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This editorial appeared in Volume 4 (1) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Editorial: Morphology And History

by Albert Liu

Several years ago, the inaugural issue of this journal featured an article by Jean Petitot that applied morphodynamic models to problems in semiotics and cognitive science. Pursuing a line of thought he had developed in earlier works (1985), Petitot distinguished between two competing versions of structuralism: on the one hand a dynamic, morphological approach to questions concerning the genesis and cognitive status of forms; on the other, a formalist methodology based on logico-combinatorial principles. The latter, he argued, in its hermeneutic or literary critical mode provided a convenient target for post-structuralist critiques, even while research in autopoietic systems was producing increasingly sophisticated theoretical articulations. The aim shared by Petitot and others has been to free this new science from the stigmas associated with "mere" formalism.

Behind this effort lies the unresolved question of how and why "morphology" came to be eclipsed by "formalism" in the first place. After its introduction by Goethe, the concept of morphology filtered out of comparative anatomy and linguistics until, by the late nineteenth century, it enjoyed considerable methodological prestige in a wide range of disciplines, including history, philosophy, mathematics, biology and anthropology. Morphology also appeared in the original name of the Russian Formalist movement, and can be found as such in the works of Propp, Schlovsky and their associates. Yet quite suddenly, sometime in the late 1920's, it seems to have been pushed into the background, consigned to the specialized disciplines from which it had originated.

The incidental replacement of morphology by formalism had more than stylistic consequences. Whereas "formalism" designated the subsumption of particulars into relations of a rigidly structurable order, morphology implied a description oriented more toward individual variations and types. Because it envisioned the cataloguing of aberrant and fluid forms, not just idealized ones, morphology seemed to offer the promise of a universal descriptive language that could account for both structure and history. At the limit, morphology held out the hope not of a mathesis universalis but of a mathesis matheseosi, a science of science.

At the time, of course, there already existed a discipline aspiring to the status of a science of science, namely Phenomenology. Husserl's awareness of the stakes surrounding the morphological was acute, and he took up the question on several occasions, each time disputing the completeness of the mathematical description of nature. In Ideas (1913), Husserl distinguished the geometer from the morphologist who constructs proto-geometrical types in terms of natural language--for example, the round, the lens-shaped, the blurry. By essence inexact and vague, these concepts are also, according to Husserl, unmathematical and categorically different from the ideal objects of geometry.

Accordingly, when Husserl turned his attention in The Origin of Geometry to the problem of the inter-generational transmission of historical knowledge, he had to explain the derivation of geometrical objects from the sensible, morphological shapes of the so-called concrete prescientific world. For Husserl, science and geometry, as the privileged residence of the ideal object, could not be simply one cultural form among others because their persistence is what allows for the possibility of tradition and historical continuity. This text has a relatively minor place in Husserl's corpus but is important today because it served as an early testing ground for deconstructive strategies. In his well known analysis, Derrida (1962) argued that transcendental phenomenology could not break free from its empirical basis because it lacked a purely expressive ideal language; the differential structure of language itself undermined the possibility of phenomenological self-presence. What phenomenology needed, and fantasized, was a form-language: not a symbolic system, but one that could account for all the nonideal variations of empirical experience. Morphology is the specific name of the task that no language can perform. The Husserlian enterprise reveals the important stakes attached to this word, but also shows why it was impossible and had to give way to formalist modes of inquiry.

Derrida's critique rested crucially on showing that, in Husserl, the mental origination of geometrical ideality must take place as an infinite approximation from the morphological, followed by a leap which institutes the new eidetic faculty. In hindsight, what seems to be legible here is that phenomenology and deconstruction, despite their differences regarding geometry, share presuppositions about certain concepts--such as the infinite and the limit-that have come to be regarded as insufficient by other branches of mathematical thought.

To gain perspective on this philosophical context--whose linking of formal intuition and historicity underlies the critical genealogy traversing formalism, structuralism, and deconstruction--it may be worthwhile to reexamine the intriguing and now mostly forgotten case of one of Husserl's contemporaries: Oswald Spengler. The Decline of the West caused an international stir when it was published in two volumes between 1918 and 1922, but was soon dismissed because of its unrigorous and often melodramatic claims about the physiognomy of race, the depletion of "Faustian" culture, and especially its newfound method--which Spengler said came to him as a revelation in 1911: the ~morphology of History." Although the Decline has frequently been accused of irrationalism, Spengler in fact conceived his morphology as a direct consequence of mathematical reflection. At the conclusion of his first chapter, entitled "The Meaning of Numbers," Spengler put forth the novel proposition that recent advances in mathematics--the development of topology, particularly in the work of Felix Klein, and Georg Cantor's theory of transfinite number--suggested that mathematics no longer simply guaranteed, as it did in Husserl, the possibility of history as the transmission of sense through eternal ideal objects, but it clearly also now possessed the means to write, document, or grasp history immediately. If this were possible, that is, if history's eventfulness and our comprehension of it were simultaneous and exhaustive, there would be no history as we know it, since experience itself would be a kind of exalted journalism, due to the immediacy of its "publication." This surprising turn of events is, it seems, precisely what necessitates the Decline. Spengler even goes so far as to suggest that the very conditions of human historicity have been altered, not by a proto-deconstructive critique of the difference between the ideal and factual, but by an unexpectedly positive breakthrough in the intuition of the morphological and transfinite. The subsequent closure of the transcendental community is entailed by the rupture of the Kantian limits of human knowledge.

Despite his inability to follow through on his provocative assertions, what is remarkable about Spengler, and what perhaps confirms him as a representative of his time rather than as an eccentric, is his willingness to speculate on the deeper relations between scientific thought, cognition, and history. And though posterity judged him, perhaps unfairly, to be precursor of National Socialist ideologies, his reasoning on the interconnections between mathematics, morphology, and the history of metaphysics could not have been more at odds with the totalitarian investment in infinity and ideal forms. In this regard, Spengler appears to share far more with our epoch and recent challenges to post-Heideggerian thought. Of these, the most impressive has been launched by Alain Badiou, who claims that Being was never forgotten but was instead examined in its most rigorous dimensions as part of the uninterrupted evolution of mathematical investigation, especially in the tradition leading through Cantor (Badiou, 1988). It may well be that this avenue was foreclosed by the decisive unanimity of judgment in the Streit um Spengler, the Spengler controversy that was a major focus of German intellectuals in the mid-1920's. In any case, Heidegger's celebrated, though not universally convincing, victory over Cassirer at Davos in 1929 ensured that such thoughts would remain confined to the philosophical minority, or to thinkers in specialized disciplines, such as Hjelmslev in linguistics or Turing in mathematics.

If the judgment against Spengler temporarily discredited morphology as a viable philosopheme, then it is ironic it should have been revived through the career of Alan Turing, whose genius in mathematical computability ultimately laid the foundation for his own pioneering work in the theory of chemical morphogenesis and self-organizing systems. (Turing 1936, 1952; Hodges, 1983). Turing is usually viewed as an abstract theoretician, but his work, taken as a totality, displays an ethical relevance and consistency that is only now beginning to be recognized. From his initial hypothesis of a computing machine capable of solving the Entscheidungsproblem by testing every value of a given recursive function, to the formulation of the celebrated Turing Test and his later experimentation in fluid autotelic systems, his thought is fundamentally concerned with the notion of testing and provisionality instead of proof more geometrico. In our own age, which has been thoroughly determined by Turing's legacy, so many ethical dilemmas center around the underphilosophized concept of Testing: animal experimentation, AIDS testing, technological prototyping. Prescribing the Decline was a Spenglerian answer to the enigma of teleology, but Turing seemed to insist on the provisionality of the evolutive technologies we have inherited: his work affirmed the possibility of what Winograd and Flores (1987) have called "ontological designing"--harnessing the ambivalence of the computer to the production of new unions of form and being (Feenberg, 1991).


Badiou, A. (1988) L'être et l'événement. Paris: Seuil.

Derrida, J. (1962) Edmund Husserl's Origin of Geometry: An Introduction. Lincoln: Nebraska University Press.

Feenberg, A. (1991) Critical Theory of Technology. New York: Oxford.

Hodges, A. (1983) Alan Turing: The Enigma. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Husserl, E. (1913) Ideas. New York: Collier.

Petitot-Cocorda, J. (1985) Morphogénèse du sens. Paris: PUF.

Spengler, O. (1922) The Decline of the West. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Turing, A. (1937) "On Computable Numbers,with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem." Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society 2 (42).

---. (1952). "The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 237.

Winograd, T. and F. Flores (1987). Understanding Computers and Cognition. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.

Albert Liu is doing research on intersections between science and literary theory in the Humanities Center, Johns Hopkins University. He has published in Lusitania and Modern Language Notes, and has an article forthcoming in Genders on computer culture.

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