Epoché (XI), 29. 10. 2020

A synopsis of our reading of The Organism by Kurt Goldstein

“Concluding Remarks” (pp. 383-392)

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

Goldstein points out that, although he has frequently made use of criticism, his main interest was to provide a positive/constructive account:

“I am deeply convinced that life never manifests itself in negative terms; therefore any personal and objective criticism, in the form of simple negation, is repugnant to me on account of its sterility.” (383)

Goldstein admits that the view he has advanced does not readily enable one to master a problem. Instead, it compels us one to approach each individual problem as closely as possible and try to get to its foundations. Further, it never permits one to set aside problems that have not yet been clarified, because it considers nothing to be a priori inessential (383-4).

However, being aware of incompleteness does not hinder human action. In fact, it is this very incompleteness that imbues such action with the responsibilitythat is characteristic of human nature. Thus, Goldstein’s approach seems to be commensurate with the character of the human being in general – the character that manifests itself in three phenomena:

(a) in the potentiality of complete devotion to Being;

(b) in the potentiality to keep modestly at a distance from it;

(c) in the potentiality to act with free decision in placing the personality at stake (384).

Goldstein also admits that this book is not the outcome of a mere academic research, although it does defend a specific theory with a certain fanaticism. Instead, he has been prompted to write it because his concrete work with patients continually forced him to give an account of what he was doing. It is for this reason, he feels, that the book has turned out to be principally a methodological discussion. It does not so much try to provide a description of the living world, but rather discuss the meansby which we may arrive at its comprehension. However, the material it contains is not intended merely for exemplification, but is essentially supposed to demonstrate that method and theory must originate from the most concrete evidence (384).

Relatedly, frequent digressions into philosophical problems were not determined by the author’s caprice, but forced upon him by the material itself: they were a direct consequence of the intention outlined in the introduction of the treatise, namely to approach the material with as unbiased an attitude as possible, to be guided by the material itself, and to employ that method which the factual material dictates to us (384).

Goldstein hopes that, in light of his preceding analyses, it will have become clear how irrelevant to reality such (disciplinary) lines of demarcation are, which one usually couches in the opposing terms (e.g., “empirical research” vs. “philosophical reasoning”). In his view, unbiased research shows that no empirical data can ever become really intelligible unless grasped from an ideational frame of reference and unless viewed from a conceptual plane. It even shows that these definitional distinctions – e.g., “philosophical” and “empirical” – are of nothing but provisional nature (384-5).

In our concrete example, the empirical experience presented us with the crucial methodological problem: “How does Gestalt emerge from this chaos?” When investigating this question, many findings have lost the character of facts, which they formerly seemed to possess. More specifically, Goldstein consistently denied any adequacy to the scientific principle of mere random dissection of nature, and made the scrutiny of the factual character of every phenomenon the center of his inquiry into nature. Although the principle of trial and error is, to a certain degree, indispensable in scientific inquiry, it should, he feels, never have acquired such prominence (385).

What kind of “facts”, then, are we searching for? Those that enable us to describe the nature of the organism unequivocally, to “understand” it. In our attempt to determine the organism’s intrinsic character, we always started from the concrete, individual phenomenon, and thus tried to gain insight into its real nature  [!!!](385-6).

From this novel perspective, the nature of the partitivedisclosed itself determinable only by reference to the whole, to which it belongs structurally and qualitatively. Concomitantly, the “partitive” revealed itself as an “unnatural” state of the organism under isolation of certain (often very arbitrarily selected) parts. All individual parts pointed beyond themselves to the whole, to a base differing from the parts themselves, to a center to which they owe their functional reality and by which they achieve their place. What is the nature of this “base”? From mere empirical observation we can never attain any definite determination. For the purposes of empirical research, it is sufficient to characterize this base as the reason for knowledge, as a heuristic principle that renders possible the comprehension of all these partitive phenomena in their reference to the organism. What is more, this “reason for knowledge” is not a concept in the abstract sense, but has the character of a concrete entity. It has the character of the prototype, and as such, contains more than the parts, which are merely its manifestations. It is a prototype that discloses itself in an increasingly pronounced and differentiated way, whenever the situation makes it possible or demands it. Goldstein notes that here we have parallels to what Goethe has brought into concrete visualization with the notion of the Urpflanze as the prototypic principle of differentiation into manifold forms of plants (386)[!!!].

Only to the extent to which we succeed in bringing the “prototype” in sight, can we attempt to approach concrete biological problems, e.g., the relationship of organisms to each other, their belonging to kinds, etc. This does not mean that we should discard the analytic method. Quite the contrary: the material for the knowledge of this prototype can be acquired only by the isolating method of empirical investigation. However, once this empirical data is available, it is our task to discriminate among the great number of phenomena those “constants” or norms through which we may come closer to the nature of the organism. This is the way, says Goldstein, that leads from the artificially produced “part processes” to those phenomena “in which, through many variations, their real, common base is revealed” – though it is revealed only to a man who, with the proper power of mind, is capable of grasping “the engendering point from whence wisdom spontaneously springs as an offering to us”. Then, the prototype arises before us in a receptive-creative act, though always in incompleteness. From this perspective, says Goldstein, the organism appears to us a “Being” of relatively constant and qualitatively specific nature (386-7).

Analysis revealed that certain general laws – e.g., the “principle of equalization” – govern the existence of the organism. In general, it could be said that the organism is a Being enduring in time, or even a Being enduring in eternal time – for it does not start with procreation, certainly not with birth, and does not end with death. What is meant by the terms “birth” and “death” are merely certain landmarks (like, say, puberty or menopause). Their real nature, says Goldstein, is yet to be determined. But, crucially, they belong to the “life” of the organism, and must therefore be regarded as instrumental for our apprehension of the prototype (as any other apprehensible state during the course of life course) (387).

The fact that the organism represents a historical being makes it imperative to consider the time factor when dealing with any detail. All performances must be determined not only according to quality and spatial conditions, but also according to their temporal index: a given performance is normal or “adequate” if it shows an adequate temporal structure. If we only take static “snapshots” of the organism, we can never arrive at a prototype. For instance, an ordered organism and disordered organism would seem like two completely different entities. As a matter of fact we are here dealing with two moments: Being-in-order (in adequate stimulus evaluation) and Being-in-disorder (in inadequate stimulus evaluation). If the organism is “to be”, it always has to pass from moments of catastrophe to states of ordered behaviour: catastrophic shocks (= “traumas of existence”) arise when the organism clashes with the world in the productive coming to terms with it. They signify as much a concussion of the world as the organism itself. The balancing process – the re-attainment of the equilibrium – therefore occurs through mutual adjustment of the organism and the world, and is realized because the organism is able to find its “milieu” in the world (387-8).

The catastrophes are the expression of a clash of individuality of the organism with the “otherness” of the world, which is why the organism must proceed from catastrophe to catastrophe. However, this is not its intrinsic Being – rather only the transition to its true realization. The clash provides merely a shake-up, from which the repatterning – i.e., the real pattern, the real performance, the revelation of the organism and the world – emerges (388).

In these moments of performance, we find the organism in an ordered state and specific Gestalt, on the basis of which we form our conception of the organism. Such are the situations of preferred behaviour, toward which the organism, shaken by the outer world, repeatedly strives. Such are the moments of its real existence, when the organism is its real self. From this viewpoint, “being in order and existence”, “meaning and being” are the same. “Being” here signifies nothing other than a self-realization that keeps in sync with the conquest of the world, i.e., inclusion and transformation. This leads to, what in terms of the individual, is experience, and to what, in terms of the world, is organization and patterning.

“Thus organism and world realize themselves simultaneously and grow from the sphere of potentiality into that of actuality.” (388) [!!!]

Again, life, according to Goldstein, always has a positive character, and never manifests itself in negative terms. In fact, all attempts at an explanation in terms of negative facts (e.g., inhibition, antagonism, struggle, etc.) ultimately prove to be unproductive. Such negative factors are usually introduced either (i) due to false theoretical presuppositions (which require ad hoc “fill-ins”) or (ii) due to the erroneous hypostatization of processes as absolute and endowing them with characteristics that actually belong to performances. And this criticism is as valid for the theory of “antagonistic” movements, as for the so-called antagonism between the mind and the “mental sphere” – these, too, need to be regarded positively against the backdrop of a unitary, holistic being (388-9).

However, one might put forward the following objection: In human beings, consistency, perfect centering, and integration are almost an exception; for the most part, human subject seems to oscillate between passion and reason, between drives and intellect. If this is the case, what right do we have to minimize these more frequently observed phenomena – to subordinate them to the unitary whole that is neither consistently nor completely realized throughout? Doesn’t atomistic approach make better sense after all (i.e., starting from reflexes and drives, etc.) (389)?

Goldstein boils the difference between the two approaches down to the following point: (a) in the atomistic approach, advancement of knowledge hinges on theory, whereas (b) in the holistic approach, advancement of knowledge hinges on empirical data (in other words, (b) is more scientific than (a)). Now, it is true that (a) also tries to revise its views against the background of experience, but it remains indisputable that an old theory is given up only reluctantly, even if new data challenge it. Usually, the experiences that don’t sit well with the theory are simply ignored, and its defenders propose all possible amendments, before (if at all) they are willing to reject the theory (390).

Such dismissive or ad hoc procedures, says Goldstein, are impossible for (b): every new experience is never simply “one more”, standing apart from the others, it forces us to reconsider the entire theory. Thus, it is impossible for the defender of a holistic theory to accept a compromise: he must consequently uphold the cause of the scientific attitude. But there is a further aspect to Goldstein’s procedure, namely the conviction that it is impossible to understand a state of greater perfection from the state of lesser perfection. Thus, although it is feasible to isolate parts from a whole, a perfect whole can never be composed by synthesizing it from the less perfect parts. When the centering is defective, the outcome is antagonism (say, between drives and mind). However, it will never be possible to understand, even approximately, the inner coherence and unity of holistic behaviour from such partitive phenomena: “From no single phenomenon does a path lead to the whole; yet it can be comprehended as a privation of the whole”. The possibility of such privations is not an objection to the holistic view; instead, they express the imperfection in self-realization resulting from a lack in potency of “essential nature” (390).

It is worth noting that we meet this imperfection in disease, and among all creatures, especially in man. This finds expression in individuality. Individuality doesn’t simply mean that “I” exist, but that there are, simultaneously, “other” creatures, which, in turn, necessarily means incomplete realization of every individual. The higher the organization, the more differentiated and the more individual the creature, the greater is the inner imperfection, together with the relative perfection (this is the case with man) (391).

Here, Goldstein also mentions the intellectual power – the “mind” – as an intrinsic feature of human nature. In mind alone, he says, can the privation of essential performances and limitation of world be mitigated, because he has the capacity to bear insufficiency, i.e., suffering. In Goldstein’s view, this capability is the characteristic of human nature, and discloses the very highest form of life in the phenomenon of freedom (392).

In Karst, springtime weaves itself into the last remainders of snow in the form of reticulate crocuses (Crocus reticulatus, sl. progasti žafran). It may be hard to spot them in the pastel-colored land composed of dry grass, limestone rocks and scattered shrubs – they are smaller than their much more common relatives, spring crocuses (Crocus vernus, sl. pomladanski žafran). Hiding underneath the streaks of reclined tall grass, they are protected from harsh winds, frost and drought. The one above was photographed on Vremščica.


The following topics were pointed out during the discussion:

I) Goldstein points out on several occasions that, due to its prototypic character, we cannot expect our understanding of the nature of an observed organism to ever be complete. He also claims that a prototype is a concrete entity. How is that possible? Can we think of a way in which it exists? We considered it in the following contexts:

(i) the prototype of nature, i.e., the prototype of life, instances of which are the organisms (cf. discussion on Chapter II, section IV, last paragraph). One way to illustrate this is by fractions: it could be said that every bit of nature contains a fraction of nature’s prototype.

(ii) a Platonistic interpretation of prototype is similar to the concept of species. We consider the latter to be problematic due to its arbitrariness.

(iii) each organism has its own prototype. Husserl and subsequently Merleau-Ponty wrote about the biological a-priori, a state that the organism gravitates toward in its self-actualization.

II) What is, eventually, Goldstein’s stance on the hierarchical scales of living beings?

He maintains that the organisms ought to be compared based on their functional organization as a whole instead of their anatomical features. He advises against the ranking of individual organs and organ systems as “higher” or “lower”. In Chapter XI. he writes: “All attempts to arrange the individual animal classes in a scale based on the development of specific organ systems have brought, at best, only a superficial ordering that is quite inexpedient for the comprehension of the stratification of living nature in general. […] For all comparisons between man and animal, one must observe the principle that any singularity cannot be compared as long as it has not been recognized in its significance for the organism to which it belongs. Comparative anatomy has often made grave mistakes in this respect, by drawing comparisons on the basis of very superficial analogies.” He proposes the criteria of richness (the more numerous an organism’s functions are, the more milieus it can interact with) and centering. The latter is influenced both by the organism’s health status and by how resistant it is to the environmental changes (hence it goes hand in hand with richness). Less-centered organisms are confined to highly specific milieus and are thus less individuated (such are, by Goldstein’s belief, plants). Goldstein ranks humans as the most individuated organisms: “Observation easily shows us that, by his nature, the human being is the most centered creature of all. […] This is so not because the milieu does not affect him […] but rather in spite of the effects of the milieu.”

Yet precisely the individualization renders an organism to be inherently imperfect: “It shows itself in the incompleteness of the individual’s participation in that reality to which it belongs according to its nature [be it its class, species, or the whole of nature].” Humans are thus as perfect as they are imperfect. Imperfection can become a “disease” if “extraneous influences impair the individual in its centering so much that it is no longer capable of realizing its individuality even proximately,” that is, when a hierarchy between the vital and mental functions appear in human (cf. p. 372).

In conclusion, we remarked that despite his appreciation of the systematics as a tool useful in grouping and comparing the organisms, Goldstein remained hesitant about its use in the manner of establishing a hierarchical scale of life: “such an attempt […] may already constitute an artificial separation.” We presumed that he recognized its utility in terms of examining a hierarchy between an individual organism and its superordinated whole(s) – a figure/ground relationship.

III) Goldstein emphasizes the integral role that philosophical reasoning has (or should have) in empirical research. Empirical data become facts only when viewed from a conceptual plane. Will Durant suggested that philosophy’s task is to synthesize: it gathers the particularities and puts them on a canvas.

Unreflected research can lead to no serious scientific breakthroughs. Heisenberg and Einstein both gravitated toward philosophy in spite of then already established demarcation between science and philosophy. The latter two have since only grew more distant, especially in the course of the last fifty years. Heisenberg’s and Einstein’s discoveries reverberated through the entirety of academia. Owing to the present-day fragmentation of the academic sphere into highly specialized disciplines, such remarkably far-reaching events are now largely improbable. (This is not to say that every attempt to rejoin the academic disciplines proved to be well thought through: advances in physics in the first half of 20th century inspired some psychologists to try and apply them in a too-literal manner in their own work.)

IIIa) We compared Goldstein and Aristotle. One could draw a comparison saying that Aristotle was primarily a biologist, operating with concrete living entities, who at the same time tried to transcend the concreteness of his empirical work in search for a prototype. His approach was both empirical and humanistic. We noted, however, that these scholars likely had different motivations. Aristotle’s methodology pertains to his ontological scheme, while Goldstein developed his within an epistemological framework. In Aristotle’s vision of cosmos, everything has telos (entelechy). Therefore, no clear divide exists between the metaphysics and other sciences. Goldstein’s position is not as explicitly teleological. Another possible analogy we thought up, but subsequently have not discussed, is both scholars’ interest in the concepts of part and whole, and in the ways they are related (Aristotle studied mereology).

IV) How relevant is the methodology proposed by Goldstein today? Are there any areas where it is or could be applied?

We recognized Gestalt as the main point of Goldstein’s methodology, i.e., his proposal to treat an organism as a whole. Goldstein, Uexküll, Varela and Merleau-Ponty were just some of the scholars who inspired today’s enactivism. Among many others who integrated humanism and natural sciences in aim to understand the human nature were the anthropologist and cyberneticist Gregory Bateson and the developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky who both adressed the problems of mind-body and of free will; Vygotsky, for example, tried to set up an approach that was neither of the extremes of vitalism and atomism. There is also an uncanny similarity between the otherwise unrelated domains of i) phenomenology and ii) process philosophy and American pragmatism: Alfred North Whitehead was influenced by the works of William James, Henri Bergson, Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey.

We noticed that Goldstein occasionally happens to stray from the holistic approach. He might have done so unintendedly. In some instances, he uses the categorization of normality. Another example would be his opinion on the isolating principle: despite his critique of it throughout the book, he asserts in the last chapter that a prototype can only be obtained in such way.

We similarly observed that in this chapter he advises against an unreflected use of the approach he recommended by the beginning of the book, namely the study of pathological cases. The benefit of the latter is that they can uncover what remains hidden in a healthy organism that functions based on its projects. On the other hand, such an argument could lead to a statement that Freud managed to describe the very nature of human beings. To avoid such implications, we argued that Goldstein and Freud had different objectives regarding the pathology. Freud aimed for an interpretation, a discovery of an object in the background of pathology’s manifestation. Goldstein, on the other hand, viewed the pathology as a means to obtain knowledge about an organism that is comparable to the observations made in the laboratory. His objective, however, was not an attainment of interpretation: he does not presume an existence of a Freudian object in the background of the pathological. The study of such cases can only foster the ideas of what this background (the organism itself) is. We need to remember that Goldstein fundamentally opposes to the categorization of healthy and pathological: every peculiarity that we observe in our study of a subject in a pathological state can contribute to our understanding of this organism’s nature.