Rediscovering Life

How Does an Organism Get Its Shape?

The Causal Role of Biological Form
Stephen L. Talbott

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Tags: development (ontogeny); evolution/intelligent design; explanation/biological; explanation/and causation; form/organismal; holism/contextual; holism/versus mysticism and vitalism; inwardness

Posted: November 11, 2014   (Article 24)

In biology, the problem of the morphological “type”, or characteristic form, raises the question, When can different features be declared in some sense “the same”? Are the fin of a whale, the wing of a bird, and the arm of a primate the same limb? And if so, what are we recognizing as the common identity? We can ask similar questions when we consider the succession of bones along the spine of a vertebrate, or the succession of leaves along the stem of a plant. In what sense, if any, can we regard these as transformations of a single form? And what might that single form be?

In this article I attempt to summarize an exploration of these questions by the late philosopher, Ronald Brady. Drawing particularly on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s work and focusing especially on a leaf sequence along the stem of a single buttercup, he is led to conclusions of dramatic importance. We cannot extract from the leaves a set of common features that enables us to define, in any biologically significant sense, how these leaves “hold together” as a single form. Nor can we find or invent a static schema that generalizes over all the individual leaves. What we actually discover is a unified transformational movement, or gesture, with the individual forms being “snapshots” derived from the gesture.

The transformational movement, as a single gesture, is revealed not only through the sameness of the individual forms in a developmental series, but also through their characteristic differences. A typical or archetypal movement of this sort must continually change in order to remain itself. Moreover — and however much this goes against current thinking — this movement must be regarded as causal in nature. It is the generative principle through which the individual buttercup leaves gain their “buttercup character”.

Brady’s treatment of form and causation contrasts sharply with both conventional biological thinking and the vitalist tendencies that so naturally infect this thinking. It also contrasts with any imputation to organisms of purpose and design analogized either to human purposes and designs or to mechanical operations.

The scientifically educated person today, bound by irresistible conviction, “knows” that the causes of material phenomena are rooted solely in physical things, and that the interactions among these causal things explain the forms we see in the world. Any claim that a principle of form can itself be causal — that it explains the appearance of physical things rather than being explained by them — would be met by incredulity.

Such a claim, however, was ventured by the late philosopher, Ronald Brady, in a 1987 paper* that some day, I suspect, will be viewed as a forward-looking and foundational document for twenty-first century biology. That paper — which begins by looking backward — was entitled “Form and Cause in Goethe’s Morphology” and is now available, along with other publications by Brady, on the Nature Institute website. My aim here is to recapitulate — and, if possible, render more approachable — Brady’s understanding of biological form and cause, shorn of the rich historical context in which he articulates this understanding. I hope thereby to widen the audience for his discussion of form and cause.

All quotes are from Brady’s 1987 paper unless otherwise indicated.

The problem of organic form. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), who pioneered morphological studies (and gave us the word “morphology”), wanted his readers to understand about the new science that “its intention is to portray rather than explain”. At the same time, however — and rather mysteriously for most modern ears — he emphasized that the portrayal was itself all the explanation we needed: “Everything in the realm of fact is already theory ... Let us not seek for something behind the phenomena — they themselves are the theory” (Goethe 1995, pp. 307, 57*).

This is the puzzle that Ronald Brady undertakes to elucidate in his paper.

Any modern reading of Goethe’s morphological writings must struggle with the author’s apparent satisfaction that his “morphology” ... was both a descriptive science and a causal one. This unlikely attitude is made all the more difficult by Goethe’s suggestion that form — at least in the sense of “archetypal” form — is itself causal ... I shall argue in this paper that Goethe’s notion of archetypal form represents an important advance in the phenomenology of organic form, and that it does indeed have causal implications.

We are assessing form when we judge, for example, whether two trees — one short, thin, and spindly, growing at the alpine tree-line, and one tall and lush, growing at sea level — are both Norway spruce. Likewise, we are assessing form when we ask whether the human arm is homologous with the fin of a whale and wing of a bird. That is, can we say that arm, fin, and wing are in some sense the same limb, whatever transformations may have differentiated one from another? And a similar question arises when we consider the succession of vertebrae along the spine of a human being or other vertebrate. Are they not all variations of a single design?

Such questions were already being asked before Darwin, and the usual approach (before and after Darwin) has been one of abstraction. That is, one abstracts the common features from the set of forms at issue, imagines this abstraction as a fixed plan or schema underlying all the given forms, and then proposes that each of those forms can be derived1 from the schema. The British evolutionary biologist, Sir Julian Huxley (who died in 1975 at age 87), put the approach neatly:

The tyro in comparative anatomy cannot fail to be struck with the resemblances between the leg and the jaw of a crustacean; between the parts of the mouth of a beetle and those of a bee; between the wing of a bird and the forelimb of the mammal. Everywhere he finds unity of plan, diversity of execution.

Or again, how can the intelligent student of the human frame consider the backbone, with all its numerous joints or vertebrae, and consider the gradual modification which these undergo downwards to the sacrum and coccyx, and upwards into the atlas and axis, without the notion of the vertebra in abstract, as it were, gradually dawning in his mind: the conception of an ideal something which shall be a sort of mean between these actual forms, each of which may then be conceived as a modification of the abstract or typical vertebra? (Quoted in Brady 1987*)

Goethe, who lived a century and a half before Huxley, discovered something like such a unity of plan in the plant. He recognized a commonality uniting such diverse features as the seed leaves, foliage leaves, sepals, petals, pistils, and so on. All these organs in any particular plant, he claimed, are transformations of a single archetypal form, a form he chose to call the leaf. The foliage leaves are just one set of embodiments of this archetypal leaf. But while the validity of Goethe’s discovery has been widely accepted within biology, the nature of that discovery, according to Brady, has been just as widely misinterpreted.

Unlike Huxley later, Goethe was not pointing to a fixed schema abstracted from a diverse set of forms:

Goethe’s common organ, or leaf, is not a simplification of foliar members. All empirical forms are, for him, equally particularized, and his general organ can be general only by lacking such particularity. His leaf accomplishes this requirement by having no form at all.

That is (as we will see), the archetypal leaf of the plant has no form in the usual sense — no static form — but rather is a special dynamic sort of form that is generative of particular, sensible forms. We recognize it as a formative power or potential. This is where something like causation (for which there is no clear concept in modern science) enters the picture, and it is also where the modern reader stumbles. However, Brady takes great pains to make the point accessible. We will follow his line of thought in detail.

How to generalize upon a transformational series. The figure below shows, from bottom-left and clockwise around the circle to bottom-right, a sequence of leaves taken in ascending order along the stem of a single meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris). You will note that the attempt to abstract what is common from the leaves in this sequence might yield something more or less like the simple form at lower right.

Buttercup leaf sequence

But suppose we declared this one leaf to be the “Gestalt” underlying all the leaves in the sequence. This would be of no value, because the simplified leaf, from which so much detail has been removed, fails to provide a principle for recognizing the fit (or lack of fit) of the other forms — or of any new leaves we might be shown. We can imagine countless different ways for a leaf to be tripartite without at all conforming to the pattern that distinguishes Ranunculus acris from other species.

No single form or schema or Gestalt can generalize upon a series of organically related forms, because such a Gestalt will always be “closer to one stage of the series than it is to the others”. It cannot be equally related to them all. Yet the history of biology (as Brady shows in his article) is replete with attempts to identify fixed schemas and to make them determinative for various biological “kinds”.

If we want to understand the relations between these leaf forms, we cannot begin with any single and definite form, whether that form be given by nature, abstracted from various exemplars, or invented by ourselves as a mediating design. Rather, “we must begin our study of the series from the progression itself”:

Let the reader imagine, for a moment, how one could decide whether an additional form, not included in the series as yet, could be placed within it. By what criterion could the judgment be made? (Since I have performed the experiment with luckless classrooms of students — mostly ignorant of biology — I can report that the solution is almost immediate for most observers.) The forms of a graded series have the peculiar property of appearing to be arrested stages — we might call them “snapshots” — of continuous “movement”. If we begin with the first leaf on the stalk (lower left) and follow the transformation to the last (lower right), we have the sense that we are in fact watching the form on the lower left turn into the form on the lower right. Because we “see” the series in the context of this imagined or “intended” movement (to use the phenomenological term), an adequate criterion for accepting or rejecting a new member is near at hand.

Such a criterion, of course, is what biologists are always looking for when comparing and classifying forms. And Brady is drawing attention to the fact that the only criterion we have requires an appreciation of formative movement.

He brings all this into vivid relief through a series of succinct observations:2

The formative movement is continuous and ideal. The movement from leaf to leaf in an ordered series becomes more vivid to the degree that more transitional forms are supplied between the shapes we already have:

The movement we are thinking would, if entirely phenomenal, be entirely continuous, leaving no gaps. Thus as gaps narrow[,] the impression of movement is strengthened, and the technique by which a new form can be judged consists in placing that form within one of the gaps or at either end of the series and observing the result. When the movement is strengthened or made smoother the new form may be left in place. But if the impression of movement is weakened or interrupted, the new form must be rejected. Thus the context of movement is itself a criterion by which we accept or reject new forms.

But note: while the movement may be said to produce sensible forms, the movement itself is neither sense-perceptible nor physical. Yes, each leaf goes through its own unique and continuous physical development, as does the plant as a whole. But the unifying movement, or “gesture”, we recognize in passing from one leaf to the next is apprehended only in thought and imagination. One leaf does not physically metamorphose into the next leaf. So our practical and objective criterion for recognizing candidate leaves and correctly placing them in the sequence is an ideal movement.

The formative movement requires difference as well as sameness. A critical point: “The impression of ‘gradual modification’ cannot depend any more on what each form has in common with its neighbors [such as an overall tripartite form] than upon what it does not share with them. Change demands difference, and continuous change, continuous difference”. That is, a transformational series is united as much by differences as by similarities. We cannot have transformation without differences, and the nature of the differences tells us about the nature and distinctive unity of the transformation. One sort of transformation will require very different differences compared to another sort of transformation.

And so we are able to “see” the movement from form to form “only by a distribution of sameness and difference between them”. We test in our imagination the dynamic context — the smooth movement that expresses a differential within the context of a unifying gesture — because by this movement “the lawful relation between the forms is made manifest”. All this normally happens without our noticing it. But if we want to understand biological form, it can be well worth noticing what we usually ignore.

In the context of movement our perception of the leaves changes. In seeing the movement that unites the forms, we shift our intentional focus “from text to context, from the individual particulars to the unifying movement”. This necessarily changes the way we see the individual leaf, which now becomes merely an arrested stage of the movement — a momentary expression or visible trace of a passage — rather as we can isolate a series of still shots from a movie.

We can see how this works by considering an extreme case where we are given just the following two leaves of the sequence:

Two leaves from the buttercup leaf sequence

If we were seeing these for the first time, we could hardly regenerate an entire series of buttercup leaves from them. But if we first live with the more complete series, entering into the implied movement, and if we then look again at the two isolated leaves shown here, they will “no longer seem unlike. They will, in fact, bear a distinct resemblance to each other, and bear it so strongly when the trick is learned that the impression arises that they are somehow the same form. Here is the intuitedsingle formof the series, but it cannot be equated with anything static” (emphasis added).

By expressing not just abstract sameness, but also a differential running throughout the series, the movement “specifies the forms possible to the series”. Here, in this movement, we have truly generalized upon the entire series in a way that no abstract and simplifying reduction to common features and no fixed image would allow. What the common schema fails to provide is “the differential that runs throughout”.

If there were no differential — if the image above showed two identical forms — then we would have no way to identify any sort of transformative movement. But because there is a differential, our enlivened and mobilized imagination can recognize in each sensible leaf the one true “leaf” capable of generating it — the single movement out of which the sensible leaf has “fallen”. The sensible leaf is no longer perceived as merely itself, but as a manifestation of a gesture.

The movement, as a dynamic potential, “governs” the particulars. It might seem odd to speak of movement rather than a thing moving. But what seems odd for contemporary habits of understanding may be exactly what’s required for overcoming the limitations of our understanding. It is in any case not so difficult to see that no static form or particular thing can specify a movement between forms. “We detect [such] movement through the differential between forms, but no one form can give us this”.

The movement ... is a continuity which must contain, in order to be continuous, multiple Gestalts. Thus the movement is not itself a product of the forms from which it is detected, but rather [it is] the unity of those forms, from which unity any form belonging to the series can be generated. Individual forms are in this sense “governed” by the movement of the series in which they are found — their shape and position in that series are both functions of the overall transformation.

At this point in the argument, the project of description must permanently shift from static to mobile form, for the latter generalizes upon the former.

In sum: “The movement specifies forms ... by generating them”. So how do we come to terms with a generative movement that is not a material thing? This will bring us to the culmination of Brady’s presentation. First, however, a brief preliminary note about the usefulness of the truth that a perceived movement generalizes upon the static forms.

Apprehending a formative movement can be scientifically fruitful. As a descriptive content, the movement by which static leaf forms can be perceived as caught up in a dynamic performance is scientifically useful in the way that all accurate description is useful — and, indeed, essential — to science.

Comparing the leaf circle shown above with the leaves from other specimens of the same buttercup species reveals a shared transformation — and one that lends itself to analysis. “All members of this species begin from a relatively small and ‘filled-in’ version of the leaf and progress first by an expansion in size and an articulation through division (i.e., through the division of the plane of the leaf into separate branches), and then by a shrinking and a simplification of the branch pattern”. We quickly come to recognize the same transformation in all the plants of this species — and we do so even amid the dramatic changes in conformation that can occur when plants grow in different environments.

Further, we can consistently note differences between the transformational pattern of the buttercup and that of other species. And we can explicate such differences in terms of the differing relative play of certain basic elements or “gestures” contributing to all leaf transformations. Brady cites the work of the Goethean biologist, Jochen Bockemühl, in identifying four such gestures as shooting, articulating, spreading, and stemming. In Brady’s words:

“Shooting” is apical growth which extends the leaf tip outward, and “articulating” is a continuation of this through the development of multiple apices. “Spreading” is the filling-in of the leaf plane; “stemming” is growth at the base of the leaf which extends it from the main stem (and thus forms a secondary stem on the leaf).

These gestures, in their distinctive proportions and timings, not only characterize the growth of an individual leaf, but also the passage from one leaf to another along the plant stem. “The ‘gestures’ by which leaves grow are evidently fundamental to the transformations between them”.

All this enables us to understand the movement at issue as a form-making principle. But, Brady remarks, if we are justified in speaking of this movement as a making principle rather than a thing made, then we seem to be attributing causal efficacy to the movement. And indeed we are. But the point doesn’t come naturally in today’s scientific environment.

Posing the question: “mere” description or causal principle? Can a purely descriptive project, however accurate, thorough, and fruitful for understanding, yield a causal principle? Brady’s concern was to identify the characteristic features of the leaf sequence produced by a particular plant — the features by which we recognize “this plant is a specimen of Ranunculus acris”. What’s decisive, it has turned out, is not a particular static form or material entity, but an imaginal movement with its own distinctive qualities. Having enabled us to recognize this movement for ourselves, has Brady also given us a causal understanding? Do we now see an enabling power by which the leaves manifest as they do?3

Current mental habits make it easy for us to picture things producing a well-formed movement, but very difficult to believe an ideal movement could somehow govern the production of things. This is the mentality Brady would have us overcome, and in a section of his article entitled “Form and Potency” he proceeds by refining his analysis of our experience with the buttercup leaves.

Each individual leaf is “coming from” and “passing to”. When we grasp the unity of the leaf sequence, we have recognized the differential underlying the transformation of one leaf to the next. The experience is dynamic, and this changes our perception of the individual leaves. As a result, as we discovered above, even two leaves from different parts of the sequence can strongly suggest the character of the overall transformation. The individual leaf at this point is not perceived as a mere fixed form, but rather as a movement “caught in the act”.

As our familiarity with transformation sequences increases ... so does the capacity of a single form to bring other forms to mind, or of two forms to build a connecting bridge between them. The morphologist not only “sees” that two distinct configurations are still “the same”, but is made aware, by the same faculty, of nascent potentials that seem to arise from every juxtaposition. This peculiar potency of organic form has acted as a constant spur to thought, and a fair amount of theory — including speculations on “vital force” and “final cause” — has responded to it.

As for vital forces and final causes, we can perhaps understand how easy it has been for observers to imagine them. What is making each leaf conform to the pattern revealed by its predecessors and successors, if not some special sort of force? And doesn’t the directionality of the overall sequence suggest a goal that can be thought of as the final cause?

Observation and Idea

Some readers may be wondering how we could possibly observe an imaginatively apprehended movement described as “ideal”. Do we see it or not?

This question is one that Brady has thoroughly illuminated elsewhere. (See Brady 1998*; and, for a wonderfully expansive and readable treatment, well provided with illustrations and exercises, see chapters 1, 4 and 8 in the freely available online book, Being on Earth: Practice in Tending the Appearances (Maier, Brady and Edelglass 2006*).

Suffice it to say here that we do not see anything at all as this or that — we do not bring anything to coherent and recognizable appearance — except by virtue of the intentional element in perception. This means that we cannot see anything without intending the ideas through which the thing is constituted as the sort of appearance it is. “Our activity of looking is a light that renders the world visible” (Brady 1998, p. 97*).

And so, Goethe’s archetypal plant was indeed “merely” an idea (if one must derogate it so), but an idea that becomes recognizable in the world “for the observer who [can] intend it” (ibid.).

It has long been a commonplace that observation is “theory-laden”. But whereas this usually refers to our theorizing about the taken-for-granted objects of observation, Brady’s point is that these objects themselves are given only by grace of thinking. Without the element of thought in things, we don’t even have a world to theorize about.

However much we may need our heads for thinking, our thoughts are not things inside our skulls. Thinking belongs to the world.

But Brady, as we will see below, finds no justification for vital forces or final causes. He wants nothing more than to clarify observation, and his fascination is with the way a perceived form relates to potential forms, given the right sort of transformative context. In this way the individual forms lose their independence. As an “arrested movement” — as a phenomenon arising from a predecessor and developing toward a successor — each leaf is inseparable from a before and after. This is how it so powerfully suggests the “missing pictures” of the transformation. “The single image now becomes transparent to the whole ‘gesture’ — which it now seems to express ... Potential forms come to mind because they are contained in the whole we are trying to see”.

The point is crucial enough to bear repeating in slightly different words. Once we have established the context of movement, each individual leaf — by coming from something and passing to something — “represents, to our mind, more than itself — it can no longer be separated from its before and after. Indeed, its only distinction from these moments lies in the conditions of arrest — i.e. we see it ‘caught in the act’ of becoming something else”.

The sensible (visible) form shows itself to be but a partial disclosure of a forming activity. The instant it loses (due to our weakened perception) the coming from and passing to, it ceases to offer this disclosure. It then appears cut off from its own fuller reality — cut off from the reality and the whole in which it essentially participates, from the reality where we must look for causal relations, from the whole that is “somehow all the forms at once”. So the recognizable truth of the individual leaf is lost when it is detached from the ideal movement, the dynamic context, out of which it arises.

Whatever specifies the appearance of forms in time has causal significance. We come, then, to the heart of the matter4.

Just as, in space, we can represent a set of loci — loci that exclude one another or stand “outside” one another by virtue of their distinctness — as a spatial unity (whether the unity of an imagined triangle or a single tree), so, too, we can represent successive manifestations in time as a unity. “A principle by which we represent the distinct moments of time as a unity, even as we represent the loci of space as a unity, is a principle of form. But this sort of form must be a causal principle as well” (emphasis added).

When we have a principle that tells us, consistently and correctly, something about what we can expect to happen next — what will follow a preceding event, so that the two events can be understood in terms of a single patterning idea — such a principle accords with what we usually think of as causal explanation. But this requires elaboration.

As we have noted, the individual leaf form, insofar as it discloses a larger context of movement, contains within itself a “felt potency to be otherwise” — the sort of felt potency that leads some people to speak of a vital force. But the essential thing to realize, according to Brady, is that “the sensed power is at the same time logical necessity”. We are aware of this necessity when, presented with a buttercup leaf not currently shown in the leaf sequence, we find that it must be placed at only one location; otherwise, it will violate the living dynamism of the sequential movement.

This dynamic principle remains itself only through its ability continually to become other in its successive incarnations, thereby maintaining its identity as a consistent principle of transformation. If the generative principle (or archetypal idea) were not determining a successor in this way, it would no longer be the unifying truth we have objectively recognized in the leaf sequence. We discover in it the necessity and power of change — and do so without adding any prejudicial theoretical structure to what observation yields.

It is clear that the sense of power is part of the logical structure of the form, and not a subjective reaction on our part ... once we have accepted the dynamic context the rest follows of its own necessity rather than by any further choice on our part5.

In general, we recognize causation when we see one event following another in what we think of as a lawful manner — that is, according to a discernible pattern that reflects one or another sort of ideal necessity. Nevertheless, I am confident that most readers will still have difficulty with the idea that the formative or patterning movement Brady has identified in the buttercup leaf sequence possesses a causal potency. In the next section I offer a brief supporting commentary of my own.

A clarification of dynamic form as cause. The idea that the dynamic, generative form we’ve recognized in the leaf sequence — a form or potency we’ve been calling a “movement” — should be viewed as causal immediately raises a question for most people: “But what is making things happen?” Where is the necessary material influence, the matter impinging on matter, the coercive gears and levers that bring something about? How can an immaterial form, however dynamically we imagine it, causally intervene in the growth of a plant?

The questions are understandable in the light of contemporary thinking. But this does not absolve them of extreme naïveté — a naïveté that Aristotle had already overcome when he recognized what he called “formal causes” at work in material interactions.

The fact is that all physical causation is rooted in immaterial (ideal) relations. Bodies moving at random in the solar system would tell us nothing about causes or laws; but if we observe certain geometric regularities — movements, for example, tracing the forms of conic sections such as ellipses or parabolas — or if, in investigating the fall of objects toward the earth, we eventually arrive at the formulas, F = ma and F = Gm1m2/d2, then we have discovered a certain lawfulness. We can talk about material objects acting on material objects, but without conceptual relations such as these — and conceptual relations are not material things — we have no lawful regularity and therefore no causation at all in any defensible sense.

Yes, we learn to “see” laws and causal relations through sense-perceptible phenomena, which can become, so to speak, transparent to the laws. But the same is true of the organism, even if what we see there is, as expected, distinctively organic rather than inanimate: we can trace all the interactions (“matter impinging on matter”), as biologists are now doing, from the macroscopic to the sub-microscopic. But, just as with physical laws, the mere impingement tells us nothing interesting. We recognize organic lawfulness only in the play of ideal relationships — forms, in the case of morphological studies — as they come to expression in observable phenomena.

In organisms — creatures holding together and integrating many parts in a singleness of being, creatures exhibiting intentions, maintaining homeostasis, and carrying out healing processes, among many other activities — the ideal relations are naturally of an entirely different order from the laws we recognize in the bodies of the solar system (and in our own bodies, so far as they are merely physical). Indeed, if this were not the case, anyone who is even slightly acquainted with both organisms and the objects of the solar system would immediately have to say, “We must be missing something in the organism”.

Whether we are speaking of animate or inanimate nature, the immaterial relations we observe constitute (among other things) the regularity and lawfulness of phenomena. However it is that planets move on their ideal courses, the ideas governing their motions cannot be denied. You may refer to these shaping ideas or lawful principles as “thoughtful”, or “word-like”, or “mathematical”, or “formal”, or whatever you wish, but there they are. And so, too, is the governing form that declares itself in the sequence of buttercup leaves.

If we want to apply our long-established, immaterial principles of causation — including causal form — to the solar system, we cannot reasonably deny whatever immaterial principles of causal form we discover in the organism. Not, at least, on the grounds that they are ideal.

The trouble with vitalism.

(It is difficult for me to separate my own thoughts from those of Brady in this section and the next.)

The ideal generative movement that manifests itself in the buttercup leaf sequence is not a vital principle. It is simply what the visible phenomena reveal about their own dynamic lawfulness. It is their rational and aesthetic coherence, their reality so far as it can become a content of consciousness. It is the phenomena themselves, in their comprehensibility, which is to say: the phenomena “seen from the inside”. This “inside” belongs as much to the objective phenomena as to our comprehension of them. If it weren’t so, then what we were comprehending wouldn’t actually be the phenomena.

This, at least, is how I read Brady’s discussion. And it leads him to criticize the vitalism that all too often infects a science rooted in mechanistic concepts. If the ideas we recognize in organic phenomena are intrinsic to those phenomena — if they are the phenomena themselves seen from the inside — then those phenomena cannot be what they are, cannot do what they do, cannot even be conceived, apart from the ideas. The ideas are, in fact, the conceivability of the phenomena. They are not something added to materiality reality; they are the reality itself so far as its conceptual character has illumined, and been illumined by, our understanding (Talbott 2010*).

Probably nothing throws a more vivid light on the issue of vitalism than our own intimate experience. When a concert pianist intends to perform a sonata with a certain (ideal) expressive quality, the intention does not inject a special vital force into her arms and hands. But the expressive idea may nevertheless be effectively (causally) realized — and realized all the way down to the molecular level (Talbott 2014*).

While no details of what happens at the physiological level are consciously participated in by the pianist, an organic intention is obviously at work on that level — a much more elaborate, behavioral intention than we find in the plant — and the pianist’s more or less conscious expressive aims are contiguous with, and seamlessly play into, this ongoing organic intention. At the crudest we can say: the pianist who wants to perform a sonata movement with unusual zest produces more energetic molecular activity in her hands and body than the pianist who aims for a more tranquil effect.

But beyond that, even the most subtly nuanced expressive intentions of the artist find their appropriate molecular embodiment. Difficult as it may seem, given the normal language of science, to translate aesthetic descriptions such as “stately” or “mournful” or “joyful” into the terms of cellular physiology, it’s just a fact that the translation is achieved in our bodies. There could hardly be a truth of greater significance for the biologist — if only the central mysteries of biology were not so easily cast out of mind.

“Ideas have consequences” as the saying goes, and those consequences follow in our bodies, not because of some mysterious vital force, but because natural phenomena, and organic phenomena in particular, are themselves ideational — and are ideational in so blindingly obvious a way that some scientists and philosophers appear intellectually disabled by the fact.

Goethe took the notion of a vital force to be (in Brady’s words) “an obscure explanation, borrowed from mechanical habits of thought and made redundant by what we actually know about life”. The mechanical connection is not hard to see. We hook up a machine to a power source and thereby succeed in “animating” it — bringing it into movement. The power becomes a kind of vital force.

Transferring our experience with machines to our theorizing about organisms is a major industry today. But whereas the machine’s power source is in no way immanent in the mechanical parts, it is quite otherwise with the organism. “We cannot detect, in [organic] phenomena, the distinction between ‘that which is to be vitalized’ and ‘that which vitalizes’”.

This last point is directly relevant to the common variety of intelligent design theorizing that looks for the play of an external designer in the phenomena of life.

Concluding thoughts on entelechy, purpose, and design. The becoming that we witness in the metamorphosing succession of leaves is an essential characteristic of life in general. It is “not a process that finishes when it reaches a certain goal; it is a condition of existence — a necessity to change in order to remain the same. Of course, at some time the leaf or bone loses this capacity — it no longer participates in the continual becoming of its generation and therefore does not remain the same — that is, does not remain alive”.

Sameness in the corpse is no longer a consistent activity giving dynamic and characteristic expression to a living idea, but has degenerated to a decaying stasis.

In this connection Brady takes up Goethe’s rather Aristotelian notion of entelechy, which relates not merely to morphology, but to the organic as such. The word is sometimes coarsely taken as a synonym for “soul” or “self”, and is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “The supposed vital principle that guides the development and functioning of an organism or other system or organization”.

The Aristotelian scholar, Joe Sachs (undated*), offers a more considered interpretation of the Greek entelécheia when he translates it (in language very like what we have already heard from Brady) as that which is “being-at-work-staying-itself”. The term is closely related to notions of completeness and perfection. But here the perfection achieved is precisely to be at work fulfilling the requirements of one’s own nature. The idea is irreducibly dynamic and holistic.

Terms such as “perfection” and “completion” (one could add the implied “wisdom”) can be misleading due to problematic associations that all too naturally follow. In particular — as Brady notes — Goethe “rejected any analogy to human purpose in nature and any notion of ‘final cause’ which contained such an analogy”. Following Kant, he saw life as “purposive without a purpose” — “conceptually designed” (as Brady puts it) “without any indication of an external designer or an external goal”.

This, however, is easily misconstrued. The point here is not to opt for some notion of ultimate “impersonality” or “purposelessness” or “mindlessness”, but rather to refuse to assimilate the higher to the lower — the creative sources of nature to the relatively impotent purposings and mechanical contrivings of humans.

If every organism is busy, down to its very cells and molecules, being-at-work-staying-itself, we can well assume that this living coherence and integrity — and indeed all biological wisdom we discover in the organism — reflect a reality vastly higher than our own current powers of purposing and understanding. Our conscious human intentions, after all, scarcely reach into the depths of our own physical being, let alone encompass the animating gestures and immanent potency of the bacterium or Siberian tiger. Our own creative reach, such as it is in the material realm, primarily extends toward the various contrivances we work upon from outside.

And so Brady writes:

As Goethe admitted, the [biological] type was an idea (by which the successive was grasped as simultaneous), and its manifestations in time were quite “designed”, each preparing for the next and leading over into it. But as I have been arguing, the designing idea is not separable, and living form cannot therefore be modelled on the machine or any other result of an external planner. Nor can any particular goal of development be determined ... Development in time does not proceed towards [a] whole, but rather expresses it.

“The Designing Idea Is Not Separable”

What does Brady mean when he says that the designing idea at work in the organism is not separable?

To begin with, I take him to be referring to the fact that the idea — or type, to pick up the theme of this article — is not separable from the physical organism itself. It is not separable, for example, in the way a machine’s plan is separable from the machine, and indeed can exist without the machine ever being built.

Clearly, there is no plan for the organism through which parts are assembled into a whole. What exists is simply the unity of the organism — and this unity exists from the very beginning. The multicellular organism is a whole from the moment fertilization yields a zygote.

This one-celled whole proceeds to differentiate itself by means of its intrinsic powers, not through the activity of an external engineer. These powers exist and are active before the various parts have yet come into being, and are the means for their coming into being. An organic whole precedes its parts.

We have seen in the accompanying article that the generative principle evident in the leaf sequence of Ranunculus acris is not any kind of fixed schema, and is not separable from the roots, stem, and leaves in which it manifests itself. It is their inherent ideational character, which can be thought of as their formal cause. Tough thought for the modern biologist? Certainly. Necessary? Absolutely. Already implied in nearly everything they write? Check it out here and also here.

Here, too, I would caution that this is not to argue for the meaninglessness of either cosmic or human history. Organic development, after all, is not a directionless thrashing around. Nearly everything discussed here implies a profoundly meaningful, word-like, or ideal, reality. And since an organic whole is irreducibly dynamic, we are no more justified in assuming ultimate unchangeability than in assuming rootless change. The potential of a dynamic whole to change while remaining itself presents us with problems we have hardly begun to explore. No organic whole, after all, is disconnected from larger unities and spheres of meaning. Both its potential for change and its “essential character” remain mostly mysterious to us.

The immediate point, then, is simply to avoid making inferences that go beyond what the phenomena themselves — as we have so far apprehended them — can directly support. If we do not willfully deceive ourselves, we cannot help recognizing intelligence at play in the organism. But what we don’t see is an intelligence working upon the organism from outside rather than from within its own essential being. Yes, every organism is embedded in an environment that is in many ways inseparable from itself. But that very embeddedness makes the notion of external, engineer-like influence untenable. The organism is an essential mediator of whatever passes between itself and its larger environment.

Which leads, finally to this:

Goethe’s notion of “type”, “archetype”, “entelechy”, or as he would sometimes identify it, “spirit”, is not a speculative but a descriptive concept. He does not advance it as a theory that explains the phenomena, but a description that clarifies the same. There is a difference.

This descriptive clarification, as we have seen, can be potent, carrying causal implications. I believe Goethe’s disclaimer about explaining the phenomena has to do with his refusal to justify his conclusions by appealing to undescribable theoretical entities such as “particles” or, for that matter, divine beings. He will not shirk the heavy burden of the scientific investigator: to penetrate the phenomena with full perceptual understanding. He wants observable phenomena alone — phenomena observed with such compelling thoroughness and lucent clarity that the spirit of their truth shines through them unobscured.

We are surrounded by phenomena that invite such understanding. Those who are impatient for an acknowledgment of spirit somewhere far, far away might want to ask how we could receive any intimations of it so long as we are blind to the spirit in our midst.


1. That is, following Darwin: derived historically, or phylogenetically. Before Darwin the derivation needed to occur only in the thought of the classifying biologist, who was typically looking for relations of form, not offering a historical explanation for them.

2. Keep in mind that, without our active participation in the leaf progression — without experiencing qualitatively through our own willed inner movement the character of the transition from leaf to leaf — we will not come to any full appreciation of Brady’s discussion. It is, in any case, not an unhealthy exercise to bring about through our own effort the transformation of one leaf form to the next, an exercise requiring a muscular and fluid imaginal activity that habits of abstraction easily bypass.

3. It is important to realize that the movement Brady speaks of cannot by itself wholly determine leaf forms:

The movement of the series cannot, of course, demand that any particular potential will be realized, but it does give the range of potential forms — those which would become actual were the imagined continuous transformation to become actual. Whether an actual leaf will realize this or that potential is determined by something else, but it is the movement which defines the potential forms.

Only a few out of a continuous series of possibilities are actually realized on a single plant, and the form of those few will be influenced by environmental factors. Unusually cold or dark or dry weather will have its effect — but always consistent with the recognizable potentials of the species we are looking at.

4. Brady considers form and cause in the context of Immanuel Kant’s treatment of organic form in the Critique of Judgment. My present purposes forbid extending the discussion in this direction. But see the following footnote.

5. For the philosophically minded, Brady offers the following aside:

I am aware of course that the coincidence of logical necessity and causality is something that one does not think to see after the work of Hume and Kant. With regard to Kant I can only point to the potential breakdown of his system that threatens to emerge from the Critique of Judgement. Goethe may be understood as exploiting the seeming contradiction that we can intend what we cannot understand. Of all our experiences, intentionality is potentially the most clear, for what we do ourselves is open to our intimate gaze. Kant did not attempt to observe his own intentional acts, and thus never investigated this possibility. Goethe, coming to Kant when he was already engaged in this project, was simply made more conscious of it. He read Kant as if Kant were proposing a similar “adventure of reason”.

With regard to Hume we must return to the problem of causality in general. It should be clear to us that however we normally think of causal necessity, we must intend it as a necessity that stretches over different moments in time, and it is the ultimate exclusion of one moment from the next that defeats Hume’s attempt to think it out in terms of logical necessity. An identity that bridges that exclusion would also solve the logical problem, and just such an identity is intuited in the observations described. It should be of some interest to rethink Hume’s problem on these grounds, for it rests upon the assumption that the distinctions of time are primary. If, on the other hand, the time-form is primary, we should discover that we must intend this unity in order to perceive the “movement of time” itself. The project is too fundamental to consider any further in this discussion.

Regarding Kant, Brady provides a succinct summary of the issues in another luminous article (1998*) not currently available online:

Kant made science into a study of appearances aimed at bringing them under rational law, that is, if we could understand and predict appearances, our inability to understand their ultimate source would not be a serious debility.

Unfortunately there were some appearances that resisted this project. Kant was acutely aware that our notion of life was formed by the sense of inward unity, an agency that produced and governed the organism from within. This inner agency could not be brought to the understanding by a conceptual summary of its parts, as is the case with inorganic compositions. In its earliest stages, in fact, the organism had yet to develop the organs by which its later existence would be supported, making the inward unity antecedent to the developing parts, a whole which makes its own parts necessary rather than a result of the combination of the parts. To the degree that the combination of parts may be said to be causal, each part aided in the production and maintenance of all the others, and all the others did the same for each. As a result, the physical organs had to be recognized as both cause and effect of themselves. The linear chain of causes by which mechanical events were understood here curled up into a circle, depriving the chain of explanatory power.

If one reflects more deeply, it seems obvious that the mechanical laws do not show the requisite logical structure to explain life. Inert objects were moved from without by impressed forces. Laws governing their movement, therefore, are also “external” to the things moving, that is, the laws of mechanics sum up the interactions of objects while being perfectly indifferent to the individual natures of those objects. The organism, however, could not be known in this abstract manner, and predictions concerning its changes were dependent on a knowledge of the species. Even the sort of materials out of which it was constructed are an expression of species identity, and thus the governing laws had to be identified with the object they governed, that is, such laws not only governed, but also produced, their objects. Or, at least, Kant argued, these results express the way things appear to immediate perception . . .

Analytic thought, which understands the whole through summing the effects of the parts, could not comprehend a whole that preceded the parts or accomplish a path of thought that moved from the general to the particular. Such a movement, Kant argues, would be that of an intuitive intellect, which humanity does not possess.

Brady goes on to say that, while Kant never made a project of actually testing whether a properly developed scientific understanding could embrace the becoming of an antecedent, organic whole, this was exactly the test that Goethe did make — and made successfully, as shown by his work on plants.

Tags: development (ontogeny); evolution/intelligent design; explanation/biological; explanation/and causation; form/organismal; holism/contextual; holism/versus mysticism and vitalism; inwardness


Brady, Ronald H. (1987). “Form and Cause in Goethe’s Morphology”, in Goethe and the Sciences: A Reappraisal, edited by F. Amrine, F. J. Zucker, and H. Wheeler, pp. 257-300. Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel.

Brady, R. H. (1994a). “Explanation, Description, and the Meaning of ‘Transformation’ in Taxonomic Evidence”, in Models in Phylogeny Reconstruction, edited by Robert W. Scotland, Darrell J. Siebart, and David M. Williams, pp. 11-29. New York: Oxford University Press. Available at

Brady, R. H. (1994b). “Pattern Description, Process Explanation, and the History of the Morphological Sciences”, in Interpreting the Hierarchy of Nature: From Systematic Patterns to Evolutionary Process Theories, edited by Lance Grande and Olivier Rieppel. New York: Academic Press. Available at

Brady, Ronald H. (1998). “The Idea in Nature: Rereading Goethe’s Organics”, in Goethe’s Way of Science: A Phenomenology of Nature, edited by David Seamon and Arthur Zajonc, pp. 83-111. Albany NY: State University of New York Press.

Maier, Georg, Ronald Brady and Stephen Edelglass (2006). Being on Earth: Practice In Tending the Appearances. Full text is available at Hardcopy book is available from Logos Verlag Berlin (2008;

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (1995). Scientific Studies, edited by Douglas Miller. Vol. 12 in Goethe: Collected Works. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (2009a). The Metamorphosis of Plants, with introduction and photography by Gordon L. Miller. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Sachs, Joe (undated). “Aristotle: Motion and its Place in Nature”, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Talbott, Stephen L. (2010). “Reframing the Mind-Body Problem: An Exercise in Letting Go of Dualist Assumptions”.

Talbott, Stephen L. (2014). “From Bodily Wisdom to the Knowing Self (Part 2): Psyche, Soma, and the Unity of Gesture”.

Further information:

Brady covers some of the same ground we have surveyed here in two other works: “Pattern Description, Process Explanation, and the History of the Morphological Sciences”, where he also touches on the relation between descriptions of form, on the one hand, and evolutionary explanation on the other; and “The Idea in Nature: Rereading Goethe’s Organics”, a remarkable discussion of the nature of the organic, its relation to the inorganic, and its grounding in human perception. He has a full discussion of morphological description as it relates to evolutionary explanation in “Explanation, Description, and the Meaning of ‘Transformation’ in Taxonomic Evidence”. See the References above.

On the relevance of Goethe’s scientific work to today’s science, see Craig Holdrege’s “Goethe and the Evolution of Science” — an expansion of a talk given in October 2013 to an interest group at the New York Academy of Sciences.

I discuss the nature of organic causation and its relation to vitalism in “From Physical Causes to Organisms of Meaning”, available at

On scientific description versus scientific explanation, see my earlier article, “To Explain or Portray?

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Steve Talbott :: How Does an Organism Get Its Shape? The Causal Role of Biological Form