Neither Logical Empiricism nor Vitalism, but Organicism: What the Philosophy of Biology Was

History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 37 (4):345-381 (2015)
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Philosophy of biology is often said to have emerged in the last third of the twentieth century. Prior to this time, it has been alleged that the only authors who engaged philosophically with the life sciences were either logical empiricists who sought to impose the explanatory ideals of the physical sciences onto biology, or vitalists who invoked mystical agencies in an attempt to ward off the threat of physicochemical reduction. These schools paid little attention to actual biological science, and as a result philosophy of biology languished in a state of futility for much of the twentieth century. The situation, we are told, only began to change in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when a new generation of researchers began to focus on problems internal to biology, leading to the consolidation of the discipline. In this paper we challenge this widely accepted narrative of the history of philosophy of biology. We do so by arguing that the most important tradition within early twentieth-century philosophy of biology was neither logical empiricism nor vitalism, but the organicist movement that flourished between the First and Second World Wars. We show that the organicist corpus is thematically and methodologically continuous with the contemporary literature in order to discredit the view that early work in the philosophy of biology was unproductive, and we emphasize the desirability of integrating the historical and contemporary conversations into a single, unified discourse.

Author's Profile

Daniel J. Nicholson
George Mason University


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