On Anaxagoras' Hand

It’s undeniable, though, that Anaxagoras’ position has triumphed and that we are his children. In our secular worldview, shaped by five hundred years of experimental science—whose unstoppable development is in great measure a consequence of its distancing itself from religious dogma—it is more plausible that a series of slight variations and mutations determined the specific morphology that has allowed human beings to exercise control over nature than to posit a master plan of intelligent and supernatural design that preordained our physiology to help us become the dominant species. In spite of this, anyone tempted to conclude that the matter has been settled for good should bear in mind something that Sir Thomas Browne wrote in the 1630s: ‘As though there were a metempsychosis and the soul of one man passed into another, opinions do find after certain revolutions, men and minds like those who first begat them.’ The position of Aristotle and Galen, of Vesalius and Bell, the notion that there is metaphysical purpose to everything in nature, a grand plan running its course harmoniously and inexorably, might be swimming through underground tunnels, or hibernating in the most hidden crevices of the reigning cultural paradigm, but it’s still there, alive and well, waiting for future instantiations. This should come as no surprise. Whether we are the dominant species because we have hands or we have hands in order to be the dominant species is, really, another formulation of the question about the purpose of our existence in the world. If we push it we’ll see that ultimately it pertains to our mortality, our most fundamental relationship with the world, and whether or not what we see and touch is all there is.

Pablo Maurette, "The Children of Anaxagoras," Lapham's Quarterly - laphamsquarterly.org/roundtable/children-anaxagoras. Interesting article on philosophical and religious views of the hand's relation to human being. As the author hints, there are more recent concomitant debates along the lines of Aristotle and Anaxagoras. For instance, it seems to me that their differences are transposed in Derrida’s critique of Heidegger in “Geschlecht II: Heidegger’s Hand.” In brief, the difference between Anaxagoras and Aristotle is cited by the author above in Aristotle's On the Parts of Animals as follows: “Anaxagoras says that man is the most intelligent of the animals [x] because he has hands [y], but it would be better to say that he has hands [y] because he is the most intelligent [x].” I have added the x and y symbols to better track how this might map onto Heidegger and Derrida. The key is to see how the emphasis on language in twentieth century philosophy changes the inflection of how hands are related to human intellect. For instance, Heidegger thinks that the distinctive feature of human being (Dasein) is our use of language. We might say he reiterates Aristotle's side of the argument as follows: we have hands that point and write [y] because we are human-language-animals [x]. Hence, Heidegger thinks that only human beings have hands in this sense. In contrast, for Derrida, we are human-language-animals [x] because we have hands that point and write [y]. I have intentionally oversimplified their views slightly here. In particular, Derrida thinks that language already includes an abstract capacity to signify or point beyond itself. This aspect of language results in his neologism différance. So he does not think that hands cause language-being so much as that language, following Saussure, already includes what hands do, i.e. pointing and writing. There is an abstraction in language independent of particular human beings. In my view, this makes Derrida more open and better able to apprehend technological development. There is much debate today about the degree to which Derrida remained too enamored with the legacies of Saussure (Brandom) much more Kant (Miellassoux). In any case, it seems to me that, like Anaxagoras, Derrida nonetheless ends up with a less anthropocentric view of hands better able to apprehend the possibility of 64,000 year old Neanderthal cave paintings cited in the article above as well as contemporary animals that can use sign language and tools.

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