[W]henever one does decide to publish, it is necessary to reckon with the great ‘paper memory of mankind’, the conserved experience of other workers who have loved and investigated the same things. It then becomes a duty to study the ‘literature of the subject’, if only for the purpose of bringing the new work into intelligible, organic relation with the old. Failure to do this may be justly interpreted as carelessness, sloth, ignorance or conceit. — (Wheeler 1906, p. 349).
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.
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This is reflected, for instance, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s main entry on the subject (Griffiths 2014), in which work completed before the last third of the twentieth century is summarily discussed under the heading ‘Pre-history of Philosophy of Biology’.
We focus on Wolters’ theses, not because we regard them as necessary and sufficient criteria for determining whether a particular individual was a logical empiricist, but because they effectively encapsulate the caricaturized view of logical empiricism that has so frequently been lambasted by modern philosophers of science. We are well aware that logical empiricism was actually a highly heterogeneous movement, and that there were probably no doctrines that were upheld by all of its members (see, e.g., Creath 2014), but this does not really matter in the present context. Our only aim here is to show that early work in the philosophy of biology does not instantiate the flaws and prejudices that have come to be associated (rightly or wrongly) with the logical empiricist program (cf. Sarkar under review).
In one of his last works, he wrote: “You, the reader, may wonder about that old-fashioned term ‘natural philosophy’ in the title of this essay. Is it not the hallmark of modern science that it got rid of obsolete philosophy? Have modern positivists—including the Vienna School where I myself started more than 40 years ago—worked in vain and am I going to reinvoke the ghosts of metaphysics? […] A slightly mischievous answer would be that science and philosophy never got rid of metaphysics and that the metaphysics of positivism is a particularly naïve and superficial one” (von Bertalanffy 1967, p. 55).
This should not be taken to imply that there is nothing of value in Mainx’s book. Our point is simply that, at the time of its publication, Mainx’s Foundations of Biology had very little impact. For a detailed analysis of the book’s contents, see Sarkar (under review).
An interesting exception is Julian Huxley, who in the preface to The Individual in the Animal Kingdom expressed his debt to Bergson: “It will easily be seen how much I owe to M. Bergson, who, whether one agrees or no with his views, has given a stimulus (most valuable gift of all) to Biology and Philosophy alike” (Huxley 1912, pp. vii–viii).
For example, Ernest Nagel began his 1951 paper on biology by remarking that “[v]italism of the substantival type sponsored by Driesch and other biologists during the preceding and early part of the present century is now a dead issue in the philosophy of biology” (Nagel 1951, p. 327). Instead, Nagel concerned himself with what was the dominant theme at the time, namely the adequacy and applicability of the organicist conception of life. Morton Beckner, who was Nagel’s student, followed this trend in The Biological Way of Thought (1959), which presented a detailed reappraisal—and defence—of organicism. Beckner’s book also addressed other topics (such as the nature of selection, the logic of taxonomic classification, and functional analysis) that would later be picked up with a vengeance by the new generation of philosophers of biology that went on to establish the discipline in the 1970s and beyond.
Despite its importance in the historical development of modern biological thought, organicism has received surprisingly little attention from philosophers and biologists, and even from historians of science. For decades, the only detailed study of organicism available was Donna Haraway’s Crystals, Fabrics, and Fields: Metaphors of Organicism in Twentieth-Century Developmental Biology (1976), which, despite its restricted scope, remains the standard reference work on the subject. More recently, Maurizio Esposito’s Romantic Biology, 1890–1945 (2013a) has provided a far more expansive survey of the organicist movement, but the impressive breadth of this study often comes at the expense of depth, and the author’s quest to yoke organicism to the Romantic tradition in German biology—seemingly at all costs—is an unwelcome distraction. Aside from these book-length treatments, some noteworthy papers have examined aspects of the organicist movement, including Beckner (1967), Hein (1969), Abir-Am (1987, 1991), Smocovitis (1992), Gilbert and Sarkar (2000), Allen (2005), Etxeberria and Umerez (2006), Bruce (2014), and Peterson (2014).
At the beginning of his Silliman Lectures at Yale University, published as Organism and Environment as Illustrated by the Physiology of Breathing, Haldane wrote: “It has been suggested to me that if a convenient label is needed for the doctrine upheld in these lectures the word ‘organicism’ might be employed” (Haldane 1917, p. 3).
In relation to his coining of ‘organismalism’, Ritter remarked: “On behalf of this unauthorized and rather bungling word, I make no plea. […] My only concern is for the idea. If that survives and flourishes I shall be satisfied, no matter under what name it becomes known” (Ritter 1919a, pp. 28–29).
As a final note on terminology, it is worth pointing out that the term ‘holism’ is sometimes used interchangeably with ‘organicism’ in the secondary literature. We think this is unhelpful, as it does violence to the etymology of these terms, and introduces unnecessary ambiguities. The word ‘holism’ was coined by Jan Smuts in his book Holism and Evolution (1926), and the views he expounds in that volume do not correspond to those of the organicists. Smuts’ holism actually belongs to another school of thought of the same period, emergent evolutionism, which we will briefly discuss at the end of this section.
This did not mean, however, that the gene concept should be dispensed with altogether, as it could still provide a useful service as a heuristic device in the explanation of development. What was important was to realize that “[t]he gene is a word, which enables a complicated happening to be briefly denominated” (Dembowski, quoted in Russell 1930, p. 67). As Russell explained, “[s]o long as the gene is regarded as a purely hypothetical concept invented for the specific purpose of explaining certain complicated facts of inheritance, no great harm is done. But when it is treated as a real existent body all [sorts of] factitious and gratuitous complications […] tend to set in” (Russell, p. 157; see also Woodger 1929a, p. 370).
In fact, Weiss was, according to Bertalanffy, one of the first to introduce the concept of ‘system’ into biology in 1924 (Koestler and Smythies 1969, p. 47). But although Weiss developed his organicist outlook early on in his career (see Weiss 1925, 1926), in the ensuing decades he remained reticent to discuss his philosophical views in his publications, preferring instead to centre his attention on his empirical investigations (there are, of course, exceptions, such as Weiss 1940). As Weiss himself would later recount, for many years he chose to restrict his role to that of an “experimental explorer, interpreter, and integrator, for whom the ‘system’ concept remained simply a silent intellectual guide and helper in the conceptual ordering of experience” (Weiss 1977, p. 18). It was only toward the end of his career, from the 1960s onwards, that he resumed work on publically propounding his organicism (by then in the context of the burgeoning reductionistic claims of molecular biology). This is why many of his philosophical papers date from this period, despite the fact that most of the ideas that underlie them had been formulated almost half a century earlier.
The organicists took this to be a self-evident assertion. As Woodger rhetorically remarked, “Is it not a bare analytical judgment (in the Kantian sense) to say that organisms are organized? Is not organization the very back-bone of the concept [of the] organism?” (Woodger 1929a, p. 290).
In private correspondence with Woodger, Needham wrote: “Your letter made me feel what I always feel about Ludwig [von] Bertalanffy, namely, that in all probability we could come to agreement after a good verbal discussion—a feeling I never have, for instance, about E. S. Russell” (Needham to Woodger, 12th October 1929, Needham papers, Cambridge University Library).
The organicists noted, however, that not all parts belong to an organism’s hierarchy simply by virtue of being parts. Woodger made this point by distinguishing between an organism’s ‘components’ and its ‘constituents’ (Woodger 1930b, p. 457). Components are functionally defined parts of the spatial hierarchy (e.g. the nucleus is a component of a cell) whereas constituents are either parts which lie outside the hierarchical order (e.g. the extracellular matrix) or arbitrary parts taken without regard to the hierarchical order (e.g. a beef steak).
The similarity between these two thinkers was noticed by Roy Wood Sellars in his Evolutionary Naturalism, where he observed that “Haldane and Ritter, who would not call themselves vitalists, […] challenge the adequacy of physics and chemistry, as these are ordinarily understood, as means of explaining biological processes” (Sellars 1922, p. 325).
Note that the organicists’ usage of the term ‘theoretical biology’ is quite far removed from the way it is understood today, and corresponds more closely to our modern conception of philosophy of biology. This is because in the early decades of the twentieth century no clear distinction existed between ‘theoretical’ and ‘philosophical’ examinations of biology. For the organicists, the two always went together—the task of systematizing biological knowledge through an analysis of its conceptual foundations was simultaneously a theoretical and a philosophical undertaking. It was only later (particularly after the Second World War) that the term ‘theoretical biology’ lost its philosophical undertones and began to be used almost exclusively in the context of the mathematical modelling of biological processes.
There were, of course, supporters of organicism in other countries, such as France and Italy, but the intellectual movement was primarily developed by authors belonging to these three groups.
For example, Haldane's The Philosophical Basis of Biology included a supplement with detailed, and mostly favourable, reviews of Woodger’s Biological Principles and Russell’s The Interpretation of Development and Heredity. Haldane concluded his review by noting that “[t]he books of Mr. Woodger and Dr. Russell represent critical and constructive efforts to refashion biology on a more secure theoretical basis” (Haldane 1931, p. 165).
The eminent philosopher Ernst Cassirer was also based in Hamburg during the same period. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that he wrote a monograph partly devoted to the philosophy of biology (i.e. Cassirer 1950) in which the influence of organicist ideas is quite apparent.
For a detailed examination of American organicism, see Esposito (2013a, chaps. 5 and 6).
It is rather disconcerting that Woodger, Needham, and Bertalanffy are now remembered for their later pursuits, rather than for the instrumental role they each played in establishing an organicist philosophy of biology during the interwar years. Woodger is known—and derided—for his axiomatic work, but his incisive non-formal examinations of biology are almost never discussed (see Nicholson and Gawne 2014). Needham has become renowned for his encyclopedic multi-volume work Science and Civilisation in China, whilst his extensive philosophical writings (not to mention his scientific contributions) have been entirely forgotten. And Bertalanffy is often acclaimed as one of the founding fathers of systems theory, yet he is seldom recognized as the pioneering theoretical biologist and philosopher of biology that he was. We believe that the skewed legacy of these three authors (coupled with the unfortunate fact that Haldane’s legacy has been totally eclipsed by that of his more famous son, J. B. S. Haldane) helps explain the almost complete erasure of organicist philosophy of biology from the collective memory.
The organicists’ reaction to the views of the emergent evolutionists varied considerably. Some, like Ritter and Russell, were broadly sympathetic (Ritter and Bailey 1928, pp. 333–334; Russell 1930, p. 179). Others, like Woodger and Haldane, were mostly critical (Woodger 1929a, pp. 105–110; Haldane 1931, pp. 38–39). Needham and Bertalanffy, for their part, adopted a neutral stance (Needham 1928a, pp. 33–35; von Bertalanffy 1933, p. 52).
This congress was also attended by Ritter, Haldane, Russell, Woodger, and Needham (Ritter 1933; see also Abir-Am 1985). In fact, Needham subsequently became quite enamored with dialectical materialism, admitting in his Order and Life that “the standpoint which follows from its fundamental propositions is closely similar” to his own organicism (Needham 1936, p. 45). A few years later, Needham would write the foreword to the English translation of Marcel Prenant’s Biology and Marxism (1938).
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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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Nicholson, D.J., Gawne, R. Neither logical empiricism nor vitalism, but organicism: what the philosophy of biology was. HPLS 37, 345–381 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40656-015-0085-7
- History of philosophy of biology
- Logical empiricism
- Theoretical biology