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Excerpted from Encyclopedia Brittannica 1927

Holism (from the Greek Holos, whole) is the theory, which makes the existence of “wholes” a fundamental feature of the world. It regards natural objects, both animate and inanimate, as “wholes” and not merely as assemblages of elements or parts. It looks upon nature as consisting of discrete, concrete bodies and things, and not as a diffusive homogeneous continuum. And these bodies or things are not entirely resolvable into parts; in one degree or another they are wholes which are more than the sum of their parts, and the mechanical putting together of their parts will not produce them or account for their characters and behaviour. The so-called parts are in fact not real but largely abstract analytical distinctions, and do not properly or adequately express what has gone to the making of the thing as a whole.

Holism is therefore a viewpoint additional and complementary to that of science, whose keywords are continuity and mechanism. The ideal of science is continuity, and its method is based on the analysis of things into more or less constant elements or parts, the sum of whose actions account for the behaviour of these things. Things, thus become mechanisms of their parts; and the interactions of their invariable parts in a homogeneous time and space according to the rules of mechanics are sufficient to account for all their properties. This mechanistic scheme applies even to living bodies, as their material structures determine the functions which constitute life characters. Mind is similarly, though much more doubtfully, based on physical mechanisms and functions. Life and mind are thus considered as derivative and epiphenomenal to matter.

The validity of this simple scientific scheme of things has been commonly, but never universally, accepted even among scientists. The inferior position it assigns to mind has remained an insuperable difficulty. And many biologists have also viewed its account of life as inadequate, and have supported the plea for vitalism or for life as a real force or factor, additional to those which operate on the physical plane. Finally the scientific scheme has been seriously undermined by the most recent discoveries in physical and mathematical science, which have resolved matter into variable energy, have destroyed the homogeneity of space and time, and have thereby shaken the whole basis of fixed standards and accurate measurements on which the mechanistic scheme is founded. The value of the mechanistic concept for research is not questioned, but it can no longer be considered as a true index of the concrete character of the universe and its contents. Holism is an attempt to explore an alternative scheme which will yet avoid the pitfalls of vitalism.

What are Wholes ?

What is involved in the concept of a whole? In the first place, in so far as a whole is considered as consisting of parts or elements, they cannot be fixed, constant, or unalterable. To be parts in a whole they must be pliant, flexible and mouldable. Their adjustment in a whole implies their flexibility and adjustability. It must be possible for the part to be different in the whole from what it is outside the whole; and in different wholes it must be different in each case from what it is in its separate state. The atoms of matter, and the electrons and protons of atoms are on this view not constant and identical throughout, either in their isolated states or in the “wholes” of atoms, molecules and compounds which they compose. They are variable, although the limits of variation may be too small for measurement or observation. In so far as physical substances are “wholes”, their elements cannot be constant and unalterable, as they must be adjustable to the pattern of these wholes.

In the second place, in so far as the elements or parts cohere and coalesce into the structure or pattern of a whole, the whole must itself be an active factor or influence among them; otherwise it is impossible to understand how the unity of a new pattern arises from its elements. Whole and parts mutually and reciprocally influence and modify each other; the one is pliant to and moulded by the other; the parts are moulded and adjusted by the whole, just as the whole in turn depends on the cooperation of its parts. The adjustive, directive, controlling influence of the whole is just as real as the whole which the parts play in the make-up of the whole.

2.) Holism and Revolution

3.) Holism and Biology

4.) Holism as Creative Activity

5.) Categories of Holism

6.) Transvaluation in Holism

7.) Holism in Psychology

8.) Holism in Sociology

9.) Is Reality a Whole?

10.) Forms and Monads

11.) Ethics and Metaphysics of Holism

Although the theory of Holism frankly accepts the material basis of the world and recognises the natural order as Idealism cannot, yet it fully justifies the claim of the spirit in the interpretation of the world. The concept of the whole enables us to overcome some of the most difficult and poignant contrasts in life and thought. We are constantly confronted with the opposition between matter and spirit, between the temporal and the eternal, between the phenomenal and the real, Holism shows these opposites as reconciled and harmonised in the whole. It shows whole and parts as aspects of each other; the finite is identified with the infinite, the particular with the universal. Eternity is contained in time, matter is the venture and vehicle of spirit, reality is not a transcendent other-worldly order, but is immanent in the phenomenal. To attain to reality, we need not fly away from appearance; each little centre and whole in the world, however lowly, is a laboratory in which time is transmuted into eternity, the phenomenal into the real. The wondrous truth is everywhere; the plummet let down anywhere will reach to unknown depths; any cross-section in the world of appearance will reveal the very texture of reality. Everywhere the whole, even the least and most insignificant apparently, is the real wonder, the miracle which holes the secrets for which we are groping in thought and conduct. Here is the within which is the beyond. To be a whole and to live in the whole becomes the supreme principle, from which all the highest ethical and spiritual rules (such as the golden rule) follow. And it links these rules with the nature of things, for not only do goodness, love and justice derive from it, but also beauty and truth, which are rooted in the whole and have no meaning apart from it. The whole is in fact both the source and the principle of explanation of all our highest ideals, no less than of the earlier evolutionary structures already discussed.

Principal Authorities

Hans Driesch “The Problem of Individuality” 1914 “Metaphysik der Natur” 1927

J.S. Haldane “Mechanism Life and Personality” 1921

S. Alexander “Space Time and Deity” 1920

Lloyd Morgan “Emergent Evolution” 1923 “Life Mind Spirit” 1926

C.D. Boodin “Cosmic Evolution” 1925

J.C. Smuts “Holism and Evolution” 1926

A. H. Whitehead “Science and the Modern World” 1926

L.T. Hobbome “Development and Process * ” 1924

holism_and_science.txt · Last modified: 2015/01/31 23:55 (external edit)