Kurt Goldstein

Kurt Goldstein was a neurologist who developed a comprehensive, holistic methodology of science. He described his ideas in The Organism, and in shorter form, in Human Nature. Goldstein was particularly aware of how method affects the results attained in science. His clear critique of unreflective reductionism is masterful and at the same time he shows how holism is a more rigorous scientific approach, since at all times it incorporates the awareness of method within the scientific endeavor.

For a brief biographical sketch, click here.

For an article about the significance of Goldstein’s approach, written by Nature Institute director Craig Holdrege, click here.

Quotes from Kurt Goldstein

Here are quotes encapsulating some of Goldstein's ideas about methodology that inspire our work. The quotes are taken from

  • The Organism (1963, Boston: Beacon Press; a reprint was published in 1995 by Zone Books in New York; the book was originally published in 1939);
  • Human Nature (1963, New York: Schocken Books; originally published in 1940).

“We have said that life confronts us in living organisms. But as soon as we attempt to grasp them scientifically, we must take them apart, and this taking apart nets us a multitude of isolated facts which offer no direct clue to that which we experience directly in the living organism. Yet we have no way of making the nature and behavior of an organism scientifically intelligible other than by its construction out of facts obtained in this way. We thus face the basic problem of all biology, possibly of all knowledge. The question can be formulated quite simply: What do the phenomena, arising from the isolating procedure, teach us about the ‘essence’ (the intrinsic nature) of an organism? How, from such phenomena, do we come to an understanding of the behavior of the individual organism?”

Kurt Goldstein, The Organism, p. 7 (1963 edition)

“If the organism is a whole and each section of it functions normally within that whole, then in the analytic experiment, which isolates the sections as it studies them, the properties and functions of any part must be modified by their isolation from the whole of the organism. Thus they cannot reveal the function of these parts in normal life. There are innumerable facts which demonstrate how the functioning of a field is changed by its isolation. If we want to use the results of such experiments for understanding the activity of the organism in normal life (that is, as a whole), we must know in what way the condition of isolation modifies the functioning, and we must take these modifications into account. We have every reason to occupy ourselves very carefully with this condition of isolation.”

Kurt Goldstein, Human Nature, p. 10

“By virtue of this isolating, dismembering procedure one can readily abstract and single out from living phenomena those phenomena on the physico-chemical ‘plane’. But the attempt to reintegrate the elements thus abstracted, to reorganize these split-off segments into the reality of living nature, is doomed to fail. This vain attempt, however, is made again and again, overlooking the fact that it is quite possible to understand the part on the basis of the whole, but that it is not possible to comprehend the whole on the basis of the parts.”

Kurt Goldstein, The Organism, p. 498 (1963 edition)

“True, we can dismember [the organism], so that we construe ‘parts’; but this is only the case when we actually take it apart, i.e. split it up into its physico-chemical elements. In every physiological dissection we create a mixture of ‘part elements’ and real ‘whole members’. It is our task to discriminate, in this mass of phenomena, the true 'members' from the artificial 'parts'.... One overlooks that the organism is, of course, articulated (differentiated into members) but does not consist of members.”

Kurt Goldstein, The Organism, pp. 422-423 (1963 edition; emphasis in original)

“[Goethe] speaks of two different modes of thinking. ... One clings to a dissective attitude, and the other makes the idea the guiding principle. One corresponds to an analytical discursive, the other to an organismic principle. ... It seems to us that a competent nature scientist, especially a biologist, must possess the faculty of combining both points of view, although he may at times not admit it. ... Sufficient understanding can only be gained when these two forms of cognition influence and supplement each other continuously. Was this not true of Goethe himself?”

Kurt Goldstein, The Organism, pp. 413-414 (1963 edition)

“Biological knowledge is not advanced by simply adding more and more individual facts. In the process of biological understanding, it is not true that facts which gradually become included in the 'whole' as parts, can be evaluated simply quantitatively, so that our knowledge becomes the more firm, the more parts we are able to determine. On the contrary each single fact has always a qualitative significance. This single, new fact may perhaps revolutionize the entire conception based on former findings, and demand an entirely new idea, in the light of which the old facts may have to be evaluated in a radically different way.”

Kurt Goldstein, The Organism, pp. 414-415 (1963 edition)

“We do not construct the architecture of the organism by a mere addition of brick to brick; rather we try to discover the actual Gestalt or the intrinsic structure of this building, a Gestalt from which the phenomena, which were formerly equivocal, would now become intelligible. ... [We look] for an idea, a reason in knowledge, by virtue of which all particulars can be tested for their agreement with the principle — an idea on the basis of which all particulars become intelligible, if we consider the conditions of their origin. We can arrive at it only by using a special procedure of cognition — a form of creative activity by which we build a picture of the organism on the basis of the facts gained through the analytic method, in a form of ideation similar to the procedure of the artist. Biological knowledge is continued creative activity, by which the idea of the organism comes increasingly within the reach of our experience. It is the sort of ideation, however, which springs ever and ever again from empirical facts, and never fails to be grounded in and substantiated by them. The German poet, Goethe, to whom we owe much for important discoveries in the field of biology, has called this procedure of acquiring knowledge Schau, and the ‘picture’ by which the individual phenomenon becomes understandable (as a modification), the Urbild (the prototype).”

Kurt Goldstein, Combination of quotes from two nearly identical paragraphs in The Organism pp. 401 ff. and Human Nature pp. 23 ff.

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