"Organicism" in the DHI
Aesthetic organicism usually refers to the doctrine
of organic unity and to its cognates like the idea of
organic form or of “inner” form. The designation arises
from the assumption that a work of art may be com-
pared to a living organism, so that the relation between
the parts of a work is neither arbitrary nor factitious,
but as close and intimate as that between the organs
of a living body. The classic formula for this relation
is double: (1) the parts of the work are in keeping with
each other and with the whole, and (2) alteration of
a part will bring with it the alteration of the whole.
By means of this formula the closest unity between
the parts of a work of art is predicated or, alternatively,
the formula provides the closest way of conceiving
aesthetic unity.
Some critics like John Dewey use the simile to de-
scribe the growth of a work from a faint suggestion
in the mind of the author to the finished composition,
likened to the stages in the growth of a living being
from the germ to the embryo to the fully developed
organism. Indeed it is almost impossible not to use some
organic metaphor in describing this process. But organ-
icism refers to the ultimate result, not to the genesis
but to the relation of the parts in the work once the
whole process of composition is finished, and this or
ganic conception has important critical consequences.
Organicism may also be embodied in the concept of
Organic Form in contrast to Mechanical Form: the
latter is imposed from the outside on something which
is alien to it, while the former develops spontaneously
“from within,” i.e., from the subject matter itself and
not from external rules or prescribed models, and be-
comes its appropriate conformation. Sometimes or-
ganic form has been termed “inner Form” (Schwinger
and Nicolai, 1935), in contrast to external or mechani-
cal form, the latter being an attempt to fashion me-
chanically a composition from the outside. Hence the
historical function of these concepts has been to loosen
the rigid rules of traditional poetics and the pedantry
of genres, and to foster the free play of the creative
imagination that makes up its own rules as it goes
along, and sets them according to the nature of the
subject and the inspiration of the poet—two things
which may be said to constitute a complex unity and
are actually vital factors in the act of creation. The
structure that the finished work will possess will not
be lawless, because of the two conditions of organic
unity mentioned above.
In other words, the general effect of the organic
conception has been to move away from narrow classi-
cism in the direction of what may be vaguely named
romanticism. But the concepts themselves are of clas-
sical (i.e., ancient Greek) origin; they were originally
formulated by Plato and Aristotle. The clause desig-
nated above as (1), the congruence of parts with each
other, and with the whole, comes from Plato's Phaedrus
(264C), and clause (2) from Aristotle's Poetics (VIII.
51A 32-35). In modern times they have been supplied
with new philosophical foundations, being fully devel-
oped in the aesthetics of German idealism. Kant himself
powerfully contributed to the trend, applications to
aesthetics being due especially to the great romantic
thinkers and literary critics, Schelling and Hegel, the
Schlegels and Coleridge. Through their use in literary
criticism organic concepts have gained wide currency
in modern writing of all kinds and may be found in
many paraphrases and adaptations, up to the point of
becoming almost a cliché; but they are capable of
being exactly formulated. They have been so formu-
lated quite recently by John Hospers:
The unified object should contain within itself a large
number of diverse elements, each of which in some way
contributes to the total integration of the unified whole.
... everything that is necessary is there, and nothing that
is not necessary is there.
... in a work of art, if a certain yellow patch were not
in a painting, its entire character would be altered, and
so would a play if a particular scene were not in it, in just
the place where it is (1967).
Page 422, Volume 3
This makes it clear that in the idea of organic unity,
the concept of totality or wholeness is implied. Going
one step further back, we find that the basic concepts
of the One and the Many are implied. For organic unity
consists of a multiplicity of parts which is reduced to
unity, and of a unity which is made up of a multiplicity.
“How the one can be many, and the many be one”
is one of the questions that was argued in Socrates'
circle (Philebus, 14C).
The problem eventually found a solution of one kind
in the Platonic concept of the Idea, which is the unity
of a multiplicity, and then received a different solution
in Aristotle's sense of composite whole (synolon). In
more modern times this unity comes under the cate-
gory of an a priori synthesis in the Kantian sense: its
components are not conjoined empirically, but belong
originally to each other. Using the organic metaphor,
they may be said to belong “naturally” to each other.
For instance, it may be said that Sancho is not an
extrinsic addition to Don Quixote, but that the Don
belongs to Sancho just as much as vice versa: the great
comic situation would not be what it is if one of the
two were omitted.
But there is no need to resort to the organic meta-
phor in order to define such a clear logical unity as
the synthesis of parts in a whole. Also, it should be
noted that this unity can be affirmed of other mental
products besides works of art. A philosophical system
or a mathematical demonstration may be said to possess
such unity; also, a history or any ratiocinative compo-
sition. Hence its already mentioned wide use in all
In order to be meaningful in aesthetics and in literary
criticism, the concept must be integrated by other
concepts drawn specifically from the sphere of aes-
thetics. To be aesthetic, the object defined must be
endowed with beauty, and so beauty itself must be
defined. In the course of this century, beauty has been
defined as Gestalt or total image, created by the poetic
imagination and expressive of human feeling. The parts
discernible in the object are organically (indissolubly)
united, so that alteration of one part produces altera-
tion of the whole. Nor can aesthetics really be
grounded without a concept of reality, or some type
of metaphysics. This means introducing other concepts
besides the organic ones and going well beyond the
Platonic and Aristotelian sphere of ideas.
Considered however in its abstract generality, as it
is in ancient thought, organic unity is susceptible of
another formulation: “the whole is more than the sum
of its parts,” a saying often repeated in modern times,
but the author of which is unknown. But Plato said
something very close to that when he wrote: “The all
is not the whole” (Theatetus, 204B), “the all” being,
as the context shows, the sum of the parts. In aesthetics
this means that the work of art is not produced by
the mere superaddition of isolated pieces to each other:
to join the single parts an essential link is necessary,
connecting all of them.
Still more philosophically, Aristotle said that “the
whole is prior to the parts” (Politics, I. 2. 1253a 20).
This is often interpreted to mean that the parts imply
the whole. Aristotle himself commented that the parts
are posterior to the whole because in the whole they
exist only potentially: “only when the whole has been
dissolved they will attain actuality” (Metaphysics, V.
11. 1019a 9-10). Aristotle applied this principle to the
theory of the State and it had considerable vogue
afterwards. Aestheticians took up the principle: the
great representative of organicism in England, Samuel
Taylor Coleridge, speaks in The Friend (1818) of “the
Aristotelian maxim, with respect to all just reasoning,
that the whole is of necessity prior to its parts” (Part
II, Essay 10). More specifically in his Philosophical
Lectures (1819) he enjoins: “Depend on it, whatever
is truly organic and living, the whole is prior to the
It is the a priority of the whole that makes its unity
intrinsic, as opposed to the extrinsic aggregation of
parts. To quote Coleridge again, “the distinction, or
rather the essential difference, betwixt the shaping skill
of mechanical talent, and the creative, productive
life-power of inspired genius; in the former, each part
separately conceived and then by succeeding act put
The concept of organic unity raises some basic ques-
tions: (1) Is it possible to divide an organic work of
art into parts? (2) If it is possible, is it necessary so
to divide it? What purpose is served by the division?
(3) If it is both possible and necessary to divide, what
procedure should be followed in this division? How
do we divide the work into parts that are vital and
not artificial?
The first question implies the more general problem
of the divisibility of any unit, which has been debated
by several philosophers. Into this debate we cannot
enter here, but we indicate that there is such a prob-
lem. Assuming (1) that the work admits of division,
we ask: (2) What purpose is achieved by doing so?
Precisely to show the necessary unity of the whole by
observing the relation of the parts to each other and
to the whole. This can only be done by taking them
in succession, one after the other, as A. W. Schlegel
did in his analysis of Romeo and Juliet (1797), one of
the earliest examples of organic criticism: first the
characters are considered, then the features of the style.
Another exponent of organicism, A. C. Bradley, raised
the question: If we believe in the organic unity of the
Page 423, Volume 3
parts, why do we separate them in analysis? To which
he gave the answer:
To consider separately the action and the characters of a
play, and separately the style and versification, is both
legitimate and valuable, so long as we remember what we
are doing. But the true critic in speaking of these aspects
does not really think of them apart: the whole, the poetic
experience, of which they are but aspects, is always in his
mind; and he is always aiming at a richer, truer, more
intimate repetition of that experience (1909).
As Goethe said, we must first distinguish, and then
unite (Gott und Welt: Atmosphäre, 1821). Division of
parts is essential also to a criticism that comes to an
adverse conclusion on the value of the work, since the
worse the work, the greater will be the incongruity
between the parts, like Horace's Humano capiti...
(Ars poetica, 1).
Once the work has been divided into its essential
parts, the procedure of the critic will be to evaluate
the relation of the parts to each other and to the whole,
basing his final judgment on the results thus arrived
at. But (3) what is the correct method of dividing a
work of art into parts? It may be answered that they
should be so divided that each part preserves some
meaning of its own. Hence a poem should not be
divided into purely verbal units, since such words as
articles and conjunctions do not possess a meaning of
their own, nor do most single words really. But a
complete line of verse or a complete stanza may have
a meaning of its own, so that it can stand by itself.
The same is true of sections of prose such as para-
graphs, chapters, etc., and of plays, such as acts and
scenes, so they may all be legitimate divisions.
However, it is a moot point whether the parts of
a beautiful object should be beautiful too. Plotinus
argued that if the whole is beautiful, the parts also
must be beautiful: “the whole cannot be made up of
ugly parts; beauty must penetrate everything”
(Enneads, I. vi. 1 50). Here it may be enough to say
about this division what Plato said, that one must not
hack away at the parts of a beautiful whole like a
clumsy butcher (Phaedrus, 265C.). The individuality of
the work of art is also relevant to this question, since
it excludes the so-called rules of composition and the
partitions of rhetoric, as Socrates rejected the partitions
and rules of contemporary rhetoricians (ibid., 266-67).
In the Poetics, Aristotle applied the principle of
organic unity only to the plot of tragedy, but not to
the other parts of tragedy, nor to their relation with
each other and with the whole. The other parts are
enumerated and defined, but even their number is not
definite: once five, then three. However, the principle
is implicit in the Ars poetica of Horace or the Epistle
to the Pisos (ca. 14 B.C.). From its very first line, a poem
is compared to a living body, in which it would be
incongruous if a human head were joined to a horse's
neck (1-13). Unity has been rightly called the govern-
ing consideration of the Ars: the poem should be
simplex dumtaxat et unum (34), actually a unity of
different parts. Cicero, like Philodemus, extended the
principle of organic unity to the relation between
language and thought in expression: “words do not
subsist if you remove the meanings (res), nor can there
be light in the meanings if you remove the words” (De
oratore, III, 5-6). The principle reappears in pseudo-
Longinus, On the Sublime: “Since by nature there are
in all things certain parts which are necessarily in-
volved in their matter, it follows that one cause of
excellence is the power to choose the most suitable
of the constitutive elements and to arrange them so
that they form a single living body.” For instance,
Sappho in her most famous ode selects the most char-
acteristic symptoms of passion, and then proceeds to
“bind them one with the other” forming a perfect
poem (Ch. X).
Plotinus in his first book (Enneads, I. vi) considers
the beautiful object a synthesis of various parts brought
together so as to form a coherent whole, the many
being reduced to one. He then raises the already quoted
question about the beauty of the parts. While he does
not use explicitly the organic simile, the human face
is his example of living beauty; but he rules out mere
symmetry and proportion as the definition of beauty,
and introduces the Aristotelian concept of Form, to
which we now turn.
Aristotle's hylomorphism assumes certain powers in
Form that make it much more than mere shape: it is
actuality in antithesis to potentiality, and it confers
meaning and purpose on its matter. But it was not
extended to literature by Aristotle, who never speaks
of Form in the Poetics. However, the concept has been
found most fruitful by later criticism, as the Form and
Content of literature (French la forme et le fond,
German Gestalt und Gehalt or Form und Stoff). In its
simplest definition the content of a work is what it
is about, and the form is the manner in which it is
treated; but the two concepts admit of deeper defini-
tion. When they are thought of as the parts of which
the work of art is made up, their relation may be
defined in terms of organic unity, that is, form must
be in keeping with content and content with form, so
that if you alter the one, the other is altered too. Taking
form in the sense of metrical form, the content of a
sonnet must be perfectly adapted to the form of the
sonnet, and it cannot be turned into the content of
an ode without altering it, and vice versa.
The organic unity of form and content is denied by
Page 424, Volume 3
all theories that make one of the two predominant and
the other unessential, conceiving them as separate parts
that can be manipulated independently of each other.
Such is the meaning of Formalism, which makes Form
everything, and reduces content to nothing. This
J. C. F. von Schiller does in his Aesthetic Letters (1795,
letter XXII), followed later by Oscar Wilde's “Form
is everything” (1891). The opposite theory (for which
we have no name, but it might be called Contentual-
ism) makes content predominant, and form indifferent.
But in organicism the two cannot be separated.
Since for Aristotle form is operative not only in
artefacts but also in living beings, the latter form may
well be defined as organic. But in Aristotle we do not
find the phrase, which is characteristic of romantic
speculation. For Aristotle, Form is applied to matter
by natural forces, as part of the system of the universe;
in art, form preexists in the mind of the artist or crafts-
man and is applied by him to the chosen matter. But
for Aristotle, faithful to ancient realism, this form is
not produced by the artist, and the whole concept of
artistic creation is alien to him.
In recent times the form of the literary genre or
type—such as the set form of tragedy or the epic, as
defined by rules—has been considered Organic Form.
But since it is indifferent to its matter, it is not really
organic. The content of all poetry being individual,
the form should also be individual, and not set and
rigid according to preconceived rules. Few conceptions
are so alien to the organic principle as the divisions
and subdivisions of rhetoric, especially in its appli-
cation to poetry. There form is separated from content
and defined independently of it, and the unifying power
is lost from sight. But the fact that the parts of a
sentence are called by rhetoricians “members” (árthra,
kóla) shows that an echo of the organic simile may
still be heard in the babel of rhetorical classifications.
Through the medieval period the rhetorical tradition
kept alive these vestiges of organicism, and Horace no
doubt helped. The speculations of the scholastics on
unity brought them closer to the Platonic tradition,
even though the Phaedrus was apparently forgotten.
It is therefore remarkable that Dante could formulate
the organic principle and its simile so definitely in his
Men call beautiful the things in which the parts fully an-
swer to each other, so that from their harmony pleasure
results. Thus a human being appears to be beautiful when
the members duly answer each other; and we say a song
is beautiful, when its sounds are duly respondent to each
other according to art (I, v, 3-15; trans. G. N. G. Orsini).
With the Renaissance and the revival of the Poetics
(not to speak of Plato), the principle returned into the
critical discussion of literature. Aristotle's definition of
organic unity in the plot, for instance, reappears in
Aristotelian interpreters like Daniel Heinsius, in his De
tragoediae constitutione (1611). From there it passes
into Ben Jonson's Timber; or Discoveries... (posthu-
mous, 1641), thus becoming a part of neo-classical
tradition in England. In the same century Nicolas
Boileau was legislating on poetry in France, mainly
on the foundation of Horace, as interpreted by strict
French intellectualism (1674). Organic precepts re-
appear, but somewhat less sharply:
Il faut que chaque chose y soit mise en son lieu,
Que le début, la fin, répondent au milieu;
Que d'un art délicat les pièces assorties
N'y forment qu'un seul tout de diverses parties.
(I, lines 177-80)
Boileau also translated Longinus, thus making available
another source of organic ideas. Twenty years later
(1694) he published a commentary on Longinus, mainly
disputing Charles Perrault.
In the eighteenth century we may find organic con-
cepts even in the manifesto of English neo-classicism,
Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism (1711):
In wit, as nature, what affects our hearts
Is not the exactness of peculiar parts;
'Tis not a lip or eye we beauty call,
But the joint force and full result of all.
(Part II, lines 43-46)
Shaftesbury's share in the formulation of the concept
has been made much of by German scholars, but it
seems that he just came very near and merely caught
a glimpse of it. “Inner form” appears in him, appar-
ently on the foundation of Plotinus, but only once does
he ascribe organic unity to the work of art (Notion
of the Tablature, posthumously published in 1714).
The concept of inner form was transformed by J.
Harris (Hermes, 1751), and Herder saw it as the spirit
within the body of the poem. Herder is the first literary
critic to make use of the concept of organic form in
practical criticism. In 1771 he applied it to Shake-
speare's dramas and in 1776 Goethe, then Herder's
disciple, set up the “inner form” of a play as against
“the unities, beginning, middle and end the rest of it,”
the traditional Aristotelian concepts of form.
As science developed the investigation of the physi-
cal organism, so philosophy turned to analyze the
essence of the living organism. Leibniz gave a me-
chanical definition of it as “a natural mechanism,” i.e.,
a machine made up of smaller machines (Principles of
nature and grace [1714], para. 3). His own meta-
physical speculations turned on the unity of substance
and its division into parts which are posterior to the
Page 425, Volume 3
whole (at least in idealibus: letter to Des Bosses, 31
July 1706), thus reaffirming the Aristotelian a priority
of logical unity.
Goethe's view of nature was fundamentally organic.
He condemned the analytical scientist, who murders
to dissect, in a famous passage of Faust: “The parts
in his hand he may hold and class/ But the spiritual
link is lost, alas!” (lines 1938-39). A modern scholar
states that Goethe took over from Neo-Platonism “the
idea of form from a process at work even in the inmost
parts of an organism and to fuse it completely with
the idea of form as an outward shape. The one is not
the cause of the other; they are completely reciprocal.
Inner structure determines outward shape and outward
shape inner structure” (Wilkinson, 1951).
Kant had already employed organic unity to define
the structure of pure reason in the Critique of Pure
Reason (2nd ed., 1787). The ideal principles of pure
reason constitute “a self-subsistent unity, in which as
an organized body each member exists for every other,
and all for the sake of each” (B xxviii). The idea is
more fully developed in the “Dialectic of Pure Reason”
and the “Doctrine of Method,” the last parts of the
In his aesthetic theory, Kant came very near to
defining explicitly the work of art as an organic unity.
The idea is implicit in his Critique of Judgment (1790,
para. 65), where he traces out the “analogy” between
a work of art and a living body, and also does some-
thing which critics of organicism claim has not been
done: he points out the differences between them.
These are, first, that in an organism “parts produce
one another: it is self-organizing”; second, that an
organism that goes out of order “repairs itself”; and
third, that a natural organism can reproduce itself.
Kant definitely warns that there is no real identity
between nature and art, because the art product always
involves an “artificer” while nature does not.
Kant also made the sharpest antithesis between the
organic and the mechanical by defining the organism
teleologically, as a whole in which “every part is recip-
rocally end and means” (para. 66). In a work of art
purposefulness is also apparent, but not real, although
the harmony of the parts produces aesthetic pleasure
The powerful impulse of Kant can be felt in all later
German speculation. Mere atomistic empiricism, the
unconnected sensation or enumeration of the parts of
a subject, became anathema; every intellectual pro-
duction, be it a philosophical treatise or a poem, was
to be organically articulated, each part related to the
others and to the whole. In Schelling's System of
Transcendental Idealism (1800) art became the intel-
lectual intuition which reaches the Absolute beyond
all contradictions, and in his Discourse on the Relation
between the Fine Arts and Nature (1807) he formulated
the concept of organic form in the arts.
Meanwhile the brothers Schlegel had carried the
concept of organic form into literary criticism. In
August Schlegel's Lectures of 1801 organic concepts
prevail, as well as in the more famous Vienna lectures
on the drama (1810). There he gave the final blow to
the neo-classical depreciation of Shakespeare, whose
tragedies, being devoid of the classical dramatic unities,
were claimed to be without form. But the unities, he
showed, are a purely mechanical form, applied ex-
ternally to a subject; while real art possesses organic
form which is inborn and develops from within, pro-
ducing an outward arrangement dictated by the nature
of the subject. This was immediately taken up by
Coleridge in his English lectures, and became the
foundation of a new, positive interpretation of Shake-
spearean tragedy—an interpretation which has borne
fruit ever since.
Coleridge is the main representative of organicism
in English criticism. In his most formal definition of
Beauty he started from Plotinus: “the indivisible unity
which appears in the many” (Enneads, I. vi. 3) and
then stated that “the sense of beauty consists in the
simultaneous intuition of the relation of parts, each to
each, and of all to the whole” (“On the Principles of
Genial Criticism Concerning the Fine Arts,” III
“Unity in multiplicity” is Coleridge's favorite aes-
thetic formula, which he repeats in many guises (“unity
in multeity,” il più nell'uno, etc.). In his definition of
the Imagination, this unity becomes a unity of
disparates, or even of contraries, thus converging into
another speculative doctrine dear to the idealists: the
unity of opposites. It may even be suggested that this
unity is the only one close enough to act as the unifying
power of the Imagination, the “esemplastic” power of
which Coleridge theorized (Biographia Literaria, Ch.
XIII). The use Coleridge made of these concepts in
his practical criticism was fully expounded by Gordon
MacKenzie (1939).
William Blake also asserted the organic unity of
expression: “Ideas cannot be given but in their
minutely appropriate parts” (Prose Address, ca. 1810);
an original invention cannot “... exist without execu-
tion organized, delineated, and articulated....” As
Croce will say, “The poem is as those words, that
rhythm, and that metre” (Essence of Aesthetic [1912],
Ch. II).
After Schelling, Hegel definitely affirmed (in 1838)
that organic unity was the basic characteristic of a
poem: “Every genuine work of poetry is an essentially
infinite organism... in which the whole, without any
Page 426, Volume 3
visible intention, is sphered within one rounded and
essentially self-enclosed completeness” (Philosophy of
Fine Art, Part III: “Poetry”). From Germany the idea
spread to other European countries where it found
support in native traditions.
During the Victorian era the greatest literary repre-
sentative of organicism was perhaps Walter Pater, as
seen in his Appreciations (1889). Later in the century
the idealistic philosopher B. Bosanquet reaffirmed
organicism as his definition of beauty (1892).
Coming to the present century, the definition of
organic unity was debated among English philosophers
of the twenties and thirties, J. E. McTaggart (1921-27)
and C. D. Broad (1933). One of the strongest champions
of organic unity in English aesthetics of the mid-
twentieth century is Harold Osborne. In his Theory of
Beauty (1952) he defines beauty as organic unity or
Gestalt, “a configuration such that the configuration
itself is prior in awareness to its component parts and
is not explicable by a summation of its parts and their
relations according to discursive and additive princi-
ples.” On this foundation he built up his detailed work,
Aesthetics and Criticism (1955).
German thought also fertilized Italian criticism.
From Hegel Francesco de Sanctis developed his aes-
thetic, which he applied extensively to the criticism
and to the history of Italian literature. The aesthetic
form of a work for him is actually generated by its
content; it is “... the life which the content acquired
in the mind of the poet” and the two are organically
inseparable (essay on Settembrini, 1869). From De
Sanctis, Benedetto Croce developed his own organi-
cism. In his earliest Aesthetic (1902; trans. 1909; 1922)
he appealed to the principle that “... the whole de-
termines the quality of the parts” (Part I, Ch. i) and
that the imagination effects “... the fusion of all
impressions into an organic whole” (ibid., Ch. ii). On
the basis of the unity of thought and expression Croce
rejected “modes of expression,” such as the plain and
the ornate, the simple and the elevated, the poetic and
the prosaic, as well as “figures of speech” and all other
ornamentations (Part I, Ch. ix), thus consolidating his
exclusion of rhetoric and the theory of genres from
literary criticism. The concept of dynamic form is
paramount in every sphere of Croce's thinking (Orsini,
1961). Hence his warning not to take “... the meta-
phorical term `organism' literally, as was done by lin-
guists like A. Schleicher” (1905). His own criticism
generally looks for the form of mental activity preva-
lent in the individual work—practical or theoretical,
conceptual or utilitarian—and distinguishes it from the
other forms which may also enter into the work (“po-
etry and non-poetry”).
Organic concepts, or at least organic terms, play a
large part in American criticism. In the nineteenth
century Coleridge's ideas were largely influential, as
shown in the surveys of H. H. Clark and R. H. Fogle
(1955). They turn up in writers such as Poe, Emerson,
Thoreau, and Whitman. In time the Coleridgian con-
cepts were watered down, and some twentieth-century
writers have only a vague notion of them. The term
“organic” is prominent in S. Pepper's aesthetics (1945),
but his philosophical use of it is his own. He calls
“organistic criticism” the kind that conceives aesthetic
value as “the integration of feeling,” which omits the
unity of the parts in the whole. Cleanth Brooks called
“organic” his own idea of the poem as a system of
actions and reactions, of stresses and balances like the
physical pressures in a bridge, which is obviously not
organical but mechanical (1941, p. 36). He draws closer
to genuine organicism in books written in collaboration
with R. P. Warren, especially Modern Rhetoric (1949).
A faithful presentation of the organic concepts is by
R. B. West and R. W. Stallman (1949). M. H. Abrams
in The Mirror and the Lamp (1953) gave one of the
fullest definitions, both historically and critically, of
organicism, but he unnecessarily adopted Pepper's
classification of kinds of theory. M. Krieger put forward
an “organic theory of poetic creation” (1950), but he
was diverted from the organic concepts by the Aris-
totelian theory of language as a medium and not as
an organic form.
The distinction between organic unity and organic
form may perhaps be defined as that between an earlier
and less developed form of theory and a later, more
specific form of it—the latter still having a future in
front of it. But the concepts are now so widespread
that it is impossible to follow out all variations of them.
Organic unity is so indispensable a prerequisite of
aesthetics that it is often taken for granted and omitted
as obvious. But both concepts in their strict form are
still capable of development and revision.
There are also critical trends adverse to organic
conceptions. The opposition comes mainly from repre-
sentatives of traditional poetics and rhetoric, with their
separation of form and content, thought and expression,
and from their prescriptive formulas for composition;
also from neo-Aristotelians and others who are opposed
to the idealistic philosophy which underlies much of
organicism. The latter has been identified by other
critics with the idea of unconscious growth, which
ignores “the conscious, critical element in composi-
tion.” But in the idealistic context organic unity applies
to the result of the conscious act of composition, to
the completed work and not to its genesis. Likewise,
the incomplete or fragmentary condition of a work
today cannot provide an argument for denying organic
character to its original text, nor can the fact that
Page 427, Volume 3
the original text may now be disfigured by textual
corruption. More recent critics have denied the idea
that a good poem is injured by losing some of its parts
(Lord, 1965); others have traced the principle to
different philosophical systems, like Leibniz' (Benziger,
1951). The fact that the organic metaphor refers to
a biological phenomenon like the human body has been
considered a fault, but that can be easily removed by
dropping the metaphor and formulating the concept
in its logical form as the synthesis of particulars, to
be found actually in a work of art as created by the
mind, and only analogically in a living body. Nor is
the metaphor necessary to provide the name for the
principle, since it has been given other designations,
such as “esemplastic” or “coadunative unity” by Cole-
ridge, an “intensive manifold” by T. E. Hulme, or a
“synthetic configuration” by Osborne.
Most of the topics in this article are more fully treated
in G. N. G. Orsini, “The Organic Concepts in Aesthetics,”
in Comparative Literature, 31 (1969), 1-30. The most notable
contributions to the history of the idea were made by the
German scholar Oskar Walzel in his Vom Geistesleben alter
und neuer Zeit (Leipzig, 1922), and other works listed in
this article. In English, the fullest historical exposition is
in M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp... (New York,
1953), and one of the most perceptive critical expositions
is in Sir Herbert Read, The True Voice of Feeling (New York,
1953). The works of René Wellek contain much that bears
directly on the subject.
The following are references made in the course of the
article. W. Blake, Complete Writings, ed. G. Keynes (Oxford,
1966), pp. 395-96. B. Bosanquet, A History of Aesthetic, 2nd
ed. (London, 1904), pp. 32-33. A. C. Bradley, Oxford Lec-
tures on Poetry (London, 1909), pp. 257-59. C. D. Broad,
Examination of McTaggart's Philosophy (Cambridge, 1933),
I, 240. C. Brooks, “The Poem as Organism: Modern Critical
Procedure,” English Institute Annual 1940 (New York, 1941),
pp. 20-41; idem, “Implications of an Organic Theory of
Poetry,” in M. H. Abrams, ed., Literature and Belief, English
Institute Essays, 1957 (New York, 1958), pp. 53-79; idem
and R. P. Warren, Modern Rhetoric: With Readings (New
York, 1949). H. H. Clark, “Changing Attitudes in Early
American Criticism: 1800-1840,” in Floyd Stovall, ed.,
Development of American Literary Criticism (Chapel Hill,
N.C., 1955). S. T. Coleridge, “On the Principles of Genial
Criticism...” (1814), in J. Shawcross, ed., Biographia
Literaria, 2 vols. (London, 1907), II, 238-39; idem, The
Philosophical Lectures, Hitherto Unpublished, ed. K. Coburn
(New York, 1949), p. 196; idem, Shakespearean Criticism,
ed. T. M. Raysor, new ed., 2 vols. (London, 1960), I, 4-5.
B. Croce, Brevario di estetica, trans. Douglas Ainslie as “The
Breviary of Aesthetics” (Houston, Texas, 1912); book title,
The Essence of Aesthetic (London, 1921); the original is also
in Nuovi saggi di estetica, 2nd ed. (Bari, 1920), pp. 39ff;
idem, Aesthetic as Science of Expression and General Lin-
guistics, trans. Douglas Ainslie, 2nd ed. (London, 1922), pp.
2, 20; idem, Problemi di estetica (Bari, 1910), pp. 192-93.
F. De Sanctis, “Settembrini e i suoi critici,” in Saggi critici,
ed. L. Russo, 3 vols. (Bari, 1965), II, 306. J. Dewey, Art
as Experience (New York, 1934), pp. 192-93. R. H. Fogle,
“Organic Form and American Criticism: 1840-1870,” in
Stovall, op. cit. For J. Harris, see Schwinger, below. G. W. F.
Hegel, Philosophy of Fine Art, trans. F. P. B. Ormaston,
4 vols. (London, 1920), IV, 51; cf. on “The Beauty of Na-
ture,” I, 163-67, 173-75. J. Hospers, “Problems of Aes-
thetics,” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. P. Edwards,
8 vols. (New York, 1967), I, 43. M. Krieger, The New Apolo-
gists for Poetry (Minneapolis, 1950); idem, “B. Croce and
the Recent Poetics of Organicism,” Comparative Literature,
7 (1955), 252-58. G. MacKenzie, Organic Unity in Coleridge
(Berkeley, 1939). J. E. McTaggart, The Nature of Existence
(Cambridge, 1921), I, 165-66. G. N. G. Orsini, B. Croce as
Philosopher of Art and Literary Critic (Carbondale, 1961),
p. 317, n. 26; idem, “Coleridge and Schlegel Reconsidered,”
Comparative Literature, 16 (1964), 116-18. H. Osborne, The
Theory of Beauty (London, 1952), p. 124. S. C. Pepper, The
Basis of Criticism in the Arts (Cambridge, Mass., 1945). R.
Schwinger and R. Nicolai, Innere Form und dichterische
Phantasie (Munich, 1935). R. B. West and R. W. Stallman,
The Art of Modern Fiction (New York, 1949), esp. “Form,”
p. 647, and “Structure,” p. 651. O. Wilde, Intentions
(London, 1891), p. 201. E. M. Wilkinson, “Goethe's Con-
ception of Form,” Proceedings of the British Academy, 37
(1951), 186.
For the identification with unconscious growth see: J.
Benziger, “Organic Unity, Leibniz to Coleridge,” PMLA,
66 (1951), 24-48. The following titles do not discuss
“unconscious growth” but the general concept. T. E. Hulme,
“The Philosophy of Intensive Manifolds,” in his Specula-
tions, ed. H. Read (London, 1924), pp. 171-214. C. Lord,
“Organic Unity Reconsidered,” Journal of Aesthetics and
Art Criticism, 52 (1964), 263-68. W. Van O'Connor, An Age
of Criticism, 1900-1950 (Chicago, 1952), p. 58.

[See also Analogy of the Body Politic v1-11 ; Classicism v1-55 ; Criticism v1-71 ; Hegelian... v2-46 ; Literature v3-11 ; Metaphor in Philosophy v3-23 ; \Platonism v3-63 v3-64 v3-65 ; Romanticism in Post-Kantian Philosophy. v4-28 ]

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