On the Axiological Cogito: Chapter One of Raymond Ruyer’s, Neofinalism

by David L. Duffy


Raymond Ruyer (1902-1987), le Sage de Nancy, significantly influenced French philosophy (he is quoted by Merleau-Ponty, Canguilhem, Deleuze and the enactivists, e.g. Varela and Weber), but was little referenced in English until recently. [1] His thinking has roots in Bergson and Whitehead, with Deleuze calling him “the latest of Leibniz’s great disciples.” [2] His Néofinalisme (1952) is supposedly the best summary of his system, but he produced many books, including the bestselling La Gnose de Princeton (1974) (again not translated into English), a philo-fictional secret history of 60’s science (Steady Staters etc), which was taken seriously by its readers. [3]  He writes engagingly and clearly, so I find it hard to avoid quoting great slabs of him.

Wiklund summarises Ruyer as:

foursquarely maintain[ing] that meaning and direction (sens) are inherent in the inorganic and organic world, and that the activity of conscious man, firmly rooted in that world, is its natural prolongation. …[A]n action, as it unfolds itself in a spatiotemporal world of cause and effect, cannot be understood without reference to its goal. This finality of the action gives meaning to all that is purely a succession of causes and effects in it. [4]

Ruyer ranges over cybernetics, embryology, evolution and development, neurology, metaphysics and theology.

The first chapter of Neofinalism (the 2016 English translation) is “The Axiological Cogito.” [5] He starts by saying:

the spontaneous question today is no longer ‘is it true?’ but ‘what does it mean?’…The parallelism between the problem of God and the problem of Sens (Sense, Meaning) can also be observed between the types of arguments. The a priori or ontological argument becomes, in the order of Sense, the axiological cogito. Just as the ontological argument claims to prove that it is contradictory to deny God’s existence, so the axiological cogito tries to show that it is contradictory to completely deny finality and sense in general. But whereas the ontological argument, in many of its classical forms, seems to be a deplorable sophism, the axiological ‘cogito’ is perfectly irrefutable.

So what is the Axiological Cogito? He introduces it informally with the example of a behaviourist who “affirms that the behaviour of human beings, including himself, can always be described in terms of responses to stimuli…in strict conformity with a mechanical causality.” How can the behaviourist then believe he is more correct than his opponents, “[w]hy would truth-value attach to some [responses] and not to others?” This complements the famous jibe against Marx, railing at his opponents, even though the forces of historical determinism should mean they are incapable of saying anything else.  Why, then, the rancour? “Each ‘I’ quite easily finds the others ‘absurd’ and is inclined to welcome the numerous and ingenious systems that consider humans as puppets driven by pure causes. But only a few speculative sophists can pretend not to exclude their ‘speaking person’ from the domain of validity of such systems.”

But the search for ultimate meaning and knowledge is directed toward a goal outside such a deterministic chain and so, by definition, transcends this possibility and implies freedom. I link this idea to the role of randomization in scientific experimentation, by which inference as to the truth becomes freed from the possibility of confounding by unknown/unknowable determining factors. I summarize this stance as “no true knowledge without truly free inquiry,” where freedom includes the possibility of injecting randomness into our doings.

Ruyer takes this argument from Jules Lequyer (1814-1862), [6] He quotes Lequyer’s Axiological Cogito as saying: “I seek a first truth, therefore I am free. Freedom is the first truth I sought, since the search for knowledge implies freedom, the positive condition of the search.”

Lequyer’s work was largely published posthumously by his friend Charles Renouvier (1815-1903), and directly influenced William James, Jean-Paul Sartre (and Camus, his death is mentioned in Sisyphus)  as well as Open Theism. [7] Ruyer then formalises this argument in the form of the double dilemma of Renouvier. Lequyer’s original double dilemma is: “Two hypotheses: freedom or necessity.  To choose between one and the other with one or the other. It is an act of freedom that affirms freedom.”

William James (1870) takes this up more directly as: “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.” [8]

Renouvier and then Ruyer generate four sentences from the two assertions about the human state and their negations and tests these for consistency.  One statement is “in the determination of the philosopher’s consciousness,” and the other “with respect to the external truth of the matter.”

A1.  Determined, I affirm my determinism. [“Determined and Knows It”]

A2.  Free, I affirm my determinism. [Error Theory]

A3.  Determined, I affirm my freedom. [Error Theory]

A4.  Free, I affirm my freedom. [Radically Free]

The existentialist flavour is pretty clear, in that Ruyer argues both A1 and A3 are contradictory, because “my affirmation has just the appearance of an assertion: it is the effect of a pure cause a tergo.”  And A2 is obviously contradictory. Ruyer skips over Lequyer’s idea that one can apply a proto-decision theoretic approach (“a maximum and a minimum at the same time, the least expense of belief for the greatest result”), and that there is no complete certainty in the choice of one of these, except that one (might) self-create by choosing A4.

Ruyer then tries the same for meaningfulness versus absurdity. Sens can mean direction, meaning and purpose in a slightly more explicit manner than in English, but not greatly so:

B1. Being a pure set of processes, I affirm that my activity is senseless [purposeless, directionless].

B2. Pursuing senseful [meaningful] ends, I affirm the absurd nature of my activity.

B3. Being a pure set of processes, I affirm that my activity has a sense [purpose].

B4. Pursuing senseful ends, I affirm that my activity has a sense.

He argues that B1 and B3 are self-refuting, and that B2 is “just” an assertion, so this completely undermines it. Of course, for the existentialists, I would see this as a succinct statement of their worldview. Ruyer points out that the double dilemma approach is fragile because the assertions are hypothetical stances, and it easy to smuggle in preconceptions, just as in the ontological argument.  He claims the formulation above is safe from that problem. B1 and B2 for example, might be rewritten as:

B1-Alt. Under the supposition that I am a pure set of cause-effect processes, it would still be possible for me to correctly assert that I know all my acts, including this statement, are objectively without purpose.

B2-Alt. When I suppose it is the case that my nature is such that I am pursuing meaningful ends, it would still be possible for me to correctly assert that I know all my acts, including this statement, are objectively without goal or purpose.

Perhaps B2-Alt is a little too absurd now. Anyway I am quite attracted to the overall book length argument that “proves that existence, freedom, signifying or finalist activity, evaluation, and work according to a norm are intimately connected.”

Ruyer builds up from this to argue for widespread teleology, so that “buying bicarbonate at a pharmacy is an act of the organism, just like secreting pancreatic fluid…we no longer see in these habitual actions the biological acts that social activity covers over,” in language that might remind one of Peter Hacker.  He is generally cautious regarding mechanism for this and thinks teleonomy and anti-teleology are incoherent and question-begging: “it is impossible to recognize a finalist sense in the invention of cooking utensils and to deny it to the organs of ingestion, digestion, and assimilation. The teeth are grinding tools, the stomach a retort and an automatic mixer.”  But that comes in the later chapters of a very fast moving book.


[1] Wikipedia article on Raymond Ruyer. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raymond_Ruyer

Monoskop article on Raymond Ruyer. url: https://monoskop.org/Raymond_Ruyer

[2] Grosz, E. (2012). Deleuze, Ruyer and Becoming-Brain: The Music of Life’s Temporality. Parrhesia 15:1-13. url: http://www.parrhesiajournal.org/parrhesia15/parrhesia15_grosz.pdf

[3] Ruyer, R. (1952) Néo-finalisme. Paris: PUF.

[4] Wiklund, R.A. (1960). A Short Introduction to the Neofinalist Philosophy of Raymond Ruyer. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 21(2): 187-198.

[5] Ruyer, R. (2016). Neofinalism.  Translated by Alyosha Edlebi. https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/neofinalism.

[6] Lequyer, J. (1865). La Recherche d’une première vérité. Fragments Posthumes [Ed par Charles-Bernard Renouvier]. https://archive.org/details/larecherchedune00lequgoog/page/n11

[7] Viney, D.W. (2013). Jules Lequyer (Lequier) (1814-1862). Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://www.iep.utm.edu/lequyer/

[8] From the Wikipedia article on William James  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_James


  1. David

    Ruyer was, as you say, influenced by Lequier (who drew heavily on Fichte) and Renouvier (who articulated a kind of spiritualistic neo-Kantianism). I won’t address his arguments now but I always like to see these sorts of arguments in their historical context.

    The way Ruyer sometimes speaks makes me think of Stuart Kauffman’s At Home in the Universe. I see possible parallels also between what Ruyer is saying and what Terrence Deacon says about self-organizing physical processes (though Deacon does not seem to be driven by the same metaphysical concerns as Ruyer or Renouvier).

    I note that politically and in other ways Ruyer was conservative and was associated with the so-called Nouvelle Droite in the 1970s.


  2. Hi Mark.

    I bumped into Ruyer via Francisco Varela and Evan Thompson. For example, Weber and Varela (2002) is
    “Life after Kant: Natural purposes and the autopoietic foundations of biological individuality”, so yes there is much in common with Kauffman, Deacon, and Karl Friston (eg “framing self-assembly as active inference, we can now functionally talk about a cell’s beliefs and actions”).

    Richard Marshall’s latest interviewee is Christopher Shields, who says:

    x is a living system =chdfx is a teleonomic system…Roughly, a system is teleonomic if it is a system the subsystems and subprocesses of which are unified by reference to an end state to which they all contribute and against which predictions about the co-ordination of their activities may be successfully articulated. Some will perhaps bristle at the normativity implicit in this notion, running as it does counter to the widespread animadversions against appeals to norms in nature. For me, an embrace of normativity in this domain is no less welcome than unavoidable, since a system is a living system only if one can sensible ask this of it the following ineliminably normative question: is it flourishing?

    It’s interesting that Ruyer starts with Lequier’s ideas, but says of Kierkegaard (often seen as a very similar thinker) that
    “When I read Kierkegaard he inspired me with a strong repulsion. Personal religion and personal mysticism are pudenda, and I do not understand why they are shown.”


  3. meaning and direction (sens) are inherent in the inorganic and organic world

    = = =

    It’s all well to *say* this, but without confronting the many and powerful arguments not only that this is not the case, but that it *cannot* be the case, it just stands as a bald — and not very credible — assertion, with everything built on top of it being little more than a house of cards.

    The account you describe, David, is fascinating, but more in the manner of mysticism than anything I could take seriously. I felt like I was reading about the thoughts of a profoundly mentally ill person, in fact.


    • Dan,
      I think you’re a bit hard on Ruyer. Having just read his “Mystery of reproduction and the limits of automism,” I am struck by his wit, and what might be called argument-by-implication (where he seems to be arguing for what he is actually arguing against). Unfortunately, his arguments are shot through with explicit reification and implicit hypostases.

      “A scientist in the field of science fiction finds a process for dividing objects in two. Accidentally, he divides himself in two, and, horrified, he kills his double. Can he be condemned as a murderer? ‘

      First, note the wit: the core study of this “scientist” is – science fiction. Yet, there is a hypostatic ‘self-hood’ that appears to call into question the possibility of condemning the scientist for ‘murdering’ the double. And yes, there is politics involved. The quotation appears after a prolonged discussion of the dual identity of an embryo as separated/ replicated self of the parents (“We are the twins of our parents”) which is an implicit argument against abortion (which would not be legalized in France for another decade). And of course the seeming argument for Marxist subjectivity, for reducing the owner of an expropriated factory to pure consciousness, is an implicit argument against Marxism.

      Ah, the French, they are a funny race.

      However, the benefit of Ruyer’s essay besides its rapid pace and entertainment value, is that it raises questions about other ideas we may have reified without thinking..

      As for the substantive argument david represents, concerning free will – it’s intriguing, but by now out of date. I respect Lequyer for having influenced other thinkers, but other thinkers may be better skilled in developing the initial arguments he presented; thus, he may still be out-of-date, despite being influential. That seems true of Ruyer as well.


      • E.J. I was just saying what I thought of it, as a matter of its substance. I thought David’s essay fascinating and worthwhile, which is why I published it, but on the merits, when someone talks about semantic properties being intrinsic in organic and inorganic matter, I am going to call it out for the utter nonsense it is, until I hear some serious arguments.


      • I should also say, EJ and David, that Ruyer’s view on this is no worse than that of the hardcore materialists in my own tradition who claim that representations are somehow inherent to biochemical brain processes.


        • Hi Dan. You mean your really think there are knockdown arguments against the likes of Ruth Millikan on one side or Friston and Kauffman and (Addy) Pross on the other? The fun thing about Ruyer is how his style of thinking is so consistent with the newer work in thermodynamics of nonequilibrium systems at the bottom of life, and at a higher level, Friston’s reduction of the brain to the organ of surprise minimisation. The material I covered is not specifically on intentionality – more on objective value and finalism as the “natural” answers to the puzzles of the existence and persistence of life, where these old-fashioned entities are now realised and reified across complex systems, and repeated at different levels of organisation in ways that don’t necessarily communicate across levels – he gives the example of sex at the level of what the body knows (embodied knowledge) as opposed to what the encultured mind might know, Another example is his concept of equipotentiality, which he sees at the cellular level in embryonic development, and then again at the level of mind, and of development as an unfolding memory of the form of the body, and again of course as central to thought.

          “Je crois pourtant être demeuré fidèle à une méthode fondamentale et essentiellement scientifique, que j’ai toujours appliquée en essayant seulement de la généraliser. Cette méthode consiste à chercher des isomorphismes”.


          • David: the concept of meaning/representation is inseparable from the concept of rule-following, and Wittgenstein’s rule-following and private-language arguments demonstrate that rule-following is irreducibly social. Meaning is social “all the way down” one consequence of which is that speaking of it being “inherent” in organic or inorganic matter is not possible.


    • Hi Dan.

      The Wittgensteinian arguments holds that intentionality is normatively constituted within linguistic social practice – obviously the Shields and Friston quotes above claim that normativity can arise “inherently” from other sources.
      Thompson and Derr (2000) contend:

      Concepts exhibiting the special logical properties thought to be unique to intentionality are a commonplace in biology. Thus, the special problem of the emergence of intentionality in human evolution, in human conscious and language, and in human culture is neither special nor of problem: in the relevant logical respects, intentionality is, and has always been immanent in the simplest of biological systems…the notion of Brentano and others that intentionalty is a unique property of human language or the human mind or the human brain has been shown to be false. Every organism or part of an
      organism that is designed to regulate a variable displays the “object-directedness” (gerichtetsein) of intentionality.

      Millikan (2017) sidesteps by introducing a private language of idiosyncratic “unicepts” that are paired to “unitrackers” scanning the environment for the corresponding individuals and kinds that undergo selection processes a la Kauffman [recall that a neural network that has learnt a task can be shown equivalent to algorithm in a formal language] .

      Hi EJ. I I feel like defending poor Lecuyer from the suggestion he is out of date. Reading about Rossian ethics, I find that

      “[A] self-evident proposition, p, is a truth such that adequate understanding of p entails powerful (but defeasible) noninferential justification for believing it (even if it isn’t believed); if p is believed wholly on the basis of adequate understanding, then it is noninferentially known.”

      Much of Lecuyer is noninferential, like the idea that freedom is necessary for knowledge (“La liberté, condition positive de la connaissance. C’est-à-dire moyen de la connaissance.”) . I think it’s self-evident that such types of arguments never go out of fashion 😉

      And I agree that Ruyer is witty:

      “Sense and end attach to all my acts, better than glue to the hand that tries to get rid of it. An antifinalist wants to prove that he is right, just as a supporter of the “philosophy of the absurd” is convinced that he espoused the only reasonable attitude.”


        • All creatures follow rules (“the internal model principle” of Conant and Ashby) that keep them alive in a ordered world, in so much as it is ordered. Humans are uniquely flexible, presumably just because of a brute increase in processing power, rather than any change in underlying brain architecture. Socialization is not enough. Even pre-lingual infants show evidence of knowledge, spanning thirty odd concepts (“image schema”) [Mandler 2010], necessary prerequisites for acquiring language. I don’t have any idea about how Wittgenstein’s ways of thinking mesh with semiotics, which seems far more friendly to non-human/non-lingual meaning and reference arising via simple learning mechanisms.


          • David,
            sorry to barge in, but in semiotics the meaning – signification – is never inherent in the thing – the thing is sign to the signification for the responding animal.

            The entity we call ‘rabbit’ is a sign to a wolf, the significance of which is food. There are no rules governing that relationship, although each animal is impelled by instinct to respond to their mutual encounter in their own way. We don’t talk about semiotic ‘rules’ for wolf behavior until we talk about their interactions with other wolves – and even this seems to be a possible anthropomorphism.


      • David,
        When I wrote of Ruyer’s tendency to reification, I was referring to the informal logic fallacy of arguing for a concept as if it were a substance. There is no substantive “self” such that it can be divided or replicated as Ruyer argues; to assume this is to misconstrue the problematic of subjectivity and the many ways this can be and has been approached – ontologically, sociologically, psychologically, etc.

        Lecuyer’s arguments came as the exhaustion of a problem in Protestant theology – if salvation and damnation are pre-determined, how can there be sin? Catholic theology had allowed grey areas (how they ended up with purgatory, for instance), but Calvinism brooks no middle ground. After Calvin, then, the question must be how the pre-ordained saved can err and then return to the path of salvation – part of the function of grace to the graced is the burden of free will – the burden being that the graced must choose freely to submit to the will of God. (If you can do this, it doesn’t assure you that you are graced; but if you can’t do this, you are certainly damned.)

        As we moved into the 20th Century, while certain ideas lingered from discussion of this problematic, the basic problems addressed by the free will/ determinism debate resolved more into issues of ontology, social responsibility, physicalist or genetic reductionism, etc. There may still be some who wonder if they are damned or graced, but I don’t think the question has entered into many discussions concerning free will/ determinism that I know of.