Organicism is the philosophical position that states that the universe and its various parts (including human societies) ought to be considered alive and naturally ordered, much like a living organism.[1][2] Vital to the position is the idea that organicistic elements are not dormant "things" per se but rather dynamic components in a comprehensive system that is, as a whole, everchanging. Organicism is related to but remains distinct from holism insofar as it prefigures holism; while the latter concept is applied more broadly to universal part-whole interconnections such as in anthropology and sociology, the former is traditionally applied only in philosophy and biology.[3][4] Furthermore, organicism is incongruous with reductionism because of organicism's consideration of "both bottom-up and top-down causation."[5] Regarded as a fundamental tenet in natural philosophy, organicism has remained a vital current in modern thought, alongside both reductionism and mechanism, that has guided scientific inquiry since the early 17th century.[6][7]

Though there remains dissent among scientific historians concerning organicism's pregeneration, most scholars agree on Ancient Athens as its birthplace. Surfacing in Athenian writing in the 4th-century BC, Plato was among the first philosophers to consider the universe an intelligent living (almost sentient) being, which he posits in his Philebus and Timaeus.[1] At the turn of the 18th-century, Immanuel Kant championed a revival of organicisitic thought by stressing, in his written works, "the inter-relatedness of the organism and its parts[,] and the circular causality" inherent to the inextricable entanglement of the greater whole.[2]

Organicism flourished for a period during the German romanticism intellectual movement and was a position considered by Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling to be an important principle in the burgeoning field of biological studies.[8] Within contemporary biology, organicism stresses the organization (particularly the self-organizing properties) rather than the composition (the reduction into biological components) of organisms. John Scott Haldane was the first modern biologist to use the term to expand his philosophical stance in 1917; other 20th-century academics and professionals, such as Theodor Adorno and Albert Dalcq [fr], have followed in Haldane's wake.[9][10]

Interest in organicist biology has recently been revived with the extended evolutionary synthesis.[11][12]

In philosophy

Organicism as a doctrine rejects mechanism and reductionism (doctrines that claim that the smallest parts by themselves explain the behavior of larger organized systems of which they are a part). However, organicism also rejects vitalism, the doctrine that there is a vital force different from physical forces that accounts for living things. As Fritjof Capra[13] puts it, both schools, organicism and vitalism, were born from the quest for getting rid of the Cartesian picture of reality, a view that has been claimed to be the most destructive paradigm nowadays, from science to politics.[14] A number of biologists in the early to mid-twentieth century embraced organicism. They wished to reject earlier vitalisms but also to stress that whole organism biology 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 behavior.

The French zoologist Yves Delage, in his seminal text L'Hérédité Et Les Grands Problèmes de la Biologie Générale, described organicism thus:

[L]ife, the form of the body, the properties and characters of its diverse parts, as resulting from the reciprocal play or struggle of all its elements, cells, fibres, tissues, organs, which act the one on the other, modify one the other, allot among them each its place and part, and lead all together to the final result, giving thus the appearance of a consensus, or a pre-established harmony, where in reality there is nothing but the result of independent phenomena.[15]

Scott F. Gilbert and Sahotra Sarkar distinguish organicism from holism to avoid what they see as the vitalistic or spiritualistic connotations of holism.[10] Val Dusek notes that holism contains a continuum of degrees of the top-down control of organization, ranging 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 relatively more independence of the parts from the whole, despite the whole being more than the sum of the parts, and/or the whole exerting some control on the behavior of the parts.[16]

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 relations of the parts are essential to explanation of behavior of the system. Aristotle and early modern philosophers and scientists tended to describe reality as made of substances and their qualities, and to neglect relations. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz showed the bizarre conclusions to which a doctrine of the non-existence of relations led. Twentieth century philosophy has been characterized by the introduction of and emphasis on the importance of relations, whether in symbolic logic, in phenomenology, or in metaphysics.

William Wimsatt has suggested that the number of terms in the relations considered distinguishes reductionism from holism. Reductionistic explanations claim that 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 to the twenty-sixth term relation, for instance.

In politics and sociology

Main articles: Social organism and Body politic

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 Lilienfeld, Jacques Novicow, Albert Schäffle, Herbert Spencer, and René Worms, among others.[17] Prominent conservative political thinkers who have developed an organic view of society are Edmund Burke,[18] G.W.F. Hegel,[19] Adam Müller,[20] and Julius Evola.[21] Organicism has also been identified with the "Tory Radicalism" of Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Benjamin Disraeli.[22]

Thomas Hobbes arguably put forward a form of organicism. In the Leviathan, he argued that the state is like a secular God whose constituents (individual people) make up a larger organism. However, the body of the Leviathan is composed of many human faces (all looking outwards from the body), and these faces do not symbolize different organs of a complex organism but the individual people who themselves have consented to the social contract, and thereby ceded their power to the Leviathan. That the Leviathan is more like a constructed machine than like a literal organism is perfectly in line with Hobbes' elementaristic individualism and mechanical materialism.[23]

According to scholars Jean-Yves Camus and Nicolas Lebourg, organicism stands at the core of the far-right's worldview, this paradigm being applied to human societies seen as analogous to living beings. The organicist conception of the community far-right thinkers wish to constitute or reconstitute (whether based on ethnicity, nationality, religion, or race) leads them to reject every form of universalism in favor of autophilia and alterophobia, or in other words the idealization of a "we" excluding a "they". Differences between those two groups are conflated with inequalities in values and presented as absolute and immutable, thus creating a climate of anxiety with the other group being generally seen as a danger, potentially existential, to the persistence of the homogeneously organized community.[24] Adolf Hitler himself along with other members of the National Socialist German Workers' Party (German: Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, NSDAP) in the Weimar Republic (1918–1933) were greatly influenced by several 19th- and early 20th-century thinkers and proponents of philosophical, onto-epistemic, and theoretical perspectives on ecological anthropology, scientific racism, holistic science, and organicism regarding the constitution of complex systems and theorization of organic-racial societies.[25][26][27][28] In particular, one of the most significant ideological influences on the Nazis was the 19th-century German nationalist philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, whose works had served as an inspiration to Hitler and other Nazi Party members, and whose ideas were implemented among the philosophical and ideological foundations of Nazi-oriented Völkisch nationalism.[26][29]

In biology

Main articles: Biological organisation and Organism

In breathing organisms, the cells were first observed in 17th-century Europe following the invention of the microscope. Before that period, individual organisms were studied as a whole in a field known as "organismic biology"; that area of research remains an important component of the biological sciences.[30]

In biology, organicism considers that the observable structures of life, its overall form and the properties and characteristics of its component parts, are a result of the reciprocal play of all the components on each other.[31] Examples of 20th-century biologists who were organicists are Ross Harrison, Paul Weiss, and Joseph Needham. Donna Haraway discusses them in her first book Crystals, Fabrics, and Fields. John Scott Haldane (father of J. B. S. Haldane), William Emerson Ritter, Edward Stuart Russell, Joseph Henry Woodger, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, and Ralph Stayner Lillie are other early 20th-century organicists. Robert Rosen, founder of "relational biology", provided a comprehensive mathematical and category-theoretic treatment of irreducible causal relations he believed to be responsible for life.[32]

The early biologists of the organicist movement have influenced the organism-centered perspective of the extended evolutionary synthesis.[12]

Theoretical Biology Club

In the early 1930s Joseph Henry Woodger and Joseph Needham, together with Conrad Hal Waddington, John Desmond Bernal, Dorothy Needham, and Dorothy Wrinch, formed the Theoretical Biology Club, to promote the organicist approach to biology.[33] The club was in opposition to mechanistic philosophy, reductionism, and the gene-centric view of evolution. Most of the members were influenced by the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead.[34][35][36][37] The club disbanded as the Rockefeller Foundation refused to fund their investigations.[38]


In ecology, "organicism" and "organicistic" (or "organismic") are used to designate theories which conceptualize populations, particularly ecological communities or ecosystems, according to the model of the individual organism.[39][40] As such, the term "organicism" is sometimes used interchangeably with "holism", although there are versions of holism that are not organicistic/organismic but individualistic.[41]

See also


  1. ^ a b "Plato: Organicism | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy". Retrieved 11 June 2020.
  2. ^ a b Gilbert, S. F., and S. Sarkar. 2000. "Embracing Complexity: Organicism for the 21st Century." Develop Dynam 219: 1–9.
  3. ^ "Experiments in Holism: Theory and Practice in Contemporary Anthropology | Wiley". Retrieved 11 June 2020.
  4. ^ Charles Wolfe. HOLISM, ORGANICISM AND THE RISK OF BIOCHAUVINISM. Verifiche. Rivista di scienze umana, 2014
  5. ^ Soto, Ana M.; Sonnenschein, Carlos (2018). "Reductionism, Organicism, and Causality in the Biomedical Sciences: A Critique". Perspectives in Biology and Medicine. 61 (4): 489–502. doi:10.1353/pbm.2018.0059. ISSN 1529-8795. PMID 30613032. S2CID 58624436.
  6. ^ For example, the philosophers of the Ionian Enlightenment were referred to by later philosophers (such as Aristotle) as hylozoists meaning 'those who thought that matter was alive' (see Farrington (1941/53)
  7. ^ For a general overview see Capra (1996)
  8. ^ Richards, Robert J. "The Impact of German Romanticism on Biology in the Nineteenth Century" (PDF). University of Chicago.
  9. ^ Watkins, Holly (17 January 2017). "Toward a Post-Humanist Organicism" (PDF). Nineteenth-Century Music Review. 14: 93–114. doi:10.1017/S1479409816000306. S2CID 156039471.
  10. ^ a b Gilbert, Scott F.; Sarkar, Sahotra (2000). "Embracing complexity: Organicism for the 21st century". Developmental Dynamics. 219 (1): 1–9. doi:10.1002/1097-0177(2000)9999:9999<::AID-DVDY1036>3.0.CO;2-A. ISSN 1097-0177. PMID 10974666. S2CID 9452159.
  11. ^ Nicholson, Daniel J. (2014). "The Return of the Organism as a Fundamental Explanatory Concept in Biology". Philosophy Compass. 9 (5): 347–359. doi:10.1111/phc3.12128.
  12. ^ a b Baedke, J., Fábregas-Tejeda, A. (2023) The Organism in Evolutionary Explanation: From Early Twentieth Century to the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis. In: Dickins, T.E., Dickins, B.J. (eds) Evolutionary Biology: Contemporary and Historical Reflections Upon Core Theory. Springer. pp. 121–150. ISBN 978-3031220272
  13. ^ Fritjof Capra. The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems. Anchor Books Doubleday, 1996.
  14. ^ What The Bleep Do We Know – Down The Rabbit Hole. Samuel Goldwyn Films. Roadside attractions. Documentary film, Drama. 3 February 2006.
  15. ^ Needham, Joseph (1928). "Organicism in Biology". Journal of Philosophical Studies. 3 (9): 29–40. JSTOR 3745903.
  16. ^ Dusek, Val (1999). The Holistic Inspirations of Physics. Rutgers University Press.
  17. ^ Daniela Barberis, "In search of an object: organicist sociology and the reality of society in fin-de-siècle France", History of the Human Sciences, Vol. 16, No. 3, 2003. Page 54.
  18. ^ Cecil, Lord Hugh (1913). Konservatismen. Tiden. p. 54.
  19. ^ Reflections on conservatism. Cambridge Scholars. 2011. p. 111. ISBN 978-1-4438-3395-0. OCLC 829713938. Retrieved 14 September 2021.
  20. ^ Tingsten, Herbert (1966). De konservativa idéerna. Aldus/Bonniers. pp. 46–49. OCLC 1166587654. Retrieved 16 November 2021.
  21. ^ Furlong, Paul (21 April 2011). Social and Political Thought of Julius Evola. Abingdon-on-Thames: Taylor & Francis. p. 154. ISBN 978-1-136-72549-4. Retrieved 17 July 2022.
  22. ^ McGowan, John (1989). "The New Tory Radicals". Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal. 72 (2/3): 477–500. ISSN 0038-1861. JSTOR 41178487.
  23. ^ Cf. O'Flynn, Micheal 2009: The individualism of Hobbes and Locke. In: O'Flynn, Micheal (Hg.): Profitable Ideas. The Ideology of the Individual in Capitalist Development. Brill, Leiden: 21–37; Duncan, Stewart, "Thomas Hobbes", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = <>.
  24. ^ Camus, Jean-Yves; Lebourg, Nicolas (2017). Far-Right Politics in Europe. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. p. 21. ISBN 978-0-674-97153-0. The core of the far right's worldview was organicism, that is, the idea that society functions as a living being. The far-right movements disseminated an organicist conception of the community they wished to constitute (whether based on ethnicity, nationality, or race), or that they said they wanted to reconstitute. That organicism entailed the rejection of every form of universalism, in favor of autophilia (the valorization of the "we") and alterophobia. Extremists on the right thus absolutize differences (between nations, races, individuals, cultures). They tend to conflate inequalities and differences, which creates a climate of anxiety, since differences disrupt their efforts to organize their community homogeneously.
  25. ^ Harrington, Anne (2021) [1996]. "CHAPTER SIX: Life Science, Nazi Wholeness, and the "Machine" in Germany's Midst". Reenchanted Science: Holism in German Culture from Wilhelm II to Hitler. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. p. 175. doi:10.1515/9780691218083-009. ISBN 9780691218083. JSTOR j.ctv14163kf.11. S2CID 162490363. When Hans Shemm in 1935 declared National Socialism to be "politically applied biology," things began to look up, not only for holism, but for the life sciences in general. After all, if the good National Socialist citizen was now seen as the man or woman who understood and revered what were called "Life's laws," then it seemed clear that the life scientists had a major role to play in defining a National Socialist educational program that would transmit the essence of these laws to every family in every village in the country. [...] So much seemed familiar: the calls among the National Socialists to return to authentic "German" values and "ways of knowing," to "overcome" the materialism and mechanism of the "West" and the "Jewish-international lie" of scientific objectivity; the use of traditional volkisch tropes that spoke of the German people (Volk) as a mystical, pseudobiological whole and the state as an "organism" in which the individual was subsumed in the whole ("You are nothing, your Volk is everything"); the condemnation of Jews as an alien force representing chaos, mechanism, and inauthenticity. Hitler himself had even used the stock imagery of conservative holism in Mein Kampf when he spoke of the democratic state as "a dead mechanism which only lays claim to existence for its own sake" and contrasted this with his vision of statehood for Germany in which "there must be formed a living organism with the exclusive aim of serving a higher idea."
  26. ^ a b Deichmann, Ute (2020). "Science and political ideology: The example of Nazi Germany". Mètode Science Studies Journal. 10 (Science and Nazism. The unconfessed collaboration of scientists with National Socialism). Universitat de València: 129–137. doi:10.7203/metode.10.13657. hdl:10550/89369. ISSN 2174-9221. S2CID 203335127. Although in their basic framework Nazi anti-Semitic and racist ideology and policies were not grounded in science, scientists not only supported them in various ways, but also took advantage of them, for example by using the new possibilities of unethical experimentation in humans that these ideologies provided. Scientists' complicity with Nazi ideology and politics does, however, not mean that all sciences in Nazi Germany were ideologically tainted. I argue, rather, that despite the fact that some areas of science continued at high levels, science in Nazi Germany was most negatively affected not by the imposition of Nazi ideology on the conduct of science but by the enactment of legal measures that ensured the expulsion of Jewish scientists. The anti-Semitism of young faculty and students was particularly virulent. Moreover, I show that scientists supported Nazi ideologies and policies not only through so-called reductionist science such as eugenics and race-hygiene, but also by promoting organicist and holistic ideologies of the racial state. [...] The ideology of leading Nazi party ideologues was strongly influenced by the Volkish movement which, in the wake of the writings of philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte and other nineteenth century authors, promoted the idea of Volk (people) as an organic unity. They did not base their virulent anti-Semitism and racism on anthropological concepts.
  27. ^ Anker, Peder (2021) [2001]. "The Politics of Holism, Ecology, and Human Rights". Imperial Ecology: Environmental Order in the British Empire, 1895–1945. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press. p. 157. doi:10.4159/9780674020221-008. ISBN 9780674020221. S2CID 142173094. The paradoxical character of the politics of holism is the theme of this chapter, which focuses on the mutually shaping relationship between John William Bews, John Phillips, and the South African politician Jan Christian Smuts. Smuts was a promoter of international peace and understanding through the League of Nations, but also a defender of racial suppression and white supremacy in his own country. His politics, I will argue, were fully consistent with his holistic philosophy of science. Smuts was guided by the efforts of ecologists such as Bews and Phillips, who provided him with a day-to-day update of the latest advances in scientific knowledge of natural laws governing Homo sapiens. A substantial part of this chapter will thus return to their research on human ecology to explore the mutual field of inspiration linking them and Smuts. Two aspects of this human ecological research were particularly important: the human gradualism or ecological "succession" of human personalities researched by Bews, and the concept of an ecological biotic community explored by Phillips. Smuts transformed this research into a policy of racial gradualism that respected local ways of life in different (biotic) communities, a policy he tried to morally sanctify and promote as author of the famous 1945 Preamble of the United Nation Charter about human rights.
  28. ^ Scheid, Volker (June 2016). "Chapter 3: Holism, Chinese Medicine, and Systems Ideologies: Rewriting the Past to Imagine the Future". In Whitehead, A.; Woods, A.; Atkinson, S.; Macnaughton, J.; Richards, J. (eds.). The Edinburgh Companion to the Critical Medical Humanities. Vol. 1. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. doi:10.3366/edinburgh/9781474400046.003.0003. ISBN 9781474400046. S2CID 13333626. Bookshelf ID:NBK379258 – via NCBI. Common Roots: Holism Before and During the Interwar Years: This chapter cannot explore in detail the complex entanglements between these different notions of holism, or how they reflect Germany's troubled path towards modernity. My starting point, instead, is the interwar years. By then, holism had become an important resource for people across Europe, the US and beyond – but once again specifically in Germany – for dealing with what Max Weber, in 1918, had famously analysed as a widely felt disenchantment with the modern world. The very word 'holism' (as opposed to ideas or practices designated as such today), as well as related words like 'emergence' or 'organicism', date from this time. It was coined in 1926 by Jan Smuts to describe a perceived tendency of evolutionary processes towards the formation of wholes, granting these wholes a special onto-epistemic significance that parts lack. This was cultural holism now underpinned by evolutionary science and deployed by Smuts not only as a tool for grasping the coming into being of the world but also as an ideological justification for the development of Apartheid in South Africa. In Weimar Germany and then under Nazism, holistic science became a mainstream academic endeavour, once more intermingling cultural politics and serious scientific research. Holistic perspectives also became popular in the interwar years among academics and the wider public throughout the UK and US. In France, it was associated with vitalist philosophies and the emergence of neo-Hippocratic thinking in medicine, manifesting the unease many people felt about the shifts that biomedicine was undergoing at the time.
  29. ^ Upchurch, H. E. (22 December 2021). Cruickshank, Paul; Hummel, Kristina (eds.). "The Iron March Forum and the Evolution of the "Skull Mask" Neo-Fascist Network" (PDF). CTC Sentinel. 14 (10). West Point, New York: Combating Terrorism Center: 27–37. Archived (PDF) from the original on 27 December 2021. Retrieved 19 January 2022. The skull mask network's ideology is a political-religious hybrid based in large part on the work of the philosopher Julius Evola. Evola mixed fascism with "Traditionalism," a syncretic 20th century religious movement that combines Hermetic occultism with the Hindu doctrine of cyclical time and a belief in a now-lost primordial European paganism. Adherents of this blend of doctrines, which can be termed "Traditionalist fascism" believe that a caste-based, racially pure "organic" society will be restored after what they believe to be an ongoing age of corruption, the Kali Yuga, is swept away in an apocalyptic war, and that it is their role to hasten the end of the Kali Yuga by generating chaos and violence.
  30. ^ "biology". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 19 January 2016 <>.
  31. ^ Needham, Joseph (1928). "Organicism in Biology". Journal of Philosophical Studies. 3 (9): 29–40. JSTOR 3745903.
  32. ^ Rosen, R. 1991. "Life Itself: A Comprehensive Inquiry Into the Nature, Origin, and Fabrication of Life". Columbia University Press, New York.
  33. ^ Peterson, Erik (2017). The Life Organic. University of Pittsburgh Press. ISBN 9780822944669.
  34. ^ Reconciling science and religion: the debate in early-twentieth-century Britain, 2001, Peter J. Bowler
  35. ^ A history of molecular biology, Michel Morange, Matthew Cobb, 2000, p. 91
  36. ^ Cambridge scientific minds, Peter Michael Harman, Simon Mitton, 2002, p. 302
  37. ^ Greater than the parts: holism in biomedicine, 1920–1950, Christopher Lawrence, George Weisz, Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 12
  38. ^ The future of DNA, Johannes Wirz, Edith T. Lammerts van Bueren, 1997, p. 87
  39. ^ Kirchhoff, Thomas (June 2020). "The myth of Frederic Clements's mutualistic organicism, or: on the necessity to distinguish different concepts of organicism". History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences. 42 (2): 24. doi:10.1007/s40656-020-00317-y. PMID 32519255. S2CID 219563329.
  40. ^ Jax, Kurt (December 2020). "'Organismic' positions in early German-speaking ecology and its (almost) forgotten dissidents". History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences. 42 (4): 44. doi:10.1007/s40656-020-00328-9. PMC 8755687. PMID 32997274.
  41. ^ Cf. Trepl, Ludwig & Voigt, Annette 2011: The classical holism-reductionism debate in ecology. In: Schwarz, Astrid/ Jax, Kurt (Hg.): Ecology Revisited. Reflecting on Concepts, Advancing Science. Dordrecht, Springer: 45–83.

Further reading