Organicism, holism and biochauvinism: some shyly deflationary thoughts

25 October 2022

What is an ‘organism’? A state of matter, or a particular type of living being chosen as an experimental object, like the fruit fly or the zebrafish, which are ‘model organisms’? Organisms are real, in a trivial sense, since flies and fish and thylacines or Tasmanian tigers are (or were, in the latter case) as real as tables and chairs and planets. But at the same time, they are meaningful constructs, as when we describe Hegel or Whitehead as philosophers of organism in the sense that they insist on the irreducible properties of wholes – sometimes, living wholes in particular. In addition, the idea of organism is sometimes appealed to in a polemical way, as when biologists or philosophers angrily oppose a more ‘holistic’ sense of organism to a seemingly cold-hearted, analytic and dissective attitude associated with ‘mechanism’ and ‘reductionism’. We murder to dissect, or as the famous physicist Niels Bohr warned, we may kill the organism with our too-detailed measurements.

In an earlier paper (Wolfe 2010) I wrestled with the question of the ‘ontological status’ of organisms. It proved difficult to come to a decision on this matter, because there are many candidates for what such a status is or should be, and of course many definitions of what organisms are (Queller and Strassmann 2009). It is also an interesting feature of the notion of organism that it is something of a hybrid: it is located from the outset at the crossroads of philosophical inquiry into the nature of living beings (Aristotle, Leibniz, Kant) and properly biological reflection (Wolfe 2014b). For this is also the period when biology as a science is emerging (Bognon-Küss and Wolfe, eds. 2019). But I did not focus in any detail there on some of the conceptual confusion surrounding contemporary organicism (are all theorists of organism, organicists? is a question for another time).

Aside from the classic philosophers mentioned above, a number of 20th-century thinkers have shown interest in the concept of organism. Originally, the interest came especially from phenomenologically motivated authors such as Kurt Goldstein, Hans Jonas, and on the other side of the Rhine, Henri Bergson, Raymond Ruyer and Gilbert Simondon. (Whitehead is hard to fit in a neat conceptual box here.) In biology, for a long time with the rise of genetics and popular concepts such as the ‘selfish gene’, the organism was viewed as consigned to the dustbin of history. Any privileged status granted to irreducible wholes will disappear – on this view – in favor of the molecularization of biological entities. Thus the journal American Zoologist asked in 1989, “Do organisms exist?”, and described the organism as the ‘Phoenix’ of biology. Yet the story does not end there. Biologists interested in evolution, but also developmental processes, ecosystems, and problem cases such as coral reefs or symbiotic organisms, have been asking questions again concerning the nature of biological identity and individuality, which as a side effect brings back in a role for philosophy. Perhaps it is a false or empty promise to insist that the world is made up of atoms or genes and replicators, and nothing else; perhaps we should speak, with the biologists Queller and Strassman, of ‘degrees of organismality’. This is well and good. But I’ll be interested here in the problem of certain organicist strategies in broadly current theoretical biology.

A curious consensus without examination of presuppositions reigns today in the various sub-fields concerned with the properties (organizational, systemic, etc.) of living beings, at least those which define themselves as more or less ‘organicist’. Namely, we almost find a combination of

  • an invocation of Kant, or at least a Kantian ‘regulative ideal’, usually presented as the epistemological component (or alternately, the total vision) of a vision of organism – as instantiating natural purposes, as a type of ‘Whole’ distinct from a merely mechanistically specifiable set of parts, and so on; I say ‘total vision’ because in some cases, theorists state that the ‘Kantian’ dimension (according to which an organism necessarily is a construction, and lives by performing acts and processes of cognitive construction of the world and above all, of other organisms) is not just a feature about how organisms know but a feature of how they are[1]


  • a more ontological statement about the inherent or essential features of organisms, typically presented according to a combination of a ‘list of heroes’ or ‘laundry list’, usually including Claude Bernard, Sherrington, and more recently Varela, Rosen, Ganti or Luisi. What is odd is the way these theorists seek to justify the autonomy and/or ontological uniqueness of Life, organisms, biological agents in terms of empirical criteria, of a laundry list of properties of Life (from the classic, self-preservation, self-reproduction, etc. as mentioned above, to organizational closure, autonomy and so on: one finds particularly long, almost lyrical lists of irreducible and definitory properties of Life in ‘origins of Life’ debates: for some overview see Gayon 2010). As I wrote, one thinker’s homeostasis will always end up being another thinker’s homeostat (Wolfe 2010); or, one theorist’s dynamic equilibrium of hearts, kidneys, termite mounds or chemotaxis will always end up being another theorist’s dynamic equilibrium of storms or traffic jams.

I suggest that we have a problem here, verging on the category mistake: it is not quite right to invoke the authority of the Kantian ‘projective’ approach to organisms (see Huneman, ed., 2007) in order to assert a set of ontological specificities about organisms. First, because this is precisely what the Kantian regulative ideal concept was designed to avoid, in explicit contrast to what he would have called ‘rational metaphysics’. Second, because it is not clear in any case why it counts as an argument against ‘mechanism’ or ‘reductionism’ to say: here is a list of key features.

Of course, the theoretical biologist interested in articulating an organizational concept (thinking notably of Moreno and colleagues; see e.g. Mossio, Saborido and Moreno 2009 and earlier discussion of Moreno in Bechtel 2007) might say: none of this matters, because what these ‘positions’ are, are simply theoretical constructs, bricolages intended to facilitate the articulation of an ongoing research project. Thus, to take an example from the earlier 20th century, Kurt Goldstein’s The Structure of the Organism (Goldstein 1939/1995): if we treat his references to Goethe and Naturphilosophie seriously, we can charge Goldstein with ‘Romanticism’, with being ‘anti-modern science’, and so on, as some do. But if we treat these references as simply a typical case of an educated German scientist of the early 20th century displaying his ‘humanistic’ breadth, then we can study the overall argument in much more naturalistic, or naturalism-friendly terms.

This amounts to a reflexive – and occasionally, deflationary – reconsideration of what it means to defend organicism. Is this one project or many? Does the diversity of possible projects under that umbrella, imply irresolvable tensions or not?

This is partly justified also by the fact that many of the actors involved go out of their way to claim a Kantian (Weber and Varela 2002) or in some cases Aristotelian (Walsh 2021) pedigree for their projects. It is not easy to produce a typology of current organicist views, partly because the actors involved waver between positions that we might consider clearly demarcated (notably, epistemological vs ontological positions on organisms and their ‘reality’, as in the (a) and (b) positions above). Varela, for one, sometimes stresses an ‘epistemological’ standpoint, but sometimes also speaks the language of the key features of organisms. Rosen (1991) says he is speaking about ‘models’ but then calls his book Life Itself. Interestingly, Moreno and his collaborators never seem to make this particular category mistake. (cf also Bich and Damiano, 2008). The concept that emerges here which seems to overcome the epistemological / ontological divide is organization – an important concept which I shall not be able to discuss further here (see Mossio forthcoming).

So on the one hand we have the Kantian or epistemological view: a view focusing on organisms as knowledge-agents, knowers (one thinks of Marjorie Grene’s language of ‘the knower and the known’ in the 1960s). But this can also be transfigured into something ‘ontological’, not as a claim about the world (that is, entities such as livers and hearts or microbes or finches or coral reefs) but as a claim about the unique nature of the subject (interiority, subjectivity, first-person knowledge, etc.: Varela 1996, Varela and Shear 1999). This is not so surprising if we consider the famous proclamation that ‘there will never be a Newton of a blade of grass’: a point which is both about our cognitive capacities and – at least the ambiguity is unresolved – about the uniqueness of organic entities.

On the other hand, we have the ontological / organismic view (e.g. Grene 1969; the attempt by Gilbert and Sarkar 2000 to rescue the word ‘organicism’ at the expense of the word ‘vitalism’ does not seem to change anything here; compare Pepper and Herron 2008). This can be a ‘strong organismic view’ insisting on an object almost outside the realm of natural science, or a ‘weak organismic view’ providing a discussion of certain irreducible, specific, key features of organisms (à la Claude Bernard, for whom “In order to study the phenomena pertaining to living beings and discover the laws that govern them, it is not necessary to know the essence of life itself”: Bernard 1869, 194). The latter remains “biochauvinist,” to use Ezequiel Di Paolo’s recent and suggestive term (Di Paolo 2009; for some expansion of the term see Wolfe 2014a and 2015).

To be sure, there are cases where the theory actively moves between these two poles or positions (Goldstein 1939/1995), but that should not prevent us from trying to articulate the difference for the sake of clarification. Perhaps this oscillation is itself deserving of a category – that is, if we have par commodité a standard-type distinction between a more epistemological approach and a more ontological approach (together with the somewhat odd invocation of Kant in completely ontological views, verging on a category mistake as I noted above), we could add a kind of ‘centrist’ or ‘third way’ view, which sometimes focuses on the status of the observer (the knower, the agent), sometimes on the system as a whole and its empirical properties (or laundry list).

In this third category we find the family of organizational theories  (Moreno, Mossio et al.; Ruiz-Mirazo, Etxeberria, Moreno and Ibáñez 2000) – which allow of more or less ontologized readings, but also other ‘systems’-focused approaches which state quite directly that they return to organicism, but no longer make claims about the specific nature of living beings (Laubichler 2000; Artiga 2011). Also located in a neither-nor space (I didn’t say a no-mans land!) between epistemology and ontology are quite fruitful approaches such as those of Walsh (Walsh 2007 and passim) and Wouters (Wouters 2005, 2013), which stress that what is unique about biological entities is the type of explanations they require. Of course, such specific explanations may in turn be ‘generated’ or ‘induced’ by features that are claimed to be ontologically real. (Explanatory autonomy is not an argument-stopper.) At this point debates tend to become rather circular, as happens with respect to teleology: is it a strictly explanatory concept or is it ‘real’? If it requires a real notion of goals, then it’s ‘real’ (and so on). I feel closer to Karl Kraus’ dictum cited by Walter Benjamin): Ursprung ist das Ziel, Origin is the goal.

I work also on Georges Canguilhem, and sometimes feel ‘Canguilhemian’: this is not a common term, unlike ‘Marxist’ or ‘Deleuzian’; I mean that my approach to these questions combines historical contextualization and philosophical evaluation, with some suspicion towards the feverish enthusiasm of some antireductionists. I was struck in Canguilhem’s reflections on vitalism by the way he retorts, using a classic Spinozist phrase, that we (humans) are not in Nature like a kingdom within a kingdom, and further, by the way he responds – not rudely but politely – to Merleau-Ponty’s invocations of an ineffable subjectivity grounding Life/Mind (a position reiterated in the 2000s by Evan Thompson, as I have observed elsewhere), by saying essentially, ‘that would be lovely if it were true but I see no way of confidently endorsing this position’.

Consider the familiar opposition between strong and weak conceptions of organism, where the weak conception simply holds that organisms are types of organization with some specific features, like homeostasis, which are not found in storms or supernovas, whereas the strong conception insists on a real, irreducible uniqueness of organisms and challenges our entire scientific world-picture on the basis thereof. Thus the defender of the ‘strongconcept’ of organism is a sort of inheritor of the program of a Romantic science: not ‘anti-science’, but claiming that modern, or ‘mainstream’, or ‘mechanistic’ science is somehow not enough (or sometimes, is morally misguided, missing key features of meaning and value): there should be a science of the organism itself, a holistic science, a ‘new paradigm’, which would overcome or refute the excessively reductionist paradigm we have been saddled with since the Scientific Revolution.

The problem with all of this, whether or not one accepts the verdict of ‘mainstream science’ that the organism in itself either does not exist or does not matter, is that this kind of defense or challenge has something very normative about it. It is in the name of a certain idea of value that one defends a particularity of living beings; think of the expression ‘pro-life’! To those who insist that there is something about life, the fact of life, and the unique features of living beings which almost prior to argument is a value, I would reply with Nietzsche that “Life is not an argument. Among the conditions of life might be error,” a comment which harks back to the Epicurean vision of the world as just atoms-and-chance, but which can also be heard in Darwinian terms: the fact that one species rather than another survived is partly ‘accidental’.

Rather than asserting that ‘organisms are special because of their special parts- whole relation’ (as in Aristotle’s arresting image that a hand severed from the body is no longer a hand), or more empirically, ‘organisms are special because they digest, sweat, fear, love, have high blood pressure or low blood sugar’, we would better off acknowledging that there is always an imaginative, and even a fictional component in our attempts to make sense of organisms. Even the most die-hard mechanists make use of analogies and models to understand that most complex of machines, the living body. A mechanical model is nothing else than a heuristic model designed to explain something about the object which ‘strong organicists’ seek a monopoly on, Life.

When Kant (in?)famously declared that there will never be a Newton of even a mere blade of grass – that is, that science, which he understood as mathematically specifiable mechanistic science, could never account for or ‘discover’ the laws governing organic beings– he seems to be clinging to the idea of a certain special ‘something’, whether that be ‘wonder tissue’ or ‘selfhood’, which constructions and reconstructions cannot grasp. A more deflationary perspective, in which organisms might indeed be engaged in acts/processes of construction (and yes, meaning-making, for the biosemioticians among us) seems more salubrious.


[1] For an interesting Kantian response to these exact questions (which makes unusual use of Canguilhem), see Van De Vijver & Haeck (forthcoming)


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