Issue #19 January 2019

What is Vitalism?

Film still from “Automatic Writing” (Kentridge, 2003)

Vitalism, as a philosophical position, is usually tied to the assumption that there is a fundamental difference between the organic and the inorganic, between the physical forces and the “life force”. In that sense, it relates to the question, if teleological organic processes can be reduced to their causal physical counterparts by scientific progress. Posed as a yes-no alternative, the discussion seems to boil down to the two positions of either “we just haven’t been able to reduce them yet” or “we never will,” which in the end is a mere postponement of the decision. Yet, in their criticism of the automatisation of modern life, so closely associated with the anonymity and pitilessness of the physical laws, the vitalists have often assumed a potentially conservative position that tries to “save” the soul in a soulless world, referring to “pre-rational” concepts like intuition or immediacy. The question then is, if vitalism is a mere reaction to historical processes, or if there is something in this position that is genuinely philosophical. This means that we neither reduce it to the merely technical decision regarding the organic and the inorganic, nor understand it as a reactionary and anti-modernist position, but try to understand, in what way the concept of a creative “life force” can be understood apart from a merely negative statement that there is something irreducible to the physical order of things. The question of vitalism is thereby no longer a mere illustration of a historical philosophical position, but an aspect of philosophical thought that potentially goes beyond the self-identified vitalists. Because of that, I also want to make a deviation by approaching the question of vitalism via a (very) short animated film by the South African artist William Kentridge called Automatic Writing (2003) that you can watch here.

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The artistic technique the title Automatic Writing alludes to does not only concern the processuality of the aesthetic production, where the work is created intuitively “on the go,” but also to the creative sources that this technique intends to tap into. It is in that sense not about consciously composing or narrating a specific content, but about giving one’s unconscious dynamics, its free associations and desires, the upper hand. The artistic production is no longer “ruled” by concepts, but rather flows directly from the creative mind. The orientation towards the authentic implies a notion of creativity that is not based on the conceptual or the sensible, where the art work is neither the result of conscious production nor of new combinations of sensory impressions, but where the ideas and images originate from the movement of the hand that intuitively knows, where it wants to go. While the final work — in this case an animated movie — consists of the visible (what we see when we watch the movie) and the conceptual (the way we understand and interpret the movie, its meaning), its origins go beyond either of these levels:

“To put it blandly, my work is about a process of drawing that tries to find a way through the space between what we know and what we see” (Kentridge: 20).

Film still from “Automatic Writing” (Kentridge, 2003)

We express what we know in words, judgements, concepts, while we depict what we see in images. But what is common to both of them, as Automatic Writing seems to imply, is the moving line. The short films begins with tentative drawings of curls that are quickly erased, leaving only a trace. But does one of these curls, which seems ornamental at first, not look a lot like the word “el” — and does this word, associated with the First Book of Moses, not conceptually introduce the theme of beginning (see the film still above)? This would seem accidental, if the same process didn’t repeat constantly throughout the film: Moving lines are sometimes becoming letters or numbers (conceptual plane), and sometimes figures or shapes (visual plane). The figure of the reading woman (see the cover picture above) disintegrates into lines that turn into words — maybe the words of what she is reading — that once again become lines and transform into a shape, her sleeping figure. Words and images are antithetical unfoldings of the line, towards the visible or the conceptual, originating in a flowing movement, the movement of the artist’s hand.

But if the process of differentiation is traced back to the moving line, then where does this movement come from in the first place? It is a well-known method of overcoming a creative block to just draw circles that can become doodles or words; but what comes first here is the urge to create, even before you have decided what is to come out of it. Something anticipates the intention of putting specific ideas or images to paper, because otherwise, we wouldn’t feel compelled to overcome the creative block at all:

“The themes in my work do not really constitute its starting point, which is always the desire to draw” (ibid.: 1f.)

“[T]he drawing doesn’t begin as a moral project; it starts from the pleasure of putting charcoal marks on paper” (ibid.: 12).

Due to the artistic method, Kentridge’s use of charcoal, the unfoldings into words or images can always be reversed, where the erasure leaves a trace and can become the foundation for a new image or word. In the usual artistic practice, the sketch is a mere means to an end, where the end result hides all its traces of processuality. For the Surrealists, it has become a method, but we are still presented with the final work and can only guess how the associations have come to be. What makes Kentridge’s short unique is that the process of creation, the search for the creative motor, remains visible in the final art work. We can indeed watch the latter and enjoy it for its visual qualities, and we can talk about it, judge or interpret it — but what we see there, are neither fully-formed images nor fleshed-out ideas, but an attempt to bring forward that which causes the artist’s hand to move in the first place, namely the desire to draw.

One might be tempted to read this urge in a psychoanalytic way, as an attempt to resolve certain inner conflicts. This connection cannot be denied, considering that the method of association is prominent in automatic writing, and the various images (the fountain, the interior, the houses) that appear in the film can be read as repressed childhood memories that have been freed up by the process. But then we would expect a more linear progression, where the inner conflict is steered towards its resolution. Instead, the process of unfolding and erasure, of replacing a word with an image and an image with a word is constantly repeated throughout the film, so that it is rather the relation of the hand to the paper, the artist to the work that is of primary interest here. In other words, the locus of desire is not the artist’s inner life, but the frontier between the inner and the outer, the movement of the hand and the traces that it leaves on the paper.

Desire and movement are thereby not two distinct elements, with the movement being a mere result of the desire; they coincide. The piece of paper becomes a mind screen, something that belongs both to the inner and to the outer spheres. Association kicks in once the artist has already started moving his hand, where the curls might remind him of curly hair and become the doodle of a face. The unfolding of the line into words or into images, as much as the differentiation of the two in the final product that we can appreciate on a visual and conceptual level, prolongs the desire to create and fulfils its inner potential. At the same time, it is only through the process of drawing that the inner and the outer spheres are differentiated, where the final work becomes an object to look at and the artist the subject that only looks at it once it is completed. We can therefore say that the movement of desire gives rise to differentiations on three different levels: 1) In the artistic process, the line can unfold into either a word or an image; 2) The final work can be read either on a visual (concrete) or conceptual (general) level; 3) The unity of the artist and the work, as his hand holds the charcoal and moves on the paper, gets separated into the observing subject and the observed object once the process is completed, where the art work is completely externalised from the artist’s interiority.

We have now talked about the artistic process, but what does that teach us about vitalism as a philosophical position?

Film still from “Automatic Writing” (Kentridge, 2003)

As we have seen, the moving line can unfold into a sensible form (an image) or into a legible letter (a concept). The image is visible, it affects our senses, while the concept is thought, it is a cogitatio. We are here led to the differentiation of the mundus sensibilis and the mundus intelligibilis, the Kantian distinction between the material world that chains us in all-encompassing causality and the intelligible world, where freedom arises out of the spontaneity of the autonomous subject. The ontological irreducibility of one of these worlds to the other is closely bound to the irreducibility of our faculties that he posits, with Sinnlichkeit (sensibility) being our connection to the material world, while the Verstand (understanding), working with concepts that are based on categories, points us to the mundus intelligibilis by necessarily falling into antinomies that can only be resolved by the differentiation of the two worlds. In regard to what we perceive in Automatic Writing, we could say that the moving line unfolds either into the sensible that is based on impressions and that forms images (immediate affectation of our senses) or into the cogitable (thinkable) that is based on concepts and causes cogitationes in our mind (the process of abstract reasoning).

The ontological differentiation of these two, as Kant assumes it in line with a large part of the philosophical tradition, leads to the further categorical distinction between interiority (our thoughts, our mind) and exteriority (our senses, the things that affect them), and the distinction between the universal — as concepts are inherently universal — and the individual — as our impressions are necessarily concrete. This means that (conceptual) unity pertains to the mind and its syntheses, while the mundus sensibilis is, as Kant says, to be understood as the manifold (Mannigfaltigkeit), consisting exclusively of singularities. If I see a tree, I will perceive it as a unity thanks to my understanding (Verstand) and the syntheses of time and space, but the light waves that hit my eyes change perpetually and due to the biological processes within the tree it keeps constantly changing, so that in the end, there is no such entitiy in the first place.

By tearing out the cogitationes from the “real world,” in this nominalistic gesture where thought is categorically separated from its worldliness, we also deprive the world of its meaning. As Kant says in the Critique of Judgement, from the perspective of the sensible world, man is the last of all creatures, but from the perspective of the intelligible world, man is the end goal of all creatures and is wearing the crown. The corporeal is surrendered to causal necessity; as a means to an end, the body is reduced to the supply of basic needs. Dualism cannot work without a certain distribution of power; not only does the mind “control” the body, but it is also only through the mind that the body’s work receives any meaning. But this might just be an undesirable outcome of a necessary conclusion. Rather, the ontological distinction between the concrete impressions (the sensible world) and universal concepts (the intelligible world, thought) leads to two problematic results: First of all, we can no longer speak of things, as our concepts remain universal, can never “step out” and “touch” the concrete tode ti, the this-here (Adorno calls this spiritualisation). Instead, there is an endless recursion, where a concept refers to a concept, refers to a concept, without ever reaching the “thing itself”. The second problem is that the things that we see are no longer things, as their unity is a product of the mind (the syntheses, categories, ideas), and not of the things themselves. Understood as the manifold, the outside world falls apart into an inconceivable amount of subatomic particles, so that the tode ti, the this-here can not only no longer be more than the this-here, as there is nothing that “objectively” points beyond the accumulation of particles, but it is not even a this-here, because what we point towards is already an illusionary entity (Adorno calls this reification).

These are the two fundamental aspects of the scholastic problem of universals that pertain to Nominalism: Firstly, how can concepts be in the things? How can thought be in the world? Secondly, how can singular things have universal qualities? How can the world be in our thoughts? Due to the nominalistic distinction of vox (word/utterance) and res (thing) that overcame the realist conception of the words (the ideas, universals) being mere reflections of the singular things, the relation of the two became problematic. Kant is right to say that the necessarily antinomic opposition of these two gives rise to the affirmation of both, namely in the necessarily dualistic structure of the world. It is due to the antinomies that we are forced to assume the distinction of the mundus sensibilis and the mundus intelligibilis, the world of appearance and of the thing in itself. The solution is then that it is neither our thoughts that are in the things, nor the things that are in our thoughts; the two worlds are strictly distinct. But isn’t the whole construction circular? For Kant, the necessary formation of antinomies was the proof for the necessity of the dualism, but wasn’t the formation of antinomies already due to an assumed dualism, the dualism of the individual impressions and the universal concepts?

Film still from “Automatic Writing” (Kentridge, 2003)

But then again, aren’t we always assuming an ontological difference between concepts and things anyway? It is certainly true that we distinguish them, but don’t we also assume that the concepts we use point to things, and that the things are really things, and not an indistinguishable mass of unperceivable atoms? And also, isn’t there a certain fluctuation between the universal and the individual within our language usage, for example when we tell a story or explain a general phenomenon? So isn’t it maybe the categorical differentiation of our faculties, of Sinnlichkeit and Verstand that leads us to all those problems?

Let us get back now to what we have worked out in regard to Kentridge’s short film. As we have seen, in the artistic process it is the moving line that can unfold into the visible or the cogitable, but at what point does the decision happen? How are the two planes distinguished? It seems that is not a decision of either-or, but rather to be understood as a duplication, where the moving line always unfolds into both, into something visible and something cogitable, as the written word always needs to be visible for us to read it, as much as the visible image must be read for us to understand it. We might rather say that the line always becomes visible and cogitable, either actually visible and virtually cogitable, or actually cogitable and virtually visible. Every concept corresponds to a mental image and vice versa, but it is either the concept that is actualised or the image. If I see a bird, the sensation is actual and the concept virtual, as I recognise the bird without actively naming it. When I shout out: “Bird!”, then it is the concept that is actual, while I refer to the impression that has now become virtual (the impression is “behind” the exclamation). In that sense, the two planes are indeed distinguishable, but they are not ontologically distinct.

As Husserl says, every perception is the perception of something, and when I speak of perceptions, I use concepts. But, on the other hand, when I explain concepts, I refer to perceptions, with the deictic gesture of “this-here”. The visible is the actuality of sensations, the cogitable is the actuality of concepts, but we are not dealing with two separate planes or worlds, but with different unfoldings of the same line — and this moving line is what the vitalists refer to as the creative energy, the life force. It is life that unfolds in the cogitable and the visible by actualising one of the two, or, by an act of “erasure”, letting it fall back into ambivalence that once again carries the potential for differentiation. In short, it is the same “substance” that will sometimes unfold into a concept and sometimes into a sensation, into a body or a mind. This means that the creative “life force” is not an irreducible phenomenon, an additional assumption on top of the physicality of the world. It rather precedes the distinction of the two planes that is the result of a movement that cannot yet be called organic or inorganic, because it is universal. “Life” and “thought” are thereby neither subjective categories nor subjective acts that are opposed to the sterile and anonymous universe. Before life came into the world, the two planes were factually indistinguishable, mere virtual doubles that bore the potential to differentiation; in that sense, life is not an additional “something” that suddenly appeared in a random corner of the universe, but the act of differentiation itself that prolonged the movement of the universe and fulfiled its potential.

We sometimes almost become completely corporeal, identify with our body’s pain or pleasure, we can sometimes barely feel it and float around in the cold corners of our imagination. But it’s the same force that pushes the flow of this fluctuation, it is life itself that perpetually unfolds into either the image or the letter, into the sensible or the conceptual, the inner or the outer, the general or the singular. This means that there are no longer the mundus sensibilis and the mundus intelligibilis as separate entities, our thoughts are in the world, they are made out of this world (the world is their material), but this also means that the world is in our thoughts, that what we think immediately touches the world. Theorein is praxis, and in that sense, thought regains its inherent might in contrast to the dualistic sterility. This is the only true monism, the univocity of being. The problem of universals simply disappears, because we no longer fall into either Realism or Nominalism, we are the universe that desires distinction.

Timofei Gerber has an MA in philosophy from the University of Heidelberg, Germany, and an MA in film studies from the University of Zurich. He is also a co-founder and co-editor of this magazine.

Works Cited

Kentridge, William; Morris, Rosalind C. (2013) That Which Is Not Drawn: Conversations with William Kentridge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


January 2019


The Continuity of Being: C.S. Peirce’s Philosophy of Synechism

by Brian Kemple

Against Ontology: A Naturalist Critique on Two Varieties of Mathematical Structuralism

by Jio Jeong

Some Notes on Foucault on Discourse

by John C. Brady

What is Vitalism?

by Timofei Gerber