Organicist Movement in Philosophy and Culture

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Robert Hanna et al. :

(in the interwar period 1920-1940)

"There was also an emerging organicist movement, expressing itself in philosophy, the applied and fine arts, and the formal and natural sciences alike, including, in philosophy,

  • Henri Bergson’s Matter and Memory in 1896, Creative Evolution in 1907,
  • Samuel Alexander’s Space, Time, and Deity in 1920,
  • John Dewey’s Experience and Nature in 1925, and especially
  • Whitehead’s “philosophy of organism” in Process and Reality in 1929;

in the applied and fine arts,

  1. the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright and the other members of the Prairie School,
  2. the “golden period of Scandinavian design” in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland, and
  3. the poetry of Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens; and,

in the formal and natural sciences,

  • C. Lloyd Morgan’s Emergent Evolution in 1923, and
  • Erwin Schrödinger’s What is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell in 1944l Schrödinger’s break-through book initiated
  • non-equilibrium thermodynamics and complex systems dynamics, as developed by Ilya Prigogine and his associates, and by J.D. Bernal, in the second half of the 20th century; and alongside and inspired by this work, it also primed
  • the autopoietic approach to organismic biology worked out by Francisco Varela and his associates during the 1970s

"By the end of World War II, the early Cold War, and the period of the sociopolitical triumph of advanced capitalism and technocracy in the USA, classical Analytic philosophy had triumphed in a social-institutional sense; organicist philosophy had virtually disappeared except in a vestigial form, as an aspect of American pragmatism;"



The History of Organicism in Philosophy

Glenn Allbrecht:

"From the Pre-Socratics to the present day, organic life, particularly human life, has inspired cosmological, social and ecological visions of the totality of reality. In Plato we find the first systematic use of organicist ideas. In The Republic these ideas are used to establish the conception of society as a moral whole, governed by justice. Plato gives the earliest Western expression of the view that individuals’ parts in society are determined by the function they play in a healthy organic whole. Aristotle takes up Plato’s notion of the state as an organic whole and it is commonplace to find him using organic analogy to illustrate important philosophical positions. Aristotle’s interest in biology, particularly his belief in the continuity of all life, led him to postulate that, immanent in life, there was a single, vital force. In particular, Aristotle’s philosophy of nature is based on teleological explanation of life seen as a self-developing organism. With Aristotle, the idea of ‘inner teleology’ or the notion that all development and activity can be understood as being guided by an inner necessity or inner purpose, became central to Greek thought.

When applied to nature, but in particular, the human mind, such an idea conveys the sense that development is a process of self-realisation from potentiality to actuality. It is the developmental form of life itself and living things are engaged in a normative process of self-realisation .Within human social life Aristotle argues that the potential of human beings as social animals can be realised. In the city-state citizens achieve self-sufficiency and the best form of human social life or the ‘good life’. In The Politics, Aristotle argues that out of all previous forms of human association comes the realisation of the final form. He argues that such an association:

… is the end of those others and its nature isitself an end; for whatever is the end product of the perfecting process of any object, that we call its nature, that which man, house, household, or anything else aims at being. Moreover the aim and the end can only be that which is best, perfection and self-sufficiency is both end and perfection.

In this passage Aristotle sets down a pattern of thought that can be found repeated in many subsequent philosophical and related writings, the idea that human society moves through various phases or stages from an immature to a mature state. This movement is in a sense pre-determined because the end is immanent in the very beginning of the process. Internal or immanent teleology describes the evolution of form via what might be called the ‘laws’ of order and development. As is the case with the development of an individual organism, all development can be understood as determined b ya final cause, not external, but internal to that which is developing. Such a view gives Aristotle’s philosophy an organic view of both the unity of purpose within the related ‘parts’(unity) of a whole and its development(directionality). This notion of ‘inner teleology’ or inner purpose forms the backbone of all subsequent Idealist organicism. The Stoics continued a cosmological tradition which saw the world or nature as being ‘animated’, that is as a great animal or as a universal organism. Greek and Roman conceptions of the world as an organism further influenced political theories in the Middle Ages In particular, the idea of the ‘body politic’ drew heavily on organic analogy. The use of the material body as a source of social theory did not have any philosophical significance. Political writers, like John of Salisbury (1115-1180), attempted to find complete correspondence between the social and the anatomical where futile efforts were made to find the social equivalent of, say, the liver. In the Social Contract tradition, again, organic analogy is widely used. Hobbes, in Leviathan, uses the analogy or metaphor of society as an organism to describe the ‘artificial animal ’created by social covenant. Hobbes, however, had a mechanistic conception of organic life. He sees an organic body strictly in terms of a machine.

Hobbes says in Leviathan,

- “For what is the Heart, but a Spring, and the Nerves, but so many Strings; and the Joynts, but so many Wheeles, giving motion to the whole Body...”

In the conception of the General Will, Rousseau attempts to combine the life of an individual in social life, in an organic harmonious union, with the life of society itself. There is in Rousseau, a systematic organicist social philosophy not seen since the Greeks. The concept of the General Will, presented for us by Rousseau, is the prototype of Kant’s ‘universal will’, as expressed in the ‘categorical imperative’. Rousseau’s influence on Kant has been well documented and Kant gives philosophical sophistication to Rousseau’s organic conception of the grounds of moral-political obligation. In a revival of Aristotelian teleology Kant contributes a view of organic life based not on any mechanistic worldview, but on an immanent or organic type of teleology. This idea, when taken from nature and applied to a social context, gives a radically ‘new’ way of conceiving social relationships. Of paramount importance in this conceptual framework is the idea of an immanent morality. Human moral relations are tied to a purposive order which unfolds in time. Kant combines the idea of a telos or final end with the principles of organic unity and development. In the post-Kantian philosophy in Germany, Schelling, Fichte, Goethe and in particular G. W.F. Hegel took up the active, purposive view of life and systematically applied it to all contexts of human endeavour. Hegel, above all others, created a comprehensive, organicist philosophical system. In his critique of atomism and mechanism Hegel developed a novel type of philosophical theory, suitable for the explication of organic wholes. The Hegelian ‘dialectic’, the formal mode of that theory, is a conceptual tool designed to explain the essential characteristic of all life; that of purposive organising activity located in a continuous process of development. In the Phenomenology of Mind (1807) we find Hegel’s mature expression of the dialectic as the “progressive evolution of the truth”. Despite the appearance of contingency and contradiction in the development of human consciousness, Hegel identifies one continuous stream of development from infancy (potential) to maturity (actualisation). In a now famous passage Hegel gives a dynamic and emergent emphasis to organic development:

- The bud disappears when the blossom breaks through, and we might say that the former is refuted by the latter; in the same way when the fruit comes, the blossom may be explained to be a false form of the plant’s existence, for the fruit appears as its true nature in place of the blossom. These stages are not merely differentiated; they supplant one another as being incompatible with one another. But ceaseless activity of their own inherent nature makes them at the same time moments of an organic unity, where they not merely do not contradict one another, but where one is as necessary as another; and this equal necessity of all moments constitutes from the outset the life of the whole.

The common theme running through all formulations of the dialectic is the attempt top resent a philosophical account of the distinctive features of organically unified entities, those of identity and continuity despite change and unity, despite difference and diversity. Hegel’s philosophical project within his early philosophy was to “think pure life” and his later works remained true to this aim. Hegel criticises pseudo-organicist theories and atomistic and mechanistic social/ethical theories by arguing that human beings cannot in any way be thought of as isolated atoms or egos in need of some external organising pattern or blueprint. Humans are ‘by nature’ social and an analysis of the ‘phenomenology’ of human activity(language, thought, culture, history) reveals that the trend toward unity and harmony (non-alienation) is accomplished by the immanent development of specific cooperative human attitudes and their concrete expression in institutions. In other words, the study of human history, according to Hegel, reveals that the development of unity and harmony in human social life cannot possibly be imposed on a populace; it can only be realized as part of a freely engaged discovery of what it means to be a human being. In the final analysis, individual interests will be social interests and vice versa. Social contract theorists, in seeing the necessity for an abstract contract taking humans from anon-cooperative to a cooperative stage of political development, demonstrate a view of human nature which has selfishness as its foundation. In isolating the self from the social context in which it is embedded (atomism),theorists must propose a contractual solution to the inevitable clashes that occur between self-interested social actors each demanding their ‘freedom’ and ‘rights’ in a world characterised by scarcity. Although Karl Marx is best known as a materialist and as a critic of Hegelian Idealism, he still represents major aspects of his social theory in terms of organicism. Quite apart from his explicitly stated view that capitalist society is not a fixed, homogeneous entity, but an organism engaged in dynamic change and development, there is an implicit ethical stance which emerges out of his Hegelian heritage. In the Early Writings, Marx develops the theme that alienation is the outcome of a social order which is the very opposite of an organic unity. In his mature writings he presents the idea that organic development entails a progression from a state which is ‘contradictory’ to one which is self-subsistent and fully actualised. Marx barely contains his ethical outrage when, in Das Capital, he describes Capitalism as a vampire-like parasite “sucking” vitality from workers and the earth. Marx’s acceptance of the Hegelian organicist view of necessary progress through dialectical change where individual and universal interests are reconciled, commits him to an immanent, organicist ethic. In the social and political philosophies of Hegel and Marx, the concept of the organic society was one where the lack of alienation and compulsion characterised a social setting which maximised human freedom. In both Hegel and Marx, the vision of the ideal organic society was one where ‘universal human beings’ existed in a ‘universal’ society. In human society, the greater the degree of organic unity, the greater will be the numberof diverse interests held together in harmony.

In the work of the neo-Hegelian, Murray Bookchin, we can find a sustained critique of the possible deterministic aspects of Idealist organicism. In developing his own philosophy of Social Ecology, Bookchin makes it clear that he sees his own advocacy of actualisation of potential as not entailing acceptance of some fixed goal or end state, as could be interpreted in the work of Aristotle and Hegel. In contrast, he argues, his own version of directionality theory… “does not terminate in a Hegelian absolute at the end of a cosmic developmental path, but rather advances the vision of an ever-increasing wholeness, fullness, and richness of differentiation and subjectivity.”

By ‘ecologising’ the dialectical tradition in Idealist philosophy, Bookchin attempted to create a naturalistic and organicist account of self-organisation in nature and remove all taints of past forms of (external) teleological thinking from the legacy of Aristotle and Hegel."


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