Organismicity and the Deconstruction of the Organism: From Substantial Forms to Degrees of Cooperation, Closure and Agency

Di Georg Toepfer

In: The Notion of Organism. Historical and Conceptual Approaches XLIII , No. 1-4 ( 2014 )

Sezione Saggi / Articles


Since antiquity living beings have been conceptualized as discrete entities with clear-cut boundaries in space and time. However, the scientific understanding of living beings as ‘organized bodies’ or ‘organisms’ has resulted in the difficulty of specifying living systems by one single criterion or a set of clear-cut criteria. Moreover, all the criteria that were used for the identification of organisms – especially functional closure, cooperation and agency – admit of degrees. Therefore, organisms seem to be at an extreme point on an entire spectrum of organized systems in nature. Given this situation, the notion of ‘organismicity’ in the sense of a state variable, i.e., a property of systems that comes in degrees, seems suitable in many contexts. It adequately expresses the gradient nature of various aspects of the organism’s way of being, in particular the following six: (1) the transition from organized systems in nature to organisms, (2) the beginning and ending of an organism in time, (3) the spatial limits of individual organisms in cases of clonal growth, (4) the existence of various levels of organization within an organism, (5) the often vague boundary between organism and environment, and (6) the occasionally gradual transition from individual to community.