On the Organism-Environment Distinction in Psychology

Behavior and Philosophy 32 (2):317 - 347 (2004)
Most psychology begins with a distinction between organism and environment, where the two are implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) conceptualized as flipsides of a skin-severed space. This paper examines that conceptualization. Dewey and Bentley's (1949) account of firm naming is used to show that psychologists have, in general, (1) employed the skin as a morphological criterion for distinguishing organisms from backgrounds, and (2) equated background with environment. This two-step procedure, which in this article is named the morphological conception of organism, is shown to inform the writings of the well-known psychologist B. F. Skinner. A review of difficulties with the morphological conception is followed with a review and preliminary integration of four attempts at an alternative conception of organism, and thus environment. Together, these four attempts converge on an analysis of living systems as transdermal (through and across skin) processes only within which organism and environment are distinguishable as complementary phases. The notion of a biological total process, or bioprocess, is employed to clarify this alternative analysis, in which an organism is an ongoing organization rather than a skin-bound body.
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