Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, Vol 4, No 1-2 (2008)

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The Category of Life, Mechanistic Reduction, and the Uniqueness of Biology

Wendell Kisner


The conceptual and ontological determinacies belonging to the category of mechanism, determinacies that began to occupy centre stage within the scientific and philosophical understanding of nature in seventeenth century Europe, continue to tacitly serve as theoretical underpinnings in contemporary conceptualizations of biological life for many scientists as well as philosophers. The conceptual hegemony enjoyed by the category of mechanism since the seventeenth century is even evident in the tacit reliance upon it by some contemporary theorists who otherwise wish to regard themselves as having gone beyond mechanism in their conceptualizations of life. I will argue that such inadvertent reliance is the result of a failure to make these conceptual and ontological determinacies belonging to the category of mechanism explicit through a critical examination of the category of mechanism. In the Science of Logic Hegel carries out precisely such a critical examination and explicit development of the determinacy implicit in mechanism, along with the conceptual and ontological determinacies appropriate to chemistry, teleology and, finally, biological life. Whereas reductive mechanism is commonly criticized by opposing it with an alternate account said to be more ontologically, definitionally, or empirically adequate, Hegel's Science of Logic shows that the category of mechanism considered in itself on its own terms is self-undermining or unsustainable due to its own inherent contradictions. Furthermore, the emLogic/em shows that rendering the implicit determinacy of mechanism explicit necessarily leads to the development of conceptual determinacies that are appropriate to living processes. Because the conceptual development of these latter determinacies results from the inherent unsustainability of mechanism, mechanistic determinacy cannot provide a basis for the conceptualization of life. For this reason, the category of life is rigorously irreducible to that of mechanism. The exegesis provided in this paper of Hegel's account of the category of mechanism and his derivation of the idea of life from that category will provide the justification required for the above claims.

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