Organic Life, Psychic Life, Spiritual Life and
the Living Individual in Nicolai Hartmann’s Ontology

by K. Akerma

Abstract: Hartmann’s concept of life is ambiguous. It can mean organic, psychic, or spiritual life. This constellation evokes the question of what are the decisive features for individual living beings. In the wake of Hartmann’s statement according to which consciousness is the decisive feature of the individuality of living beings, I defend a mentalistic solution to the problem of the many lives in Hartmann’s ontology.

The old ontology, Hartmann writes in New Ways of Ontology, “was fundamentally oriented toward the being of material things and, in addition, toward the organism. It interpreted psychic life organologically, and it assigned the spirit to the kingdom of essences. Therefore it could not place the spirit within the world of reality.”1 It is well known that, according to Hartmann, one should not extend the features or categories peculiar to one stratum of real being to a higher or lower stratum. With Teleologisches Denken, Hartmann dedicated an entire book to criticizing the extension of the concept of purposefulness to lower strata, where it does not belong. Purposefulness belongs exclusively to the stratum of consciousness or spirit and can only be found in beings that comprise the corresponding strata of real being.

Apparently, Hartmann was not as circumspective about the concept of “life.” This is already indicated by the expression “psychic life” in the quote above and will be explained in more detail. In what follows, I will elaborate on some difficulties related to the concept of “life” in Hartmann’s ontology and present a solution that builds upon features peculiar to his ontology.

When asked what the dominion of “life” is in Hartmann’s ontology, readers acquainted with his work would perhaps answer that in Hartmann’s ontology of fourfold stratified real being, “life” corresponds to the second stratum, i.e., the organismic stratum.2 The assumption that the second stratum is the dominion of “life” is supported by an alternative stratification of real being which Hartmann presents in Der Aufbau der realen Welt: “matter, life, the mental, spirit.”3

This simple picture is tainted and a philosophical puzzle arises from the fact that Hartmann does not restrict “life” to the organismic stratum. Instead, he extends the concept of “life” to strata of real being higher than the organismic. He conceives of “life” above and beyond the organism as a living being, mentioning “psychic life”4 and “spiritual life.”5 “Life” is not restricted to the organismic stratum but is also an attribute of the strata of psyche and spirit. With respect to the latter, Hartmann goes as far as saying: “The living spirit – personal and superindividual alike – succumbs to the law of all life: it falls prey to death.”6

Upon closer scrutiny, Hartmann’s ontology evinces different kinds of life and one might suspect that on many occasions he uses the term “life” only in a metaphorical manner, as when e.g., he talks about “the life of morals.”7 At one point he deals with “the ‘life’ of style.”8 Putting “life” into quotation marks here, he seems fully aware of the metaphorical usage of the term. The same applies when he mentions “the life of the drives, inclinations etc.”9 Throughout these examples “life” is tantamount to a special kind of process.

A problem lies in the fact that Hartmann addresses the psychic and the spiritual stratum as “psychic life” and “spiritual life” and that he explicitly affirms that “life” is not being used just in a metaphorical manner: “Being alive is not characteristic of the spirit alone but of everything that, with regard to the stratum, is ‘above’ the physical.”10 This yields a perplexing constellation as Hartmann at the same time is fully aware of the problems that go along with an extension of the concept of “life” beyond a limited region of real being: “Spirit had been characterized as ‘life’. Here, life was of course not conceived as the life of animals and plants but, rather, as a separate and higher kind of life. If one sticks to this, there can be no objection to the word. However, one cannot stick to it. ‘Life’ has some further meaning, and it percolates time and again: All of a sudden and without notice the concepts are organologically imbued.”11 The concept of “life,” Hartmann argues, cannot be restricted to the stratum of spirit, as “life” unwittingly conveys notions of the organic stratum that, as it were, contaminate a proper understanding of the spiritual stratum of real being. Hence it is all the more astonishing that Hartmann explicitly resorts to the concept of “life” in order to present the strata above the material.

Although Hartmann dismisses all aspirations aiming at understanding man exclusively in terms of material nature or in spiritual terms,12 he at the same time pervades all strata above the material in light of the concept of “life.” This is ambiguous if we consider the following sequence: “Only material things and living beings (Lebewesen), including the processes through which their existence flows, are spatial. But spiritual and psychic processes, as well as material processes, are temporal.”13

Living beings, Hartmann explains, are spatial. Hartmann goes on to say that “the very life of man consists of an inseparable merging of the inner and the outer.”14 Which is to say, man – as a living being – is not only spatial but a psycho]physical unit, i.e., an organism with psychic or spiritual properties. Apparently, to him, some living beings are such just by virtue of being functioning spatial organisms. Other living beings are such by virtue of being psycho]organismic units. With all due respect to Hartmann’s claim that concepts such as matter, life, or consciousness are beyond definition,15 this yields two definitions for the term “living being”: A living being is: (1) a spatially extended functioning organism; (2) a psycho-organismic unit. According to (1) a living being ceases to exist when it ceases to be a functioning organism. According to (2) a living being (such as man) ceases to exist when an organism irreversibly loses its mental properties.

Is there a way out of this aporia? It seems that “life” is indeed not accessible to the task of definition since, in the real world, we do not encounter “life” but only individual living beings. And with these we might fare much better. Instead of dealing with a concept of life encompassing three different strata we should take into account the existence of spatial organisms on the one hand and living beings such as humans on the other hand and raise anew the question of what is the distinguishing feature of living beings. This is perhaps more promising a strategy than holding with Hartmann that “the life within us ‘experiences’ itself.”16

As a matter of fact, individuality offers a clue to determining which of Hartmann’s three “kinds of life” – organismic, psychic, and spiritual – is essential to living beings. In his ontology, consciousness is the decisive feature of the individuality of living beings. “Consciousness is not taken over from the consciousness of the parents, but is formed anew.”17 Beneath consciousness, at the organismic stratum, there is continuity. Hartmann speaks of “the persistence of life, in spite of the death of the individual, by means of procreation and heredity.”18 And he conceives of a “continuity of life in the germ cells.”19 Above the stratum of consciousness, at the spiritual stratum, there is continuity again: “Consciousness separates the individuals... At the stratum of consciousness the continuum is thus interrupted. In the life of the spirit, however, it is restored. – Not by means of a return to inheritance but in a different way that is peculiar to the spirit.”20 Individual living beings only exist where organismic continuity is interrupted by means of consciousness superimposed on organisms. Above the individual living being there is spiritual continuity.

Among the many lives of Hartmann “conscious life” is the “kind of life” that corresponds to the existence of individual living beings. Conscious living beings come into existence and pass away: “Organismic life is inherited while the stream of consciousness is disrupted and a new consciousness comes into existence; both of which are enigmatic, as opposed to the continuous life of spirit that overtly takes place in front of our eyes.”21

The following sentence is remarkable insofar as it features two Hartmannian “kinds of life” competing with one another: “Is there psychic life without organic life?”22 Saying that consciousness cannot exist by itself, Hartmann answers this question in the negative. But there is more to be said about it. Regarding my focus of interest, his question might also translate as: Is there any consciousness supported by non] organismic bearers? Although Hartmann did not want to rule out the existence of spiritual beings on other planets,23 he did not discuss this problem. Had he, he might have been lead to the question of what is essential for living beings. Despite his aversion toward defining basic terms such as matter, life, consciousness, by determining a common denominator for all living beings he might eventually have produced a definition for the term “living being.” Are living beings such by virtue of being organisms? Or are they minds embodied in organisms?

On the one hand, Hartmann is of the opinion that consciousness is decisive for the existence of individual living beings. On the other hand, he criticizes the expression “the life” for being used as if “life” were a matter/substrate of a higher order from which living beings are generated. In this context he even criticizes the nominalization of the term “life,” especially when used as a singular: “the life,” because it evokes the existence of an ontic realm beyond the strata of matter, consciousness, spirit and history.24 Despite this he still speaks of organic life, psychic life, and spiritual life as if there could be a plurality of living beings within one living being. With the following lines I present an outline of how we can come to grips with the plurality of lives in Hartmann’s ontology.

Living beings, we should say, are entities that at least comprise the stratum of consciousness. In the world known to us, all living beings are essentially embodied minds where the “body” is an organism. The concept of an embodied mind can be explained in a somewhat more precise fashion by the ontic relation of constitution: When an organism supports consciousness, a new entity – a living being – comes into existence. Living beings are constituted by their organisms.25 That is to say, living beings are not identical to their organisms. An organism that constitutes a living being is alive only derivatively. If an organism irreversibly ceases to support consciousness, the living being ceases to exist irreversibly and the remaining (functioning) organism is not alive. The persistence conditions for living beings are different from the persistence conditions for (functioning) organisms.

My definition of living beings as entities that at least comprise the stratum of consciousness needs some clarification. I use “consciousness” in a way that it comprises even minimal consciousness. Therefore, I would survive even if my brain were to be zapped and I lost all personal traits as might be the case in an accident or in the course of an illness. In my account, there wouldn’t be a second living being that came into existence once the former minimal consciousness became richer in content and displayed new trains of personality. Perplexing though it may seem at a first glance, in my account one and the same living being persists. Consider the following case: I am informed today that the condition of my brain deteriorates continuously. Within twenty years I will suffer from complete dementia. I will not know who I am, nor will I recognize friends or relatives. Despite these deeply deplorable facts my future brain will support consciousness in such a way that the living being called Karim Akerma feels pleasure and pain. My neurologist declares that the sentient being that today knows himself as Karim Akerma will suffer from great pain in twenty years. He offers me a drug the daily input of which from now on would cause only very moderate pain but would prevent all future great pain caused by the deterioration of my brain. He says: “Depending on whether or not you think it will be you or someone else who exists as a non-personal sentient being twenty years later, you should – or should not – take the drug as from today.” I for one would take the drug because I am convinced that it would be me (and not somebody else who comes into existence) who otherwise would suffer great pain. I would tolerate moderate pain now in order to prevent future great pain. To my mind I will exist (live) as long as my brain generates at least minimal consciousness.

The problem of the many lives is by far not restricted to Hartmann’s ontology. It arose decades ago and is still of actuality today, though after Hartmann’s death, in cases of so called brain death in intensive care units: While on a respirator, the patient’s brain irreversibly ceases to function and to support consciousness. Many contemporary authors equal this to the death of a person or to the death of the conscious human being that is survived by a living organism.26 When disconnected from the respirator, organismic integration collapses shortly after. Many authors equal this to a second death, the death of the human organism as a second living being. Against this view I suggest that we understand living beings as stratified individuals, the most essential feature of which is consciousness. In all known cases living beings are constituted by organisms. However, with Hartmann, we should not rule out the possibility that real being somewhere springs an ontological surprise inasmuch as a non]organism supports consciousness and thus constitutes a living being. “Somewhere” could be on earth should man ever create an electronic system that supports consciousness.

Generally speaking, Hartmann seems to be of the opinion that organisms on the one hand and things on the other are continuants with different persistence conditions. He explains organisms as objects in flux. In his account, organisms are continuants that persist via and above a steady flux of parts that are governed by the continuity of certain processes many such as metabolism, assimilation and auto] regulation. Organisms exist via and above metabolism. Metabolizing they interact with their environments as space-claiming entities. Organisms actively hold a position and thus can be viewed as a spatiotemporal class of continuants in its own right besides
mere “things.”27

1 N. Hartmann, New Ways of Ontology, trans. R. C. Kuhn, Chicago: Henry Regnery Company,
1953, p. 24
2 I prefer the term “organismic” to “organic” as the latter is a chemical term that designates compounds containing carbon-atoms.
3 N. Hartmann, Der Aufbau der realen Welt. Grundriss der allgemeinen Kategorienlehre, Berlin:
Walter de Gruyter, 1964, p. 450
4 See e.g., N. Hartmann, New Ways of Ontology, trans. R. C. Kuhn, Chicago: Henry Regnery
Company, 1953, pp. 24, 75, and 78. (For a discussion of Hartmann’s Leben der Art c.f. K. Akerma,
Verebben der Menschheit? Neganthropie und Anthropodizee, Freiburg: Alber Verlag, 2000,
pp. 168]178.)
5 See e.g., ibid., pp. 75, 77
6 “Der lebende Geist, ob persönlich, ob Gemeingeist, unterliegt dem Gesetz alles Lebendigen: er
verfällt dem Tode.” (N. Hartmann, Das Problem des geistigen Seins, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter,
1949, p. 409)
7 Ibid., p. 231
8 Ibid., p. 237
9 “...das Leben der Triebe, Neigungen.” (Ibid., p. 318)
10 “Nur zeichnet Lebendigkeit nicht den Geist allein aus, sondern alles, was der Seinsschicht nach
‘über’ dem Physischen liegt.” (N. Hartmann, Das Problem des geistigen Seins, Berlin: Walter de
Gruyter, 1949, p. 47)
11 “Man charakterisierte den Geist als ‘Leben’. Man dachte dabei selbstverständlich nicht an das
Leben der Tiere und Pflanzen, man meinte eine eigene und höhere Art Leben. Hält man das
streng fest, so ist gegen das Wort nicht viel einzuwenden. Aber es lässt sich nicht festhalten.
‘Leben’ hat nun einmal seine weitere Bedeutung und die schlägt immer wieder durch: Man
merkt es gar nicht; unversehens verschieben sich die Begriffe ins Organologische.” (Ibid.)
12 See ibid., p. 15
13 N. Hartmann, New Ways of Ontology, trans. R. C. Kuhn, Chicago: Henry Regnery Company,
1953, p. 25
14 Ibid.
15 See N. Hartmann, Das Problem des geistigen Seins, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1949, p. 45
16 “...das Leben in uns ‘erlebt’ sich selbst.” (N. Hartmann, Teleologisches Denken, Berlin: Walter
de Gruyter, 1966, p. 91)
17 N. Hartmann, New Ways of Ontology, trans. R. C. Kuhn, Chicago: Henry Regnery Company,
1953, p. 120
18 Ibid., p. 81
19 N. Hartmann, Das Problem des geistigen Seins, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1949, p. 208
20 “Das Bewusstsein trennt die Individuen... In der Ebene des Bewusstseins also ist das
Kontinuum unterbrochen. Im Leben des Geistes aber stellt es sich wieder her, und zwar nicht
durch Rückkehr zur Erblichkeit, sondern auf anderem, spezifisch geistigem Wege.” (Ibid., p. 216)
21 “Das organische Leben vererbt sich, das Bewusstsein reißt ab und entsteht neu; beides ist
gleich rätselhaft: Das Kontinuum des Geisteslebens dagegen vollzieht sich offen vor unseren
Augen...” (Ibid., p. 217)
22 N. Hartmann, New Ways of Ontology, trans. R. C. Kuhn, Chicago: Henry Regnery Company,
1953, p. 85
23 See N. Hartmann, Das Problem des geistigen Seins, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1949, p. 55
24 See Philosophie der Natur. Abriss der speziellen Kategorienlehre, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter,
1953, p. 675 ff.
25 For an elucidating discussion of the problem of constitution see L. R. Baker’s Persons and
Bodies, Cambridge University Press, 2000. In this book, Baker explains the ontic relation of
constitution as a relation of almost]identity that nonetheless is non]identity. Baker’s view of
constitution serves me as a tool, and my mention of her constitutional view does not go along
with endorsing her ontology of living beings.
26 See my review of J. P. Lizza’s, Persons, Humanity and the Definition of Death, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2006:
27 For a more detailed account of the place of consciousness in reality and its relation to 
organismic existence in Hartmann’s ontology, c.f. my “Toward an Ontology of Consciousness 
with Nicolai Hartmann and Hans Jonas,” in H. Wautischer (ed.), Ontology of Consciousness. 
Percipient Action, The MIT Press, 2008, pp. 449-474.

I am grateful to F. Tremblay for pertinent comments.