By Ruben Verkoelen

Wilhelm Roux (1850-1924), a revolutionary anatomist, began to develop a new perspective on life and organisms early in his career. Born in Jena in 1850, Roux studied medicine under Ernst Haeckel and Rudolf Virchow and, in 1878, wrote his dissertation about the branching of human blood vessels. After an extensive series of clever measurements, Roux initially employed a mode of explanation that was commonly used in biology at the time: function determines structure. The shape of the blood vessel must, therefore, have been determined by the dynamic of the blood flow, the force and logic of which gradually formed the vessel into its optimal shape. But Roux appears to have been uncertain about such an explanation, as he pointed out that the blood vessels were not exactly passively adapting material: instead, they controlled the blood flow by maintaining a constant resistance against the blood pressure. Due to their carefully maintained functionality, the vessels could not be considered purely structural. Moreover, the blood flow was not purely functional either because the blood itself exhibited structural characteristics, such as its consistency. The well-established biological dichotomy of function and structure started to crumble in Roux’s hands. Concluding his article, he thus called for more physiological research into morphological phenomena.

A schematic diagram of a vessel.

Yet, realizing that every little part of an organism could be both structural and functional at the same time, he soon encountered a problem of teleology: how, then, to explain any part without recourse to some purpose or principle beyond its structure? How could something be devoid of any internal or external purpose and yet be purposeful? In order to solve this issue, Roux first considered using a new and exciting principle: the struggle for existence. In Roux’s understanding of this Darwinian principle, all the different parts of the organism were driven by just one ultimate purpose: to make the organism outcompete other organisms in their adaptation to the surroundings. While other biologists soon found empirical evidence against this principle, Roux had already rejected this Darwinian view on theoretical grounds. He did not believe that all the different parts of an organism could share one single overarching purpose. According to him, one purpose – whatever it was – could not account for the vast complexity and intricate interplay of living elements that make up an organism.

In order to obtain a new perspective, Roux overthrew one more foundation of nearly a century of biological inquiry. Cuvier’s principle of the correlation of parts held that “in every being life is a whole, resulting from the mutual action and reaction of all its parts.” According to the established view, all the different parts of an organism ultimately combined into a a harmonious and organized whole: life. Arguing against these notions of life as a higher-order whole and the organism as a static organization, Roux believed the organism to be the site of a ‘struggle of parts’: a struggle of cells in a tissue, a struggle of tissues in an organ, a struggle of organs in an organism. He reasoned that, because no two cells were ever completely alike, their slightly different ways of maintaining their existence and ensuring their purposivity had to result in a constant interplay. If this struggle among a certain number of cells balanced out, they would create a new purposive structure and form a tissue. In the same way, a number of interacting tissues might form an organ, and a number of organs might form an organism. Each of these would simultaneously be a whole made up of parts, whose active struggle between each other was precisely what supported – or sabotaged – the existence and immanent purposivity of the whole.

The titlepage of Roux’s Der Kampf der Theile im Organismus (The Struggle of Parts in the Organism) (1881).

Roux developed this perspective of the organic element as a fraction rather than a unit in his boldly titled essay Der Kampf der Theile im Organismus (The Struggle of Parts in the Organism) (1881). The book had a profound influence on Friedrich Nietzsche and also left a strong impression on Charles Darwin, who considered it to be “the most important book on Evolution, which has appeared for some time.” It is remarkable, then, that in spite of Darwin’s positive judgment hardly any historian or philosopher of biology has written about it. Historians of science remember Roux, above all, for his technical achievements in embryo research, which paved the way for experimental embryology, but his theoretical work has been largely neglected. Only recently, Der Kampf der Theile was translated into French under the direction of Thomas Heams, who still believes that after all these years Roux’s theoretical insights might “pave the way for unifying theories in biology.” But regardless of their potential relevance for biology, Roux’s understanding of the organism can stimulate methodological debates in intellectual history, serving as an inspiration for a new understanding of the concept.

Recently, questions about the nature and interrelations of concepts moved into the foreground in the reception of Stefanos Geroulanos’ methodologically innovative book Transparency in Postwar France (2017). Instead of writing a genealogy of transparency, Geroulanos took an experimental approach: he studied transparency as a concept within a wider network of related concepts, or – in his words – as one of the “knots” in a “conceptual web” (pp. 23-5). Perhaps the main innovation of this approach is that the ‘context’ of transparency is nothing but other, related concepts that are all treated as “conceptual events” (p. 20). In doing so, Geroulanos sidesteps the unproductive dualisms of concept and context, and of concept and metaphor. Like words and actions, he treats concepts as elements in the changing fabric of everyday life where the transformation of one knot may alter the entire web. In this model, transparency becomes one concept among many – a “minor concept” (p. 387) – which is nonetheless treated as the key to understanding the entire conceptual web. But was this “collage approach,” as one reviewer called it, able to cover an abundance of thinkers and contexts in sufficient depth while also providing insight into their mutual coherence? Could the single concept of transparency really act as the key to such a variety of source material? And what, then, is transparency: a part of a whole or the principle that determines a process?

Geroulanos is not the first or the only historian to conceive of a time period as a conceptual web. Michel Foucault did the same in The Order of Things when he summed up his dense analysis in two diagrams that show the conceptual network (including three sciences) of the Classical age and modernity respectively:

Michel Foucault’s diagrams of the Classical and modern episteme from The Order of Things (1970).

However, from the viewpoint of intellectual history today, Foucault’s magnificent study is tainted by its conceptual determinism. Time and again, the book states that the ‘episteme’ determines all other aspects of civilization, acting as the first principle of an entire era. Similarly to Roux, who rejected the principle of the struggle for existence because it functioned as an “ultima ratio,” Geroulanos also steers clear of teleology and metanarrative in his fascinating account of transparency. Its focus on one concept among many, within a wider conceptual web, precludes any form of strict determinism. Yet, this desire to decenter the concept comes into conflict with the study’s coherence, which hinges precisely on the centrality of transparency.

Is there a way out of this dilemma? What if we take the disintegration of a singular purpose or meaning – whether it is the struggle for existence, the ‘episteme’, or the concept – a little further still? What if we follow the example of Roux’s conception of the organism? Is it feasible to conceive of a concept or conceptual network as a precarious balance between parts that compete and collaborate with one another? Could we handle the complexity to view these parts, in turn, as conceptual networks themselves, too? How should the parts be identified and where should we draw the line between the concept’s inside and its outside? While these questions still await answers, such an approach would have one crucial advantage: instead of reducing complexity or standing awkwardly next to it, it could embrace it.

All the different discursive items that, in their unstable configuration, form a certain concept could be understood coherently if such concept was seen as the relative balance between a set of parts or aspects rather than a black box, the center point of a certain discourse, or a whole that subsumes its lower-level parts. Take, for example, the concept ‘Earth’: it would be nothing but the struggle between a set of identified parts, which are perhaps place (humanity’s home), space (the expanse of its surface), being (Gaia), and object (planet). Anything related to the concept ‘Earth’ could be explained by considering its dynamic position in the ongoing struggles and alignments between these aspects. Meanwhile, the history of the concept could be explained by analyzing the transitions and evolutions of the configuration of the parts. The number of parts is flexible since they are nothing but sets of discursive items grouped together on the basis of (relative) affinity. Acting primarily as methodological tools (even though they could figure as concepts themselves), the parts provide the relatively fixed points that help make the dynamics of the concept intelligible. Any form of profound coherence is no longer needed nor desired because the concept itself is recognized as inherently divided. This approach to conceptual history, based on the concept as a struggle of parts, could, therefore, enable us to study complexity without giving up on clarity.

Ruben Verkoelen graduated from the master’s program in History & Philosophy of Science at Utrecht University last year. His thesis was an inquiry into fin-de-siècle biology that used both historical and philosophical methods to reconstruct the conceptual apparatus of life science. He’s currently looking to start a PhD in intellectual history or the history of science.

Featured Image: Heterotopic Ossificagtion in Lung Tissue. Source: WikiCommons.