Gilbert Simondon and the Process of Individuation
To think the question of individuality is to take a step back through the history of philosophy. Throughout every philosophical epoch, thinkers have been concerned with the nature of the individual; they have grappled with the question of how objects, sometimes consisting of many autonomous parts, can be described as singular, individual entities, rather than pluralities. In the mid-twentieth century, Gilles Deleuze began his review of Gilbert Simondon’s L’individu et sa genèse physico-biologique by stating that “The principle of individuation is by all accounts a respectable, even venerable notion. Until quite recently, however, it seems modern philosophy has been wary of adopting the problem as its own” (Deleuze, 2004, 86). Although there are many philosophers who have tackled the problem, Deleuze claims that since the enlightenment the question of individuation in science and philosophy had become two separate questions: “The accepted wisdom of physics, biology, and psychology has led thinkers to attenuate the principle, but not to reinterpret it” (ibid.).
Scholars of Aristotle and Duns Scotus have debated the necessity of a principle of individuation, the German Idealists had sought the individual in relation to totality, and the existentialists had linked it to authenticity; but only recently, at the time of Deleuze’s writing, had a full-fledged philosophy been conceived that utilises modern scientific knowledge (including recent developments in the understanding of quantum mechanics and thermodynamics) to help to reinterpret the ancient philosophical problem — the philosophy of Gilbert Simondon. As Deleuze continues: “Gilbert Simondon makes no small display of intellectual power with a profoundly original theory of individuation implying a whole philosophy” (ibid.). In honour of the forthcoming and long awaited English translation of Simondon’s magnum opus, Individuation in Light of Notions of Form and Information, it will be the purpose of this essay to lay out the foundations of Simondon’s philosophy of individuation within the context of the philosophical tradition, and to introduce the ideas that would have a profound effect on Deleuze’s philosophy of difference and Bernard Stiegler’s politics of individuation.
In order to conceptualise individuation in such a way as to separate himself from substantialism, hylomorphism, and Hegelian idealism, Simondon introduces a new concept which serves as the grounding and the source of all individuals. This he calls ‘preindividual being’. Simondon wants to claim that any substantial being that exists in reality has already undergone (or is already undergoing) a process of individuation through which the singular individual is formed. The predicates of unity and identity that are necessary for the existence of an individuated being therefore only exist as a consequence of the process of ontogenesis. Thus, in order to conceptualise a phase of being that exists ontologically prior to individuated being we must exclude unity and identity from its determining characteristics. Both unity and identity are predicative characteristics that exist only as a result of the process of individuation: “Unity and identity only apply to one of the phases of being, posterior to the operation of individuation … they do not apply to ontogenesis understood in its fullest sense, that is to say, the becoming of being as a being that divides and dephases itself by individuating itself” (PPO, 6).
In Simondon’s thought, to conceptualise being qua being we must separate it from its historical determinations as primary individual. Preindividual being must therefore be understood in opposition to individuated being. If individuated being is understood as singular, or as one, then preindividual being is not one, but more-than-one. Preindividual being is therefore non-identical with itself. However, it is not merely the constant shift from one identity to another through the negation of the previous identity as we see in Hegel. The preindividual exists as a realm of potentialities which contains within it the possibility for potential individuations, a realm that Deleuze, following Bergson, will term ‘the virtual.’ However, what is of paramount importance here is that the preindividual is not used up or irrevocably transformed when the process of individuation occurs. Within the individual there is always an ‘overflow’ of preindividual being that can be thought of as the source for any future transformations in its constitution. The individual must still retain some of its preindividual potentiality in order to actualise itself as part of the series of individuation processes (physical, biological, psychic, collective) which determine its nature: “The individual would then be grasped as a relative reality, a certain phase of being that supposes a preindividual reality, and that, even after individuation, does not exist on its own, because individuation does not exhaust with one stroke the potentials of preindividual reality” (ibid., 5).
Building on this idea, Alberto Toscano identifies that the existence of a preindividual reality constitutes the beginning of a reality of relations that can be seen as the cornerstone of Simondon’s project and will serve as a direct influence on Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition: “This preindividual relationality … is nevertheless also a sort of non-relation: heterogeneity as the anoriginary qualification of being. Being is thus said to be more-than-one to the extent that all of its potentials cannot be actualized at once” (Toscano, 2006, 138). In other words, although preindividual being is yet to be individuated, and therefore exists only as a multiplicity of potentials, it can still be regarded as affected by an inherent relationality within itself. Similarly, the individuated being exists in a constant relation with the preindividual potential within itself. Thus, process and relationality take the place of principle and identity as the primary qualifications of the becoming of being.
Here Simondon’s idea of the relational formulation of the individual draws parallels with Kierkgaard’s conception of ‘the self’ in The Sickness Unto Death as “a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation” (Kierkegaard, 2004, 13). This rather convoluted definition of the self as a reflexive relation can be unpacked when considering how the self can be distinguished from a human being. Kierkegaard makes this distinction by arguing that a human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite; it is the relation of a finite being to the infinite world it exists in. However, he claims that a human being is not synonymous with the self, the self is not merely the relation between two factors but is a relation which relates to itself. Thus, a human being, as a “synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity” (ibid.) has the potential to relate itself to itself, and before this relation, a human being cannot be considered a ‘self’ in the Kierkegaardian sense. Indeed, it is the freedom of choice that the individual has as a finite being in an infinite universe which gives him the possibility for self-creation and individuation. In the same way, Simondon argues that the individual is only individual in relation to the multiplicity of preindividual potentialities that exist within it.
However, although there are parallels between the two, Simondon’s project is of a fundamentally different nature to Kierkegaard’s. Kierkegaard pictures individuation as the self-realisation of an independently acting subject carried out in isolation and freedom; he is concerned above all with the existential question of freedom from the perspective of the self-conscious human being. Simondon, on the other hand, wants to start his investigation in the non-human world and subsequently work towards the human. He places a large emphasis on the ability of contemporary science to provide analogous examples for how even the most fundamental metaphysical problems can be reinterpreted in such a way that would have been impossible prior to the twentieth century. He believes that preindividual being could only have been understood in the way he describes if we take into account what were, at the time, recent developments in quantum mechanics and thermodynamics. For example, the discovery of quantum states as probabilistic fields which are actualised upon observation informs his idea of the preindividual: “quantum theory grasps this regime of the preindividual that goes beyond unity: an exchange of energy occurs through elementary quantities, as if there were an individuation of energy in the relation between the particles, which can be considered in a sense to be physical individuals” (PPO, 6). He also directly draws on two concepts from thermodynamics to serve as analogies that further exemplify this idea. The first is the notion of ‘dephasing’ and the second is the ‘metastable equilibrium’. Let us first consider ‘dephasing’.
Dephasing and the Metastable Equilibrium
In physics, a phase transition occurs when one state of equilibrium shifts to another (i.e. from water to ice). However, to Simondon preindividual being exists without a phase. So, in its most basic sense, ‘dephasing’ can be understood as a term which is used to indicate a change in the state of a system, or the becoming of phases within a system. To understand how this term is used, we must first note that, to Simondon:
“Pre-individual being is being in which there is no phase; the being in which individuation occurs is that in which a resolution appears through the division of being into phases. This division of being into phases is becoming. … Individuation corresponds to the appearance of phases in being that are the phases of being.” (PPO, 6)
In other words, we must understand that individuated beings come to exist in phases, but as preindividual being is necessarily not individuated, it exists without a single phase — it is pre-phased in the same way that it is more-than-one: as a multiplicity of potentialities that can become actualities. In order for these potentialities to become actual, preindividual being must divide into phases, or dephase itself: “every operation, and every relation within an operation, [is] an individuation that divides, or dephases, the preindividual being” (ibid.). Therefore, as individuation happens in phases, and preindividual being is necessarily not individuated, dephasing describes how preindividual being becomes individual, whilst still retaining within itself an overflow of preindividual potentialities which can serve as the basis for future individuations. Here we can see that dephasing is a necessary way of conceptualising the operation of becoming from a preindividual reality; it is the origin of a problematic through which ontogenesis occurs, and through which preindividual being can be individuated into various substantial realities and the networks of which they are a part.
Similarly, the idea of ‘metastability’ within being plays a foundational role in all of Simondon’s subsequent determinations about the nature of individuation. To Simondon, one of the major mischaracterisations of individuation throughout the history of philosophy has been due to the fact that until recently the notion of a metastable equilibrium was not known. He claims that in antiquity, for example, there were only the presupposed notions of instability and stability, or movement and rest, but nothing that existed in between or beyond these concepts. Thus, to consider being was to consider an implicit state of stability. However, through the development of physics have we become aware of the notion of metastability, and therefore it is this development that has given us a new paradigm through which to understand the true nature of individuation.
In its most basic formulation, metastability refers to a state that transcends the classical distinction between stability and instability. Deleuze summarises that “what essentially defines a metastable system is the existence of a ‘disparation,’ the existence of at least two different dimensions, two disparate levels of reality, between which there is not yet any interactive communication” (DI, 89). In other words, a system is meta-stable in that it is not truly stable yet not entirely unstable; it only requires the smallest amount of energy in order change from one state to another. A common physical example of an object in a metastable state is a bowling pin. If the standing pin is pushed slightly it may wobble and fall back into place. If it is pushed with a little more force it may wobble and then fall to the ground. During the pin’s wobbling it is neither stable nor unstable, thus we can say that it exists in a state of metastability. Metastability also plays a key role in our understanding of energy transfer between quantum particles. Simondon uses this state as an analogy for being that is considered as more-than-one in that it is charged with potentials for a becoming that takes place through individuation. In other words, preindividual being exists in a state of metastability which means that certain forces determine how it becomes individuated in particular ways, and therefore, without metastability as an analogy we cannot move beyond the metaphysics of antiquity. The necessity of the metastable equilibrium will be shown in Simondon’s distinction between the different stages of individuation (physical, biological, psychic, collective).
Physical Individuation and Transduction
To start this investigation, Simondon wants to first present how physical objects are created through individuation in this metastable environment — this he calls ‘physical individuation.’ He seeks to present “physical individuation as a case of the resolution of a metastable system, starting from a system state like that of supercooling or supersaturation, which governs the genesis of crystals” (PPO, 6). In other words, he wants to use the genesis of crystals as both an example of physical individuation, and as an analogy to understand how individuated systems form as a resolution of the problematic between different potentialities within being. This example is summarised well by Muriel Combes:
“A physical system is said to be in metastable equilibrium (or false equilibrium) when the least modification of system parameters (pressure, temperature, etc.) suffices to break its equilibrium. Thus, in super-cooled water (i.e., water remaining liquid at a temperature below its freezing point), the least impurity with a structure isomorphic to that of ice plays the role of a seed for crystallization and suffices to turn the water to ice. Before all individuation, being can be understood as a system containing potential energy. Although this energy becomes active within the system, it is called potential because it requires a transformation of the system in order to be structured, that is, to be actualized in accordance with structures. Preindividual being, and indeed any system in a metastable state, habors potentials that are incompatible because they belong to heterogeneous dimensions of being” (Combes, 2012, 3–4).
There are two important implications made in this example. The first is that the super-cooled water in a liquid state exists in metastable equilibrium; it exists as liquid despite meeting the majority of conditions (in this case temperature) to change its state into a solid. In other words, the fact that the liquid is in a super-cooled state means it is filled with the potentiality to become a solid, but if there is no ‘crystal seed’ around which a crystal structure can form it will persist as a liquid.2placeholder Without a crystal seed introduced into the solution (i.e. a crystal dissolved in water or a piece of dust that disrupts the uniformity of the solution) a change in pressure is necessary in order for the molecules to self-organise into a crystal lattice (i.e. hitting a bottle of a super-cooled water). So, just as any small amount of pressure would determine whether the bowling pin stood or fell, here any small change in the environmental conditions of the supercooled liquid will determine the nature of its phase as a solid or a liquid. Simondon argues that preindividual being operates in a similar way: “One can also suppose that reality, in itself, is primitively like the supersaturated solution and even more completely so in the preindividual regime” (PPO, 6). It is the operation enacted upon the preindividual that determines the nature and the result of its individuation. The second implication can only be understood through the introduction of one final term from Simondon’s dense vocabulary. The notion of ‘transduction’.
Simondon adopts the concept of transduction, a term that was, at the time of Simondon’s writing, familiar to biologists and psychologists, and gives it a new meaning.3placeholder To Simondon, transduction refers to the operative nature of individuation, or how individuation operates. As Simon Mills describes: “It is on the metastable, pre-individual foundation that the concept of transduction is developed as the axiomatic and ontogenetic account of how form arises” (Mills, 2016, 37–38). In other words, against the Aristotelian notion of hylomorphism, and the Hegelian dialectic, transduction serves as the process by which individuated forms of being arise. As he states: “By transduction we mean an operation — physical, biological, mental, social4placeholder — by which an activity propagates itself from one element to the next, within a given domain, and founds this propagation on a structuration of the domain that is realized from place to place” (PPO, 11). So, it is neither form being applied to matter, nor matter becoming a certain form, but a process that creates form through a propagation of structure that actualises the preindividual potentiality within the being. To understand how transduction operates let us continue with the example of the formation of crystals which to Simondon represents the most paradigmatic form of physical individuation:
“A crystal that, from a very small seed, grows and expands in all directions in its supersaturated mother liquid provides the most simple image of the transductive operation: each already constituted molecular layer serves as an organizing basis for the layer currently being formed. The result is an amplifying reticular structure. The transductive operation is an individuation in progress” (Ibid.)
In other words, as the crystal forms, the ‘outside’, or outer layer, of the crystal serves as the basis for the constitution of the rest of the crystal structure; the internal structure of the crystal is a result of the activity that occurs at the limit between the interior domain and the exterior domain (this will be different for the living being as we shall see). Each new layer in the crystal structure actualises the potential of the metastable, preindividual potentiality within the solution surrounding the crystal seed. The interaction between the outer limit of the crystal and the outer limit of the solution is where the transductive operation takes place, and thus where individuation occurs. To Simondon, this is not particular to crystals but is an axiomatic property of reality in general. It is the operation for the creation of a ground that does not presuppose a prior substantive reality but still “establishes new dimensions and structures that are themselves fresh grounds for further operations of individuation” (Mills, 2016, 38).
Furthermore, through the example of crystallisation, we see that a metastable environment is defined by the existence of a ‘disparation’. In its becoming through dephasing, preindividual being gives birth to an individual which mediates two ‘orders of magnitude’, or different scales (e.g. micro and macro, or molecular and molar) that are not only in communication, but also create a milieu that exists at the same level of being as itself:
“that which the individuation makes appear is not only the individual, but also the pair individual-environment. The individual is thus relative in two senses, both because it is not all of the being, and because it is the result of a state of the being in which it existed neither as individual, nor as principle of individuation.” (PPO, 5)
This idea of a co-individuation between the individual and the milieu in which it exists is perhaps one of the most important ideas in Simondon’s philosophy. No individual can exist without the milieu of which it is a part; a milieu that arises at the same time as the individual from the process of individuation. Thus, we start to see a concrete example of how an individual should only be seen as a partial result of the transductive operation or process that brings it into being; it is not the beings which are formed that are primary, but the process of individuation itself. However, to conclude our chapter on Simondon’s theory of physical and biological individuation we must examine how this transductive process of individuation applies to the creation of living organisms, and thus sets the stage for the development of the human being and its psychic and collective processes.
Biological individuation, vital individuation, or individuation of the living being, is the process through which life comes into being and perpetuates itself. Simondon claims that in the domain of the living, the idea of metastability can be used to characterise individuation, however, it no longer occurs in such an instantaneous manner as we have seen in the formation of the crystal. Biological individuation still creates an individual-environment pair, “but it is accompanied by a perpetuated individuation, which is life itself, according to the fundamental mode of becoming: the living conserves within itself a permanent activity of individuation” (ibid., 7). In other words, the living individual is not just the result of individuation as is the case in the crystal, but is what he calls ‘a theatre of individuation’ because “not all of the activity of the living is concentrated at its limit, such as with the physical individual” (ibid.). Now, what does Simondon mean here? He is referring to the differences in the dichotomy between interiority and exteriority within the realm of the physical individual and the biological individual. He claims that within the interior realm of the living individual there is a “more complete regime of internal resonance, one that requires permanent communication and that maintains a metastability that is a condition of life” (ibid.). Internal resonance can be thought of as the source of potential future individuations. Whereas the internal resonance of the physical individual is characterised by the limit of the individual as it becomes in its environment (as we saw in the metastable equilibrium that is formed through the propagation of a crystal’s structure at its outer layer), the internal resonance of the living individual exists inside the living being, as well as at its outer layer:
“The internal structure of the organism is not only the result (as with a crystal) of the activity that occurs and of the modulation that occurs at the limit between the interiority domain and the exteriority domain. The physical individual … active at the limit of its domain, does not have a veritable interiority; the living individual, on the contrary, does have a veritable interiority because individuation carries itself out within the individual” (ibid., 7–8.).
What this means is that individuation in the realm of the living is carried out within the individual itself. The biological individual is defined by its outer limit and by its internal processes that are constantly adapting both to its environment and to the internality within itself. To exemplify this distinction, we might imagine how the formation of a crystal differs from the growth of a plant. In order for a crystal to propagate its structure it only needs a particular molecular formation to serve as the basis for crystallisation. On the other hand, a plant must operate by absorbing water and nutrients and from the soil, carbon dioxide from the air, and photosynthesising light into chemical energy, all of which are converting one form of energy from the outside and utilising it in an internal process that is necessary for the continual individuation of the plant; an individuation that, as Simondon states, constitutes life itself.5placeholder
The individuation process of a plant thus provides a perfect example of how the individuation process in general constitutes what Deleuze defines as a ‘disparation,’ or “the existence of at least two different dimensions, two disparate levels of reality” (DI, 89); the plant establishes “communication between a cosmic order (that to which the energy of light belongs) and an inframolecular order (that of mineral salts, oxygen, etc.)” (Combes, 2012, 4). However, the individuation of a plant gives birth to more than just the plant in question. It gives birth to the individual as a mediation between these two ‘disparate levels of reality’ (or orders of magnitude in Simondon’s terms) and to the milieu that exists at the same level of reality as itself. Just as the solution surrounding the crystal is its milieu, the soil or air is the milieu of the plant. The milieu, seen as the external environment through which the individual individuates itself, arises simultaneously with the individual. The plant mediates those two orders (cosmic and chemical), but the soil around it is now of the same magnitude as itself. Thus, the milieu isn’t one specific magnitude or another, but is determined by the individual as its complement.
What is important in this example is that it shows the individual as relation. It shows how the individual can only be seen as a partial result of the process that brings it into being. The process is never exhausted in the creation of the individual because of the virtual field of preindividual being that exists in metastable equilibrium within the being itself. Thus, as Combes summarises, “we may consider individuals as beings that come into existence as so many partial solutions to so many problems of incompatibility between separate levels of being” (ibid. 4).
The purpose of this essay has been to illuminate some of the key concepts in the work of Simondon that will prove influential for later philosophers such as Bernard Stiegler, Gilles Deleuze, and Bruno Latour. As Deleuze states: “The new concepts established by Simondon seem to me extremely important; their wealth and originality are striking, when they’re not outright inspiring” (DI, 86). Although Simondon’s work on technics has recently garnered more attention in the English-speaking world, the lack of a translation of his primary thesis on individuation has limited him to being referred to as a ‘thinker of technics.’ However, Simondon’s work, originally completed in 1958, was vastly ahead of its time in its application of various interdisciplinary fields such as quantum mechanics, cybernetics, evolutionary biology, minerology, aesthetics and many more. My hope is that, with the publication of Individuation in Light of the Notions of Form and Information, we will start to see his recognition as an important thinker in his own right.
Combes, M. (2013) Gilbert Simondon and the Philosophy of the Transindividual. Trans. T. LaMarre. Cambridge: MIT Press.
De Boever, A. et. al. (2012) Gilbert Simondon: Being and Technology. Edinburgh: EUP.
Deleuze, G. (2004) Desert Islands and Other Texts. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Kierkegaard, S. (2004) The Sickness unto Death. Trans. A. Hannay. London: Penguin.
Mills, S. (2016) Gilbert Simondon: Information, Technology and Media. London: Roman & Littlefield.
Moore, E. B. and Molinero, V. (2011) ‘Structural Transformation in Supercooled Water Controls the Crystallization Rate of Ice’. Nature. Vol 479. pp. 506–508.
Simondon, G. (2009) ‘The Position of the Problem of Ontogenesis’, Parrhesia, Vol. 7(1), pp. 4–16.
Simondon, G. (2016) On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects. Trans. C. Malaspina and J. Rogrove. Minneapolis: Univocal.
Toscano, A. (2006) The Theatre of Production: Philosophy and Individuation Between Kant and Deleuze. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
In his introduction to Deleuze, Todd May (despite his mischaracterisation of Simondon as a biologist) recognises Simondon’s preindividual as a partial inspiration for Deleuze’s notion of the virtual: “Simondon’s idea of a preindividual state recognizes the significance of the virtual as a field of difference, or, as Deleuze sometimes calls it, a field of intensities” (May, 2005, 86).
Recent studies have shown that pure water can be super cooled to −48.3 °C without being changed into ice (Moore & Molinero, 2011).
In the work of Jean Piaget, transduction refers to a mental operation that differs from deductive or inductive reasoning. However, Simondon takes the initial premises of this definition and carries them further than Piaget would have intended. In recent years transduction has also been used in the realm of machine learning.
The transductive process occurs across each different regime of individuation, but for the purposes of this chapter we will focus on the physical and biological which are described in L’individu et sa genèse physico-biologique.
This is also what differentiates biological individuation from technical individuation: “This is not the sole characteristic of the living, and the living cannot be reduced to an automaton that maintains a certain number of equilibriums or that searches for compatibilities between different exigencies, according to a complex equilibrium formula composed of simpler equilibriums; the living is also the being that is the result of an initial individuation and that amplifies this individuation — an activity not undertaken by the technical object, to which cybernetics would otherwise compare the living, in terms of its function” (PPO, 7). The particular aspects of technical individuation are explored in detail in On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects (2016).