Natural machine     | Chris Younès *


« Nature is full of life. » [1]

The difference between an artificial machine and a natural machine is like the difference between the finite and the infinite, the static and the dynamic, the fixed and the mobile, the finitely producible or reproducible and the infinitely reproducible. In an ambiguous passage in his De ipsa Natura, Leibniz praises Boyle, a great English scientist of his day, for his attempt to reconcile Aristotle and Descartes, and especially for arguing that “we should consider the mechanism of a body to be its very nature.” [2]. This formulation demonstrates that nature and machine are inseparable no matter how far we descend into nature’s depths. No matter how small a machine may be, there are always machines within machines and so on ad infinitum.

An infinity of organic machines

No matter how far we venture in analyzing matter, there is an infinity of organic machines for us to perceive. Even beyond or behind what we would call an inert body and what Leibniz called an aggregatum: a “block of marble” is like “a lake full of fish” in that both are made up of an agglomeration of living substances. In other words, behind the inert there is the living. The invisible relays the visible, and the micro the macro. Thus there is neither emptiness nor discontinuity in nature, because wherever we go, there will always be fullness and continuity. But this fullness and continuity are not left to chance or chaos. They are ordered or organized in ever-smaller machines encased in one another, and when they are unencased again, so to speak, each brings to light beings one after another, each perfectly formed and organized, going from the invisible to the visible, from the transparent to the opaque and so on. This is what the theory of preformation called evolution or development.

For Leibnitz the best interpretation of unity is union, integration, cohesion, and likewise order and organization, the structuring of matter in a rational form. That’s what he called “metaphysical unity” or a “metaphysical point.” The expression “organic machine” thus leads to the idea of a dignity particular to a body, one that comes from its own order, i.e. its participation in the infinite organization, “the machine of machines” or the machine in each of its points. Leibniz emphasized that death or organic decomposition is nothing but “the destruction of the coarse parts” that a lifetime of “development” has added to the original structure, the divine machine conceived and realized in the best of all possible worlds.

Mechanicalism and pan-vitalism
Far from opposing mechanicalism, Leibniz wrote to Arnaud that “all bodily phenomena can be explained mechanically or by the corpuscular philosophy.“[3] His aim was simply to show the limits of a mechanicalism he believed incapable of producing forms from shapeless matter.[4] It seemed that the weakness of mechanicalism consisted not in its inability to imitate, that is, to copy nature’s works, but in its powerlessness to go beyond imitating their external and least essential aspects. This mechanicalism’s theoretical error was that it believed that it had brought living beings and natural objects into the ambit of geometry. In this way, Leibniz held, it had failed to take account of what he called substances, i.e. the “true unity of what is called the self in us.” In other words, between the products of human art and those of nature there is the same distance that Leibniz habitually put between aggregatum (the ensemble or aggregate of unities) and substance (unity and organization).

Leibniz rehabilitated vitalism for modern philosophy, not because he considered the world an animal but because it is “full of life.” In this sense it is as analogous to a “block of marble” as “herd of sheep” or “a lake full of fish.” This was his reaction against the predominant form of mechanicalism in his time, Cartesianism, which considered nature homogenous and inert. In opposing the reduction of physical bodies to mere extension and a passive inertia, he affirmed their activity and dynamism and endowed them with action and power.[5] Step by step Leibniz populated the world with animated and living beings. What brought him to panvitalism was the conception that every segment of matter is inhabited by living and animated bodies – substances. He underscored this point, saying, “It is true that (according to my system) there is no portion of matter where there is not an infinity of organic and animated bodies.“[6] Consequently substances, which are the most authentic expression of the principles of life, are everywhere and animate everything. They represent what is truly real in all things. The rest is nothing but their shadow and their relationships

The root and foundation of Leibniz’s vitalism is the theory that everything is composed of substances, the things we call inert as well as those called living (animals, plans, etc.). Everything that is, everything that exists, is composed of substances. In turn, each substance is composed of a complex structure of form and matter. It is the infinite interplay of these little organic and living machines that constructs all the things of this world. This interplay produces the unity and diversity of nature, where everything is living and nothing is like anything else, since it is in a constant state of becoming and therefore forms and reforms constantly.


[1] Leibniz, Principles of Nature and Grace, Based on Reason.
[2] Leibniz, De ipsa Natura.
[3] Leibniz, Letters to Arnauld.
[4] Leibniz, “Considerations on Vital Principles and Plastic Natures.”
[5] Leibniz, New Essays in Human Understanding.
[6] Leibniz, Considerations (Gerhard edition, Vol. VI)


* Chris Younès is a psycho-sociologist with a PhD and degree as a research director in philosophy. She is a professor at the Ecoles nationales supérieures d’architecture (ENSA Paris La Villette and ESA), Director at the Laboratoire Gerjau/UMR CNRS LAVUE (Architecture Ville Urbanisme Environnement) and co-director of the Réseau Scientifique Thématique PhilAU (Philosophie Architecture Urbain).



I remember…


– An assemblage…like a multiplicity that contains many heterogeneous ends and establishes links, relationships of different kinds. The only thing holding the assemblage together is co-functioning, or in other words symbiosis, “sympathy” in the original sense. What matters are not filiations but alliances and alloys, not inheritance and descent but contagion and epidemics

…An assemblage comprises two segments, one of content and the other of expression. On the one hand it is a mechanical assemblage of bodies, of actions and passions, an intermingling of bodies reacting to one another, on the other hand it is a collective assemblage of enunciation, of acts and statements, of incorporeal transformations attributed to bodies. Then on a vertical axis, the assemblage has both territorial sides, or reterritorialized sides, which stabilize it, and cutting edges of deterritorialization, which carry it away. [00]

- That the idea of a necessary mediation, a kind of social contract, was essentially based on a juridical conception of the world, as elaborated by Hobbes, Rousseau and Hegel. For Spinoza, on the contrary, forces were inseparable from a spontaneity and a productivity that made their development possible without mediation, their composition. They were elements of socialization in and of themselves. Spinoza thought directly in terms of “the multitude” and not individuals, in a conception… of physical and dynamic composition in opposition to the juridical contract…Bodies were conceptualized as forces. As such, they were defined not only by their random encounters and collisions (state of crisis); they were defined by relationships between an infinite number of parts making up each body, which already characterized that body as “a multitude”[01]

- What the people of Stateless had in common: not merely the island itself, but the first-hand knowledge that they stood on rock which the founders had crystallized out of the ocean – and which was, forever, dissolving again, only enduring through a process of constant repair. Beneficent nature had nothing to do with it; conscious human effort, and cooperation, had built Stateless…the balance could be disturbed in a thousand ways…. All that elaborate machinery had to be monitored, had to be understood. …It had one undeniable advantage over all the contrived mythology of nationhood. It was true. [1]

- The island of Utopia, which in its middle part, where it was the broadest, extended for some two hundred miles, and then progressively shrank.[2]

- Paul Maymont and his Ville verticale, 1959

- Chaneac and his Cellules polyvalentes, 1960

- Kurokawa and his Helix City, 1961

- Arata Isosaki and his City in the Air, the metabolic city, 1962

- Constant and New Babylon, 1963

- Yona Friedman and his Spatial City, 1960, and later his Cosmic City, 1964

- Guy Rottier and his Ville solaire, 1971

- David George Emmerich and his Dôme stéréométrique, 1977

- Cappadocio and its urban troglodyte dwellings

- Bangkok and its arborescent and aleatory development after the 1993 crisis

- Bernard Rudofsky and his Architecture without Architect, at the MoMA, 1965

- Edgar Allen Poe and “The Domain of Arnheim,” 1847

- Robert Silverberg and his Urban Monads, 1971

- Stefan Wul in Noô1, 1977

- Serge Brussolo and his Vue en coupe d’une ville malade, 1980

- Dan Simmons and his Trans-door in Hyperion, 1990

-That the Paris Commune represented the only realization of revolutionary urbanism, attacking, on the ground, the petrified signs of the dominant organization of life, recognizing social space in political terms, never believing that a monument can be innocent… The whole space was occupied by the enemy… The dawn of an authentic urban planning, created in the areas left empty by that occupation. That’s where what was called construction then and which we call by the same name today began.[3]

-That the tools of the development of the contemporary city were essentially given over to determinist procedures, planned scenarios with predictable mechanisms. The city’s growth, entropy and densification were managed and generated by plans rigidly set in advance, geometrical and holy. That these morphological transformations arose solely on the basis of closed scenarios that could not deviate from the pre-programmed representations on which they were based. I remember that the city’s cartography was thus linked to a mode of production stated in the “future anterior” tense. The future has been anticipated and locked up tight.

-That even at that time it was doubtful that these “under control” operating modes conditioning the production of urban structures were capable of taking into account the complexities of an emerging mass media society where the multitude of citizens was gradually taking the place of the centralized republican authorities.

-That the democracy deficit in the making of the city and the abuse of tools – dating from a period where the reason of a few presided over the destiny of the many – made it impossible to take on board mutations produced by the fragmentation of informational and productive mechanisms.

-That liberal space was constructed in terms of social control, and that the

contemporary 20th-century city retained all the stigmata of that.[4]

-That the reason for the crisis of European civilization and its imperial practices consists in the fact that European virtue – or really its aristocratic morality organized in the institutions of modern sovereignty – cannot manage to keep pace with the vital powers of mass democracy.[5]

-That at the time, the great industrial and financial powers produced not only commodities, but also subjectivities – such as ecological consciousness, sustainable development and even fear, to sell, in fine, these very commodities.[6]

-That we could no longer live in a white rectangle, on a blank sheet of paper, but in regions, in passing, open and closed… That there were places that were completely different, counter-spaces, heteropias, that only children know and master: the attic, the tepee, the parents’ big bed… places of drift, the unknown, fear and myth.[7]

-That modern lodging was a place to which undesirable guests practically never had access. That the “toxic people,” as they were called then, were supposed to keep out, and with them, if possible, bad news as well. That this lodging was nothing but an ignorance machine or an integral instrument of defence, where the basic right of non-respect toward the exterior world found its architectural pillar.[8]

-That at the beginning of the past century, everything was going well, and then once again the walls became porous, the chairs flexible, the floor rubbery, and it was necessary to go forward. It was a vicious circle. The more the house progressed, the more one had to advance at one’s own pace, to find a new apartment…. to accept the speculations of the electronic brains about time, light, morals, food… From now on they were condemned to progress.[9]

- That the verticality was assured by the polarity from the basement to the attic. … that one always went down the stairs to the basement, that one went up and down the stairs to the bedroom… but that one could only go up the steeper stairs to the attic… When I return to my dreams of these attics, I never go down again…[10]

- That the search for a unit of a movement already under way had become a prerequisite.[11]

- That nostalgia had become a weapon.[12]

- That only an ethico-political articulation – which was called ecosophy– was plausible. It was invented step by step between three ecological domains, the environment, social relationships and human subjectivity.[13]

- That the question of time and of determinism was no longer limited to the sciences alone, at the heart of Western thought since the beginning… subsequently no one confused science with certitude any longer, or probability with ignorance…[14]

- What had to be absorbed was, specifically, the production of locality, or in other words social machines that had to create and recreate identities and differences understood as local… as in a regime of heterogenization.[15]

- From Rimbaud’s “Music of the Swarm”. [16]

- That in the real world, which no longer exists, it was more important that a proposition be interesting than real.[17]

- That the idea of a necessary mediation, a kind of social contract, was essentially based on a juridical conception of the world, as elaborated by Hobbes, Rousseau and Hegel. For Spinoza, on the contrary, forces were inseparable from a spontaneity and a productivity that made their development possible without mediation, i.e., their composition. They were elements of socialization in and of themselves. Spinoza thought directly in terms of “the multitude” and not individuals, in a conception… of physical and dynamic composition in opposition to the juridical contract. – Bodies were conceptualized as forces. As such, they were defined not only by their random encounters and collisions (state of crisis); they were defined by relationships between an infinite number of parts making up each body, which already characterized that body as “a multitude”…[18]

- That the claim for a world of worlds immediately posed – on the plane of will as well as the plane of knowledge – the problem of the reality of the imagination and of freedom. A constitutive reality, no longer the gift of a divinity or the residue of its process of emanation…. That posed the problem of reality no longer as a totality but as a dynamic of the partial, not as absolute perfection but as relative privation, not as utopia but as a project.[19]

- That in the end the whole system evolved over time toward a paradoxical and spontaneous increasing disorder, without ever reaching a state of equilibrium.[20]

- That even at that time an artwork was not considered an artwork anymore if it was situated outside all relationships, outside of any context. That we presuppose precisely that the artwork had to situate itself within these relationships, but even before situating it in these terms, as a precondition we had to define these same relationships![21]

- That what we can no longer speak about, we have learned to pass over in silence.[22]


[00] Gilles Deleuze, Claire Parnet, Dialogue, Paris, Flammarion 1999 & Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Mille Plateaux, Paris, Les Editions de Minuit, 1980

[01] Gilles Deleuze, introduction à l’Anomalie Sauvage, Toni Negri, PUF, 1983

[1] Greg Egan, L’Énigme de l’Univers, Robert Laffont, Paris, 1999.

[2] Thomas More, L’Utopie, livre second, 1516.

[3] Debord, Kotanyi, Vaneighen, La commune était une fête, par l’IS / librairie Arthème Fayard, tract 1962.

[4] Raphaël Hythodée, 1516-2005

[5] Toni Negri, Empire, Harvard University 2000

[6] Ibid note (5)

[7] Michel Foucault, Utopie et hétérotopie, conférence radiophoniques, 1966.

[8] Peter Sloterdijk, Écumes, sphérologie plurielle, Maren Sell Editeur, 2005.

[9] Serge Brussolo, Vue en coupe d’une ville malade, Denoël, 1980.

[10] Gaston Bachelard, La Maison, de la cave au grenier, Poétique de l’espace, PUF, 1957.

[11] Gilles Deleuze, Leibniz, Âme et damnation, le baroque, la mort en mouvement, cours 1986-1987

[12] Douglas Coupland, Generation X, Saint Martin’s Press,1991

[13] Felix Guattari, Les Trois écologies, Galilée, 1989

[14] Ilya Prigogine, La Fin des certitudes, Odile Jacob, 1996

[15] Ibid note (4)

[16] Kristin Ross, Rimbaud and the Paris Commune, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1998,

[17] Ibid note (8)

[18] Gilles Deleuze, introduction à l’Anomalie Sauvage de Antonio Negri, PUF, 1982.

[19] Antonio Negri, L’Anomalie sauvage, PUF, 1982,

[20] Selon le deuxième principe de la thermodynamique, ou principe entropique.

[21] Martin Heidegger, Chemins qui ne mènent nulle part, Holzwege, Vittorio Klostermann, 1949.

[22] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractacus Logico-philosophicus. Point 7, Routedge & Kegan Paul, 1922.