IAS-Research Talks by Charles Wolfe (Gent) and Fred Keijzer (Groningen)

Date and Time: May 9, Tuesday.

10:15 – 11:30: Charles Wolfe: The organism as hybrid: the organism without idealism.

11:30 – 11:45: Pause

11:45 – 13:00: Fred Keijzer: Why we may want a science of cognition that is not a science of mind

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14

Speaker 1: Charles T. Wolfe (Ghent)

Title: The organism as hybrid, the organism without idealism

Abstract: The organism is neither a discovery like the circulation of the blood or the glycogenic function of the liver, nor a particular biological theory like epigenesis or preformationism. It is rather a concept which plays a series of roles – sometimes overt, sometimes masked – throughout the history of biology, and frequently in very ‘valuative’ or normative ways, often shifting between realms or registers (Wolfe 2004, 2014), with all sorts of interesting semantic shifts (Cheung 2006). Indeed, it has often been presented as a key-concept in life science and the ‘theorization’ of Life (for instance, in the sense that biology is a science of organisms or is nothing; Grene and Depew 2004). In addition, perhaps because it is experientially closer to the ‘body’ than to the ‘molecule’, the organism is often the object of quasi-affective theoretical investments presenting it as essential, perhaps even as the pivot of a science or a particular approach to nature (from Hegel onwards, and explicitly with thinkers such as Kurt Goldstein, see Goldstein 1995, and, with more metaphysical investment, Hans Jonas; see Wolfe 2004, 2010 and many of the papers in Gambarotto & Illeterati, eds. 2014 as well as Huneman and Wolfe eds., 2010). Conversely, it has also been the target of some influential rejections, classically in Dawkins’ vision of the organism as just an instrument of transmission for the selfish gene (Dawkins 1976), with the ‘organismic’ or ‘holistic’ rejection of the latter view in Oyama et al.’s work (e.g. Oyama 2010). Here, instead of defending one or the other of these clearcut ontological positions (which runs the risk, when defending various versions of organicism, of giving ‘laundry lists’ of irreducibly organismic properties, condemned to be refuted or otherwise reduced: Di Paolo 2009), I reflect on the hybridity and ‘go-betweenness’ of the category of organism, from the standpoint of a mildly historicized form of ‘historical epistemology of the life sciences’.


Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Di Paolo, E. (2009). Extended Life. Topoi 28: 9-21.

Gambarotto, A., Illetterati, L., eds., (2014). The Notion of Organism: Historical and Conceptual Approaches. Special Issue of Verifiche, 48(1-3).

Goldstein, K. (1995). The Organism: a holistic approach to biology derived from pathological data in man. New York: American Book Company / New York: Zone Books. (A translation of Der Aufbau des Organismus, 1934)

Grene, M. and Depew, D. (2004). The Philosophy of Biology: An Episodic History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Huneman, P., Wolfe, C.T., eds. (2010). The Concept of Organism: Historical, Philosophical, Scientific Perspectives. Special issue of History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences (32:2-3).

Oyama, S. (2010). Biologists behaving badly: Vitalism and the language of language. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 32(2–3), special issue on The Concept of Organism: Historical, Philosophical, Scientific Perspectives, 401–423.

Wolfe, C.T. (2004). La catégorie d’‘organisme’ dans la philosophie de la biologie. Retour sur les dangers du réductionnisme. Multitudes 16, 27-40, online version at http://www.multitudes.net/La-categorie-d-organisme-dans-la/

Wolfe, C.T. (2010). Do organisms have an ontological status? History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 32(2-3), 195-232

Wolfe, C.T. (2014). The organism as ontological go-between. Hybridity, boundaries and degrees of reality in its conceptual history. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 48, 151-161

Speaker 2: Fred Keijzer is Associate Professor at the Department of Theoretical Philosophy, University of Groningen. His research focuses on issues within the philosophy of cognition and biology. Starting out from work on neural networks and embodied cognition his interest shifted to the many biological examples of intelligence such as they occur in bacteria, plants and other organisms. In this broader perspective, the animal condition stands out and his main research focus is on clarifying the connections as well as the differences. Main topics here are early nervous systems, the animal sensorimotor organization, and biologically embodied cognition.

Title: Why we may want a science of cognition that is not a science of mind

Abstract: How can cognition be interpreted in such a way that it takes in intelligent phenomena in a wide diversity of organisms, ranging from bacteria, protists, plants and fungi to animals? After its rise to prominence in cognitive science, the word cognition can now be seen as a general term to refer to the various mental processes that make us – humans – intelligent. However, the word cognition is less easily applied to intelligent phenomena in other organisms despite an increasing amount of research that would warrant such a description. One issue here is that the application of the word cognition remains elusive. Several closely related commitments are important: (a) cognition is closely linked to mind, a notion that is not self-evidently naturalistic; (b) like mind, cognition is by default tied to the human condition; and (c) the lack of empirical specificity is not considered highly relevant as cognitive phenomena can be recognized ‘on sight’. In this talk, these three commitments will be set aside and an alternative interpretation of cognition will be proposed. This proposal construes cognition explicitly as a technical cognitive science concept that can be dissociated from (a) the notion of mind; (b) from taking humans as its default target; and (c) from an intuitive demarcation. While mind and its characteristics remain in place, cognition comes to articulate a newly demarcated domain that consists of the many different ways by means of which all organisms interact with their environments to maintain and reproduce themselves; humans included. Cognition thus acquires a new and fundamentally different empirical meaning independent from mental concepts. The word cognition can be maintained nevertheless as it still refers to the processes that make humans intelligent. When this proposal is followed, cognition can become a more definite empirical domain that is both conceptually and empirically integrated with the other natural sciences, which does justice to the wide variety of intelligent phenomena that is now being uncovered among nonhumans, and which opens up a broad variety of new conceptual and empirical options in studying this diversity.