Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

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Adolf Portmann on the New Biology, by Gianna Maria Gatti (translated by Alan N. Shapiro)

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Gianna Maria Gatti:

(translated from the Italian by Alan N. Shapiro):

But one can go further: this action, offering light to the plant, enables the latter to externalize its ‘interiority’. A fascinating interpretation that, deriving from an unusual vision of the artwork, instills in it a deeper and certainly original value. Suggesting this original meaning is the theory developed around the time of the 1960s by the Swiss biologist Adolf Portmann. Focusing attention on the study of the form of living beings, Portmann elaborates the innovative concept of ‘self-presentation’: the distinctive and always different way that each organism shows itself to light and thereby relates itself to the surrounding environment; this demonstration is a symptom for Portmann of a precise albeit unknown ‘interiority’, the specific ‘authentic’ mode of being of each individual. The confirmation of this thought comes to the biologist from plants: “We would like to draw attention to the imposing phenomenon of self-presentation in the vegetable world and derive from it the consideration that to such an obvious self-presentation must also correspond, even if in a still incomprehensible mode, an interiority. Of course we must leave aside entirely, in this respect, our own trusted way of experiencing consciousness.” The scholar puts into new perspective the role that has always been assigned to the vegetable kingdom: “The sense of innumerable vegetable forms is not in the first and highest instance the conservation of the individual and the species, as one reads in certain definitions of life, but in self-presentation, the apparition of light… To appear to light: that is an essential characteristic of life.” Light for the plant is not only an inorganic phenomenon to be adopted for the purpose of a biochemical process. It is, according to Portmann, necessary for the essence of the plant: “Light is an element of that ‘relational field’ of which it constitutes the active center. Light is associated with the plant as an efficient factor.” The infinite variety of unforeseeable forms and colors which plants produce in nature thanks to the presenting of themselves to light are above all the disclosure of their hidden reality, and not only functional structures for pollination, reproduction, and conservation. Portmann reads self-presentation to light [Note by Alan N. Shapiro: die Selbstdarstellung, das Erscheinen im Lichte] as the ability of plants to express their particular way of being, comparable to human self-expression. Recognizing that vegetables have their own interiority is one more reason that convinces Portmann to see the plant, in comparison with human and animal organization, as “the other great alternative and not simply as a form of inferior life, a step towards animal life.”

In support of this thesis, the author puts forth two considerations: first, postulating photosynthesis as a complex organization of the living being, green plants cannot find their bearings in the first stages of life on the ground, on the contrary, the first living forms emerged thanks to an organic alimentation; therefore that, as opposed to how it is with animals, the relationship of plants with light and therefore with the world happens without the support of a nervous system.

Adolf Portmann:

(translated from the German by Alan N. Shapiro):

Certain distinctive features of living beings, like the reaction to stimuli, nervous activity, the functions of the senses and movement, are elements of that complex state of things that constitutes the relationship with the world. The ensemble of these activities correlated to the environment is that which will call ‘interiority’, an expression designating a non-spatial reality that is not to be confused with the ‘ensemble of the internal organs’ of the body. The action of this interiority is manifest in the external features of the living being through the most varied sensorial relationships. Visible appearance itself must be understood above all in the widest sense as ‘self-presentation’ of the protoplasmic individual. Not only are optical, acoustic, and olfactory features of the individual in a state of rest part of this self-presentation, but so are its movements, its forms of expression, all of its manifestations in space and time… The taking into account of self-presentation as a primary property of life justifies by itself a complete and autonomous theory of forms. Morphology… is the science that studies the self-presentation of organisms and clarifies, together with physiology, those formal features which come to be interpreted as adaptation to the environment, as functions of the metabolism, or as the conservation of the species… Beings in relationship with the world are not just living machines which live in function of their activities and metabolism. They are above all beings which display themselves in their singularity without this self-presentation being primarily related to sense organs. Adolf Portmann, Aufbruch der Lebensforschung: Der Mensch in einem neuen Weltbild (Zurich: Rhein-Verlag, 1965); pp.28-29, 54. (Note by Alan N. Shapiro:) Gianna Maria Gatti cites the Italian translation of Aufbruch der Lebensforschung by Boris Porena, published as Le forme viventi: Nuove prospettive della biologia (Milano: Adelphi, 1969) (republished in 1989). Porena’s translation appears to be excellent, and I have followed it as a guide in translating the citations from Portmann from German to English.

The relationship of the plant with light also produces a relationship with the world. Nonetheless, no one can say in which form and within which limits an experience of this relationship appears in the interiority of the plant. On the contrary, to such a degree is access to the ‘interiority’, the ‘spiritual life’ of the plant unavailable to us that botanists completely refrain from claiming for themselves the right to such an interiority. As things stand, it is also not surprising that botany, in its systematic research, leans more than any other biological science on chemico-physical methods.” What is auspicious in Portmann is that, for him, a holistic biology regains, in the study of the living, this conception of interiority and of its self-presentation, taking them into account as primary properties of life. Adolf Portmann, Aufbruch der Lebensforschung: Der Mensch in einem neuen Weltbild; op. cit., pp. 41-42.




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