Ch. II – The Organism Viewed in the Light of Results Obtained Through Atomistic Method. The Theory of Reflex Structure of The Organism

Epoché (III), 2. 7. 2020

A synopsis of our reading of The Organism by Kurt Goldstein

II. “The Organism Viewed in the Light of Results Obtained Through Atomistic Method. The Theory of Reflex Structure of The Organism” (pp. 69-93)

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

What is organism like in the light of the reflex theory?

Organism = a bundle of isolable mechanisms that are constant in structure and that respond, in a constant way, to events in the environment (= stimuli). These responses are said to depend on the existence of a differentiated nervous apparatus. Further, it is believed that this holds true not only of nervous but of all phenomena (e.g., chemical processes).

The aim of (behaviorist) research, then, is to dissect the behaviour of the organism in order to discover those “part processes” that are governed by mechanistic laws and by unambiguous, elementary reactions to definite stimuli. How does one achieve that? By exposing the organism to single stimuli, using various means to control conditions so that the reaction, which corresponds to that particular stimulus, may occur in almost complete isolation. Ideally, this is achieved by segregating/isolating from the whole that part of the organism under investigation. Consequently, those who have adopted this view consider “analytical” experimentation as the ideal foundation of knowledge. To this isolating/analytical technique we owe (a) our knowledge of reflexes, (b) of the difference between sensory and motor activity, and (c) of the so-called agonistic and antagonistic processes, as well as (d) information about the vegetative system, etc. (69).

The Observable Phenomena Do Not Correspond to the Definition of Reflexes

(x) Individually disparate mechanisms as alleged constituents of behaviour

According to the theory of reflexes, the total behaviour of the organism is, principally, a complex sum of single reflex mechanisms. Now, given its methodological clarity, this approach would, in fact, be considered ideal, if it really made possible an understanding of the behaviour of the organism. But does it? Do the facts support the reflex concept?

(x) The facts: no constancy

As it turns out, it is not easy to establish the existence of constant responses to specific stimuli. Quite the contrary, unprejudiced observation reveals that usually a large number of diverse reactions to the same stimulus occurs.

Example: Patellar reflex: The reaction varies depending on (i) the position of the limb, on (ii) the behaviour of the rest of the organism, on (iii) whether or not attention is paid to, on (iv) whether there are lesions in the pyramidal tract, etc. How are these discrepancies tackled by the advocates of the reflex theory? Usually, by evoking other (auxiliary) factors. For instance, it was claimed that the reflex is normally inhibited by impulses that pass along the pyramidal tract, and when these inhibitions cease, the reflex becomes abnormally strong.

Sum: even under normal conditions, the reflex cannot be properly understood in terms of the isolated mechanism alone(70-1).

(x) Variation of reflexes according to receptive fields and kinds of stimuli

It turns out that the reflex cannot be elicited by stimulating one definite and constant place; instead, what is normally evoked is a receptive “field”. However, Goldstein emphasizes that the excitability of this field changes with time, circumstances, and overall stimulations.

Example: Scratch reflex in dogs (Sherrington): the limits of the field in this reflex can vary on different days (71).

Further, it has been shown that, not only place, but also the kind of stimulus determines which reflex will appear.

Example: Decerebrated cat (Sherrington): it will promptly swallow water placed in the pharynx, but it will not swallow it if a small amount of alcohol is added. This small modification of the stimulus produces an entirely different response, i.e., “wiping movements of the tongue” (72).

(x) Variations according to harmless and harmful stimuli

Could these variations in responses be expressed by different kinds of stimulation? Hardly so; namely, such a hypothesis fails to account for cases where a special selection among various types to stimuli takes place.

Example: Flexor reflex in dogs: The flexor reflex in dogs can be (i) elicited through pricking, heat, pinching, and chemical stimulation, but not through (ii) touch and simple pressure. This means that there is a differentiation between a more “neutral” and a more “unpleasant” character of a stimulus. Consequently, one can classify stimuli into “harmful” and “harmless” and assume that the effect will vary according to the harmfulness or harmlessness. This poses a problem for the original hypothesis, because it demands a preestablished value scale, especially in view of the fact that the harmful reflexes prevail on simultaneous provocation of other reflexes. The problem becomes even more pronounced, however, when we realize that, under certain conditions, the scale can be reversed.

Example: Pain vs. information: In human beings, even in the face of pain and injury, no avoidance reflex will appear if the subject needs to obtain information regarding the nature of the stimulus. (72).

As seen from these examples, whether or not a reflex occurs, depends – in part – on the valueof the stimulus, i.e., on its functional significance for the whole organism (72-3).

(x) Variations according to stimulus intensity

Further, situations have been noted, in which two reflexes are simultaneously stimulated, but only one is realized. In order to account for this, the intensity of stimulus was suggested as a differentiating factor. However, empirical evidence failed to support this suggestions. In this regard, Victor von Weizsäcker said the following: “In no sense is it possible to establish a generally valid rule for predicting which stimulus or which reflex will prevail.” Goldstein adds: “[S]uch a pronouncement is true only when phenomena that arise from parts in isolation are considered”. In fact, as it turns out, small differences in intensity sometimes leads to the reflex reversal (72)

(x) Variations according to postural factors. The so-called reflex reversal

Other factors, e.g., change in the position of the limbs, tactile or other stimuli, poisons or fatigue, can also lead to reversal of movements.

Example: Positional influences on leg extension: In the usual experiment with a flexed leg, one obtains an extension of the crossed leg when the sole the other foot is stimulated. If the crossed leg is passively extended, one obtains flexion (73-4).

(x) Reflexes and total condition

Goldstein points out that it is remarkable that reflexes can turn out very differently, depending on whether we are dealing with “decerebrated” or “spinal” animals, and finally, that the outcome depends on the total condition, on the “general mood”, on the “mental set” of the animal.

Example: Babinski phenomenon:  When the sole is stimulated in such cases, we do not observe the “normal” plantar flexion of the toes, but a dorsal flexion, in particular, one of the large toe. To be sure, we find this phenomenon only under pathological conditions – but they are certainly not more pathological than the dissection of the spinal cord in an animal. Further, alluding to a pathological causation is in no way an explanation. Actually, entirely different factors have been suggested in explanation (e.g., the loss of inhibition), which will be dealt with later on.

The equivocal relation between stimulus and response is especially pronounced in the field of the vegetative nervous system. Only in very special circumstances, under the most complete isolation of one part, do we obtain constant responses to one specific stimulus.

Example: Stimulation of sympathicus: Stimulation of the sympathicus increases the tonus of the stomach when the muscle is relaxed and reduces it when it is contracted. The stimulation of the heart, of the bladder, and so on, with adrenaline, shows similar phenomena (74).

(x) Variation according to humoral conditions. Vagus and sympathicus

These variations of the stimulus effect are found to also depend on the humoral condition. Today, we may assume that the effect of the stimulation of the sympathicus or vagus on the reacting organ comes about by way of humoral processes that take place on the periphery during excitation. This may be regarded as a chemical transmission substance or as metabolic products of the physiological activity of the organs themselves (75).

(x) Drugs and hormones

Various drugs and hormones exert different effects on vagus/sympathicus.

Examples: drugs + hormones: Pilocarpine is usually a vagus stimulant, but it can also act as a stimulant for sympathicus; ergotoxin, which usually increases blood pressure, produces a reduction of blood pressure, if treatment with sufficient quantities of the drug has preceded. Things become even more complicated when humoral factors are taken into account: besides the “local hormones”, which seem to be effective only near their place of origin at the nerve, we must consider the multitude of “distant hormones” as well as the products of internal secretion of various glands and the humours of many, possibly all organs. Hypophysine and thyroxin are said to sensitize the organism for the effect of the adrenaline; yet the effect of the adrenaline can be inhibited through extracts from the liver, lungs, kidneys, thymus, etc. Finally, we need to recognize the important influence that the ionic state has on the functioning of the autonomic and sympathetic systems. Yet ionic state further depends on a definite equilibrium between the electrolyte and colloidal particles, the cell wall potential, etc. (76-7)

(x) General interaction. Reflex and tetroaction of periphery on nervous center, and vice versa

Finally, the facts compel us to acknowledge that all the numerous factors that have been isolated are really influencing each other. Here, Goldstein focuses especially on the influence of the peripheral processes on the function of the central nervous system (and vice versa). Such interdepencies play a crucial role in circulation, respiration, and metabolic processes (77). It would seem that all tissues of our body, not only the viscera, are under the influence of the vegetative system. Further, the spino-cerebral system is probably influenced by processes in the vegetative system, just as they, in turn, influence the latter. Finally, a far-reaching interaction has been demonstrated between vegetative and mental processes (this refers not only to emotional, but also to perceptual processes) (78).

Critique of Reflex Concept

(x) The so-called inhibition, shunting, and so on

The survey above was intended to show how impossible it is to attempt the isolation of a single factor and to consider it the sole determinant for the effect of a stimulus. Goldstein concludes that it seems “beyond discussion” that almost nowhere can a simple stimulus response relation be directly observed (78).

If we consider the responses to a given stimulus without bias, we can distinguish between two essentially different types of reaction

          (a) Constant reactions.

          (b) Variable reactions: reactions differing in strength, which may change qualitatively, even to the extent of the appearance of the opposite reaction.

Now, if we consider in what ways the situations differ, in which (a) and (b) occur, we find the following:

– Reactions (a) require :

          (i) require strict isolation of the stimulated and the reacting part from the rest of the organism;

          (ii) provision for a sufficient interval between the various individual reactions, i.e., an isolation regarding time.

– Reactions (b) result if (i) and (ii) do not occur, i.e., if we observe the reactions in the more “natural situationof the organism.

The customary method tries to reduce (b) to (a), i.e., seeing in (a) the basic reactions and regarding (b) as modifications. However, Goldstein will try to show that, concerning the question of simplicity and complexity and whether (b) can be deduced from (a), the converse view is probably nearer the truth.

To see why this is so, let us start with a closer inspection of the classical view. The “modifications” (= b) are usually reduced to various factors (= sum a), such as inhibition, facilitation, neural switching or shunting, influence from peripheral factors, etc. The main problem is that, again and again, new experimental revelations have led to additional theoretical assumptions that usually were not mutually compatible and thus necessitated further hypotheses (79).


(1) There is no justification for calling one reaction the normal reflex and the others variations of it. This is true only if we endorse the supposition that a phenomenon is normal when found in the artificial isolation of an analytic experiment.

(2) Whence come the inhibition, the shunting, switching, and so on? What directs them? The are no plausible answers to such questions in the classical theory.

(3) This viewpoint is entirely negative(cf. p. 146) and leads to an endless regress.

(4) Unbiased observations reveal that these additional assumptions (inhibition, etc.) cannot be maintained: one cannot determine which of two events is the inhibited and which the inhibiting one (80).

(x) The reversibility of all reactions; exemplification by the phenomena of tonus

One aspect that is often overlooked in classical models is that “reception” itself is determined by the condition of the effector apparatus: “[T]he efficacy of the outside stimulus is, in part, determined by the effector itself; in other words, the effect is really caused by the effector, or rather it does not depend on the stimulus alone. (80)”

Example: Neck reflexes (Magnus): neck reflexes involve a fixed relation between certain postures of the head and certain postures of the arms and legs. Goldstein points out that he has been able to prove experimentally an influence of the posture of the extremities on the head posture as well as an influence of the head posture on the extremities. There exists, he says, a complete reciprocity of the influences (80-1).

Possible objection I: Why hasn’t this yet received general recognition?

Goldstein’s answer: Because other investigators have failed to follow these experimental directions, which shows how a theoretical bias can block the proper elaboration of facts and result in a “defective empirical method”. They were so convinced that “Magnus reflexes” exhibit “proper reflex nature” and were consequently nonreciprocal in character that they felt Goldstein’s findings represented something totally different/unrelated to the “neck reflexes”. However, a “more accurate empiricism” shows very clearly the reciprocity of the events (81).

Possible objection II: But then why seemingly nonreciprocal phenomena equivalent to “neck reflexes” occur in the first place?

Goldstein’s answer: Because the observability of muscular changes depends, to a certain degree, on their intensity. The change depends on the relation of the mass of “inducing” muscle (e.g., neck) to the mass of the “induced” muscle in which the abnormal tension, or movement, occurs (e.g., arm). In this respect, the relation between the strength and volume of the neck muscle and that of the muscle of the upper extremity was particularly favourable to produce an influence on the muscles of the extremity by the neck muscles. But it was unfavourable for manifesting the reciprocal influence. However, closer inspection (more nuanced measurements) allow us to detect and study the opposite behaviour as well (81-2).

Goldstein goes on to provide a summary of a few experimental findings that are directly relevant to our discussion:

(1) The effect depends not only on the “stimulus” that is the result of change in the stimulating organ, the “stimulator” (the neck muscles), but also on the conditions of the stimulated organ, the “receptor” (the arm muscle).

(2) The relation between stimulatingand stimulated organ is, ipso facto, reversible.

(3) The “strength” of a limb, at any one time, depends not only on the respective posture and structure, but also on the condition of the rest of the organism, inasmuch as it co-determines the condition of the stimulated as well as the stimulating organ. Therefore, where the effect eventually appears, depends not only on the stimulus but on the total conditions prevailing in the organism at the time (82-3).

Goldstein points out that, at this point, he is primarily interested in proving the reciprocal relation of so-called reflex phenomena.

Example: vegetative nervous system: usually, the vegetative nervous system is said to be regulated by the antagonistic effects of the vagus and the sympathicus. However, Goldstein points out that it is absurd to speak of two different reflexes here – closer inspection reveals, again, complete reciprocity of effects (83).

(x) The so-called reciprocity and self-regulatory cycle of processes

The failure of the reflex theory has prompted some authors to regard the vegetative processes as belonging to one great system. Christian Kroetz, for instance, calls it “a system in which a continual circle of self-regulative vegetative processes takes place”. However, Goldstein believes that the assumption of circular self-regulative processes is unsatisfactory [!]. For the question emerges as to how a definite performance could ever result from such a system of self regulative processes:

“At best, such a dynamism would continuously transform disorder in the organism, resulting from events in the environment, into order. Actually, authors who adhere strictly to the reflex theory see the organism as merely a system of regulations that compensate the changes that arise by restoring the organism’s equilibrium. According to this view, everything seems to be made for the preservation of the equilibrium state of the organism. But if the life of the organism consisted merely of an interplay of elementary factors that kept each other in check, how could any movement, any dynamics, enter into the situation to give direction to behavior? And direction is what we actually find as the outstanding characteristic in the performances of the organism.” (84)

Whence Comes the Direction in the Activity of the Organism?

Given that, as Goldstein emphasizes, direction can be seen as the essential characteristic of every vital phenomenon, it is imperative to find an answer to the question as to where it comes from. Two answers seem possible:

(a) From without: The direction is effected through a specific environment in which the organism lives.

(b) From within: The direction is effected through a certain determination and force issuing from the organism itself (84).

(x) From without?

It is usually accepted that (a) is correct: accurate investigations have shown that the individual organism is always fitted into a very specific environment and that its existence ultimately hinges on the environment that is adequate for it. Goldstein mentions that both his and Uexküll’s research is basic to this point.

(x) Criticism of the purely environmental theory. World and environment (milieu) 

However, there are problems with this prevailing interpretation. Namely,

“the fact that the organism finds itself in an ordered state only in certain environments, and can only live in such an environment, does not mean at all that the environment creates this order. This would only be possible, in general, if the life of every individual organism actually fitted firmly into a segregated (“insulated”) part of the world – into its environment – and if the rest of the world were nonexistent for it.”

Yet this is not the case:

“Each organism lives in a world that by no means contains only such stimuli as are adequate for it. It lives not merely in its ‘own environment’ (milieu) but in a world in which all possible sorts of stimuli are present and act on it. The organism must cope with this ‘quasi-negative’ environment. Actually, some sort of continuous selection among the events in the world takes place, namely, from that point of view wherein events are, or are not, pertinent to the organism. The environment of an organism is by no means something definite and static but is continuously forming commensurably with the development of the organism and its activity. One could say that the environment emerges from the world through the being and actualization of the organism. Stated in a less prejudiced manner, an organism can exist only if it succeeds in finding in the world an adequate environment – in shaping an environment (for which, of course, the world must offer the opportunity). An environment always presupposes a given organism. How could it then be determined by the environment? How could it achieve order only by the environment? […] Environment first arises from the world only when there is an ordered organism. Therefore, the order must be determined from somewhere else. From where? From within the organism? We are ultimately referred back to the organism itself.”(85) 

This last part is particularly clear in the diseased. For the altered/diseased organism the basic prerequisite of existence is the capability to shape again an adequate environment (85).

*(x) Sherrington’s concept of integration

The preceding analysis casts doubts on all attempts to explain order in the organism in terms of an effect from the environment. Sherrington’s work on “integration” is based on such an attempt. Goldstein points out that Sherrington’s work needs to be studied carefully “not only because he deserves the highest esteem as a scholar but also because no one else has defined and employed the reflex concept as clearly as he has”.

Sherrington starts with the simplest reflex, where one stimulus causes a reaction by way of one receptor and effector, while the rest of the organism remains completely unaffected. He chooses this reflex for methodological reasons, appreciating full well that he is dealing with an abstraction. The actual reality – the actual forms of behaviour – are, for him, the sum total of the reflexes. This sum represents the instrument of order that governs the activity of the organism. Order is established by the fact that this complicated reflex apparatus becomes active, and is kept active, through the total stimulation of the environment. Thus, for such a summative concept of the whole, it is a scientifically correct approach to start from the reflexes and to study their changes under varying conditions.

Goldstein makes it clear that, under the original assumption, this approach is logical. The reason why the scientists who proceed in this manner fail to notice that order is not comprehensible on this basis stems from the fact that they never deal, in their concrete work, with the organism as a whole. They can be content with such an approach, because they deal mostly with animals; but for researchers, who are concerned with human beings, this is inadequate, since they are required to comprehend the performances of the whole organism (86).

*(x) Is the direction issuing from the organism itself? The theory of coordination centers 

In addition to this “orto-behavioristic” approach [my term, obviously] there are also certain quasi-holistic approaches. Here, Goldstein considers the theory of coordination centers, which postulates higher centers of the NS, which are supposed to regulate other processes. One speaks of “higher performances” in this regard; and usually, a genuine part-whole relation is not intended with the use of this concept.

Why must this theory be rejected? Because of the lack of utility of the concept of inhibition. Bethe, who has made a thorough critical discussion of the theory, points out that “each small part of the nervous system is at the same time a primary reflex center and, with regard to the neighboring part, a center of coordination […] The coordination is located everywhere and nowhere.” He refers (example) to studies on worms, etc., to show that their movements occur essentially unmodified, even when the connections between the segments are interrupted (87).

*(x) The “resonance” theory (Weiss)

According to studies done by J. Moritz Schiff, function is not determined by a definite anatomical connection. “Ordered” performance could, then, be explained if certain areas of the CNS were brought in tune with each other in the manner of resonators (87-8). This idea has been more recently taken up by Paul Weiss, who has tried to use it in his interpretation of his “brilliant transplantation experiments”. Weiss found that an implanted additional extremity executes exactly the same movements as the adjoining normal extremity that is in its proper location. From this, he draws the conclusion that the performance is the result of tuning between parts of CNS and peripheral effectors.

However, Goldstein agrees with Bethe that, although attractive, Weiss’s hypothesis does not explain the adjustment that becomes necessary if the old performances are to take place in spite of interchange of muscles and nerves. In order for this to occur, one would have to presume a modification of the tune of the resonator, and by doing so, we would be no nearer to an understanding than if we assumed any other form of shunting. Further, Bethe is correct in his objection that this hypothesis presupposes the existence of preformed and specific centers, from which the specific wave of excitation issues. The resonance hypothesis, then, cannot explain where the direction of the process originates; it can, at best, explain why, when one part is excited, other parts are also brought into play. But in general, it leaves completely unexplained the relation of each single performance to the whole organism (88).

*(x) Uexküll’s theory

Uexküll tried to improve on these difficulties through certain hypotheses regarding the distribution of the excitations. Specifically, he talks of three factors that are said to act as regulators in this connection:

Factor 1: The state of extension of the muscle. Usually, the excitation flows along the more tensed muscle. However, this is not always the case, which is why other factors are required.

Factor 2: The operation of additional laws. One of these laws is the different effects of strong and weak reflexes: e.g., in the sea urchin, certain muscles contract under weak stimulation but relax under strong stimulation. Uexküll explains this by a shunting mechanism, brought on by the force of the stimulus. Bethe, however, refutes this view, claiming that such responses always indicate a dispositional change (Umstimmung).

Factor 3: So-called tonus valley (Tonustal). The same stimulus can become effective in quite different ways and in different localities, and it depends on the prevailing condition of the various regions concerned.

Example: cerebellar lesion: if such a patient is made to raise the arm of the diseased side in the forward direction, we find that the arm will deviate at the shoulder joint to the outside; if one prevents this deviation by holding the arm at the shoulder joint, then the deviation takes place in the elbow joint; if one also prevents this, the deviation makes its appearance in the wrist joint; and finally if this is impeded, in the finger joint (89).

Goldstein is in agreement with Uexküll’s views, inasmuch he has replaced the customary concept of excitation in NS as being an oscillatory process in favour of the model of a displaceable fluid. However, what his view lacks is an account as to how this fluid attains a definite formation, especially how it is dammed up in the place of the “tonus valley”. The previous two factors (1 & 2) are of no help in this regard. All these laws, like the reflex laws, hold only for definite experimental conditions, where the distribution of the excitation is determined in various ways; they teach us nothing regarding the actual life process.

*(x) Bethe’s concept of gliding coupling

According to Bethe, the coordination is determined partly by events that take place outside the animal and partly by those that take place inside. Each situation brings about the appropriate coordination, a prototype of which is, according to Bethe, the “gliding coupling” or “gliding regulation” (for a thorough account see 90-1).

Goldstein feels that the principle of “gliding coupling” may be an adequate explanation of the changing muscular interplay in the artificial hand, in its varying environment, but it is hardly sufficient to explain the events in the living organism. Namely, Bethe’s principle assumes an equally constant pull, one single constant impulse, which is the case in the use of the artificial hand, but is not the case when various objects are grasped by the natural hand (it is false, Goldstein maintains, to assume that in, say, grasping an object with the hand, only the general impulse of closing is sent to all muscles). At best, such a sequence of events is found only when completely unfamiliar objects are involved, and then only if the intention is to grasp, but not to use, the object. Whenever objects are familiar then even the first moment is not one of equal closure for all parts but is graded in the various muscles, corresponding to the peculiarity of the object- We have the “feel” of a familiar object even before we grasp it (91).

However, yet another factor speaks against Bethe’s “gliding coupling”. The grasping of an object is almost never an end in itself; it is usually the first link in a movement of manipulation. The innervation of separate muscles thus takes place not on the principle of grasping but on the principle of progressive use. Only under abnormal conditions do we find a simple grasping (analogous to the “holding” of the artificial hand) in the so-called “forced grasping”, which could, perhaps, be explained on the principle of the “gliding coupling” (92).

(x) The elements posited by the reflex theorem cannot offer an understanding of the organism

The exposition thus far have aimed at showing that the structure of the organism and its ordered activity cannot be understood on the basis of such elements as furnished by the reflex theory. What follows is a preliminary sketch of Goldstein’s alternative view of the functioning of the organism (93).

(Compared to anthropogenic meadows, wildflower meadows are significantly richer in biodiversity. The former are suitable habitats for the species that fruit before the first mowing or have underground parts (bulb, rhizome, tuber, etc.). Sprinkling the meadows with liquid manure to maximize the yield of biomass adversely affects the species that prefer nitrogen-poor soils, e.g., orchids.)


The following topics were pointed out during the discussion:

I) Goldstein introduces and criticizes various attempts at preserving the concept of reflex. He points out that even Kroetz’s designation of “a system in which a continual circle of self-regulative vegetative processes takes place” is not satisfactory if one really wants to understand the events in the organism. Goldstein’s argumentation, however, does not seem to be adequately formulated. As far as we understand it, he might be implying that Kroetz’s assumption lacks a holistic moment of intentionality. The latter emanates from the organism, as he indicates on p. 85. Interacting with the world in which it is thrown, the organism carves out its environment. (The original term for this process, Auseinandersetzung, suits it somehow better than its translation coming to terms.) In the subsequent chapter, Goldstein writes about the inadequacy of the reflexive coming to terms, asserting the adequate coming to terms as outlined by the organism’s Being. Yet he does not elaborate on what he considers to be the organism’s Being.

The characterization of the world as a quasi-negative environment is intriguingly interesting. Being an assemblage of potentially endangering stimuli, the world challenges the organism to self-actualize and thus perceive some sort of order and significance amidst it. A pathological organism strives to maintain the order of its environment as unaffected as possible by being rigid, wavering in the status quo (e.g., an anosognosic patient). A healthy organism, on the other hand, has the capacity to be plastic and dynamic; it does not try to evade the elements of its quasi-negative environment coming forth, but instead restructures itself in order to adapt, making these intrusive elements a part of its own environment – and hence it self-actualizes.

II) The behaviorists declared themselves to be radical empirists, which is a highly inconsistent claim to be made, regarding a multitude of theoretical concepts they have introduced in order to perpetuate their interpretations. However, we ought not draw ad hoc conclusions about the additional hypotheses without revisioning their role in science. Could science possibly function without them, or rather, without the hypotheses at all, being unprejudiced at its very outset? Second, should the hypotheses be testifiable in each and every case? Lastly, which is the turning point for the hypotheses to become disadvantegeous for the scientific progress and what characterizes a hypothesis as disadvantageous?

III) A neurologist and a behaviorist may regard the causality in different manners. Namely, a behaviorist observes the input and output from a black box – they are thinking along the lines of linear causality (a typical example would be experimenting on a frog: the conclusions are drawn from the animal’s response to an applied stimulus). A neurologist looks inside the black box: their method shows that there is no singular pathway for the stimulus in the brain. Therefore, they deduce that it is highly unlikely for something as linear as a reflex to occur on a regular basis.

This is nevertheless an idealized image of current affairs in neuroscience. A lot of neurologists still conceive the brain as compartmentalized into functional centres – that is, as an assemblage of input-output systems. Functionalism is, in some important aspects, a descendant of behaviorism: it opens the black box, only to insert a bunch of small-scale black boxes. 

Since the concept of function has a prominent role in his theory, one could consider Goldstein to be a functionalist as well. There are, however, some important differences between his approach and the one described above. That is to say, he aims for no simple scheme of compartmentalization. From a holistic standpoint, a function is not preestablished, but is generated in a particular situation (see Merleau-Ponty’s body schema). What will be the input and output varies markedly throughout time and is determined by the organism’s means of connecting the two. One cannot predict independently from a particular organism what will be an input (i.e., a relevant stimulus) for it. This can only be done in retrospective. One can, however, observe the organism in its natural environment and try to distinguish the meaningful wholes that the organism interacts with. The key features of the organism’s world – its milieu – serve as sources of relevant stimuli for it. Notwithstanding, reproducing the milieu in a laboratory setting by abstracting what we deem to be its rudimentary constituents will likely tell us little about a particular organism. It will try to make something out of what it gets, but it may not recognize the features of an artificial milieu as sources of relevant stimuli. This kind of inadequate environment ultimately results in a catastrophic reaction and we get to know nothing about the behaviour that is otherwise characteristic of the organism.

In short, while a functionalist observes what happens inside the black box, Goldstein takes a note on what happens for the black box. What counts as an event for an organism is determined by its sphere of normativity, a coalescence of:

– criterions for its survival

– criterions for its well-being

– its domain of meaning (it imposes what is relevant for perseverance and for self-actualization, see Varela)

– its intentionality.

These moments emerge simultaneously with the living systems. Functionalism is unable to interpret them unless it, for instance, vitalizes the results it obtains in retrospective.

Functionalism focuses upon the functional role of mental states, studying their causal relations with other mental states, sensory inputs and behavioural outputs – it regards the organism causalistically. But what kind of causality is applied here? In contemporary times, the linear conception of causality is not as prevailing as it used to be nor it is preferred, as can be demonstrated by numerous examples, e.g.:

– causality as used in meteorological models

– a plethora of phenomena that create patterns which are describable by the statistical laws but cannot be explained with the models of linear causality. Statistical scientists can make predictions about such phenomena, all the while claiming there is really nothing remarkable to know about them. Examples would be regular economical fluctuations in the stock market, the outbursts of infections, etc.

– the operational closure described by Varela and Maturana. The whole of an organism responds to its exteriority by internalizing the stimuli that affect it. Therefore, it attains and perseveres its autonomy. The process could be summarized in terms of an input-output mechanism, but the network of the relations within the entirety of the body makes each individual’s response to a relevant stimulus unique. This is not the case for linear causality. If, for instance, the body is split in half, neither of the halves will respond to a stimulation in a same way as it would, were the body still intact.

Aside from all that, conversing with scientists, one gets an impression that the mechanicistic reasoning is still deeply ingrained. Science aims for the discovery of causal correlations. On the other hand, after the theory of dynamic systems has gained credence among the scientific community, causality has become almost an unwanted term in some circles. However, we should be exact when referring to causality, given that we usually equate it with the linear causality. Going back to Aristotle, he distinguished between four different types of it. It would be of great benefit to try and reconceptualize the causality. What are its implications? It would be interesting to observe how it has evolved since the introduction of dynamic systems.

IV) What are the implications of the concept of causality for systemic biology? Were the causality sensu lato nonexistent, it would be impossible to speak of meaning, forasmuch as meaning demands to have a concomitant effect. For this purpose, Merleau-Ponty introduced the concept of motive. The prompt to a certain behaviour exists prior to the reflective recognition of meaning. That is to say, the body as an organizational principle reveals to me a certain net of meanings and motives. The motive inherently tends toward something – my conscious decision has little to nothing to do with the behaviour elicited by a certain motive.

Speaking of reality, one usually imagines it as something that exists outside of them (i.e., the world). Reality, however, is fundamentally dynamic and comprises the world as well as the subject. A living being innately constitutes an ultimate whole together with the world. This polarity that encompasses the whole/everything is given to the subject as a fact. In order to be alive, one has to maintain their separation from the world, but only to the point of not isolating oneself. The subject is thrown into the dynamic of unity-duality. The reality is. It is pointless to question whether the world precedes me or, on the contrary, I precede the world. If I did not exist, neither would the world nor reality. The reality does not precede me or the world.

The causality between me and the world is not linear. Let us exemplify that with the following case: I observe an animal, and each of us, the observer and the observed, as living beings, constitute a whole with the world. Is the relation between me and the world the same as the relation between the animal I observe and the world? Referring to Goethe and Schelling one could offer the following solution: life forms, diverse as they are, all have the same dynamic of unity-duality at their core. The very variety of life forms showcases a multiplicity of possible manifestations of this basic dynamic, persevering it in the process. The logic of life unravels itself in the multitude. Hence, since there is a fundamental relatedness between me and the animal I observe (we are both living creatures), my relation to the world is essentially the same as the animal’s.

Questions to consider:

a) Could science function without the hypotheses, being unprejudiced at its very outset? Should the hypotheses be testifiable in each and every case? Which is the turning point for the hypotheses to become disadvantageous for the scientific progress and what characterizes a hypothesis as disadvantageous?

b) What is causality? What are its implications? Given that the notion of it usually makes us think of linear causality, how can we reconceptualize it so that it would refer to different possible types of causality? It would be interesting to observe how its notion has evolved along with the shift from linear to dynamic systems.

What are the implications of the causality for the systemic biology?

c) We might wish to elaborate further on whether Goldstein’s approach is essentially functionalistic or not. A possible cue for the discussion would be to question what a function is and what qualifies a state or a process in an organism to be considered a function. 

According to Goldstein (and the holistic-organicist approaches in general) the function is coupled with a living whole of an organism by means of its vital normativityTherefore, the structures on a suborganismic level are bearers of functions/functionality only indirectly (silentily inferring the role of a certain function for the entirety of an organism). 

Functionalism views a function through the lens of mechanicistic understanding of causality (y = f(x)). Such deduction, however, presumes that one knows how an organism functions as a whole. Presupposing certain states or processes in an organism to be the primary bearers of some function, a functionalist isolates them and studies them further, aiming to confirm their supposed role. 

Given that we acknowledge the difference between Goldstein’s understanding of function and how the contemporary functionalistic approaches in analytic philosophy of mind comprehend it, it is possible to assert that Goldstein is a functionalist. The core aspect of his functionalism is the performative intentionality found in the organisms, i.e., the living (autonomic) wholes.