The Organismic Revolution

In a famous passage of his Critique of Practical Reason, Kant stated that there are two things that fill him with indescribable awe— the starry sky above him and the moral law within him. Kant’s time was the height of German classicism. Within a few decades before and after 1800 the great German poets, writers and philosophers were clustered, and Kant’s philosophy was the culminating synthesis of physical science as it had developed since Galileo and Newton.

Pondering Kant’s statement, we wonder. Among the things he could have found objects of awe, he might well have included a third. Kant did not mention life —in its aspects both as the miraculous organization of the living organism and as the microcosm of mind which comprehends the physical universe.

It is not difficult to understand Kant’s omission. Physics was nearing one of its culminating points to which Kant himself, in his work on the origin of the solar system, had contributed; the moral law had a long history in the Greek and Judeo-Christian tradition. In contrast, the development of the sciences of biology and psychology had scarcely begun.

The 180 years or so since Kant’s writing have seen the Indus trial Revolution and, in the near past, the Atomic Revolution, the Revolution of Automation and the Conquest of Space. But there appears to be a break. The breathtaking technological development and the affluent society, realized at least in some parts of the globe, have left us with anxiety and meaninglessness. Physics, with all its stupendous modern insights, is not the crystal- clear structure Kant believed it to be. Kant’s moral imperative, even if not eroded, would be much too simple for a complex world. Even apart from the menace of physical annihilation, there is the feeling that our world vision and our system of values are breaking down in the advent of Nihilism which Nietzsche prophetically forecast at the turn of our century.

Considered in the light of history, our technology and even our society are based on a physicalistic world picture which found an early synthesis in Kant’s work, Physics is still the paragon of science, the basis of our idea of society and our image of man.

In the meanwhile, however, new sciences have arisen—the life, behavioral, and social sciences. They demand their place in a modern world view, and should be able to contribute to a basic reorientation. Less advertised than the contemporary revolutions in technology but equally pregnant of future possibilities is a revolution based on modern developments in biological and behavioral science. For short, it may be called the Organismic Revolution. Its core is the notion of system—apparently a pale, abstract and empty concept which nevertheless is full of hidden meaning, ferment and explosive potentialities.

The bearing of this new conception can be epitomized in a short statement. The 19th and first half of the 20th century conceived of the world as chaos. Chaos was the oft-quoted blind play of atoms which, in mechanistic and positivistic philosophy, appeared to represent ultimate reality, with life as an accidental product of physical processes, and mind as an epiphenomenon. It was chaos when, in the current theory of evolution, the living world appeared a product of chance, the outcome of random mutations and survival in the mill of natural selection. In the same sense, human personality, in the theories of behaviorism as well as of psychoanalysis, was considered a chance product of nature and nurture, of a mixture of genes and an accidental sequence of events from early childhood to maturity.

Now we are looking for another basic outlook on the world— the world, as organization. Such a conception—if it can be sub- stantiated—would indeed change the basic categories upon which scientific thought rests, and profoundly influence practical attitudes.

This trend is marked by the emergence of a bundle of new disciplines such as cybernetics, information theory, general system theory, theories of games, of decisions, of queuing and others; in practical application, systems analysis, systems engineering, opera- tions research, etc. They are different in basic assumptions, mathe- matical techniques and aims, and they are often unsatisfactory and sometimes contradictory. They agree, however, in being concerned, in one way or the other, with “systems,” “wholes” or “organization”; and in their totality, they herald a new approach.

Source: Bertalanffy Ludwig Von (1969), General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications, George Braziller Inc.; Revised edition.

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