Organicism is the philosophical perspective which views the universe and its parts as organic wholes and - either by analogy or literally - as living organisms. It can be synonymous with holism. Organicism is an important tradition within the history of natural philosophy where it has remained as a vital current alongside reductionism and mechanism, the approaches that have dominated science since the seventeenth century. Plato is among the earliest philosophers to have regarded the universe as an intelligent living being (see Timaeus). Organicism flourished for a period during the era of German romanticism during which time the new science of biology was first defined by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Within modern-day biological sciences organicism is the approach that stresses the organization (particularly the self-organizing properties), rather than the composition, of organisms. John Scott Haldane was the first biologist to use the term to describe his philosophical views in 1917, after which it became well-accepted during the course of the 20th century.
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 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.
A number of biologists in the early to mid-twentieth century embraced organicism. They wished to reject earlier vitalisms but 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.
Gilbert and Sarkar distinguish organicism from holism to avoid what they see as the vitalistic or spiritualistic connotations of holism. 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.
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.
Organicism has some intellectually and politically controversial or suspect associations. "Holism," the doctrine that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, often used synonymously with organicism, or as a broader category under which organicism falls, has been co-opted in recent decades by "holistic medicine" and by New Age Thought. German Nazism appealed to organicist and holistic doctrines, discrediting for many in retrospect, the original organicist doctrines. (See Anne Harrington). Soviet Dialectical Materialism also made appeals to an holistic and organicist approach stemming from Hegel via Karl Marx's co-worker Friedrich Engels, again giving a controversial political association to organicism.
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 (Barberis 2003: 54).
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.
In breathing entities, cells – i.e., the smallest unit of life – were first observed in the 17th century, when the multifaceted equipment microscope was conceived. Before that period, the 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. Further, as puts it, during the early 1900s, the quantum researchers struggled with the same paradigm shift from "the parts to the whole" that culminated into the scholars of organismic biology.
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. 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 twentieth 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.
Theoretical Biology Club
In the early 1930s Joseph Henry Woodger and Joseph Needham, together with Conrad Hal Waddington, John Desmond Bernal, and Dorothy Wrinch, formed the Theoretical Biology Club, to promote the organicist approach to biology. The club was in opposition to mechanism, reductionism and the gene-centric view of evolution. Most of the members were influenced by the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. The club disbanded as the Rockefeller Foundation refused to funding what was needed for them to continue their investigations.