Figure and Ground: Static Version

The phenomena of figure and ground, wherein we can extract meaning from a static array of shapes by bringing a subset of those shapes or ‘spatial-relations’ into connection in our minds so that they form a familiar, recognizable pattern, is usually exemplified by a black and white silhouette such as the above.

The point ‘made’ is that the ‘figure’ is not ‘innate’ in what we are looking at, but is something that we fabricate with our mind.    That point is underscored by the fact that we can see this pattern either as a black figure on a white ground (a saxaphone player) or as a white figure on a black background (a woman’s face). 

What we make into a meaningful ‘shape’ by ‘recognizing it’, at the same time, reduces what is left to ‘shapelessness’, and it is impossible to ‘see both shapes at the same time’.   We might therefore surmise that our visual sensing apparatus has some limitations here; e.g. we can look at all the closed form shapes of the continents on the earth, but what is the shape of the oceanic space between the continents [It is impossible to see it ‘all at once’; i.e. to get its shape ‘in front of you’.]

The static figure and ground case is interesting but arguably more interesting is the ‘dynamic version’ of figure-and-ground.

If we see a toe wiggling in the sand [the dynamic figure], our experience informs us that it is connected to the [currently] motionless body of the sunbather, so that we cannot consider the body of the sunbather part of the ‘non-dynamic ground’.

But this question of separation of the dynamic figure from the non-dynamic ground impacts, fundamentally, our world view, and it is not nearly so easy to establish as in the sunbather’s toe example.

If we were to watch the feathery limbs of barnacles (cirri) in motion, we might be tempted to include its rigid volcano cone-like shell as part of the non-dynamic ground.  But, having established that the shell should be part of the dynamic figure, we might then be startled by the sudden movement of the whale that the barnacle is attached to, forcing us to include the barnacle and its volcano-cone shell in the dynamic figure of the whale.

As it turns out, relativity forces us to abandon the notion of ‘non-dynamic ground’ since, for example, the dynamic ground of gravity is ‘everywhere at the same time’ and there is no ‘detachment’ of any ‘dynamic figure’ from the ‘dynamic ground’.  As David Bohm observes, ‘material forms are ripples in the dynamic spatial-plenum’.  That is, there is ‘flow’ [dynamic ground] and ‘flow-features’ [dynamic figures] but it is only our mind that is detaching the ‘dynamic figures’ from the ‘dynamic ground’.

“In Newtonian and special relativistic physics, if we take away the dynamical entities – particles and fields – what remains is space and time. In general relativistic physics, if we take away the dynamical entities, nothing remains. The space and time of Newton and Minkowski are reinterpreted as a configuration of one of the fields, the gravitational field. This implies that physical entities – particles and fields – are not all immersed in space, and moving in time. They do not live on spacetime. They live, so to say, on one another. It is as if we had observed in the ocean many animals living on an island: animals ‘on’ the island. Then we discover that the island itself is in fact a great whale. Not anymore animals on the island, just animals on animals. Similarly, the universe is not made by fields on spacetime; it is made by fields on fields.”   — Carlo Rovelli, in ‘Quantum Gravity’

Nietzsche is one of the few philosophers who goes directly to ‘this point’ and to its significant influence in shaping our world view.   He points out that our habit is to reduce the ‘thing considered in itself’ [‘Ding an sich selbst betrachtet’] to a ‘thing-in-itself’ [‘Ding an sich’].   In the case of a ‘dynamic feature in the flow’, we use this psychological ‘sleight of hand’ to convert a flow-feature’ to a ‘dynamic figure’ that lives within a non-dynamic ground.

For example, if we insert a microscopic probe into the human body, we can observe blood cells as ‘dynamic figures’ within a shapeless ground; i.e. we lose the sense of the ground being a larger dynamic figure in which the foreground dynamic figure [the blood cell] is included since our visual sensing system is not capable of ‘seeing’ both at the same time.

What ‘the mind does’ here, to make up for the fact that it can longer ‘see’ that the dynamics of the blood cell derive from the larger dynamic ground of the body [and from the world], is to impute the capabilities of internal ‘intellection and purpose’ to the individual blood cells, so that ‘its’ behaviour can be understood in terms of ‘locally originating, internal process driven behaviour’.

While we call this ‘science’, Nietzsche calls this a ‘great stupidity’;

“In every judgment there resides the entire, full, profound belief in subject and attribute, or in cause and effect (that is, as the assertion that every effect is an activity and that every activity presupposes an agent); and this latter belief is only a special case of the former, so there remains as the fundamental belief the belief that there are subjects, that everything that happens is related attributively to some subject. ..[snip] … That which gives the extraordinary firmness to our belief in causality is not the great habit of seeing one occurrence following another but our inability to interpret events otherwise than as events caused by intentions. It is belief in the living and thinking as the only effective force–in will, in intention–it is belief that every event is a deed, that every deed presupposes a doer, it is belief in the “subject.” Is this belief in the concept of subject and attribute not a great stupidity?”  -Nietzsche, ‘Will to Power’, 550.

Nietzsche is calling it as it is, a mental trick to synthetically ‘break the dynamic figure out’ of the ‘dynamic ground’, by imputing ‘intellect’ and ‘will’ [intention/purpose] to it.

“Our judgement has us conclude that] every change must have an author”;–but this conclusion is already mythology: it separates that which effects from the effecting. If I say “lightning flashes,” I have posited the flash once as an activity and a second time as a subject, and thus added to the event a being that is not one with the event but is rather fixed, “is” and does not “become.”–To regard an event as an “effecting,” and this as being, that is the double error, or interpretation, of which we are guilty.” – Nietzsche, ‘Will to Power’, 531

The world view ‘we end up with’ by this process is one in which we see every ‘animate entity’ [dynamic figure] aka ‘organism’, as having its own locally originating, internal process driven development of form, behaviour and organizational savvy.

This means that ‘evolution’ is a local phenomenon; something that is undergone by the ‘organism’ or ‘dynamic figure’.   This leads us to Darwinist thinking.  If the entire world were the one animal, the one dynamic ground [one spatial-relationally transforming energy-charged plenum], as relativity and quantum physics say it is, then ‘evolution’ would be a process that the world undergoes, as in the view of Lamarck, Nietzsche, Rolph, Roux;

“And do you know what “the world” is to me? Shall I show it to you in my mirror? This world: a monster of energy, without beginning, without end; a firm, iron magnitude of force that does not grow bigger or smaller, that does not expend itself but only transforms itself; as a whole, of unalterable size, a household without expenses or losses, but likewise without increase or income … This world is the will to power–and nothing besides! And you yourselves are also this will to power–and nothing besides!” –Nietzsche, ‘The Will to Power’, 1067

Now, Nietzsche’s critiques are evidently right on target.  Who is challenging them?  [many are ignoring them]  And if we accept them, they make a huge difference as to how we understand the world dynamic and our self-other-world relationship.

How would our world view change and how would that change our social dynamic?

If we acknowledge that the world is, as Nietzsche describes it, a spatial-relationally transforming unum in which we are included, then our world view based on states of being that change with the passage of time has to be ‘demoted’ from its current position of precedence.  Our relationship with the dynamic unum we share inclusion in would then be by way of Mach’s principle where we would see ourselves akin to ‘convection cells’ in a common ‘flow’; i.e. “The dynamics of the inhabitants are conditioning the dynamics of the habitat at the same time as the dynamics of the habitat are conditioning the dynamics of the inhabitants.”  But since the flow or ‘dynamic habitat’ is what persists while the ‘dynamic inhabitants’ are continually coming and going, we might want to invert our manner of expressing Mach’s principle to; “The dynamics of the habitat are conditioning the dynamics of the inhabitants at the same time as the dynamics of the inhabitants are conditioning the dynamic of the habitat.”

Here we can clearly see Nietzsche’s [and Lamarck’s et al] expression of ‘evolution’; i.e. it is ‘transformation’ that transpires within a space that does not itself grow [Nietzsche’s aphorism 1067, Will to Power, cited above].  What might that look like if it could be pictured?



Space does not grow, it transforms

Quantum physics and relativity suggest that there ‘is no outside to spacetime’ so that it is not possible to picture things in this manner, from the outside-looking-in.  Nevertheless, you can still imagine yourself as a convection cell in the flow; i.e. as one of those transforming material forms situated within a transforming energy-charged spatial plenum that is ‘all there is’.  Everything you see, every bit of matter, is like a ripple in the energy-charged flow-field, like a convection cell or torus;

Every bit of matter can be likened to a toroidal energy-flow



The figure-ground problem has its counterpart in the dynamic realm; e.g. we can see the convection cell; i.e. the ‘dynamic figure’ but we can’t see its counterpart, the ‘dynamic ground’.  We know its there because we can see the ‘dynamic figure’ but it is not picturable to us, other than indirectly through the ‘dynamic figures’.

The temptation is, therefore, to impute the sourcing of motion to the local, visible,’dynamic figures’ themselves, and to avoid the complications of Mach’s principles wherein there is conjugate relation between the dynamics of the figures and the dynamics of the ground that the dynamic figures are included in.

The goal is therefore to develop a science where we can assume that all physical phenomena are locally, inside-outwardly, sourced.

This is ‘cheating’ but it is our cultural habit.  It is cheating because, for example, we know that the ‘gravitational field is ‘everywhere at the same time’ and its influence is non-local, not-directly visible, and non-material.  We know that this is the nature of ‘fields’ and we know that ‘fields’ predominate over local, visible, ‘matter’.

Our ‘cheating’ is called ‘approximation’, and the cheating that we do in science to make it seem as if physical phenomena are locally originating (to match the cheating we do in ‘grammar’ and ‘language’ as in Nietzsche’s ‘lightning flashes’ ) is described in footnote 2. , an excerpt from Henri Poincaré’s Science and Hypothesis.  There are ‘three trick’ which are built into the foundations of mathematical physics which have been ‘borrowed from there’ and used in all the sciences;

1. Pretend that the present depends only on the immediate past.

This reduces wave-dynamic to one way dynamics and denies the ‘spring-loading’  capacity of space.  Our experience says that this is plainly NOT the case.  If we set off an explosion, the blast front may head away from us initially since we are at the centre of it, but it can reflect back to us as well, or go around the earth.  If we are in an oval shaped stadium and under crowded conditions, we push the people to the right, the pulse of pushing could go all the way around the stadium and hit us from left.  There would be no problem to set up dominos to illustrate this connection between the present and the remote past.  Our approach to analyzing dominos would be to take two dominoes and get the general pattern for the dynamics of one piece falling onto another.  Condition 1. applies when we solve for the local dynamics where the present depends only on the immediate past, but if set up the dominos in the space on the surface of a sphere, as they fell and ‘dominoed’, the pulse could ‘go around and come back around and bonk the first domino ‘from behind’.

A cold period millions of years ago deposited glaciers whose summer-icemelts cool our summer air.  when these have totally melted, they will no longer provide ‘air conditioning’ and our temperatures will rise.  This will be ‘whack’ from the remote past the directly effects the present.  This demonstrates the spring-loading/unloading capacity of space.

This ‘assumption’ gives us the illusion that the causal factors for what is happening in the present act out of the immediate locality and the immediate past, which is not true.

2. Pretend that local macro phenomena are locally sourced from the inside.

For example, a thermal field associated the sun may heat a body of water differentially so that convection flow is induced.   The concept of ‘temperature’ is a device to impute local sourcing to thermal field effects.  Temperature is defined as the average kinetic energy of the molecules so it will give a ‘local measurement’ anywhere.  The curvature in the thermal field (the field influence is non-local, non-directly visible and non-material) is removed by ‘temperature’  measurement which is ‘scalar’. A local  hotspot, we say, is the source of expansion (e.g. convection cell activity in the atmosphere).   By this ‘pretending’, we make it appear as if something essentially nonlocally-sourced is ‘locally sourced’ [this leads to arguments such as whether climate is nonlocally or locally sourced]

3. Pretend that spatial phenomena can be dissected into elemental parts.

For example light [electromagnetic fields] has differing effects on things depending on its spectrum.  We can pretend that light can be decomposed into elemental ‘frequencies’.   Mathematically we can decompose light or any wave energy into as pure and narrow a frequency as we like, but that sort of taking things apart is ‘mathematical’ and not physically realizable.  The beauty and deception of the mathematical treatment is that it allows us to model any phenomena ‘locally’ in terms of ‘what local, visible, material things do’.

* * *

Science has thus used synthetic means to reduce the scientific modeling of physical phenomena to make them appear exclusively local and inside-outward driving.  These synthetic devices permit the artificial breaking down of the spatial plenum, into local material objects and organisms, that match visible forms, and re-rendering their dynamics in terms of local forces.  Thus the development of form and behaviour of the local, visible, material form such as a ‘human’ and/or a ‘cell’ is notionally stripped out of the energy-charged spatial plenum wherein outside-inward nurturing influence predominates over inside-outward asserting influence.

In other words, we are using mathematical techniques in science to notionally ‘take physical phenomena apart’ in a non-physically realizable way, to re-present these phenomena as if they were locally arising (inside-outward asserting).  In this manner, we deceive ourselves so as to make ourselves blind to, and in denial of the conjugate habitat-inhabitant relation [the conjugate dynamic-ground — dynamic-figure relation] in which outside-inward nurturing influence predominates over inside-outward asserting [notionally causal] influence.

What’s at stake here?

What’s at stake is the difference between the social dynamics of a people who believe

(a) ‘the land belongs to the people’ rather than ‘the people belong to the land’

(b) ‘we are all individuals’ rather than ‘we are all related’

(c) ‘what things do’ predominates over ‘how space accommodates actions’ rather than vice versa

In addition, intellectual-theory driven central direction, as PRIMARY means of organization, no longer makes any sense, nor does it make sense to use the application of moral code to individual behaviour as PRIMARY means of managing social dynamics [since there is no such thing as ‘individual behaviour’].

Now, since we have modern physics supporting the shift to the Nietzschean world view (or something like it) and an awareness of the contrivances in the mathematical treatments in science that synthetically re-render physical phenomena in purely inside-outward asserting [causal] terms, where are the log-jams?

I will mention two of biggest.

Logjam 1. Science reduces physical phenomena to purely inside-outward asserting dynamics, the ‘causal’ view.  This allows science to predict results/outcomes, and, where the causal agencies are applied, to control the outcomes.  This has great psychological appeal.  The problem is that the reality of our experience is in terms of ‘spatial transformation’, while the prediction is in terms of ‘what things do’.  As McLuhan observed, and Howard Zinn, it matters little whether ‘what we do’ is producing Cadillacs or cornflakes, what matters is how our relations with one another and the habitat are transforming.   Mach’s principle says the same thing; i.e. we do not determine the transformation of our living space.  The dynamics of the space we are in are conditioning our dynamics at the same time as our dynamics are conditioning the dynamics of the space we are in.   It is not that we do not notice that our penchant for controlling ‘what gets done’ is getting us in trouble.  There is all kinds of awareness of impending ‘catastrophe’;

As Frédéric Neyrat observes in ‘Biopolitics of Catastrophe;

“In extending his living space in a manner that destroys the space of others, he destroys his own space. Not initially his inside space, his ‘self’, but his outside space, this real outside-of-self which nourishes his ‘inside-of-self’. The protection of this outside space now becomes the condition without which he is unable to pursue the growth of his own powers of being.”

After two+ millennia of our culture’s beliefs in the causal model, we are in the flywheel phase, we are thinking about changing our ways, but our addiction to the control-based approach, and our associated fear of ‘anarchy’ is part of the logjam.


Logjam 2. People who have become used to the materialist model, assume that we are independently existing individuals and that our ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ belongs to the individual.  The Nietzschean reality seems to ‘dissolve’ our individuality into the great unbounded ALL [spatial-plenum] and this doesn’t make sense to many people.  It doesn’t make sense to Gregory Moore whose book on Nietzsche I have quoted extensively from below.  He says;

Before we move on, however, we should remind ourselves that, far from advancing a radical, coherent and effective critique of Darwin, Nietzsche simply reiterates the many errors and misunderstandings perpetrated by his contemporaries.  Like them, he dresses up a metaphysical and anthropomorphic view of nature in the language of modern evolutionary biology.

This anthropomorphism charge laid on Darwinism and science by Nietzsche, is seen by Moore as a ‘strawman’ that Nietzsche brings down in place of bringing Darwinism down.   This is where Moore errs, because he trusts in the notion of the ‘individual’ while Nietzsche sees belief in ‘individual beings’ as anthropomorphism; i.e. that’s how we see ourselves, as individuals with free will whose development of form and behaviour is inside-outward driven etc. and thus that’s what we impute organisms in general to be.

In order to ‘let go’ of this idea of ‘self’ as ‘individual’, one needs to envisage the world in non-euclidian space terms; e.g. in terms of each object/organism being a centre that is mirroring back what it is included in, as in ‘Indra’s pearls’, or just plain old non-euclidian space, which, if one exercises one’s mind with it, is this ’empty circle’ that reflects back outside-inward influence as inside-outward influence.  It is not ‘nothing’ because it is reflecting back from its own spatial-relationally unique situation.  One can imagine the ‘learning circle’ of the Amerindians in this ‘reflecting’ context.   Those physicists who are bootstrappers are also into the same concept.  The following are a couple of comments from a ‘high energy physics’ website;

“Leibniz constantly speaks of the monads as being in `mirroring’ relations. But what are the relata of the mirroring relations? Mirrors mirroring other mirrors. Leibniz’s monadic kingdom is a pure bootstrap operation.”

 The fact that Leibniz’ monads and the Chinese elements are both bootstraps may not be coincidental or even archetypal. Leibniz’ philosophy was strong influenced by Chinese Neo-Confucian thought brought back to Europe by Jesuit missionaries. To the right is the frontispiece of a paper by Leibniz on Chinese philosophy, one of the first such studies carried out in Europe:

the Buddhists provide my personal favorite image of the bootstrap, called Indra’s net of pearls: -“In the heaven of Indra, there is said to be a network of pearls, so arranged that if you look at one you see all the others reflected in it. In the same way, each object in the world is not merely itself but involves every other object and in fact is everything else.” (Avatamsaka Sutra)

[Source: High Energy Physics  See also Indra’s Pearls & Non-Euclidian Space, and the Double Spiral ]


Speaking of Jesuits bring this ‘mirroring back from the centre circle’ back from the east, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a Jesuit Priest and evolutionary biologist [implicitly anti-Darwinist in the same way as Nietzsche] who struggled to share ‘how an individual was, and was not, and individual’ in the context of Christ as the vital evolutionary force built into the world [Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’] which de Chardin sometimes called ‘Christogenesis’;

“There is nothing strange about there being a universal physical element in Christ.  Each one of us, if we but reflect, is enveloped, aureoled, by an extension of his being as vast as the universe.  What we are aware of is only the nucleus which is ourselves. But the interaction of monads would be incomprehensible if an “aura” did not extend from one to the other, i.e., something proper to each one and common to all.  How, then, are we to imagine the constitution of Christ as cosmic Center of creation?  Simply as an extension, a transformation, brought about in the humanity of Jesus, of that “aura” which surrounds ever human nomad.” – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin  

[Source ‘The Body of Christ in the Writings of Teilhard de Chardin‘, by Christopher F. Mooney, S.J.]

* * *

These two ‘logjams’; addiction to the predictive capabilities in our ‘what things do’ oriented science, even though the real dynamics, the transformation of our common living space, is whipping us about like a loose sheet in a gale, … and our addiction to ‘individualism’ in a simplistic ‘Euclidian sense’ of disconnectedness, are mutually reinforcing.  One’s sense of individualism combined with ‘what things do’ leads to the ‘doer-deed’ model of achievement which is the core teaching of our globally dominating Western culture.

It is under attack , to be sure.  Intellectual theory driven central direction, which comes from science’s artificial reduction in our way of modeling physical phenomena, to purely inside-outward asserting action is foundational to this authoritarian system of governance, and it is under increasing attack from public protests [e.g. ‘Occupy Wall Street]. 

The ideal of ‘the individual’ is also being ‘re-assessed’ within these protests; i.e. something very similar to the Amerindian ‘learning circle’ is under development in the ‘Occupy’ and related protest initiatives.  The new ‘leader’, rather than emulating the inside-outward asserting central authority, which has been the de facto standard in our culture, is looking more like the ‘mirrorer-back’ from the space the circle is situationally included in.

Meanwhile, the action to date is largely ‘intuitive’ as there is less adhesion than ever to particular theories, since it is recognized that most theories become implicit authoritarian control systems.  It would seem likely that the currents of change are not all that far off from sweeping away the two logjams that are currently suspending major ‘awakenings’ as to the foundational glitsches in our globally dominating Western culture ‘belief system’.




Footnote 1.  Excerpt from Nietzsche, biology, and metaphor By Gregory Moore,

In developing this aspect of the will to power, Nietzsche drew heavily on the ideas of an obscure Anglo-German zoologist called William Rolph.  In his only major work, Biologische Probleme, zugleich als Versuch zur Entwicklung einer rationellen Ethik (Biological Problems, and the pursuit of the development of a rational ethics ), which Nietzsche probably acquired during mid-1884, Rolph seeks to refute the orthodox Darwinian conception of the ‘struggle for existence’, and proposes a novel mechanism by which to explain the origin of variation and diversity in nature.  But his anti-Darwinian theory of evolution is intended only as a foundation on which to construct a moral theory rooted in biological ‘facts’ and formulated as an explicit rebuttal of Herbert Spencer’s system of evolutionary ethics.  It should be obvious, then, why Nietzsche might be interested in Rolph’s work.  Of even greater interest, perhaps, was the basic thesis underlying both Rolph’s discussion of basic physiological processes and his thoughts on the development of human morality from primitive biological imperatives.  For Rolph denies the existence of an instinct for self-preservation – or at the very least rejects the notion that such a drive represents the principal motivation of animal behaviour.  Rather, life seeks primarily to expand itself.

This elementary proposition is expressed as a law of assimilation, a law operative in both the organic and inorganic world.  Growth, Rolph argues, is determined by a process of diffusion, in which endosmosis predominates over exosmosis.  All organic functions, from nutrition and reproduction right up to evolution, can be explained by, and reduced to, this fundamental activity; they are not, as most contemporary biologists assumed, a manifestation of the instinct for self-preservation.  For this process of assimilation by endosmosis is limitless, leading Rolph to describe each cell, and consequently each more complex organism, as effectively ‘insatiable’ (unersättlich), impelled by an involuntary ‘urge to assimilate’ constantly to increase its intake of nutriment: ‘In the economy of nature, therefore, it is not a question of merely covering expenditure, but rather of increasing the income, of the turnover of material.’

From 1884 onwards, Nietzsche’s notebooks are littered with jottings and comments which suggest that Rolph’s influence on him was no less profound than that of Roux.  Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that Nietzsche incorporated all the basic premises of Rolph’s biology into his own thought.  Without enumerating the many instances of his borrowing here, it is nevertheless worthwhile to pick out some of the main threads of his Rolph-inspired notes.  For example, like Rolph, he regards assimilation as ‘that basic organic function on which all growth rests’.  The only difference is that Nietzsche holds the assimilative activity observable in both the organic and inorganic worlds to be further reducible to the behaviour of the will to power.  Yet he defines the will to power itself as a process of assimilation, and even, echoing Rolph’s terminology, as an ‘insatiable appropriation [unersättliche Aneignung]’.  In other words, Nietzsche once again adds an ‘inner world’ to what is ostensibly a purely mechanical process of diffusion; he raises Rolph’s principle of insatiability to the level of an ens realissimum.  Nietzsche further claims that all organic functions – and he lists amongst these nutrition, reproduction, adaptation, heredity and the physiological division of labour – are reducible to the will to powr.  All such organic processes – and, as we have already seen, the organism itself, as the totality of these processes – are means employed by the will to power to increase the extent of its influence; nutrition, for example, is merely ‘a consequence, a practical application of that original will to become stronger’.  Following Rolph, Nietzsche maintains that this insatiable acquisition of nutriment – and thus power – would suggest that organisms are not driven by an instinct for self-preservation: ‘one cannot derive the most basic and primordial activity in protoplasm from a will to self-preservation: for it takes in absurdly more than would be necessary for survival’.

Rolph further argues that the principle of insatiability explains the reproductive behaviour of primitive organisms – indeed, the two forms of reproduction which he differentiates, conjugation and division, are in fact disguised forms of nutrition.  Conjugation involves the merging of two unicellular organisms to form one single organism, and takes place when normal food supplies are scarce.  It is, in fact, simply ‘a particularly favourable form of taking in food,’ a process of ‘isophagous’ nutrition brought about by the organism’s original ‘striving for satiation’.  Cell division, on the other hand, takes place in more favourable circumstances: it is a consequence of the cell’s insatiable assimilation of organic matter when there is abundant nutriment.  The nucleus of the cell is a ‘centre of attraction [Attractionscentrum]’ which exercises a unifying and ordering influence on molecular changes that take place inside the cell.  But during cellular growth an imbalance arises between the surface and the interior of the cell: while the peripheral protoplasm receives enough nutriment, the nucleus does not.  This increase in the mass of peripheral protoplasm eventually overcomes the ‘centralising force of attraction’ exerted by the nucleus.  In short, the cell’s appetite has outstripped its capacity to process the material effectively, and, as a consequence, it ‘dissolves into two separate individuals, it remains in existence as a double being.

These ideas are echoed in numerous notes which Nietzsche composed between 1885 and 1887.  In one of the first instances, he writes:

The weaker presses towards the stronger because of a shortage of food; it wants to take shelter, possibly to become one with it.  Conversely, the stronger defends itself, it does not want to go under in this way; rather, in growing, it divides into two or  several more organisms.

But for Nietzsche these processes of division and conjugation do not only take place amongst organisms; he elevates Rolph’s discussion of reproduction in primitive organisms to the level of a universally valid principle describing the behaviour of entities in the inorganic as well as the organic world.

Struggle of the atoms, like that between individuals; where there is a certain difference in strength, however, two atoms develop out of a single atom and two individuals out of a single individual.  Likewise when, conversely, two develop from one when the inner state contrives a disintegration of the centre of power.

Nietzsche concludes this passage with the remark: Therefore against the absolute concept “atom” and “individual”!’ Given the issues that it raises, it is unsurprising that Nietzsche seizes upon Rolph’s account of cellular reproduction to explore the concept of the ‘individual’.  From the ‘standpoint of the theory of descent’, even cells, the most elementary organisms know to nineteenth century biology, are not absolute indivisible monads.  And this is just as true for what Nietzsche terms the ‘soul-monad’.  For if, as he maintains, ‘spirit’ or ‘mind’ is indeed an integral part of organic matter, and is therefore present in the most basic organisms, then the idea of an indivisible soul or subject cannot be sustained.  For, during the inevitable process of cell division – or even in more complex forms of reproduction – that unity of which a rudimentary ‘spirit’ is a part collapses.  Language lacks the means ‘to designate the degrees of intensity on the path to the individual, to the “person”.  Two develop from one, one from two: this one sees with one’s own eyes in the reproduction of the lowest organisms’.

Ultimately, it is the will to power which ‘propagates’ itself in this way.  Only weak centres of power, those which are spent and in decline, seek first and foremost to preserve themselves; only they are driven by ‘hunger’, an impulse to obtain a ‘restoration of loss’.  That is why they endeavor to unite with others; conjugation is always the result of hunger, of impotence.  On the other hand, the very voracity of the strong, ascendant will to power undermines its integrity and survival; its intrinsic ‘desire not to preserve itself’, its accumulation of more energy than it is able to assimilate, leads to the development of a ‘counter-will’, a new ‘centre of organisation [Organisationscentrum]’ (Rolph’s ‘centre of attraction’).  A struggle between the two wills ensues, with the emergent, stronger will ultimately detaching itself from the original, whereupon the whole process starts over again. But in describing the will to power in this way, Nietzsche speaks of it not merely in terms of a vague impulse at work in nature, but implies that it, too, is an entity, an organism that itself feeds and procreates.  In other words, power itself seems to have a ‘physiology’.  This involves a degree of circularity – inasmuch as he reduces physiological processes to functions of the will to power, but at the same time derives the characteristic activity of the will to power from those same physiological processes as described by Rolph and others.  What is more, however, in describing ‘processes of power’, as analogous to the behaviour of primitive organisms, he appears to revert to the same Romantic conception of the universe as organism that he had criticised in The Gay Science: ‘Let us beware of thinking that the world is a living being.  Where should it expand?  On what should it feed?  How could it grow and multiply?

In formulating his conception of the will to power, Nietzsche commits another metaphysical error which he had earlier studiously avoided.  He had questioned the necessity of positing a separate instinct for self-preservation as early as 1876-7.

Why assume an instinct for self-preservation [Erhaltungstrieb] at all?  Among countless non-purposive developments there arose viable ones, ones capable of continuing to live; the individual human organs required millions of years of adaptation until finally the present body could arise regularly and until those facts regularly appear which are usually ascribed to the instinct for self-preservation.

In this passage and, as we shall see in the next chapter, in other contexts, Nietzsche regards such an instinct for self-preservation as superfluous and teleological; he expresses the hope that it might one day be possible to trace the phenomena attributed to it back to ‘their chemical and mechanical laws’.  But while the later Nietzsche also repudiates the notion an instinct for self-preservation because he claims that it is a redundant teleological principle, he is perfectly happy to replace it with a Trieb that is no less teleological than the one which he rejects.

[[ two next pages missing from the online ‘preview’ from which this is taken]]

… the normal, to develop new needs and to satisfy them:

Then the life-struggle is no longer waged for existence, it is no struggle for self-preservation, no struggle for the ‘acquisition of the most indispensable requirement of life’, but, rather, a struggle for an increase in one’s acquisitions… It is constant, it is eternal; it can never be extinguished, for there can be no adaptation to insatiability . . . Furthermore, the life struggle is then no defensive struggle, but rather a war of aggression. . . But growth and reproduction and perfection are the consequences of that successful war of aggression. . . While the Darwinists hold that no struggle for existence takes place where the survival of the creature is not threatened, I believe the life-struggle to be ubiquitous: it is first and foremost precisely such a life-struggle, a struggle for the increase of life, but not a struggle for life!

If all this sounds somewhat familiar, it is because Nietzsche incorporates all the main points of Rolph’s anti-Darwinian argument –  the claim that the struggle for existence is an exception, occurring only in rare conditions of scarcity; that there is in fact an abundance of resources to fuel the rapid evolution of organisms; that the basic impetus in nature is towards an increase in life – into aphorism 349 of The Gay Science, in the fifth book that was added to the second edition of 1887.  Once again, the only significant change he makes is to translate Rolph’s terminology into his own, with the latter’s term the ‘increase of life’ (Lebensmehrung) becoming the more recognisably Nietzschean ‘expansion  of power’ (Machterweiterung):

The wish to preserve oneself is the symptom of a condition of distress, of a limitation of the really fundamental instinct of life which aims at the expansion of power and, wishing for that, frequently risks and even sacrifices self-preservation. . . In nature it is not conditions of distress that are dominant but overflow and squandering, even to the point of absurdity.  The struggle for existence is only an exception, a temporary restriction of the life-will [Lebenswille].  The great and small struggle always revolves around superiority, around growth and expansion, around power – in accordance with the will to power which is the will of life.

With slight modifications, and under a more explicitly anti-Darwinian rubric, the same argument reappears the following year in Twilight of the Idols: ‘life as a whole is not a state of crisis or hunger, but rather a richness, a luxuriance, even an absurd extravagance – where there is a struggle, there is a struggle for power . . . Malthus should not be confused with nature’.

What all this means is that organic change is for Nietzsche – as it is for Rolph – merely the by-product of the acquisition of power. This

[[Even Rolph speaks of the Grundtrieb of life as the acquisition of ‘wealth, power and influence’ (Biologische Probleme, p.222).  Elsewhere, Nietzsche echoes him more closely when he speaks of the ‘intensification of life [Lebensteigerung]’.]]

perspective allows him once again, he believes, to circumvent the issue of utility.  For Darwin, as we have seen, the use of a particular adaptation is determined by its value in securing an advantage in the struggle for existence.  Nietzsche, on the other hand, is utterly unconcerned with the fact whether an organism survives or not – indeed, the truly evolving organism precisely does not endure, but is inevitably destroyed by its own pregnant potency.  He understands evolution not in terms of the gradual accretion of adaptive and self-preservative variations, but as the sudden eruption of life’s creative energies:

‘Useful’ in the sense of Darwinian biology – that means proving itself advantageous in the struggle with others.  But it seems to me that the feeling of increase [Mehrgefühl], the feeling of becoming stronger, is itself, quite apart from its utility in the struggle, the real progress: only from this feeling does the will to struggle arise.

However, only by positing this universal thirst for power is it possible, Nietzsche believes, to account for what Darwin refuses to acknowledge: that the ‘struggle for existence’ does not always result in the survival of the ‘fittest’ – by which Nietzsche means the ‘stronger, better-constituted’.  In fact, as the history of humanity attests, the very opposite is the case: ‘the elimination of the strokes of luck, the uselessness of the more highly developed types, the inevitable ascendency of the average, even the below average types’.  How does the will to power explain this topsy-turvy state of nature, this ‘inverted struggle for existence’?  The answer lies in the fact that both the strong and the weak seek to improve the conditions of their existence, to obtain power.  But on the one hand, was we have seen, higher forms are rare and radically unstable.  Such is their profligacy in expending energy which they so voraciously acquire; such is their immanent diversity that these exquisite creatures are prone to disintegration and are thus short-lived: ‘the higher type represents an incomparably greater complexity, – a greater sum of co-ordinated elements, thereby also making disintegration incomparably more likely’.  On the other hand, the weak tend to congregate in herds, thereby consolidating and increasing their collective power as compensation for their individual impotence.  (In other words, the evolution of the individual and the herd are moments in the endless self-propagation of the will to power, constituting processes of either conjugation or division.  As such, they can be explained in terms of the fundamental lwa which Nietzsche had earlier formulated: ‘The greater the urge towards unity, the more one can infer weakness; the greater the urge towards variety, difference, inner disintegration, the more power there is’.  Against these organised herd instincts, the ‘strong’ are relatively powerless.  The weak, then, prevail not through brute strength, but by sheer force of numbers and as  a result of developing various adaptive strategies for survival – pre-eminently, of course, morality.

And it is to Nietzsche’s account of the evolution of morality that we now turn.  In doing so, we shall take up and elaborate the major themes of Nietzsche’s theory of evolution as they have been expounded in the foregoing discussion: the rejection of an instinct for self-preservation, the relationship between the individual and the herd, and the concept of the social organism.

Before we move on, however, we should remind ourselves that, far from advancing a radical, coherent and effective critique of Darwin, Nietzsche simply reiterates the many errors and misunderstandings perpetrated by his contemporaries [Not true!!!].  Like them, he dresses up a metaphysical and anthropomorphic view of nature in the language of modern evolutionary biology.  The will to power is essentially a Bildungstrieb, and is, as it were, an amalgam of a number of competing non-Darwinian theories: Nägeli’s perfection principle, Roux’s concept of an internal struggle, and Rolph’s principle of insatiability.   And although Nietzsche refuses to equate evolution with ‘progress’ or a linear ascent of organic forms; although he argues that the apparent purposiveness of organs arises as a result of a process of contingent struggle and denies that an instinct for self-preservation guides the actions of all organisms – despite all this, he reintroduces a teleological aspect to evolution by claiming that there is in nature a vital force that seeks the increase of power.  Ironically, Nietzsche’s evolutionism is more representative of nineteenth century thought than Darwin’s theory of natural selection.”

[[What the author of this text, Gregory Moore, does not acknowledge is that Nietzsche elsewhere (the Will to Power, 1067) clearly holds the world to be one thing, a thing that does not ‘grow’ but transforms-in-place; i.e. spatial-relationally.  The ‘teleology’ that Moore accuses Nietzsche of ‘reintroducing’, in the paragraph immediately above [“he reintroduces a teleological aspect to evolution by claiming that there is in nature a vital force that seeks the increase of power”], is radically unlike ‘teleology’ as it is commonly understood;

A thing, process or action is teleological when it is for the sake of an end, i.e., a telos or final cause. In general it may be said that there are two types of final causes, which may be called intrinsic finality and extrinsic finality.

  • A thing or action has an extrinsic finality when it is for the sake of something external to itself. In a way, people exhibit extrinsic finality when they seek the happiness of a child. If the external thing had not existed that action would not display finality.
  • A thing or action has an intrinsic finality when it is for none other than it’s own sake. For example, one might try to be happy simply for the sake of being happy, and not for the sake of anything outside of that.

This definition breaks teleology into an ‘outside-inward influence’ and an ‘inside-outward influence’ but Nietzsche is saying that these two influences are going on at the same time, the nurturance is coming outside-inward (endosmosis) while the development of form and behaviour is asserting inside-outwardly.  This is like the convection cell in the flow of the atmosphere or quantum physics’ ‘ripple in the energy-charged spatial plenum’.  These are dual aspects of one dynamic, a conjugate extrinsic-intrinsic dynamic of the ‘Mach’s principle’ type.]]


Footnote 2.  Excerpt from Science and Hypothesis (Henri Poincaré)


Origin of Mathematical Physics.—Let us go further and study more closely the conditions which have assisted the development of mathematical physics. We recognise at the outset that the efforts of men of science have always tended to resolve the complex phenomenon given directly by experiment into a very large number of elementary phenomena, and that in three different ways.

First, with respect to time. Instead of embracing in its entirety the progressive development of a phenomenon, we simply try to connect each moment with the one immediately preceding. We admit that the present state of the world only depends on the immediate past, without being directly influenced, so to speak, by the recollection of a more distant past. Thanks to this postulate, instead of studying directly the whole succession of phenomena, we may confine ourselves to writing down its differential equation; for the laws of Kepler we substitute the law of Newton.

Next, we try to decompose the phenomena in space. What experiment gives us is a confused aggregate of facts spread over a scene of considerable extent. We must try to deduce the elementary phenomenon, which will still be localised in a very small region of space.

A few examples perhaps will make my meaning clearer. If we wished to study in all its complexity the distribution of temperature in a cooling solid, we could never do so. This is simply because, if we only reflect that a point in the solid can directly impart some of its heat to a neighbouring point, it will immediately impart that heat only to the nearest points, and it is but gradually that the flow of heat will reach other portions of the solid. The elementary phenomenon is the interchange of heat between two contiguous points. It is strictly localised and relatively simple if, as is natural, we admit that it is not influenced by the temperature of the molecules whose distance apart is small.

I bend a rod: it takes a very complicated form, the direct investigation of which would be impossible. But I can attack the problem, however, if I notice that its flexure is only the resultant of the deformations of the very small elements of the rod, and that the  deformation of each of these elements only depends on the forces which are directly applied to it, and not in the least on those which may be acting on the other elements.

In all these examples, which may be increased without difficulty, it is admitted that there is no action at a distance or at great distances. That is an hypothesis. It is not always true, as the law of gravitation proves. It must therefore be verified. If it is confirmed, even approximately, it is valuable, for it helps us to use mathematical physics, at any rate by successive approximations. If it does not stand the test, we must seek something else that is analogous, for there are other means of arriving at the elementary phenomenon. If several bodies act simultaneously, it may happen that their actions are independent, and may be added one to the other, either as vectors or as scalar quantities. The  elementary phenomenon is then the action of an isolated body. Or suppose, again, it is a question of small movements, or more generally of small variations which obey the well-known law of mutual or relative independence. The movement observed will then be decomposed into simple movements—for example, sound into its harmonics, and white light into its monochromatic components. When we have discovered in which direction to seek for the elementary phenomena, by what means may we reach it? First, it will often happen that in order to predict it, or rather in order to predict what is useful to us, it will not be necessary to know its mechanism. The law of great numbers will suffice. Take for example the propagation of heat. Each molecule radiates towards its neighbour—we need not inquire according to what law; and if we make any supposition in this respect, it will be an indifferent hypothesis, and therefore useless and unverifiable. In fact, by the action of averages and thanks to the symmetry of the medium, all differences are levelled, and, whatever the hypothesis may be, the result is always the same.

The same feature is presented in the theory of elasticity, and in that of capillarity. The neighbouring molecules attract and repel each other, we need not inquire by what law. It is enough for us that this attraction is sensible at small distances only, and that the molecules are very numerous, that the medium is symmetrical, and we have only to let the law of great numbers come into play.

Here again the simplicity of the elementary phenomenon is hidden beneath the complexity of the observable resultant phenomenon; but in its turn this simplicity was only apparent and disguised a very complex mechanism. Evidently the best means of reaching the elementary phenomenon would be experiment. It would be necessary by experimental artifices to dissociate the complex system which nature offers for our investigations and carefully to study the elements as dissociated as possible; for example, natural white light would be decomposed into monochromatic lights by the aid of the prism, and into polarised lights by the aid of the polariser. Unfortunately, that is neither always possible nor always sufficient, and sometimes the mind must run ahead of experiment. I shall only give one example which has always struck me rather forcibly. If I decompose white light, I shall be able to isolate a portion of the spectrum, but however small it may be, it will always be a certain width. In the same way the natural lights which are called monochromatic give us a very fine ray, but one which is not, however, infinitely fine. It might be supposed that in the experimental study of the properties of these natural lights, by operating with finer and finer rays, and passing on at last to the limit, so to speak, we should eventually obtain the properties of a rigorously monochromatic light. That would not be accurate. I assume that two rays emanate from the same source, that they are first polarised in planes at right angles, that they are then brought back again to the same plane of polarisation, and that we try to obtain interference. If the light were rigorously monochromatic, there would be interference; but with our nearly monochromatic lights, there will be no interference, and that, however narrow the ray may be. For it to be otherwise, the ray would have to be several million times finer than the finest known rays.

Here then we should be led astray by proceeding to the limit. The mind has to run ahead of the experiment, and if it has done so with success, it is because it has allowed itself to be guided by the instinct of simplicity. The knowledge of the elementary fact enables us to state the problem in the form of an equation. It only remains to deduce from it by combination the observable and verifiable complex fact. That is what we call integration, and it is the province of the mathematician. It might be asked, why in physical science generalisation so readily takes the mathematical form. The reason is now easy to see.  It is not only because we have to express numerical laws; it is because the observable phenomenon is due to the superposition of a large number of elementary phenomena which are all similar to each other; and in this way differential equations are quite naturally introduced. It is not enough that each elementary phenomenon should obey simple laws: all those that we have to combine must obey the same law; then only is the intervention of mathematics of any use. Mathematics teaches us, in fact, to combine like with like. Its object is to divine the result of a combination without having to reconstruct that combination element by element. If we have to repeat the same operation several times, mathematics enables us to avoid this repetition by telling the result beforehand by a kind of induction. This I have explained before in the chapter on mathematical reasoning. But for that purpose all these operations must be similar; in the contrary case we must evidently make up our minds to working them out in full one after the other, and mathematics will be useless. It is therefore, thanks to the approximate homogeneity of the matter studied by physicists, that mathematical physics came into existence. In the natural sciences the following conditions are no longer to be found:—homogeneity, relative independence of remote parts, simplicity of the elementary fact; and that is why natural scientists are compelled [les naturalistes sont obligés] to have recourse to other modes of generalisation.