history - an introduction

Organicism is as old as mechanicalism. In these three pages - Anaximander, Atomism and Newton - I tell the story of how both ways of thinking about causality first arose in ancient Greece and then how atomism and mechanicalism came to take over in the scientific Renaissance.

Other pages linked to below consider the more recent developments.

modern organicism

This cannot be the history of a movement as organicism has long existed as the vague other. Mechanical logic has had a proud steadily evolving tradition. As a way of thinking, it arose out of ancient maths and philosophy, got quietly polished up by medieval monks, then became a full-blown revolution with the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Eventually the mechanical way was responsible for everything from the space shuttle to the Furbie. Organicism was only ever the weak voice of protest - the feeling that there had to be something more than simple-minded reductionism.

So through history there have been various schools that were to one extent or another trying to be "organic". There was Naturphilosophie, Holism, Dialectics, Systems Science, Gestalt psychology, Cybernetics, Ecology, Semiotics, Neural Networks, Hierarchy Theory, Complexity Theory.

There was the honour roll of thinkers. Hegel, Spinoza, Peirce, Whitehead, Bergson, Lloyd Morgan, Wundt, Engels, Alexander and Broad, von Bertalanffy, Ashby, Kohler, Hebb, MacKay, Bateson, Schrödinger, Prigogine, Sperry, Spencer Brown, Polanyi, Koestler, Weiss, Maturana. Then in recent times, the people who have have had the most direct influence on me, Kauffman, Grossberg, Rosen, Kelso, Pattee and Salthe.

Most of these schools and scholars were united by a holism and an anti-reductionism. The whole is greater than its parts. Reality is based on meaning as well as information, relationships as well as atoms. Reality is process rather than existence. But while well-intentioned, it was all pretty woolly stuff. It could never match the mechanical view of mainstream thought - the view that made everything seem simple and clear-cut at base.

So what I am attempting to do on this site is boil down organicism to a few hard essentials. I am showing that dichotomies and hierarchies - two things that organicists often end up rejecting as "mechanical"! - are central to the organicist project. I am also drawing attention to the role of vagueness as the natural foundation for any organic development. And lastly I hope to show that organicism is precisely complementary to mechanicalism. It is not either/or but both that we need.

In this history section then, I will be looking mostly to show where earlier organicists were talking about these things - vagueness, dichotomies, hierarchies and epistemology.

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