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Rupik Gregory | Writing-Up Fellow
2019-02-01 - 2019-07-31 | Research area: Philosophy of Biology
Organismal Agency in Romantic Biology and Today

As organismal development has become increasingly relevant to evolutionary theory (as evinced by ‘evo-devo’ and groups working toward an ‘Extended Evolutionary Synthesis’), biologists have had to theoretically re-engage with characteristics of organisms previously excised from the Modern Synthesis of evolution theory, such as their goal-orientedness and agency. Some have pointed to the similarities between this emerging focus on the organism and the “Romantic” organism-focused biology at the turn of the 19th century and drawn differing morals from this perceived similarity (Esposito 2013; Gambarotto 2017; Goldstein 2017; Zammito 2018). Despite growing interest in the biology of 19th
century Germany, and a more favourable reading of thinkers engaged with Naturphilosophie, no dedicated study has focused on organisms’ agency during this period. Additionally, while contemporary attempts to re-think biology have reached into biology’s history for inspiration or conceptual resources, the philosophy of biology has not adequately considered the promise of Romantic biology. This dissertation seeks to redress both of these lacunae. In it, I will explore how Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling conceived of organismal ‘agency’ & ‘goal-orientedness’ with an interest in comparing these conceptions to contemporary theorizations of organismal ‘agency’ and ‘goal-orientedness’ (Fulda 2016; Walsh 2017). The goal is that a better understanding of organic vitality and teleology at the turn of the 19th century in Germany can cast light on those same concepts as they come to the fore again today.