Author’s Preface & Introduction

Epoché (I), 11. 6. 2020

A synopsis of our reading of The Organism by Kurt Goldstein

“Author’s Preface” & “Introduction” (pp. 17-31)

Abridgment by: Sebastjan Vörös 
[his outline and commentary of the whole book can be found here

Author’s Preface (1963)

The book’s essential character = not so much in the communication of facts, as in the clarification of the problem of method in biological research and in elucidating ways of conceptualizing the empirical material.

The uniqueness of the book: application of a new method by which more justice may be done to the description and understanding of the behaviour of normal and pathological living beings. Its origins = practical aim of helping patients suffering from severe disturbances due to brain defects; practical work has led Goldstein to realize that what is needed for studying living beings (esp. man), is essentially a different method, one that placed the total organism of the individual in the foreground (17).

The book = a detailed description of the new method, the so-called holistic, organismic approach; its goal is to offer a way to evaluate our empirical observations in their significance for the total organism’s functioning and thereby to understand the structure and existence of the individual person. All this is of course related to important questions about epistemology:

“There is a difference that frequently has led to an overestimation of natural science in our attempt to understand human beings, since the application of the methods and results of natural science may hinder the proper interpretation of life. To attempt to understand life from the point of view of the natural-science method alone is fruitless.” (18) 

The holistic method cannot exclude any experiences of one kind or the other. Both belong to human beings and must be evaluated in their relevance for human existence. Therefore, the difference should be carefully considered. The fruitfulness of a method reveals itself particularly in the possibility of treating new problems or raising new questions. It can be applied to material in such a way as to instigate new inquiry and achieve new unities instead of merely isolated phenomena.

After the publication, new insights have been gained by the means of this method:

(a) A propos concrete and abstract behaviour: in the book, it is claimed that these two attitudes appear interdependently; however, the examples of (i) infants and (ii) “primitive peoples” pop up, where it seems that only the concrete attitude is present. But this is not the case: (i) the infant is able to live because people around him, particularly the mother, organize the world in such a way that he is exposed as little as possible to the demands he cannot fulfill; (ii) primitive peoples reveal the same characteristic, as research (particularly that of Paul Radin) indicates; for in primitive communities there live two kinds of people, “knowers”, who have the capacity for the abstract attitude and employ it, and the “others”, the “nonknowers”, who also have the capacity, but for the most part do not utilize it and thus seem to be able to live exclusively on the concrete, inferior level (19)

(b) A propos “sphere of immediacy”: it was realized that human behaviour cannot be fully understood from the concept of concrete-abstract attitude; another sphere of human behavior must be considered: when we are in this sphere, subject-object experiences remain more or less in the background and the feeling of unity comprising ourselves and the world in all respects, and particularly in our relation to other human beings, is dominant. This I term “the sphere of immediacy”. It is not a subjective experience or an irrational assumption. In fact, it is governed by laws that are different from logical reasoning, and it is difficult to describe. When we try to talk about it, the words we use may appear strange, but are, in fact, not only comprehensible, but actually reveal a new world to which we do not generally pay attention in our practical and scientific behaviour. These experiences originate from the same world in which we otherwise live – they even represent the deepest character of the world. For the individual is here involved in his totality, while in the S-O world he is considered an isolated and isolating point of view that we may prefer for some specific purpose. The experience of immediacy cannot be reached by the discursive procedure or by any kind of synthesis: it may be achieved only by surrendering ourselves to the world with which we come in contact without fearing to lose our relation to the ordered world (20-1). 

The experience teaches us that we are able to live in both spheres, that these spheres are not opposed to each other. It shows that our existence is based not on objectively correct order alone, but at the same time on comfort, well-being, beauty, and joy, on belonging together. The sphere of immediacy becomes apparent in many circumstances of everyday life: friendship, love, creative work, religious attitude, even in parts of scientific investigation. The feeling of unity in the sphere of immediacy is the deepest foundation for the experience of well-being and for self-realization. (example: being deceived in our encounter with another person with whom we believed ourselves to belong together) (21).

Goldstein points out as his central conviction the idea that the biological knowledge is possible because of the similarity between human nature and human knowledgebiological knowledge is an expression of human nature. (22)


All previous attempts to understand life have used the method that proceeds from the lower (simpler) to the higher (more complex). This view has persisted even in recent times, despite the move away from the reflex concept (23).

Departure from experiences with man

Goldstein’s approach = attempt to proceed in the diametrically opposed direction: it takes man for its point of departure; from a study of human behaviour it tries to obtain the foundations for an understanding of the other forms of organic life (23). Choosing the human being as a starting point is not only a pragmatic move (with Goldstein being a physician, etc.), but also because there is almost no concept more problematic and open to question than the concept of simplicity. Even in human behaviour, “simpler” performances have been found to be abstractions, and the events that the latter aim to explain turn out to be “simple” only in the presence of a specific, habitual, technical attitude of abstraction. At closer range, these “simple” phenomena have been found to be much more obscure (e.g., the traditional view of the difference between perception and sensation, or action and reflex).

In most discussions, the designation “simple(r)” is ordinarily not explicated; usually, what is meant is that a process is “simple” to the extent to which it appears to us as irreducible to more obvious and elementary ones. For instance, an organism (say, protozoa) is assumed more simple because it is more easily understood in their structure and in their forms of “adjustment” to the environment. But: are we sure that, in doing so, we are not overlooking the very nature of these beings? Might it not be the case that we have simplified them artificially and see in them only what is consistent with such a simplification? The controversy over the behaviour of protozoa is a good case in point: some (mechanicists?) see in them simply reflex mechanisms, others (vitalists?) think that their behaviour calls for complicated psychic processes (24-5).

The decision as to whether a certain pattern of behaviour of an organism is simple or complex presupposes a knowledge of the “nature” of the creature involved. Thus, the problem of simplicity/complexity leads us back to the problem of equivocal description of the very essence, the intrinsic nature of the particular organism. → Consequently: man becomes the obvious starting point of our investigation, because the closer we stand in our relation to a living being, the sooner we may expect to arrive at a correct judgement regarding its essential nature. If nothing else, methodological issues and possible errors can be more easily noticed in the human field, since here the consequences of such faulty procedure affect the modes of life and behaviour more conspicuously. (25)

What is crucial, is to find a way to avoid both anthropomorphism (man → animal) and zoomorphism (animal → man). The study of humans and that of animals have each their place proper place, and we must avoid making rash generalizations from one area to the other. However, insofar as experience in either field may be considered apt to throw light on the other, we should prefer to have the observation of human beings as the starting point. (25-6)

Although the discussion in the book will be confined to the nervous system (this is the area where the author feels really at home), the conclusions drawn will be such as to make possible generalizations regarding processes in the other systems of the organism. According to Goldstein, such justifications are acceptable, since organs are not separate systems with their own functions, but integrated parts of the whole organism (26).

Biology as a science of living beings

Since biology is often conceived as science of life, it may seem reasonable that biology should start with an exact definition of life. However, no definition has been accepted as final, and no attempts at such definition have contributed much to our understanding of the living world. Further, it stands to reason that such a definition would presuppose a knowledge of living organisms, and would therefore, of necessity, be obliged to follow, rather than preclude, our observations.

Should a biologist start by mapping out his territory (= subject matter)? Goldstein doesn’t think this is necessary: any formalization of the subject matter of a science is useful only if it follows, not precedes the investigation. The question: “In what does living matter differ from nonlinving?” presupposes that we have already separated the two. This material is simply the world around us, in which certain phenomena immediately stand out as “living”, without revealing to us the why and wherefore of this characteristic, or even challenging an inquiry concerning it. Life confronts us in the living being. These organisms provide our subject matter (26-7):

“The first task of biology, then, is to describe carefully all living beings as they actually are, to apprehend them in their peculiarities, to recognize, differentiate, and to “knowthem, to decide whether and how they can be compared with each other, and whether and how they are related genetically.”  (27)

Here, Goldstein quotes Hermann Jacques Jordan: “The riddle of biology is the riddle of the systems themselves”, that is – he elaborates – of the specific nature of the various organisms proper, and not that of the changes in a system whose organization is irrelevant to the investigator. (27)

Thus to know life we must understand organisms. But in order to study organisms scientifically, we must take them apart, which yields a multitude of isolated facts that offer no clue to that which we experience directly in the living organism. Yet we have no way of making the nature and behaviour an organism scientifically intelligible other than by constructing it out of facts obtained in that way (27).

This the basic problem of all biology, possibly of all knowledge:

“What do the phenomena, arising from the isolating procedure, teach us about the “essence” (the intrinsic nature) of an organism? How, from such phenomena, do we come to an understanding of the behaviour of the individual organism?” (27)

So far, biologists have divided the organism (like any physical object) and then reconstructed it. But this procedure has yielded few satisfactory results, either in respect to the physical or the psychic phenomena of an organism. Dissatisfaction with these results, both from a theoretical and (even more so) therapeutic standpoint, have been, for Goldstein, the main motive in attempting to restate the problem. Again and again, new [auxiliary, ad hoc] hypotheses needed to be introduced to bring facts in accord with one another, which resulted in patients and physicians starting to lose faith in the practical value of scientific theory. This opened the way for queries as to whether biology as a science is at all possible (27-8).

The aim of this book is not to offer theoretical speculations, but to present the facts themselves, and discuss those explanatory concepts that these facts suggest and through which a reliable comprehension of biological phenomena is attainable.

Important point about methodology: subject matter and method are interrelated; the more the subject matter of our research becomes distinct, the more clearly will the method itself become manifest. Whether or not both are adequate instruments of science can be verified by only one criterion: fruitfulness in their respective fields (28). Goldstein makes clear that he will not opt for any form of intuitive approach. Every natural science, he feels, must start with an analytic dissection (this helps us avoid “fictitious generalities”) (29).

Departure from pathological data

The book proceeds from pathological rather than normal phenomena. Goldstein believes there is “greater revelation” in pathological phenomena. This does not mean that they immediately provide us with a real understanding of the nature of the organism. One cannot simply draw inferences based on experiences in pathology; transfers from pathological to normal phenomena are permissible only if we take into account the specific laws that govern the phenomena in each field of science (29). 

Namely, it has become increasingly evident that pathological phenomena can be recognized, not simply as “curiosa, created by the disease” (29), but as an indication of lawful variations of the normal life process. Moreover, they become very useful for the understanding of normal phenomena, provided one explores the laws that characterize these pathological conditions (30). In this regard, experimental interference and disease mean essentially the same thing. In both cases, our observations are on substrata that have been impaired

“As we shall see, the symptoms of disease and the results of experimental observation can actually be relegated to the same class.”

A propos not having cited sufficiently the views of other authors in this books, he cites Goethe:

“The artist receives from without not merely his subject matter; he may also take unto himself foreign ideas.”

“Provided he presents the material in a refined if not perfected form, the scientist may and must make use of historical predecessors without religiously referring to the source of his material.” (31)

(Most butterfly species overwinter in life stages of an egg or a pupa. Common brimstones (Gonepteryx rhamni, sl.citrončki), however, overwinter as adults. In late autumn, they bury themselves under the fallen leaves and hibernate until the first thaw in March. They are amongst the longest-living butterflies, with a life expectancy ranging from 10 months to a year.)


The following topics were pointed out during the discussion:

Ia) The implementation of analytic dissection is vitally important for the natural sciences, however, it contains a troubling amount of ad-hoc generalizations. Examples would be the concepts such as “part” and “simplicity”. What defines something to be a part? What counts as simple? What is the nature of these criteria? Where does the science derive them from?

Hilde Hein writes about a recurring alternation between the paradigms of mechanicism and vitalism that takes place in biology. The dispute is in fact rooted in the substratum of metatheoretical commitments. The latter shape the interdisciplinary trends inside the timeframes of different periods in the history of science. For example, in contemporary time, the Cartesian method is regarded as a conventional one while the holistic approach is oftentimes considered to be a ‘stale’ remnant of vitalism. We need to reflect upon the foundations of such assessments. Why do we find the parts to be more meaningful than the wholes? Why do we ascribe the qualities of clara et distincta to a reflex but not to the totality of the organism?

Ib) Having taken the fruitfulness of a methodology as a criterion for its adequacy, does that suffice for it to be recognized as a principal norm in the comparison of methodologies/epistemologies in general?

A fruitful method, as defined by Goldstein, allows us i) to treat new problems, ii) raise new questions and iii) achieve new unities. It enables us to see the facts differently, as meaningful wholes emerge from the extensively described phenomena. The auxiliary hypotheses need not to be introduced.

The metatheoretical field nevertheless remains hazy. Is it even possible to disentangle from one’s own metatheoretical assumptions, considering the extent of their presence in our theoretical and empirical work? A basic legitimation for foundationalism might not exist: using one fundamental theory to explain / compare / evaluate other theories seems somewhat farfetched. We can illustrate that by the aim to interpret the mystical experiences by a scientific theory of neuronal activations in the brain, while the theory itself is generated by the neuronal activations in the brain. Crediting a particular theory as superior results in the annihilation of its components – in our case, the brain is but a part of the world we are trying to understand.*

Accordingly, neuroimaging cannot be used as a tool for predicting the behavioural patterns in individuals. The method is analogous to the attempt of describing a bird’s flight by the characteristics of its feathers. Empirical data cannot be the basis for the interpretation of metatheories.

*One of the counterarguments is Peter Singer’s justification of utilitarianism. He claims that the characteristical-ontological mode of thinking activates the brain areas associated with the emotions while the utilitarian mode of thinking supposedly activates the areas associated with rational thought.

II) What can the sphere of immediacy tell us about a particular organism? In which ways does it address the topics introduced by Goldstein?

According to Merleau-Ponty, the fact that Schneider lacks the abstract attitude does not mean that all that remains for him is the confinement to the concrete attitude. The latter is described by different authors in a rather non-dualistic way. Concrete attitude might be connected with the sphere of immediacy in a manner similar to the Hegelian Aufhebung. By this interpretation, Schneider is a nescient unity, proceeding into the dissolution of the subjective and the objective and finally both transcending and preserving the two opposites. Hence, the immediacy loosens the contrast between the subjective and the objective and brings forth their intertwinement on a vast, fundamental level. This concurrence of duality and unity may not be regarded as synonymous with regression in meditative practices. Here, our focus is not on the act of being present in the moment, bracketing the past and the future. 

Meditation, however, could be one of the means to, at least momentarily, consciously experience the sphere of immediacy. Metaphorically one could speak of an ocean whose photic zone represents the subjectivity and the objectivity, while the unity is symbolized by its aphotic depths. Profound diving renders an individual with a different outlook on the subjective and the objective without dismissing their relevance for one’s functioning in the world. One of the examples would be Rumi’s description of love toward the world and himself as a being in it – it differs significantly from the way that people usually describe love.

Merleau-Ponty’s radical reflection closely resembles Goldstein’s sphere of immediacy. Both of them result in an awareness of a deep dialogism between the subjective and the objective: the unreflected perspective of a divergence between me and the others begins to ebb. The phenomena acquire fluidity.

Vitality is nondual at its very core. Mystics attempted to think of the duality and unity unanimously. Later on various philosophers (e.g., Bortoft, Deleuze, Varela, Brown) elaborated on creating a concept of nondualistic logic.

The question remains whether the abstract attitude also contributes in the constitution of the sphere of immediacy, and if it does, how? Goldstein’s explanation remains scarce.

III) Taking human as a point of reference in our research, we risk adopting an anthropomorphic attitude. However, is the latter necessarily disadvantegeously biased, as we make it seem? Reaching a decision about Goldstein’s approach as being prejudiced before acquainting ourselves with it could be a product of our own unreflected opinion. 

It is important to consider what it is that we are trying to oppose to. Merleau-Ponty criticized the summative approaches that tried to explain the human behaviour based on the laws in physics. Goldstein’s proposition starts on the opposite end, possibly paralleling Hegel’s and Merleau-Ponty’s transformative approaches.

As human beings, we cannot but interpret the world through our cognition. It is impossible to take a completely impartial stance. We should not fear for this argument possibly being furthered into the conclusions as, for example, emotions not being present in animals. Such deduction would be invalid, since it presupposes for animals to have nothing in common with people.  

Being familiar with human characteristics can prove as a good starting point in trying to understand the diverse form of life. They can be later subtracted from our observations as known artifacts – we are able to separate the signal from the noise and obtain more accurate results.

IV) What is normality? How do we define it? Would it not be more appropriate to consider it as existing on a spectrum?

By Fromm’s definition, normality is the predominate form of pathology in a certain society. In a pathological society, a normal individual will show the symptoms of neurosis.

Questions to consider:

a) What is the nature of the criteria for the analytic dissection? Where does the science derive them from?

a.1) What defines something to be a part? Why do we find the parts to be more meaningful than the wholes? Why do we ascribe the qualities of clara et distincta to a ‘simple’ reflex but not to the ‘complex’ totality of the organism? 

b) Having taken the fruitfulness of a methodology as a criterion for its adequacy, does that suffice for it to be recognized as a principal norm in the comparison of methodologies/epistemologies in general?

b1) Is our pursuit of a foundational criterion for evaluating the epistemologies fruitful in itself? How can we approach the theory of metatheoretical commitments without getting lured into an insoluble impasse?

c) What can the sphere of immediacy tell us about a particular organism? 

d) In which ways does the sphere of immediacy address the topics introduced by Goldstein?

e) Does the abstract attitude contribute to the constitution of the sphere of immediacy, and if it does, how? 

f) What is normality? How do we define it? Would it not be more appropriate to consider it as existing on a spectrum?