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Organicism refers to the idea that some object or entity shares an important property or quality in common with a living or animate being. It is related to, although remains distinct from, holism, in the sense that organicist doctrines tend to uphold the view that the living creature is an integrated whole containing precisely the range and number of parts necessary for the maintenance of its existence and for its flourishing. Hence, organicism is closely aligned with the concept of "organic unity." Organicism enjoys a long intellectual history in a number of fields of endeavor, including metaphysics and logic, aesthetics, theology, and social and political thought. While perhaps most fully articulated by Western thinkers, organic ideas seem to have a global purchase.

Logic and Metaphysics

Plato's (c. 428348 or 347 b.c.e.) metaphysical theories constitute an important starting place for organicism in the West. In the Philebus, he examined the problem of "how the one can be many, and the many one," that is, the ways in which diversity comports with unity. The Platonic doctrine of the Forms, as presented in the Republic, constituted one such solution. Even when Plato later criticized the failings of his own metaphysical teachings, as in the Theatetus, he remained committed to the principle that the totality is greater than the sum of its parts.

Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.), in turn, rendered organicist doctrine a precept of logic by asserting that the whole is prior to its parts because it is only possible to conceive of the parts qua parts once one has grasped the whole. Hence, Aristotle maintained that the analysis of any organic unity requires a "decompositional" method that commences with the whole and then dissolves it into its constituent parts precisely in order to discover the contribution that each element makes to the totality. One finds applications of this logical method throughout the Aristotelian corpus, including his metaphysics, aesthetics, politics, and natural philosophy.

Organicist metaphysics thus stands in stark contrast to metaphysical atomism. The organicist believes that some inhering forcethe Good, telos unites beings into a single Being and therefore that apparent clashes or disparities between opposites are entirely illusory. The neo-Platonic doctrine of a concordance or coincidence of opposites follows an organicist track, as does Hegelian dialectical logic.


While the idea that a work of art was an organic unity whose very "beauty" was constituted by its totality can be traced back to the ancient Greeks (for example, Aristotle's Poetics ), this idea enjoyed its culmination in the modern world, especially among the Romantics. Johann Gottfried von Herder (17441803) emphasized the idea of an "inner form" that animated a poetic work, a precept that he applied, for instance, to Shakespearean drama. Herder's disciple, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (17491832), soon adapted his insight. The Critique of Judgment (1790) by Immanuel Kant (17241804) developed more broadly and explicitly the analogy between a work of art and a living creature, which was developed by German Romantics such as Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (17751854) and Friedrich von Schlegel (17721829). Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831) declared in his Lectures on Aesthetics (posthumously published in 1835) that genuine art required "self-enclosed completion" to be judged beautiful.

The most influential English critics expounded similar doctrines. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (17721834) proclaimed that the principle of "unity in multiplicity" constituted the essential feature in human imagination. That is, the genius of imagination was to draw together disparate and even contrary elements into a single, unified, seamless whole. William Blake (17571827) seconded this organicist aesthetics, and it was restated regularly by the English as well as Italian schools of neo-Hegelian philosophy of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, represented by figures such as Bernard Bosanquet (18481923) and Benedetto Croce (18661952).

Theology and Cosmology

Many of the world's religions and philosophies have regarded the universe as possessing an organic unity as a macrocosm of a living body. For example, Hinduism, Sufism, the Russian philosophy of All-Unity, and numerous strains of Christianity (especially those of a mystical or neo-Platonic bent) display organicist tendencies by viewing the world as a collection of diverse beings that nevertheless possesses an integral unity. In this way, human beings may connect with God by submitting to the purposes found in the larger order of the cosmos; divinity is found in all things and orders diversity.

Perhaps the most controversial example of organic unity within the frame of religion is the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, that is, the idea that God is Three-in-One. Debates about the trinitarian character of divinity have long raged among theologians, who have been repeatedly challenged to explain how God can be composed of a single substance if He is also three different and distinct beings. (Adherents to more strictly monotheistic doctrines, including Jews and Muslims as well as unitarian Christians, have found this teaching absurd or even polytheistic.) Some version of organicism has afforded trinitarian theologians a way to explain the three-fold yet single nature of God.

Social and Political Thought

Perhaps the most common expression of organicism on a global scale is the analogy between the living body (human or animal) and human community. The so-called metaphor of the body politic may be found in a number of ancient sources, including Asian works such as the Analects of Confucius (551479 b.c.e.) and the Arthashastra of Kautilya (fl. 300 b.c.e.). In all cases, the aim of authors in deploying the analogy is to move beyond a strict hierarchical system of subordination and rule in social relations and to proclaim a principle of "reciprocity." A reciprocal relation connotes a natural self-regulating harmony or balance between the parts of the organism that aims at a higher goal such as justice within, or the material welfare of, the whole. Thus, the common tendency to equate organic theories of society with hierarchy per se is misinformed, although some conceptions of the body politic are stridently hierarchical.

In Western thought, the origins of the body politic can again be traced back to Greece and Rome in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and others. It was during the Latin Middle Ages, however, that the organic metaphor for society became commonplace. In its earliest expression, and perhaps under the influence of Plato's Timaeus, medieval society was divided into a three-fold yet unified functional order of those who fight, those who work, and those who pray. This was later replaced by a more self-consciously organic doctrine, the most influential exponent of which was John of Salisbury (1115 or 11201180). His Policraticus (completed 1159) contained an extensive account of how each of the organs and limbs of the human bodyfrom the head to the toeshad a direct counterpart in society, from the king all the way down to the peasants and artisans. John's depiction of the organic community was widely disseminated and repeated by philosophers and political commentators, although many different implications (including surprisingly egalitarian ones) were drawn from it. In 1406, Christine de Pisan (1364c. 1430) became the earliest author to construct an entire political treatise, Le Livre du corps de policie (The Book of the Body Politic), around the analogy. Christine made a special point of including advice even to the humblest of subjectsartisans and peasantsthat explicitly demonstrated her respect for their contributions to the social whole.

Decline of Organicism

The rise of modern scientific thought and of moral and political individualism profoundly challenged and damaged the organicist outlook. The tendency to consider nature in mechanistic and evolutionary terms devalues the distinctively organic and purposive character of biological creatures, as does the emphasis on the individual as the building block of social institutions. Organicism has been conflated with methodological holism in logic and metaphysics or, worse still, with collectivism and authoritarianism in politics. Likewise, poststructuralism and other twentieth-century movements in criticism disputed the very uniqueness of the work of art as a cultural form distinct from its surroundings. Still, the popular invocation of phrases such as "body politic" suggests that the inclination to conceive of diversified unities in organicist terms has not completely disappeared from the intellectual stage.

See also Logic ; Metaphysics ; Philosophy ; Society .


Abrams, M. H. The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1953.

Constable, Giles. Three Studies in Medieval Religious and Social Thought. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Feher, Michael, with Ramona Naddaff and Nadia Tazi, eds. Fragments for a History of the Human Body. 3 vols. New York: Zone, 1989.

Struve, Tilman. Die Entwicklung der organologischen Staatsauffas-sung im Mittelalter. Stuttgart, Germany: Hiersemann, 1978.

Cary J. Nederman

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