We have always been plastic: Catherine Malabou with Gregory of Nyssa and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola

Catherine Malabou Nyssa Pico

With much coffee and the huge kindness and indulgence of my wife I have just finished the first complete draft of my book on figures of the human in contemporary French thought. The project formerly known as The Human Remains has evolved into the argument that one of the most comprehensive and productive ways to understand the rich diversity of contemporary French thought and to draw links between very different philosophers[1] is to approach the field as a series of attempts to transform the human being in a way no longer determined (either positively or negatively) by the death of God and the end of man.

As part of the collateral damage ensuing from having taken a machete to the draft in order to bring it within the word limit, I have a number of sections that didn’t make it past the group stage (the scars of England’s cricket world cup exit run deep and its metaphor spreads wide) that are now gathering dust on the cutting room floor. Here are some thoughts that were amputated from the final section of chapter 3 (which accounts for the extract starting rather abruptly and referring back to my analysis of Malabou’s Hegel)…



AD          Avant demain

ADH       L’Avenir de Hegel

FOH       The Future of Hegel


Catherine Malabou is not offering us a new and innovative figure of humanity but as a plastic transformation of one of the oldest Western figures of the human. The idea that the distinctive human trait is the possibility for self-transformation has a long tradition in the West, commonly accepted to begin with Cappadocian Father Gregory of Nyssa’s (c 335 – c 395) On The Making of Humanity. The way in which Malabou rescues Hegel’s God from the reading according to which divine kenosis is a moment of lack and passivity provides us with a blueprint for re-reading this tradition which understands the human as uniquely indeterminate and open to possibilities not, as is customary, as an apophatic or mystical denial of any determinate human nature but as a series of accounts of the plastic human. In this section I will seek to sketch two examples of this rereading of the tradition necessitated by plasticity, from Gregory’s On The Making of Humanity itself, and from the Florentine Renaissance philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s (1463-1494) Oration on the Dignity of Man. I beg the reader’s indulgence: I treat these two texts briefly and without any pretence of according them the detailed study which they merit. My aim is a very modest one: to indicate how we might begin to think of Malabou’s plastic humanity as itself a plastic transformation of traditional anthropologies that predate Hegel.

In the same way that, as Malabou notes, kenosis has most often been interpreted as a moment of passivity and negativity (ADH 130/FOH 91), Gregory’s On the Making of Humanity is most frequently read today as offering an apophatic anthropology, read indeed as “the classic formulation of a mystical or negative anthropology grounded in a mystical and negative theology”.[2] This reading places at the centre of Gregory’s anthropology the assertion in On the Making of Humanity that it is indeterminacy and incomprehensibility that render humanity, uniquely among all the animals, in imago dei:

God […] says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness”. The image is properly an image so long as it fails in none of those attributes which we perceive in the archetype; but where it falls from its resemblance to the prototype it ceases in that respect to be an image; therefore, since one of the attributes we contemplate in the Divine nature is incomprehensibility of essence, it is clearly necessary that in this point the image should be able to show its imitation of the archetype.[3]

The conventional reading goes on to argue that, liberated from the possession of any determinate nature or substance, the mystical Gregory figures the human being as sculptor of himself: “the soul immediately shows its royal and exalted character, far removed as it is from the lowliness of private station, in that it owns no lord, and is self-governed, swayed autocratically by its own will”.[4] This, at least, is the Gregory of the apophatic tradition, including the Gregory of Jean-Luc Marion. But, as we saw when we looked carefully at Malabou’s reading of the figuring of kenosis as divine passivity, this is only half the story. As well as his insistence upon the soul’s self-government, Gregory also argues that “[n]ature, the all-contriving, takes from its kindred matter the part that comes from the man, and moulds her statue within herself”.[5] Is humanity, then, formed or self-forming? The answer is: yes. In On the Origin of Man Gregory argues for the distinction in Genesis 1:26[6] between the “image of God”, which is given to humanity, and the “likeness of God”, which humanity must construct for itself: “But it is proper that one part is given you, while the other has been left incomplete: this is so that you might complete it yourself and might be worthy of the reward which comes from God”.[7] This is neither apophatic nor kataphatic; the term which most adequately describes it is “plastic”, according to Malabou’s understanding of plasticity as a simultaneous giving and receiving of form. Furthermore, even the self-governing capacity of humans is still received as part of the image of God. It is impossible, in a close reading of On the Making of Humanity, to dissociate the giving and receiving of form. What Gregory presents is a picture not of an apophatic but of a plastic humanity.

A similarly one-sidedness can be discerned in modern readings of Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man. In the Oration Pico insists that humanity has “no archetype” and is a “creature of indeterminate image”: [8]

We have given you, Adam, no fixed seat or form of your own, no talent particular to you alone. This we have done so that whatever seat, whatever form, whatever talent you may judge desirable, the same may you have and possess according to your desire and judgment. Once defined, the nature of all other beings is constrained within the laws We have prescribed for them. But you, constrained by no limits, may determine your nature for yourself, according to your own free will, in whose hands We have placed you.[9]

The Creator addresses humanity as the “shaper of yourself”,[10] having in its possession “every sort of seed and all sprouts of every kind of life”.[11] Ernst Cassirer is typical of a dominant strain of interpretation which considers Pico as first and foremost a “champion of human dignity and freedom” for whom “man possesses his perfection only as he achieves it for himself independently and on the basis of a free decision”.[12] Giorgio Agamben ploughs a similar furrow when he characterises Pico’s Oration as offering a “definition of man by his lack of a face”, claiming that the text’s “central thesis” is that man “can have neither archetype nor proper place”.[13]

What these and similar interpretations tend to occlude is that Pico’s human is a creature as well as a creator. The “seeds pregnant with all possibilities” are bestowed upon humanity by the Father, and the context of the phrase eulogising humanity as the shaper of its own being is: “We have made you neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, so that you may, as the free and extraordinary shaper of yourself, fashion yourself in whatever form you prefer”.[14] Pico’s human is the created creator, the shaped shaper, the one who receives its own form from God (it is made a “free and extraordinary shaper”) and gives itself its own form (it freely and proudly fashions itself). The “lack of face” to which Agamben refers is itself a form which humanity receives; the human has no archetype, to be sure, but it is equally true that its lack of an archetype is itself a gift from God, just as much as other determinate endowments such as the horse’s speed or the lion’s strength. The one-sided reading of Pico as the champion of utter and unconditioned freedom must be corrected by a closer reading of his text: Pico’s humanity is not Promethean but plastic.

These sketches of plasticity in Gregory and Pico and no more than indications of the contours that a plastic rereading of the apophatic tradition would take. The conclusion towards which they gesture (but that would need a much longer development) is that Malabou’s plastic human is not a new, ex nihilo anthropology that destroys or renders obsolete the tradition that precedes it, but a materialist plastic transformation of that tradition which is both recognisable in its oldest representatives and also faithful to Malabou’s own plastic transformation of Hegelian plasticity.

[1] I deal explicitly with Alain Badiou, Quentin Meillassoux, Catherine Malabou, Michel Serres and Bruno Latour, but the schema of interpretation I elaborate in the book is intended to be expandable to other contemporary thinkers.

[2] Thomas A. Carlson, The Indiscrete Image: Infinitude and Creation of the Human (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009) 126.

[3] Philip Schaff (ed.), NPNF2-08. Saint Gregory of Nyssa: Ascetic and Moral Treatises, Philosophical Works, Apologetic Works, Oratorical Works, Letters, vol. 8, Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers: Series 2 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2015) 90.

[4] Schaff (ed.), NPF2-08, 80.

[5] Schaff (ed.), NPF2-08, 144.

[6] ‘Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”’ (Genesis 1:26, English Standard Version).

[7] Gregory of Nyssa, On the Origin of Man, in Andrew Louth (ed.), Genesis 1-11, Ancient Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament I (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001) 33.

[8] Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man: A New Translation and Commentary, ed. Francesco Borghesi, Michael Papio and Massimo Riva (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012) 117.

[9] della Mirandola, Oration 117.

[10] della Mirandola, Oration 117.

[11] della Mirandola, Oration 121.

[12] Cassirer, Ernst. “Giovanni Pico della Mirandola: A Study in the History of Renaissance Ideas.” In Journal of the History of Ideas 3:3 (June 1942): 319-346, 323. I was helped in my reading of Pico by April Capili’s unpublished article “Hidden Keynote in Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s Understanding of Human Dignity and Freedom”, available at academia.edu

[13] Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal, trans. Kevin Attell (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004) 29.

[14] della Mirandola, Oration 117; CW’s emphasis. As Capili points out, this argument is also made by Paul Miller in Pico della Mirandola on the Dignity of Man; On Being and the One, trans. Charles Glenn Wallis et al. (Indianapolis, MN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1998) xv.