The Organismic Theory of the State

The Organismic Theory Distinguished from Other Theories. In a sense, the state’s organismic theory represents the antithesis of the juridical theory, which, at least in the minds of some of its supporters, conceives the state to be a legal fiction or a purely mental concept of the jurists. The organismic-theory goes to the other extreme and pictures the state as a real person, a living organism possessing organs that perform functions analogous to animals or plants.


It is a biological conception which describes the state in terms of natural science, views the individuals who compose it as analogous to the cells of a plant or animal, and postulates a relation of interdependence between them and society such as exists between the organs and parts a biological organism and the whole structure.

Some of its earlier advocates conceived the state as having tissues, systems of nutrition, and Circulation, organs that perform functions analogous to those of the brain, nerves, heart, muscles, and even stomach, navel, nose, hair, and nails. In its extreme form, it represents what is sometimes called the monistic theory of society, that is, society conceived as a social organism so unified that the individuals who compose it have no real independence but are mere atomistic units in the whole mass, each dependent on the others and upon the whole of its continued existence.

Representing the opposite extreme is called the monadic or pure individualistic theory, which considers society as primarily an aggregation of individuals, each in large measure. Living in isolation and independent of his associates, capable of surviving, and even of flourishing without the state’s aid, beyond a bare minimum of collective restraint for protecting the weak against the aggressions of the strong. This theory has had its advocates in the past, but few reputable writers could be found to-day who are seriously attached to it.

The Mechanistic Theory:-

Finally, the organismic theory may be contrasted with what has been called the mechanistic theory, which regards the state as a purely artificial mechanism or contrivance deliberately created by formal contract or convention, Which operates and functions like a machine, and which can be arbitrarily reformed or reconstructed at the will of its creators in complete disregard of historical laws and established traditions.

It regards the state as somewhat analogous to an edifice and its founders to an architect. Just as an architect with a commission to construct a new edifice clears the ground of old foundations and debris and erects thereupon a new structure, so the people of a community can make tabula mm of old institutions, cut loose from the past, ignore the forces of history and tradition, and erect upon the ruins a new state organization conceived and fashioned according to their own momentary notions and ideas.

This was the theory of the French Revolutionists against Which Burke protested and directed a powerful attack. History and experience have demonstrated that the theory is largely fallacious. The state is, of course, like all institutions, the work of men but of men working in cooperation with, and not in disregard of historical forces and national habits and traditions; it is not, therefore, a purely arbitrary mechanical creation in the same sense that a building or a costume is the work of an architect or a tailor It is what the French call a formation Historique. It is even more. As the sociologists insist, it is an organic phenomenon, a social group based upon the fact of unity and interdependence among those who form it.

History and Literature of the Organismic Theory:-

The so-called organic or organismic conception is, as Jellinek remarked, one of the oldest and most popular of all the theories of the state. In so far as it postulates an analogy between the state and a human being, it goes back to Plato, who compared the state to a man of great stature, and conceived a resemblance between its functions and those of an individual. Cicero likewise drew an analogy between the state and the individual and likened the state’s head to the spirit that rules the human body. The analogy was a favorite theme of medieval and early modern writers, notably John of Salisbury, Marsiglio, Johannes Althusius, and others.

The organic construction of human society, says Gierke, was as familiar to medieval thought as a mechanical and atomistic construction was originally alien to it. Under the influence of Biblical allegories and the models set by Greek and Roman writers, humanity’s comparison at large and every smaller group to an animate body was universally adopted and pressed.

In line with the statement of St. Paul that the church was a mystical body whose head was Christ, the ecclesiastical party maintained that the pope as the vicar of Christ on earth was this head the imperialist-party, on the contrary, maintained that the emperor was the head. It resulted from the conflict of Opinion that there was a two-headed monster, an animal biceps, to avoid which some contended that there were two bodies, each with its own head both being part of a greater body whose head was God.

Among later writers, both Hobbes and Rousseau drew analogies between human beings and their artificial conventionally created states. Hobbes characterized the state as that great Leviathan, but an artificial man, though of greater strength and stature than the natural?

He compared the state’s sovereignty to the soul of man, magistrates to joints, reward and punishment to nerves, etc. He even drew an analogy between the state’s weaknesses and contained human diseases such as defections, procreation boils, pleurisy, etc. Rousseau compared the body politic to the human body, which he said possessed the motive powers of force and will (the legislative power and the executive power). The former was the heart of the state, the latter its brain.

Development of the Theory in the Nineteenth Century:-

The earlier conceptions were little more than superficial analogies or comparisons; for the most part, those who drew them were advocates of the contract theory of the origin and nature of the state, a theory which was hardly compatible with the organic theory as it came later to be expounded and defended.

The reaction against the eighteenth-century theory of the social contract, which took place in the early part of the nineteenth century, found embodiment in the organic theory, which, it was believed, offered a substitute more in accord with the real nature of the state and with the true relation existing between it and the individuals who compose it.

The new theory took root in German soil, and there it found its most notable advocates among the earlier of these writers who enunciated the theory in one form or another were Leo, Schelling, Krause, Ahrens, Smitthenner, Waitz, Gorres, Volgraff, Stahl, Zacharia, Frantz, and others. The fascination of the theory with its biological analogies and parallelisms became so widespread that political science, for a time, seemed in danger of being swallowed up by natural science.

The culmination of the theory was reached in the writings of the noted Bluntschli between 1852 and 1884, who exaggerated it beyond all his predecessors. The state, he declared, is the very image of the human organism. Each has its member parts, organs, functions, life processes, and between those of the state and human organisms, there exists a deep and striking resemblance.

He pushed the biological analogy so far as to impute sexual qualities to the state; it is personified as masculine in character as contradistinguished from the church, assigned the attribute of femininity. His comparison of the state’s structure and life process with those of the human body was extremely fantastic and even absurd. To him, the state was no mere artificial, lifeless machine, but a living spiritual, organic being.

Like an oil painting, he said, is something more than a mere aggregation of drops of oil, as a statute is something more than a combination of marble particles, as a man is something more than a mere quantity of cells and blood corpuscles. Hence, the nation is something more than a mere aggregation of citizens, and the state something more than a mere collection of external regulations.

Spencer’s Analogies:-

While the organismic theory in its modern form originated among the Germans and found among them its most numerous and eloquent votaries, it had some supporters in England, Austria, Russia, and France. In England, Herbert Spencer adopted the theory. In his Principles of Sociology (1878-1880) and other writings, applying the new science of biology methods, he drew an elaborate analogy between society and a natural organism.

The society he conceived to be a natural organism differing in no essential principles from other biological organisms. He affirmed that both the animal and social bodies begin as germs, undergoes a process of continuous growth, the parts, as they develop, becoming mere and more unlike and exhibiting greater complexity of structure. As the lowest type of animal is all stomach, respiratory surface, or limb, so primitive society is all warrior, all hunter, all hut builder, or all tool maker.

As society grows in complexity, the division of labor follows. New organs with different functions appear, corresponding to the differentiation of functions in the animal, in which fundamental traits become entirely alike. In each case, there is a mutual dependence of parts, the full performance of each member’s functions being essential to the health and preservation of the rest.

If the ironworker in the social organism stops work, or the miner, or the food producer, or the distributor fails to discharge his natural functions in the economy of society, the whole suffers injury just as the animal organism suffers from the failure of its members to perform their functions. Thus the parallelism between social and animal life is maintained.

The slow but constant replacement of cell tissue and blood corpuscle in the animal organism, by which it is destroyed and reproduced again, we are told, is paralleled by the processes in society, by which it is permanently maintained, notwithstanding the deaths of the component members.

Spencer attributed to both the animal organism and the social body a sustaining system consisting of alimentation in the former, and production in the latter a distributing system consisting of the circulatory apparatus in the human body, and the transportation system in society and a regulatory system, consisting of the nervous system in the animal, and of governments and armies in the state.

Despite all these elements of resemblance, Spencer admitted that there is one extreme unlikeness in the structure of the body politic and that of the animal organism. He said the latter is concrete in the structure, that is, its units are bound together in close contact, while the social body is discrete, its units being free and more or less widely dispersed.

He readily admitted that the difference was fundamental. However, upon close examination, he said it will not put comparison Out of the question, for it can be shown that the social aggregate though discrete, is still a living whole.  There is still another difference between the two organisms, he added, which greatly affects our notion of the ends to be achieved by social organization, namely, the lack of a nerve sensorium in the social body. In the animal, consciousness is concentrated in a small part of the aggregate in the social organism; it is diffused throughout the aggregate.

The conclusion of practical politics which Spencer? Drew from the failure of the analogy at this point was that the welfare the aggregate in society, considered apart from that of the units, is not an end to be sought that, in short, society exists for the benefit of its members, not its members for the benefit of the society.

Upon the dissimilarity he found between society and the biological organism or rather upon the discrete nature of the social organism, he built up his individualistic political philosophy, which seemed to be wholly inconsistent With his organic theory of the state.

Other Advocates of the Organismic Theory:-

The Austrian publicist Albert SchiifHe was another writer who greatly overworked the biological analogy. In four large volumes entitled. The Structure and Live of the Social Body emphasized the anatomical, physiological, biological, and psychological resemblances between society and the animal body. He asserted that society is an organism whose protoplasm or unit is man, the state or government in the one corresponding to the brain in the other.

His work as a whole exhibits evidence of enormous learning and wide research. The theory of the organic nature of society Wag supported with ability and ingenuity of a similar character and magnitude was the work of Paul Lilienfeld, a Russian sociologist, whose Thoughts concerning the Social Science of the Future Published in five volumes between 1873 and 1881, constitutes an elaborate exposition of the organic theory, including the laws of social psychology and social physiology.

He went even beyond Spencer and Schaf He in the emphasis he placed on society’s organic character and in his advocacy of the biological analogy. Among others who have explained and defended the organic theory may be Auguste Comte, Fouillee, and Renee Worms. Of these, the French sociologist Worms is to-day probably the most eminent advocate of the organic theory. In his Organism and Society, he expounds and defends the biological analogy, maintaining that the anatomy, physiology, and pathology of society possess striking similarities to the structure, function, and pathology of living beings.

Evaluation of the Organismic Theory:-

If the organismic theory meant simply that the state is something more than an aggregation of individuals crowded or massed together without any unifying bond, in other words, that it is a society in which the members individually are in a peculiar sense dependent upon the whole and the whole, in turn, is conditioned upon the parts, no well-grounded objection to it could be sustained.

Even the biological analogy up to a certain point, though subserving little or no practical purpose, is harmless and scientifically unobjectionable, for manifestly there are certain elements of resemblance between the structure and functions of the state on the one hand and those of living beings on the other. But at many points, the comparison utterly fails, and the resemblance becomes pure fancy.

Thus the resemblance between the cells of a biological organism and the human beings who constitute the body politic will be seen upon close examination to be exceedingly superficial. The former are mechanical pieces of matter, with no independent life of their own, each being fixed in its place, having no power of thought or vill, and existing solely to support and perpetuate the life of the whole the latter are intellectual and moral beings, each having a will of its own, possessing the power of foresight movement, and self-control, and a physical life independent of the whole of which they are part.

To a large extent, each individual has the shaping of his own life, and his place in the organism is not determined for him, nor are his activities wholly regulated by the state. This lack of consciousness and will on the part of the animal organism’s cells and its presence in the state organism is one of the instances where the analogy fails. With the plant or animal organism, the dependence of the parts, on the whole, is essential, and the relation intrinsic, if they are severed from their connection, as a branch from a tree or a limb from an animal, they perish and cease to be living matter. With the state, on the contrary, the separation of a member does not result in destruction; physically speaking, the individual separated from the whole is still an individual.

Moreover, the laws of growth, development, decay, and death which govern the life of the human organism are scarcely analogous in any sense to those who reign in the world of politics; an organism grows and develops from within by internal adaptation, not by the addition from without of new parts while the state changes rather than grows and does this, for the most part, by the process of the formal alteration as a result of volitional power and conscious effort of the members. If such it may be called, its growth is largely the result of the conscious action of its individual members and is to, a great extent, self-directed.

The elements of volition and conscious effort do not enter into the growth of an organism; it changes in obedience to the operation of blind mechanical forces of nature, the parts having no power to alter the direction of its growth or to add to its stature. Indeed, as Jellinek remarked, growth, decline, and death are not necessary processes of state life though they are inseparable from the organism’s life.

The state does not originate or renew itself as a plant, or an animal does. In fact, to quote Jellinek again, many modern states like the German Empire, Italy, and some of the Balkan commonwealths have owed their existence to the sword rather than any cause that may be compared to the procreative or generative processes through which plants and animals come into existence.

Our conclusion must be that the biological analogy, in the form in Which it is usually stated, is not only fanciful and absurd, but even mischievous, and would not merit notice Were it not relied upon by some respectable writers as the justification of an important theory concerning the relation of the state to the individual members composing it.

Some of these biological comparisons are ingenious and well state to many writers. They have proved fascinating and seductive to others. They have constituted the basis of an argument for a theory of the state which would Sacrifice the individual to society.

In the sense in which many writers understand it, the organic theory rests on mere analogy, and we should do well to heed Lord Acton’s warning about analogies, metaphors, and parallelisms lest we come to grief. For this reason, Jellinek suggested that we had better reject the theory in toto lest the danger from a large amount of falsity in the analogy should outweigh the good in the little truth which it contains.

Value of the Theory:-

Nevertheless, the theory has not been without a certain value. It served as an antidote to the eighteenth-century individualistic doctrine that the state is a mere artificial mechanism, the materials of which Burke said, can be collected from any quarter and put together on any principle that the architect may think. It emphasized the unity of the state, the interdependence of the individuals who compose it, and civilized life’s impossibility in isolation apart from society.

It taught that the state is not the hasty product of a day, but the well-ripened fruit of wise delay that it is a growth which, like a plant or an animal, has formed itself by slow degrees rather than by art and that the individual can no more separate himself from it than a leg can be severed from the body or a limb from a tree and still maintain its life. Its chief weakness lay in its exaggeration and in the fact that it rested upon analogies that were often superficial or false.

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