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In Context #7 (Spring, 2002, pp. 3-4); copyright 2002 by The Nature Institute

Of Ideas and Essences
Stephen L. Talbott

You will recall that Craig and I had a feature article ("Sowing Technology") in the July/August Sierra—a special issue of that magazine dealing with biotechnology. Subsequently a Sierra reader, Kerry Knudsen, wrote a letter to the editor suggesting that part of the environmental movement "is developing from a cultural romanticism into an eco-mysticism." This trend is evidenced by an "essentialist philosophy"—an "unscientific and idealist philosophy that is irrational because it is based on an essence of Nature, a typological Nature, which does not exist" (Knudsen 2001).

It's a safe bet that Knudsen's concern about essentialism was fueled by Craig's and my reference to the "nature" of particular organisms and by comments such as this:

Instead of a coherent whole expressing an organic unity through every aspect of [an organism's] being, the engineers hand us a bag of separate traits. (Holdrege and Talbott 2001, p. 36)

Only a grasp of the integral unity of the organism (we were saying) can enable us to recognize whether an engineered trait would be harmonious and consistent with the organism, or else arbitrary and clashing.

Since the charge of essentialism seems to be a standard occupational hazard for the Goethean scientist, we should try to understand what lies behind it. And the first thing we notice is that those who raise the alarm about essentialism seem to be preoccupied by old debates between science and religion. In particular, they assume that anyone speaking of the "nature" or "unity of being" or "integral wholeness" of the organism must be arguing for something like the metaphysical "essence" that was supposed to constitute each created kind of Genesis. This essence was unchanging and eternal—and therefore was unacceptable to the evolutionist, whose kinds (species) certainly are not unchanging.

But this has little relevance to what Craig and I wrote in Sierra. Our remarks arose from the context of Goethean science, and here (with extreme brevity) is one way to summarize the relevant aspects of this context:

** The Goethean researcher is interested in observable phenomena, and has no desire to press behind the phenomena to some sort of metaphysical essence.

** The Goethean researcher who speaks of the nature of an organism is referring to its inner unity of being—"inner" because this unity is conceptual.

** "Conceptual" does not mean subjective. When one struggles to conceive the nature of the organism, one is struggling to find the concepts (the ideas, the interior being) that belong to the organism and are, as formal cause, generative of its unity. (This, however, can hardly make much sense so long as one is bound by our culture's normal rendering of terms such as "concept," "cause," and "idea.")

** There is no reason to take the observed unity of the organism as unchanging or incapable of evolution. The nature of an organism just is what it is (what it is observed to be), and if it evolves with time, this can be seen as part of its dynamic aspect. The potential for continually transformed expression is, after all, intrinsic to any truly vital idea.

Machine and Organism

A mechanically literate individual can often look at a machine and, by considering the various parts and the way they are articulated together, grasp the basic functional idea of the machine. The use of the term "idea" in this case is hardly controversial. The idea can be derived from observation and is objectively describable. It really does characterize the machine; our understanding of the machine would not be complete without our apprehension, through thinking, of its idea.

In his commentaries on Goethe's scientific writings, Rudolf Steiner (2000, pp. 43-44ff.) points out that the idea of the machine is impressed upon it from without by the designer. The machine and its idea are wholly explicable in terms of parts relating to each other in an external manner. Of course, a part may present itself to immediate observation as a "black box" concealing its internal operations. But in this case our full grasp of the machine's functional idea depends upon our breaking open the box and finding subparts that do relate externally.

The organism, Steiner goes on to say, is a different matter. Its overall functioning cannot be understood through the external, machine-like relations of its parts, nor is its idea impressed upon the organism from without, by a designer. Rather, the idea works generatively from within so that each part comes into being as an expression of the whole.

Coleridge was approaching the same set of distinctions when he said: whatever is organized from without is mechanical; whatever is "mechanized" from within is organic (1848, p. 42n1).

And, again, Peter Kindlmann, a professor of engineering design at Yale University, has written, "My own very practical work in electronics design over more than thirty years has ingrained in me a modular approach." This entails "partitioning a larger whole into functional modules, each described by an input/output `cause and effect' behavior." There you see the machine conceived as a collection of parts (modules) with clearly defined external relations.

But, Kindlmann continues, "nature does not `design' this way." Instead, it offers

a total fusion of function and form that we are right to admire aspiringly, but can seldom take as a direct lesson [for engineering]. A blade of grass is a totally integrated system of structure, fluid transport and chemical reactor. (Kindlmann 2001)

In a "totally integrated system" where the functional idea informs every part, making it an expression of the whole, it becomes impossible to speak of separate parts without some falseness. The part, when isolated from its whole and conceived merely as a part related externally to other parts, is no longer the same part. By analogy, a word conceived in isolation based on its dictionary definition is not the same as the word incorporated into a meaningful text; in the latter case, the word is informed (and therefore transformed) by the meaning of the text as a whole.

Looking for the Idea

The philosopher of science, Lindley Darden, writes that

neither the theory of natural selection nor the Mendelian theory of the gene could have been formulated had organisms been viewed as having "essences" rather than as being composed of independently variable characters [that is, traits].... (Darden 1992, p. 42)

By all means, let us be done with metaphysical essences. But this need not force us to the mechanical view implicit in Darden's "independently variable characters" and in the reigning conception of the gene. The parts of a machine can be independent of each other, relating only via external cause and effect, but the parts of an organism cannot. If geneticists had kept this more clearly in mind, they would not now be reeling from the string of revelations showing that genes do not "cause" traits. Everything now being discovered in genetics testifies to the fact that what goes on with the genes cannot be separated from what goes on with the rest of the organism (Holdrege and Wirz 2001).

Those who want to escape machine models often try to do so by complicating things. They try to overcome the isolation of the part by allowing all the parts to affect each other. They invoke feedback loops and call on some sort of "systems theory." These steps may indeed help us design more sophisticated machines. But they buy us little advantage in approaching the organism if we continue to think of all the new, complex relations in the same old mechanical, external, cause-and-effect fashion.

The alternative is to seek the unity of the organism in its inner nature, its governing idea. You cannot simply dismiss this as a hankering for metaphysical essences. It is, of course, possible to keep repeating, "I don't see any such governing idea—there is no such thing in nature." You could, indeed, say this about the externally imposed idea of a machine—for example, a kitchen blender—and the only response one could offer would be, "Please, look again."

The same is true of the organism, where the idea works in a rather different and less immediately obvious fashion. But the critic should at least recognize that we are saying, "Here, look again"—and not asking for belief in some sort of metaphysical entity. SLT


Coleridge, S. T. (1848). Hints Towards the Formation of a More Comprehensive Theory of Life. London: John Churchill. Available in reprint from UMI Books on Demand,

Darden, Lindley (1992). "Character: Historical Perspectives" in Keywords in Evolutionary Biology, edited by Evelyn Fox Keller and Elisabeth A. Lloyd. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 41-44.

Holdrege, Craig and Steve Talbott (2001). "Sowing Technology," Sierra (July/August, 2001), pp. 34-39, 72. Here is an online version of this article.

Holdrege, Craig and Johannes Wirz (2001). "Life Beyond Genes: Reflections on the Human Genome Project," In Context #5 (Spring, 2001), pp. 14-19.

Kindlmann, Peter (2001). Posting to EAS-INFO list:

Knudsen, Kerry (2001). Letter to the editor, Sierra (November/December, 2001), p. 14.

Steiner, Rudolf (2000). Nature's Open Secret: Introductions to Goethe's Scientific Writings. Great Barrington MA: Anthroposophic Press.

Original source: In Context (Spring, 2002, pp. 3-4); copyright 2002 by The Nature Institute

Steve Talbott :: Of Ideas and Essences

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