found a new science starting from a new epistemological as well as ontological perspective: the primacy of the sensible experience of a living body as a pre-given and natural fact. This is exactly what leads Merleau-ponty to wonder about the role of the bodily perception in scientific description of the world until then. In a certain sense, he thinks of the living body as the fundament of normativity in scientific constructions.

Throughout the courses on the concept of Nature, where he takes the contemporary sciences into account, wondering what is the role of the body and of the living matter coming from the descriptions of time, space and movement,9 Merleau-Ponty thinks of an idea of time, space and movement as they are perceived within the situation of an observer. In this context, the “situation of an observer” refers to the point of view of the perceptual experience of one’s own body.

[…] la critique scientifique des formes d’espace et de temps dans les métriques non euclidiennes et la physique de la relativité nous apprend à rompre avec la notion commune d’un espace et d’un temps sans référence à la situation de l’observateur, et nous prépare à donner tout leur sens ontologique a certaines descriptions de l’espace et du temps perçus, — espace et temps polymorphes, dont le sens commun et la science ne retiennent que quelques traits.10

The discovery concerning the primacy of the perceptual experience of the body and the need to reintroduce the body of the living being into the scientific remarks on time, space and movement,11 will lead Merleau-Ponty to recognize the necessity of thinking of a new ontological theory of the living being and of its relationship with Nature. As for him, indeed, the living organism should be considered an integrated as well as irreducible part of the physical Nature.

Since all the things — Merleau-Ponty claims — are characterized at first by the structure of their body, the universe of the physics appears connected to the universe of life and the later by the World of the living beings: in that sense — he adds — the conscious biology tends towards the philosophy. Actually, in my opinion, through these words Merleau-Ponty is effectively presenting a new epistemological point of view.

Hereinafter, I will focus on the following main topics worked out by Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of nature: the conception of living being as flesh and the notion of body scheme.

As for Merleau-Ponty, a new description of living body is necessary not only in order to found a new ontology of living being; actually, at a sharper look, his analysis of living body represents the starting point of a new physical theory of space, time, movement and, even more in general, of natural being.

In particular, the perceptual body symbolizes both the ontological and the epistemological fundament of the relationship between the living organism and Nature: starting from the situation of the perceptual body as fleshly prolongation of the World, indeed, the living being may be conceived as integrated part of it.

As we know, Merleau-Ponty describes the tissue of our body, the flesh, as something that can’t be reduced and identified with no earlier epistemological or ontological category (subject/object; spirit/matter). Actually, the concept of flesh to which Merleau-Ponty refers to has no correspondence of meaning with any previous paradigm in philosophy.

As Merleau-Ponty notes in Le visible e l’invisible, the totality of flesh that makes up our living organism

n’est pas matière, dans le sens de corpuscules d’être qui s’additionneraient ou se continueraient pur former les être. Le visible (les choses comme mon corps) n’est pas non plus je ne sais quel matériau « physique » qui serait, Dieu sait comment, amené à l’être par des choses existant en fait et agissant sur mon corps de fait. D’une façon générale, il n’est pas fait, ou somme de faits « matériels », ni « spirituels ». […] La chair n’est pas matière, n’est pas esprit, n’est pas substance.12

Throughout Le visible e l’invisible, Merleau-Ponty points out an idea of sensible body as flesh and awards it an essential ontological meaning: the flesh of the world is indivision of this sensible Being that I am and all the rest which feels itself in me, pleasure-reality indivision.

Consequently, the living body becomes the “vehicle” between the depth of one’s body and other sensible things, and the perceived world becomes the final product of the living being’s relationship of proximity or distance respect to all the rest.

On comprend alors pourquoi, à la fois, nous voyons les choses elles-mêmes, en leurs lieu, où elles sont, selon leur être qui est bien plus que leur être-perçu, et à la fois nous sommes éloignés d’elles de toute l’épaisseur du regard et du corps : c’est que cette distance n’est pas le contraire de cette proximité, elle est profondément accordée avec elle, elle en est synonyme. C’est que l’épaisseur de chair entre le voyant et la chose est constitutive de sa visibilité à elle comme de sa corporéité à lui ; ce n’est pas un obstacle entre lui et elle, c’est leur moyen de communication. […] L’épaisseur du corps, loin de rivaliser avec celle du monde, est au contraire le seul moyen que j’ai d’aller au cœur des choses, en me faisant monde et en les faisant chair.


Le corps nous unit directement aux choses par sa propre ontogenèse, en soudant l’une à l’autre les deux ébauches dont il se fait, ses deux lèvres : la masse sensible qu’il est et la masse du sensible où il nait par ségrégation, et à laquelle, comme voyant, il reste ouvert.13

As stated above, the representation of the sensible flesh as a kind of ontological tissue interposed between us and the world — and elsewhere described as homogeneous tactile tissue able to encompass the one and the other — allows us to reconsider and reduce the distance between the measuring and the measured, the macrophysics and the microphysics, the perceiver and the perceived: finally, the living being and Nature should no longer be conceived in a dualistic or bi-dimensional view.

The description of the perceptual bodies as écarts coming from the “feuillet ontologique de la Nature”, allows Merleau-Ponty to review the biology of the living beings from a perspective that is neither deterministic nor reductionist:

à propos de la Nature, il s’agissait de l’étudier comme feuillet ontologique — et, en particulier, de la vie, il s’agissait d’étudier le dédoublement du feuillet de la Nature — à propos de l’homme, il s’agit de le prendre à son point d’émergence dans la Nature. […] II s’agit de saisir l’humanité d’abord comme une autre manière d’être corps — de voir émerger l’humanité aussi comme Être en filigrane, non comme une autre substance comme interêtre et non comme imposition d’un pour soi a un corps en soi.14

As Merleau-Ponty notes, indeed, a spatial conception of the natural being and a vision totally extensive of the world, in which every element has a peculiar situation and only one localization (as Laplace’s Physics denotes), actually excludes the idea of becoming and of developing of the living being. The idea of a sujet incarné, Merleau-Ponty adds, is necessary to understand “le microscope et la microphysique”: only by means of the perceptual body I realize “que dans l’ordre statistique il y a désordre”, that the reality “comprend une série infinie de grandeurs” and finally, that the being “n’est pas composé d’éléments”.15

Besides, the ontogenetic processes concerning the constitution of the Leib cannot be explained through mere chemical-physical measures. Against the classical mechanistic and deterministic representations of the world, the perceived world appears characterized by discontinuity, probability and generality, in relation to which every being “n’est pas astreint à un emplacement unique et actuel, à une absolue densité d’être”.16

Rather, the perceptual experience of space should be expressed in terms of “spatialité de situation”:

[…] le corps propre est le troisième terme, toujours sous-entendu, de la structure figure et fond, et toute figure se profile sur le double horizon de l’espace extérieur et de l’espace corporel.


On voit mieux, en considérant le corps en mouvement, comment il habite l’espace (et d’ailleurs le temps) parce que le mouvement ne se contente pas de subir l’espace et le temps, il les assume activement, il les reprend dans leur signification originelle qui s’efface dans la banalité des situations acquises.17

Thus, throughout the action of the body-scheme, which is able to assure “l’ancrage du corps actif dans un objet, la situation du corps en face de ses tâches”,18 the living being appears deeply intertwined with the contingency, the instability and the variability that characterize the physical world and the environment around it. Definitively, the only way through which one can come out of the impasse of an artificial representation of the world is to focus attention on the “entrelacement ontologique de la physis et du logos”.19

1.2. Merleau-Ponty: the body scheme

Merleau-Ponty considers the living being and human behavior in terms of emerging properties that arise from the perceptual structure of the body scheme. Actually, the aesthesiological structure of the human body cannot be considered “une somme d’événements microscopiques instantanés et ponctuels”, but rather as a macrophenomenon that comes from the complex organization of all the organ-instruments.

[…] la vue globale, spatialement et temporellement, n’en est pas un épiphénomène; l’organisme n’est pas une somme d’événements microscopiques instantanés et ponctuels; il est phénomène-enveloppe, il a une allure d’ensemble, macroscopique. Entre les faits microscopiques se dessine la réalité globale en filigrane, jamais saisissable pour la pensée objectivant-corpusculaire, jamais éliminable ou réductible au microscopique : on n’avait qu’un peu de gelée protoplasmique et l’on a un embryon par une transformation à laquelle on n’assiste pas, toujours avant ou après, par investissement dans un champ biologique.


L’organisme n’est pas seulement sa réalité locale-instantanée, pour une pensée proximale, ni d’ailleurs une autre réalité. II est « phénomène-enveloppe », macroscopique, que l’on n’engendre pas à partir des éléments, qui investit le local-instantané, qui n’est pas à chercher derrière, mais entre les éléments.20

As stated in Notes de cours du Collège de France, the living body is described in terms of an inter-sensorial totality, wherein all the movements realize a synchronized system characterized by simultaneity and ongoing successions.

[…] le corps est une chose sensible, mais dont les mouvements forment de soi un système dans le simultané et le successif, — non seulement une masse individuelle — einmalig — mais 1) une masse articulée, un système diacritique […].21

Furthemore, the essential distinctions between the living body as phenomenal body and the other physical objects, may be better understood from the following remarks:

  1. the unity of the body scheme is implicit and confused: every part is intertwined with each other ambiguously and unclearly:

L’expérience du corps propre […] nous révèle un mode d’existence ambigu. Si j’essaye de le penser comme un faisceau de processus en troisième personne — vision, motricité, sexualité — je m’aperçois que ces fonctions ne peuvent être liées entre elles et au monde extérieur par de rapports de causalité, elles sont toutes confusément reprises et impliquées dans un drame unique. […] Son unité est toujours implicite et confuse.22

In the course of 1953 entitled Le monde sensible et le monde de l’expression, Merleau-Ponty says that the unity of the body is that of a “coexistence”.23

  1. the movement of the living body is characterized by a complex system of protension and retention actions. In Le monde sensible et le monde de l’expression Merleau-Ponty clearly claims that the unity of the body is that of a praxis.

[…] le schéma corporel et le corps sont situés non où ils sont objectivement, mais là où nous nous disposons à les placer.

[…] L’apraxie comme contre épreuve : absence de ce fond moteur, de ces normes, de ce projet d’une situation, de cette présence du monde à notre corps.

[…] Praxis (= non seulement la production extérieure, mais encore les motifs) = 1) non seulement adaptation à donner, mais préadaptation, a priori de l’organisme […] 2) non seulement utilitaire, mais projection de tout l’homme […]. L’unité du schéma corporel est celle d’une telle praxis et le schéma corporel est le fond impliqué en elle.24

  1. the living organism is understandable in terms of an auto-regulated system that is always adaptable and variable respect to the surrounding environment: the whole system of the sense-organs and segments must be conceived as a global medium of direction and insertion towards and within the world;

  2. the living matter (= the body) is absolutely irreducible to the physical matter (= object): the unity of the body is not that of an object.

Le corps n’est pas objet. Dire qu’il a unité, c’est dire qu’il est synergique, qu’il est nôtre, notre action, notre expression. « Avoir » le corps, ne pas avoir à le « trouver », c’est disposer des pouvoir localisés, c’est vivre le rapport d’un certain style d’action (visant configuration extérieure) avec un certain siège de ces actions. Le rapport action-monde et le rapport moi-mon corps ne font qu’un : le corps me dit parce que les choses lui disent.25

In conclusion, as for Merleau-Ponty, the notion of body-scheme refers to a global set of dispositions that make the realization of the living being as Leib possible. Let me clarify: the body-scheme represents an emerging disposition through which the living being can emerge from its primordial wild being.

Thus, the living being arises from an innate embodiment with the surrounding environment, respect to which we are intertwined thanks to the temporal and perceptual structure of the body-scheme. The body is a “vehicle” of being at the World.26 Throughout the second part of Phénoménologie de la perception, Merleau-Ponty suggests an idea of Leib in terms of ontological weaving of passivity and activity, matter and spirit, subjectivity and nature (wild-being): is through the action of the sense-motor scheme that the living body succeeds in realizing itself both as a biological entity and expressive and linguistic subject.

Les régions principales de mon corps sont consacrées à des actions, elles participent à leur valeur, et c’est le même problème de savoir pourquoi le sens commun met dans la tête le siège de la pensée et comment l’organiste distribue dans l’espace de l’orgue les significations musicales. Mais notre corps n’est pas seulement un espace expressif parmi tous les autres. Ce n’est là que le corps constitué. Il est l’origine de tous les autres, le mouvement même d’expression, ce qui projette au dehors les significations en leur donnant un lieu, ce qui fait qu’elles se mettent à exister comme de choses, sous nos mains, sous nos yeux. Si notre corps ne nous impose pas, comme il le fait à l’animal, des instincts définis dès la naissance, c’est lui du moins qui donne à notre vie la forme de la généralité et qui prolonge en dispositions stables nos actes personnels.27

Moreover, the body-scheme represents the primary condition in order to empower meaning and sense to the living being’s existence. Definitively, the body scheme is the central midpoint of the whole set of the sense-motor as well as cognitive functions: protention, retention, orientedness, situatedness, intentionality, perception, language, feeling, emotion are all fulfilled through the living corporeity, by means of the body as agent.28

1.3. Patočka: the ontological movement

On the wake of Merleau-Ponty, Patočka believes that it would be necessary to turn towards the perceived world and the things as they are grasped through our perception, in order to overcome the theoretical limits deep-rooted within the natural sciences and their objectifying methods. Actually, Merleau Ponty’s description of the living body, manifests a quite important parallelism with Patočka’s idea of body; nonetheless, while Merleau-Ponty expresses the living body essentially in terms of perceptual powers, Patočka conceives the living being’s existence referring to the fundamental aspect of the ontological movement.29

In particular, while Merleau-Ponty focuses on the perceptual flesh as a power to get to the world (ontological foundation) and to enable the body’s functions (epistemological foundation),30 for Patočka what characterizes the living being’s existence is the ontological structure of the bodily movement.

Thus, we can say that Patočka impresses to the phenomenology a new direction respect to that which is represented by Husserl and Merleau-Ponty and their assumption of the primate role of the perceptual body: actually, the new epistemological point of view adopted by Patočka tends to underline the first characterization of a living body in terms of self-situated, self-oriented and self-moving body.

In Phénoménologie et métaphysique du mouvement (1968), Patočka claims:

Le monde, présent dans le corps vivant, s’y ouvre à soi-même, devient phénomène, se prend pour ainsi dire en main, de la manière finie seule possible à la main — morceau par morceau, avec de renvois ; opérant des prises à l’aide de sa corporéité, palpant à l’aide de sa chair, sans toutefois jamais l’intégrer dans une objectivité parfaite. On pourrait donc dire : le fondement des synthèses d’expérience n’est pas un moi transcendantal, mais la subjectivité incarnée. Nous ne sommes pas originellement insérés dans le monde par nos effectuations de pensée, mais par le corps propre, plus précisément en tant que corps subjectif qui ne se résorbe jamais dans la réflexion. C’est lui qui opère les synthèses d’expérience, avant tout en vertu de sa faculté de mouvement propre.31

Nonetheless, Patočka is aware of the importance that the Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of perceptual body comes to assume in reference to the phenomenological inquiry on the body and affirms: “Merleau-Ponty […] met en relief avec une acuité particulière le caractère corporel de l’existence, le corps et le pouvoir sur le corps comme composante originelle, irremplaçable, et source propre de toutes les possibilités de l’existence”.32

Anyway, as for Patočka, the bodily movement represents what makes the living being what it is.33 Thus, in opposition to Heidegger’s existentialism, the Czech philosopher explains the notion of existence just in terms of an ontological movement that is strictly intertwined with the inner power to move deep-rooted in the body,34 and emphasises the idea of an existential movement that is profusely interweaved with one’s own body.

One of the main issues pointed out by Patočka is that the existential movement of life reveals that the living body is a total organization of sense, in which every part and every organ concurs in manifesting the unity of a global “organisation sensée” qui “se prolonge continuellement dans la constitution d’une corporéité vivante, d’un corporel (Körperliches) qui ne peut être compris qu’en étant rapporté à cette activité organisatrice”.35

From these words, we can infer the real sense that the living body assumes in Patočka thought: contrary to a conception of the body as it emerges from the scientific reductionism, it should be represented as the real epistemological fundament of knowledge and way of being into the world. It follows that it is by means of our protensive body that we are able to disclose the meanings of the World as it appears to us.

Or, notre corps propre n’est-il pas lui aussi à appréhender, au principe de cette manière, comme un ensemble organisé, correspondant aux effectuations de sens qui se déroulent en lui, qu’il rend possibles et qui constituent à la fois la condition de sa propre possibilité ? Ne faut-il pas concevoir les sentiments et les émotions, la perception et l’action comme de complexes de sens qui, intégralement conditionnés par le corps propre, organisent la corporéité et la conditionnent à leur tour ? […]

Il doit être littéralement vrai que nous voyons avec nos yeux et entendons avec nos oreilles, c’est-à-dire que nous sommes en tant qu’organisation de sens qui fonctionne dans et en vertu de ces organes. D’autre part, cette organisation de sens est ce qui n’est jamais à saisir en original autrement que dans son accomplissement, ce qui défie toute conception en tant qu’objet, bien qu’elle soit aussi ce qui constitue nécessairement le fondement d’une telle conception.36

By assuming the bodily movement as what concurs in realizing one’s life, Patočka founds the essential distinction between the objectified movement, through which the natural sciences usually explain the physical world, and the ontological movement that represents the fundamental component of living being’s existence and its cognitive development. This distinction, thus, will lead Patočka to infer that the corporeity and its ontological movement constitute the basic fundaments of every living being’s manifestation and meaningful action within our Life-world.

1.4. Patočka: the body as a global praxis arising from dynamic symmetries and orientations

With regards to the idea of ontological movement, Patočka means the corporeal dynamis as a global complex of possibility arising from the inner body but which is actually projected towards the outside world. Thus, our bodily existence is always oriented towards the perceived world. Like Merleau-Ponty, Patočka points out a conception of the living body as situatedness and orientedness.

Moreover, our familiarity with the surrounding things would depend on by our bodily dispositions: namely, orientedness and situatedness.

[…] life in the natural world is a corporeal life (while corporeity is a phenomenal, not an objective, physical corporeity). […] Perceived things in their full givenness are for us normally things given kinestethically and visually, and that means that they are oriented around us with respect to being near and far, within reach and sight. Nearness, however, is not merely an actual perspective on things but primarily being placed among them, familiar with them […].

Orientedness and situatedness point to corporeity; corporeity in this sense means a practical, willing corporeity — only by means of a body, and of a body which we control directly, can we be active in the world, taking a real part in the process of change of what it contains. Corporeity, however, is also an orientation in still another sense: the body with its needs brings it about that life takes itself for a purpose and that the objectivities serve as means to this.37

In Phénoménologie et ontologie du movement (1968-1969), focusing on the discrimination between “living movement” and “lifeless movement” outlined by Max Scheler, Patočka observes that what characterizes the living movement of living beings respect to the lifeless ones, which is typical of physical objects, is the manifestation of a “tendency towards”,38 which appears completely lacking in physical objects. Indeed, with regards to physical objects, we perceive the movement only in terms of a physical “state”, whose interruption would require, in any case, a specific external cause.39 Hereinafter, referring to Scheler’s Philosophischer Anzeiger (1927), Patočka underlines the peculiarity of the living movement as something that results characterized, in every phase, by an inner and implicit “tendency towards”.

Thus, by assuming Scheler’s idea for which the subjective spatiality should be considered as an inner power whereby we are able to act and move within the life-world, Patočka points out the idea that all the scientific paradigms of knowledge must be based on our bodily situatedness and orientedness.

Consequently, Patočka muses about the necessity to think of a new “ontological” conception of space, time and movement, which manifests an essential relationship with our corporeity: that would be to say that the space, time and movement can no longer be conceived as characteristics of the things, but as embodied manifestations arising from our sense-motor corporeity.

L’espace et le temps au sens ontologique conditionnent le savoir a priori qu’on a du fait que le monde se décompose en forme — espace/temps au sens ontique — et contenu, remplissement concret. Le remplissement concret n’est pas immuable, mais intégralement processuel. Qu’en est-il de la forme ? Elle non plus n’est pas nécessairement immuable, comme le montre la physique relativiste moderne — elle n’est pas quelque chose d’absolument constant, étranger au monde physique ; au contraire, elle est en relation avec le contenu concret, elle en est une conséquence — le contenu choisit en quelque sorte, requiert, impose sa propre forme (espace courbe — courbure «par», en fonction de la présence de la matière !)^[40]

Le corps relève autant du domaine des possibilités propres que du problème de la spatialité propre. Le corps est existentiellement l’ensemble des possibilités que nous ne choisissons pas, mais que dans lesquelles nous nous insérons, des possibilités pour lesquelles nous ne sommes pas libres, mais que nous devons être. Cela ne signifie pas qu’elles n’aient pas le caractère de l’existence, c’est-à-dire de ce qui m’est imposé dans son unicité et que je dois assumer et réaliser. Mais c’est seulement sur leur fondement que nous sont ouvertes le possibilités libre.

[…] Mes possibilités sont des possibilités d’exister au monde, possibilités de me mouvoir, de me protéger, d’habiter, de me nourrir […]. Je suis à l’origine déclos pour moi-même non seulement comme existence, mais d’ores et déjà comme existence au monde, existence corporelle, la corporéité n’ayant pas ici une signification ontique mais ontologique […]. Ce qui est premier, primordial, n’est donc rien de contingent, rien d’ontique, mais a, en tant que possibilités première, le statut ontologique de base de toute existence. C’est dire qu’il ne s’agit d’une possibilité parmi d’autres, mais bien d’une possibilité privilégiés qui codéterminera dans son sens l’existence en son entier. Cette base ontologique, c’est la corporéité comme possibilité de se mouvoir.40

The main peculiarity of the ontological movement of one’s living body, Patočka affirms, is that the whole multiplicity of its components, characterized by interruptions and discontinuity phases, may be achieved as “act of an unitary movement”, since it belongs to a singular individual life conceived as the primary field of every kind of manifestations, expectations, purposes and global synthesis. Especially as for that, in Phénoménologie et ontologie du mouvement, Patočka states:

L’unité du mouvement ne requiert pas nécessairement l’unité d’un trajet ininterrompu — de fait, le trajet est toujours discontinu -, mais bien plutôt ce qui rend l’acte du mouvement unitaire, ininterrompu, serait-ce dans des étapes discontinues. Chez Aristote, aussi, cette unité n’est pas donnés dans le trajet, mais à vrai dire dans le telos, dans l’entelechia. On peut dire bien sûr que, là où le trajet est discontinu/pluriel, il y a nécessairement une pluralité de mouvements dans le cadre d’un seul, englobant.41

Moreover, in Leçons sur la corporéité (1968-1969), Patočka emphasizes the role of self-orientation for the living organisms and outlines a conception of living corporeity in terms of a global power through which we may exist and act as living bodies.

Furthermore, showing a very strong appreciation towards the conception of body scheme pointed out by Merleau-Ponty in Phenomenology of perception, Patočka stresses the usually tendency of one’s living body to assume, by means of its single part, a position of “protention forwards” and writes:

Mes bras sont des lignes dynamiques dirigées vers l’avant, pour agir ; la tendance vers l’avant relève de la frontalité de l’organisme en général […]. La symétrie du corps est elle aussi un caractère dynamique qui s’impose de manière fondamentale. […] Le schéma corporel est continuellement, sinon en mouvement, du moins en état de tension : la station debout, la position allongée, la posture assise, la marche, l’appui, le port, etc., sont des modifications dans lesquelles la corporéité se maintient comme une même dynamique propre, dirigée vers le monde.


Il s’agit d’un mouvement au sens dont parlait Aristote, définit par un d’où-vers où et dont l’essence est la possibilité qui, sans être encore réalité pleine et entière, est en passe de la devenir.42

“Notre existence” — adds Patočka — “est essentiellement corporel, incarnée, et notre corps propre en tant que corps vivant, corps capable de se mouvoir, corps sur lequel nous avons pouvoir, est le fondement de tout vie d’expérience. […] notre existence est de telle espèce, non seulement que le mouvement lui appartient par essence, mais qu’elle est par toute sa nature, mouvement”.43

In Le « point de départ subjectif » et la biologie objective de l’homme (1955), wherein Patočka deals with the relationship between the “biological situation of the human organism” and the scientific descriptions of the natural sciences, Patočka underscores that every mechanism of description and of giving information offered by science, at last supposes an irreducible “finalité humaine”, represented by our living organism.

La cybernétique s’annonce comme successeur de la mécanique, la théorie des amplificateurs pourra prendre la relève de la cybernétique, etc. Cela dit, il importe de nous rendre compte que toute machine — qu’il s’agisse d’un calculateur, d’un appareil de radio ou d’autre chose — présuppose une finalité humaine, qu’elle est rapportée au contexte des moyens humains en vue des fins de l’organisme humain. […] Tout discours portant sur des machines présuppose non seulement cette structure en général, mais encore la propriété spécifiquement humaine qui tient à ce que la vie humain élabore son matériel à des fins historiquement diverses, dans des situations historiquement variables. […] Le fait de considérer l’homme une machine, un calculateur ou un appareil de radio, ne nous dispense pas de poser la question de la donation de la finalité humaine, finalité qui doit être donnée de concert avec la structure immédiate de notre information. Alors qu’une machine a au bout du compte notre finalité et que nous n’avons à nous soucier que de la manière dont elle sert à ces fins, du mécanisme pur comme tel, nous ne pouvons-nous dispenser, là où il y va de l’homme, de poser la question de la donation. Il n’y a pas de doute que l’information en tant que donnée immédiate, ne soit, de part en part, pénétrée de cette finalité qui est la nôtre.44

Likewise, within the Conférences de Louvain (1965), Patočka deals with the main concern about the problem of objectification of the Life-World upcoming with the modern natural science. The question of the objectification of the physical World, Patočka notes, founds itself on the possibility to “réduire progressivement la marge de différences qu’on découvre par procédés concrets de comparaison et de mesure, et de passer ainsi à la limite. Les conceptions identiques qu’elle (l’objectivation) construit de la sorte sont donc les limites d’un processus concret d’approximation”.45

The processes of idealization that the science brings forwards by means of its abstracts constructions, nonetheless, factually eliminate the living body from the context of every discussions. Actually, at a sharper look, we should consider the analysis of living being as something that could lead us towards a better consideration of the importance that our living bodies play as for the global understanding and vision of the world.

Definitively, we must conceive us not as passive spectators of the Life-World, but as co-constitutive and historical patterns of it.

2. the “living state of matter”: scientific remarks concerning the living bodies

It is unexpected as much as amazing to discover that, within some current scientific reviews concerning the interrogation about the “living state of matter” and directed to sketch a pertinent theory of it, we can find lots of correspondences with the phenomenological insights disclosed by Merleau-Ponty and Patočka. In particular, my attention will go over the main topics pointed out in Longo, Bailly, Montévil and Perret’s works, focused on the effort to draw new scientific paradigms.

As stated in Longo, Baily and Montévil works, indeed, the living matter manifests processes, structures and dispositions very atypical and not completely explicable by means of Physics and Mathematics laws. In this sense, in reference to a kind of biology that has not a tendency to a sterile Physicalism, they speak about a “borderline case” science, wherein we can find a very few numbers of limit-notions and formalized frames.

Indeed, since from the embryogenesis status, the living being appears characterized by proliferation phenomena with variability and instability (which are depending on phylogenetic, ontogenetic and environmental factors), multi-differentiation cellular, asymmetries, disorder, symmetry breakings and extended critical transitions, the living matter seems to escape from the possibility to be supported by a coherent Physics theory.

Thus, it seems that there is no possibility to determine “mathematically” and a priori the biological matter and its complex functioning that characterizes the living entities. In other words, the living matter appears too variable and polymorph to be thought “abstractly” or to be “summarized” through formalized theories.

2.1. “Self-organized criticality”: the specificity of life phenomena’s organization

In From Physics to biology by extending criticality and symmetry breakings (2011), Longo and Montévil point out that the living entities cannot be considered as “just” physical processes. In fact, in opposition to physical processes that are characterized by the preservation of their own conservation laws during transformations (they make reference to physical symmetries like “time translations”, “space rotations”), life phenomena are essentially associated to continuous different changes of symmetries and behaviors.

Actually, this leads them to put in evidence one of the main differences between biological and physical objects:46 respect to the latter ones, the former are characterized by an inner tendency to symmetry breakings and continual transitions of phases. In that sense, they refer to life phenomena in terms of “self-organized criticality”.

Thus, since with regards to biological entities, it seems that their global structural stability is associated to variability and “permanent changes of symmetry” rather than the maintaining of mathematical invariants frames (obtained by symmetries), clearly emerges the necessity of applying a different mathematical/physical paradigm for the analysis of their biological behavior. As they note, indeed, as for Physics, it is by means of symmetries that physical objects are determined objectively and not arbitrarily.

In order to clarify this very important consideration, in From Physics to biology by extending criticality and symmetry breakings, Longo and Montévil observe that the main attitude of life phenomena is that of an ongoing change of symmetries:

In terms of symmetries, such a situation implies that biological objects (cells, multicellular organisms, species) are in a continual transition between different symmetry groups; that is, they are in transition between different phases, according to the language of condensed matter. These phases swiftly shift between different critical points and between different physical determinations through symmetry changes. Our perspective provides an approach concerning the mathematical nature of biological objects as a limit or asymptotic case of physical states: the latter may yield the dense structure we attribute to extended criticality only by an asymptotic accumulation of critical points in a non-trivial interval of viability — a situation not considered by current physical theories. […]. Thus, a biological object is mathematically and fundamentally different from a physical object because it may be characterized in terms of partial but continual changes of symmetry within an interval of viability, as an extended locus of critical transitions. In particular, this mathematical view of “partial preservation through symmetry changes” is a way to characterize the joint dynamics of structural stability and variability proper to life. We thus consider this characterization as a tool for the mathematical intelligibility of fundamental biological principles: the global/structural stability is crucially associated with variability. A first consequence of these permanent symmetry changes is that there are very few invariants in biology.47

Actually, what stated above assumes a very important meaning also in the context of the epistemological perspective concerning the interrogation about the mathematical nature of living matter “as a limit or asymptotic case of physical states”. Indeed, since the global organization of a biological organism is described as strictly interdependent and intertwined with physic variability, critical transitions, continuing changes of dispositions, all this requires a new mathematical approach for the intelligibility of its own organization.

Respect to the inert state of physical objects, the living matter is characterized by “extended critical transitions”:48 definitively, it means that “according to the language of condensed matter”, the living bodies appear subjected to continuous changes of states and wide-opened towards unceasing transformations of their global organization and interaction with the environment. Therefore, in opposition to what usually happens for physical objects, the mechanisms of development and behaviour employed for biological entities are not characterized by the tendency to maintain identical preservations; in biology, the complex singularity of the structure of a living entity is co-determined by the contingency involved in evolution, embryogenesis and environmental modifications.

Referring to Bak, Tang and Wiesefeld’s analysis about dynamical systems that naturally evolve into a critical state,49 Longo and Montévil add:

Structural stability in biology, thus, should be understood more in terms of correlations of symmetries within an interval of the extended critical transition, rather than on their identical preservation. Yet, in biology, theoretical invariants are continually broken by these symmetry changes. A biological object (a cell, a multicellular organism, a species) continually changes symmetries, with respect to all control parameters, including time. Each mitosis is a symmetry change because the two new cells are not identical. This variability, under the mathematical form of symmetry breaking and constitution of new symmetries, is essential both for evolution and embryogenesis. The interval of criticality is then the “space of viability” or locus of the possible structural stability.50

In line with what is mentioned above, in The Inert vs. the Living State of Matter: Extended Criticality, Time Geometry, Anti-Entropy, the living systems are considered “coherent structures in a continual (extended) critical transition”: in other words, the global coherent structure of living organisms depends on the maintenance, at each level of organization, of “a permanent state of transition”, by “the integration/regulation activities of the organism”.51

Referring to what I already affirmed in the previous paragraphs about Merleau-Ponty and Patočka’s analysis of the living body and its description in terms of “spatialité de situation”, which always depends on external factors of variability, contingency and instability, we’ll find lots of correlations with these scientific considerations.

As for Merleau-Ponty, for example, the body scheme represents a means by which the living organism succeeds in maintaining the global unity by a functional integration of every part; as for Patočka, instead, the ontological movement represents the real fundament of the living existence and development. Besides, as I already said, Patočka conceives the body as a whole of possibilities and dynamics: that is, the field of every potential change, dynamic actions and manifestations.

Just to remark how important is the description of the status of living beings in terms of “extended critical transitions”, above all in reference to Merleau-Ponty and Patočka’s conceptions of “bodily” movement, it will be sufficient reading the following passages from Patočka’s Phénoménologie et métaphysique du mouvement:

[…] cet aspect dynamique de la donation vivante de sens se manifeste dans le mouvement en tant qu’expression du soi intime. San mouvement, il ne pourrait y avoir aucune perception normale, aucune orientation, aucune exploration du monde […]. Si nous supposons, donc, avec Merleau-Ponty, que le corps propre représente une pluralité informée de niveaux auxquels s’exerce le flux dynamique de donation de sens propre à l’existence, il faudra également admettre que c’est le mouvement qui a pouvoir sur le corps propre, qui porte et réalise le sens […].52

2.2. Living organisms as history based and individuated

Since the stability in biological systems is potentially linked to variability53 and to the presence of a few invariants, the trajectories of living beings appear “generic” and not completely intelligible by means of the ordinary mathematical frames. Unlike the physical objects, in fact, which habitually follow specific, or at least, probable trajectories (in quantum mechanics, for example), living beings are characterized by not “optimal” but “possible” trajectories,54 whose constraints are only those to be compatible with the laws of biological matter and of ecosystem.

Fundamentally, this characteristic — the generality of the biological trajectories — is due to phylogenetic and ontogenetic factors depending on evolutionary and environmental influences:

Biology may be considered to be in an opposite situation with respect to physics: in contrast to physics, in biology, trajectories are generic whereas objects are specific […]. That is, a rat, a monkey or an elephant are the specific results of possible (generic) evolutionary trajectories of a common mammal ancestor — or each of these individuals is specific. They respectively are the result of a unique constitutive history, yet a possible or generic one […]. The evolutionary or ontogenetic trajectory of a cell, a multicellular organism or a species is just a possible or compatible path within the ecosystem. The genericity of the biological trajectories implies that, in contrast to what is common in physics, we cannot mathematically and a priori determine the ontogenetic and phylogenetic trajectory of a living entity be it an individual or a species. In other words, in biology, we should consider generic trajectories (or possible paths) whose only constraints are to remain compatible with the survival of the intended biological system.55

[…] en physique, les objets sont génériques (un poids galiléen, un électron en tant que solution de l’équation de Dirac… vaut n’importe quel autre, il est générique), mais leurs trajectoires sont spécifiques (des géodésiques, parfois de simples gradients, parfois plus compliquées, mais toujours “critiques”, c’est-à-dire assurant des maximum ou des minimum). En biologie, on ne peut décrire les objets que comme spécifiques (la variabilité individuelle du vivant), tandis que les trajectoires, phylogénétiques, ontogénétiques, voire de l’action, sont, elles, génériques: ce sont des possibles, disions-nous, des parcours compatibles avec l’écosystème. C’est là, sans doute, une des raisons des explosions du nombre des espèces, dont nous parlent les théories darwiniennes. […]. Comme en physique, généricité et spécificité sont corrélées: la généricité des possibles est due à la spécificité, en tant qu’histoire (rétention-mémoire), de l’individu-espèce vivant (le biolon). En fait, sans généricité des trajectoires il n’y aurait pas d’évolution darwinienne, donc de phylogenèse, ni d’ontogenèse (en tant qu’individuation) .56

As for a biolon,57 the genericity of its trajectories finds a strict correspondence with the singularity and specificity of its individual constitution and history, which are influenced by variability and several contingent factors. Thus, the living organisms appear characterized by specific biological rhythms, by dynamic and unstable changes of spatiality, as well as by historical and environmental contingency.

The complex organization of living beings, which is at the basis of their individuality and singularity as life phenomena, depends on the peculiar dispositions that arise from living matter’s structures, plenty characterized by unpredictable contingency at each level of biological constitution. With regards to it, in a previous article entitled Schèmes géométrique pour le temps biologique, Longo and Bailly observe:

au-delà du physico-chimique, la stabilité structurelle du vivant est très peu « invariante », physiquement parlant: elle est profondément immiscée de variabilité. Cela rend très difficile en extraire, en dehors des espaces de friction physique être vivant et monde (morphogenèse), des invariants proprement biologiques: pour qu’il y ait “dérive phylogénétique et ontogénétique”, donc évolution et formation de l’individu, la stabilité structurelle ne peut pas être une invariance physique, même approchée, car à tout instant elle doit être brisée par la variabilité constitutive de l’individu. Et sans variabilité et individuation, pas d’ontogenèse, pas d’évolution, pas de vie.58

As stated in The Inert vs. the Living State of Matter: Extended Criticality, Time Geometry, Anti-Entropy — an overview, in opposition to the “inert state” of physical objects, living entities must be conceived just as “possibilities within spaces — ecosystems — in co-constitution”. It follows that — Longo and Montévil add — “the living object is historical and individuated; it is not interchangeable”.59 It is as if living beings appear always wrapped in a “permanently reconstructed and transforming global organization”.60

the space of observables in biology, of phenotypes for example, which can also be described by new “dimensions”, is, itself, dynamically changing in an ecosystem. Using an informal analogy, we could say that the “phase space” (and the space of possibilities) of life phenomena is dynamically (co-)constituted.61

From here, we grasp important correlations respect to Merleau-Ponty and Patočka’s accounts of the living body, above all in consideration of the conception of human spatiality in terms of “living space” wherein the body is continuously engaged by means of its corporeal capability to move and organize itself in reference to the surrounding environment. Living organisms are conceived in terms of global macrophenomena that arise from the physical body, without identifying itself with physical-chemical invariants deep-rooted inside.

As I have already shown, furthermore, both Merleau-Ponty and Patočka refer to the “living body” as a global phenomenon emerging from the complex matter of its stratifications. Namely, the living bodies (local phenomena) and the world around (global phenomenon) appear tied to each other within a deep relationship: the physical environment is considered the only possible place where the living being can realize itself both as a biological entity and as a subject equipped with cognitive and protentional activities. In this sense, one could consider the living organisms and their orientedness as the product of a co-constitution arising from endogenous factors and external environment.

2.3. Protention, retention and biological inertia

In Schèmes géométrique pour le temps biologique, Longo and Bailly state: “Le rôle de la protension est justement, pensons-nous, celui d’avoir une influence causale sur l’activité présente du biolon : un événement (possible) au futur contribue, par son anticipation, à la détermination des processus en cours”.62

Elsewhere, in Protention and retention in biological systems,63 Longo and Montévil specify that the capability of experiencing the world as a spatial continuum, for living systems, actually depends on their cognitive function of time. In that sense, the peculiarity of a living organism to perceive phenomena within an “extended present” (as the result of a complex intertwining of retention, biological inertia, and protention as we’ll see), would be at the basis of their experience of spatial continuity.

Moreover, in virtue of this reason, biological systems could be indicated as self-organized in “coherent structures”, by means of which they are capable to perceive the World as it is, like a continuum phenomenon both spatially and temporally.

As we’ll see, the final aim pursued by Longo and Montévil in Protention and retention in biological systems, is to show that, rather than as two disjointed temporal experiences, both retention and protention should be represented as the result of one only integrated phase, called “extended present”, namely a sort of temporal continuum resulting from a prolongation in both directions of retention (memory) and protention (anticipation).

This capability, for a living organism, to perceive phenomena through an ongoing “extended present” would be realizable by means of its own global neuronal activity:

The recent analyses of the primary cortex (see Petitot (2008) for a survey) highlight the role of intracortical synaptic linkages in the perceptual construction of edges and of trajectories. Neurons correlate themselves locally, along “association fields” (Field (1987); Field et al (1993)) composed of smooth (differentiable) curves that “are grouped together only when alignement fails along particular axes” Field et al (1993). These neurons are sensitive to “directions”: that is, they activate when detecting a direction, along a tangent. Then they (pre-)activate other neurons in the association field (they prepare in advance the spike which is not yet fired). This preactivation of associated neurons is, in our view, a component of the protensive activity. Then, neuronal activation follows a specific direction which (re-) constructs the pertinent line, Petitot (2008).

Thus, the continuity of an edge or of a trajectory is constructed by “gluing” together fragments of the world, in the precise geometrical (differential) sense of gluing. In other words, we force by continuity the unity of an edge by relating neurons which are preassociated and are, locally, along particular axes.

[…] The brain prepares itself and anticipates a moving object, of which the movement is perceived following an occular saccade, or of which the trajectory or edge is perceived by running the eye along or over it. This is, in our view, the keystone of a fundamental protentional activity.64

Thus, in opposition to Husserl’s phenomenological description of protention and retention inasmuch relating to the intentional activity of a conscious subject,65 Longo and Montévil connect the protention and retention to simple processes of “biological reaction/stimuli/response”, of which many primitive organisms, in relation to their environment, are the locus.66

In Anticipation, protension et inertie biologique, remarking the pre-conscious fundament of protention and retention, Longo et Perret state: “la protension et la rétention vont être proposées comme les points de départ pour une réflexion au niveau de la structure temporelle propre au biologique pré-conscient”.67

In that sense, therefore, they propose to extend those concepts to a pre-conscious degree pertaining the biological functioning of the easier living forms.

Consequently, as they note, “these particular aspects of memory and of anticipation that are specific to all life forms”68 (protention and retention), should be conceived, firstly, in terms of embodied functions arising from the living matter of neuronal dispositions.

One of the main important issues that is emphasized in Protention and retention in biological systems, is the fact that, as for biological organisms, the move from an inert state (tR) to an active one (tP) implies the preservation of their unitary structure and relationship with the environment.

Let me clarify this latter point, deepening the sense that Longo and Montévil attribute to biological inertia for living phenomena.

Definitively, they assume that the biological inertia could be conceived both as a sort of “extended retention” and “virtual protention”: in that sense, the biological inertia would be able to bring forth the life — conceived in terms of an ongoing protentional activity — from t0 (tR) towards t1 (tP):

The physical inertia represents the “passive” decay of a physical relaxation phenomena, which makes a perturabtion disappear during the return to equilibrium. On the contrary, the biological inertia coefficient is to be understood as a capacity to “carry over” the protensive effect.

[…] Biological inertia would then be both an extended retention […] and a virtual protention, […] which are both independent of the time t of the action: in fact, it depends only on the instants that are relevant to the event retained and occurring in t0 or which is the object of an expectation (protention towards t1). It is therefore an inertia which “carries over” the life form from t0 towards t1, by the preservation of its own structure and its relationship with the environment.69

Thus, in the passage from retention and protention, by means of the “biological inertia”, the living being succeeds in preserving the event retained at t0 and in “bringing forth its identity”,70 carrying over from t0 towards t1. In my opinion, this latter concept contains a very deep meaning from a phenomenological point of view.

Besides, in Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty seems to anticipate this important issue concerning the capability of a living being to perceive spatial/temporal events in a continuum:

When I intend to look left, this movement of the eye carries within it as its natural translation an oscillation of the visual field: the objects remain in place, but after a moment’s fluctuation.

This consequence is not learnt but is one of the natural formations of the psychosomatic subject. It is, as we shall see, an annex of our ‘bodily schema’, the immanent meaning of a shift of ‘gaze’. When it stops short of such a change, when we are conscious of moving our eyes without the view’s being affected, the phenomenon is translated, without any express deduction, by an apparent shift of the object leftwards.

The gaze and the landscape remain as it were glued together, no quiver dissociates them, and the gaze, in its illusory movement, carries with it the landscape, and the latter’s sideslip is fundamentally nothing but its fixity in a gaze which we think is moving.71

Besides, in conclusion, Longo and Montévil precise that, in opposition to physical objects, the response of a biological organism to a stimulus is only one “among many possible ones” offered by environmental conditions and is always depending on the specificity of each “individual retention experience”. To better understand this very important consideration, above all in reference to an epistemological standpoint, in the following I quote a brief extract of Protention and retention in biological systems, concerning the description of a case of paramecium’s behavior in an in vivo situation:

[…] the paramecium, say, appears to “learn” […], that is, it enjoys at least retention, which contributes to protention […]. And it is difficult to conceive of learning without error, or without several attempts and without the memory of these attempts (retention), even if such memory is extremely rudimentary. The subsequent action is therefore one among many possible ones, from the standpoint of the ecosystem, because it also depends on the specificity of individual retention (experience). Among these many possible trajectories, the one it follows has only to be compatible with the ecosystem. No gradient or physical geodesic is adequate to describe this plurality of possibilities of evolution, phylogenesis, ontogenesis and of action, which also depends on the specificity, hence on the history, of the species or of the individual (retention and biological inertia).72

At a sharp look, the mentioned analysis about protention, retention and biological inertia pointed out in Longo, Montévil and Bailly’s recent works, actually contains a lots of important correlations with the phenomenological conceptions of Merleau-Ponty and Patočka and their insight of living beings as dynamic structures characterized by self-movement and self-organized spatial-temporality.

Indeed, in the previous paragraphs I pointed out that, as for Merleau-Ponty and Patočka, the sense-motor organization represents the means by which of a living being succeeds in maintaining its own ontological indivisibility and single individuality. As I noted, in fact, both Merleau-Ponty and Patočka emphasize the capability of a living body to organize by the means of its own bodily structure one possible response — “among many possible ones” — to world’s stimuli.

2.4. Characteristic biological time

Finally, I will focus on the account concerning the concept of “biological time” outlined by Longo, Bailly and Perret, where the biological time of living beings is explained in terms of a function emerging from the living matter.

In the wake of Merleau-Ponty and Patočka, indeed, they point out the role played by the temporal structure of cognition respect to the global organization and development of living beings: just think of all the metabolic and endogenous rhythms that characterize the living being’s existence until death. In general, as stated in Protention and retention in biological systems, a linear representation of time must be considered insufficient in order to establish a pertinent theory of biological time of living organisms.73 With regards to it, they conceive living organisms in terms of real organizers of time.

As we’ll see, their analysis of biological temporality will reveal some important correlations with Patočka’s description of body in terms of a complex systems of potential praxis and «domaine des possibilités propres». As I already noticed, in fact, Patočka expands the analysis of the ontological movement to the body, putting in evidence that every kind of postural movements (allonger, toucher, saisir, prendre, poser, porter, lancer, soulever, ouvrir) as well as of organic rhythms (soufflé, pouls, veille-sommeil, faim-satiété) must be thought as essentially deeply-rooted in the living being.74

As for living organisms — they note — it is possible to distinguish a double dimensionality of time: one that is linked to bio-physicochemical evolution of the organism in relation to an environment, and the second related to organism’s endogenous physiological rhythms. With regards to it, in Schèmes géométrique pour le temps biologique, Longo and Montévil mark a differentiation between external and internal rhythms:

On distinguera deux types de rythmes biologiques […] : les rythmes “externes”, pilotes par des phénomènes extérieurs à l’organisme, d’origine physique ou physico-chimique et qui s’imposent physiquement a l’organisme. Ces rythmes sont donc les mêmes pour de nombreuses espèces, indépendamment de leur taille. Ils s’expriment en termes de périodes ou de fréquences physiques, donc dimensionnelles (s, Hz) et les invariants sont dimensionnels ; on les décrit par rapport a la dimension du temps physique […] Exemples : les rythmes saisonniers, le rythme ciracadien et tous leurs harmoniques et sous-harmoniques, les rythmes de réactions chimiques oscillantes a la température donnée, etc.

(Int) les rythmes « internes », d’origine endogène, propres à des fonctions physiologiques de l’organisme, dépendant donc de spécifications fonctionnelles purement biologiques. Ces rythmes sont caractérises par des périodes qui scalent comme la puissance 1/4 de la masse de l’organisme et, rapportes a la durée de vie de l’organisme qui scale de la même façon, ils s’expriment donc par des nombres purs (ils n’ont pas de dimensionnalité physique). Les invariants sont donc numériques. On propose de les décrire par rapport à une nouvelle dimension « temporelle » […] (On a donné des exemples : battements de cœur, respirations, fréquences cérébrales, etc.).75

Anyway, what is important to underline is the fact that, as for living organisms, the global cognition of temporality is influenced and co-determined by external (environmental) as well as internal (endogenous) factors. From these last considerations, we infer that, in opposition to physical objects, it is very difficult to sketch a mathematical framework of the biological temporality pertaining the living beings: “C’est à partir des rythmes internes du vivant […]” — Longo and Perret state — “qu’on peut établir une autonomie du temps du vivant par rapport à la physique. Cela manifeste une autonomie des principes transcendantaux de la biologie”.76

Definitively, the living organism manifests itself as interdependent by external as much as internal processes, which on the whole contribute to establish and to found its biological and historical individuality.

2.5. Conclusions

In this paper I dealt with some topics of current scientific discussions concerning the “living state of matter”, in the light of the phenomenological views pointed out by Merleau-Ponty and Patočka. In order to do it, my main attempt was to present a possible “common space” wherein philosophy and science could meet: namely, the idea that the living matter of biological organisms represents the epistemological fundament of the whole cognition and global sense-motor activity. By assuming this latter consideration, we will better understand how deep the intertwining between the global ontogenetic history and biological evolution of a living being and its cognition is.

In the following lines, I will sum up the main issues pertaining the conception of living matter emerging from the mentioned scientific discussions, highlighting the principles correspondences respect to the Merleau-Ponty and Patočka’s overviews:

  1. the living organisms and their behaviour appear to be history based and co-constituted with respect to the surrounding environment;
  2. the biological organization of living organisms could be conceived in terms of global determination and functional unity;
  3. the living state of matter (namely, the default state of living being) must be represented in terms of “extended critical transitions”: this would mean that life phenomena are opened to continual variability, permanent symmetries changes, inner dynamics, due both to evolutionary and embryogenesis factors. In that sense, there is no possibility to sketch a formalized theory of them. Life phenomena are conceived not as processes in the sense of physical objects, but as singular entities;
  4. living organisms are primarily characterized by movement and protentional activity: namely, the living matter appears strictly intertwined with a state of ongoing activity (as energheia). In a certain sense, on the wake of relativistic physics, we could say that energeia and (living) matter co-constitute the whole physical space.

3. References

  • M. Merleau-Ponty, Le Visible et l’invisible, ed. by C. Lefort, Gallimard, Paris 1964.
  • Id., Le monde sensible et le monde de l’expression, Metis, Genève 2011
  • Id., Phénoménologie de la Perception, Gallimard, Paris 1976.
  • Id., Résumés de Cours: Collège de France 1952-1960, Gallimard, Paris 1968.
  • Id., La Nature: Notes Cours du Collège de France, 1956-1957, Seuil 1995.
  • Id., La philosophie aujourd’hui. Cours de 1958-1959, dans M. Merleau-Ponty, Notes de cours. 1959-1961, ed. by S. Ménasé, Gallimard, Paris, 1996.
  • J. Patočka, Aristote, ses devanciers, ses successeurs, ed. by E. Abrams, J. Vrin, Paris 2011
  • Id., «Phénoménologie et ontologie du mouvement», in Papiers phénoménologiques, ed. by E. Abrams, Grenoble 1995.
  • Id., «Notes sur la préhistoire de la science du mouvement : le monde, la terre, le ciel et le mouvement de la vie humaine», in Le monde naturel et le mouvement de l’existence humaine, ed. by E. Abrams, Dordrecht 1988.
  • Id., «Phénoménologie et métaphysique du mouvement», in Papiers phénoménologiques, ed. by E. Abrams, Grenoble 1995.
  • Id., Le monde naturel et le mouvement de l’existence humaine, éd. by E. Abrams, Dordrecht 1988.
  • Id., «Le «point de départ subjectif» et la biologie objective de l’homme», in Le monde naturel et le mouvement de l’existence humaine.
  • Id., «Leçons sur la corporéité» in Papiers phénoménologiques.
  • Id., Conférences de Louvain. Sur la contribution de la Bohême à l’idéal de la science moderne, éd. V. Löwit, F. Karfik, Ousia, Bruxelles 2001.
  • Id., Body, Community, Language, World, ed. by James Dodd, Open Court, Chigago and La Salle, Illinois 1988.
  • E. Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and the Transcendental Philosophy, ed. by David Carr, Northwestern University Press, Evanston 1970.
  • R. Ruyer, La cybernétique et l’origine de l’information, Flammarion, Paris 1954.
  • G. Simondon, Cours sur la Perception (1964-1965), préface de R. Barbaras, Les Éditions de la Transparence, Chatou 2006.
  • Id., Du mode d’existence des objets techniques, Aubier, Paris 1958.
  • F. Robert, Merleau-Ponty, Whitehead. Le procès sensible, L’Harmattan, Paris 2011.
  • F. Moinat, Le vivant et sa naturalisation. Le problème du naturalisme en biologie chez Husserl et le jeune Merleau-Ponty, Springer 2012.
  • F. Bailly, G. Longo, «Schèmes géométriques pour le temps biologique», in Sciences du vivant et phénoménologie de la vie (P.-A. Miquel, ed.), Noesis 14, Vrin, Paris 2008.
  • Id., (2008), «Extended critical situations: the physical singularity of life phenomena», Journal of Biological Systems (JBS), vo. 16, 2, 309-336.
  • G. Longo, M. Montévil (2011), «From physics to biology by extending criticality and symmetry breakings», Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology 106 (2): 340-347.
  • Id., (2011), «Protention and retention in biological systems, in Theory in Biosciences», vol. 130, n. 2, pp. 107-117.
  • Id., (2012), «The inert vs. the living state of matter: extended criticality, time geometry, anti-entropy — an overview», in Front. Physio. 3: 39.
  • G. Longo, N. Perret, Anticipation, protension et inertie biologique, à paraître dans “Anticipation: biologie, physiologie” (C. Debru ed.), Hermann, 2013.

  1. M. Merleau-Ponty, Notes de cours au Collège de France 1959-1961, p. 11. ↩︎

  2. G. Simondon, Cours sur la Perception (1964-1965), préface de Renaud Barbaras, Les Éditions de la Transparence, Chatou 2006, p. 96. ↩︎

  3. Just in the preface of the Simondon’s Cours sur la Perception, R. Barbaras writes: «[…] la perception est comprise comme une modalité privilégiée du rapport vivant et donc actif de l’homme à son monde. Elle n’est pas contemplation mais activité ; elle ne relève pas de la connaissance mais de la vie et c’est pourquoi la perception doit être ressaisie du point de vue de sa signification biologique tout autant que de sa portée informative.» Ibid., p. IX. ↩︎

  4. Informatique, CNRS — École Normale Supérieure and CREA, Paris (, ↩︎

  5. F. Bailly worked at Physique, CNRS, Meudon. Colleague and co-worker of G. Longo, he passed away in February 2008. ↩︎

  6. Mathématiques, École Normale Supérieure and ED Frontières du vivant, Paris V, Paris (montevil@ ↩︎

  7. École Normale Supérieure, Paris ( ↩︎

  8. M. Merleau-Ponty, Le Concept de Nature (1956-1957), Résumés de cours. Collège de France 1952-1960, pp. 367-368. ↩︎

  9. Throughout the courses on the concept of Nature, Merleau-Ponty takes the contemporary sciences into account, wondering what is the role of the body and of the living matter coming from the descriptions of time, space and movement that are followed by the laplacian physics and the contemporary Physics. Besides, he also makes reference to the representations of living organism and of animal behavior offered by modern biology and embryology. ↩︎

  10. M. Merleau-Ponty, Le Concept de Nature (1956-1957), Résumés de cours. Collège de France 1952-1960, p. 369. ↩︎

  11. In particular, I refer to the program outlined in Le primat de la perception et ses conséquences philosophiques (1942) and in Phénoménologie de la Perception (1945). ↩︎

  12. Id., Le visible et l’invisible (par C. Lefort), 1964, pp. 181-182. ↩︎

  13. Ibid., pp. 176-182. ↩︎

  14. Hereinafter, Merleau-Ponty adds: «Ceci nous donnera un recoupement et un approfondissement de ce qui précède: car la Nature dont nous avons parlé (ce ne peut être évidemment que la Nature perçue par nous) et dont nous avons décrit le mode d’être sera éclairée par la description du corps humain en tant que percevant […]. Inversement ce qui précède éclairera notre approche du corps humain comme percevant en nous montrant dans quelle dimension doit être cherché le corps percevant, comment l’invisible est écart par rapport au visible». Id., Le Concept de Nature (1956-1960), pp. 269-270. ↩︎

  15. Ibid. p. 137. ↩︎

  16. Ibid. p. 369. ↩︎

  17. M. Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la perception, pp. 117; 119. ↩︎

  18. Ibid., p. 117. ↩︎

  19. F. Robert, Merleau-Ponty, Whitehead. Le procès sensible, L’Harmattan, Paris 2012, p. 29. ↩︎

  20. Id., La Nature. Notes de cours du Collège de France 1956-1960, p. 268; 275. ↩︎

  21. Ibid., pp. 284-285. ↩︎

  22. M. Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la perception, p. 231. ↩︎

  23. Id., Le monde sensible et le monde de l’expression. Cours au Collège de France. Notes, 1953, par E. de Saint Aubert et S. Kristensen, Genève 2011, p. 140: «Donc unité du schéma corporel, - de ses sens et de ses segments, - qui n’est pas celle d’une connaissance ou d’un objet de connaissance vertical, par participation à une idée, mais unité latérale, ouverte, d’une coexistence». ↩︎

  24. Ibid., pp. 139-141. ↩︎

  25. Ibid., p. 152. ↩︎

  26. Id., Phénoménologie de la perception, p. 97. ↩︎

  27. Ibid., p. 171. ↩︎

  28. Id., Phenomenology of perception, pp. 94; 100; 112- 121; 162; 163; 169; 171-177; 216; 238-239. ↩︎

  29. J. Patočka, Phénoménologie et ontologie du mouvement (1968-1969), in Id., Papiers phénoménologiques (1995), p. 45: “Le mouvement corporel propre n’est pas une donnée objective, ni une structure synthétique, mais un pouvoir immédiate et non objectif sur la corporéité”. ↩︎

  30. Since all the body’s experiences, like perception, memory, spatiality, movement, time, feelings and one’s own existence as Leib are realized through the medium of the perceptual flesh, it assumes a primary epistemological connotation. Furthermore, since the perceptual flesh of the body represents the only way to get to the world, and since all the perceptual things are conceived as écarts coming from the ontological feuillet de la Nature, we see that the flesh refers to an ontological foundation. ↩︎

  31. Id., Phénoménologie et métaphysique du mouvement (1968), in Id., Papiers phénoménologiques (1995), p. 17. ↩︎

  32. J. Patočka, Méditation sur «Le monde naturel comme problème philosophique» (1970), in Le monde naturel et le mouvement de l’existence humaine, Dordrecht 1988, p. 97. ↩︎

  33. Patočka’s conception of ontological movement is pointed out at least in two important writings: Phénoménologie et ontologie du mouvement (1968-1969) and Aristote, ses devanciers, ses successeurs (1964), ed. by E. Abrams (2011), which is by far considered his main work on Aristotle’s conception of movement. ↩︎

  34. With regards to the patockian criticism towards Heidegger’s existentialism, see in particular J. Patočka, Méditation sur «Le monde naturel comme problème philosophique, pp. 91-101. ↩︎

  35. Id., Phénoménologie et métaphysique du mouvement (1968), p. 22. ↩︎

  36. Ibid., pp. 22-23. ↩︎

  37. Id., The “Natural” World and Phenomenology, in Philosophy and selected writings, ed. by E. Kohák, 1989, pp. 251; 254-255. ↩︎

  38. French translation: «tendance vers». ↩︎

  39. Id., Phénoménologie et ontologie du mouvement, p. 37. ↩︎

  40. Id., Méditation sur «Le monde naturel comme problème philosophique, pp. 94; 96. ↩︎

  41. Id., Phénoménologie et ontologie du mouvement, p. 50. ↩︎

  42. Id., Leçons sur la corporéité (1968-1969), in Id., Papiers phénoménologiques (1995), pp. 67-68; 93. ↩︎

  43. Ibid., p. 107. ↩︎

  44. Id., Le «point de départ subjectif» et la biologie objective de l’homme, in Id., Le monde naturel et le mouvement de l’existence humaine, p. 157. ↩︎

  45. Id., Conférences de Louvain. Sur la contribution de la Bohême à l’idéal de la science moderne, éd. V. Löwit, F. Karfik, Ousia, Bruxelles 2001, p. 49. ↩︎

  46. Biological objects: cells, multicellular organisms, species. ↩︎

  47. Longo G., Montévil M., (2012), From Physics to biology by extending criticality and symmetry breakings, pp. 9-10. ↩︎

  48. The issue concerning the “extended critical transitions” of living organisms has been taken into account also in F. Bailly and G. Longo, Extended critical situations: the physical singularity of life phenomena, Journal of Biological Systems (JBS), vo. 16, 2, 309 — 336, June 2008. ↩︎

  49. Bak, P., C. Tang, and K. Wiesenfeld (1988), Self-organized criticality, Physical review A 38 (1): 364—374. ↩︎

  50. Longo G., Montévil M., (2012), From Physics to biology by extending criticality and symmetry breakings, p. 10. ↩︎

  51. Longo G., Montévil M., (2012), The inert vs. the living state of matter: extended criticality, time geometry, anti-entropy — an overview, cit., p. 6. ↩︎

  52. J. Patočka, Phénoménologie et métaphysique du mouvement (1968), cit., p. 24. ↩︎

  53. Longo G., Montévil M., (2012), From Physics to biology by extending criticality and symmetry breakings, cit., p. 14: “[…] variability may be considered as the main invariant of the living state of matter.” ↩︎

  54. Longo G., Montévil M. (2012), The Inert vs. the Living State of Matter: Extended Criticality, Time Geometry, Anti-Entropy - an overview, p. 2. ↩︎

  55. Ibid., p. 10. ↩︎

  56. Bailly F., Longo G., Schèmes géométrique pour le temps biologique (2008), p. 11-12. In reference to this topic see also Longo G., Montévil M., (2012), The inert vs. the living state of matter: extended criticality, time geometry, anti-entropy — an overview, cit., pp. 2-3. ↩︎

  57. Namely: cells, organisms, species. ↩︎

  58. Bailly F., Longo G., Schèmes géométrique pour le temps biologique (2008), cit, p. 3. ↩︎

  59. Longo G., Montévil M., (2012), The inert vs. the living state of matter: extended criticality, time geometry, anti-entropy — an overview, cit., p. 2. ↩︎

  60. Longo G and Montévil M (2012), The inert vs. the living state of matter: extended criticality, time geometry, anti-entropy — an overview. Front. Physio. 3:39, p. 7. See also F. Bailly and G. Longo, Schemes geometriques pour le temps biologique, in Sciences du vivant et phénoménologie de la vie (p. -A. Miquel, ed.), Noesis 14, Vrin, automne 2008. ↩︎

  61. Ibid., pp. 2-3. ↩︎

  62. Bailly F., Longo G., Schèmes géométrique pour le temps biologique (2008), cit,, p. 14. ↩︎

  63. G. Longo and M. Montévil (2011), Protention and retention in biological systems, in Theory in Biosciences, vol. 130, n.2, pp. 107—117. ↩︎

  64. Ibid., p. 15. With regards to the global protention as the result of a neural activity, see also Bailly F., Longo G., Schèmes géométrique pour le temps biologique (2008), cit., 13. ↩︎

  65. Bailly F., Longo G., Schèmes géométrique pour le temps biologique (2008), cit., p. 6. ↩︎

  66. G. Longo and M. Montévil (2011), Protention and retention in biological systems, cit., p. 6. ↩︎

  67. G. Longo, N. Perret, Anticipation, protension et inertie biologique, a paraître dans “Anticipation : biologie, physiologie” (C. Debru ed.), Hermann, 2013. ↩︎

  68. G. Longo, M. Montévil (2011), Protention and retention in biological systems, cit., p. 2. ↩︎

  69. Ibid., pp. 10; 12. ↩︎

  70. In Schèmes géométrique pour le temps biologique (2008) it is called “traînage par continuité”. See Bailly F., Longo G., Schèmes géométrique pour le temps biologique (2008) cit., p. 8. ↩︎

  71. M. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of perception, Routledge Classics 2002, pp. 55-56. ↩︎

  72. G. Longo, M. Montévil (2011), Protention and retention in biological systems, cit., p. 14. ↩︎

  73. G. Longo, M. Montévil, The inert vs. the living state of matter: extended criticality, time geometry, anti-entropy — an overview, cit., p. 8: “The usual physical (linear) representation of time is insufficient, in our view, for the understanding of some phenomena of life”. ↩︎

  74. J. Patočka, Phénoménologie et ontologie du mouvement (1968-1969), in Id., Papiers phénoménologiques (1995), 47-49. ↩︎

  75. Bailly F., Longo G., Schèmes géométrique pour le temps biologique (2008) cit., pp. 14-15. ↩︎

  76. G. Longo, N. Perret, Anticipation, protension et inertie biologique, cit., p. 3. ↩︎