SPRING QUARTER, 2006
Department of History
University of California, Irvine
Instructor: Dr. Barbara J. Becker
Week 5. Mechanism
I. Conversation between D'Alembert [French mathematician, physicist and philosopher (1717-1783)]
and Diderot [French philosopher and writer, Denis Diderot (1713-1784)]
D'ALEMBERT: I grant that a being which exists somewhere and which corresponds to no single point in space, a being which has no spatial area and which occupies space, which is wholly complete in each part of this space, which is essentially different from material stuff and which is united with it, which is affected by matter and moves it without moving itself, which acts on matter and which is subject to all its changes, a being about which I haven't the least idea -- a being with such a contradictory nature is difficult to accept. But there are other obscurities waiting for anyone who rejects such a being. For in the end, if this sensibility which you put in its place is a universal and essential quality of matter, then a stone must have feelings.
DIDEROT: Well, why not?
D'ALEMBERT: That's hard to believe.
DIDEROT: Yes, for the man who cuts the stone, carves and grinds it without hearing it cry out.
D'ALEMBERT: I really wish you'd tell me what difference you establish between a man and a statue, between marble and flesh.
DIDEROT: Not much. One can make marble with flesh and flesh with marble.
D'ALEMBERT: But the one is not the other.
DIDEROT: Just the way what you call living [somewhat similar in concept to modern day kinetic] energy is not the same as latent [somewhat similar in concept to modern day potential] energy.
D'ALEMBERT: I don't understand you.
DIDEROT: Let me explain. The transporting of a body from one place to another is not movement -- it's only its effect. Movement is equally present both in the transported body and in the motionless body.
D'ALEMBERT: That way of seeing it is new.
DIDEROT: But it's nonetheless true. If you remove the obstacle which prevents the immediate movement of a stationary body, it will be shifted. If by sudden rarefaction you get rid of the air which surrounds the enormous trunk of this oak tree, then the water it contains will suddenly expand and blow it up into a hundred thousand splinters. I'm saying the same thing is true for your own body.
D'ALEMBERT: All right. But what's the relationship between movement and sensation? Could it by chance be the case that you recognize an active sensation and a latent sensation, just as there is an active and latent force? An active force which manifests itself by movement, and a latent force which manifests itself by pressure, an active sensation which is characterized by certain observable actions in an animal and perhaps in a plant, and a latent sensation which we would confirm by its transformation in a condition of active sensation.
DIDEROT: Splendid. You've got it.
D'ALEMBERT: Thus, the statue only has latent sensation, and man, animals, and perhaps even plants are endowed with an active sensibility.
DIDEROT: There's no doubt about this difference between the block of marble and fleshy tissue. But you understand that that's not the only difference.
D'ALEMBERT: Of course. Whatever the resemblance between the exterior form of the man and the statue, there is no connection between their internal organic structure. The chisel of the most expert sculptor can't even make an epidermis. But there's an extremely simple process to make latent energy transform itself to active energy. It's an experience which is repeated a hundred times a day right in front of our eyes. But I don't see how one can make a body move from a state of latent sensation into a state of active sensation.
DIDEROT: That's because you don't want to see it. The phenomenon is common enough.... It happens every time you eat.
D'ALEMBERT: Every time I eat!
DIDEROT: Yes, because when you're eating, what are you doing? You're removing the obstacles which stand in the way of the active sensation of what you're eating. You assimilate the food into yourself. You make flesh out of it. You turn it into animal stuff. You make it capable of sensation. And what you do to food, I'll do to marble whenever I like.
D'ALEMBERT: And how will you do that?
DIDEROT: How? I'll make it edible.
D'ALEMBERT: Make marble edible -- that doesn't seem easy to me.
DIDEROT: It's up to me to show you how it's done. I take the statue which you see. I put it into a mortar, and with some heavy blows with a pestle... When the block of marble has been reduced to a very fine powder, I mix this powder with some humus or topsoil. I knead them together well. I water the mixture and let it rot for a year, two years, a century -- the time doesn't matter. When it's all been transformed into almost homogeneous matter, into humus, do you know what I do?
D'ALEMBERT: I'm sure that you're not going to eat the humus.
DIDEROT: No, but there is a way of uniting that humus and myself, of appropriating it -- a latus [a thing which bears or carries], as the chemist would say.
D'ALEMBERT: And this latus is a plant?
DIDEROT: Very good. I sow some peas, beans, cabbages, and other leguminous plants. The plants nourish themselves on the earth, and I nourish myself on the plants.
D'ALEMBERT: True or false, I like this transformation of marble into humus and of humus into the vegetable realm and of the vegetable realm into the animal realm, into flesh.
DIDEROT: In this way I make flesh or soul, as my daughter says, an actively sensible matter, and if I have not resolved the problem which you proposed to me, at least I have come a great deal closer. For you affirmed to me that the distance from a piece of marble to a sentient being was a lot further than from a sentient being to a thinking being.
D'ALEMBERT: I agree. But for all that, a sentient being is not the same things as a thinking being.
DIDEROT: Before taking another pace forward, let me give you the history of one of the greatest mathematicians in Europe. [The details of the story below makes clear he is referring to none other than D'Alembert himself!] What was he at first, this marvelous being? Nothing at all.
D'ALEMBERT: How could he be nothing. Nothing comes from nothing.
DIDEROT: You're taking the words too literally. What I meant was that before his mother, the beautiful and notorious canonness Tencin, had attained the age of puberty, and before the soldier La Touche was an adolescent, the molecules which were to form the first rudiments of my mathematician were scattered in the young and immature mechanical parts of both of them. They were filtered with the lymph and circulated with the blood until finally they settled in the reservoirs destined for their union, the sex glands of the mother and the father. And there this rare germ is formed, and there, according to common opinion, it's led along the Fallopian tube into the womb, attaches itself to the womb by a long peduncle, and there grows in stages and develops into the fetal state. Then comes the moment when it leaves its dark prison, and, behold, it is born, exposed on the steps of Saint-Jean-le-Rond, which gave him his name. Taken from the Foundling's Home, set on the breast of the good wife of a glazier, Madame Rousseau, nursed, grown large in body and mind, he becomes a writer, engineer, and mathematician. How did that all happen? By eating and by other purely mechanical operations. Here in four words is the general formula: eat, digest, distil in vasi licito, et fiat homo secundum artem [in the proper container, and make a man by art]. And anyone who explained to the Academy the progress of the formation of a man or animal would only have to refer to material agents whose successive effects would be an inert being, a sentient being, a thinking being, a being solving the problem of the precession of the equinoxes, a sublime being, a marvelous being, a being who grows older, declines, dies, dissolves, and is returned to the vegetable kingdom.
D'ALEMBERT: So you don't believe in pre-existing germ cells?
D'ALEMBERT: Ah, I'm pleased to hear that.
DIDEROT: It's against experience and reason. It contradicts the experience of anyone who could have wasted his time looking for these germ cells in the egg and in most animals before a certain age, and it contradicts reason which teaches us that the divisibility of matter has a natural limit, although there is none in our understanding, and which rejects the idea of an elephant completely formed in an atom and in this atom another perfectly shaped elephant, and so on to infinity.
D'ALEMBERT: But without these pre-existing germ cells, the original generation of animals cannot be imagined.
DIDEROT: If you're troubled by the question of whether the egg came before the hen or the hen before the egg, that's because you assume that animals were originally what they are now. What foolishness. We don't know any more about what they were than we do about what they'll become. The imperceptible earthworm which moves around in the mud is perhaps developing into the condition of a large animal, and an enormous animal, which astonishes us with its size, is perhaps developing into the condition of the earthworm. Perhaps both are each a unique and momentary production of this planet.
D'ALEMBERT: What do you mean by that?....
DIDEROT: Will you allow me to leap ahead a few thousand years?
D'ALEMBERT: Why not? Time means nothing to nature.
DIDEROT: You'll consent that I extinguish our sun?
DIDEROT: Once the sun goes out, what will happen? The plants will die, animals will die, and there we have the earth lonely and quiet. Relight this star, and right away you'll re-establish the necessary cause of an infinite number of new generations, and I wouldn't venture to guarantee that with the succession of ages our plants and animals of today would be reproduced or not reproduced among these new generations.
D'ALEMBERT: Why wouldn't the same scattered elements, once they start to reunite, bring back the same results?
DIDEROT: Because everything in nature is linked. The man who assumes a new phenomenon or brings back a moment from the past is creating a new world.
D'ALEMBERT: That's something even a profound thinker couldn't deny. But to return to man, since the universal order wished him to exist. You recall you left me in that transition from a sentient being to a thinking being?
DIDEROT: I remember.... Could you tell me what the existence of a sentient being is in relation to itself?
D'ALEMBERT: It's the consciousness of having been himself from the first moment of reflection until the present moment.
DIDEROT: And what is this consciousness founded on?
D'ALEMBERT: On the memory of its actions.
DIDEROT: And without this memory?
D'ALEMBERT: Without this memory there'd be no "itself," since it wouldn't sense its existence except at the moment of an impression and thus wouldn't have a history of its life. Its life would be an interrupted series of sensations in which nothing was connected.
DIDEROT: Very good. Now, what is memory? Where does it arise?
D'ALEMBERT: From a certain organic structure which grows, diminishes, and sometimes disappears completely.
DIDEROT: So if a being which feels and which has an organic structure suitable for memory links together the impressions which it receives and forms by this linking together a history of its life and acquires a consciousness of itself, it denies, it affirms, it concludes, it thinks.
D'ALEMBERT: That's what it seems to me. I have only one remaining difficulty.
DIDEROT: You're wrong. There are a lot more difficulties.
D'ALEMBERT: But one main one. It strikes me that we can think only about one thing at a time and in order to form a simple proposition (since I'm not talking about those enormous chains of reasoning which include thousands of ideas in their development) we'd say that it's necessary to have at least two things present, the object which seems to sit there under the eye of our understanding which at the same time is busy with the quality which it will affirm or deny about that object.
DIDEROT: I share that concern. And it's led me sometimes to compare our organic fibres with sensitive vibrating strings. A sensitive vibrating string oscillates and resonates a long time after one has plucked it. It's this oscillation, this sort of inevitable resonance, which holds the present object, while our understanding is busy with the quality which is appropriate to it. But vibrating strings have yet another property -- it's one that makes other strings quiver. And thus the first idea recalls a second, and these two a third, then all three a fourth, and so it goes, without our being able to set a limit to the ideas which are aroused and linked in a philosopher who meditates or who listens to himself in silence and darkness. This instrument makes astonishing leaps, and one recalled idea sometimes is going to set in motion a harmonic at an incomprehensible interval. If the phenomenon is perceptible between resonating strings, inert and separated, how could it not take place between vital points linked together, between continuous and sensitive fibres?
D'ALEMBERT: If that's not true, it's at least very ingenious. But one would be tempted to think that you've fallen imperceptibly into a difficulty which you wished to avoid.
DIDEROT: What's that?
D'ALEMBERT: You object to the distinction between matter and spirit?
DIDEROT: I don't hide the fact.
D'ALEMBERT: Yet if you look closely, you're making the understanding of a philosopher, a being distinct from the instrument, a sort of musician who presses his ear against the vibrating strings and who makes judgments about their consonance or their dissonance.
DIDEROT: It's possible I have prompted this objection. But perhaps you'd not have made it if you'd considered the difference between the philosophical instrument and the instrumental keyboard. The philosophical instrument is sentient -- it is at the same time the musician and the instrument. As something sentient it has the momentary consciousness of the sound it is making; as an animal, it has the memory of that. This organic faculty, by linking the sounds in itself, produces and keeps the melody there. Suppose there is a keyboard with sense and a memory. Tell me if it won't know and repeat on its own the melodies which you have executed on its keys. We are instruments endowed with sensibility and memory. Our senses are so many keys which are struck by nature surrounding us and which often strike themselves. And there we have, in my judgment, everything which goes on in an organic keyboard like you and me. There's an impression that has its cause either inside or outside the instrument, a sensation which is born from this impression, a sensation which lasts, for it is impossible to imagine that it is made and extinguishes itself in an indivisible instant, another impression which follows this one, and which similarly has its cause either inside or outside the animal, a second sensation and voices which designate them by natural or conventional sounds.
D'ALEMBERT: I see. And so if this sentient and vital keyboard was now endowed with the faculty of feeding and reproducing itself, it would live and give birth to little keyboards, living and resonating, either on its own or with its female partner.
DIDEROT: No doubt. In your view, is a lark, a nightingale, a musician, or a man anything else? And what other difference do you find between a canary and a canary-organ? You see this egg? That's what enables us to overturn all the schools of theology and all temples on the earth. What is this egg? An insensible mass before the germ cell is introduced into it, and after the germ cell is introduced, what is it still? An insensible mass. For the germ cell itself is nothing but an inert and basic fluid. How does this mass develop into another organic structure with sensibility and life? By heat. What will produce heat in it? Movement. What will be the successive effects of movement?
Instead of answering me, sit down, and let's follow these effects with our eyes from moment to moment. First there's a point which oscillates, then a thread which grows and takes on colour, flesh forms, a beak, the tips of wings, eyes, and feet appear, a yellowish material which unwinds and forms intestines. It's an animal. This animal moves, agitates itself, cries. I hear these cries through the egg shell. It is covered with down. It sees. The weight of its head, which moves back and forth, constantly brings its beak against the inner surface of its prison. And then it breaks it. It comes out, it walks, it flies, it responds to a stimulus, it runs off, it comes closer, complains, suffers, loves, desires, rejoices. It has all your moods and goes through all your actions.
Do you claim, with Descartes, that this is a purely imitative machine? But small children will make fun of you, and philosophers will reply that if that's a machine, then you are another machine. If you admit that between you and the animal there is merely a difference in organic structure, you'll be following good sense and reason, acting in good faith. But people will conclude from all this, in opposition to you, that from an inert material arranged in a certain manner, impregnated with another inert material, and subject to heat and movement, we get sensibility, life, memory, consciousness, passions, and thought.
There are only two positions one can take. One can imagine that in the inert mass of the egg there is a hidden element which is waiting for its development to manifest its presence, or one can assume that this imperceptible element insinuates itself through the egg shell at a time determined by the development of the egg. But what is this element? Does it occupy space or not? How has it come or has it escaped without moving? Where was it? What was it doing there or somewhere else? Was it created at the necessary moment? Was it already in existence waiting for a home? Was it the same stuff as this home or different? If it was the same, then it was material. If it was different one cannot conceive of its inertia before development or of its energy in the developed animal.
Listen to me, and you'll feel sorry for yourself. You'll feel that, in order not to admit a simple assumption which explains everything -- sensibility as a universal property of matter or a product of organic structure -- you're rejecting common sense and jumping into an abyss of mysteries, contradictions, and absurdities.
D'ALEMBERT: An assumption! You're happy to say that. But what if it's a quality essentially incompatible with matter?
DIDEROT: And where do you get the idea that sensibility is essentially incompatible with matter when you don't know the essence of anything, neither matter nor sensibility? Do you understand better the nature of movement, its existence in a body, and its communication from one body to another?
D'ALEMBERT: Without understanding the nature of sensibility or that of matter, I see that sensibility is a simple quality, unified, indivisible, and incompatible with a divisible subject or substance.
DIDEROT: That's metaphysical and theological mumbo jumbo. What? Don't you see that all qualities, all the sensible forms which make up matter are essentially indivisible? There's neither more nor less impenetrability. There is half a round body, but not half roundness. There is more or less motion, but movement is neither more nor less -- it's either there or it isn't. There's no such thing as a half or a third or a quarter of a head or an ear or a finger, any more than there is a half, a third, or a quarter of a thought. If in the universe there is not a single molecule which resembles another and in a molecule no point which resembles any other point, admit that the atom itself is endowed with a quality, an indivisible form. Concede that division is incompatible with the essential quality of forms, because it destroys them. Be a [physicist] and admit the production of an effect when you see it produced, although you can't explain to yourself the connection between the cause and the effect. Be a logician and don't substitute for a cause which exists and which explains everything another cause which cannot be conceived, and whose connection with the effect is even harder to understand, something which produces an infinite multitude of difficulties and which solves none of them.
D'ALEMBERT: Well, what if I give up this cause?
DIDEROT: Then there's only one substance in the universe, in man and in animals. The bird-organ is made of wood, and man is made of flesh. The canary is made of flesh, and the musician is made of flesh organized differently but the two of them have the same origin, the same formation, the same functions, and the same end.
D'ALEMBERT: And how is the convention of sounds established with your two keyboards?
DIDEROT: Since an animal is a sensing instrument perfectly similar to another, endowed with the same pattern, equipped with the same strings, plucked in the same manner by joy, sorrow, hunger, thirst, colic, admiration, terror, it is impossible that it makes different sounds at the pole and the equator. Moreover, you'll find in all languages, living or dead, that interjections are almost the same. We have to derive the origin of all conventional sounds from need and proximity. The sensible instrument or animal has learned from experience that when it emits a certain sound, there then follows some effect outside itself -- other sensing instruments similar to it or other sensitive animals came close, went away, asked for something, offered something, injured or caressed it, and these effects were linked in its memory and that of other to the formation of these sounds. Observe that in human intercourse there are only sounds and actions. And to concede the full strength of my system, notice also that it is subject to the same insurmountable difficulty which Berkeley [Irish philosopher, Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753); pronounced BAR-klee] proposed in arguing against the existence of material bodies. Thus there is a moment of delirium when the sensitive keyboard thought it was the only keyboard in the world and that all harmony in the universe was coming from it all by itself.
D'ALEMBERT: There's plenty to argue about there.
DIDEROT: That's true....
D'ALEMBERT: Farewell, my friend. Good evening. Have a good night.
DIDEROT: You're teasing, but you'll dream on your pillow about this conversation, and if it doesn't convince you, then too bad, because you'll be forced to adopt some even more ridiculous hypotheses.
D'ALEMBERT: You're wrong. I'll go to bed a skeptic, and I'll get up a skeptic....
II. D'Alembert's Dream
[The scene is in D'Alembert's bedroom. D'Alembert is sleeping in a bed with curtains around it. Doctor Bordeu and Mademoiselle de L'Espinasse are sitting near the bed]
BORDEU: All right, then, is there anything new? Is he ill?
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: I'm afraid so. He's had a very disturbed night.... I don't know where he spent the evening, but he came back concerned about something.
BORDEU: He has a slight fever -- it won't lead to anything.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: As he came in, he put on his dressing gown and his night cap and threw himself in his armchair, where he dozed off.... When he was in bed, instead of lying peacefully the way he usually does, for he sleeps like a child, he began to turn, rolling around and waving his arms. He threw off his blankets and started to talk out loud.
BORDEU: What was he talking about? Was it geometry?
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: No. It all sounded delirious. At the start it was a lot of nonsense about vibrating strings and sensitive fibres. It all seemed so foolish to me but, since I'd decided not to leave him during the night and not knowing what to do, I went up to a small table at the foot of his bed and started to write down everything I could catch of his dream talk.
BORDEU: Clever thinking on your part. Can we see the result?
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: Of course.... Are you ready?
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: Listen --
"A living point . . . No, I'm wrong. Nothing at first, then a living point . . . Another living point attaches itself to this one, and then another -- and from these successive conjoinings a single living unity results, for I am certainly a unity. Of that I have no doubt. . . ."
(As he was saying this, he was feeling himself all over).
"But how does this unity create itself . . ."
("My friend," I said to him, "what are you doing? Go to sleep." He stopped talking. After a moment of silence, he started up again as if he was talking to someone) . . .
"All right, philosopher, I can grasp an aggregate, a tissue of small sensitive beings, but an animal . . . a totality, a unified system, on its own, with an awareness of its own unity? That I don't understand. No, I don't understand it at all. . . ."
Doctor, is there something in all this that you understand?
BORDEU: Yes, it makes excellent sense.... Continue.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: All right, I'll keep going . . . He then added, challenging himself,
"'My friend, D'Alembert, be careful. You're assuming there is only contiguity where there is continuity' . . . Yes . . . He is clever enough to tell me that . . . And how is this continuity formed? That will hardly create a problem for him . . . Just as a drop of mercury fuses itself with another drop of mercury, so a sensitive and living molecule fuses itself with a sensible and living molecule . . . At first there were two drops -- after the contact there is only one . . . Before the assimilation there were two molecules; after the assimilation there is now only one . . . The sensibility becomes common to the common mass . . . And, indeed, why not? . . . In my thinking about the length of an animal fibre, I can distinguish as many parts as I like, but the fibre will remain a unity . . . yes . . . a unity. The contact between two homogeneous molecules, perfectly homogeneous, creates the continuity . . . and it's an example of the greatest union, cohesion, combination, and identity one could imagine . . . Yes, philosopher, if these molecules are elementary and simple . . . but what if they are aggregates, if they are compounds? . . . The combining will still take place no less than before and the resulting identity and continuity . . . and then the usual actions and reactions . . . It's certain that contact between two living molecules is something different from the contiguity of two inert masses . . . Let's move on, not bother with that . . . One could perhaps take issue with you, but I'm not worried about it . . . I never just keep going on and on. However, let's get back to the point. A wire made of pure gold -- that's one comparison I remember he made to me -- a homogeneous network. Between its molecules other molecules interpose themselves and perhaps form another homogeneous network, a tissue of sensitive matter, a contact which absorbs active sensibility from here and latent sensibility from there and which passes itself on like a movement, without accounting for the fact, as he has firmly pointed out, that there must be some difference between the contact of two sensible molecules and the contact of two molecules which are not, and this difference -- what could it be? . . . a customary action and reaction . . . and this action and this reaction with a unique character . . . That way everything comes together to produce a sort of unity which exists only in an animal. . . . My goodness, if this is isn't the truth, it's really close to it."
You're laughing, doctor. Do you find any sense in all that?
BORDEU: Yes, a lot.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: So he's not losing his mind?
BORDEU: Not at all....
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: Then he began to babble something or other about seeds, scraps of flesh placed to marinate in water, different races of animals which he saw in succession as they were born and passed away. With his right hand he imitated the tube of a microscope and, with his left, I think, the opening of a vase. He looked into the vase through the tube and said,
"Voltaire may make as much fun as he likes about it, but the Eel-monger [English microscopist, John Turbervill Needham (1713-1781)] is right -- I believe my eyes, I see how many of them there are! How they come and go! How they wriggle around! . . ."
The vase where he was looking at so many momentary generations he then compared to the universe. He saw in a drop of water the history of the world. This idea appeared important to him -- he found it entirely compatible with good philosophic practice, which makes conclusions about large bodies by studying small ones.
He said, "In Needham's drop of water, everything takes place and goes away in the blink of an eye. In the world, the same phenomenon lasts a little longer, but what is our length of time compared to an eternity of time? Less than the drop which I took up on the point of a needle compared to the limitless space which surrounds me. An indefinite succession of animalcules in the fermenting atom, the same indefinite succession of animalcules in the other atom which we call the Earth. Who knows the races of animals which came before us? Who knows the races of animals which will come after ours? Everything changes, everything passes away. Only the totality remains. The world begins and ends without ceasing. At every instant it is at its beginning and at its end. It's never been anything else and never will be anything else. In this immense ocean of matter, no single molecule resembles any other, and no single molecule resembles itself for more than a moment: Rerum novus nascitur ordo [a new order of things is born] -- there's its eternal slogan."
Then he sighed and added:
"Oh, the vanity of our thoughts! The poverty in glory and in our works! The wretched smallness of our vision! There's nothing substantial except drinking, eating, living, loving, and sleeping . . . . Mademoiselle de L'Espinasse, where are you?"
Then his face became flushed. I wanted to feel his pulse, but I didn't know where he had hidden his hand. It looked as though he was going through a convulsion. His mouth was half open, and his breath was forced. He gave a deep sigh, and then a fainter sigh, and then another deeper sigh. He turned his head on his pillow and went to sleep....
At around two o'clock in the morning, he came back to his drop of water, which he called a mi . . . a micro . . .
BORDEU: . . . a microcosm.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: That's the word he used. He was admiring the wisdom of the ancient philosophers. He was saying or conversing with his philosopher, I don't know which,
"When Epicurus claimed that the earth contained the germs of everything and that the animal species was a product of fermentation, if he had proposed to show a picture in miniature of what was created on a grand scale at the beginning of time, what could one have said in reply? . . . And you have this very image right before your eyes, but it's not telling you anything . . . Who knows if the process of fermentation and what it produces have run their course? Who knows what point we're at in the sequence of these animal generations? Who knows if this deformed biped, only four feet high, which is still called a human being in the regions of the pole but which would quickly lose this name if it grew a little more deformed, is not the image of a species which has passed away? Who knows if things are not the same with all animal species? Who knows if everything isn't tending to reduce itself to a large, inert, and immobile sediment? Who knows how long this inertia will last? Who knows what new race could result some day from such a huge heap of sensitive and living points? Why not a single animal? What was the elephant at its origin? Perhaps it was the huge animal as it appears to us, perhaps an atom, for both options are equally possible. They only depend upon the movement and various properties of matter . . . The elephant, this enormous structurally organized mass the sudden product of fermentation! Why not? The size relationship between this large quadruped and its original matrix is less that that between the mite and the particle of flour which produced it. But the mite is only a mite . . . That is, its diminutive size which conceals from you its organic structure robs it of its wonder. . . . The amazing thing is life, sensitivity -- and this is no longer something amazing . . . Once I've seen inert matter passing into the sensitive state, nothing else should astonish me . . . What a comparison between a small number of fermenting elements set in the palm of my hand and that immense reservoir of different elements scattered in the bowels of the earth, on its surface, in the bosom of the seas, in the expanses of air! . . . However, since the same causes are at work, why have the effects ceased? Why don't we see the bull piercing the earth with his horn any more, his feet pushing against the soil, as he makes an effort to free his heavy body from it? . . . Let the present race of existing animals pass away, and let the large inert sediment do its work for a few million centuries. Perhaps, in order to renew species, it requires ten times longer than the period assigned for their duration. Be careful. Don't be in a rush to make judgments about the great work of nature. You have two grand phenomena -- the passage of an inert state into a sensitive state and spontaneous generations -- and that's enough for you. Draw justified conclusions from them and in an order where there is no large or small, no absolutely durable or temporary. Watch out for the logical fallacy of the ephemeral. . . ."
Doctor, what is the logical fallacy of the ephemeral?
BORDEU: It occurs when a transitory being believes in the immortality of things.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: Like Fontenelle's rose who used to say that in the memory of a rose no one had ever seen a gardener die?
BORDEU: Precisely -- that's both deft and profound....
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: Shhh . . . keep quiet. (Mademoiselle de L'Espinasse and the doctor remain silent for some time. Then Mademoiselle de L'Espinasse speaks in a low voice) I think he's gone back to sleep.
BORDEU: No -- it seems to me I hear something.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: You're right. Has he resumed his dreaming?
BORDEU: Let's listen....
D'ALEMBERT: Man is only a common effect, a monster is only a rare effect. Both of them are equally natural, equally necessary, equally part of the universal general order . . . Is there anything astonishing in that? . . . All beings circulate through each other -- thus all the species . . . everything is in a perpetual flux . . . Every animal is more or less a human being, every mineral is more or less a plant, and every plant is more or less an animal. There is nothing fixed in nature . . . The ribbon of Father Castel [French mathematician Father Louis Bertrand Castel (1688-1757); Castel developed a system of making sounds "visible" to the deaf using colored ribbons] . . . Yes, Father Castel, it's your ribbon and nothing else. Everything is more or less something or other, more or less earth, more or less water, more or less air, more or less fire, more or less of one kingdom or another . . . so there is no essence of any particular being . . . No, there's no doubt, since there is no quality which any being does not share in . . . and because it's the greater or smaller ratio of this quality which has made us attribute it to one being to the exclusion of another . . . And you talk about individuals, you poor philosophers! Forget about your individuals. Answer me this: is there an atom in nature which is exactly similar to another atom? No . . . Don't you agree that everything in nature is linked and it's impossible that there's a gap in nature's chain? Then what do you want to say with your individuals? There are no individuals, no, there are none . . . There is only one great individual -- that's the totality. In this totality, as in a machine, in some animal or other, there is a part which you'll call this or that, but when you give the name "individual" to this part of the totality, it's a conceptual error, just as if, in a bird, you gave the name "individual" to a wing, to a feather in the wing . . . And you speak of essences, your poor philosophers! Forget about your essences. Look at the general mass, or if your imagination is too narrow to take it all in, consider your first origin and your final end . . . O Archytas, you who measured the globe, who are you now? A few cinders . . . What is a being? . . . The sum of a certain number of tendencies . . . Can I be anything other than a tendency? . . . No, I'm moving towards an end . . . And what about the species? . . . Species are only common tendencies towards an end appropriate to them . . . And life? . . . Life, a series of actions and reactions . . . When living, I act and react as a mass . . . when dead, I act and react as different molecules . . . So I don't die? . . . No, undoubtedly I don't die in that sense, neither I nor anything that is . . . To be born, live, and pass away -- that's changing forms . . . And what's important about one form or another? Each form has the happiness and unhappiness appropriate to it. From the elephant all the way to the aphid . . . from the aphid all the way to the sensitive and living molecule, the origin of everything, there's no point in all nature which does not undergo pain and pleasure.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: He's stopped talking.
BORDEU: Yes. He made a really fine speech. Now that's lofty philosophy. At this point it's a theoretical system, but I believe that the more human understanding progresses, the more it will be confirmed.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: All right, then. Where were we?
BORDEU: To tell you the truth, I don't remember any more. He reminded me of so many things while I was listening.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: Wait . . . just a minute ....
BORDEU: Yes, yes.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: Doctor, come closer. Imagine a spider at the centre of its web. Shake a strand. You'll see the animal rush up on the alert. All right then. What if the strands which the insect pulls from its intestines and pulls back when it wishes were a sensible part of itself?
BORDEU: I understand. You are imagining in yourself some part in a corner of your head -- for example, in that part we call the meninges, one or several points where all the sensations aroused along the length of strands are brought.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: That's it.
BORDEU: Your idea is as good as one can make it.... Anyone who understands a human being only by the form which he shows us at birth doesn't have the least idea. His head, feet, hands, all his limbs, all his viscera, all his organs, his nose, eyes, ears, heart, lungs, intestines, muscles, bones, nerves, membranes, properly described, are only the basic developments of a network which is formed, grows, extends itself, and throws out a multitude of imperceptible threads.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: That's my web, and the central point of all these threads is my spider.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: Where are the strands? Where's the spider located?
BORDEU: The strands are everywhere. There is no part on the surface of your body where they don't end up. And the spider is lodged in a part of your head -- the one I mentioned to you -- the meninges, which we can hardly touch without knocking the entire machine unconscious.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: But if an atom sets one of the spider's strands vibrating, the spider then is alarmed and disturbed. It flees or runs up. At the centre it is informed about everything which goes on in any point of the immense dwelling it has woven. Why don't I know what's going on in mine or in the world, since I am a pack of sensitive points which all impinge on me and since I impinge on everything?
BORDEU: It's because the impressions grow weaker in proportion to the distance they travel.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: If we strike the lightest blow at the end of a long girder and if I place my ear on the other end, I hear the blow. If one end of the girder was touching the earth and the other end was in Sirius, the same effect would be produced. If everything is linked, contiguous -- that is, as in the real existing girder -- why do I not hear what goes on in the immense space which surrounds me, above all if I really open my ears?
BORDEU: And who has told you that you do not hear it more or less? But the distance is so great, the impression so faint, the passage so confused. You are surrounded and deafened by such violent and different sounds.... Let's go back to your network and its formation....
I've given the matter a great deal of thought, and it seems to me that the direction and the location of the stimulus would not be sufficient to permit so sudden a judgment of whatever it is at the centre of the bundle.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: I have no idea about that.
BORDEU: Your doubt pleases me. It is so common to assume that natural qualities are acquired habits almost as old as we human beings.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: And vice versa.
BORDEU: Whatever it is, you see that with a question where it's a matter of the first formation of an animal, it's too late to concentrate one's focus and thoughts on the completely developed animal -- we have to go back to its first rudiments. For that you have to strip off your present organic structure and get back to a moment when you were only a substance made up of soft vermicular filaments, without a shape, more like a bulb or a root than an animal.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: ... You told me that each section of the bundle formed a particular organ. What proof do you have of this?
BORDEU: In your mind do what nature sometimes does -- cut through one of the sections of the bundle, for example, the part which forms the eyes. What do you think will happen?
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: Perhaps the animal will have no eyes.
BORDEU: Or it might have only a single one placed in the middle of the forehead.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: It would be a Cyclops.
BORDEU: A Cyclops.... The man who dissected this monstrosity and found it had only one optic thread. Now, in your mind do what nature sometimes does. Remove another section of the bundle, the part that forms the nose -- the animal will be without a nose. Remove the section which should form the ear, the animal will be without ears, or will only have one, and the anatomist in his dissection won't find either the olfactory threads or the auditory threads or will find only one of the latter. If you continue removing sections of the bundle the animal will lack a head, feet, hands -- its lifespan will be short, but it will have lived.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: And are there any examples of this?
BORDEU: Certainly. And that's not all. If you double some of these bundles, the animal will have two heads, four eyes, four ears, three testicles, three feet, four arms, six fingers on each hand. Mix up the threads of the bundle, and the organs will be displaced: the head will be situated in the middle of the chest, the lungs will be on the left, the heart on the right. Stick two bundles together, and the organs will be mixed together -- the arms will be stuck on the body, the thighs, limbs, and feet will be fused together, and you'll have every kind of monstrosity you can imagine.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: But it seems to me that a machine as complex as an animal, a machine which develops from a single point, in an agitated fluid, perhaps in two fluids mixed together randomly -- for one hardly knows what one is doing at such times -- a machine which develops toward perfection through an infinity of successive developments, a machine whose regular or irregular development depends upon a bundle of thin, delicate, flexible wires, a kind of tangle where the least thread cannot be broken, worn out, displaced, or missing without harmful consequences for the totality -- such a machine would get all tied up and confused during its development even more than the silk on my skein winder.
BORDEU: Well, it does suffer much more than we think. There's not enough dissection done, and our ideas about its development are very far from the truth.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: Do we have any noteworthy examples of these original deformities, other than hunchbacks and cripples, in whom we could attribute the misshapen form to some hereditary defect?
BORDEU: There are numberless examples. Very recently a man died of pneumonia in Charité de Paris infirmary. He was a twenty-five-year-old carpenter born at Troyes, called Jean-Bapiste Macé. The inner organs of his chest and abdomen were reversed -- his heart was on the right, just as it is on the left in you; his liver was on the left, his stomach, spleen, and pancreas on the right hypochondria; the portal vein to the liver on the left side (corresponding to the position it has when it goes to the liver on the right), the same transposition along the length of the intestinal tract; the kidneys leaning against each other by the lumbar vertebrae, making the shape of a horseshoe. And with all that people are still going to talk to us about final causes!
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: That's remarkable.
BORDEU: If Jean-Baptiste Macé had been married and had had children . . .
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: Yes, doctor, what about his children?
BORDEU: They'd have the usual shape, but because these irregularities make jumps, some child of their offspring, after about a hundred years, will return back to the strange organic arrangements of his ancestor.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: Where do these jumps come from?
BORDEU: Who knows? To make a child requires two people, as you know. Perhaps one of these agents fixes the defect in the other and the defective network is not reborn until the moment when the descendant of the family with the monstrosity predominates and determines the formation of the network. The bundle of threads is the basis for the first and original difference in all animal species. The varieties in the bundle for a species create all the abnormal varieties of this species....
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: Each strand of this sensitive network can be injured or tickled along its entire length. The pleasure or pain is here or there, in one location or another on one of the long legs of my spider, for I always come back to my spider. It's the spider which is located at the common origin of all the legs and which establishes that the pain or pleasure is at such and such a place without experiencing the pleasure or pain itself.
BORDEU: It's this continual, invariable interaction between all impressions and the common origin which constitutes the unity of the animal.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: And it's the memory of all these successive impressions which creates for each animal the history of his life and of its individuality.
BORDEU: And it's the memory and the comparisons which necessarily come after all these impressions which create thought and reason.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: Where is this comparison made?
BORDEU: At the centre of the network.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: What about the network itself?
BORDEU: It does not have in its centre any sense unique to it. It cannot see or hear, and it doesn't suffer. It's produced and fed. It arises from a soft, insensitive, inert substance which serves as a pad on which it sits, listens, judges, and pronounces.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: It suffers no pain.
BORDEU: No. With the lightest impression on the centre of the network it stops responding, and the animal falls into a death-like state. If you make this impression stop, it returns to its functions, and the animal is reborn.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: How do you know that? Has anyone ever made a man die and be born again at will?
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: And how did that happen?
BORDEU: I'm going to tell you. It's a strange case. La Peyronie [surgeon to Louis XV, François de la Peyronie (1678-1747)], whom you may have known, was called to visit an invalid who had received a violent blow on the head. The invalid felt his head beating. The surgeon was sure that an abscess had formed on the brain and there wasn't a moment to lose. He shaved the invalid and opened the skull. The point of his instrument struck the very centre of the abscess. It had pus in it. He drained off the pus and cleaned the abscess with a syringe. When he pushed his injection into the abscess, the invalid closed his eyes, his limbs went immobile and inert, without the least sign of life. When he pulled back on the syringe and relieved the weight and pressure of the injected fluid on the centre of the network, the invalid re-opened his eyes, moved, spoke, felt, was reborn, and came to life.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: That is remarkable. And did this invalid recover?
BORDEU: He did. And when he was cured, he reflected, thought, and reasoned. He had the same intelligence, the same good sense, the same ability to sort things out, with a good portion of his brain gone....
But there are better [examples].
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: What could that be?
BORDEU: The myth of Castor and Pollux come to life -- two children in whom the life of one was immediately followed by the death of the other, and the life of the latter immediately followed from the death of the first.... [I]n Rabastens in the diocese of Albi, two girls were born back to back, joined at their last lumbar vertebrae, their buttocks, and the hypogastric region. They couldn't hold one of them upright unless the other's head was down. When they were lying down, they could look at each other. Their thighs were bent between their trunks, and their limbs were raised. In the middle of the common circular line where they were attached in the hypogastric area, one could discern their sex, and between the right thigh of the one and the corresponding left thigh of her sister, in a cavity there was a small anus through which meconium came out.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: That's a really odd species.
BORDEU: They took in milk given to them on a spoon. As I told you, they lived for twelve hours, one losing consciousness as the other came out of unconsciousness, one dead while the other lived. The first blackout of one and the first life for the other was at four hours. The alternating blackouts and returns to life which came afterwards were shorter. They died at the same moment. People noticed that their navels also had an alternating movement outwards and inwards, going in for the one who was unconscious and going out for the one who was returning to life.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: And what are you saying about these alternating periods of life and death?
BORDEU: Perhaps nothing worth very much, but since we see everything through the spectacles of our own system and I don't want to be an exception to the rule, I say that it's the phenomenon of La Peyronie's trepanning but doubled in two joined beings. The networks in these two children were so thoroughly mixed together that they acted on and reacted to each other. When the centre of the bundle of one had the upper hand, it took control of the other child's network, and she immediately blacked out. And when the network of the second child dominated their common system, the situation reversed. In La Peyronie's trepanning patient, the pressure was directed downward from above by the weight of a fluid; in the twin girls of Rabastens, the pressure came up from below through the tension in a certain number of threads in the network: this hypothesis is supported by the alternating inward and outward movement of their navels -- in the one returning to life the navel came out, and in the one dying it went back in.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: There we have an example of two linked souls.
BORDEU: An animal based on the principle of two sensing systems and two areas of consciousness.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: But only having the use of one of them by itself at any given time. Still, who knows what would have happened if this animal had lived.
BORDEU: With the experience of all these moments of life and the most powerful habits one could imagine, what sort of intercommunication would have been established between these two brains?
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: Double senses, a double memory, a double imagination, a double ability to focus -- one half of a being which observes, reads, meditates, while its other half rests; then this other half takes up the same functions when its companion is weary: the double life of a double being.
BORDEU: That's possible. And in time nature brings out everything possible, so it will produce some strange compound creations.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: How impoverished we would be in comparison with such a being!
BORDEU: But why? There are already so many uncertainties, contradictions, and foolish things in a simple understanding that I have no idea any more what would happen with a double understanding. But it's half past ten, and I hear a patient calling me from across town.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: Would he be in any danger if you did not visit him?
BORDEU: Probably less than if I do visit. If nature can't do the work without me, then we'll have a good deal of trouble doing it together, and it's certain that I'll not get it done without her.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: So why not remain?
D'ALEMBERT: Doctor, one word more, and I'll send you to your patient. Given all the vicissitudes which I've been through in the course of my life, I probably don't have now a single one of the molecules which I brought into the world when I was born. So how have I retained my identity for other people and for myself?
BORDEU: You told me that while you were dreaming.
D'ALEMBERT: Was I dreaming?
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: All night long -- and it was so much like a delirium that I sent someone out to find the doctor this morning.
D'ALEMBERT: All that for the business of the spider's legs moving on their own, thus keeping the spider alert and making the animal talk. And what did the animal say?
BORDEU: Through its memory it retained its identity for others and for itself. And I'd add through the slowness of the changes. If you'd passed in the wink of an eye from youth to decrepitude, you'd been thrown into this world as if at the first moment of your birth, and you'd not have been yourself either to others or to yourself, and other people would not have been themselves for you. All interconnections between you would have been destroyed, the whole history of your life would have been jumbled up for me and all the history of my life would have been jumbled up for you. How could you have known that this man, bent over his stick, with no spark in his eyes, dragging himself along with difficulty, still more strange to himself inside than on the outside, was the same man who yesterday was walking along so lightly, shifting heavy loads, who was able to give himself over to the most profound meditations, to the most delicate and the most powerful exercises? You wouldn't have understood your own works, you wouldn't have recognized yourself or anyone, and no one would've recognized you. The entire picture of the world would've changed. Remember that there was even less difference between you as a new born and a young person than there would be between you as a young man and you if you suddenly became a decrepit old man. Keep in mind that, although your birth was linked to your youth by a sequence of uninterrupted sensations, the first three years of your existence have never been in the conscious history of your life. So what would the time of your youth be for you if it hadn't been linked at all to the moment of your decrepitude? The decrepit D'Alembert wouldn't have the slightest memory of the young D'Alembert....
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: One moment, doctor, let's summarize. According to your principles, it seems to me that by a sequence of purely mechanical operations, I could reduce the finest genius in the world to a mass of unorganized flesh to which we wouldn't ascribe anything but sensibility at a particular moment, and then we could bring back this unformed mass from a state of the profoundest stupidity one could imagine to the condition of a man of genius. One of these two phenomena could consist of mutilating a certain number of threads in the primitive tangle and really mixing the other ones up. The reverse phenomenon would require us to restore to the tangle the threads we had detached and to leave the whole thing to develop properly. For example, if I remove from Newton the two auditory threads, he has no more sense of sound, the olfactory threads, no more sense of smell, the optic threads, no more sense of colour, the taste threads, no more sense of taste -- if I cut out or mix up the others, then farewell to the organic structure of the brain, farewell memory, judgement, desires, aversions, passions, willing, consciousness of the self, and lo and behold an unformed mass which retains nothing but life and sensation.
BORDEU: Two almost identical qualities. Life is the aggregate, and sensitivity is among the elements.
MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: I take this mass again, and I restore the olfactory threads, and its nose starts to work, the auditory threads and it hears, the optic threads and it sees, the palate threads, and it tastes. By straightening out the rest of the tangle, I permit the other threads to develop, and I see memory, comparison, judgment, reason, desires, aversions, passions, natural aptitude, and talent reborn. I recover my man of genius and all that without the intervention of any heterogeneous unintelligible agent.
BORDEU: That's exactly it. Stick to that. The rest is nothing but nonsense. But the abstractions, the imagination? The imagination is the memory of forms and colours. The spectacle of a scene or an object necessarily sets up the sensing instrument in a certain manner. It either winds itself up by itself or is wound up by some foreign cause. Then it quivers inside or it makes some external sound. It either records in silence the impressions which it has received or it makes them burst out in conventional sounds.
D'ALEMBERT: But its account exaggerates, omits circumstances, adds things, distorts the facts or embellishes them, and the sensing instruments close by imagine impressions which are really those of the reasoning instrument and don't come from the event which has taken place.
BORDEU: That's true. The account can be historical or poetical.
D'ALEMBERT: But how is this poetry or falsehood introduced into the account?
BORDEU: By ideas which arouse each other, and they do so because they are always linked. If you've taken the liberty of comparing an animal to a keyboard, you'll allow me to compare a poetry reading to a song.
D'ALEMBERT: That's fair.
BORDEU: In every tune there is a scale. This scale has its intervals, each of its strings has its harmonics, and these harmonics have their own harmonics. In this way, modulations are introduced into passages of the melody, and the music is embellished and extended. The musical event is an established theme which each musician responds to in his own way....
D'ALEMBERT: What about abstractions?
BORDEU: There aren't any. There are only habitual omissions, ellipses which make propositions more general and language faster and more convenient. They are the linguistic signs which have given birth to the abstract sciences. A quality common to several actions gave rise to the words vice and virtue, a quality common to several beings gave rise to the words ugliness and beauty. People said one man, one horse, two animals, and then later they said one, two, three, and the whole science of numbers was born. We have no idea of an abstract word. We have observed in all three-dimensional bodies length, width, and depth. We have busied ourselves with each of these dimensions, and from that we have derived all the mathematical sciences. All abstraction is nothing but a sign empty of ideas. All abstract science is only a combination of signs. We have excluded the idea once we separated the sign from the physical object, and it's only by re-attaching the sign to the physical object that science becomes once again a science of ideas. That's where the need arises -- so frequent in conversation and in our written works -- of dealing with examples. When, after a longer discussion comparing signs, you ask for an example, you are only asking the person talking to give body, form, reality, and some idea to the series of his verbal noises by linking them to some dependable sensations....