"Organism" is derived from the same word as organ: in Latin, organum ; in Greek, organon, which means tool, and was the title given to Aristotle's logical writings to emphasize the idea of logic as a tool helping the other sciences. The instrumental view lies to some degree within the word organism itself: a system of organs, a whole composed of parts, where each part is a functional tool related to the other parts and the whole.
In an organism, according to the explanation given to it by Aristotle, the whole precedes the parts. The parts are only parts of a whole. Every part is thought as owing its presence to the agency of all the remaining parts, and also as existing for the sake of the others and of the whole.
"In organic being, first the form as a whole strikes us, then its parts and their shape and combination." (Goethe). The whole will change its properties when deprived of a part. A part will have different properties when removed from the whole (Woodger)
According to Kant, thes descriptions might still define an instrument of art. But for an instrument of nature, the part must be an organ producing the other parts. Only under these conditions can such a product be an organized and self-organizing being, and, as such, be called a natural end. For Kant, an organized creature is more than a mere machine, because it has the power to form its parts and to transfer this formative power to the "materials," so that the parts can mutually bring one another forth. (see mechanism / vitalism )(see autopoesis for a contemporary definition of this process of self-production)
Does the organism as a continuing entity in time have some power, by virtue of its specific nature, to maintain itself, and thus to determine a range of possible developmental changes? (This is the question of teleology) In Chapt. 27 of his second edition of the Essay on Human Understanding, John Locke differentiated the mechanical aggregate or "mass" from the organic body, which continues to be the same entity while its constituent particles are replaced.
In modern biology, the "organismic" point of view, as described by Ludwig von Bertalanffy, (Modern Theories of Development, 1933) replaced the teleological conception in drawing attention to the fact that practically all vital processes are so organized that they are directed to the maintenance, production, or restoration of the wholeness of the organism. (P.8) For Bertalanffy, the biological point of view requires organismic ideas in addition to physico-chemical descriptions. Thus, for example, the concept of "function" has an organismic sense: it only has significance within an organism, to the maintenance of which the function is exerted.
The properties of individual organisms that are of primary interest to biologists seem to be of a special sort in that they must be characterised in terms of a form or pattern of organization, a whole with its parts and an "arrangement." D'Arcy Thompson: "We might call the form of an organism an event in space-time, and not merely a configuration in space. (see autopoesis)
Brian Goodwin argues for the fundamental nature of organisms as the primary source of the emergent properties of life revealed in evolution. He argues that although Darwin took organisms to be primary, modern biology thinks of them as complex molecular and information-processing machines controlled by the genes carried within them. Mechanistic biology describes articulated parts and how they fit together to carry out particular functions. Instead, Goodwin argues, organisms should be thought of as a distinct level of emergent biological order achieved through morphogenesis. (See complexity ) Stuart Kaufman suggests that much of the order in organisms may not be the result of selection at all, but the spontaneous order of self-organized systems.
Gestalt psychology maintained that there are experienced objects and relationships that are fundamentally different from collections of parts. These latter they called "and-sums" that form the basis for " machine theories." Gestalt theorists asserted that dynamic structures in experience determine what will be wholes and parts, figure and background, in particular situations.
Organisms have a history, both individually and collectively, and a complete understanding of an organism cannot be separated from its history. "In order to fully understand organisms it is just as necessary to regard them as members in a process of historical development as it is to treat them as physico-chemical systems and organic unities." (von Bertalanffy, p. 15) The fundamental problem of a mechanical synthesis of evolution and development is the contingency of that history. (see open / closed systems) As Driesch (1908) observed, a living organism does not possess its "typical" form throughout its life, rather the form comes into being by a process of development. "So the living form may be called a 'genetic form'...and therefore morphogenesis is the proper and adequate term for the science which deals with the laws of organic form in general." (p.20)
J.H. Woodger, in his article on "the concept of organism" of 1930, published in the Quarterly Review of Biology 5, 1-22, points out the persistent tendency within biology to accept Descartes' view of the organism as some kind of machine, that is, an entity in which the relations between the parts are external or noncommunicative. Woodger describes Descartes as "a pious man who was in the habit of appealing to God to get him out of difficulties," as when the principle of doubt made it impossible for Descartes to distinguish between dream and waking reality. As Woodger notes, the idea of a machine without a transcendent mechanic or "organizing principle" is absurd, and for Descartes, the mechanic is God. "Has anyone observed a machine that was capable of evolution without a mechanic?" Woodger criticized the persistence of the machine model and claims that "Chromatin takes the place of Descarte's God and " controlling mechanic" in biological theories of heredity that follow Weismann's emphasis on the cell nucleus, and in which a "genetic programme" directs individual development.
Georges Canguilhem argues that organisms have a greater range of activity than machines. An organism is "less bound by purposiveness and more open to potentialities. ("Machine and Organism" , Zone 6)
For Ernst Mayr, every organism is unique; each also changes from moment to moment. He believes that is why biology has resisted mathematicization. This echoes Alfred North Whitehead's contention that "the concrete fact which is the organism, must be a complete expression of a real occurrence."
(Critics of the Neo-Darwinian synthesis have pointed out that the uniqueness of the individual is incompatible with the generalizing and comparative methods of biology. )
For the Gestalt psychologist, Kurt Goldstein, any change in one locality of the organism is accompanied by change in other localities (cf local / global) (in medical treatment the effect that the disturbance of one particular organic process has on the organism as a whole is called a syndrome .) For Goldstein, the organism is always affected in its entirety. It displays holistic relations. It is constantly forming new patterns, actualizing itself through the concrete actions of "performance," what Goethe refers to as "Dasein in Tätigkeit" ("Being in actuality.") Goldstein points out that the organism never lives in a completely adequate milieu. There is never a perfect equilibrium between the organism and the world. The equalization process consists of slight catastrophic reactions in a phaselike course. (p. 227) (cf. Prigogine's descriptions of dissipative systems as far-from-equilibrium?) For Goldstein, serious catastrophic reactions are subjectively experienced as shock or anxiety. (see also heimlich / unheimlich)
Theories of the organism require a distinction between inside and outside. (cf. fold)
For Goldstein, when the organism is normal and healthy, its tendency towards self-actualization is acting from within, not out of anxiety, but out of the joy of conquest. (p.239) (cf "internality" in organicism) For Goldstein, the specific complexity of human organization is the potential to behave partitively as well as holistically.
L'organisme est une réalité informée. Metaphors of the organism: history, culture, society, the state...see Gaia for the earth as organism. See adaptation for relations between organisms and environments.