- Distinguish from the suffix -holism, which describes addictions.
Holism (from ὅλος holos, a Greek word meaning all, entire, total) is the idea that all the properties of a given system (biological, chemical, social, economic, mental, linguistic, etc.) cannot be determined or explained by its component parts alone. Instead, the system as a whole determines in an important way how the parts behave.
The general principle of holism was concisely summarized by Aristotle in the Metaphysics: "The whole is more than the sum of its parts (1045a10)."
Reductionism is sometimes seen as the opposite of holism. Reductionism in science says that a complex system can be explained by reduction to its fundamental parts. Reductionism essentially claims that psychology and sociology are reducible to biology , biology is reducible to chemistry, and finally chemistry is reducible to physics. Some other proponents of reductionism, however, think that holism is the opposite only of greedy reductionism.
On the other hand, holism and reductionism can also be regarded as complementary viewpoints, in which case they both would be needed to get a proper account of a given system.
The term holism
was introduced by the South African
statesman Jan Smuts
in his 1926 book, Holism and Evolution
. Smuts defined holism as "The tendency in nature to form wholes that are greater than the sum of the parts through creative evolution.
The idea has ancient roots. Examples of holism can be found throughout human history and in the most diverse socio-cultural contexts, as has been confirmed by many ethnological studies. 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.
In the latter half of the 20th century, holism led to systems thinking
and its derivatives, like the sciences of chaos
. Systems in biology, psychology, or sociology are frequently so complex that their behavior appears "new" or "emergent
": it cannot be deduced from the properties of the elements alone.
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.
Further resistance to holism has come from the association of the concept with quantum mysticism. Scientists were as a rule discouraged from doing any work which may perpetuate such deception. Recently, however, public understanding has grown over the realities of such concepts, and more scientists are beginning to accept serious research into the concept.
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 principal of interconnectivity, thus evading predictions except by brute force simulation. Stephen Wolfram has provided such examples with simple cellular automata, whose behavior is in most cases equally simple, but on rare occasions highly unpredictable.
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 is arguably the most famous of them.
There is an ongoing dispute on the definition of anthropology as holistic
and the "four-field" approach. Supporters of this definition, consider it holistic in two senses: it is concerned with all human beings across times and places, and with all dimensions of humanity (evolutionary, biophysical, sociopolitical, economic, cultural, psychological, etc.); also many academic programs following this approach take a "four-field" approach to anthropology that encompasses physical anthropology
, and cultural anthropology
or social anthropology
. The definition of anthropology as holistic
and the "four-field" approach are disputed by leading anthropologists, that consider those as artifacts from 19th century social evolutionary
thought that inappropriately impose scientific positivism
upon cultural anthropology
Within social and cultural anthropology, the term is also used to refer to an analysis of a society as a whole, refusing to break society into component parts (e.g. the economy, politics, religion, etc.). "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" (anthrobase definition of holism)
The holistic approach to ecology is exemplified by the field of systems ecology, a cross-disciplinary field influenced by general systems theory.
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 economics. 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 mathematical.
In philosophy, any doctrine that emphasizes the priority of a whole over its parts is holism. 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
Epistemological and confirmation holism are mainstream ideas in contemporary philosophy.
developed a concept of holism which he opposed 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.
In 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 talken 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 work of Kurt Goldstein in his "Phenomenology of Perception."
In teleological psychology
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 sociobiologist, 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 profile.
In theological anthropology
In theological anthropology
, which belongs to theology and not to anthropology, holism is the belief that the nature of humans consists of an indivisible union of components such as body
Holistic concepts are strongly represented within the thoughts expressed within Logos
In brain science
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
. Although Broca's view has gained acceptance, the issue isn't settled insofar as the brain as a whole is a highly connected
organ at every level from the individual neuron
to the hemispheres
Architecture and industrial design
Architecture and industrial design are often seen as enterprises, which constitute a whole, or to put it another way, design is often argued to be an holistic enterprise. In architecture and industrial design holism tends to imply an all-inclusive design perspective, which is often regarded as somewhat exclusive to the two design professions. Holism is often considered as something that sets architects and industrial designers apart from other professions that participate in design projects. This view is supported and advocated by practising designers and design scholars alike, who often argue that architecture and/or industrial design have a distinct holistic character.
The 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 test, 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, instruct 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.
Holism appears in psychosomatic
medicine. In the 1970s the holistic approach was considered one possible way to conceptualize psychosomatic phenomena. Instead of charting one-way causal links from psyche
, or vice-versa, it aimed at a systemic model, where multiple biological, psychological and social factors were seen as interlinked. Other, alternative approaches at that time 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
In alternative medicine, a holistic approach to healing emphasizes the emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical elements of the patient, and claims to treat the whole person in its context. Some examples of holistic approaches include ayurveda, chiropractic, homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, naturopathy, Unani and reflexology. Most of these schools do not originate from the western medical paradigm, and therefore treatment and diagnosis often varies in a way that integrates all aspects of the patient's body, psyche, and spirit. This fact is often misconstrued as directly contradicting the more accepted modern practice of western medicine which rely solely upon the discoveries of modern chemistry. In contrast, holism is the science of aligning all elements of one's self with the natural flow and tendencies of nature. The "whole" here can be thought of as the mind-body-spirit, the principle of humanity living in harmony with the entire earth, and the unity of humankind within the cosmos. Western medical practitioners treat from the perspective of the individual facts that have thus far been discovered by the scientific community. Holistic practitioners tend to study broader systems in nature that encompass realms so far misunderstood or undiscovered by the medical establishment (and are often, therefore, disregarded as unfounded or foolish). This is a major axis for miscommunication between the two schools since the holistic practitioner places little value in the microscopic analysis of individual, isolated, and separate systems within the natural world, while the mainstream western system relies entirely upon it.
- Ludwig von Bertalanffy, General System Theory. Foundations Development Applications. Allen Lane 1971 (1968)
- Lipowski, Z.J.: "Psychosomatic medicine in seventies". Am. J. Psych. 134:3:233-244
- Jan C. Smuts, Holism and Evolution, 1926 MacMillan, Compass/Viking Press 1961 reprint: ISBN 0-598-63750-8, Greenwood Press 1973 reprint: ISBN 0-8371-6556-3, Sierra Sunrise 1999 (mildly edited): ISBN 1-887263-14-4
- Leenhardt, M. Do Kamo. La personne et le mythe dans le monde mélanésien. Gallimard. Paris. 1947.
- Dusek, Val, The Holistic Inspirations of Physics: An Underground History of Electromagnetic Theory Rutgers University Press, Brunswick NJ, 1999.
- Fodor, Jerry, and Ernst Lepore, Holism: A Shopper's Guide Wiley. New York. 1992
- 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 in The Review of Metaphysics. 34. pp. 3-23.
- James, S. The Content of Social Explanation. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, 1984.
- Harrington, A. Reenchanted Science: Holism in German Culture from Wilhelm II to Hitler. Princeton University Press. 1996.