Organicist Metaphysics: A Hybrid Interpretation.

By Otto Paans

“Organicism, Of Course,” by timemit

I. Introduction

Before getting underway, I’d like to express my sincere gratitude to Bob and Andreas for their stimulating ideas, comments and reflections. Without their critical, incisive, and interesting ideas, my own thinking would no doubt progress much slower and the entire process would be far more difficult and cumbersome.

Moreover, it’s important to emphasize from the get-go that as a thinkers’ collective, we do not aim to define a single doctrine of organicism about which we all agree. Like the organic process of growth itself, we’re perfectly comfortable with slightly different versions that overlap and diverge in certain respects: let a hundred organicisms bloom. — Or at least four.

II. Four Kinds of Organicism

To lay out my position, I’ll borrow a distinction that Bob Hanna introduced between three types of organicism:

(1) Anthropocentric organicism, broadly Kantian and transcendental idealist in orientation, including an innatist/apriorist component, an existentialist component, and a dignitarian component, which places the “organism’s point of view,” and in particular the standpoint of an essentially embodied “human, all-too-human” rational agent, or finite person, at the center of the overall account of the cosmos.

In particular, the notions of anti-mechanism and epigenesis are crucial for versions of anthropocentric organicism.

(2) Cosmic organicism, broadly Schellingian and Hegelian, and absolute idealist in orientation, in which the organic unity to which organicism refers is the entire universe, which in turn is a self-conscious mega-mind.

Some versions of cosmic organicism have theological overtones, in which every event in the universe is a thought in a cosmic mega-mind that is perhaps God’s mind. Depending on how you read Hegel’s Phenomenology, his Philosophy of History, and the Philosophy of Right, this self-conscious cosmic and possibly divine mega-mind works teleologically towards some sort of final goal, fulfillment, or self-realization, overcoming all dialectical tensions.

(3) Empiricist-pragmatist organicism, expressed in various ways in the work of Charles Sanders Peirce, Henri Bergson, John Dewey, Hans Driesch, Alfred North Whitehead, D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, Charles Hartshorne and — in a more existential vein — Paul Tillich, in which the notions of creativity and processual flow take center stage.

Versions of empiricist-pragmatist organicism tend to take the world “as it is” as a point of departure, as well as minimizing theories about innate structures and/or the a priori in the Kantian sense, and also typically reject the idea of teleology in the sense of final causes or the unfolding of a cosmic and possibly mega-mind.

Versions (2) and (3) share one common feature: they do away with the individual “human, all-too-human” self as an ultimate metaphysical category. In mystical readings of cosmic organicism, the human self and its rational agency disappear altogether in the ultimate progress of the Absolute. In the empiricist-pragmatist version, the self is just one of the many organisms and events that constitute the never-ending processual flow of the universe.

That this thought about the annihilation of the self is not original to organicism can be observed by the long and refined development of various Buddhist traditions, in which the “self” is an illusion that needs to be overcome.

Moreover, the basic philosophical worry that crops up here is that personal responsibility vanishes within the idea of an endless processual flow: if we are all locked in a cosmic dance that unfolds in time, why bother to change anything at all? Indeed, why care in the first place? What end serves our agency in such a never-ending, flowing scheme of things? More specifically, the worry is that the self-annihilating version of organicism leads to passive resignation and/or a withdrawal from the world, as it were, from the rear window of our ultrafast escaping spaceship, even if the world on fire. Let’s call this the Objection from Quietism, directed against cosmic organicism and empiricist-pragmatist organicism alike. The truly horrific scenario captured by this objection is epitomized by the chilling lyrics of Laibach’s 2012 song B Mashina:

Only one day is left
Only one day
We are leaving the others
We’re going away

Today we all steal
Animals we are
Possession is lost

Our souls are from the wild
And wings to reach the sky
Let the sun fall into the ocean,
Let the earth erupt in flame

It is enough to have the strength
And knowledge
To raise our dream machines
Into the sky

Let them sleep who do not know
The final day is here
The very last
And we leave at dawn

But if we take a closer look at anthropocentric organicism we may see some undesirable consequences as well. On one classical pre-Kantian or Leibnizian reading of it, we end up with a modern version of the medieval depiction of the Great Chain of Being: God at the top, and His special creation — the rational human animal — just below him, and then further down the animals and plants etc. So, in this scenario, we end up with a kind of rigid hierarchical ontological structuring of the world, and a denial of creativity and process. On another reading of anthropocentric organicism, in which the rational human animal possesses a central and special, indeed privileged, place, then we open the door to an unconstrained subjective idealism, relativism, or even solipsism in metaphysics and epistemology — Berkeley-without-God, or Fichtean idealism — whereby “man is the measure of all things” as the classic Protagorean phrase has it. Let’s call this the Objection from Self-Centeredness, specifically directed against anthropocentric organicism.

Relatedly, in the domain of ethics, anthropocentric organicism may naturally lead to a second undesirable consequence. If the self is the ultimate reality, why should we not act egoistically? After all, why should we not take it easy on ourselves? Here, of course, we can invoke the classical virtues like altruism, self-sacrifice, honor, empathy etc. But then, the hard-nosed egoist can just reply that these are either useless, sentimental fictions or simply pragmatic rules to prevent us from bashing each other’s skulls in all the time. We may be able to derive a minima moralia from them, but not any kind of robust moral framework. So, the worry is that this type of organicism cannot provide any form of robust morality and consequently a normative structure to evaluate human conduct. Let’s call this the Objection from Egoism, again specifically directed against anthropocentric organicism.

At this point, I will state explicitly that my own position on organicism combines elements of all three standard versions of organicism, and therefore constitutes a distinctively fourth version: let’s call it the hybrid interpretation of organicist metaphysics. More precisely, I think that all three of the objections spelled out above against anthropocentric organicism, cosmic organicism, and empiricist-pragmatist organicism — respectively, the objections from Quietism, Self-Centeredness, and Egoism — can be avoided or dispelled by combining the best that the three versions above have to offer, in combination with re-reading the philosophical traditions that have been handed down to us. This is not philosophical eclecticism: as a theory, the hybrid interpretation of organicist metaphysics has a coherence and unity of its own.

III. In Defense of the Hybrid Interpretation of Organicist Metaphysics

In the rest of this section, then, I will indicate some divergences from the orthodox readings of the philosophers I’ve mentioned, and how those divergences bear on the hybrid interpretation of organicist metaphysics. I can’t go into full detail as to my readings, in part because the scope of this fairly short essay does not allow it, in part because reading is a gerund, hence active and processual in nature, and correspondingly and finally, simply because I’m in the middle of working out these new readings, and the nitty-gritty details have not been fully crystallized yet. However, in the following seven points, I sketch an (admittedly impressionistic) picture of my current thinking.

First, I agree with Bob Hanna’s thesis that the “organism’s point of view” is a tremendously important viewpoint, but at the same time, in formulating an acceptable system of metaphysics, I think it cannot be focused on human animals and other organisms only.

An anthropocentric orientation may lead to a classic and all too narrow anthropocentric conception in which the “rational human animal,” or, on a broader scale, “living being,” is taken as the measure of all things, and so we end up running headlong into the Objection from Egoism. I aim to steer clear of this position. Yes, we are embedded and embodied in a universe that is materially continuous with our mental experiences, so the challenge is to think from different perspectives found in the universe, without falling back into either of the following:

(i) some sort of “God’s eye” viewpoint (i.e. the classical Cartesian scientistic position whereby we become “lords and masters of nature”), or

(ii) the idea of the universe as a mere aggregate or sum total of individual viewpoints that never touch one another (i.e., a kind of dispersed idealism, a variation on Leibnizian windowless monads, or very radical perspectivism that leads straight back to Berkeleyan subjective-idealism-without-God).

Second, by sharp contrast, organicist metaphysics according to the hybrid interpretation, as I see it, should be framed in terms of

(i) the genesis of organisms/entities and ultimately life itself: broadly following Hegel, Gilbert Simondon, and Gilles Deleuze, it emphasizes temporal/material continuity and the genetic account and/or developmental history (Entstehungsgeschichte) in order to interpret the nature of any entities and their relations,

(ii) the enabling and inhibiting conditions that make further development/evolution possible, ultimately providing a systemic map of adjacent (possible) design spaces for creativity, and

(iii) the resulting combinations of genealogical/developmental/inherited traits of organisms/entities with their capacity for (free) agency.

Third, each entity in the universe seems to me perched on this very thin line between being able to affect and to be affected (in some cases this means “to be determined by”). This thought lines up with Nishida’s idea of the universe as a form of self-expression, but equally well with Spinoza’s thought, and his rich and refined monism that combines the mental and the material.

Here, the link with variation (2) and the idea of an “Absolute” comes in. The idea that the Hegelian Absolute (or absolute in any sense) is a closed system derives from a certain way reading Hegel. The fact that Hegel is so unclear about it does not help either. Notably Karl Popper, Gilles Deleuze, and Bertrand Russell have contributed to the image of Hegel as the thinker who postulates an essentially closed “mega-mind” as the ground of the universe, which leads to a standard objection to cosmic organicism.[iii]

As against that, I think the Hegelian notion of the Absolute can be interpreted not just as totalität (totality) but as zusammenhang (relationality). It is a kind of open system that continuously develops within a set of laws within which new creative spaces can be opened. It is perhaps comparable — albeit superficially — with frost patterns forming on a windowpane: the process itself is subject to laws, but within those constraints the development of quite a lot of differences is possible.

In fact, I think many natural processes tend towards the production of what Deleuze called “difference”: the innate propensity to create variation. With certain changes (i.e., the evolution of deliberative reasoning), entire new spaces of creativity open up. On this reading, Hegel’s Absolute and Deleuze’s difference sit comfortably together, although it takes a shift in interpretation to fit them together on one couch. Planning ahead and conceiving future possibilities were enabled by certain evolutionary developments that may or may not have evolved for entirely different reasons, but that nevertheless opened up a new space. In turn, what happens in this new space may overcome, work around or otherwise cancel even the direct effects of the laws that were operational in the first evolutionary space.[iv]

Darwin was therefore right to emphasize spontaneous variation as a core factor that underlies evolution, but he grasped only half of his own idea: the tendency towards variation is a universal process. Even the type of evolution of life (in our case: carbon-based life forms) is one path among many. While Darwin confined the creation of differences to the natural realm and called this principle “evolution,” the same principle might run far deeper than that, all the way into the properties of matter itself. It’s turtles all the way down, man of science!

Fourth, now siding with empiricist-pragmatist organicism, the worry that the entire enterprise of the universe has no (logical) consistency can be dispelled to the degree that there may be no overarching meaning to it all, except the one we give it. The set(s) of laws that make up the universe may develop themselves (this was actually Newton’s idea) but may be fully intelligible someday. Whether the universe realizes some sort of moral dignity, I do not know. If I were to assume that uncritically, I think that I would be sliding back into the idea that the universe has an ultimate goal — i.e. the “bad Hegelian” reading of cosmic organicism. In the absence of any such guarantee, we cannot use this as a philosophical foundation.

The worry that the whole development of the universe has or realizes no goals stems probably from the fear that all this leads towards an unconstrained moral relativism. Thus, it leads us back to the Objection from Egoism. Or, again, phrased differently, if the universe has no goal, why should we care?

However, we can freely choose to be self-legislating agents in the best Kantian sense. Nowhere has a civilization been found that operated entirely on egoistic principles. We should care because we live together, and the prospect of a “nasty, brutish, and short” life is certainly instrumentally worse than the formation of regularly ordered societies. The fact that we can choose to self-legislate opens a pathway for us to make life universally better. The fact that we don’t do it shows that not all of us care about it, or not to the same degree.

Fifth, to complicate things further, I agree with Andreas that we may be somehow condemned to some form of moral relativism, even if there are remarkable similarities between different moral systems everywhere around the globe.[v] However, I think I can provide three responses to that worry.

(1) Even if the universe does not steer itself towards some highest good, I think we can voluntarily set our own goals. As such, it is no problem for me to think of dignity as a representational instead of metaphysical quality. I suppose in practice it makes little difference whether we think that dignity is metaphysical quality and act on it, or whether we represent a quality called “dignity” to ourselves and apply that belief in our dealings with others. In that sense, the notion of dignity is a regulative ideal in the Kantian sense.

(2) There are cases in which something emerges from our creativity that is so universal that it resonates beyond mere taste or preference, changing the way we see the world. These experiences may be shared or individual, but they transcend our everyday experience massively. All human persons have this capacity for the “transcendent,” but it takes various forms, depending on culture and personal disposition. However, the capacity to experience it is universal, and may be triggered by singular events, artworks, but broadly insights that are not confined to a single culture.

(3) What seems also universal to me is our capacities for altruism and empathy. This also, we find across all cultures. It comes with an attached burden, however: just as universal is our capacity for destruction, cruelty, and egoism. “Human, all too human” is the universal condition in which we find ourselves. To deal with this predicament, we use free agency to choose self-legislation over egoism. It should be said, however, that the reverse is equally true: we have just as many times chosen cruelty over caring, destruction over caring and unbridled egoistic hedonism over self-restraint.

Sixth, as to the worry that the broadly self-annihilating or Buddhist version of cosmic organicism is too quietist, I do think this is certainly a danger. Suppose that in the “cosmic dance” of the universe, you happen to run into my dagger — this would be all too convenient for me, and it would relieve me of all responsibility as an agent, especially when I also happened to view you as an enemy.

In its superficial version, this type of thought is thus the denial of personal responsibility, and of caring for others in general. However, in my reading of the Kyoto school philosophers, like Nishida, Tanabe, and Nishitani, I’ve noticed that Buddhism in the serious sense bears little resemblance to the utterly watered-down version that we are unfortunately presented with in the West, especially “Buddhism” in the diluted, goody two-shoes sense that’s presented as an antidote to burn-out for middle-class managers who habitually spend most of their time causing burn-outs in their employees.

Overcoming the self seems to be hard work, after all; but it’s an insight that can be found in many religions. As I see it, it’s on a par with overcoming egoism, fighting one’s worst impulses, seeing the finitude of our existence — all tenets of thought that sit well with Kantianism and existentialism. It’s phrased in a different (Buddhist) terminology, but it’s not fundamentally different from — let’s say — active Christianity or secular humanism. The idea is simply that overcoming the self is finding the true self, or, as Nietzsche put it in Ecce Homo: to become what one is. The Buddhist would probably say “to become what one truly is,” because the self is essentially something that must be painstakingly laid bare, the result that subsists once everything superficial has been stripped away by rigorous moral practice and moral life, but that is equally created through relentless discipline.

Seventh and finally, with the notion of moral practice and moral life, we find the connection between organicism and morality. To practice in a moral way, and to live morally is to be active, to develop, and to grow, and then to repose in order to grow again. From a Lebensphilosophie (philosophy of living) we move to a Strebensphilosophie (philosophy of striving).[vi] And that seems to me the core of any type of organicism, whether anthropocentric, cosmic, or empiricist-pragmatic, and especially the core of my hybrid interpretation of organicist metaphysics. We cannot engage in practices and live without developing, and therefore we must strive in order to realize our goal. And this is an existential predicament that makes us perilously balance above the chasm of monstrosity, perched on a rope bridge of morality.


[ii] R. Hanna and O. Paans, “This is the Way the World Ends: A Philosophy of Civilization Since 1900, and A Philosophy of the Future”, Cosmos & History 16.2 (2020): 1–58, available online at URL = <>.

[iii] Popper’s misrepresentation of Hegel is now notorious, as is his complete misunderstanding of Hegel’s dialectic. The same can be said with regard to Russell’s utterly oversimplified depiction of Hegel, even despite his starting out as a British neo-Hegelian. Deleuze represents a different case: on the one hand, his depiction of Hegel depicts him as a boring, dichotomous thinker; but on the other hand, his critique of the dialectic and his subsequent replacement of the “philosophy of representation” with the “philosophy of difference” makes a fundamental point against Hegel, although it does so by representing him as something he is not.

[iv] For example, if rational human animals created an advanced AI system that rivals or surpasses the human mind, this invention certainly extends beyond what the evolutionary process had projected when the primate mind evolved. But it does not overcome the laws of evolution itself, even it might work against them. For if the AI system were to be shut down — e.g., if its power source is accidentally or even intentionally cut off — then the laws of evolution will resume their natural course.

[v] Andreas made this good point in laying out his position in an earlier exchange.

[vi] The term was introduced by Fichte in his 1794/1795 Grundlage der gesamte Wissenschaftslehre. See, e.g., F. Beiser, “Enlightenment and Idealism,” in K Ameriks, (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to German Idealism (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005): 18–36, at p. 30. But the same concept is equally operative in the philosophies of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Monday 16 November 2020

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