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  • Writer's pictureAnneliese Abbott

The Organic Whole: Ehrenfried Pfeiffer's Definition of Organic


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Pfeiffer and Steiner emphasized that the concept of the "organic whole" originally came from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

As far as I am aware, the first book to outline a complete farming system that we would call “organic” today was Ehrenfried Pfeiffer’s Bio-Dynamic Farming and Gardening, first published in 1938.

 

Sir Albert Howard’s The Waste Products of Agriculture was published earlier, in 1931, but it only covered composting methods. It wasn’t until his 1940 book An Agricultural Testament that Howard presented a complete farming system. Similarly, all of the other early books to discuss an organic farming system—including Lord Northbourne’s Look to the Land (1940), Lady Eve Balfour’s The Living Soil (1943), and J.I. Rodale’s Pay Dirt (1945)—were published at least two years after Pfeiffer’s book. And most of them had read and cited Pfeiffer.

 

Pfeiffer called his farming system “biological-dynamic,” later shortened to “biodynamic.” He never used the specific phrase “organic farming.” But he did use the word “organic” frequently, in a rather different sense than Howard’s use of the term in “organic material.”

 

“The ways and means for the regeneration of the farm can be found only in a comprehensive view of the earth as an “organism,” as a living entity,” Pfeiffer wrote. “The whole is not the mere sum of all its parts, but a harmonic unity of a higher order, which as organic being, as an organism with laws of a higher order, lifts the world of the physico-chemical inorganic to the world of the organic-living.”

 

Pfeiffer had learned this concept of the farm as an organic whole from his mentor, Rudolf Steiner. But both Steiner and Pfeiffer emphasized that their definition of the organic whole came originally from the early nineteenth-century German philosopher and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Writing at a time when reductionist biology was in its infancy, Goethe argued that the only way to study living organisms was from a holistic perspective. “The things we call the parts in every living being are so inseparable from the whole that they may be understood only in and with the whole,” Goethe wrote.

 

Steiner was so profoundly influenced by Goethe’s holistic worldview that he devoted a significant part of his career to editing and publishing Goethe’s manuscripts, especially his scientific papers that emphasized this holistic perspective. “Goethe is the Copernicus and Kepler of the organic world,” Steiner claimed. He even named the building that he constructed to be the headquarters of the Anthroposophical Society in Dornach, Switzerland the “Goetheanum,” honoring Goethe’s deep influence on his philosophies.

 

“Goethe for the first time enunciated the laws of the organic, the superior whole, and the method of cognition belonging to it,” Pfeiffer wrote in the last chapter of Bio-Dynamic Farming and Gardening. “Rudolf Steiner carried the Goethean idea further until at last it is in a form which the practical agriculturalist, the farmer, can grasp.”

 

Modestly, Pfeiffer never took credit for his important work of translating Steiner’s holistic agricultural ideas into practical farming terms. But it was undoubtedly the English translation of Bio-Dynamic Farming and Gardening, released in 1938, which first brought the concept of the organic whole into the nascent movement that would soon be called “organic farming.”

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