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History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences

, Volume 37, Issue 4, pp 345–381 | Cite as

Neither logical empiricism nor vitalism, but organicism: what the philosophy of biology was

  • Daniel J. NicholsonEmail author
  • Richard Gawne
Original Paper

Abstract

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.

Keywords

History of philosophy of biology Logical empiricism Vitalism Organicism Theoretical biology 

Notes

Acknowledgments

We thank the editor and two anonymous reviewers, as well as members of the Biology Interest Group at the University of Exeter, for extremely helpful comments. Audiences at the third Philosophy of Biology at Madison workshop in Wisconsin and the fifth conference on Integrated History and Philosophy of Science in Vienna provided valuable feedback on presentations of this material. The research undertaken for this paper was supported by grants from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Program (FP7/2007–2013)/ERC Grant Agreement No 324186 (D. J. N.), the Danish-American Fulbright Commission (R. G.), and Duke University (R. G.).

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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for the Study of Life Sciences (Egenis)University of ExeterExeterUK
  2. 2.Center for the Philosophy of BiologyDuke UniversityDurhamUSA

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