You are on page 1of 3


Is it material composition, or organization of parts, that creates the mutual sy

mbiosis between Amphiprion clownfish and tropical sea anemones?
Organicism is the philosophical perspective which views the universe and its par
ts as organic wholes and - either by analogy or literally - as living organisms.
[1] It can be synonymous with holism.[2] Organicism is an important tradition wi
thin the history of natural philosophy[3] where it has remained as a vital curre
nt alongside reductionism and mechanism, the approaches that have dominated scie
nce since the seventeenth century.[4] Plato is among the earliest philosophers t
o have regarded the universe as an intelligent living being (see Timaeus). Organ
icism flourished for a period during the era of German romanticism[5] during whi
ch time the new science of biology was first defined by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. W
ithin modern-day biological sciences organicism is the approach that stresses th
e organization (particularly the self-organizing properties), rather than the co
mposition, of organisms. John Scott Haldane was the first biologist to use the t
erm to describe his philosophical views in 1917, after which it became well-acce
pted during the course of the 20th century.
1 In philosophy
2 In biology
2.1 Theoretical Biology Club
3 See also
4 References
5 Further reading
6 External links
In philosophy
This article needs additional citations for verification. Please help im
prove this article by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material m
ay be challenged and removed. (July 2012) (Learn how and when to remove this tem
plate message)
Organicism as a doctrine rejects mechanism and reductionism (doctrines that clai
m that the smallest parts by themselves explain the behavior of larger organized
systems of which they are a part). However, organicism also rejects vitalism, t
he doctrine that there is a vital force different from physical forces that acco
unts for living things. As [6] puts it, both schools, organicism and vitalism, w
ere born from the quest for getting rid of the Cartesian picture of reality, a v
iew that has been claimed to be the most destructive paradigm nowadays, from sci
ence to politics.[7]
A number of biologists in the early to mid-twentieth century embraced organicism
. They wished to reject earlier vitalisms but to stress that whole organism biol
ogy 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 beha
Gilbert and Sarkar distinguish organicism from holism to avoid what they see as
the vitalistic or spiritualistic connotations of holism. Dusek notes that holism
contains a continuum of degrees of the top-down control of organization, rangin
g 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 rel
atively more independence of the parts from the whole, despite the whole being m
ore than the sum of the parts, and/or the whole exerting some control on the beh
avior 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 rel
ations of the parts are essential to explanation of behavior of the system. Aris
totle and early modern philosophers and scientists tended to describe reality as
made of substances and their qualities, and to neglect relations. Gottfried Wil
helm Leibniz showed the bizarre conclusions to which a doctrine of the non-exist
ence of relations led. Twentieth century philosophy has been characterized by th
e introduction of and emphasis on the importance of relations, whether in symbol
ic logic, in phenomenology, or in metaphysics.
William Wimsatt has suggested that the number of terms in the relations consider
ed distinguishes reductionism from holism. Reductionistic explanations claim tha
t 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 t
o the twenty-sixth term relation, for instance.
Organicism has some intellectually and politically controversial or suspect asso
ciations. "Holism," the doctrine that the whole is more than the sum of its part
s, often used synonymously with organicism, or as a broader category under which
organicism falls, has been co-opted in recent decades by "holistic medicine" an
d by New Age Thought. German Nazism appealed to organicist and holistic doctrine
s, discrediting for many in retrospect, the original organicist doctrines. (See
Anne Harrington). Soviet Dialectical Materialism also made appeals to an holisti
c and organicist approach stemming from Hegel via Karl Marx's co-worker Friedric
h Engels, again giving a controversial political association to organicism.
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 Li
lienfeld, Jacques Novicow, Albert Schffle, Herbert Spencer, and Ren Worms, among oth
ers (Barberis 2003: 54).
Thomas Hobbes arguably put forward a form of organicism. In the Leviathan, he ar
gued that the state is like a secular God whose constituents (individual people)
make up a larger organism.
In biology
In breathing entities, cells i.e., the smallest unit of life were first observed in
the 17th century, when the multifaceted equipment microscope was conceived. Befo
re that period, the individual organisms were studied as a whole in a field know
n as organismic biology; that area of research remains an important component of
the biological sciences.[8] Further, as [6] puts it, during the early 1900s, th
e quantum researchers struggled with the same paradigm shift from "the parts to
the whole" that culminated into the scholars of organismic biology.
In biology organicism considers that the observable structures of life, its over
all form and the properties and characteristics of its component parts are a res
ult of the reciprocal play of all the components on each other.[9] Examples of 2
0th century biologists who were organicists are Ross Harrison, Paul Weiss, and J
oseph Needham. Donna Haraway discusses them in her first book Crystals, Fabrics,
and Fields. John Scott Haldane (father of J. B. S. Haldane), William Emerson Ri
tter, Edward Stuart Russell, Joseph Henry Woodger, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, and R
alph Stayner Lillie are other early twentieth century organicists. Robert Rosen,
founder of "Relational Biology" provided a comprehensive mathematical and categ
ory-theoretic treatment of irreducible causal relations he believed to be respon
sible for life.[10]
Theoretical Biology Club
In the early 1930s Joseph Henry Woodger and Joseph Needham, together with Conrad
Hal Waddington, John Desmond Bernal, and Dorothy Wrinch, formed the Theoretical
Biology Club, to promote the organicist approach to biology. The club was in op
position to mechanism, reductionism and the gene-centric view of evolution. Most
of the members were influenced by the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead.[11]
[12][13][14] The club disbanded as the Rockefeller Foundation refused to funding
what was needed for them to continue their investigations.[15]