Holism (from Greek ὅλος holos "all, whole, entire") is the idea
that systems (physical, biological, chemical, social, economic,
mental, linguistic) and their properties should be viewed as wholes,
not just as a collection of parts.
The term holism was coined by J. C. Smuts in
Evolution. It was Smuts' opinion that holism is a concept that
represents all of the wholes in the universe, and these wholes are the
real factors in the universe. Further, that
Holism also denoted a
theory of the universe in the same vein as Materialism and
Spiritualism.:120–121 The derived adjective holistic has been
applied to a wide range of fields where they incorporate the concept
of holism. For example,
New Age is religious holism while New Thought
is spiritual holism.
1 Synopsis of
Holism and Evolution
1.7 The whole is greater than the sum of its parts
1.8 Progressive grading of wholes
2 Indications of holism in philosophy
2.1 Philosophy of language
2.2 Epistemological and confirmation holism
2.3 Ontological holism
3 Indications of holism in physical science
3.2 Chaos and complexity
4 Indications of holism in social science
4.4 Education reform
4.5.1 Psychology of perception
4.5.2 Teleological psychology
4.6.2 Émile Durkheim
5 See also
8 Further reading
9 External links
Holism and Evolution
After identifying the need for reform in the fundamental concepts of
matter, life and mind (chapter 1) Smuts examines the reformed concepts
(as of 1926) of space and time (chapter 2), matter (chapter 3) and
biology (chapter 4) and concludes that the close approach to each
other of the concepts of matter, life and mind, and the partial
overflow of each other's domain, implies that there is a fundamental
principle (Holism) of which they are the progressive outcome.:86
Chapters 5 and 6 provide the general concept, functions and categories
of Holism; chapters 7 and 8 address
Holism with respect to Mechanism
and Darwinism, chapters 9-11 make a start towards demonstrating the
concepts and functions of
Holism for the metaphysical categories
(mind, personality, ideals) and the book concludes with a chapter that
argues for the universal ubiquity of
Holism and its place as a
The following is an overview of Smuts' opinions regarding the general
concept, functions, and categories of Holism; like the definition of
Holism, other than the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of
its parts, the editor is unaware of any authoritative secondary
sources corroborating Smuts' opinions.
Wholes are composites which have an internal structure, function or
character which clearly differentiates them from mechanical additions,
aggregates, and constructions, such as science assumes on the
mechanical hypothesis.:106 The concept of structure is not confined
to the physical domain (e.g. chemical, biological and artifacts); it
also applies to the metaphysical domain (e.g. mental structures,
properties, attributes, values, ideals, etc.):161
The field of a whole is not something different and additional to it,
it is the continuation of the whole beyond its sensible contours of
experience.:113 The field characterizes a whole as a unified and
synthesised event in the system of Relativity, that includes not only
its present but also its past—and also its future
potentialities.:89 As such, the concept of field entails both
activity and structure.:115
Darwin's theory of organic descent placed primary emphasis on the role
of natural selection but there would be nothing to select if not for
variation. Variations that are the result of mutations in the
biological sense and variations that are the result of individually
acquired modifications in the personal sense are attributed by Smuts
to Holism; further it was his opinion that because variations appear
in complexes and not singly, evolution is more than the outcome of
individual selections, it is holistic.:190–192
The whole exhibits a discernible regulatory function as it relates to
cooperation and coordination of the structure and activity of parts,
and to the selection and deselection of variations. The result is a
balanced correlation of organs and functions. The activities of the
parts are directed to central ends; co-operation and unified action
instead of the separate mechanical activities of the parts.:125
It is the intermingling of fields which is creative or causal in
nature. This is seen in matter, where if not for its dynamic
structural creative character matter could not have been the mother of
the universe. This function, or factor of creativity is even more
marked in biology where the protoplasm of the cell is vitally active
in an ongoing process of creative change where parts are continually
being destroyed and replaced by new protoplasm. With minds the
regulatory function of
Holism acquires consciousness and freedom,
demonstrating a creative power of the most far-reaching character.
Holism is not only creative but self-creative, and its final
structures are far more holistic than its initial structures.:18,
37, 67–68, 88–89
As it relates to causality Smuts makes reference to A. N. Whitehead,
and indirectly Baruch Spinoza; the Whitehead premise is that organic
mechanism is a fundamental process which realizes and actualizes
individual syntheses or unities.
Holism (the factor) exemplifies this
same idea while emphasizing the holistic character of the process. The
whole completely transforms the concept of Causality; results are not
directly a function of causes. The whole absorbs and integrates the
cause into its own activity; results appear as the consequence of the
activity of the whole.:121–124,126 Note that this material
relating to Whitehead's influence as it relates to causality was added
in the second edition and, of course, will not be found in reprints of
the first edition; nor is it included in the most recent Holst
edition. It is the second edition of
Holism and Evolution (1927) that
provides the most recent and definitive treatment by Smuts.
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts
The fundamental holistic characters as a unity of parts which is so
close and intense as to be more than the sum of its parts; which not
only gives a particular conformation or structure to the parts, but so
relates and determines them in their synthesis that their functions
are altered; the synthesis affects and determines the parts, so that
they function towards the whole; and the whole and the parts,
therefore reciprocally influence and determine each other, and appear
more or less to merge their individual characters: the whole is in the
parts and the parts are in the whole, and this synthesis of whole and
parts is reflected in the holistic character of the functions of the
parts as well as of the whole.:88
Progressive grading of wholes
A "rough and provisional" summary of the progressive grading of wholes
that comprise holism is as follows::109
Material structure e.g. a chemical compound
Functional structure in living bodies
Animals, which exhibit a degree of central control that is-primarily
implicit and unconscious
Personality, characterized as conscious central control
States and similar group organizations characterized by central
control that involves many people.
Holistic Ideals, or absolute Values, distinct from human personality
that are creative factors in the creation of a spiritual world, for
example Truth, Beauty and Goodness.
Indications of holism in philosophy
Confirmation holism and Semantic holism
In philosophy, any doctrine that emphasizes the priority of a whole
over its parts is holism. Some suggest that such a definition owes its
origins to a non-holistic view of language and places it in the
reductivist camp. Alternately, a 'holistic' definition of holism
denies the necessity of a division between the function of separate
parts and the workings of the 'whole'. Effectively this means that the
concept of a part has no absolute foundation in observation, but is
rather a result of a materialist structuring of reality based on the
necessity of logical and distinct units as a means to deriving
information through comparative analysis. It suggests that the key
recognizable characteristic of a concept of 'true' holism is a sense
of the fundamental truth of any particular experience. This exists in
contradistinction to what is perceived as the reductivist reliance on
inductive method as the key to verification of its concept of how the
parts function within the whole. Equally the potential for recognising
the clarity of holistic experience within the logical terms of maths
is limited by the abstract nature of numbers. In terms of real life
measurements numbers have no scale or dimensional properties so have
to rely on experimentally verified units (e.g. inches, volts, calories
etc.), to describe reality. It is this reliance on the holistic
integrity of experience which leads to the recognition that intuitive
perception rather than mathematical calculation is the source of the
truth of effective theories. (See references Holism, 2016.)
Philosophy of language
In the philosophy of language this becomes the claim, called semantic
holism, that the meaning of an individual word or sentence can only be
understood in terms of its relations to a larger body of language,
even a whole theory or a whole language. In the philosophy of mind, a
mental state may be identified only in terms of its relations with
others. This is often referred to as "content holism" or "holism of
the mental". This notion involves the philosophies of such figures as
Frege, Wittgenstein, and Quine.
Epistemological and confirmation holism
Epistemological and confirmation holism are mainstream ideas in
Ontological holism was espoused by
David Bohm in his theory on the
implicate and explicate order.
The concept of holism played a pivotal role in Baruch Spinoza's
Hegel rejected "the fundamentally atomistic conception of the object,"
(Stern, 38) arguing that "individual objects exist as manifestations
of indivisible substance-universals, which cannot be reduced to a set
of properties or attributes; he therefore holds that the object should
be treated as an ontologically primary whole." (Stern, 40) In direct
opposition to Kant, therefore, "Hegel insists that the unity we find
in our experience of the world is not constructed by us out of a
plurality of intuitions." (Stern, 40) In "his ontological scheme a
concrete individual is not reducible to a plurality of sensible
properties, but rather exemplifies a substance universal." (Stern, 41)
His point is that it is "a mistake to treat an organic substance like
blood as nothing more than a compound of unchanging chemical elements,
that can be separated and united without being fundamentally altered."
(Stern, 103) In Hegel's view, a substance like blood is thus "more of
an organic unity and cannot be understood as just an external
composition of the sort of distinct substances that were discussed at
the level of chemistry." (Stern, 103) Thus in Hegel's view, blood is
blood and cannot be successfully reduced to what we consider are its
component parts; we must view it as a whole substance entire unto
itself. This is most certainly a fundamentally holistic view.
Indications of holism in physical science
Holism in science
There are several newer methods in agricultural science such as
permaculture and holistic planned grazing (holistic management) that
integrate ecology and social sciences with food production. Organic
farming is sometimes considered a holistic approach.
Chaos and complexity
In the latter half of the 20th century, holism led to systems thinking
and its derivatives. Systems in biology, psychology, or sociology are
frequently so complex that their behavior is, or appears, "new" or
"emergent": it cannot be deduced from the properties of the elements
Holism has thus been used as a catchword. This contributed to the
resistance encountered by the scientific interpretation of holism,
which insists that there are ontological reasons that prevent
reductive models in principle from providing efficient algorithms for
prediction of system behavior in certain classes of systems.[citation
Scientific holism holds that the behavior of a system cannot be
perfectly predicted, no matter how much data is available. Natural
systems can produce surprisingly unexpected behavior, and it is
suspected that behavior of such systems might be computationally
irreducible, which means it would not be possible to even approximate
the system state without a full simulation of all the events occurring
in the system. Key properties of the higher level behavior of certain
classes of systems may be mediated by rare "surprises" in the behavior
of their elements due to the principle of interconnectivity, thus
evading predictions except by brute force simulation.
Complexity theory (also called "science of complexity") is a
contemporary heir of systems thinking. It comprises both computational
and holistic, relational approaches towards understanding complex
adaptive systems and, especially in the latter, its methods can be
seen as the polar opposite to reductive methods. General theories of
complexity have been proposed, and numerous complexity institutes and
departments have sprung up around the world. The
Santa Fe Institute
Santa Fe Institute is
arguably the most famous of them.
The Earth seen from Apollo 17.
See also: Holistic community
Holistic thinking is often applied to ecology, combining biological,
chemical, physical, economic, ethical, and political insights. The
complexity grows with the area, so that it is necessary to reduce the
characteristic of the view in other ways, for example to a specific
time of duration.
John Muir, Scots born early American conservationist, wrote "When
we try to pick out anything by itself we find it hitched to everything
else in the Universe".
More information is to be found in the field of systems ecology, a
cross-disciplinary field influenced by general systems theory.
In primary care the term "holistic," has been used to describe
approaches that take into account social considerations and other
intuitive judgements. The term holism, and so-called approaches,
appear in psychosomatic medicine in the 1970s, when they were
considered one possible way to conceptualize psychosomatic phenomena.
Instead of charting one-way causal links from psyche to soma, or vice
versa, it aimed at a systemic model, where multiple biological,
psychological and social factors were seen as interlinked.
Other, alternative approaches in the 1970s were psychosomatic and
somatopsychic approaches, which concentrated on causal links only from
psyche to soma, or from soma to psyche, respectively. At present
it is commonplace in psychosomatic medicine to state that psyche and
soma cannot really be separated for practical or theoretical
purposes. A disturbance on any level—somatic,
psychic, or social—will radiate to all the other levels, too. In
this sense, psychosomatic thinking is similar to the biopsychosocial
model of medicine.
Many alternative medicine practitioners claim a holistic approach to
A lively debate has run since the end of the 19th century regarding
the functional organization of the brain. The holistic tradition
(e.g., Pierre Marie) maintained that the brain was a homogeneous organ
with no specific subparts whereas the localizationists (e.g., Paul
Broca) argued that the brain was organized in functionally distinct
cortical areas which were each specialized to process a given type of
information or implement specific mental operations. The controversy
was epitomized with the existence of a language area in the brain,
nowadays known as the Broca's area.
Indications of holism in social science
Architecture is often argued by design academics and those practicing
in design to be a holistic enterprise. Used in this context,
holism tends to imply an all-inclusive design perspective. This trait
is considered exclusive to architecture, distinct from other
professions involved in design projects.
A holistic brand (also holistic branding) is considering the entire
brand or image of the company. For example, a universal brand image
across all countries, including everything from advertising styles to
the stationery the company has made, to the company colours.
With roots in Schumpeter, the evolutionary approach might be
considered the holist theory in economics. They share certain language
from the biological evolutionary approach. They take into account how
the innovation system evolves over time.
Knowledge and know-how,
know-who, know-what and know-why are part of the whole business
Knowledge can also be tacit, as described by Michael
Polanyi. These models are open, and consider that it is hard to
predict exactly the impact of a policy measure. They are also less
Taxonomy of Educational Objectives
Taxonomy of Educational Objectives identifies many levels of
cognitive functioning, which can be used to create a more holistic
education. In authentic assessment, rather than using computers to
score multiple choice tests, a standards based assessment uses trained
scorers to score open-response items using holistic scoring
methods. In projects such as the North Carolina Writing Project,
scorers are instructed not to count errors, or count numbers of points
or supporting statements. The scorer is instead instructed to judge
holistically whether "as a whole" is it more a "2" or a "3". Critics
question whether such a process can be as objective as computer
scoring, and the degree to which such scoring methods can result in
different scores from different scorers.
Psychology of perception
A major holist movement in the early twentieth century was gestalt
psychology. The claim was that perception is not an aggregation of
atomic sense data but a field, in which there is a figure and a
ground. Background has holistic effects on the perceived figure.
Gestalt psychologists included Wolfgang Koehler, Max Wertheimer, Kurt
Koffka. Koehler claimed the perceptual fields corresponded to
electrical fields in the brain.
Karl Lashley did experiments with gold
foil pieces inserted in monkey brains purporting to show that such
fields did not exist. However, many of the perceptual illusions and
visual phenomena exhibited by the gestaltists were taken over (often
without credit) by later perceptual psychologists. Gestalt psychology
had influence on Fritz Perls' gestalt therapy, although some old-line
gestaltists opposed the association with counter-cultural and New Age
trends later associated with gestalt therapy. Gestalt theory was also
influential on phenomenology.
Aron Gurwitsch wrote on the role of the
field of consciousness in gestalt theory in relation to phenomenology.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty made much use of holistic psychologists such as
Kurt Goldstein in his "Phenomenology of Perception."
Alfred Adler believed that the individual (an integrated whole
expressed through a self-consistent unity of thinking, feeling, and
action, moving toward an unconscious, fictional final goal), must be
understood within the larger wholes of society, from the groups to
which he belongs (starting with his face-to-face relationships), to
the larger whole of mankind. The recognition of our social
embeddedness and the need for developing an interest in the welfare of
others, as well as a respect for nature, is at the heart of Adler's
philosophy of living and principles of psychotherapy.
Edgar Morin, the French philosopher and sociologist, can be considered
a holist based on the transdisciplinary nature of his work.
Mel Levine, M.D., author of A Mind at a Time, and co-founder (with
Charles R. Schwab) of the not-for-profit organization All Kinds of
Minds, can be considered a holist based on his view of the 'whole
child' as a product of many systems and his work supporting the
educational needs of children through the management of a child's
educational profile as a whole rather than isolated weaknesses in that
There is an ongoing dispute as to whether anthropology is
intrinsically holistic. Supporters of this concept consider
anthropology holistic in two senses. First, it is concerned with all
human beings across times and places, and with all dimensions of
humanity (evolutionary, biophysical, sociopolitical, economic,
cultural, psychological, etc.) Further, many academic programs
following this approach take a "four-field" approach to anthropology
that encompasses physical anthropology, archeology, linguistics, and
cultural anthropology or social anthropology.
Some leading anthropologists disagree, and consider anthropological
holism to be an artifact from 19th century social evolutionary thought
that inappropriately imposes scientific positivism upon cultural
The term "holism" is additionally used within social and cultural
anthropology to refer to an analysis of a society as a whole which
refuses to break society into component parts. One definition says:
"as a methodological ideal, holism implies ... that one does not
permit oneself to believe that our own established institutional
boundaries (e.g. between politics, sexuality, religion, economics)
necessarily may be found also in foreign societies."
Main article: Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft
See also: Ubuntu (philosophy)
Émile Durkheim developed a concept of holism which he set as opposite
to the notion that a society was nothing more than a simple collection
of individuals. In more recent times, Louis Dumont has contrasted
"holism" to "individualism" as two different forms of societies.
According to him, modern humans live in an individualist society,
whereas ancient Greek society, for example, could be qualified as
"holistic", because the individual found identity in the whole
society. Thus, the individual was ready to sacrifice himself or
herself for his or her community, as his or her life without the polis
had no sense whatsoever.
The French Protestant missionary
Maurice Leenhardt coined the term
"cosmomorphism" to indicate the state of perfect symbiosis with the
surrounding environment which characterized the culture of the
Melanesians of New Caledonia. For these people, an isolated individual
is totally indeterminate, indistinct, and featureless until he can
find his position within the natural and social world in which he is
inserted. The confines between the self and the world are annulled to
the point that the material body itself is no guarantee of the sort of
recognition of identity which is typical of our own culture.
Holistic concepts are strongly represented within the thoughts
Logos (per Heraclitus),
In theological anthropology, which belongs to theology and not to
anthropology, holism is the belief that body, soul and spirit are not
separate components of a person, but rather facets of a united
G. E. Moore
G. E. Moore § Organic wholes
Holism in ecological anthropology
The Story of 'the Blind Man and the Lame'
Howard T. Odum
Herbert A. Simon
^ Oshry, Barry (2008), Seeing Systems: Unlocking the Mysteries of
Organizational Life, Berrett-Koehler .
^ Auyang, Sunny Y (1999), Foundations of Complex-system Theories: in
Economics, Evolutionary Biology, and Statistical Physics, Cambridge
University Press .
^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Smuts, Jan Christiaan (1927).
Evolution 2nd Edition. Macmillian and Co.
^ The first publication of
Holism and Evolution was by MacMilian and
Co. in 1926. Smuts published a 2nd edition in 1927 and there have been
at least three subsequent reprints; Compass/Viking Press 1961,
Greenwood Press 1973, Sierra Sunrise Books 1999 (a version edited by
Sanford Holst). The full text of the 1927 2nd edition is available on
the Internet Archive site and this is the source used in updating the
^ Holism, The Basics of Philosophy
Bohm, D. (1980). Wholeness and the Implicate Order. London:
Routledge. ISBN 0-7100-0971-2
^ Charles Huenemann, Interpreting Spinoza: Critical Essays, Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2008, p. 41
^ Eccy De Jonge, Spinoza and Deep Ecology: Challenging Traditional
Approaches to Environmentalism, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2003,
^ Robert Stern, Hegel, Kant and the Structure of the Object, London:
Routledge Chapman Hall, 1990 (full text download) Archived 2016-05-20
at the Portuguese Web Archive
^ von Bertalanffy 1971, p. 54.
^ Reconnecting with
John Muir By Terry Gifford, University of Georgia,
Julian Tudor Hart
Julian Tudor Hart (2010) The Political Economy of Health Care
^ a b Lipowski, 1977.[page needed][need quotation to verify]
Broca's area exist?': Christofredo Jakob's 1906 response to
Pierre Marie's holistic stance. Kyrana Tsapkini, Ana B. Vivas, Lazaros
Brain and Language, Volume 105, Issue 3, June 2008, Pages
^ Holm, Ivar (2006). Ideas and Beliefs in Architecture: How attitudes,
orientations, and underlying assumptions shape the built environment.
Oslo School of Architecture and Design. ISBN 82-547-0174-1.
^ Rubrics (Authentic Assessment Toolbox) "So, when might you use a
holistic rubric? Holistic rubrics tend to be used when a quick or
gross judgment needs to be made" 
^ (Simon & Schuster, 2002)
^ Shore, Bradd (1999), "Strange Fate of Holism", Anthropology News, 40
(9): 4–5, doi:10.1111/an.19220.127.116.11 .
^ Clifford, James; Hodder, Ian; Lederman, Rena; Silverstein, Michael
(2005), Segal, Daniel A; Yanagisako, eds., Unwrapping the Sacred
Bundle: Reflections on the Disciplining of Anthropology, Duke
^ anthrobase definition of holism
^ Louis Dumont, 1984
^ Anne Bihan, "The Writer, a Man Without Qualities", Literature and
Identity in New Caledonia.
^ Susan Rasmussen, "Personahood, Self, Difference, and Dialogue
(Commentary on Chaudhary)", International Journal for Dialogical
Science, Fall 2008, Vol. 3, No. 1, 31-54.
^ "The traditional anthropology encounters major problems in the Bible
and its predominantly holistic view of human beings. Genesis 2:7 is a
key verse: 'Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground
and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became
a living being' (NRSV). The 'living being' (traditionally, 'living
soul') is an attempt to translate the Hebrew nephesh hayah, which
indicates a 'living person' in the context. More than one interpreter
has pointed out that this text does not say that the human being has a
soul but rather is a soul. H. Wheeler Robinson summarized the matter
in his statement that 'The Hebrew conceived man as animated body and
not as an incarnate soul.'" (Martin E. Tate, "The Comprehensive Nature
of Salvation in Biblical Perspective," Evangelical review of theology,
von Bertalanffy, Ludwig (1971) , General
Foundations Development Applications, Allen Lane .
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Leenhardt, M. 1947 Do Kamo. La personne et le mythe dans le monde
mélanésien. Gallimard. Paris.
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Psychiatry. 134 (3): 233–244.
Jan C. Smuts, 1926
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Bob Young.Holism, 2016. www.holism2018.wordpress.com
Descombes, Vincent, The Institutions of Meaning: A Defense of
Anthropological Holism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2014.
Dusek, Val, The Holistic Inspirations of Physics: An Underground
History of Electromagnetic Theory Rutgers University Press, Brunswick
Fodor, Jerry, and Ernst Lepore, Holism: A Shopper's Guide Wiley. New
Hayek, F.A. von. The Counter-Revolution of Science. Studies on the
abuse of reason. Free Press. New York. 1957.
Mandelbaum, M. Societal Facts in Gardner 1959.
Phillips, D.C. Holistic Thought in Social Science. Stanford University
Press. Stanford. 1976.
Dreyfus, H.L. "
Holism and Hermeneutics". The Review of Metaphysics.
James, S. The Content of Social Explanation. Cambridge University
Press. Cambridge, 1984.
Harrington, A. Reenchanted Science:
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Theory of sociological holism from "World of Wholeness"
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Related paradigm shifts
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Non-Euclidean geometry (1830s)
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Social science (Philosophy)
1980s Fourth Great Debate in international relations
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1830 The Course in Positive Philosophy
1848 A General View of Positivism
1869 Critical History of Philosophy
1879 Idealism and Positivism
Analysis of Sensations
1927 The Logic of Modern Physics
1936 Language, Truth, and Logic
1959 The Two Cultures
2001 The Universe in a Nutshell
A. J. Ayer
1909 Materialism and Empirio-criticism
1923 History and Class Consciousness
1934 The Logic of Scientific Discovery
1936 The Poverty of Historicism
1942 World Hypotheses
1951 Two Dogmas of Empiricism
Truth and Method
1962 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
1963 Conjectures and Refutations
1964 One-Dimensional Man
Knowledge and Human Interests
1978 The Poverty of Theory
1980 The Scientific Image
1986 The Rhetoric of Economics
Theodor W. Adorno
Willard Van Orman Quine
Concepts in contention