The Maxim of Life

Homo Scientificus and The Maxim of “Life”

Darwin’s post-Kantian revolution served to reify the inhumanity of Blackness that the modern grammar of representation had already imposed and presumed as early as 1684 in Francois Bernier’s A New Division of the Earth. Thus, in a gesture beyond deconstruction, Denise Ferriera Da Silva examines the axioms of Western thought that ground the rise of the figure of homo scientificus or the scientific Man. More explicitly, her reading of Charles Darwin and, as she so preciously details, the work of Georges Cuvier questions the world sustained by the time of  homo scientificus. It is in this regard that her work, her reading, and investigation is a black feminist poethics. Attending to the high crimes against Black flesh, at the highest level of abstraction, “her confronting question, questions Time and the world it sustains.” A world that perhaps sets the post-Classical writings of Francois Bernier beside the anthropological essays of Immanuel Kant as onto-epistemic expressions of the Transcendental I’s production of universal nomos prior to universal poesis. In other words, Frankenstein arises out of the invention of universal law and transcendental force.

In the first case, universal nomos characterizes reason as the exterior regulator of the universe. Which is to say, that in the time before the time of homo scientificus, the time that laid the conceptual seeds of  the productive nomos of scientific Man, there became an axiomatic acceptance of a specific figure of interiority’s capacity to regulate (and by regulate one may also say “measure”) the exterior reality of the universe. This reveling in “rational” interiority became foundational to the text of rational modernity. The gift of reason became the ground of Transcendence for a parochial minority ostensibly self-verified as the universal harbinger of universal Reason. And what of Reason’s failure? In what ways might we explain the limits of Reason’s categorical determinations and explanations? Da Silva finds the answer the West gave to this conundrum in the writings of the German philosopher G.W. F. Hegel whose transcendental dialectics serves the basis for her understanding of universal poesis. In “Towards of A Global Idea of Race” Da Silva states:

Unlike in Kant’s Transcendental and Herder’s Historical, in Hegel’s Transcendental the merging of both recuperates exteriority to resolve it into interiority, in that which Augustine called the privilege of the rational soul. Thought is the “essence” of everything that exists, but only insofar as the interior thing also recognizes itself as a thing – not as an extended thing, for we just saw that at this point it still thrives in alienation – but as a thing that is fundamentally of time, always actuality, because it enjoys a profound intimacy, transparency, with that universal force that comes into being in time as it engulfs space, The Transcendental I, namely, “Spirit.” This is the moment of “world history.”

In other words, after the foundational grounding of universal nomos within the Transcendental interiority of the Rational soul, Western philosophers, scientist and thinkers began to resolve the difficulty of determining and regulating exteriority by way of linking scientific reason to a universal world history. In articulating the horizon of Life as unfolding upon the onto-epistemic logics of the history of the World as the space and time of a specific ethno-class of Transcendental Interiority, what Hegel introduces for Da Silva is Thought that can transcend thought by way of Force. Taken even in Hegel’s time as his own philosophical spin on Newton’s law of motion, the force of universal poesis assisted the conceptualization of the determination of the Thing itself. Hegel puts it thusly:

“… it is through its determinateness that the thing excludes others. Things are therefore in and for themselves determinate; they have properties by which they distinguish themselves from others. Since the property [Eigenschaft] is the Thing’s own [eigene] property or a determinateness in the Thing itself, the Thing has a number of properties. For, in the first place, the Thing is what is true, i.e. it possesses intrinsic being; and what is in it, is there as the Thing’s essence, and not on account of other things.”

Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, 73

This is a central quote for understanding Da Silva’s critique of Hegel. Crucially, the principle of exclusion found here in Hegelian thought is connected to the principle of determinacy. Da Silva, however, is critical of the principle of determinacy at an onto-epistemological level. For Silva, the object and the object’s essence – having been made determined – by Western onto-epistemology has resulted in exclusions that are generative of the forms of violence constitutive of modernity writ large. Insofar as Kant’s understanding of determinacy is found in Hegel’s earliest stages of theorizing, Hegel too remains within the core of modern thought. Da Silva thus indicts this presupposed determinacy by suggesting that the way in which this presupposition has functioned has been to operate as an uninterrogated assumption and universalism that then becomes the basis through which abstract Truths may be built. This determinacy can be the basis for these abstract Truths because they function, in Hegel’s terms, as “sound common sense” (77) and thus, “relationships mediated by abstract determinants” can be captured.

            Homo scientificus emerges in the crevices of the consolidation of both universal nomos and universal poesis. For the Hegelian account of temporality locates even the coming of universal nomos as a (be)coming in the universal history of world history. The coming of the scientific Man is a (be)coming in Western onto-epistemology that results from the inversion of the temporality of universal poesis. This inversion writes universal poesis out of the Transcendental “I” and onto exteriority-spatiality itself. In other words, universal world history and Spirit as conceptualized as an idealistic dialectic in Hegelian rationality, is transposed onto those things considered to be exterior to the Transcendental I. It is these things to which Da Silva gives the name, “extended (exterior-affectable) things.” For in them, one finds, what the Transcendental I had onto-epistemologically determined itself, as having-been-determined as, separate and always already never equal to. This transformation is the transformation of universal nomos (universal reason) and universal poesis (world history) into productive nomos (productive reason). Da Silva again states:

This is a transformation that becomes possible only after transcendental poesis writes regulation as self-representation, which conceives of existing things as both always already ordered by something that has a fundamental interiority – not, as Kant postulates, as an effect of an exterior (universal) tool, the “pure intuition” of time, but as the interior tool that is exteriorized as Spirit manifest itself as space. At the core of productive nomos, then, I find a rewriting of the play of engulfment, which, rather than merely describing extended, that is, spatial (exterior-affectable) things as yet-to-be sublated moments of spirit, reads them as always already exteriorizations of the transcendental force in the “essence” of which they always already participate.

(99)

Denise Ferriera Da Silva reads George Cuvier’s Animal Kingdom as well as his Lectures on Comparative Anatomy alongside Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species and The Descent of Man as crucial scientific texts in the stage of this rewriting. Put differently, Da Silva reads George Cuvier and Charles Darwin to illustrate the way in which the working of their thought required the assumptive logics of productive nomos namely, the presuppositions of exteriority as always already being an outer-expression of an essence to which each exterior thing participates. Thus, the function of this assumptive logic, unlike the assumptions of universal nomos, is that exterior and affectable things can be brought into productive regulation by way of Reason. This is the play of engulfment. The engulfment of the things thought to be exterior to the Transcendental I into the productive reason of the Transcendental I made possible by way of an onto-epistemic condition of universal world history. In other words, homo scientificus is a homo historicus. A homo historicus that writes the history of all things – in spite of, and perhaps, by way of their lack of interiority.

            Da Silva describes two strategic interventions in the work of Cuvier and Darwin which she argues the logics of productive nomos opened the way for. Georges Cuvier’s strategy of intervention dubbed the “laws of condition of existence” marked the moment where the nomos as regulation becomes an instrument of representation. This is to say that the “laws of conditions of existence” as outlined in Cuvier’s scientific text produces a regulation in the field of representation that allows for the cause of affectable things to be determinable through the regulative capacity of Reason. More importantly, this regulative capacity is authored in and through its productive capacity to represent. Hence, what separates the regulative capacity determined in the universal nomos from the regulative capacity determined in productive nomos is that the latter articulates universal reason as both a regulative and productive force. Da Silva locates this form of thought in the genericity of the concept of “Life” as articulated by Cuvier to the foundations of the life sciences. Da Silva states in conversation with Cuvier that:

On the one hand, regulation (order) produces life. Because life, Cuvier teaches, ‘presupposes organization in general, and the life proper to each being presupposes the organization peculiar to that being, just as the movement of the clock presupposes the clock; and accordingly, we behold life only in beings that are organized and formed to enjoy it; and all the efforts of philosophers have not yet been able to discover matter in the act of organization, either of itself or by any extrinsic cause.’ On the other hand, life produces regulation. While it operates within the body, the plan at work escapes the elements it affects. Because, ‘Life,’ Cuvier continues, is ‘exercising upon the elements which at every instant form part of the living body, and upon those which it attracts to it, an action contrary to that which would be produced without it by the usual chemical affinities, it is inconsistent to suppose that it can be produced by these affinities, and yet we know of no other power in nature capable of reuniting previously separated molecules” (6). That is, life is scientific signifier, but one that describes the scene of regulation as a productive context. Not only does it govern the arrangement of various and diverse organs and their functions, but it also produces the particular organisms that compose living nature. That is, in Cuvier’s version of the science of life, living bodies, the extended and self-producing things of nature, are exteriorizations, both products and ‘effects’ of a tool of universal reason, that is, life.

In summary, Cuvier’s philosophy of life as presented here in Da Silva’s reading of Lectures on Comparative Anatomy presents the concept of “Life” as both an outcome of universal reason that would ultimately regulate the parameters around the arrangement, differentiation, categorization, and specialization of the internal nature of affectable things, but also produces the basis from which an entity is identified externally as being a being of Nature. In a sense, the rise of this notion of ‘Life’ is coterminous with an understanding of Nature as being regulated by the Maxim of Life as a tool of universal reason. Thus, the ‘law of conditions of existence’ emerges. The ‘law of conditions of existence’ states that only those things which have Life meet the law of conditions of existence (productive) and Life is that which organizes, essentializes, and ultimately, allows for the taxonomical categorization of the body of beings themselves. With this, Cuvier’s philosophy of life allows for the human body itself as a living thing to enter into relation with this notion of productive nomos as a proper question of inquiry for the universal ruler-producer. Only to locate the human body within a field of knowledge that presupposed particularization, stratification, homogenization, and hierarchy.

            What Cuvier’s philosophy of life writes as a scientific text is an account of the exterior-affectable things that for the first time includes a particular interest in taking account of the Transcendental I’s corporeal body. Homo scientificus self-reflexively ask the question of its own body as a question of and for the condition of possibility of the affectable thing. Locating the question of its own body in the “laws of conditions of existence” and with it, the deployment of the terms ‘Caucasian, Mongolian, and Negro’ as modicums of the classificatory body schema beginning to ossify in the Mid-19th Century. Life – for homo scientificus – is the End in itself.  Yet, we find this version of Life to be even more abstract than the commonsense notion of Life as being an immersion within the taxonomized body. For Darwin’s ‘principle of natural selection’ not only takes up a notion of Life as regulating-productive principle of all-Things, but also writes the ‘struggle for Life’ as an End beyond the individual end of any finite body-being. This expansive notion of Life becomes the basis for the idea of evolution as a spatial-temporal unfolding which attaches one Life to another Life beyond the Life of one’s own Life. What dies, dies, natures gift of death. For nature, naturally selects only those fit to survive, fit to go on, fit to withstand Darwin’s naturalist spin on the Hobbesian dream of primal chaos. The Transcendental I is written on the outside of this “struggle for Life” – not as a non-evolutionary object outside of the ‘principle of natural selection’, but rather as the evolutionary Subject par excellence. The outcome of productive nomos that through productive  nomos stands alone in being able to tell the tale of productive nomos. Or rather, the evolutionary object that stands alone in reason and through reason, stands alone in being able to make transparent what is the universal common history of all things. Thus, Darwin rewrites “living nature as a stage of the unfolding of transcendental poesis.” Da Silva states:

My point is that Darwin excluded human beings from Origins of Species because, by the mid-nineteeth century, the ruling principle of transcendentality had already taken hold of modern thought, to which evolution (through the thesis of the ‘common origin’ of everything) testifies… He does not follow Cuvier’s suggestion that human visible physical traits correspond to variations in organic structure that account for differences in ‘mental functions.’ Instead, he assumes that the ‘civilized races’ of man’s highly developed ‘mental functions’ and social configuration, ‘modern civilization,’ are the main signifiers of European particularity. Always already a self-determined thing, in Darwin’s version of productive nomos the ‘civilized man’ remains (as a transparent thing) fully in the scene of representation from whence he defies the regulative and productive force of nature, beyond the means of ‘natural selection.’ He alone is self-producing; he alone enjoys the ability of self-perfection.

Darwin’s ‘principle of natural selection’ works to assess the scope of Life’s productive powers in and through the spatializations of the body to make a statement about the expansive temporality of the regulative and productive capacity of Life. In other words, Darwin’s “principle of natural selection’ appropriates Thomas Hobbes’ “struggles for existence” into a core facet of the notion of Life itself. Requiring then that Life be entangled with temporality, completing the formulation of productive nomos by pointing to the scope of the notion of Life as being beyond the finite existence of any particular living body. In Da Silva’s words, “Not only particular bodies but the whole of created (living) things, which is spread throughout global space, becomes the laboratory for the observation of the activity of a temporal regulative and productive force that actualizes itself by producing increasingly differentiated, specialized, and complex living things.” What the principle of natural selection did was provide a global temporality for what had already begun in the work of Cuvier, what had started to be laid down in the transcendental history of Hegel, which had found its earliest roots of legitimacy in Kantian universal reason. This is to say that the argument for a “survival of the fittest” on a global scale is linked to a conceptual economy of Western modernity that rest its strategy of engulfment on a concept of Life as Maxim. Yet, while the work of Cuvier centers on the spatializations of the body – as signified practically in the fact that his practice took place in anatomy laboratories and/or cemeteries – the work of Darwin pursues the furthest regions of the World as to locate the productive nomos of homo scientificus onto the globe. Hence, what makes Da Silva’s reading of Charles Darwin so unique in the critical literature on Darwin is her critique of an essentialist notion of the non-teleological Darwin. Instead, what Da Silva finds is a Darwin whose teleological End – found in his “principle of natural selection” – is the central formula of the science of life, namely, the concept of Life itself. As Da Silva puts it, “With the principle of natural selection, Darwin expands the domain of investigation of the workings of life beyond any finite body to rewrite living nature as a self-regulating and self-producing totality, one in which the variations among living things become an effect of the regulating and productive force whose ‘End’ reaches beyond the existence of any particular exteriorization of life.”

            Up to this point, it would be possible to see nothing spectacularly radical in Da Silva’s reading of the Western philosophical record. For her close readings of these text remain true to the expectations and outcomes of their authors. For example, it is true and essentially universally accepted and understood by philosophers of nearly every tradition that Immanuel Kant was seminal in the universal acceptance of the idea of universal reason and the transcendental subject. It is true that Hegel’s post-Kantian idealism rested upon the determinations of this transcendental subject, but that the notion of dialectics accounted for the unfolding of universal reason as the idea of world history. It is also true that Georges Cuvier presented a novel concept of Life. This concept of Life is precisely what gave Cuvier his enigmatic title as “The Founding Father of Paleontology.” For it is true, as Da Silva reads, that Cuvier sought to explain bio-logical and physiological difference by way of representation. He does so only with the productive imposition of reason which through providing regulation, allows homo scientificus to represent or make-transparent all the things that are, including, that very thing which Cuvier himself is. Lastly, it is true that Darwin’s principle of natural selection requires another understanding of Life that aligns itself with the idea of world history. For not only does Darwin’s notion of Life extend beyond an interest in the ‘laws of condition of existence’ but its ‘struggle for Life’ account of universal world history locates in Life itself, the very thing that nature always rationally selects. Nature always selects Life in its struggle for Life. And this too is the logic of sense. For those for whom Nature does not select face the horizon of Death.

Da Silva’s radical critique lies in the fact that she sees in this conceptual and philosophical unfolding a deployment of the strategy of engulfment. In other words, this conceptual economy of Life engulfs all of us into it, by “delimiting a microuniverse of sorts endowed its own ‘cause’ and ‘end.’” This microuniverse thinks itself as the universal itself, and in thinking itself as the universal endows its universe with its own logic of ‘cause’ and ‘end.’

In this case, that logic is the Maxim of Life.

This maxim is discerned and discovered by and through the self-discovery of the Transcendental subject as homo scientifcus. This figure is prefigured in Western thought as an outcome of Universal History – it is a homo historicus, but a homo historicus of European particularity, written into European particularity as productive nomos.  This figure sits within ‘the struggle for conditions of existence’ and the ‘principle of natural selection’ as two strategies of intervention into discerning the exteriority of the World. These strategies engulf all the things of the World under the representation of Life as a productive regulation of Reason. All over the World and back there is a struggle for Life. The cause of it all is Life and the end of it all is Life. In the game of survival of the fittest, the winners sit before the horizon of Life, the losers the horizon of Death. And yet, the game is rigged, down to the very text which ground it. For some are always already winners or obtainers of Life, whereas though others are engulfed under its imposition. Indeed, it is this distinction that marks the making of affectable things. It is Da Silva’s turn to affectable things in her reading of these philosophers and scientist of ‘I’ and ‘Life’ that raise the black poethical stakes of her account.

When he explicitly writes the transparent I, the homo historicus, outside – always already the winner – of the ‘struggle for Life,’ Darwin introduces an element absent in previous (Eighteenth-century naturalists’ and philosophers’) descriptions of the global as a site of human differentiation, namely, affectability. In the same statement, his version of the science of life safely places post-Enlightenment Europe in the moment of transparency and writes the ‘savage races’ in the same way Newton has described the bodies of physics, as doubly affectable living things, that is, as doubly governed by exteriority, that is, exterior regulating force (productive nomos) and coexisting more powerful human beings, that is, the ‘Caucasian races.’ In other words, they are always already losers in the ‘struggle for existence’ against the European ‘races of men,’ the ones whose social configurations testify to their competitive advantage.

The writing of affectability hinged upon dividing the world into beings governed by an interiority that can produce transparency, and beings that are governed by an exterior regulating force. Darwin’s writing of the transparent I presupposes that the ‘Caucasian’ ‘races of men’ had always already won the ‘struggle for Life.’ Pointing to the social configurations of his civilization as well as the socially configured conception of the microuniverse of ideas that he had been born into which permitted the presupposition of a universal reason and a universal history, Darwin was able to not only tell of the past and futures of Human life, but he was able to narrate the non-past and non-future of Savage death too. In Darwin’s words:

At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries… the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. At the same time, the anthropomorophous apes… will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of, as now, between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.

Following Denise Ferreira Da Silva then, the study of Blackness in the anti-Black conceptual economy would be a study of Blackness-as-Affectability before the horizon of Death. For Blackness is affectability before the horizon of Death in the aftermath of the regime-of-truth that is Western science and philosophy. To suggest such a thing one would have to insist upon a Death that is not merely negation nor a Life that is not merely affirmation. For what is productive about Life as Maxim is Death as Horizon. One would have to not only “move past that contradictory impulse to affirm in the interest of negation”[1] but also move past the image of thought which sequesters Death to the concept of negation and negation itself to a concept of negativity. In fact, one would have to dispense with the Law of Contradiction entirely to understand that the entire schemata through which we’ve come to theorize Life and Death, Reason and Unreason, has operated in accordance to a system of logic that produces forms-of-axiomatizing the Real that resulted in the social configuring of the distinction between the Subject and the Object, the Rational and the Affectable, the Human and the Black. The schematization of Life and Death as excluded category absolutely opposite of another “consist in another rehearsal of Hegel’s narrative of ‘Spirit,’ which writes being, self-consciousness, as that which always already is everything that is not itself.”[2] It acquiesces to the script of Life as necessary rather than radically contingent, and treats Death as a “limit at the core of the Transcendental I.”[3] This sustains the Transcendental I as an always already present figure even as one critiques or attempts to modify it. Indeed, by holding on to the Law of Contradiction, one withdraws from thoroughly entering into the demonic ground that Da Silva unveils and radical indeterminacy delivers. Neither death’s negativity nor life’s affirmation is necessary, nor negation’s negativity or affirmation’s productivity but rather, all of these combinations and complexes of thought are “systems of axioms” that have been chosen to serve the purpose of grounding the axiomatic coherence of the currently available material-semiotics given to answer the questions and answers stemming from:

Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is there Life rather than Extinction?


[1] Fred Moten, Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh), South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 112, 2013, 741, https://doi.org/10.1215/00382876-2345261.

[2] Da Silva, Toward a Global Idea of Race, 27:27.

[3] Da Silva, 27:76.

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