On Simple and Complex Things: Goldstein’s Holistic Approach

(Based on an earlier draft by Léonie Mol.)

Opening The Organism ([Der Aufbau des Organismus (1934)] 1939), Goldstein wrote:

If I am correct in my views, all previous attempts to understand life have followed the method of working from the lower to the higher. […] The determining view has remained that the lower organisms are “simpler” and can be investigated more readily. (Goldstein 1939:1)

Goldstein, however, challenged this concept of simplicity. Differentiating “simple” from “complex” beings or identifying “lower” organisms as “simpler” were artificial, theory-blinkered abstractions which typically failed to consider behavioural nuances. Moreover, translating insights from “simple” to “complex” beings was fraught.

Whether a behaviour was to be considered “complex” or “simple” was instead determined by its performance, by its “coming to terms … with environmental stimuli” (1939:28), and by the demands the performance made upon the organism’s capacities (3). Goldstein presumed that organisms (individuals) strove for survival, trying to balance their own selves and the environment. In an ordered condition the organism’s behaviour was an effective performance: the environmental situation enhanced rather than hindered the organism’s performances. Disordered behaviour was shocking and fatiguing causing the organism to suffer from “catastrophic reactions” and anxieties as it sought to regain and then maintain new states of order, often by limiting the environment (34ff).

Correctly assessing an organism’s capacities – and its deficits – therefore required taking into account all of the organism’s interaction with its surroundings (its milieu or environment). Symptoms could never be viewed in isolation as direct expression of damage to the nervous system. Instead they were “answers, given by the modified organisms, to definite demands”(18). Evaluating these “answers” required all phenomena to be recorded minutely and exactly, without preference. “A trifle which barely attracts notice may be of the utmost significance” (21).

Given Goldstein’s concept of “catastrophic reactions” and his iterative process to understand organisms in their environment: What kind of person or being emerges from his neurological movies and this imagery? What kind of subjectivities are being imaged and imagined?

And: Did these subjectivities and neurological imaginaries carry through? In 1966 the Russian neurologist and neuropsychologist Aleksandr Luria (1902-1977) thus celebrated Goldstein for being a  “brilliant representative of classic neurology” who sought to bridge the analytical tradition of strict brain localization and holism (1966:311) and praised Goldstein’s efforts in bringing psychology to bear on neurology–yet he also noted that Goldstein had died without leaving a school of young followers. Elsewhere, however, a young British neurologist in New York, Oliver Sacks, was taking up Luria’s writings on a “romantic science” and Goldstein’s thoughts on patients and their environment — with increasing success.

Which role do these neurological imaginaries still play–and can these imaginaries still play–in light of contemporary neuromolecular views which attempt to localise the what and where of functions as quickly as possible?



Goldstein, Kurt. 1939. The Organism. A Holistic Approach to Biology derived from Pathological Data in Man. Salt Lake City: American Book Publishing.

Luria, Aleksandr R. 1966. Kurt Goldstein and neuropsychology. Neuropsychologia, Volume 4 (4):311-313.