Internationale Koordination
Anthroposophische Medizin
Freie Hochschule für Geisteswissenschaft
Medizinische Sektion am Goetheanum

Concept of organism in Anthroposophic Medicine

read more
Concept of organism in Anthroposophic Medicine

The question of specific properties of life compared to nonliving things has accompanied biology throughout its history. At times this question generated major controversies with largely diverging opinions. Basically, mechanistic thinkers, who tried to understand organismic functions in terms of nonliving machines, were opposed by those who tried to describe specific properties of living entities. As this question included the human body, these controversies have always been of special relevance to our self-image and also touched practical issues of medicine. During the second half of the twentieth century, it appeared resolved, that organisms are explainable basically as physicochemical machines. 

Especially from the perspective of molecular biology, it seemed to be clear that organisms need to be explained solely by the chemical functions of their component parts, although some resistance to this view never ceased. This research program has been working quite successfully, so that science today knows a lot about the physiological and chemical processes within organisms. However, again new doubts arise questioning whether the mere continuation of this analytical approach will ultimately generate a fundamental understanding of living entities. At the beginning of the twenty-first century the quest for a new synthesis actually comes from analytical empiricists themselves. 

The view of the organism as a molecular or even as a physical machine left the question open, how mind gets into relationship with physical processes of the body. Neither philosophical considerations nor proposals from natural sciences have been able to resolve this persistent problem, a subject since Descartes. Anthroposophic Medicine proposes that there is not just a direct connection, but that the specific entity of the living mediates between physical processes on the one hand, and manifestations of soul and mind on the other hand. Rudolf Steiner called this entity "the etheric body".

Using knowledge of modern biology, it becomes increasingly possible today to study the properties of this level of human organization, which humans share with animals and plants. Living beings exhibit properties and characteristics that are especially shown by life processes. They are typically not present in nonliving systems, although in some cases superficially comparable phenomena may be found. Of course, chemical reactions as well as physical processes are involved in organic functions, but they are integrated within organized and autonomous living entities. This perspective does not contradict the results of reductionistic research, but rather grants them meaning within the context of organismic systems. The concept of an "organismic biology" in this sense is an increasingly active and modern area of research, to which studies from the background of Anthroposophy are contributed. 

To gain knowledge of this entity is central for any medicine and especially for Anthroposophic Medicine, as many processes of illness and healing are mediated by this level of life itself. In addition, it will influence our understanding of nature in general.

July 2017

Dr. Priv.-Doz. Bernd Rosslenbroich 
Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Morphology 
Faculty of Health, School of Medicine, Witten-Herdecke University, Germany

Exemplary literature

Bock G, Goode J (eds) (1998) The limits of reductionism in biology. Papers from the Symposium held at the Novartis Foundation, London 1997. Wiley, Chichester, England

Capra F, Luisi PL (2014) The systems view of life. A unifying vision. Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge UK

Deppert W, Kliemt H, Lohff B, Schaefer J (eds) (1992) Wissenschaftstheorien in der Medizin. Ein Symposium. de Gruyter, Berlin, New York.

Dupré J (2012) Processes of Life: Essays in the Philosophy of biology. Oxford University Press, Oxford

Gilbert SF, Sarkar S (2000) Embracing Complexity: Organicism for the 21st Century. Dev Dynam 219, 1-9

Grunwald A, Gutmann M, Neumann-Held E (Eds.) (2002) On Human Nature. Anthropological, Biological, and Philosophical Foundations. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg

Heusser P (2016):Anthroposophy and science. An introduction. Peter Lang, Frankfurt

Kather R (2003) Was ist Leben? Philosophische Positionen und Perspektiven. Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt

Kather R (2012): Die Wiederentdeckung der Natur. Naturphilosophie im Zeichen der ökologischen Krise. Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt

Nagel T (2012) Mind and cosmos. Why the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature isalmost certainly false. Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York

Noble D (2006) The music of life. Biology beyond genes. Oxford University Press, Oxford

Penzlin H (2014) Das Phänomen Leben. Grundfragen der Theoretischen Biologie. Springer Spektrum, Berlin Heidelberg

Rosslenbroich B (2011) Outline of a concept for organismic systems biology. Seminars in Cancer Biology21 (3): 156-164. DOI: 10.1016/j.semcancer.2011.06001

Rosslenbroich B (2016): Properties of Life: Toward a Coherent Understanding of theOrganism. Acta Biotheoretica 64, 277-307

Rosslenbroich B (2016): The significance of an enhanced concept of the organism for medicine. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine (Hindawi) Volume 2016, Article ID 1587652.

Rosslenbroich B (in Vorbereitung): Eigenschaften des Lebendigen: Schritte zu einem eigenständigen Begriff vom Organismus“ In: Weinzirl J, Heusser P (Hrsg.): Was ist Leben? Aktuelles zu Wirkursache und Erkenntnis des Lebendigen. Wittener Kolloquium Humanismus, Medizin und Philosophie, Band 5, Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg. 13 -54

Schad W (1982) Biologisches Denken. In: Schad W (ed): Goetheanistische Naturwissenschaft, Vol. 1, Allgemeine Biologie, Stuttgart, pp. 9-25

Schaefer K, Hensel H, Brady R (eds)(1977): Toward a man-centered medical science. A new image of man in medicine, Vol. 1. Futura Publishing Company, Mt. Kisko, New York

Sonnenschein C, Soto AM (1999) The society of cells: Cancer and control of cell proliferation. Taylor & Francis, NY

Weiss PA (1969)The living system: determinism stratified. In: Koestler A, Smythies JR (eds):Beyond reductionism. New perspectives in the life sciences. London, pp. 3-55

Woese C (2004)A new biology for a new century. Microbiol Mol Biol R 68(2): 173-186