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How organic thinking got lost and why it should be rediscovered

For ancient Greek philosophy, the relationship between the particular and the universal was important. The pre-Socratics, Plato, and the Stoics, talked much about microcosm and macrocosm. They developed an “organic” way of thinking able to consider both micro and macro phenomena. We still find traces of this tradition in modern science. In sociology, the word microcosm is used to identify small groups whose behavior is typical of a larger social body. In economics, macroeconomics is the study of the economic system as a whole, whereas microeconomics studies the economic behavior of individuals or small groups.

In modern political thought and philosophy the micro-macro approach did not catch on. One reason is that modern civilization prefers macro structures. Efficiency, precision, human rights, and globalization function on macro levels. This does not mean that the macro is always accepted. Sometimes it is criticized, but only to be replaced with another macro structure. Revolutions tend to move from macro to macro. Communists criticized capitalism and replaced it with an even more rigid macro structure.

Some people reject universal patterns and regulations and relaunch the micro. Local cultures, local food, local values, local rules… Here the micro is valuable simply because it goes against the macro. Benjamin Barbers book Jihad against McWorld summarizes this state of affairs.

Western civilization presents two options: either abstract universalism recognizing values like human rights; or egocentric nationalism, particularism, and culturalism. What about the old micro-macro approach? I believe that our civilization settles on a false dichotomy. It has lost sight of the organic.

Organic thinking disappeared almost entirely in the twentieth century. It disappeared even in biology, which is amazing because biology is the science of living organisms. Post-World War II biology developed a preference for either the micro or the macro. Daniel Nicholson has shown how in the second half of the twentieth century, the epistemological focus of biology shifted either to “sub-organismic entities (like genes) [or] supra-organismic entities (like populations). The category connecting them, the organism as a whole, fell between the cracks of biological enquiry” (Nicholson 2014: 347). As a result, biology could no longer account for the micro-macro dynamic animating living phenomena. At present, biology witnesses the return of the organism. An awareness that “understanding the whole requires studying the whole” (352) leads biologists to the identification of organizing principles. Nicholson is convinced that “while no one doubts that the twentieth century will be remembered as ‘The Century of the Gene’, more and more biologists and philosophers have been calling for ‘A New Biology for a New Century’ that will reinstate the organism back to the center stage of biological theory” (348).

Plato develops thoughts on macrocosm and microcosm in his late work, the Timaeus in the context of an organicist cosmology. Micro and macro are interdependent. The order of the small always reflects the order of the totality and vice versa. Plato’s reflections in the Timaeus had little impact on western philosophy. Even within the body of Plato’s own work, micro-macro thoughts are unusual and difficult to coordinate with Plato’s prevalent universalism. Western philosophy preferred to concentrate on Plato’s Theory of Forms. The Theory of Forms describes the world not in terms of living organisms but through abstract concepts regulated by a hierarchical structure. As the philosopher is striving towards reason, those abstract concepts become more and more universal. Plato’s abstract utopianism and elitism became guidelines for Western philosophy.

Reconsidering the Timaeus as well as works by other ancient Greek philosophers can help us to find new ways of thinking not only in science but also in politics. Ancient cosmopolitanism was organic whereas our modern ways of combining the local and the global are mechanic. Organic cosmopolitanism holds that one single mind can judge a whole country in the name of a universal demand. The universal is constantly challenged by individual interpretations, which is why it cannot be established in a mechanistic fashion. Universal structures evolve organically. The universal as it is understood in the Timaeus and by the Stoics is opposed to the global as it manifests itself today in globalization. The Stoics were confronted with globalization when old xenophobic Athens gave way to the empire of the Hellenistic period. Following the lead of Diogenes who claimed to be “a citizen of the world,” the Stoics developed the idea of the kosmou polites (world citizen). The local and the human community are organically connected. Martha Nussbaum correctly calls the Stoic cosmopolitan model “organic” (1996: 10).

For those ancient thinkers, the universal is always “cosmological.” The word cosmopolitanism is derived from this early understanding. In contrast, today’s globalization represents, most of the time, the generalization of particularisms (for example, the spread of hamburgers all over the world or the priority of scientific measuring for all kinds of measures). Furthermore, the global is determined by a market whereas the ancient idea of the universal is the ideal of the cosmopolitan human. Cosmopolitanism means that the individual citizen lives in accordance with the law of the city as a whole; but the individual also helps creating the whole. She helps to create a world. The world in the sense of kosmos unites whereas globalization separates. Globalization leads to nationalism. It goes hand in hand with the creation of ethnic patches all over the world, and these patches are getting smaller and smaller.

The “world” (kosmos) differs from the “globe.” The world is a matter of consciousness while the globe is merely material. The world is an organism whereas the globe is a machine. Animals are unable to perceive their environment as a world because they do not understand the meaning of their own place within the whole whereas humans are potentially cosmopolitan beings because they can contemplate the world and understand their own place within the cosmos. Globalization reduces humans to animals.

The World is an Organism, the Globe is a Machine

Some fight globalization by creating more and more particularisms. However, the multiplication of particularisms (which will probably immediately be marketed within the global economy) does not combat globalization but rather reinforces it. What is needed is the universal in the old cosmopolitan sense of the Greeks. Instead of working only on external universal structures like human rights, one should also work on internal structures like happiness, the value of cultures, micro economies, etc. The organic produces coherence between the external (human rights) and the internal (happiness). All this requires an understanding of the world as something that is different from the globe.

Organisms are no machines. Biologists (re)discovered this only very recently. In the 1970s, Richard Dawkins had depicted organisms as blindly programmed entities (“survival machines”) whose only purpose was to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. Today one finds that DNA sequences do not entirely explain how genes interact within larger organic constellations. The DNA is not the “brain” of an organism because an organism is not a computer. In the organism, the structure of the whole is determined by its parts, whereas in a computer, the hardware or the execution of the entire program is not influenced by the software. In a computer, software and hardware are distinct. In an “organic computer” (if that could exist) the hardware would constantly change while the system is running. Similarly, the “world” is composed of open, decentralized systems with transitional structural identities. Inside those systems, parts can change, which brings about the gradual reorganization of the whole. But the whole does not break down because of the changes. In contrast, the “globe” is a machine, which breaks down as soon as some non-fitting parts are introduced into the system.

In biology, molecular models offer a reductive view of life. Macro processes like evolution cannot be understood by looking at either genes (micro) or populations (macro). Biologists working during the first half of the twentieth century found this idea premodern and “metaphysical.” However, it is not metaphysical or mystic at all to say that wholes develop dynamically under the influence of particulars, and that the particulars are also dependent on the whole. A new generation of biologists understands precisely this, and we need a similar shift of paradigm in political thought and in cultural studies. We need a cultural co

smopolitism able to grasp the world not as a global machine but as an organic phenomenon foreshadowed by Goethe’s concept of “world literature.” World literature is not global literature. Global literature simply follows universal standards, laws, and norms in a mechanical fashion. Globalization cannot be combatted with localization but only with an organic form of “worldization.”


Nicholson, Daniel J. 2014. “The Return of the Organism as a Fundamental Explanatory Concept” in Biology Philosophy Compass 9/5, 347–359.

Barber, Benjamin R. 1995. Jihad vs. McWorld. New York: Times Books.

Dawkins, Richard. 1976. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nussbaum, Martha C. 1996. “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism” in M. Nussbaum and J. Cohen (eds.), For Love of Country? Boston: Beacon Press, 3–20.

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