Addendum on Axialization: Organicism and Ecology

29 May 2011


In Axial Crisis of Axial Fulfillment? I discussed Michael Wood’s exposition of the Axial Age in his television series Legacy: The Origins of Civilization. In that post I contrasted Wood’s characterization of the Axial Age as a crisis with my characterization of the Axial Age as the mythological fulfillment of a mature demographic paradigm, and then suggested a crisis and a fulfillment can be one and the same thing.

One of the obvious ways in which the maturation of a social paradigm frequently issues in a social crisis is because a mature social paradigm often results in a relative degree of satiation, if not comfort, for the bulk of the population of a given demographic paradigm. Once people become relatively comfortable, they become confident, and once people become confident they seek out challenges, but it is the very nature of a mature social paradigm that the great challenge of that social paradigm has already been met. Thus, as a result, a large number of people will ask for the first time, “Is this all there is?” “Is there nothing more to life?”

There is a wonderful passage from Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality that expresses this sociological truism with particular philosophical poignancy:

“The social history of mankind exhibits great organizations in their alternating functions of conditions for progress, and as contrivances for stunting humanity. The history of the Mediterranean lands, and of western Europe, is the history of the blessing and the curse of political organizations, of religious organizations, of schemes of thought, of social agencies for large purposes. The moment of dominance, prayed for, worked for, sacrificed for, by generations of the noblest spirits, marks the turning point where the blessing passes into the curse. Some new principle of refreshment is required. The art of progress is to preserve order amid change, and to preserve change amid order. Life refuses to be embalmed alive. The more prolonged the halt in some unrelieved system of order, the greater the crash of the dead society.”

Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, Corrected Edition by Griffin and Sherburne, The Free Press, 1978, Part V, Chapter I, section III, p. 339

Whitehead’s formulation in terms of, “The more prolonged the halt in some unrelieved system of order, the greater the crash of the dead society,” immediately puts me in mind of ecological resilience. Previously in Self-Dissimilarity I quoted The Resilience Stability Tradeoff: Drawing Analogies between River Flood Management and Macroeconomic Management by Ashwin Parameswaran, in which he quoted this formulation of resiliency:

“…when the range of natural variation in a system is reduced, the system loses resilience.That is, a system in which natural levels of variation have been reduced through command-and-control activities will be less resilient than an unaltered system when subsequently faced with external perturbations.”

Whitehead’s “philosophy of organism” represents a thorough-going organic conception of the world, and it is easy to see that organicism is a perennial mode of philosophical thought, usually found in contrast to mechanism. I now see that this tradition of organicism is the forerunner to ecological thought. Stated conversely, ecological thought is the latest manifestation of organicism.

The Mario Bunge Dictionary of Philosophy and the venerable Runes Dictionary of Philosophy both define organicism as a position between the polar opposites of mechanism and vitalism, but we need not even consult any such sources to understand what is meant by “organic,” since our untutored intuition is probably a better guide as to what is organic and how it differs from the mechanistic. In fact, we construct our definitions in the attempt (however imperfect) to capture the intuitive sense of “organic.”

Whitehead’s philosophy is also constructed around the idea of the organic, and the organic organization of things, just as recent ecological thought is constructed around the attempt to capture the nature of the organic. It is of the nature of complex adaptive systems to always elude our attempts to pin them down. If they weren’t complex we would have figured them out some time ago, and if they weren’t adaptive, we would have had them reduced to some predictable algorithm.

Organicism represents a perennial mode of thought, a perennial idea that recurs throughout the human attempt to understand the world, and which will continue to recur. Mechanism is similarly perennial.

Ecological thought represents the current embodiment of organicism. With my exposition of ecological temporality I have the nucleus of what could be an organic philosophy of history, but I can’t yet see my way clear to an illuminating formation. I will have to continue to think about this.

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