Machines and Organisms

A critical analysis of the Aristotelian conception of organisms

Term Paper, 2019

13 Pages, Grade: 1,00








Technological developments of artificial intelligence paired with incredibly realistic simulations of organic bodies will probably make machines hardly differentiable from living beings in the near future. The increasing possibilities of replacing bodily parts by robotic replications do not simplify a strict division between organisms and machines. Therefore, it is relevant to think about the question whether modern machines can be subsumed under well-known concepts of organisms. And if they do, can we accept that? Or should such concepts be rethought and updated?

In her paper “Organismus - Maschine: Analogie oder Gegensatz“, Marianne Schark compares the Aristotelian and the Cartesian conception of organisms. Briefly, according to the Aristotelian conception, living beings consist of a physical body (matter) and a soul (form), which is necessary for viability. Furthermore, according to Aristoteles, the organic body functions as the soul’s tool. Supporters of the Cartesian conception criticize this theory by claiming that animals are nothing more than organized bodies and thus do not differ from machines. (418 f.)1 In general, the two conceptions vary regarding their interpretations of the nature of abilities: While, according to Aristoteles, living beings possess active abilities, René Descartes rather considers them as merely having passive dispositions. (427)

Since it seems obvious that modern machines can be considered as organisms according to the Cartesian conception, in this paper, I will focus on the more ambiguous Aristotelian conception. Therefore, I argue for the claim that modern machines can be considered as organisms according to the Aristotelian conception of organisms. If this is true, we should seriously think about which (if at all) distinctive features still differentiate organisms from modern machines and consequently, whether an introduction of new theoretical approaches of organisms is required.


In this paper, the following argument is defended:

(P1) If modern machines can comply with the conditions of the Aristotelian conception of organisms, they can be considered as organisms according to the Aristotelian conception of organisms.
(P2) Modern machines can comply with the conditions of the Aristotelian conception of organisms.
(C) Therefore, modern machines can be considered as organisms according to the Aristotelian conception of organisms.

In section III, I will reconstruct Marianne Schark’s analysis of the Aristotelian conception of organisms, show its positive and negative implications and justify (P2) of my argument. Section IV consists of a statement concerning the classification of modern machines to the realm of organisms. In section V, I will give a brief overview of the results.


The Aristotelian conception of organisms is divided into two general parts: First, the introduction of the soul as the form of living beings and second, Aristoteles’ idea of the organic body as the soul’s tool.

In this section, I will reconstruct Marianne Schark’s analysis of the first part of the Aristotelian conception, show its positive and negative implications and justify (P2) regarding the first part. Then, I will turn to the second part of the conception which entails two interpretations. Here, I will reconstruct the first interpretation and show its implications, then reconstruct the second interpretation and show its implications and subsequently justify (P2) regarding the whole second part of the conception. Finally, I will derive the conclusion of my argument.

To begin with the first part, living beings consist of “matter“, which physically constitutes the being through an organic body. But since matter does not suffice for viability, living beings additionally consist of “form“ which makes up their soul and is precisely the differentiating element between animate and inanimate objects. Therefore, the existence of a soul is a necessary condition for the viability of an organic body. In general, the soul represents the special organizational form of a body, i.e. the particular order and interaction of the single bodily parts and organs, as well as the whole form of the body. Thus, the soul (form) can only exist dependent on the existence of the body (matter). Aristoteles considers the soul as the mere capacity to be alive, without any appeal to mental phenomena, in contrast to present interpretations of a soul. Rather, the soul embodies the characteristic activities for living beings, as for instance reproduction, self-nutrition, perception or thinking. If a being complies at least with one of them, it can be considered as a living being. (419-422)

Aristoteles’ introduction of a soul is plausible, since a physical body alone does not seem to suffice in order to move, develop, or in general, to be alive. So, some kind of operator seems to be required for viability. In this context, the soul theory allows for open interpretations, for it can theoretically stand for any kind of operator, which is advantageous for Aristoteles’ account. Thus, we need not necessarily envisage the soul as a mystical entity, which gives our bodies handling instructions. Instead, we are free to identify it for instance with the driving force which could be located in the human and animal brain. In the case of plants, the soul could represent their natural development including nutrition and reproduction. As Aristoteles explains, the soul simply stands for the special kind of organization and interplay of the whole organic system (421). Moreover, the embodiment of characteristic activities by the soul is advantageous for Aristoteles’ account, since the weak requirement of meeting at least one of the activities suffices for a being to be considered as a living being (420). For example, the soul embodies the activity of reproduction and can thus explain the viability of all living beings.

Thanks to Aristoteles’ broad definition of the soul, we can easily justify (P2) regarding the first part of the Aristotelian conception of organisms. For now, we need not even think of complex robots entailing artificial intelligence, but it suffices to think of e.g. a robot which can sort fruit by size. First of all, the robot consists of matter, i.e. the construction of the physical body. Since the robot is not simply a static mechanical construction, but is able to move and sort fruit, it further consists of form. The body’s particular organizational form, including the special order and interaction of its elements allows for the robot’s capacity to sort fruit. Lastly, the robot can comply with at least two characteristic activities of living beings, namely perception and self-nutrition: First, the robot is able to perceive the different fruit sizes and react accordingly. Moreover, it is able to notice its low battery and autonomously connect itself to electricity until it is fully recharged. Therefore, modern machines can comply with the conditions of the Aristotelian conception of organisms (P2).

The second part of Aristoteles’ conception of organisms consists of a tool analogy which he uses for a better understanding of the soul: The single bodily parts of a living being can be seen as tools with different functions. Taken all those units together, the whole organic body functions as the soul’s tool. (422) This analogy has been interpreted in two ways:

According to the first interpretation, the soul is understood as a mere indication for viability, without any appeal to mental capacities. The specific activity an organic body is capable of is living, so it can be seen as a tool for viability. And this distinguishes them from other physical bodies. (422 f.) Schark criticizes that this interpretation deprives living beings of their ability of active performance of movements and self-initiation and rather considers them as passive, activatable dispositions, i.e. mere processes resulting from a certain organizational (physical) structure. Further, according to Schark, this understanding implies that there would be no difference anymore between an organic body and a living being. (426)


1 All cited pages refer to Marianne Schark’s paper

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Machines and Organisms
A critical analysis of the Aristotelian conception of organisms
University of Salzburg
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Andjelika Eissing-Patenova (Author), 2019, Machines and Organisms, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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