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Organicism is the philosophical position that states that the universe and its various parts (including human societies) ought to be considered alive and naturally ordered, much like a living organism.[1][2] Vital to the position is the idea that organicistic elements are not dormant "things" per se but rather dynamic components in a comprehensive system that is, as a whole, everchanging. Organicism is related to but remains distinct from holism insofar as it prefigures holism; while the latter concept is applied more broadly to universal part-whole interconnections such as in anthropology and sociology, the former is traditionally applied only in philosophy and biology.[3][4] Furthermore, organicism is incongruous with reductionism because of organicism's consideration of "both bottom-up and top-down causation."[5] Regarded as a fundamental tenet in natural philosophy, organicism has remained a vital current in modern thought, alongside both reductionism and mechanism, that has guided scientific inquiry since the early 17th century.[6][7]

Though there remains dissent among scientific historians concerning organicism's pregeneration, most scholars agree on Ancient Athens as its birthplace. Because, surfacing in Athenian writing in the 4th-century BC, Plato was among the first philosophers to consider the universe an intelligent living (almost sentient) being, which he first posits in his Socratic dialogue, Philebus, and further expands upon in the later works of Republic and Theatetus.[8] At the turn of the 18th-century, Immanuel Kant championed a revival of organicisitic thought by stressing, in his written works, "the inter-relatedness of the organism and its parts[,] and the circular causality" inherent to the inextricable entanglement of the greater whole.[2]

Organicism flourished for a period during the German romanticism intellectual movement and was a position considered by Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling to be an important principle in the burgeoning field of biological studies.[9] Within contemporary biology, organicism stresses the organization (particularly the self-organizing properties) rather than the composition (the reduction into biological components) of organisms. John Scott Haldane was the first modern biologist to use the term to expand his philosophical stance in 1917; other 20th-century academics and professionals, such as Theodor Adorno and Albert Dalcq, have followed in Haldane's wake.[10][11]

The French zoologist Yves Delage, in his seminal text L'Hérédité Et Les Grands Problèmes de la Biologie Générale, described organicism thus:

[L]ife, the form of the body, the properties and characters of its diverse parts, as resulting from the reciprocal play or struggle of all its elements, cells, fibres, tissues, organs, which act the one on the other, modify one the other, allot among them each its place and part, and lead all together to the final result, giving thus the appearance of a consensus, or a pre-established harmony, where in reality there is nothing but the result of independent phenomena.[12]

In philosophy[edit]

Organicism as a doctrine rejects mechanism and reductionism (doctrines that claim that the smallest parts by themselves explain the behavior of larger organized systems of which they are a part). However, organicism also rejects vitalism, the doctrine that there is a vital force different from physical forces that accounts for living things. As Fritjof Capra[13] puts it, both schools, organicism and vitalism, were born from the quest for getting rid of the Cartesian picture of reality, a view that has been claimed to be the most destructive paradigm nowadays, from science to politics.[14]

A number of biologists in the early to mid-twentieth century embraced organicism. They wished to reject earlier vitalisms but also to stress that whole organism biology was not fully explainable by atomic mechanism. The larger organization of an organic system has features that must be taken into account to explain its behavior.

Scott Gilbert and Sahotra Sarkar distinguish organicism from holism to avoid what they see as the vitalistic or spiritualistic connotations of holism. Val Dusek notes that holism contains a continuum of degrees of the top-down control of organization, ranging from monism (the doctrine that the only complete object is the whole universe, or that there is only one entity, the universe) to organicism, which allows relatively more independence of the parts from the whole, despite the whole being more than the sum of the parts, and/or the whole exerting some control on the behavior of the parts.

Still more independence is present in relational holism. This doctrine does not assert top-down control of the whole over its parts, but does claim that the relations of the parts are essential to explanation of behavior of the system. Aristotle and early modern philosophers and scientists tended to describe reality as made of substances and their qualities, and to neglect relations. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz showed the bizarre conclusions to which a doctrine of the non-existence of relations led. Twentieth century philosophy has been characterized by the introduction of and emphasis on the importance of relations, whether in symbolic logic, in phenomenology, or in metaphysics.

William Wimsatt has suggested that the number of terms in the relations considered distinguishes reductionism from holism. Reductionistic explanations claim that two or at most three term relations are sufficient to account for the system's behavior. At the other extreme the system could be considered as a single ten to the twenty-sixth term relation, for instance.

In politics and sociology[edit]

Organicism' has also been used to characterize notions put forth by various late 19th-century social scientists who considered human society to be analogous to an organism, and individual humans to be analogous to the cells of an organism. This sort of organicist sociology was articulated by Alfred Espinas, Paul von Lilienfeld, Jacques Novicow, Albert Schäffle, Herbert Spencer, and René Worms, among others.[15]

Thomas Hobbes arguably put forward a form of organicism. In the Leviathan, he argued that the state is like a secular God whose constituents (individual people) make up a larger organism. However, the body of the Leviathan is composed of many human faces (all looking outwards from the body), and these faces do not symbolize different organs of a complex organism but the individual people who themselves have consented to the social contract, and thereby ceded their power to the Leviathan. That the Leviathan is more like a constructed machine than like a literal organism is perfectly in line with Hobbes' elementaristic individualism and mechanical materialism.[16]

Some forms of organicism have intellectually and politically controversial, or suspect, associations. "Holism" in terms of the doctrine that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, often used synonymously with organicism, or as a broader category under which organicism falls, has been co-opted in recent decades by "holistic medicine" and by New Age Thought. German Nazism appealed to organicist and holistic doctrines, discrediting for many, in retrospect, the original organicist doctrines. (See Anne Harrington.) Soviet Dialectical Materialism also made appeals to an holistic and organicist approach, stemming from Hegel via Karl Marx's co-worker Friedrich Engels, again giving a controversial political association to organicism.[citation needed]

In biology[edit]

In breathing entities, cells, the smallest unit of life, were first observed in the 17th century, when the multifaceted equipment microscope was conceived. Before that period, the individual organisms were studied as a whole in a field known as organismic biology; that area of research remains an important component of the biological sciences.[17] Further, as Capra[13] puts it, during the early 1900s, the quantum researchers struggled with the same paradigm shift from "the parts to the whole" that culminated into the scholars of organismic biology.[citation needed]

In biology organicism considers that the observable structures of life, its overall form and the properties and characteristics of its component parts are a result of the reciprocal play of all the components on each other.[18] Examples of 20th century biologists who were organicists are Ross Harrison, Paul Weiss, and Joseph Needham. Donna Haraway discusses them in her first book Crystals, Fabrics, and Fields. John Scott Haldane (father of J. B. S. Haldane), William Emerson Ritter, Edward Stuart Russell, Joseph Henry Woodger, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, and Ralph Stayner Lillie are other early twentieth century organicists. Robert Rosen, founder of "Relational Biology" provided a comprehensive mathematical and category-theoretic treatment of irreducible causal relations he believed to be responsible for life.[19]

Theoretical Biology Club[edit]

In the early 1930s Joseph Henry Woodger and Joseph Needham, together with Conrad Hal Waddington, John Desmond Bernal, Dorothy Needham, and Dorothy Wrinch, formed the Theoretical Biology Club, to promote the organicist approach to biology.[20] The club was in opposition to mechanism, reductionism and the gene-centric view of evolution. Most of the members were influenced by the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead.[21][22][23][24] The club disbanded as the Rockefeller Foundation refused to fund their investigations.[25]


In ecology, "organicism" and "organicistic" (or "organismic") are used to designate theories which conceptualize populations, especially, ecological communities or ecosystems, according to the model of the individual organism.[26] As such, "organicism" is sometimes used interchangeably with "holism," although there are versions of holism that are not organicistic/organismic but individualistic.[27]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Plato: Organicism | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy". Retrieved 2020-06-11.
  2. ^ a b Gilbert, S. F., and S. Sarkar. 2000. "Embracing Complexity: Organicism for the 21st Century." Develop Dynam 219: 1–9.
  3. ^ "Experiments in Holism: Theory and Practice in Contemporary Anthropology | Wiley". Retrieved 2020-06-11.
  4. ^ Charles Wolfe. HOLISM, ORGANICISM AND THE RISK OF BIOCHAUVINISM. Verifiche. Rivista di scienze umana, 2014
  5. ^ Soto, Ana M.; Sonnenschein, Carlos (2018). "Reductionism, Organicism, and Causality in the Biomedical Sciences: A Critique". Perspectives in Biology and Medicine. 61 (4): 489–502. doi:10.1353/pbm.2018.0059. ISSN 1529-8795. PMID 30613032. S2CID 58624436.
  6. ^ For example, the philosophers of the Ionian Enlightenment were referred to by later philosophers (such as Aristotle) as hylozoists meaning 'those who thought that matter was alive' (see Farrington (1941/53)
  7. ^ For a general overview see Capra (1996)
  8. ^ "Organicism - Logic And Metaphysics". Retrieved 2020-06-11.
  9. ^ Richards, Robert J. "The Impact of German Romanticism on Biology in the Nineteenth Century" (PDF). University of Chicago.
  10. ^ Watkins, Holly (17 January 2017). "Toward a Post-Humanist Organicism" (PDF). Nineteenth-Century Music Review. 14: 93–114. doi:10.1017/S1479409816000306. S2CID 156039471.
  11. ^ Gilbert, Scott F.; Sarkar, Sahotra (2000). "Embracing complexity: Organicism for the 21st century". Developmental Dynamics. 219 (1): 1–9. doi:10.1002/1097-0177(2000)9999:9999<::AID-DVDY1036>3.0.CO;2-A. ISSN 1097-0177. PMID 10974666.
  12. ^ Needham, Joseph (1928). "Organicism in Biology". Journal of Philosophical Studies. 3 (9): 29–40. ISSN 1752-6795. JSTOR 3745903.
  13. ^ a b Fritjof Capra. The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems. Anchor Books Doubleday, 1996.
  14. ^ What The Bleep Do We Know – Down The Rabbit Hole. Samuel Goldwyn Films. Roadside attractions. Documentary film, Drama. February 3, 2006.
  15. ^ Daniela Barberis, "In search of an object: organicist sociology and the reality of society in fin-de-siècle France", History of the Human Sciences, Vol. 16, No. 3, 2003. Page 54.
  16. ^ Cf. O’Flynn, Micheal 2009: The individualism of Hobbes and Locke. In: O'Flynn, Micheal (Hg.): Profitable Ideas. The Ideology of the Individual in Capitalist Development. Brill, Leiden: 21-37; Duncan, Stewart, "Thomas Hobbes", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = <>.
  17. ^ "biology". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 19 Jan. 2016 <>.
  18. ^ Organicism in Biology, Joseph Needham, Journal of Philosophical Studies 1928 . Accessed Jan 2011
  19. ^ Rosen, R. 1991. "Life Itself: A Comprehensive Inquiry Into the Nature, Origin, and Fabrication of Life". Columbia University Press, New York
  20. ^ Peterson, Erik (2017). The Life Organic. University of Pittsburgh Press. ISBN 9780822944669.
  21. ^ Reconciling science and religion: the debate in early-twentieth-century Britain, 2001, Peter J. Bowler
  22. ^ A history of molecular biology, Michel Morange, Matthew Cobb, 2000, p. 91
  23. ^ Cambridge scientific minds, Peter Michael Harman, Simon Mitton, 2002, p. 302
  24. ^ Greater than the parts: holism in biomedicine, 1920–1950, Christopher Lawrence, George Weisz, Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 12
  25. ^ The future of DNA, Johannes Wirz, Edith T. Lammerts van Bueren, 1997, p. 87
  26. ^ see, e.g., Kirchhoff, Thomas 2020: The myth of Frederic Clements’s mutualistic organicism, or: on the necessity to distinguish different concepts of organicism. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 42 (2): article 24,; Jax, Kurt 2020: “Organismic” positions in early German-speaking ecology and its (almost) forgotten dissidents. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 42 (4): 44.
  27. ^ Cf. Trepl, Ludwig & Voigt, Annette 2011: The classical holism-reductionism debate in ecology. In: Schwarz, Astrid/ Jax, Kurt (Hg.): Ecology Revisited. Reflecting on Concepts, Advancing Science. Dordrecht, Springer: 45–83.

Further reading[edit]

  • Barberis, D. S. (2003). In search of an object: Organicist sociology and the reality of society in fin-de-siècle France. History of the Human Sciences, vol 16, no. 3, pp. 51–72.
  • Beckner, Morton (1967) Organismic Biology, in "Encyclopedia of Philosophy," ed. Paul Edwards, MacMillan and The Free Press.
  • Dusek, Val (1999). The Holistic Inspirations of Physics, Rutgers University Press.
  • Gilbert, Scott F., and Sahotra Sarkar (2000): "Embracing complexity: Organicism for the 21st Century," Developmental Dynamics 219(1): 1–9. (abstract of the paper: [1])
  • Haraway, Donna (1976). Crystals, Fabrics, and Fields: Metaphors That Define Embryos. Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Harrington, Anne (1996). Reenchanted Science, Harvard University Press.
  • Mayr, Ernst (1997). "What is the meaning of life?" In This is Biology. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  • Peterson, Erik L. (2017). The Life Organic: the Theoretical Biology Club and the Roots of Epigenetics. University of Pittsburgh Press.
  • Wimsatt, Willam (2007) Re-engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings :Piecewise Approximations to Reality. Harvard University Press.

External links[edit]