Towards a corporealism

by Arran James

If humans can only have structural access to things-in-themselves, and only ever fashion approximate knowledge of objects and assemblages through signification practices and epistemic phantasies, then what actually matters is how we pragmatically act, react and cope in the world in relation to them. Insert all the references to Wittgenstein’s ‘language games’ and ‘family resemblances’, Rorty’s ‘ironism’, and/or any other post-critical concessions you want right here. The bottom-line is that immanent structural – or perhaps infrastructural – relations have traceable consequences via the onto-specific powers or potencies (or what Bryant refers to as ‘pluri-potencies’) of things at a pre-reflective level of direct material-energetic affectivity. And the distal stories (narratives, ontologies, etc.) we tell ourselves about these consequential interactions – however poetic or meaning-full, or instrumental (useful) they may be – are basically coping mechanisms to help us make our way in the wild world as fully enfleshed beings-in-the-world.

Michael of Archivefire, On Being and Coping part one: ontic relation and object access.

In this hastily put together post I want to discuss corporealism, the idea that all that exists is bodies and that these bodies are real objects that really touch one another. I’ll be drawing on the Stoic conception of corporealism and discussing their ideas of matter and God. I think that the possibility of a realism that doesn’t become a panpsychism and that doesn’t support absolute absence can be founded on a commitment to the weird materialism of corporealism. In other words, corporealism is one possible name for a realism that focusses on the structural relation between bodies rather than on the epistemic. What is excluded from this post is a consideration of the equally important doctrine of incorporeals.

Origins of Corporealism.

According to Christoph Jedan, the Stoic doctrine of corporealism was an attempt to reconcile three varieties of thought active in the Hellenistic world. First, they were operating in a world were prospective Stoics would be immersed within a polytheistic cosmology that the majority of people had no reason to be atheistic toward. Secondly, the Stoics also had to compete with other schools cosmologies, and these all included treatments of divinity. We could think of Plato’s philosophical treatment of deity as being the most symptomatic of this. In the Timaeus Plato introduces his idea of the divine as demiurge, the perfectly good craftsman divinity that organises a pre-existent chaos and thereby produces the visible world. This demiurge is therefore transcendent of the material world, making use of the perfect realm of Forms in order to give form to matter. Matter pre-exists form and the God which renders it. This is important because it means that God is not absolute in the way of Christianity. The nexus Plato-demiurge-Christianity would later become important through the Gnostic conceptions of the demiurge as incompetent or evil, producing an utterly imperfect material realm and thereby explaining evil as a structural element of the world itself. The tension between fidelity to traditional fidelity and a philosophically refracted God would have been present in the Stoic’s world. The third element Jedan identifies is the Stoic’s own ‘tendency to a “materialistic ontology”‘. Jedan states that this was hard to wed with the theological concerns of their age, making no reference fact that religious and materialist discourses have continued to overshoot, caricature, and regard one another as irreducibly opposed to this day. For the Stoics, the upshot of the union between supernaturalism and materialism was to conceive of God as a material force or principle that runs through the entirety of materiality. In individual Stoics this God is personalised to a greater or lesser degree. Epictetus is probably the Stoic that personalises God to the greatest extent, referring to Zeus throughout his Discourses and almost sounds like a Christian, if one suspends an awareness of Stoic materialism.

The Stoic God is singular and pantheist, closer to the God of Spinoza than to Plato. Beginning with Zeno of Citium, founder of the Stoic school of philosophy, the Stoic conception of divinity is made thoroughly material, identified with nature, and sits within a rigorous physical determinism. As Diogenes explains

the term Nature is used by them to mean sometimes that which holds the cosmos together, sometimes that which causes terrestrial things to spring up. Nature is defined as a force moving of itself, producing and preserving in being its offspring in accordance with seminal reasons (spermatikoi logoi) within different periods, and effecting results homogenous with their sources (Lives, 7;148-49)

There is no doubt that this characterisation of nature is synonymous with God. The Stoics are not happy to leave it at that. Nature isn’t the nature outside the city limit or human nature alone. As Diogenes points out above, nature-and so God- is woven throughout the cosmos. He goes on

The cosmos, they hold, comes into being when its substance (ousia) has first been converted from fire through air into moisture and then the coarser part of the moisture has condensed as earth, while that whose particles are fine has been turned into air, and this process of rarefaction goes on increasingly till it generates fire. Thereupon out of these elements animals and plants and all other natural kinds are formed by their mixture. (Lives, 7.142)

For the Stoics, divinity has this elemental form of fire such that Diogenes is discussing. The description Diogenes gives us of the Stoic concept of cosmos is one in which God undergoes self-differentiation. The differentiated aspects of substance thus interact with one another (‘by their mixture’) in order to produce terrestrial things (animals and plants and all other natural kinds). God is the material substance of the cosmos and the cosmos is simultaneously an ensemble of all terrestrial things and itself a terrestrial thing. Following Aristotle, ousia (οὐσία) is the being of particular beings, the substance of singular terrestrial things. In this cosmological picture there is

God breaks apart into productive units we call elements. The productive units interact to produce terrestrial things. The proper name for terrestrial things in Stoicism is bodies. Therefore, the productive units interact to produce bodies. The totality of the bodies taken together is called cosmos or nature which is identical to God. God is God through self-differentiation, which is the same as saying that substance is substance through self-differentiation. By not being itself substance is able to remain itself. Essentially, this is the doctrine of immanence. It is for this reason that Marcus Aurelius can claim that

All things are woven together and the common bond is sacred,… for they have been arranged together in their places and together make the same ordered Universe. For there is one Universe out of all, one God through all, one substance and one law


Whatever else we can say, God/Nature names an organising principle that is immanent to substance, and there is no substance that is not material. Thus it is that Stoic materialism does not hold to a passive understanding of matter; the corporeal organises itself. Stoic matter is not the matter of mechanistic physics that sits inert, and it is does not feature an originary formlessness as in Plato. Matter itself is active and in this sense ‘God’ names that part of matter that possesses this activity. It is the strangeness of this materialism that has led most commentators to instead refer to it as corporealism.

Only bodies are

The first to differentiate Stoic corporealism from materialism was French philosopher Éric Weil. A Jew born in Germany in the early part of the 20th century, Weil was a survivor of the holocaust who had settled in France to read Hegel with Kojeve. Weil’s reading of Stoicism is similar to the one traced out above in which matter is accompanied by something belonging to matter called God. In materialism, to say that only bodies exist is to say that only matter exists; in Stoicism, to say that only bodies exist is to say that only matter and God exist. For the Stoics whatever exists is corporeal; to be is to be a body, and all beings are bodies. Their rivals, the Epicureans, insisted that all that existed was atoms. In the atomist tradition the atom was the only kind of being a being could be, with ‘void’ being its negation. For the Epicureans the atom is the atom; for the Stoics materiality is matter and God. While the Epicureans have an explicit monism (there is only one kind of being), the Stoic only seem to operate in a monism. Instead, they appear to have a dualism that is disguising itself as a monism.

Ricardo Salles (God and Cosmos in Stoicism, 2011) asserts that this is only problematic if we are not attentive to what the Zeno and Chrysippus means by ‘matter’;

The Stoics clearly distinguish two meanings of matter. In one sense matter is unqualified substance: it is the matter of the universe called “substance” or “prime matter”. In the other sense, “matter” designates the qualified matter of particular realities.

Salles goes onto remind us that in Stoic doctrine there is two kinds of things: ‘that which acts and that which is acted upon’. In Salles’ reading ‘that which is acted upon’ is unqualified substance, whereas ‘that which acts’ is the ‘reason in it, i.e; God’. In Salles understanding, God is an activity of unqualified substance that produces differentiation in that substance to give rise to qualified matter. There is no dualism in this because God isn’t another kind of body, nor is God what animates bodies, God is simply the animation of bodies. To put it another way, God is the name for the capacity of bodies to act. The only sense in which God and matter appear to be separate terms is linguistically.

Whatever has a capacity of action exists, whether it be passive or active. Whatever has a capacity of action is a body. Therefore a body may be a ‘terrestrial thing’ (a cat, a plant, a woman, a shoe, a cup) something that can act or be acted on that is not strictly physical. For the Stoics such nonphysical bodies would include the soul, wisdom, the cosmopolis, and most certainly virtue. We might want it to include some of these things but we might also include the principle of equality, information-states, love, and mind itself. Corporealism therefore includes physical bodies and nonphysical properties and objects that we might otherwise seem to be products of emergence. That is, corpo-realism is a thoroughly non-reductionist materialism. It also means that whatever exists, to count at existing, is a body that necessarily acts or is acted upon corporeally by other bodies.

John Sellars (Stoicism 2006) points out that the idea that whatever exists is corporeal means that we can’t include any Platonic universals in a possible litany of existent objects. Plato’s Forms lack any kind of corporeality; they are not material in any sense, and nor are they singular, particular things. From the corporeal perspective only bodies exists and bodies are always particularities, such-and-such an example of qualified matter (ie. this man, not man as such). In this way, corporeality is not amenable to concepts of genericity. Chrysippus is known to have pointed out that the statement that ‘man is a rational animal’ supposes there is a generic ‘man’ that remains once every particular man, or all qualities of particular men, have been subtracted. Instead, Chrysippus reformulates the phrase as: ‘if something is a man, then that thing is a rational animal’. There is no humanity that remains, only the suggestion that particular humans share rationality and animality. Similarly, there is not some actually existing generic ‘tree’, there are only individual trees. This claim is the same as that which Graham Harman has made in regard to music; there is no Song, only individual instances of the song. Anyone who doubts it ought to recall John Cage’s 4’33”.

Neo-materialism and panpsychism

Earlier, it appeared as though God were a pre-existent substance- a primordial unitary being- that self-differentiated in order to produce individual entities. Now it seems that God is a material force at work within bodies. It is this activity, this capacity for action, that is integral too and responsible for the production of particular, individual bodies. In this regard corporealism is not too distant from the neo-materialism that Manuel de Landa (New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies 2012) defends:

It is absurd to think that complex self-organizing structures need a “brain” to generate them. The coupled system atmosphere-hydrosphere is continuously generating structures (thunderstorms, hurricanes, coherent wind currents) not only without a brain but without any organs whatsoever. The ancient chemistry of the prebiotic soup also generated such coherent structures (auto-catalytic loops) without which the genetic code could not have emerged. And bacteria in the first two billion years of the history of the biosphere discovered all major means to tap into energy sources (fermentation, photosynthesis, respiration). To think that a “brain” is needed goes beyond Cartesian dualism and fades into Creationism: matter is an inert receptacle for forms that come from the outside imposed by an exterior psychic agency: “Let there be light!”

So yes, neo-materialism is based on the idea that matter has morphogenetic capacities of its own and does not need to be commanded into generating form. But we should not attempt to build such a philosophy by “rejecting dualisms” or following any other meta-recipe. The idea that we know already how all past discourses have been generated, that we have the secret of all past conceptual systems, and that we can therefore engage in meta-theorizing based on that knowledge is deeply mistaken. And this mistake is at the source of all the idealisms that have been generated by postmodernism

This quote is particularly pertinent to this discussion of corporealism. First of all, DeLanda considers it ‘absurd’ to hold that material compositions require any a brain to direct them. I think here we can read DeLanda as rejecting the claim that matter requires a nucleus of conscious control in order to organise itself into highly such complicated material compositions as thunderstorms. If a brain is unnecessary then we can be damn sure that a mind is also unnecessary. Moving to the ‘prebiotic soup’ only ups the ante in DeLanda’s claim: life, the thing so many people think is the pinnacle of physical structures, a kind of miracle that let you and me emerge from a stupid, lifeless goo…that didn’t need a brain-mind, so why the hell would any of the rest of it? Second is the (hilarious) accusation of Creationism. Essentially, conceiving of matter as passive and only passive means that it could never organise itself into anything. The stab at Creationism is the same one the Stoics make at Plato, that conceiving of matter as a passive receptacle pointlessly sets up problems that aren’t easily resolved. Thirdly, that matter has its own ‘morphogenetic capacity’ means that matter has the immanent ability to give itself form without any ‘external psychic agency’ having to be deus ex machina‘d into the picture. Indeed, the deus is precisely what is immanent to matter. In my elaboration of corporealism in Stoicism, this morphogenecity is precisely what was identified by the name of ‘God’. Corporealism thus seems to accord with the new material.

The problem that emerges here is the question of what the rejection of an ‘exterior psychic agency’ actually means. Specifically, is this a rejection of psychic agency as such or does the emphasis fall on the term ‘exterior’. As DeLanda points out in A New Philosophy of Society… the position that is generally termed realist is ‘defined by the commitment to a mind-independent existence of reality’. Certainly, bodies like thunderstorms, hurricanes, and coherent wind currents don’t require any external mind imposing form on them, but ‘social entities’ from ‘small communities to large nation-states’ do. Without the embodied minds of humans it is obvious that these kinds of social bodies require human bodies or they vanish. A nation-state may survive across generations with all particular human bodies that form an essential part of its being dying and therefore exiting it, but at the same time new human beings are constantly born already inside of those social bodies. The territoriality of these bodies is such that their exteriority has to be interior to them otherwise they will pass out of existence. The exterior psychic agency that social bodies require is always already to be found having been brought inside.

In my last post I was suggesting that OOO involves a panpsychism because mind

‘is spread across all relations that we can look at [so] that each and every object that the human touches, every human-human/human-object relation (and the object-object relations that those depend on) are the corporeal mechanisms of the logos spermatikos of mind. The point would be that mind or ‘mind-like’ encounters between objects would be neither something that belonged to humans or to nonhumans but to the cosmos itself. Rather than a panpsychism this might resemble a material pantheism.

I want to focus on the biggest mistake of this paragraph: Mind, as an emergent property, as Michael rightly points out in his response to my post, deserves to be granted its ‘ontic particularity and irreducible complexity’. His concern is that I or OOO am anthropomorphising the cosmos by finding evidence of human cognitive capacities and generalising them to the cosmos in such a way that we get claims of ‘alien phenomenologies’. To return to DeLanda, it isn’t just that minds included a given nation-state would have an experience of that nation-state, but that the nation-state itself would have an experience of the minds it contained. The problem is that the nation-state, while it does include minds and requires them for its uniquely social existence, it does not itself possess an emergent mental life. Embodied cognition involves neurons, the interrelation between neurons, the nervous system as a whole, the body as a whole (both phenomenal and material), a rich environment, and all the material requirements of that environment. Social bodies contain but don’t possess these features. In the same way, my apartment contains my computer but my apartment isn’t thereby able to make computations. The alien phenomenology of the nation-state or the experience my computer has of my apartment would be mind-like happenings. Indeed, in the apartment-computer example there will be times when I am out and so won’t be part of the ensemble of operations making it up. If we grant that this relation is generative of an experience in either of its terms then we have to say some kind of mind is also being generated. This is problematic not because its an intuitively weird idea (many ideas are weird and right) but because it means that all relations would be relations between minds. While impoverishing ontic particularity we are promoting psychic universality. Reality could never be said to be mind-independent. The real would always be some aspect of the real’s experience of the real. Realism would convert into idealism.

Corporealism as body-oriented realism

What I hope that my treatment of Stoic corporealism has done is begun a possible elaboration of a realism that involves direct corporeal contact between bodies and negates the claim that such bodies are absolute withdrawn from themselves and others. I’ve got to admit that this is a very small beginning to such a project. What I’ve tried to show is that bodies interact with bodies and that nothing can exist that does not relate directly. In the Stoic picture everything that exists is at once a cause and effect, active and passive, what it is and capable of being otherwise. The reason that I have gone some length to talk about the Stoic conception of God was to investigate panpsychism under another guise. The Stoics routinely call God by other names such as; nature, World-Spirit, the Whole, Reason, Logos. This is how they think that the universe has a perfect, rational order: God is in all things, the Mind of God is in all things. IF they waver and vacillate on what this God is exactly, I would suggest this is because they are trying to fit a metaphysical description onto a theological nomination. As I said at the start, this might be because of the intellectual climates they inhabited, because of personal faith, or because they wanted to attracted students. Hell, let’s not forget that offending the Gods could get you killed. Whatever is going on with the Stoic concept of God it is not describing something supernatural, nor is it describing some kind of super-mind or panpsychism. This is what I meant by asking if there isn’t room for a material pantheism.

Whilst the Stoics talk about God being the Whole or the All (clearly an overmining idea) they also talk about God as a body among bodies, as embedded in matter itself, and as an active property belonging to all bodies, the very self-organising capacity of matter. God isn’t the name for something, but some activity. It is this last concept of God that I want to say is proper to a corporealism that would be a body oriented realism. It is also in this sense that we would jettison any overmining idea of God. Instead, isn’ the principle of God that is immanent to all bodies simply another way of talking about the potency or plasticity of bodies to enact themselves other than they are?

There is nothing to stop us thinking of ‘all things are woven together’ in order to produce a body that emerges from the sum of all ongoing particular relations that we call universe or cosmos. After all, Marcus only tells us to always think of the universe as an organism. Thinking it so doesn’t make it so and, after all, Marcus is engaged in his own attempt at living, his own coping. The organisation of bodies, there being ‘arranged together in their places’ is what ‘make(s) the same ordered Universe’. The one substance of Stoic monism isn’t a goo or flux that subsists every individuated being. The one substance of Stoic monism is simply body. Bodies emerging from bodies; from their very real and direct intimate contact. Among the other obsessions of the Stoics is their vivid appreciation of material vulnerability to death, the fragility and precariousness of all bodies…especially our own:

In human life, our time is a point, our substance is flowing, our perception faint, the constitution of our whole body decaying , our soul a spinning wheel, our fortune hard to predict and our fame doubtable; that is to say, all the things of the body are a river, things of the soul dream and delusion, life a war and journey in a foreign land, and afterwards oblivion. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations)