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MATERIALISM AND THE THEORY OF ORGANISM HANS JONAS BIOLOGY, the modern science of life, is beset by an embarrassing contradiction. Dealing with things alive, it is committed to excluding categories of life from their explanation. It is so committed because it aspires to the status of a science. To be a science, in our day, means to be a department of natural science. As such, biology treats of bodies, or rather, of a particular class of bodies whose particularity is sufficiently marked to justify separate treatment. Now, according to the general assumptions of physical science, the particularity of a class of bodies consists in the disposition of its parts, the ultimate parts or "elements" themselves being the same in all aggregates; and since the basic modes of their interaction, their "behaviour" within the aggregate, are identical in all combinations, "knowledge" of any complex entity merely results from the application of the general laws of physical interaction to the particular pattern in which the elementary units are arranged. Successful analysis, therefore, always means reduction to the elementary level where all differences, except those of number and order, vanish; and has its test in successful synthesis, i.e. in the deduction, from these prime elements, of the complex systems and their functioning which are actually found in experience.1 Under this general scheme, an organism is in principle no different from other physical systems, though distinguished by its degree of complexity. Its scientific treatment, therefore, i.e. biology, is ultimately governed by the cognitive standards of physics. Such at least is the abstract postulate which determines biology's method. In fact, however, biology is far from commanding that two-way passage of analysis and synthesis, of induction and deduction, which mechanical physics prescribes as the ideal. At present, analysis of living objects proceeds on selected causal lines, while the synthesis of an organic whole, its intelligible construction from the sum of its elements, is today farther from the reach of theory than is the experimental making of life by means of the te~hniques of the laboratory (where a felicitous chance may intervene). Thus, for example, starting from a whole organism, we may isolate the role of a particular hormone and arrive at an accurate physico-chemical account of its working within the whole whose existence is prelef . the "resolutive" and "compositive" mr:thod of Galileo. 39 Vol. XXI, no. I, Oct., 1951 40 THE UNIVEltSlTY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY supposed; but we cannot, starting from the bormone together with all the other separable causal threads, deduce the organic whole, the subject of a single, central, indivisible life, let alone answer the question of how under mechanical laws the collocation of these factors itself can have come about. The enormous complexity of even the simplest organic system is the commonly adduced, but not the ultimate reason for this shortcoming of the "compositive" method in the biological sciences. The inventory of constituent parts, the discernment of patterns, the mastery of techniques for their mathematical handling, may increase indefinitely; it will still be the case that the kind of unity and wholeness involved in organic individuality will transcend the very meaning of the questions that physics (of the modem type) can ask. Biology is as little able to feed its primary elements-the end-terms of its analysis-into a computing machine and have it grind out the form and behaviour of an organism, as a man is unable to tum out Paradise Lost by feeding into the machine the twenty-six letters of the alphabet; though both the organism and the poem undoubtedly do "consist" of their respective elements and no others. What biology can do is to take the whole entity, its Paradise Lost (to pursue the simile), and analyse it-into what? Into its elements of meaning and aesthetic value? No: into the letters or sounds of which it consists, together with the grammatical and phonetic rules of their combination. Herein lies the peculiar crux of biology as the science of life. The equation between a whole and the sum of its parts which marks the success of every other physical inquiry entails here the loss of that distinctiveness which makes a...


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