Organism and Culture. Conceptual Foundations and Boundaries of Biology

Since the establishment of biology as a scientific discipline over 200 years ago, the organism has been one of its central concepts—and at the same time “organism” is a term that transcends the disciplinary boundaries of biology. Its current boom results from the end of a gene-oriented paradigm and the corresponding advancement of systems and synthetic biology. The systems-theoretical foundation of the concept allows for a both complex and integrated representation of the biological subjects, in which genetic, epigenetic, morphological and physiological perspectives intermingle.

Methodologically, the concept of organism marks the beginning of biology, insofar as it distinguishes a system from lifeless, inorganic bodies. It has a well-defined correlate outside the strictly scientific context: “living creature,” and may thus be taken as merely describing specific existing forms in this defining sense. Yet unlike the opaque notion of “life,” the concept of organism also promises clarification with respect to the internal structure and “organization” of living beings. Its explanatory impetus contains both reductionist and holistic moments: although the animation of an organic system is explained through its various single parts, it is the very interaction and interdependence of these parts, their holistic closure against their surrounding, that defines and explicates the organism. As a typical “imaging concept” (Hassenstein 1954), the term organism is also paradigmatic for biology because it is securely tied to the items it describes and derives precision from its intimate rapport with empirical observation. The widespread use of models representing organisms in biology may be accounted for by the fact that images convey certain subjects better or more precise than texts. This applies to the idea of organism in three central aspects: internal structure, holistic closure, and simultaneous interaction of its parts.

The project investigated the key position and terminological boom of the idea of the organism within biology as well as in relation to other disciplines. It is particularly noteworthy that although the concept has transgressed significantly into other fields of study, such as linguistics or social studies, “organism” proves to remain a key word for biology until the present day. This raises the question as to why the term remains fundamentally anchored to its mother discipline, as opposed to other fundamental concepts of biology (such as “organization,” “environment,” “development,” “regulation,” or “evolution”) that migrate between the disciplines. Precisely because it is so unambivalently rooted in terms of discipline, the notion of organism calls for a re-examination of the disciplinary boundaries of biology.

The project therefore seeked to investigate whether and how the autonomy of biology as a discipline may be grounded in the idea of the organism as a key concept of its theoretical framework. In this context looked at biology’s exclusion of those phenomena in life that do not unfold under the biological, functional gaze derived from the notion of organisms. It could be argued that biology’s specific methodological approach is responsible for the discipline’s separation from cultural studies or human sciences, since functional assessments and explanations regarding self-preservation and reproduction do not constitute the primary focus of these disciplines. Reflecting upon the conceptual foundation of biology thus leads to questioning, in turn, whether the biological claim and functionalist interpretations of human sciences categories—such as “language,” “mind” or “culture”—leads to the displacement, if not effacement, of these categories’ traditional core significance. Thus the ultimate objective of the project was to trace not just the terminological and methodological beginning of biology as tied to the concept of organism, but also its closing end in this respect.

Program funding through the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) 2012–2013
Head researcher(s): Georg Toepfer


Georg Toepfer, Francesca Michelini (ed./eds.)

Die Erklärung der Lebendigkeit

Lebenswissenschaften im Dialog Bd. 22
Verlag Karl Alber, Freiburg i. Br. 2016, 328 pages
ISBN 978-3-495-48747-1
Georg Toepfer


Grundwissen Philosophie
RECLAM Taschenbuch, Stuttgart 2013, 140 pages
ISBN 978-3-15-020292-0


07 Jun 2013 – 08 Jun 2013

Transcultural Conceptual History Between Asia and Europe. Potentials, Problems, Research Fields

ZfL, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, 3. Et., Seminarraum 303

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Media Response

12 Dec 2012
Was ist das, ein Organismus?

An der Berliner Humboldt-Universität debattierten Biologen und Philosophen über die Grundfragen. Der Computer wird auch hier zum Generalschlüssel der Bildung von Theorien. Tagungsbericht über die von Georg Toepfer gemeinsam mit Francesca Michelini organisierte Tagung  Organismus. Internationale Tagung zur Erklärung der Lebendigkeit (6.–8.12.2012), in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung vom 12.12.2012