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Neither Logical Empiricism nor Vitalism, but Organicism: What the Philosophy of Biology Was [W]henever one does decide to publish, it is necessary to reckon with the great ‘paper memory of mankind’, the conserved experience of other workers who have loved and investigated the same things. It then becomes a duty to study the ‘literature of the subject’, if only for the purpose of bringing the new work into intelligible, organic relation with the old. Failure to do this may be justly interpreted as carelessness, sloth, ignorance or conceit. — Wheeler (1906: 349)

Abstract The philosophy of biology is considered a young field of research, having only emerged in the last third of the twentieth century. Prior to that, the only authors who engaged philosophically with biology were either logical empiricists who tried to impose the logical and epistemological gold standards of the physical sciences onto biology, or vitalists who invoked mystical agencies to protect biology from the threat of physicochemical reduction. Both of these schools failed to seriously engage with the science they professed to be reflecting on and as a result philosophy of biology languished in a state of futility until the 1970s, when a new generation of philosophers began to focus on problems internal to biology, leading to the consolidation of the field. In this paper we challenge this well-entrenched narrative of the history of philosophy of biology. We do this by suggesting that the most important tradition within early philosophy of biology—the organicist school that flourished in the interwar period—had no direct connection to either logical empiricism or vitalism. We also demonstrate the relevance of the organicist literature for the contemporary discourse in order to cast doubt on the claim that little or nothing of value was produced during the first two thirds of the twentieth century.

1. Introduction The philosophy of biology today is a lively and well-established academic discipline. It boasts its own specialist journals, textbooks, anthologies, book series, and professional organizations. In addition to being a thriving field of philosophical research, philosophy of biology matters to biology, and this is something that is rightly celebrated. By all accounts, the discipline is in excellent shape, but according to the standard account of the history of the field, this is a very recent state of affairs. It is generally believed that philosophy of biology as a distinct intellectual discourse only really emerged in the last third of the twentieth century with the pioneering work of David Hull (1965; 1967; 1969; 1972), Michael Ruse (1969; 1970; 1971a; 1971b), Kenneth Schaffner (1967; 1969a; 1969b; 1974), and William Wimsatt (1970; 1972a; 1972b; 1974). Hull and Ruse tend to be given special credit for the formation of the discipline due to the publication of two seminal textbooks—The Philosophy of Biology (Ruse 1973) and Philosophy of Biological Science (Hull 1974)—which focused on a core set of problems and thereby set the agenda for subsequent philosophical discussions of biology. From the 1970s onwards the field grew rapidly, becoming consolidated as an academic discipline in the 1980s and 1990s, and ultimately developing into the vigorous area of research that it is today. Over the years, as philosophy of biology has matured, both Hull and Ruse have often decried the fact that before they began to work in the field, philosophers had refused to pay any attention to biology. Already in their respective textbooks, Ruse asserted that “the author of a book on the philosophy of biology need offer no excuse for the subject he has chosen, since few areas of philosophy have been so neglected in the past 50 years” (Ruse 1973: 9), while Hull noted that his 1

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book would “take a closer look at that area of science which has been passed over in the rapid extrapolation from physics to the social sciences” (Hull 1974: 6). Much later, Hull recalled that when he received his PhD in 1964, “quite a bit had been written on the history of biology but very little on anything that might be termed the philosophy of biology” (Hull 1994: 375). Ruse has been even more critical of the state of philosophy of biology in those days, stating that “the situation was—to put it mildly—just plain awful” (Ruse 1993: 478). Elsewhere, he writes: Only those who were there at the time—around the late 1960s, early 1970s—can know just how bad was much that passed then for the philosophy of biology. Its major merit was that there was so little of it. It was dreadful stuff, marked by an incredibly thin knowledge of biology, and motivated by factors into which even now it is best not to inquire too deeply but if you suspected some kind of neo-vitalist world picture you would not be too far wrong (Ruse 2000: 467) It is therefore not surprising that Hull and Ruse have come to regard themselves as the creators of modern philosophy of biology. In their co-authored preface to the Cambridge Companion to the Philosophy of Biology, they explain that they have not contributed chapters to the volume themselves because “[i]t is the field or discipline of the philosophy of biology that is our main creation, and inasmuch as this volume shows that we have succeeded, it is because each of us knows how much we owe to the other” (Hull and Ruse 2007: xxvii). Similarly, in the Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Biology, Ruse invites Hull to write the first chapter, entitled ‘The History of the Philosophy of Biology’, which after a brief prefatory discussion of Aristotle and Darwin takes the form of autobiographical reminiscences. In the introduction to that volume, Ruse informs the reader that “David Hull is the father of modern studies of biology from a philosophical viewpoint […] having been himself responsible for many of the more significant discoveries and moves forward” (Ruse 2008: 3-4). Ruse has also written of his own role in the history of the field that “I can pride myself on being one of the founders of contemporary philosophy of biology” (Ruse 2006: 37). Of course, Hull and Ruse have not been alone in claiming that the philosophy of biology is a very young discipline. A decade after Ruse and Hull’s influential textbooks, Alexander Rosenberg wrote another textbook on philosophy of biology (Rosenberg 1985) intended to update Ruse and Hull’s introductions to the field. Like Ruse and Hull, Rosenberg lamented the fact that until recently philosophical discussions of biology had been “usually an afterthought to discussions of physics” (ibid.: 6-7). It is not difficult to find similar claims in the writings of many other philosophers of biology, usually in the preface or introduction of monographs and edited volumes (e.g. Sober 1984: 6-7; Brandon 1996: xii–xiii; Kitcher 2003: xv; Matthen and Stephens 2007: xi–xii). As a result, the belief that philosophy of biology prior to the 1970s “really did not exist as a subject” (Ruse 1979: 785) has become widely accepted and is now simply taken for granted. Recently, however, the received view of the history of the field has come under scrutiny. In 2007 Jason Byron published the results of a bibliometric survey which revealed that nearly one tenth of all articles published in the first philosophy of science journals—Erkenntnis, Philosophy of Science, Synthese, and The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science—between 1930 and 1959 were devoted to topics in philosophy of biology. Even though Byron’s survey was restricted to four periodicals, and did not consider monographs or anthologies published during the same period, his “first-pass, rough-grain analysis of some relevant evidence” (Byron 2007: 413) sufficed to show that, contrary to what one might have expected, there was in fact a steady stream of publications on philosophy of biology in all the major philosophy of science journals for many decades prior to what is now regarded as the origin of the discipline. 2

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Still, it is easy to downplay the significance of Byron’s findings, as no contemporary philosopher of biology has ever suggested that nothing was written on the subject in the decades prior to its professionalization. What is generally agreed on, however, is that this early work was misguided or unproductive, and does not stand in an ancestral relation to the contemporary discourse.1 It is often remarked that what distinguished the philosophy of biology literature that began to appear in the late 1960s and early 1970s was that it took biology seriously. Unlike their immediate predecessors, philosophers who started working on biology at this time grappled with real theoretical and conceptual problems raised by empirical research rather than resorting to simplistic, textbook presentations of biological arguments in order to advance prior philosophical agendas. In this respect, the rise of modern philosophy of biology tends to be tied to the downfall of logical empiricism. This sentiment is crystallized in the following exchange by Elliott Sober, Alexander Rosenberg, and Werner Callebaut: Sober: The positivists took as one of their main paradigms of a scientific theory Einstein’s theory of relativity, and their philosophical problems and the views that they developed about them were often keyed to that single theory. To a lesser degree they considered quantum mechanics. But issues in biology did not interest them very much… Rosenberg: Well, if you look at the Encyclopedia of Unified Science, even back in the thirties and forties there were articles on economics and biology and other disciplines. Callebaut: But in retrospect, we can say it was basically a philosophy of physics (of a rather peculiar kind). The ‘application’ of logical empiricist views to, say, biology—I’m thinking of the work of someone like Woodger—now makes us smile—or cry. The thing may have been intended as a general theory, but the methodology that was put forward… Rosenberg: …was drawn exclusively from physics… Callebaut: …and other fields had to fit that model. You agree with that. So a fundamental problem of older work in philosophy of biology was that to the extent it was done by people working in the positivist tradition, like Woodger, they had a very difficult time. Rosenberg: Yes, absolutely. Sober: What has happened since the demise of positivism is that philosophers have gotten interested in the details of particular scientific theories. In the 1930s, philosophers of physics were interested in relativity theory and quantum theory and that has continued to the present. Only more recently have philosophers of biology really gotten into the details of evolutionary theory and other theories in biology […] The demise of positivism allowed this proliferation to occur, because it was no longer necessarily a given that all scientific theories were the same; there could be problems internal to a scientific theory that might be of philosophical interest. (Callebaut 1993: 73-74) Thus, the delayed development of philosophy of biology is attributable to the erstwhile predominance of logical empiricism in the philosophy of science. The logical empiricists devoted most of their intellectual efforts to analysing the logical structure of (a few) physical 1

This is exemplified in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy’s main entry on the subject, in which work completed prior to the 1960s is summarily discussed under the heading ‘Pre-History of Philosophy of Biology’ (Griffiths 2008).

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theories, and cared little about the so-called ‘special sciences’ like biology. Their philosophy of science was really a philosophy of ‘rationally reconstructed’ physics disguised as general philosophy of science. To the extent that they engaged with biology at all, it was only in misguided attempts to make biological theories more like their physical counterparts by forcibly fitting them into rigorous deductive systems. The only other significant body of work in philosophy of biology in the early twentieth century was produced by vitalist thinkers who sought to salvage the autonomy of biology from the threat of physicochemical reduction by invoking obscure supernatural agencies acting on organisms. Thus, “for much of the earlier part of the twentieth century, philosophy of biology was in a sorry state” (Takacs and Ruse 2013: 6). This is because biology was either forced into an idealized epistemological framework derived from physics, or it was pushed out from the domain of science altogether. The received view of what the philosophy of biology consisted of during the first two thirds of the twentieth century is nicely encapsulated in the following excerpt by Ruse, taken from the introduction of his book The Philosophy of Biology Today: [P]hilosophers of science in the twentieth century have focused mainly on the physical sciences, and any spare effort has tended to be directed toward the social sciences. What little attention has been paid to biology has been generally directed to one extreme or another. At one end of the spectrum we have those who were overly impressed by the turnof-the-century formalisms of the logicians and mathematicians, and who wanted to do likewise for biology. Since they—especially their leader J. H. Woodger—were simultaneously empiricists of the most naively dogmatic kind, their efforts tended to go unread. At the other end of the spectrum we have those who feared and loathed materialism, and who were determined to prove that an understanding of organisms demands reference to vital forces or spirits—elans vitaux or entelechies—forever beyond the grasp of conventional science. (Ruse 1988: 1-2) In this paper, we shall argue that the standard account of what the philosophy of biology was prior to the 1970s, as exemplified by Ruse in this quote, is almost entirely false. As Byron (2007) anticipated in his bibliographic analysis, a completely new account of the development of the philosophy of biology in the twentieth century is needed. In earlier work (Nicholson and Gawne 2014) we have taken a first step towards the articulation of such an account by showing that the most maligned figure of early philosophy of biology, J. H. Woodger, has been grossly misunderstood by contemporary authors. This paper takes a further step in the same direction by attempting to provide an alternative characterization of the state of play in the philosophy of biology prior to its professionalization at the hands of Hull, Ruse, and others. We will make our case by dismantling Ruse’s claims in the above quote. Through a combination of historical and philosophical analysis we will show that the vast majority of early philosophers of biology were not committed to either logical empiricism or vitalism. Instead, we will argue that the most important intellectual movement in early philosophy of biology was the organicist school that flourished in Europe and the United States in the decades between the two world wars. We will claim, moreover, that organicist philosophy of biology constituted a self-contained academic discourse with a core set of topics and problems that were addressed by authors who read, discussed, and responded to one another’s work. In an important sense, the philosophy of biology was already a ‘discipline’ before Hull and Ruse were even born. We will also refute the claim that logical empiricism had to collapse before modern philosophy of biology could rise by showing that logical empiricism never suppressed philosophy of biology in the first place. The roots of the philosophy of biology must be traced back to biology itself, not to any movement in the philosophy of science. Finally, we will offer a compelling reason for interesting philosophers in early philosophy of biology, namely that there is a far greater degree of continuity between the 4

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old and the new literature—both in terms of content and in hitherto acknowledged by contemporary scholars. Rethinking of biology in the twentieth century does not only serve to (important though as this is). As we will see, looking back insights and directions for constructing the field’s future.

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terms of method—that has been the emergence of the philosophy set the historical record straight at the field’s past also provides

2. Early Philosophy of Biology and Logical Empiricism Because the advent of contemporary philosophy of biology is correlated with the demise of logical empiricism, associating the earlier literature in the field with logical empiricism provides a convenient excuse for ignoring it. In this way, early philosophy of biology gets dismissed as futile and unproductive because it is identified with a dated and discredited research program. An illustrative example of this argumentative strategy is a paper by Gereon Wolters, which sets out to establish that early work in the philosophy of biology was flawed because it was dominated by the misguided ideological preoccupations of logical empiricism. According to Wolters, ‘Antimetaphysics’, ‘reduction’, [and] ‘physics as model science’ are key concepts with which logical empiricism set the stage for more than three decades of stagnation in the philosophy of biology. Antimetaphysical needs […] were imposed on philosophy of biology in the form of reductionism and in taking physics as [a] model for biological science. Logical empiricism envisaged through its normative conception of a reductionist biology a biological science that had only [a] slight resemblance to the one actually practised by biologists. Preconceived ideas about what biology ought to be prevented the unprejudiced analysis of what biology in reality was. (Wolters 1999: 195) In what follows we will reject the alleged connection between early philosophy of biology and logical empiricism by showing that the philosophers of biology most often associated with the Vienna Circle, namely Joseph Henry Woodger and Ludwig von Bertalanffy, did not endorse any of the three logical empiricist theses singled out by Wolters. Neither of them showed an unabashed disdain for metaphysics, both of them rejected the view that biological explanations are reducible to physical explanations, and neither believed that physics is the ideal science which biology should model itself after. Let us start with Woodger. Whenever the terms ‘logical empiricism’ and ‘philosophy of biology’ are uttered in the same sentence, a reference to Woodger almost inevitably follows. “To be sure”, says historian Joe Cain (2000: 537), “Woodger was the scholar […] working to apply logical positivism to the biological sciences”. In particular, it is frequently remarked that Woodger “tried to force biological theories into the logical-empiricist deductive corset” (Callebaut 2005: 104; see also Roll-Hansen 1984; Rosenberg 1985; Thompson 1989; and Sarkar 1996). Indeed, dismissals of early philosophy of biology often consist of brief allusions to the futility and wrongheadedness of Woodger’s enterprise, as we have already seen. In a previous paper, we provided a systematic overview of Woodger’s oeuvre in order to demonstrate that the current consensus regarding his work and influence is deeply flawed (Nicholson and Gawne 2014). Here, we will focus specifically on Woodger’s stance concerning the three theses outlined by Wolters above. Although it is true that Woodger maintained close personal ties with some of the most prominent logical empiricists (such as Otto Neurath and Rudolf Carnap), his intellectual relationship to the movement is complex, and can be difficult to characterize. It is abundantly clear, however, that he was not the overzealous devotee of the movement that modern critics have made him out to be. Consequently, as we will see, it is quite inappropriate to cite his work as a paragon of ‘logical empiricist philosophy of biology’. 5

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It is generally believed that logical empiricists accepted a strong version of the verificationist criterion of meaning. This commitment supposedly prompted them to reject all metaphysical statements as meaningless, and accordingly, to maintain that all traces of metaphysics should be purged from the sciences. Leaving aside the question of whether it really is the case that all logical empiricists held this view, what is clear is that Woodger displayed an attitude toward metaphysics that is completely at odds with such a position. For a start, Woodger’s magnum opus, Biological Principles, was explicitly conceived as a concerted attempt to use Alfred North Whitehead’s new metaphysics of nature to develop an organicist philosophy of biology. Moreover, Woodger openly claims in that book that there are no absolute standards by which a particular statement can be judged to be metaphysical or scientific in character. He notes that biologists often refer to a claim as ‘metaphysics’ simply because they disagree with it, whereas claims that they find congenial to their views are classified as ‘science’.2 Woodger also explicitly denies that science should attempt to rid itself of metaphysics, arguing instead that the two fields are “mutually complementary” (Woodger 1929a: 24). As to the question of whether it is possible to purge metaphysical statements from science, Woodger responds by quipping that those who regard themselves as being above metaphysics are “only a very little above it—being up to their necks in it” (ibid.: 246). For Woodger, the real, and perhaps only, danger with metaphysics is that scientists often do not realize that their explanations can be influenced by unanalysed presuppositions which are metaphysical in nature. On the issue of reductionism, his stance is equally clear: Woodger adamantly opposes the reduction of biology to physics and chemistry. For Woodger, biological explanations are not reducible because they address the reciprocal teleological relations between parts and whole in living systems in ways that mechanistic explanations couched in physicochemical terms cannot. Organisms are of course physicochemical entities, says Woodger, but an explanatory approach that focuses exclusively on physical interactions, chemical reactions, and chemical composition runs the risk of neglecting the very thing that makes organisms distinctive, namely their hierarchical, self-maintaining organization. Woodger complains that “[b]iologists, in their haste to become physicists, have been neglecting their business [by] trying to treat the organism not as an organism [i.e., as an organized system] but as an aggregate. And in doing so they may have been good chemists but they have not been good biologists, because they have been abstracting from what is essential to the biological level” (ibid.: 291). What is ‘essential to the biological level’ is the problem of organization, and this requires biologists to develop their own concepts and tools of analysis. Indeed, Woodger devotes a considerable part of Biological Principles, as well as a triad of subsequent papers (Woodger 1930a; 1930b; 1931), to elucidating the nature of organization and articulating a theory of biological explanation. Woodger is also explicit in rejecting the view that physics is the model science that less developed sciences like biology should seek to emulate. In fact, a theme that runs through his entire oeuvre is the conviction that if biology is to achieve the theoretical sophistication of physics, it must be encouraged to find its own way; to develop in the directions that allow it to confront its empirical subject matter on its own terms. Biologists have nothing to gain from slavishly adopting the models and explanations of the physical sciences, as this only “engenders a feeling of inferiority in biologists. It makes them feel that they are wasting their time unless they too become biophysicists or biochemists. It thus retards the search for explanatory hypotheses on the biological levels” (Woodger 1952: 337). According to Woodger, “to regard 2

Woodger makes this point even more forcefully in his Physics, Psychology, and Medicine: “If you do not like some particular doctrine, and you are unkind enough to wish to embarrass the person who is defending it, it suffices to declare with emphasis that it is metaphysics. This has the double advantage of being obscure and derogatory. It is obscure because it is difficult to say what it means and for that reason it is difficult to rebut. It is denigratory because it is widely believed that, in some obscure way, metaphysics is disreputable” (Woodger 1956: 58).

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the traditional ‘physico-chemical’ ways of thinking as indispensable and as ‘natural science par excellence’ is the apotheosis of biological stupidity” (Woodger 1929b: 358). It amounts to crying out: “Stop thinking, folks! The physicists have done all the thinking necessary” (Woodger 1956: 10). More forthright assertions of the autonomy of biology can hardly be found. Given this analysis, why have so many modern commentators insisted on categorizing Woodger as the greatest champion of logical empiricism applied to biology? We suspect that the reason is that these commentators have been extremely selective in the parts of Woodger’s corpus they have targeted in their criticisms, choosing to focus almost exclusively on a single—and arguably the least successful—project of his scholarly career, namely his attempts to axiomatize biological theories. This has led some of Woodger’s formal works, especially The Axiomatic Method in Biology, to acquire an almost mythical status in the philosophy of biology community. In Hull’s words, “[a]s with Finnegans Wake, everyone seems to have heard of Woodger’s The Axiomatic Method in Biology (1937), but very few have ever read it, and the few who have, have not come away very impressed” (Hull 1988: 105). In his axiomatic project, Woodger used symbolic logic to construct a metalanguage for biology that would help organize biological statements and uncover connections between different biological theories. Due to its heavy use of first-order predicate logic, this project has often been misinterpreted as an “attempt to treat a biological discipline on the model of a close-knit physical theory” (Smart 1963: 50) and to “force biological theories into the positivist deductive mold” (Callebaut 2010: 474). For the same reason, Woodger himself has been repeatedly accused of “insist[ing] on putting everything into rigorous deductive systems, with absolutely disastrous consequences” (Ruse 2000: 478). The reality, however, is that although Woodger did come to believe that axiomatization could help biology achieve the level of theoretical sophistication of the physical sciences, he never doubted that such formalizations would need to cater for the specific epistemic needs of biology. Thus, in the first chapter of the Axiomatic Method in Biology he remarks that “[i]n addition to making what use we can of existing abstract systems (which we all owe their origin, historically speaking, to the demands of the physical sciences) it seems to me to be desirable that we should try to construct our own systems in accordance with the requirements of biological data” (Woodger 1937: 16). Similarly, in The Technique of Theory Construction—another formal work—he notes that by developing a mathematical logic for biology, we will free ourselves “from the accidental restrictions of traditional mathematics, i.e., the mathematics which have arisen to meet the needs of physics” (Woodger 1939: 39). In this book he also perceptively anticipates the criticisms that commentators would make of his axiomatic project decades later: [I]t seems to be felt in some quarters that the deliberate use of a technique of theorizing involves (in the case of biology) “fitting the facts of life” into some rigid predetermined scheme. Nothing could be further from the truth. Far from making facts conform to a scheme (which in any case would be impossible) we deliberately construct the theoretical system in such a way that it will as faithfully represent the facts as possible. (ibid.: 74) It is clear, then, that even if one focuses exclusively on his axiomatic project and wilfully ignores all of his other publications, Woodger still does not fit the familiar view of logical empiricism that so many contemporary authors have attributed to him. Throughout the various phases of his career, Woodger forcefully rejected all three theses that Wolters picks out as characteristic of logical empiricist philosophy of biology. His interest in logic from the 1930s onwards does of course resonate with aspects of the logical empiricist program, but this alone does not justify depicting him as an anti-metaphysical, reductionist, or physicalist philosopher of biology.

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The other major philosopher of biology that one may naturally be inclined to associate with logical empiricism is Ludwig von Bertalanffy. Born into fin-de-siècle Vienna, Bertalanffy was raised in the post-World War I intellectual milieu that gave rise to ‘the scientific conception of the world’ of logical empiricism. As a student at the University of Vienna, Bertalanffy studied under Moritz Schlick—the founder of the Vienna Circle—and interacted frequently with many other members of that community, such as Viktor Kraft and Friedrich Weismann. Schlick also co-supervised Bertalanffy’s doctoral thesis in philosophy, on the integration of levels of organization in nature. After finishing his thesis, Bertalanffy attended the meetings of Carnap’s ‘Study Group for Scientific Cooperation’, and had regular contact with Hans Reichenbach, leader of the Berlin Circle. Bertalanffy also contributed the longest article to the first volume of Erkenntnis—logical empiricism’s official vehicle of publication—and received repeated invitations to attend the movement’s conferences on the unity of science (Hofer 2002). Given such a track record, it may seem obvious to regard Bertalanffy as a logical empiricist philosopher of biology. The truth, however, is that this is an extremely misleading characterization. Although he admired Schlick personally and grieved when Schlick was murdered by a deranged student in 1936, Bertalanffy was a lifelong critic of logical empiricism. He often reminded his readers and lecture audiences that he had participated in the Vienna Circle and that his opposition to logical empiricism derived from a first-hand acquaintance with the limitations of the movement (Pouvreau 2009). He publicly objected to their radical empiricism, he indicted them for their scientistic attitude, and he considered their rejection of metaphysics sectarian and naïve.3 Bertalanffy liked to paraphrase Kant in asserting that though theory without experience is mere intellectual play, experience without theory is blind. He never tired of arguing that all major scientific achievements had been the product of observation inspired by theoretical reflection, and that consequently “one cannot base and develop any science solely on experience and induction” (Bertalanffy 1927: 660). In his Modern Theories of Development, he notes that “the empiricist is apt to forget two things. He forgets, in the first place, that a collection of facts, be it never so large, no more makes a science than a heap of bricks makes a house […] Secondly, he forgets that no empirical science is even possible save on the basis of theoretical assumptions” (Bertalanffy 1933: 4). While Bertalanffy was critical of highly speculative metaphysical approaches to biology such as those found in the vitalist tradition, it is fair to say that his entire body of work in the philosophy of biology was ultimately geared towards the formulation of an ‘organismic’ viewpoint that would provide the metaphysical foundation for a scientificallygrounded, empirically-informed ‘theoretical biology’. Bertalanffy’s efforts to establish the foundations of a theoretical framework proper to biological phenomena rested on the conviction that biology is an autonomous science not reducible to physics and chemistry. Although physico-chemical analyses are necessary in the scientific study of life, they are not sufficient. Customary reductionistic investigations that enumerate the parts and processes of living systems and characterize them in isolation cannot yield complete biological explanations because they provide no information about how these parts and processes are ordered and functionally integrated in the complex coordinated wholes that make organisms what they are. For Bertalanffy, “the chief task of biology must be to discover the laws of biological systems to which the ingredient [physico-chemical] parts and processes are subordinate” (ibid.: 65). Thus, his stance on the question of physico-chemical reduction is that: 3

In one of his last works, he writes: “You, the reader, may wonder about the old-fashioned term ‘natural philosophy’ in the title of this essay. Is it not the hallmark of modern science that it got rid of obsolete philosophy? Have modern positivists—including the Vienna School where I myself started more than forty years ago—worked in vain and am I going to reinvoke the ghost of metaphysics? […] A slightly mischievous answer would be that science and philosophy never got rid of metaphysics and that the metaphysics of positivism is a particularly naïve and superficial one” (Bertalanffy 1967: 55).

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If we investigate vital processes physically and chemically we shall never reach a process which runs contrary to the laws of physics and chemistry. In this sense life is only ‘a combination of physical and chemical processes’. But it is possible that such a point of view does not touch at all the real biological problem—and in this sense life is more than a mere heap of physical and chemical processes and has its ‘own laws’. The physico-chemical explanation of single phenomena in the organism does not, therefore, suffice for the foundation of theoretical biology. For the essential characteristic of living things as such— the arrangement or organization of materials and processes—it gives no explanation, and offers no possibility of setting up laws for this characteristic. The view that simply by means of a knowledge of the physics and chemistry of the materials and processes of the organism biology will become a branch of physics and chemistry, and so render a theory of the organism superfluous, is thus quite untenable. (ibid.: 35) Having said this, Bertalanffy does not doubt that “a fusion of the realms of physical and biological laws will ultimately be achieved”, though he immediately qualifies this statement by adding that “the very inclusion of biological problems and fields leads to an expansion of the system of concepts and laws of physics” (Bertalanffy 1952: 157). What this implies is that the problem of the reduction of biology to physical science is to a certain extent a semantic one: it depends on the extension of the meaning that one confers to the expression ‘physical science’. Be that as it may, Bertalanffy did not believe that biology would advance by becoming more physical. He considered biology’s progress to depend on its ability to articulate its own theoretical apparatus to deal with its distinct domain of phenomena. Theoretical biology cannot be imported or derived from theoretical physics. Instead, it must be allowed to develop an autonomous set of concepts, principles, and laws that enable it to play the same epistemological roles in biology that theoretical physics does in physics. Accordingly, in the two volumes of his Theoretische Biologie (Bertalanffy 1932; 1942), Bertalanffy draws on the thermodynamically open nature of biological systems (which exchange both energy and matter with their environment in order to maintain themselves far from equilibrium) to formulate principles of the organism analogous to the principles of motion in Newtonian mechanics. Bertalanffy then uses these general principles to unify various biological fields in a common theoretical perspective. As we have seen, Bertalanffy—like Woodger—did not defend any of the three theses that Wolters takes to be distinctive of logical empiricist philosophy of biology (i.e. ‘antimetaphysics’, ‘reduction’, and ‘physics as model science’). Both authors unequivocally rejected these theses, and did so by appealing to very similar arguments. The reason for this convergence is that the two belonged to the same intellectual movement, namely the organicist school that drove the philosophy of biology discourse between the two world wars. This discourse developed completely independently from logical empiricism and was not significantly influenced by it. It is thus misleading to claim that early philosophy of biology was logical empiricist in character. The closest that anyone got to applying Wolters’ logical empiricist theses to biology in any sort of systematic way was the little-known Prague-based geneticist Felix Mainx, who attracted the attention of Carnap and Frank when they were both teaching there, and was asked to write the entry on biology for Neurath’s Encyclopaedia of Unified Science. The resulting contribution, an eighty-five page booklet entitled Foundations of Biology, bears all the marks of what Wolters would expect from a logical empiricist philosophy of biology treatise: (a) it advocates the verificationist criterion of meaning, criticizing biological works that attempt to pass off tautologies and metaphysical claims as empirically meaningful statements, (b) it denies any autonomy to biology, asserting that its delimitation as a natural science is a purely pragmatic 9

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matter, and (c) it is strongly critical of speculative theorizing in biology—which Mainx derisively dubs ‘parabiology’—concerning problems like organization, teleology, and wholeness. Mainx explicitly rejects the analogy that Bertalanffy draws between theoretical biology and theoretical physics, arguing that there is no need for such a field in biology: “A deliberate separation of a ‘theoretical biology’ would today mean an intellectual decline or even the encouragement of speculative tendencies which would not promote the development of the science. A purely theoretical biology would be unable to make any scientific assertion which would say more than the statements of the special branches about living things” (Mainx 1955: 58). In any case, Mainx’s booklet had only a marginal impact on the philosophy of biology community and it can hardly be considered representative of the work conducted at the time. Before concluding this section, we wish to challenge the oft-repeated claim that logical empiricism frustrated the development of philosophy of biology. The view that “logical empiricism did almost everything to prevent [philosophy of biology] from becoming a healthy subdiscipline of the philosophy of science” (Wolters 1999: 187) stems from a very impoverished and historically inaccurate understanding of logical empiricism. It has become apparent that standard critiques of logical empiricism severely underestimate the intellectual heterogeneity of the movement.4 Although it is true that most of the major figures of logical empiricism were primarily interested in physics (which is not all that surprising given the revolutionary developments that had recently taken place in that science, especially relativity theory and quantum mechanics), none of them harboured any antipathies towards biology. In fact, they welcomed the participation of biologists at their meetings—even if they did not share their views—and some of them even wrote on questions raised by biologists at the time. We have already mentioned the case of Bertalanffy, who was welcomed on numerous occasions to present his organicist ideas to Carnap’s study group, whose participants included Herbert Feigl, Edgar Zilsel, Karl Polanyi, Egon Brunswik, Paul Lazarsfeld, and Willielm Reich. Bertalanffy was also invited by Reichenbach to discuss his work with Wolfgang Kohler and Kurt Lewin at Berlin’s ‘Society for Empirical Philosophy’. In addition, Bertalanffy’s organicism caught the attention of another prominent logical empiricist, Philipp Frank, who criticized it in his 1931 book The Law of Causality and Its Limits. Despite their philosophical differences, Frank invited Bertalanffy to several of the movement's international congresses on the unity of science. These conferences were far from hostile or even indifferent to biology. For example, the topic of the second congress (held in Copenhagen in 1936) was ‘The Problem of Causality, with Special Consideration of Physics and Biology’. Among the speakers were two of the most distinguished biologists of the period, namely J. B. S. Haldane and Nicholas Rashevsky, whose respective papers—on the principles of genetic analysis (Haldane 1936) and on the mathematization of metabolic processes (Rashevsky 1936)—were published in Erkenntnis along with various replies and commentaries. In fact, Erkenntnis published a number of papers on philosophy of biology between 1930 and 1940, the majority of them by prominent German-speaking biologists of the period, such as the embryologist Julius Schaxel (1930), the zoologist Max Hartmann (1932), the plant physiologist Erwin Bünning (1935), and the neurologist Kurt Goldstein (1939), in addition to Bertalanffy 4

This has even been recognized by some of the critics themselves. Thomas Nickles has remarked that “The received view [of logical empiricism] was very good, and those of us who criticize it are never fair to it. We present a parody of it and knock it down; but that’s the way the game is played” (Nickles, in Callebaut 1993: 19). Wimsatt, for his part, considers that “The similarity we see in the positivists’ views at this distance is basically an instance of the old saying, “All Orientals look alike”. I think a similar thing is responsible for a lot of the apparent univocality we see now in the positivist views” (ibid.). In recent years, more historically nuanced appraisals of logical empiricism have appeared; see, e.g., Stadler 2003 and the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy entry on the subject (Creath 2011).

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(1930; 1935). Even though most of them were skeptical—if not downright critical—of the ideological commitments of the logical empiricists, this did not prevent them from being included in their philosophical discussions. For instance, a paper by the quantum physicist Pascual Jordan (1934) that elaborated an argument proposed by Niels Bohr in 1932 suggesting that causal and teleological explanations in biology are irreducible and complementary elicited replies by Reichenbach (1935), Neurath (1935), Schlick (1935), and Frank (1935). The fact that these responses were mostly critical of Jordan’s argument is beside the point. Such examples serve to illustrate that the major figures of logical empiricism not only did not deem biology irrelevant to their agenda, but actually engaged in philosophical topics of biological significance. Just as they did with physicists—if only at a smaller scale—the logical empiricists reached out to philosophically-minded biologists and nurtured epistemological discussions on a range of biological fields, including physiology, embryology, biochemistry, and genetics.5

3. Early Philosophy of Biology and Vitalism Logical empiricism continues to be regarded as a dated and discredited research program, but its notoriety does not even begin to compare to the contempt and disdain that is generally shown towards vitalism. Biologists and philosophers today use ‘vitalism’ primarily as a term of abuse to disparage and ridicule views that they judge to be irrational, supernatural, or mystical. To accuse someone of being a vitalist amounts to condemning them to the scorching fires of scientific hell. There is something rather perverse about this state of affairs as some of the most celebrated figures in the history of biology held vitalist views and conducted their work within a vitalist framework.6 Vitalism is actually a very heterogeneous school of thought that developed through the centuries as biology progressed in its quest for understanding the phenomenon of life. How it has come to be regarded as the dark bête noire of modern biological thought has to do with historical circumstances that need not concern us here. It suffices that we acknowledge that labelling early twentieth century philosophers of biology as vitalists has been enough to ensure that their contributions are relegated to the dustbin of history. Why should contemporary scholars bother to read the work of authors who, in the words of Ruse (1988: 2), “feared and loathed materialism, and who were determined to prove that an understanding of organisms demands reference to vital forces or spirits—elans vitaux or entelechies—forever beyond the grasp of conventional science”? This would not be an entirely unreasonable stance to take if it was not such a hopelessly misguided characterization of early philosophy of biology. Ruse’s allusion to the élan vital and the entelechy is of course a reference to the vital principles postulated respectively by the two most famous—or rather infamous—vitalists of the early twentieth century: Henri Bergson and Hans Driesch. When contemporary philosophers of biology mention these two men, they write as if they were the only authors who wrote on the subject at the time. Ernst Mayr, who played a fundamental role in the establishment of modern philosophy of biology—both directly through his own pioneering contributions (e.g. Mayr 1961; 1969; 1988) and indirectly through his mentorship of Hull (see Hull 1994)—recounted in his last book his first encounter with philosophy of biology as a young man in the 1920s: When I inquired (ca. 1926) which philosophers would be most helpful to a biologist, I was told Driesch and Bergson. When I left for New Guinea one and a half years later, the major books of these two authors [i.e., Driesch 1908 and Bergson 1907] were the only books I dragged around with me in the tropics for two and a half years. In the evenings […] I would 5

For a more detailed reappraisal of the attitude of the logical empiricists towards biology, see Hofer 2013. Thankfully, systematic re-evaluations of the place of vitalism in the history of biology are beginning to appear (e.g. Wolfe 2008; Normandin and Wolfe 2013) 6

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read these two volumes. As a result, by the time I returned to Germany, I had concluded that neither Driesch nor Bergson was the answer to my search. Both authors were vitalists and I had no use for a philosophy based on such an occult force as the vis vitalis. (Mayr 2004: 2) Whoever advised Mayr on what to read was seriously misinformed. As it turns out, the writings of Bergson and Driesch are only the tip of the iceberg of what was going on in philosophy of biology at the time. The possibility then suggests itself that the reason why Bergson and Driesch are the authors most often remembered today is that they were the leaders of a general vitalist community during the early decades of the past century. But this too is incorrect. Bergson and Driesch were salient figures at the time, and are remembered today, not because they were the guiding luminaries of a thriving intellectual movement, but because they were the last outspoken exponents of a dying philosophical creed. Their influence, which was nevertheless considerable, must therefore be understood in this light. Of the two, Driesch had by far the greater impact on philosophy of biology. It is true that Bergson’s L'Évolution Créatrice (1907) was widely read upon its publication, especially by philosophers, but most biologists felt that the vitalism it advocated was not relevant to their theorizing, as it was based on subjective anthropocentric notions like intuition and sympathy (see, e.g., Schaxel 1913). Woodger observes in Biological Principles (1929: 299) that “biologists in general seem to have a rather low opinion of Mr. Bergson” and this may help explain why most of them did not bother to discuss his views—not even to criticize them.7 The case of Driesch is quite different. Unlike Bergson, Driesch was already a well-respected experimental embryologist before he ventured into philosophy. His arguments for vitalism, which he developed on the basis of empirical investigations that he himself conducted, immediately caught the attention of those interested in the theoretical foundations of biology. Back in the 1890s, Driesch had joined Wilhelm Roux’s ambitious Entwicklungsmechanik research program, which aimed to make biology in general and embryology in particular a completely experimental, mechanistic science. Roux had proposed a mosaic theory of development, which postulated that the progressive differentiation of body parts is a consequence of the segregation of the hereditary material occurring with every consecutive round of cell division in the embryo. This theory offered an elegant mechanical explanation for a seemingly intractable biological phenomenon. It conceived the embryo as a machine whose components are arranged side by side like stones in a mosaic, developing independently from one another yet resulting in a cohesive whole. Driesch set out to confirm Roux’s theory experimentally by artificially separating the blastomeres of a sea urchin embryo at the two-cell stage of its development. If Roux’s theory was correct, then each of the two blastomeres would produce a deformed adult, as each would have been deprived of half of the hereditary material originally contained in the fertilized egg. To Driesch’s surprise, each of the two separate blastomeres had produced a whole—albeit smaller—sea urchin larva. These results flatly contradicted the predictions of the mosaic theory. Driesch’s sea urchins had done what a good machine should not: they had regulated themselves to form wholes from parts. Initially, Driesch attempted to explain his results in terms of physical influences acting on the embryo, but he eventually concluded that Entwicklungsmechanik simply did not possess the necessary explanatory resources to account for the plastic, self-regulatory dimensions of embryogenesis. The embryo adapts to external perturbations by regenerating its parts and reorganizing itself. It constitutes a ‘harmonious equipotential system’ that cannot be conceived in 7

This does not mean that Bergson’s work has nothing to contribute to biological theory. For instance, there have been several recent attempts to re-interpret his élan vital non-vitalistically as a metaphorical means of coming to terms with the duration of biological order on an energetic or thermodynamic basis (see Sato 2012; DiFrisco 2013).

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mechanical terms: “how could a machine be divided innumerable times and yet remain what it was? No machine, therefore, can be the test of embryology” (Driesch 1914a: 211-212). Such considerations led Driesch to formulate a vitalist explanation that could make sense of his own experimental findings. By the turn of the twentieth century, Driesch had abandoned experimental biology altogether to focus on further developing his vitalistic views, and as a professor of philosophy he published a number of influential works (Driesch 1908; 1914a; 1914b). Driesch’s vitalist theory postulated a vital principle that operates exclusively within living beings and endows them with their distinctive non-mechanical character. Driesch terms this vital agent the entelechy, thereby openly acknowledging his indebtedness to Aristotle, although it should be noted that his own usage differs from that of Aristotle. For Aristotle, the entelechy is directly responsible for the maturation of the organism, for it is the active agent which raises the physical potentialities of the organism to the state of actuality. Driesch confers a more restricted role to the entelechy, and instead of identifying it as the primary cause of development itself, he views it as the regulator which governs which of the various potentialities resident in the developing organism shall reach realization and which shall be restrained. Driesch’s entelechy, then, is not—as is often portrayed by contemporary critics—the template of organismic organization, nor is it the creative agent that brings it about. Rather, it serves as a kind of a buffer which protects the inbuilt tendencies of the organism from being disrupted by adverse environmental conditions. Driesch emphasizes that the entelechy is non-temporal, non-spatial, and non-psychic, and consequently does not contradict any natural laws. Overall, Driesch’s vitalist theory should be understood not as an irrational attempt to drag biology back to the age of medieval superstition by invoking mystical spirits acting on organisms, but as a bold effort to confront the puzzling experimental findings of his own embryological work. The crucial fact to bear in mind when considering the reception of Driesch’s ideas by his contemporaries is that support for vitalism in general had been steadily declining since the mid nineteenth century. This was partly the consequence of the spectacular successes of the physicalist and reductionist research program in physiology carried out most famously by four former members of Johannes Müller’s laboratory in Berlin, namely Emil Du Bois-Reymond, Carl Ludwig, Ernst von Brücke, and Herman von Helmholtz. Even though vitalist explanations had been seriously entertained by many prominent biologists during the late seventeenth, all of the eighteenth, and the early nineteenth centuries, by the end of the nineteenth century appeals to vital principles had become disreputable. In a sense, Driesch’s arguments for vitalism were already anachronistic when they were published. They represented an attempt to revive a dying biological tradition rather than an effort to extend a prevailing one (which is why Driesch coined the term ‘neo-vitalism’ to describe his views). This attempt turned out to be a resounding failure, as Driesch’s ideas were met with violent opposition. For example, browsing a special issue on the mechanicism-vitalism dispute published in 1918 by The Philosophical Review (volume 27, number 6), we find that the contributors differ from one another in their adherence to mechanicism, but most of them explicitly repudiate Driesch’s neovitalism. Criticisms of Driesch by his contemporaries took a range of different forms, but a prime target was his notion of entelechy. Some criticized the inexplicable fact that the entelechy does not operate in the same way in organisms pertaining to different species (e.g. a ‘salamanderentelechy’ is able to regenerate a limb, whereas a ‘human-entelechy’ cannot). Others directed their criticism towards the very concept of entelechy itself, arguing that it does not constitute an explanation but simply another name for the problem: “Driesch transfers the complexities of development to the entelechy, leaving them in exactly the same need of analysis and explanation as before” (Jennings 1918: 581). Yet others argued that, despite’s Driesch’s claims to the contrary, the operation of an entelechy necessarily violates the laws of physics: 13

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According to Driesch, an entelechy can, without the performance of work, guide or coordinate […] processes which themselves require the performance of work. This view implies that in the organism, molecular movement can be directed, retarded, or accelerated at the will of the entelechy […] [However,] It is physically impossible for any agency to modify the processes in any material system without modifying the energy-transfers in that system, and this can be done only by […] the performance of work. One is forced to conclude that all such attempts at the solution of biological problems are based on fundamental misunderstandings (Lillie 1914: 843-844). So while it is true that Driesch’s neo-vitalism shaped philosophical discussions of biology at the beginning of the twentieth century (on this point—and on this point alone—we find ourselves in complete agreement with Ruse’s analysis), it is also true that his ideas were almost universally rejected by his peers soon after their publication.8 Already by 1911 Driesch’s ideas were said to have “justly aroused vehement protest on the part of scientific investigators” (Elkus 1911: 358). By the 1920s, any remaining neo-vitalist defences had all but disappeared from the discourse. What is most characteristic about the generation of authors who began writing on the philosophy of biology in the 1910s and 1920s is that they attempted to transcend the traditional conflict between mechanicist and vitalist conceptions of life by carving out a middle ground between the two positions that would retain what they deemed valuable in each viewpoint while avoiding their respective pitfalls. Thus, they heartily agreed with the vitalists in their recognition of the characteristic wholeness of living systems and in their repudiation of mechanical interpretations of biological phenomena, but they also fully agreed with the mechanists in their unwavering commitment to materialistic explanations and in their use of physicochemical methods in the investigation of biological problems. The vitalists had been right to defend the autonomy of biological theory, but they had been wrong to ground it in the supposition that the characteristic features of organisms are derived from the activities of unknown agencies. On the other hand, the mechanists had been right to insist that organisms are subject to the same laws that govern the operation of non-living systems like machines, but they had been wrong to conclude that such laws suffice to account for the character and behaviour of organisms. Biological explanations are not reducible to mechanical or physicochemical ones, but this did not mean that the distinctiveness of organisms cannot be understood in purely naturalistic terms as a consequence of their self-organizing and self-regulating capabilities. In this way, proponents of this new school of thought—which came to be known as organicism—sought to steer a course that would avoid the Scylla of mechanicist reductionism and the Charybdis of vitalist mysticism. Organicist philosophy of biology arose at a time in which “the vast preponderance of active biological workers are mechanists” (Needham 1925: 235). As a result, many organicists had to endure repeated accusations of vitalism simply because they refused to accept the mechanicist orthodoxy. The noted physiologist John Scott Haldane, who was one of the most prominent exponents of the organicist conception of life, is a case in point. In his philosophical writings Haldane tended to develop his argument in three stages: first he would discuss the mechanicist and vitalist views in turn, then he would draw on his own physiological work to point out what he considered to be the fatal flaws in both of these doctrines, and finally he would expound his organicism (see, e.g. Haldane 1917; 1928; 1931). Nevertheless, his emphatic denunciation of the organism-machine analogy meant that he was sometimes lumped with Driesch and dismissed as another misguided vitalist. This is an appellation he strongly objected to: “I am not, and never 8

As with any historical claim, if one looks closely enough one can find some exceptions, such as James Johnstone (1914) and Jakob von Uexküll (1926), both of whom defended Driesch’s neo-vitalism in their work.

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have been, a vitalist, although simply because I am unable to accept the traditional mechanistic biology of the last few decades I am often regarded as a vitalist. Vitalism in any form has the same fundamental defect as the mechanistic theory of life” (Haldane 1931: 31). Already as early as 1908 Haldane had pointed out that the vital force was “simply a convenient resting-place” for the facts about the organism that mechanical explanations could not explain (Haldane 1908: 693). Later he would also state that vitalism is “of little use as a working hypothesis in actual investigation”, adding that its major merit lied in its “destructive criticism of mechanistic theory” (Haldane, 1917: 112). By 1932 he proclaimed that “biologists have almost unanimously abandoned vitalism as an acknowledged belief, and I do not think that they are ever likely to return to it” (Haldane 1932: 54). Similar repudiations of vitalism can be found in the works of all the other major organicists. The marine biologist Edward Stuart Russell, for instance, devoted his first philosophical paper to criticizing vitalist theories for inexcusably postulating unintelligible agencies (Russell 1911). He then went on to write a number of books that presented his organicist outlook (Russell 1924; 1930; 1945), which shared Haldane’s holistic vision of the organism as well as his defence of the autonomy of biology, but which also emphasized the intrinsic purposiveness of organismic activities. In dealing with the thorny issue of organismic teleology, Russell, like Haldane, is careful to insulate himself from the possible charge of vitalism: “Our conclusion that life processes are essentially and fundamentally directive and creative may be rejected as ‘metaphysical’ or ‘mystical’. It is of course nothing of the sort. I make no hypothesis as to the philosophical basis or ‘ground’ of directiveness or creativeness. I merely accept the patent evidence that they are characteristic of living things and of them alone” (Russell 1945: 192). Another influential advocate of the organicist position was Woodger, whose views we already examined in relation to logical empiricism. On the issue of vitalism, in Biological Principles Woodger criticizes Driesch’s negative argumentation for failing to realize that disproving mechanicism does not by itself establish the validity of vitalism, as the two standpoints do not exhaust all theoretical possibilities. He then proceeds to demarcate his own position, organicism, from vitalism by restricting the latter term to propositions of the type ‘the living being consists of X in addition to chemical constituents plus organizing relations’. Despite being very critical of the postulation of vital principles, Woodger recognizes that vitalist writings have their valuable side, insofar as they at least attempt to deal with the exceedingly complex features of organisms which their mechanicist rivals are content to ignore: [Vitalist theories] represent an adventure in thought—the exploration of a possibility—and biologists should be grateful to Driesch for the patience and thoroughness with which he has carried out this explanation. If we find that the path leads to an impasse beyond which it is impossible to go it need not be concluded that nothing has thereby been accomplished. There is a great deal to be learnt from the writings of Driesch because they deal with those aspects of the organism which are omitted by the other writers. (Woodger 1929: 267) The other prominent organicist we discussed in the previous section was Bertalanffy. Although Philipp Frank accused Bertalanffy of secretly harbouring vitalist views, no one in the organicist movement subjected vitalism to such a scathing attack as Bertalanffy. In Modern Theories of Development, Bertalanffy declares that the adoption of “[v]italism means nothing less than a renunciation of a scientific explanation of biological data” (Bertalanffy 1933: 45). Vitalism fails as an explanatory program because it hopelessly attempts to make sense of “the puzzling purposefulness of life by means of a still more puzzling active entity”. In this sense, vitalism offers only “a mythological treatment of biology” (ibid. 43). Bertalanffy’s strong critical stance towards vitalism is well illustrated in this passage from his later book Problems of Life: 15

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[V]italism must be rejected as far as scientific theory is concerned. According to it, the structure and function in the organism are governed, as it were, by a host of goblins, who invent and design the organism, control its processes, and patch the machine up after injury. This gives us no deeper insight; but we merely shift what at present seems inexplicable to a yet more mysterious principle and assemble it into an X that is inaccessible to research. Vitalism says nothing else than that the essential problems of life lie outside the sphere of natural science.” (Bertalanffy 1952: 7-8) Aside from Haldane, Russell, Woodger, and Bertalanffy, other biologists who subscribed to the organicist paradigm included the biochemical embryologist Joseph Needham, who published a series of important papers on philosophy of biology (Needham 1925; 1928a; 1928b; 1930a; 1930b; 1943), and who considered that the obsolescence of the neo-vitalist school is best illustrated by the observation that “[t]he more its special entities immanent in living beings have been considered, the less necessary they have seemed to be in relation to the facts and the less valuable they have been found as inspirations to research” (Needham 1928a: 88). Finally, it is also worth mentioning the neurologist Kurt Goldstein, who wrote an important organicist treatise entitled The Organism in 1935, in which he discarded the term ‘entelechy’ “because it is much too general and undefined” to be of practical or epistemological use (Goldstein 1935: 321). Overall, in this section we have seen that early philosophy of biology, as represented by the organicist movement in the interwar period, was in no way committed to vitalism. In fact, as we have seen, all the major organicists forcefully criticized vitalism and explicitly rejected any possible associations with theories like the one proposed by Driesch. Regarding Driesch himself, it is undeniable that he had a considerable impact on the philosophy of biology discourse at the start of the twentieth century. However, his ideas did not catch on and were widely rejected upon their publication. By the 1910s the majority of philosophers of biology had brushed vitalism to one side and had moved on to discuss issues related to the organicist program. These issues dominated the field until well into the 1950s. For example, in his 1951 paper on biology Ernst Nagel began by remarking that “Vitalism of the substantival type sponsored by Driesch and other biologists during the preceding and early part of the present century is now a dead issue in the philosophy of biology” (Nagel 1951: 327). Instead, Nagel concerned himself with what was the dominant theme at the time, namely the adequacy and applicability of the organicist understanding of living systems, and how it fared compared to the traditional mechanicist theory.

4. Organicism and Early Philosophy of Biology As the preceding sections have shown, the claim that early philosophy of biology was dominated by logical empiricist and vitalistic influences is unfounded. During the first half of the twentieth century it was the distinct concerns of organicism that dictated the direction of the field. Like most intellectual movements, there was no coherent set of core commitments which all organicists adhered to, and indeed, it was not uncommon for organicists to disagree and criticize one another in print. What united the organicists was an adherence to a fairly loose collection of beliefs about the nature of the living systems, and about the relationship between the biological and physical sciences. All members of the movement believed that the living organism constitutes the fundamental object of biological study and the starting point of all biological theorizing. This emphasis on the organism began with Haldane’s earliest theoretical works. According to Haldane, the mechanists are right to reject vitalism, but likewise, the vitalists’ dismissal of mechanicism is also correct. He suggested that “there is no reason for accepting either theory”, adding that instead, biologists 16

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must “realise that the ordinary work-a-day conception of a living organism […] is the only working hypothesis which will actually work” (Haldane 1919: 44). The organism for Haldane is as important to biology as concepts such as mass and velocity are to physics. A decade after Haldane made this claim, Woodger made a similar plea to his colleagues, noting that the goal of biology ought to be to create a systematized body of propositions about living organisms (Woodger 1929: 156). The job of the theoretical or ‘critical’ biologist, according to Woodger, is to develop the precise conceptual apparatus that this task demands. For his part, Bertalanffy agreed that progress in the life sciences was dependent upon the use of unambiguous terminology, but his analysis of the ultimate goal of biological inquiry differed slightly from Woodger’s. Bertalanffy argued that biologists should not content themselves with systematizing their knowledge of organisms, but should actively seek “to establish the laws governing order and organization within the living” (Bertalanffy 1952: 15 [emphasis added]). The organicist conception stresses that organisms are fundamentally different from non-living systems, and consequently to understand how they function, we must adopt a special set of concepts and principles. The organicists argued that biologists not only should not, but cannot rely on the explanatory approaches of the physical sciences to understand organisms. (Haldane 1919; Woodger 1929; 1939; 1952; Bertalanffy 1933; 1952; Needham 1936) The physical sciences employ a bottom-up explanatory strategy which is guided by the assumption that knowledge of any entity can be obtained by scrutinizing the parts that compose it. Organicists like Woodger denounced this approach, noting that by treating organisms as aggregates they have lost sight of the particular organizational regime that confers on its parts their distinctive properties. For the organicists, it is the unique organizational structure of organisms that makes them impenetrable to the bottom-up approach of the physical sciences (e.g. Woodger 1929: 263). They argued that we should understand organisms as hierarchical systems whose component parts stand in causal relations to one another. The properties of parts at a hierarchical level n are determined not only by their component parts of level n-, but by higher-level organismic parts of level n+ as well. The fact that there is upward and downward causation within organisms forces us to approach them as a whole or ‘unity.’ We cannot scale up to knowledge of a living organism by studying its parts in isolation because this mechanicist approach tells us nothing about the multi-dimensional causal relations between parts. Knowledge of organisms can only be obtained by studying a fully functional living being. Of course, this does not mean that the organicist standpoint is incompatible with reductionistic methodologies. Studying the components of organisms in isolation can be a worthwhile pursuit, but according to the organicists, analyses of this type must be complemented by organismic studies which consider how the parts of the whole interact to produce higher-level phenomena. The organicists did not deny the value the reductionistic approach has for studying the inorganic world, and they certainly did not believe that physics and chemistry had no place in the life sciences. Their point was that the fact that reductionistic methodologies have produced stunning results in the physical sciences does not entail that they can be successfully deployed in biology. Although it is easy to identify the topical continuity within early twentieth-century philosophy of biology, one could question whether the organicists were part of a genuine intellectual community. Indeed, since the claim that there was no philosophy of biology until the last third of the twentieth century often appears side-by-side with the seemingly contradictory assertion that nothing of value was produced prior to the 1970s, charity demands that we interpret the first of these remarks as a statement about the professionalization of the discipline. Previous commentators have emphasized the early literature’s connection with movements such as 17

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vitalism and logical empiricism, and by doing so they have failed to acknowledge the communal independence of the organicist tradition. The process of professionalization often begins when a group of practitioners distance themselves from the larger intellectual community they formerly called home. Those who publish in the sub-field are anointed as experts, and authors who receive this title eventually begin to write exclusively for their expert peers. When researchers begin to take the background knowledge and unique interests of other specialists into account, the focus of the discipline is winnowed even further, and eventually, the concerns of those outside of the sub-field are given little or no consideration. The organicists had their own ‘professionalized’ discourse, but not in this isolating sense. Throughout their respective careers, the most influential thinkers associated with the organicist movement took care to emphasize that their research was an integral part of biology proper. The organicists were, in some sense, a community of concerned scientific citizens. They banded together in order to make other practicing biologists aware of methodological and conceptual issues that were, in their minds, not receiving the attention they deserved. The personal and professional interactions of the leading organicists form a densely connected network which provides evidence that they were part of an intellectual community. Members of the movement collaborated, responded to one another in print, contributed to organicist-themed issues of top journals, and hosted conferences devoted to the common themes found in their work (cf. Haraway 1976; Abir-Am 1987; Esposito 2013). Organicism was a full-fledged discipline, and this fact makes the movement difficult to dismiss wholesale, as has previously been done. Most would agree that we have no obligation to study the work of academic outcasts who toil in isolation, but it is more difficult to justify a wilful decision to ignore the writings of an entire community, especially when the group in question was as influential as the organicists.

5. Conclusions The established narrative of the history of modern philosophy of biology tells the tale of a subfield emerging out of the smouldering ashes of logical empiricist philosophy of science, as well as from the wreckage of an equally futile vitalist program. Logical empiricists, we are told, scoffed at the life sciences, and those who did deem it worthwhile to explore the biological realm produced nothing of value. The logical empiricists failed because their project was a prescriptive enterprise whose primary mandate was to bring increased rigour to biology by importing methodological protocols from the physical sciences. Vitalists of the early twentieth century were not stricken with physics envy, but the animating forces and other metaphysical phantasms they conjured into existence to ward off the threat of reductionism were at least as ill-conceived as anything produced by the logical empiricists. Practitioners associated with the aforementioned schools failed to seriously engage with the science that inspired their musings, and as a consequence, the philosophy of biology languished in a state of futility for much of the twentieth century. Things began to change in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when a new generation of thinkers turned their attention to the life sciences. Unlike the logical empiricists and vitalists of previous decades, these authors focused on problems internal to biology, and it is this unapologetic emphasis on contemporary science that facilitated their success. Over time, replies were published, new topics were examined, and the prejudices the broader philosophical community formerly harboured against the life sciences slowly faded away as the philosophy of biology grew into the recognized field of specialization. In this paper we have attempted to highlight the problems with this well-entrenched account of the history of philosophy of biology. We have offered a replacement narrative of the field’s 18

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history which argues that the most important tradition within early philosophy of biology—the organicist school that flourished in both Europe and the United States during the interwar period—had no significant connection to either logical empiricism or vitalism. It is important to emphasize, however, that there is more at stake in this paper than a simple priority dispute about the origins of modern philosophy of biology. Doing history for its own sake is laudable, but our reassessment of the organicist tradition has been, without hesitation, a reconceptualization with a purpose. Quite simply, our intention has been to make contemporary philosophers of biology aware of a massive body of literature containing insights from philosophically minded biologists as well as from biologically informed philosophers whose contributions have regrettably remained neglected for nearly a century. Although the philosophy of biology was not born in the 1970s, it is true that the researchers who began publishing during this period radically altered the trajectory of the field. The organicists had been primarily concerned with questions about development, organic form, organization, teleology, and the relationship between biological and physicochemical explanations. Michael Ruse, David Hull, and the other early voices of the contemporary discourse focused instead almost exclusively on evolutionary biology (especially population genetics), systematics, and the putative reduction of Mendelian to molecular genetics. Subsequent newcomers to the field joined in these existing conversations, and over the years, the interests of the field’s self-identified founding members came to dominate the literature. In recent years, however, philosophers of biology have begun to expand into areas that had previously been passed over, such as molecular and cell biology, evolutionary developmental biology, ecology, and microbiology. Another interesting development is that much of the work currently being done in the field has little or no connection to philosophy, or even to the philosophy of science proper. In a sense, philosophy of biology is becoming indistinguishable from non-mathematical theoretical biology, but as the historical vantage point provided in this paper has revealed, this constitutes a return to form, rather than a novel change of direction. In a paper that is now widely regarded as one of the field’s pioneering efforts, David Hull (1969) reflected on what he took to be the terrible state of the discipline, famously suggesting that work completed by previous researchers should serve as an example of how not to engage philosophically with the life sciences. Hull made no attempt to hide his disappointment—or disdain—in the concluding remarks of his essay, where he stated that: [T]here are many things that philosophy of biology might be. A philosopher might uncover, explicate, and possibly solve problems in biological theory and methodology. He might even go on to communicate these results to other philosophers, to scientists, and especially to biologists. He might show what consequences biological phenomena and theories have for other sciences and for philosophy or to show what consequences other sciences and even philosophy have for biology. These are some of the things which philosophers of biology might do. With rare exception, they have not. (Hull 1969: 268) These remarks painted a very bleak picture of the philosophy of biology in the earlier half of the twentieth century, but they were intended to provide a direction for future work in the field. Writing in 1969, Hull took the philosophy of biology to be a field of inquiry of as of yet unrealized possibilities. However, in his haste to pass judgment, he completely overlooked or simply ignored the entire body of work produced by the organicists, which methodologically was very much in line with what Hull had in mind for the field. It is rather ironic that Joseph Needham, in a 1928 review entitled ‘Recent Developments in Philosophy of Biology’, described an existing academic community that closely resembles Hull’s utopian archetype: 19

Nicholson & Gawne

POBAM Paper Draft

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The immutability of philosophical thought meets the changefulness of the science of biology in that difficult region, which is yet so attractive, the abstract aspects of the study of living things. The philosophy of biology, as it is usually called, is a most unsatisfactory name, for it implies that the philosopher may be defined as the reverse of the specialist who knows continually more and more about less and less. But philosophy is to be understood here […] as part of the theory of scientific investigation as a whole, the self-criticism of the scientific method, and the fascinating attempt to prophesy before the event whether indeed all the realm of living phenomena will follow the inorganic world into the obedience of mathematics. (Needham 1928a: 77) The philosophy of biology is a field in flux, and as the discipline once again becomes increasingly integrated with biology itself, the early organicist work can serve as its guiding light.

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Nicholson & Gawne - WPhilBioW (POBAM draft) (1).pdf

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