In this essay I seek to critically evaluate some forms of holism and organicism in biological thought, as a more deflationary echo to Gilbert and Sarkar's reflection on the need for an 'umbrella' concept to convey the new vitality of holistic concepts in biology (Gilbert and Sarkar 2000). Given that some recent discussions in theoretical biology call for an organism concept (from Moreno and Mossio’s work on organization to Kirschner et al.’s research paper in Cell, 2000, building on chemistry (...) to articulate what they called “molecular vitalism,” studying the “vitalistic” properties of molecular, cellular, and organismal function, and Pepper and Herron’s suggestion in their 2008 paper that organisms define a category that evolutionary biology cannot do without), the question, what concept of organicism are they calling for? To what extent are such claims philosophically committed to a non-naturalistic concept of organism as organizing centre, as a foundational rather than heuristic concept – or possibly a “biochauvinism,” to use Di Paolo’s term (Di Paolo 2009)? My aim in this paper is to conceptually clarify the forms of holism and organicism that are involved in these cases (and I acknowledge that the study of early 20th-century holisms [Peterson 2010] indicates that not all of them were in fact ‘organicist’ or ‘biologistic’). I suggest that contemporary holists are still potentially beholden to a certain kind of vitalism or “biochauvinism”; but that when they reduce their claims to mere heuristics, conversely, they risk losing sight of a certain kind of organizational “thickness”, a “vital materiality” (Wheeler 2010) which is characteristic of biological systems (Bechtel 2007). And I ask if it is possible to articulate a concept of biological holism or organicism which is neither an empirical ‘biochauvinism’ nor a metaphysical ‘vitalism’? (shrink)
In recent cancer research, strong and apparently conflicting epistemological stances have been advocated by different research teams in a mist of an ever-growing body of knowledge ignited by ever-more perplexing and non-conclusive experimental facts: in the past few years, an 'organicist' approach investigating cancer development at the tissue level has challenged the established and so-called 'reductionist' approach focusing on disentangling the genetic and molecular circuitry of carcinogenesis. This article reviews the ways in which 'organicism' and 'reductionism' are used and (...) opposed in this context, with an aim at clarifying the debate. Methodological, epistemological and ontological implications of both approaches are discussed. We argue that the 'organicist/reductionist' opposition in the present case of carcinogenesis is more a matter of diverging heuristics than a claim about theoretical or ontological (ir)reducibility. As a matter of fact, except for the downward causation claim, which we question, we argue that the organicist arguments are compatible with the reductionist approach. Moreover, we speculate that both approaches, which currently focus on specific entities i.e., genes versus tissues, will need to shift their conceptual frameworks to studying complex arrays of relationships potentially ranging over several levels of entities, as is the case with 'systems biology'. (shrink)
In Kant’s Organicism, Jennifer Mensch draws a crucial link between these spheres by showing how the concept of epigenesis—a radical theory of biological formation—lies at the heart of Kant’s conception of reason.
THE word “ Organicism,” although it may seem unfamiliar to the younger generation of biologists, is not a new one, and has been heard of already in that shadowy limbo where philosophical and biological conceptions meet on common ground. The genius of its original minting is not known, but it figured largely in the great work of Yves Delage, the French zoologist, in which he attempted to survey and criticize every important biological theory which had ever been seriously produced. (...) His l'Hérédité et les grands Problèmes de la Biologie appeared in 1903, and in it he classified all biological theories, past, present, and future, under the four heads of. (shrink)
ABSTRACT This article articulates the idea of a disclosing critique of society. It starts from the assumption that the curiously organicistic undertones of Adorno’s negative social ontology is part and parcel of a disclosing gesture in his social criticism. It then traces Adorno’s debate with social organicists to the point where the critical theorist’s own concept of society emerges with a claim to be critical in itself. It is argued that this critical claim is enforced by a disclosing gesture. To (...) articulate what is at stake in this gesture of critical disclosure a parallel is drawn, and contrast made, to Emerson’s conception of disclosure as “drawing a circle around a circle”. The relationship between Adorno’s and Emerson’s conceptions of critical disclosure is complex. However, their juxtaposition allows for a distinction between two directions of critical disclosure. It will be argued that disclosing critique of society can be understood as an exemplary dissociation from alienated society by means of a creative association of empirical knowledge, poetic description and philosophical speculation by a critic standing, as it were, with one foot inside and the other outside our form of life. (shrink)
Is organicism inherently Christian-friendly, and for that matter, is mechanism inherently religion nonfriendly? They have tended to be, but the story is much more complicated. The long history of the intertwined metaphors of nature taken as an organism, versus that of nature as a machine, reveals that both metaphors have flourished in the endeavors of philosophers, scientists, and persons of faith alike. Different kinds of Christians have been receptive to both organicist and mechanistic models, just as various kinds of (...) nonreligious scientists have been receptive to both holistic and machine metaphors. Although, it is true, organicism has been generally more attractive to persons of faith than mechanism, an overview of the rich and varied history of allegiances to these metaphors—religious and nonreligious alike—shows that debate is much more interesting and complex. A brief inspection of conversation surrounding recent scientific discoveries shows that this debate between metaphors is still very much alive today. (shrink)
Romantic Organicism attempts to reassess the much maligned and misunderstood notion of organic unity. Following organicism from its crucial radicalisation in German Idealism, it shows how both Coleridge and Wordsworth developed some of their most profound ideas and poetry on its basis. Armstrong shows how the tenets and ideals of organicism - despite much criticism - remain an insistent, if ambivalent, backdrop for much of our current thought, including the work of Derrida amongst others.
The free-energy principle states that all systems that minimize their free energy resist a tendency to physical disintegration. Originally proposed to account for perception, learning, and action, the free-energy principle has been applied to the evolution, development, morphology, anatomy and function of the brain, and has been called a postulate, an unfalsifiable principle, a natural law, and an imperative. While it might afford a theoretical foundation for understanding the relationship between environment, life, and mind, its epistemic status is unclear. Also (...) unclear is how the free-energy principle relates to prominent theoretical approaches to life science phenomena, such as organicism and mechanism. This paper clarifies both issues, and identifies limits and prospects for the free-energy principle as a first principle in the life sciences. (shrink)
Sewall Wright first encountered the complex systems characteristic of gene combinations while a graduate student at Harvard's Bussey Institute from 1912 to 1915. In Mendelian breeding experiments, Wright observed a hierarchical dependence of the organism's phenotype on dynamic networks of genetic interaction and organization. An animal's physical traits, and thus its autonomy from surrounding environmental constraints, depended greatly on how genes behaved in certain combinations. Wright recognized that while genes are the material determinants of the animal phenotype, operating with great (...) regularity, the special nature of genetic systems contributes to the animal phenotype a degree of spontaneity and novelty, creating unpredictable trait variations by virtue of gene interactions. As a result of his experimentation, as well as his keen interest in the philosophical literature of his day, Wright was inspired to see genetic systems as conscious, living organisms in their own right. Moreover, he decided that since genetic systems maintain ordered stability and cause unpredictable novelty in their organic wholes (the animal phenotype), it would be necessary for biologists to integrate techniques for studying causally ordered phenomena (experimental method) and chance phenomena (correlation method). From 1914 to 1921 Wright developed his "method of path coefficient" (or "path analysis"), a new procedure drawing from both laboratory experimentation and statistical correlation in order to analyze the relative influence of specific genetic interactions on phenotype variation. In this paper I aim to show how Wright's philosophy for understanding complex genetic systems (panpsychic organicism) logically motivated his 1914-1921 design of path analysis. (shrink)
It would be ahistorical to ridicule vitalists. When one reads the writings of one of the leading vitalists like Driesch one is forced to agree with him that many of the basic problems of biology simply cannot be solved by a philosophy as that of Descartes, in which the organism is simply considered a machine…. The logic of the critique of the vitalists was impeccable.At the turn of the new millennium, concomitant with the development of the evo-devo and eco-devo disciplines (...) within developmental biology, critical appraisals of the reductionist stance of the molecular biology revolution became more numerous and noticeable. Several books and papers address the problems posed by this reductionist agenda and suggest... (shrink)
The term ‘mechanism’ has been used in two quite different ways in the history of biology. Operative, or explanatory mechanism refers to the step-by-step description or explanation of how components in a system interact to yield a particular outcome . Philosophical Mechanism, on the other hand, refers to a broad view of organisms as material entities, functioning in ways similar to machines — that is, carrying out a variety of activities based on known chemical and physical processes. In the early (...) twentieth century philosophical Mechanism became the foundation of a ‘new biology’ that sought to establish the life sciences on the same solid and rigorous foundation as the physical sciences, including a strong emphasis on experimentation. In the context of the times this campaign was particularly aimed at combating the reintroduction of more holistic, non-mechanical approaches into the life sciences . In so doing, Mechanists failed to see some of the strong points of non-vitalistic holistic thinking. The two approaches are illustrated in the work of Jacques Loeb and Hans Spemann. (shrink)
This paper examines the tensions between liberalism, Hegelian idealism and organicism in the thought of the nineteenth-century British ‘new liberals’ such as T.H. Green and Bernard Bosanquet. It maintains that these thinkers drew upon Hegelian conceptual motifs to help them compensate for what they saw as orthodox liberalism's lack of social responsibility. Ultimately, however, they rejected Hegel's state theory and turned to organicism and Social Darwinism to help them imagine an alternative notion of community. Yet, through the process (...) of first embracing Hegel, then rejecting his state theory, then evoking the organic, the new liberals were caught in an ironic philosophical cycle that ultimately led them to endorse a social vision wherein family relations governed the political order. In the end, the paternalistic form of politics to emerge from this idea of the ‘family state’ was often in conflict with these thinkers' own professed support for liberal political causes. (shrink)
Philosophy of biology is often said to have emerged in the last third of the twentieth century. Prior to this time, it has been alleged that the only authors who engaged philosophically with the life sciences were either logical empiricists who sought to impose the explanatory ideals of the physical sciences onto biology, or vitalists who invoked mystical agencies in an attempt to ward off the threat of physicochemical reduction. These schools paid little attention to actual biological science, and as (...) a result philosophy of biology languished in a state of futility for much of the twentieth century. The situation, we are told, only began to change in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when a new generation of researchers began to focus on problems internal to biology, leading to the consolidation of the discipline. In this paper we challenge this widely accepted narrative of the history of philosophy of biology. We do so by arguing that the most important tradition within early twentieth-century philosophy of biology was neither logical empiricism nor vitalism, but the organicist movement that flourished between the First and Second World Wars. We show that the organicist corpus is thematically and methodologically continuous with the contemporary literature in order to discredit the view that early work in the philosophy of biology was unproductive, and we emphasize the desirability of integrating the historical and contemporary conversations into a single, unified discourse. (shrink)
The classical holism-reductionism debate, which has been of major importance to the development of ecological theory and methodology, is an epistemological patchwork. At any moment, there is a risk of it slipping into an incoherent, chaotic Tower of Babel. Yet philosophy, like the sciences, requires that words and their correlative concepts be used rigorously and univocally. The prevalent use of everyday language in the holism-reductionism issue may give a false impression regarding its underlying clarity and coherence. In reality, the conceptual (...) categories underlying the debate have yet to be accurately defined and consistently used. There is a need to map out a clear conceptual, logical and epistemological framework. To this end, we propose a minimalist epistemological foundation. The issue is easier to grasp if we keep in mind that holism generally represents the ontological background of emergentism, but does not necessarily coincide with it. We therefore speak in very loose terms of the “holism-reductionism” debate, although it would really be better characterised by the terms emergentism and reductionism. The confrontation between these antagonistic paradigms unfolds at various semantic and operational levels. In definitional terms, there is not just emergentism and reductionism, but various kinds of emergentisms and reductionisms. (shrink)
Many environmental thinkers are torn in two opposing directions at once. For good reasons we are appalled by the damage that has been done to the earth by the ethos of heedless anthropocentric individualism, which has achieved its colossal feats of exploitation, encouraged to selfishness by its world view—of relation-free atoms—while chanting ‘reduction’ as its mantra. But also for good reasons we are repelled, at the other extreme, by environmentally correct images of mindless biocentric collectivisms in which precious personal values (...) are overridden for the good of some healthy beehive ‘whole’. (shrink)
An environmental ethics open to the charge of speciesism would be a weak environmental ethics at best. Ferré criticizes the environmental ethics of Callicott and Rolston, presenting his version of an environmental ethics; one he refers to as organicistic. His version does indeed avoid the pitfalls of the environmental ethics of Callicott and Rolston. But, as I show, the charge of speciesism can be leveled against Ferré (and many others). I suggest that properly understood speciesism is so deeply rooted in (...) our concepts that the only hope lies in what I term a thoughtful speciesism. (shrink)
Sewall Wright first encountered the complex systems characteristic of gene combinations while a graduate student at Harvard's Bussey Institute from 1912 to 1915. In Mendelian breeding experiments, Wright observed a hierarchical dependence of the organism's phenotype on dynamic networks of genetic interaction and organization. An animal's physical traits, and thus its autonomy from surrounding environmental constraints, depended greatly on how genes behaved in certain combinations. Wright recognized that while genes are the material determinants of the animal phenotype, operating with great (...) regularity, the special nature of genetic systems contributes to the animal phenotype a degree of spontaneity and novelty, creating unpredictable trait variations by virtue of gene interactions. As a result of his experimentation, as well as his keen interest in the philosophical literature of his day, Wright was inspired to see genetic systems as conscious, living organisms in their own right. Moreover, he decided that since genetic systems maintain ordered stability and cause unpredictable novelty in their organic wholes, it would be necessary for biologists to integrate techniques for studying causally ordered phenomena and chance phenomena. From 1914 to 1921 Wright developed his "method of path coefficient", a new procedure drawing from both laboratory experimentation and statistical correlation in order to analyze the relative influence of specific genetic interactions on phenotype variation. In this paper I aim to show how Wright's philosophy for understanding complex genetic systems logically motivated his 1914-1921 design of path analysis. (shrink)
1. The inference that the real is like the phenomenal is the only plausible inference. Since experience itself is the basis for inference, and since we have never experienced what is beyond experience, we have no basis within experience for assuming that what is beyond is unlike experience. The search for what is beyond experience is futile, for it can result only in other experiences. Each additional experience, including those in which we think about what is beyond experience, is still (...) experience. The piling up of empirical evidence merely strengthens the argument, for it provides further evidence of uniformity. To obtain evidence that what is beyond experience is unlike experience, one would have to stop experiencing, which is impossible. (shrink)
According to vitalism, living organisms differ from machines and all other inanimate objects by being endowed with an indwelling immaterial directive agency, ‘vital force,’ or entelechy . While support for vitalism fell away in the late nineteenth century many biologists in the early twentieth century embraced a non vitalist philosophy variously termed organicism/holism/emergentism which aimed at replacing the actions of an immaterial spirit with what was seen as an equivalent but perfectly natural agency—the emergent autonomous activity of the whole (...) organism. Organicists hold that organisms unlike machines are ‘more than the sum of their parts’ and predict that the vital properties of living things can never be explained in terms of mechanical analogies and that the reductionist agenda is doomed to failure. Here we review the current status of the mechanist and organicist conceptions of life particularly as they apply to the cell. We argue that despite the advances in biological knowledge over the past six decades since the molecular biological revolution, especially in the fields of genetics and cell biology the unique properties of living cells have still not been simulated in mechanical systems nor yielded to reductionist—analytical explanations. And we conclude that despite the dominance of the mechanistic–reductionist paradigm through most of the past century the possibility of a twentyfirst century organicist revival cannot be easily discounted. (shrink)
This paper is concerned with organic conceptions of socio-political life and is concerned with the rehabilitation of organicism as a positive social ontology. It demonstrates that: organicism does not necessarily imply the negation of individuality by a monolithic society, and; that G. W. F. Hegel’s references to the state as organic do not imply social holism. With Hegel’s organicism, as with Idealist organicism generally, what is found is a relational rather than a holistic social ontology. This (...) relational ontology is one that addresses the tension between individualism and holism by theorizing the reciprocal or recursive nature of social relations; thus neither society nor the individuals within it can be seen as either purely determined or purely determining, each contributes to the constitution of the other. In making this case the paper provides both: a conceptual articulation of relational organicism which shows that it is an instructive and coherent positive social ontology, and; a historical account of its emergence into Idealist thought in the work of Immanuel Kant and G. W. F. Hegel. Through developing this account of the organic relation this paper seeks to offer a conception of socio-political life that provides resources for thinking through both the tension between holism and atomism in social theory and the tension between liberal individualism and communitarian collectivism in political theory. (shrink)
What role can philosophy play in a world dominated by neoliberalism and globalization? Must it join universalist ideologies as it has in past centuries? Or might it turn to ethnophilosophy and postmodern fragmentation? Universalist cosmopolitanism and egocentric culturalism are not the only alternatives.
Edward O. Wilson’s recent decision to abandon kin selection theory has sent shockwaves throughout the biological sciences. Over the past two years, more than a hundred biologists have signed letters protesting his reversal. Making sense of Wilson’s decision and the controversy it has spawned requires familiarity with the historical record. This entails not only examining the conditions under which kin selection theory first emerged, but also the organicist tradition against which it rebelled. In similar fashion, one must not only examine (...) Wilson’s long career, but also those thinkers who influenced him most, especially his intellectual grandfather, William Morton Wheeler (1865–1937). Wilson belongs to a long line of organicists, biologists whose research highlighted integration and coordination, many of whom struggled over the exact same biological riddles that have long defined Wilson’s career. Drawing inspiration (and sometimes ideas) from these intellectual forebears, Wilson is confident that he has finally identified the origin of the social impulse. (shrink)