Organicists hold that a proper understanding of living organisms, broadly construed, differs fundamentally from the understanding of non-living things.  Organicists typically oppose mechanistic or reductionist views of living things. See: emergence, holism.

Organicism is found in a wide range of views in diverse fields: philosophy, psychology, psychoanalysis, biology, economics, social theory, political theory, economics, logic, architecture, musicology, literature, ethics, environmentalism, etc.  It is found in both Western and Eastern Philosophy.  In the philosophy of mind it often appears under the auspices of holism, emergentism or Gestalt.  

The concept of organism has undergone numerous changes over the course of time (Cheung 2006; Cheung 2010) but a common theme is that organicism is generally opposed to reductionism and mechanism.  One normally asserts organicism with respect to some specific domain X, where X can be some area of metaphysics, psychology, economics, etc.  It would be most unusual to assert organicism about all entities although panpsychists like Whitehead claim that life or mind is a universal feature of all things.  Indeed, despite other similarities, this is one of the differences between organicism normally understood and panpsychism.

One can divide organicists into resemblance-organicists (organicismres) and ontological-organicists (organicismont). S is an organicistres with respect to X’s if S holds that X’s bear a significant resemblance to living organisms, without necessarily holding that X’s actually are living organisms. Thus, S might be an organicist about works of art not because S believes works of art actually are living things but because they believe that they resemble living organisms in some significant sense.  One is an organicistres in a stronger sense if one holds that some very fundamental phenomena X, the cosmos, mind, knowledge, truth, etc., bears some significant similarity to living organisms. Call this organicismf-res

One is an organicistont if one holds not merely that X’s resemble a living organism but that X’s actually are living organisms.   One can also distinguish the cases in which one is an organicistont concerning less and more fundamental phenomena.   One is an organicistsf-ont if one holds that some very fundamental phenomena, such as mind or knowledge are organic in nature.  Note that the proposition that living organisms are organicf-ont in this sense is not a tautology.  A reductionist or mechanistic biologist might hold that living organisms are not organisms in the substantive philosophical sense intended by organicismont

The assertion of organicismont is more significant if one does not normally think of the relevant X’s as living organisms.  Plato’s Timaeus describes the cosmos as a living organism endowed with a soul and intelligence—a view that contrasts with the view in the 18th century that the cosmos is a machine.  Thus, Plato’s Timaeus endorses a species of organicismf-ont.  However, the Timaeus does not suggest that the cosmos is thoroughly organicont.  Indeed, most organicistsont hold that an organismont can have non-organic parts and Plato’s Timaeus appears to hold that the cosmic organism possesses a recalcitrant material or chaotic aspects.  Similarly, Whitehead, inspired by the Timaeus, sometimes speaks of “organic mechanisms”, suggesting that living organisms can have a non-organic dimension.  Smith (2011, 120-130) describes Leibniz as a “panorganicist”, the view that every part of the world is a combination of a soul and an organic body.  However, Leibniz is a difficult case since he also conceives  of animal bodies as “machines within machines to infinity” (Smith, 2011, 58).

Organicistsont differ about what makes something organicont. Substantive vitalists, such as Stahl  and Driesch, hold that an entity is organic if it is animated by a vital entity.  Bergson’s élan vital is often confused with a vital entity but the expression translates roughly as “reaching out” or “life force”  Indeed, Bergson (1944, 48-49) criticizes substantive vitalism. The motivation of many organicists is to find a middle path between substantive vitalism on the one hand and mechanism on the other.  This led to the formulation of functional vitalism, associated with the Montpellier school, which envisages a relation between part and whole in which the parts are viewed as “little lives” that participate in the life of the whole organism, and attitudinal vitalism, found in Goldstein, the view that there is something special about life that makes one adopt a certain vital standpoint towards it (Wolfe, 2011).

In addition to these various species of vitalism, the two main types of accounts are the conceptual and organizational (causal) accounts.  Aristotle holds that the (whole) organism that uses the hand is conceptually prior to the parts of the organism (the hand) in the sense that the whole organism is a prior conceptual unity.  One must understand the parts by reference to the whole, not vice versa.  The organizational accounts divide into two types, those that invoke emergence and those that do not.  On the classical formulation an organism is an emergent whole if it is “greater than the sum of its parts.”  Although many philosophers admit that there are emergent wholes the controversial case is the case in which the organism has causal powers greater than the sum of the causal powers of its parts.  R.W. Sellars also refers to emergent wholes but prefers the “creative synthesis” terminology inherited from Bergson to the wholes-and-parts terminology of classical emergentism.  One might, however, emphasize the unique organization of living organisms without invoking emergence.  Fodor (1974) holds that certain states of organisms supervene on physical states but are irreducible to physical states because those states are defined, not in terms of the materials, but in terms of causal-functional profile.  Since this causal functional profile can be realized in different materials one can deny reducibility (to physics) without invoking any mysterious emergent causes.  Kim (1993) argues that this kind of non-reductivist physicalism is unstable and that one must choose between reductive materialism and emergentism. Sober (1999) argues that the multiple-realizability thesis does not provide an alternative to reductionism.

Thus, although emergentism and holism are often run together they are not identical and it is possible to endorse the one and not the other.  Smuts, the South African Polymath who introduced the term “holism,” defined holism as the tendency in nature to produce wholes that are greater than the sum of the parts through creative (emergent) evolution.  Thus, though holism and emergentism are often found together in the real-world views of philosophers and scientists, there are a plethora of distinctions that need to be made in this connection.

Goldstein view is noteworthy because he takes a holistic view of the organism but differs from other holists in his stress on the intimate relation between the organism and its environment.  Goldstein does not invoke emergence, but, rather, inspired by the “figure-ground principle” of Gestalt-psychology, holds that the whole organism acts as the ground for individual stimulus that forms the figure.  Gestalt-psychologists hold that the figure emerges from the background but not in the causal sense in which emergentists hold that mind emerges from matter.  Goldstein’s view provides a useful alternative to the over-simplified “atomistic” stimulus-response theory of behaviorism.

In summary, the most general thesis of organicism is that certain types of entities X are similar in some significant way to living organisms, the latter seen as irreducible to matter or mechanism.  This general notion can be divided into organicismres, which holds that some class of X’s merely resemble living organisms in important respects without actually being living organisms, and organicismont which holds that X’s really are living organisms. Organicistsont divide into those that hold that the distinguishing category of living organisms is the presence of a substantive vital entity and the sort that do not. “Functional” and “attitudinal” vitalists reformulate vitalism to avoid appeal to this mysterious vital entity.  One can also distinguish conceptual and organizational organicists.   Conceptual organicists hold that living organisms are conceptually prior to their parts.  Organizational organicists divide into the species that hold that organisms are distinguished by the emergence of novel (especially downward-causal) characteristics at a certain level or organization and those that do not.  The non-emergence species is represented by non-reductive physicalism which tries to have both physicalism and irreducibility of the organism to physics by appeal to the multiple-realizability thesis.  

Richard McDonough