Philosophy Phriday: Antropology

The Daily Ant hosts a weekly series, Philosophy Phridays, in which real philosophers share their thoughts at the intersection of ants and philosophy. This is the thirty-first contribution in the series, submitted by Dr. Anne Pollok.

Antropology, or, what we can learn from ants and a fiction called Diotima

I do not know much about ants. But, come to think of it, I doubt that any of us do – if we take “knowing” in a richer sense. As Wittgenstein holds, even if a tiger could speak our language, we still wouldn’t be able to understand him and his language games. This holds even more true for ants. Whom could and should we even address – who is playing the language game (or, better and more loosely, behaving game)? Even the term ‘individual’ as an addressee of a conversation (and whom we could even attempt to understand) becomes questionable here – and that is even before we start swearing because of those stings!

We may not know this ant, but we feel her sting. Photo: Alex Wild

Still, I do think that we can learn something from ants, in particular from our way of understanding them – especially as it relates to human culture as a means of immortality.

Let me first show how little I know of ants, but why I still think they could teach us something. I will then explain what I mean with culture as a means of immortality. My view on culture is influenced by Ernst Cassirer and Susanne Langer (and Herder and Mendelssohn, to reach further back). My view on ants, limited as it is, is influenced by Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (1976), a book that my biology teacher back in high school recommended to me, and that has somewhat stuck with me for all those years. I am indeed taking up his ideas of memes, and will try to consider how a more ant-like way of understanding their function could help us expand our notion of individuals within culture.

  1. The Problem with Ants

As Langer, in indirect reference to Leibniz, holds: “In his brief individuation [each person] is an expression of all of humanity.” (110) And with such a simple statement, we can mark a particular distinction between humans and ants that needs to be addressed before we can stipulate what we could still learn from ants about memetic survival (aka a survival by means of a unit of cultural transmission, an entity of whatever kind that carries a specific meaning).

In her essay “Man and Animal: The City and the Hive”, Langer puts humans and their world in contradistinction to the bee hive. However, her allusion to Kipling could cum grano salis be used for ants (and wasps, for that matter) as well: members of such a colony of Hymenoptera are “incompletely individuated” (112) in that no individual performs all of the essential functions of the species. “So there is not only division of labor, but division of organs, functional and physical incompleteness. This direct involvement of each [ant] with the whole lets the [colony] function with an organic rhythm that makes its members appear wonderfully socialized. But they are really not socialized at all, any more than the cells in our tissues are socialized; they are associated, by being unindividuated.” (112) And hence, an ant is not a complete expression of its kind, but only of a specific, but limited function of its kind.

An expression of a specific but limited function of its kind. Photo: Alex Wild

According to Dawkins, this shows on the genetic level as well: the genetic relations between members of a colony are decisively tighter than within, say, a human family. Human offspring share half of their genes with the mother and father, respectively. Ants (and I gloss over the additional problems of genetic expression, development according to nutrition, change in the colony, age of the individual, etc. which can all bring far-reaching changes in behavior, morphology, and status within the colony) are related differently: the males springing from non-fertilized eggs inherit all their genetic material from the queen (but they are haploid, not diploid, and hence do not inherit 100% of the queen’s genetic info), female sister ants (workers) share 75% of their genes (same ratio with their mother), female offspring inherit 100% of their father’s (haploid) genes, in some colonies males can clone themselves…1 Dawkins’ consequence is that the tendency towards selfless behavior should be even more prevalent in such colonies. I, of course, lack the empirical resources to show (or even know) if this claim can be validated – however, such peculiar patterns in genetic relatedness, seen together with the peculiar division of labor/organ activity/reproductive capacity, seem to imply that indeed individuals within a colony do not perceive of themselves as individualized beings, but as parts of a whole.2 Hence, their behavior towards one another cannot be “selfish” (in Dawkins’ loose and maybe inappropriate coining of the term), but must be focused on the survival of the colony, not the single animal (aka incomplete/unindividuated part of the whole).

I am going to stop embarrassing myself by further revealing my meager knowledge of biology and return to the issue at hand. A colony has a strikingly longer lifespan than a solitary insect of another family. What a part loses can be retained by the others. What stays alive is what matters, the colony. Nietzsche could have never gotten angry at a “herd” of ants, since it does not represent mindless obedience, but a functional relationship, forming a whole out of many (where the “many” are actually misrepresented if accounted for as individuals – they are, indeed, parts). He would get angry, however, if I were to argue that such behavior would be advisable for humans in order to ensure some version of immortality (since this is exactly what he set out to destroy). Hopefully I can make a case for a slightly different reading.

Let us assume that humans are actually capable of leaving the pull of the genetic relationships behind. We have, if we still follow Dawkins, something else to hand down that enables us to break the genetic barrier: memes, a fundamental unit of meaning that is capable of replication (aka cultural transmission). We may not feel as attached to other human beings, as they are far from being our clone (and I somehow doubt that we’d trust our clone more than our children, but this is another can of ants that I’ll leave for somebody else to open), but it is not the pull for the other as a means of survival (of my memes) that I am talking about, but the pull towards immortality through the actual body that we as a culture form: so, the gist of my interest in a Dawkinean reading of ants is not that we, the cultural ants, might be more likely to behave in a certain way to prevent our cultural inheritance depending on how closely related we are (here: how many memes we share), but that if we understand culture as a colony, we could bring ourselves to act as a part of a whole – and that this whole ensures our memetic survival. Being part of a (meaningful) culture is something larger than being an individual; the code of existence of such a culture are units of meaning that can be read, apprehended, understood, and that can – if anything at all – allow for a form of immortality.

  1. Culture as a means of immortality (aka memetic survival)

According to Susanne Langer, what marks the key difference between humans and other animals is the use of symbols. “By ‘symbols’ I mean all kinds of signs that can be used and understood whether the things they refer to are there or not.” (Langer, 104-5) The last part is crucial here, because of course Langer does not deny that other animals also use signs – but only for objects or state of affairs that are present or expected. Human symbolism surpasses this temporal limitation. This has its impact on the self-perception of the agent (you may notice here that I am merely assuming a self-conscious agent. I am not saying that there is a causal relation between sign-usage and consciousness. I am just observing that these two things come together in human beings). This agent is presented as a self-conscious being, endowed not only with the powers of understanding, reason, construction, and reaction, but also gifted with imagination. Language, our ultimate tool, seeps through all aspects of human life, marking it as fundamentally different – down to the most basic aspects – than other animal life. Langer stresses in particular our imagination:

“We have not only memories and expectations; we have a post in which we locate our memories, and a future that vastly overreaches our own anticipations. Our past is a story, our future a piece of imagination3. Likewise, our ambient is a place in a wider, symbolically conceived place, the universe. We live in a world.” (106)

Note that having a world is vastly different from living in a world; only the former does actually come to consciousness as an “object” of a very peculiar kind. And it is most fundamentally constructed by the imagination, and its narrational tendency to string together what we confusedly perceive into a convincing story, both stretching into past and future.

A world of ants. Photo: Alex Wild

Having a world also means to see oneself as an agent within it. Given our awareness of time (again, in both directions), we also know, albeit in the abstract, that this world is not comprised of my consciousness alone, but that my consciousness may end when the world is still intact. In other words, we come to the understanding of death. This understanding is, of course, also abstract: barely do we encounter death first hand, full frontal. (I do not believe these stories of people coming back from death. I prefer the interpretation that they come back from a near-death experience, which I take to be fundamentally different from actual death. I leave this can of ants for somebody else.)

Let us take it as one characteristic feature of “being human”: that we know of our death, and that we develop different ways to deal with this knowledge. Apart from all considerations that Becker so impressively laid out in his study The Denial of Death (New York, 1973), I side with Langer: “…. we want to have as much life as possible…” (Langer, 108) in the short span offered to us, and hence, “self-realization” becomes a key issue.

Individuation, self-realization – terms that must sound foreign to ants.

But Langer, on her side, is no foreigner to the thought of interconnectedness, of the bounds that are present because of the other being that is around us – not in a colony, but a social environment. We are rooted in our world, our life, our community, our history and upbringing. “Yet we cannot afford to lose the feeling of involvement with our kind; for if we do, personal life shrinks up to nothingness.” (Langer, 111) This is what Langer calls our “social sense”, may it be benign/benevolent or dominion-oriented (the old battle Rousseau vs. Hobbes). So, apart from our desire for self-realization, we are also always socially intertwined. Or, to put it more strongly (and myself into the Rousseauean camp): self-realization seems only possible through social interaction and connection.

It is hence not too surprising that all human life is not just suffused with symbols, but with social symbols (see Langer, 113). We can enhance, and even replace, to a degree at least, “our actual, instinctual involvements with our kind” (114) with social symbols. At large, the human city is then not an organism like the ant colony, but an “organization”, a “symbolic structure, a mental reality” (114) – “we are not the masses; we are the public” (Langer, 115, my italics). Note that Langer ends the essay here, and does not spell out how the normative constraints of the public actually work.

A social symbol – a sign of things to come.

This is an issue, however, that I also won’t tackle here (isn’t every essay in Philosophy a long explanation why certain topics cannot be breached? This one, at least, is of that kind). The formation of a public is not quite my particular concern here, even though it should play a more prominent role in our quest for immortality, to which I will turn now.

Within the confines of this essay, I focus on a Platonic notion of immortality. Introduced – this is always widely overlooked – in its peculiar form not by Plato’s Socrates, but by the uber-teacher Diotima, a presumably fictional character figuring at a prominent place in Plato’s Symposium. Since it is notoriously hard to pinpoint Plato’s actual position, I will here reference Diotima herself. My main reasons for this, in short are the following: 1. Plato portrays her as the epitome of a sophist (208C), 2. she is rather arrogant, therewith somewhat undermining her message (e.g. 207D, 208C, 210A), 3. Plato parades Alcibiades right after Socrates’ recalling of his encounter with Diotima, hence putting her claims in tension with the grounds for Alcibiades’ love, which seem to concur more with the proto-romantic myth by Aristophanes.4 As questionable as her stance may be, I still think there is something to learn, even for people who don’t want to reside in the “realm of forms” that she advocates.

Diotima squarely puts our desire expressed in love as a desire for immortality. We climb up the ladder of love, where we learn to move from phusis and pragmata to eidoi and theoria – from the love for a particular beautiful body, to the love of beautiful bodies as such, to the love of beautiful customs and, finally, to the love for beauty itself, its idea. In short, we leave sensible individuality and particularity behind in lieu of finally grasping the universal, fundamental fabric of reality, situated outside of the cave in the intelligible realm. Once we figure out that it is not our earthly body, but our connection to these forms that matters, we come to see our quest for immortality in a different light. Only then, we can at least touch on the idea of immortality when we seek to survive in an idealized way: as ideals in my children, as ideas in my works. And somehow, this “me” that survives here is as little an individual as an ant is a fully-fledged person.

It might be quite convincing that our only way to gain immortality has to be in an intellectualized, idealized form, since any matter composing a particular body will definitely not survive long enough. However, it is less sure that such a mode of immortality convinces the sufferer, since this candidate for immortality is what never has been “me”, this particular person, but what is least personal, least individuated. Combined with a Langerean theory of culture, however, we could view this in a different light: If we make our work special enough, appealing enough, timeless enough (there’s no recipe for this but genius, I fear), then at least we can have the hope of survival as a meme (in Dawkins’ sense).

  1. Ants and Symbols

There is at least one worry about this picture, though. So far, my reading could be interpreted as arguing for a conservative culture with an even more conservative tradition. It could even support exclusivist (up to straightforward nationalistic, chauvinistic, and xenophobic) tendencies. Since, if my very production of meaning in memes, in works of art, in any form of intellectual creation should indeed insure my idealized survival, I should hope for a society that preserves these meaning units as something stable and unchangeable, right? If this holds, then foreign influences from outside this particular culture could rarely be welcome, but would endanger the stability of said culture, the longevity of its memes.

Ant xenophobia. Photo: Alex Wild

Here, I side with Cassirer’s view that sustaining a culture is a dynamic act, an act that includes and presupposes the openness to change.5 I try to clarify this, briefly, with short reference to Cassirer’s view of history. Same as Langer (who saw herself as his student, to a degree), Cassirer is convinced that the defining human ability is the use of symbols. Human “life cannot apprehend itself by remaining absolutely within itself. It must give itself form; for it is precisely by this ‘otherness’ of form that it gains its ‘visibility’, if not its reality.” (Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, vol. III, 39 [46])

Cassirer understood Kant’s transcendental subject as a subject expressing herself via symbols, situating herself within a historical situation and a historical outlook. This is the model for Langer’s idea of “having a world”: we perceive of ourselves as situated within a continuum, as developing and planning, reaching backward and forward in order to constitute a full understanding of ourselves and our place in the world. Most importantly, we are not alone in this game, but always address – and are always addressed by – others. Having a world, living in such a world hence also includes a perpetual reading of my own and other people’s creations.

However, Cassirer never says that this view is “neutral”. Quite the opposite: what keeps this process and our engagement with it alive is that we see in our historical understanding not that what simply is, but what is in a particular way. Cassirer calls this “characteristic” (Essay on Man, 212). The historian sets out to understand history by trying to grasp the peculiarity of its actors. And, luckily, said agent might be as peculiar as you wish, she’s still engaged in a common game of symbol-production: “every work is as such not that of an individual, but proceeds from cooperative, correlative action. It bears witness to ‘social action’. ‘History’ and ‘culture’ can be understood only as social phenomena.“ (The Metaphysics of Symbolic Forms, 156 [159])

This work is social and holistic; we create “verbal symbols, religious symbols, mythical and artistic images¾and it is only by the totality, by the system of these symbols and images, that he can maintain his social life¾that he is able to communicate with other human beings and make himself understood by them.” (Symbol, Myth, and Culture, 137) What we produce is not aimed at and exhausted by a particular effect, but meant to “outlive” the moment (see Metaphysics, 187 [183]) – hence our hope for memetic immortality. Since they are meant to be “re-enacted” time and again, they pretty much defy time, in that they are addressed to others, even others that are decisively outside my personal time-line. This, however, puts the absolute grasp I seem to have on my own creations in question, since such a wide expanse of reiterability puts them outside my sphere of influence. The work I produced – if a successful meme – “extends over the centuries. It only becomes clear in the total course of its consequences and interpretations” (Metaphysics, 125 [131]) by others.

Here now we see how ant-like we are, how interconnected our presumed unique cultural utterings are. For a mutual understanding, it takes indeed some effort to come to a common language, and hence, influences from “outside” a culture need first of all to be integrated, made “digestible”. However, this is not tantamount to an exclusivist, self-contained society, quite the opposite: only in exchange and constant re-creation of symbols do we engage in life. Our cultural being is never solitary, but on its deepest level a shared existence. Granted, this “sharing” is not the same as an ant’s life in a colony – but thinking about ants helps us to start thinking about structures that supervene mere individuality without killing the buzz about oneself.

Works cited:

Ernst Cassirer: Symbol, Myth, and Culture. Essays and Lectures of Ernst Cassirer, 1935-1945, ed. by Donald Philip Verene. New Haven and London: Yale University Press 1979.

E.C.: The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. In: Ernst Cassirer: Gesammelte Werke. Hamburger Ausgabe. Ed. by Birgit Recki Hamburg: Meiner 1995-2009 [Ernst Cassirer (1955-1996): The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Vols 1-4. Ed. and transl. by D. P. Verene and J. M. Krois. New Haven, London: Yale University Press].

E.C.: The Metaphysics of Symbolic Forms. In: Ernst Cassirer: Nachgelassene Manuskripte und Texte. Ed. By John Michael Krois, vol. I (Hamburg: Meiner 1995 [The Metaphysics of Symbolic Forms. Ed. and transl. by John Michael Krois. New Haven & London: Yale University Press 1996].

E.C.: Essay on Man. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Culture. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1944.

Richard Dawkins: The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Susanne Langer: “Man and Animal: The City and the Hive”, in: Philosophical Sketches. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1962, 101-115.

1For example, in Wasmannia auropunctata, some males produce clones of themselves, whereas the queen produces diploid daughters.

2Each colony has a specific gene for pheromone production – an ant smelling “not right” when entering the colony will be attacked – and even if the biologist is going to wince now, I state it: this is similar to an invader on the molecular level to be eaten up by white blood cells.

3I would prefer ‘fiction’ here, to avoid confusions.

4I am still thankful to Lanier Anderson, Joshua Landy, and Kenneth Taylor of Stanford University to introduce me to the miracle of Plato’s writing style. If I blatantly misunderstood you, it is my fault.

5I developed this idea in much more detail here: “The First and Second Person Perspective in History. Or: Why History is ‘Culture Fiction’”, in: The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer. A Novel Assessment. Ed. by Sebastian Luft and Tyler Friedman. New York: De Gruyter 2015 (New Studies in the History and Historiography of Philosophy, vol. 1), pp. 341-60.

AnnePollokDr. Anne Pollok teaches Philosophy at the University of South Carolina (we have fire ants! And lots and lots of roaches in various but always impressive sizes!). Before moving to the U.S. and getting spoiled as a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Stanford University (Introduction to the Humanities/Thinking Matters, an introductory program all students thought they hated and ended up loving), Dr. Pollok did her Dr. phil. at the University of Halle, Germany, and her M.A. at the University of Marburg, where Ernst Cassirer once studied Philosophy as well. Her research focuses on conceptions of aesthetics and rational anthropology in late 18th century, as well as philosophy of culture.