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THE WEIRDNESS OF MATTER

Elizabeth Grosz's The Incorporeal: Ontology, Ethics, and the Limits of Materialism

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

From The Philosopher, vol. 107, no. 3 ('Identities'). 

Read more articles from The Philosopher, purchase this issue or become a subscriber.

The Incorporeal: Ontology, Ethics, and the Limits of Materialism

by Elizabeth Grosz 

Columbia University Press

reviewed by Elizabeth Robson

Panpsychism, the view that the mental is diffused throughout the material world, seems to be a topic of the moment, for me at least.  As my exposure to panpsychism has largely been from within the Anglo-American tradition in which it has been gathering some momentum of late (for example, in the work of Galen Strawson), I was excited by the prospect of reading Elizabeth Grosz’s book as it is heavily influenced by thinkers in the European (or Continental) tradition. Although Grosz only rarely mentions the term panpsychism (perhaps aware of the baggage it carries, the intuitive sense most of us have that it cannot possibly be true), she notes in the introduction that mind “is not an attribute of a consciousness much like our own but characterizes all primary forms” (my emphasis). So, although Grosz prefers to characterize her position variously as extramaterial, prematerial or incorporeal, it is, in the end, a highly innovative and delightfully paradoxical variation on the panpsychist theme.     

The subtitle, ‘Ontology, Ethics and the Limits of Materialism’, highlights the ambition of the book: to bring ontology and ethics into fruitful dialogue, to create, in Grosz’s word, an “ontoethics”. Rather than seeing the study of what there is and how we should act as inhabiting two separate realms, Grosz aims to show how an adequate understanding of what is (ontology) can at the same time motivate an understanding of what might be (ethics and politics). Although she acknowledges that an attempt to bring these domains into dialogue may be unusual, she explores a number of thinkers, from the ancient Stoics to modern thinkers like Spinoza, Nietzsche and Deleuze, whom she feels have attempted to do just this.

 

For Grosz, a radical rethinking of the material domain is necessary for establishing a convincing ontoethics. Her work is thus a continuation of the so-called New Materialisms that have emerged since the mid 1990s, and which coalesced around Diana Coole and Samantha Frost’s 2010 collection, New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics (which featured Grosz as a contributor). Much of this movement has been driven by various critiques of persistent dualistic thinking in Western thought since Descartes, alongside the desire to reanimate or re-enchant the material world. In some senses we may see this reanimation process as quasi-religious in nature, but this is true only insofar as numerous influential commentators (not least Max Weber) have linked the rise of secularism with a gradual process of disenchantment of the natural world. No longer is matter imbued with the spirit of God, but is simply passive, inert, lifeless stuff – ripe for exploitation. 

 

Grosz acknowledges the pervasiveness of materialism (“Today just about everyone is a materialist”) while at the same time noting that the materialism to which people adhere tends to be of a reductive variety. We thus appear to be faced with an unattractive choice between a Cartesian-style dualism and a reductive materialism. In the former, the world is composed of two substances (the mental and the physical), while in the latter it is composed of only one, the physical, to which the mental is then reduced.

NO LONGER IS MATTER IMBUED WITH THE SPIRIT OF GOD, BUT IS SIMPLY PASSIVE, INERT, LIFELESS STUFF – RIPE FOR EXPLOITATION

Grosz is no dualist but finds the ways in which reductive materialism explains mental phenomena like thoughts, concepts, and thinking itself to be wholly inadequate. She follows Descartes in attributing to thought non-material properties, and consequently it is self-evident to her that reductive materialism won’t work. She also rejects emergent theories of consciousness that say that when enough bits of matter coalesce in sufficient complexity consciousness somehow emerges – as if inert, passive, mechanical matter suddenly generates the quality of thought. As Grosz notes, neurons and brain processes may be conditions for thought but they are not the same as thought. Elsewhere, she asks how materialists “understand the conditions of appearance of matter, such as space and time, materially” and how they understand meaning or sense “beyond their materiality as sonorous or written trace.” Her ambitious goal is to find an inclusive theory of the mental and material world, one that does not attempt to subsume former within the latter.  

Grosz concludes that ideality internally inhabits matter, and it is this that makes matter meaningful. The incorporeal is immanent within matter – “not two substances but rather two ways in which the real is distributed” (hence the paradoxical formulations of incorporeal materialism and dualist monism!). In terms of a more precise account of the relation between the ideal and the material, she argues that the ideal and the material co-exist at the most fundamental level of matter, with the ideal providing the form which the material adopts. As she puts it: “Without ideality, a plan, a map, a model, an ideal, a direction, or a theme, materiality could not materialize itself.” In a phrase which I rather like she says the ideal “shares this world by providing materiality with an excess”. The incorporeal is that which inheres in the world but which is not composed of matter: we recognise that objects are more than the sum of their parts, and this “excess” is the incorporeal.

 

The incorporeal is not transcendent but immanent, not beyond this world but firmly within it. And at its most general it provides a backdrop for all our activities. In as much as it furnishes this framework, and thereby the structure in which we can live our lives, it is “ontoethical”. Here Grosz’s aim is to integrate the ethical with the fabric of the world, its material objects. Ethics is a part of the incorporeal, but the ethics that Grosz has in mind isn’t the day-to-day making of judgements about right and wrong. She distinguishes what she calls “non-normative ethics”, the ethics that she is interested in, from theories of right and wrong. The ontoethical provides the material and ideal background from which ethical theories and practices can emerge.

Grosz concludes that ideality internally inhabits matter, and it is this that makes matter meaningful. The incorporeal is immanent within matter – “not two substances but rather two ways in which the real is distributed” (hence the paradoxical formulations of incorporeal materialism and dualist monism!). In terms of a more precise account of the relation between the ideal and the material, she argues that the ideal and the material co-exist at the most fundamental level of matter, with the ideal providing the form which the material adopts. As she puts it: “Without ideality, a plan, a map, a model, an ideal, a direction, or a theme, materiality could not materialize itself.” In a phrase which I rather like she says the ideal “shares this world by providing materiality with an excess”. The incorporeal is that which inheres in the world but which is not composed of matter: we recognise that objects are more than the sum of their parts, and this “excess” is the incorporeal.

 

The incorporeal is not transcendent but immanent, not beyond this world but firmly within it. And at its most general it provides a backdrop for all our activities. In as much as it furnishes this framework, and thereby the structure in which we can live our lives, it is “ontoethical”. Here Grosz’s aim is to integrate the ethical with the fabric of the world, its material objects. Ethics is a part of the incorporeal, but the ethics that Grosz has in mind isn’t the day-to-day making of judgements about right and wrong. She distinguishes what she calls “non-normative ethics”, the ethics that she is interested in, from theories of right and wrong. The ontoethical provides the material and ideal background from which ethical theories and practices can emerge.

WE APPEAR TO BE FACED WITH
AN UNATTRACTIVE CHOICE
BETWEEN A CARTESIAN-STYLE
DUALISM AND A REDUCTIVE
MATERIALISM

If this all sounds a little abstract, the thinkers Grosz chooses as exemplary “ontoethicists” may clarify some of these ideas. Take Spinoza as a first example. In his Ethics, Spinoza builds from a metaphysical picture of the world in which there is only one substance (God) to an account of human freedom as grounded in the causal necessity implied by his metaphysical picture (as opposed to, say, Descartes’ view of freedom as an extra-causal mental phenomenon). Similarly, Nietzsche’s embrace of the breakdown of order and the rise of chaos emerging from the death of God led him to the view that the profoundest ethical stance in relation to life was to embrace our fate (amor fati) of living in a world that is not of our making and not under our control. Finally, for Deleuze a greater understanding of the ontological forces which support and enable life can generate an ethics of joy and intensity. As Grosz writes of her chosen thinkers:

"Each creates as ontology that is an ethics, that does not produce an ethics in reaction to or after ontology but an ethics that understands itself as always already implicated in and responsible for the maintenance of various orders of existence,... whether these are social and political or natural and physical."   

In a sense, this is a truly post-religious vision of ethics. No longer can necessities (divine or otherwise) be relied upon to give universally binding answers to the question of what is to be done; rather, Grosz’s thinkers (to varying degrees) refuse to privilege order over chaos or being over becoming, and none endorse a normative account of ethics. The incorporeal, while providing the background for current normative judgements, constrains the possibility of future practices and judgements. The incorporeal limits what we do today and also provides the basis for what we can do tomorrow. It is a theory of becoming, ontogenesis. The question which she then allows in is: How is the world open to change?

 

In summary, Grosz considers a selection of philosophers who have addressed the ideal-material dichotomy in what were non-conventional ways, and has built a new approach locating the ideal within the material, and arguing that the ideal gives form and structure to the material, that consideration of the ideal can show us the possibilities for “becomings”.  It takes us beyond the Anglo-American account of panpsychism with which I was more familiar by including ethics and a theory of becoming within considerations of how the ideal and material cohere. While this is an extremely interesting and provocative book it is also a challenging read, heavily infused with Deleuzean jargon. The general reader looking to explore a similar cluster of ideas and thinkers would do well to start with the Coole and Frost collection.

 

Elizabeth Robson is a writer and researcher based in Paris.

From The Philosopher, vol. 107, no. 3 ('Identities'). 

Read more articles from The Philosopher, purchase this issue or become a subscriber.