In View: Holism
The word holism conjures up many meanings, some more respectable than others. It was coined relatively recently by Jan Smuts in 1926 in his book “Holism and Evolution”, where he defined the term as the “fundamental factor operative towards the creation of wholes in the universe". This explicitly metaphysical meaning has been largely forgotten and the term has since then transformed and expanded to include both exotic pseudo-scientific claims in medicine and various versions of the slogan that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”.
As a worldview fragment, we will take holism to be a perspective that emphasises wholes rather than parts. This is relevant in discussions about the physical nature of the world but especially also in the social and political realm, which will be the focus here. As a fragment it is not very explicit in society, though its presence is felt in various topics. For example, one is taking a holistic stance when attributing the upbringing and socioeconomic situation as the primary cause of a person’s criminal behaviour. The contrary worldview is reductionism, understood as emphasising the parts rather than the wholes. The criminal is viewed as a reasonable individual that exerted their free will in committing an illegal act.
It should be noted that in philosophy the terms holism and reductionism have other connotations as well; the appendix below attempts to situate and clarify the definitions used above with regards to their philosophical use.
The reason why a holist emphasises wholes over parts is due to a form of downward causation, where the behaviour of the parts is determined (to a great extent) by the whole. So for this type of holism mental states such as depression still are states of the brain (the proximate cause of depression being an imbalance of neurotransmitters or the like) but it is the environment, composed of social norms, pollutants, expectations, etc., that ‘downwardly causes’ the depressive state in the brain. There is then no direct contradiction between the holist and the reductionist, who would focus on the neurotransmitter imbalance and perhaps genetic factors as ‘upward causes’, only a difference in emphasis. Nevertheless, it is an important difference, as here again the preferred treatments are likely different—changing the physical, social, and psychological environments versus direct pharmacological intervention.
Worldviews provide a map of the world: saying what exists, where things come from, and where things are going. Holism as a worldview fragment has some things to say about this, especially on questions of organisation of the economic, political, legal, religious, cultural, moral, and technoscientific systems in society. It will put a focus on higher-level entities, like nations and states, cultures, norms, and the like, even according them “existence” by virtue of their (downward) causal effects. Naturally, then, these wholes play a part in explaining phenomena. War between states, for example, is then less a matter of individual politicians and their ambitions, but perhaps a deterministic event that occurs when certain conditions in state relations are met. Despite the bleakness of that example, holism is generally optimistic when it comes to changing the world for the better. It believes that systems are the cause for society’s ills rather than innate human nature. And systems, after all, can be changed.
When it comes to values, the holist worldview fragment can be said to value wholes over parts. The parts should be in harmony with one another and individually recede to make way for the whole. However, this leaves much room for additional worldview fragments to fill in what kinds of wholes are to be valued. Progressive socio-ecological ideologies fit the bill by aiming for social harmony between individuals in a collective and ecological harmony between human societies and nature. But so do fascist and social-Darwinist ones, where race and race conflict—both terms describing higher-level wholes—are seen as legitimate organising principles, and where the individual ought to recede to make way for the Volk. What is common to both is a form of collectivism as opposed to individualism. What collectives are promoted, however, can be filled in very differently.
Having a clear set of values leads to decisive action, and the holist will act to form and improve those wholes that fit their specific total worldview. They will not so much focus on individual actors but emphasise the need for reorganising the structures that drive the actors from above. This will also be the relevant level of analysis for the holist, who will study the structures as entities in and of themselves with properties that are irreducible to the parts. In this vein, critiques of capitalism will lament the incentives for greed that it instals, rather than the inherent greediness of human beings. Conversely, critiques of socialism will regret our inability to rationally construct collectivist economic systems, rather than our inherent selfishness. When it comes to (re)constructing (social) wholes, the challenge will be to do it in a way that is not manipulative with respect to the (human) parts. Social systems constrain and guide our behaviour in ways we often cannot individually resist—e.g. in today’s day and age living offline has become practically impossible—and should therefore be as consensual as possible, though this is in reality almost never the case. Social structures have a tendency to grow and transform on their own, and rational planning through democratically formed laws often cannot reverse societal developments and often even misses its mark—e.g. raising capital taxes can result in capital flight and consequently less capital tax income. To a large extent we are then left to float on the currents of history, driven by social, political, and economic forces that care little for our vote.
Finally, we can ask whether holism gives life meaning in some way. It is certainly so that to be part of a greater whole is inherently meaningful because one is called upon to bring about something greater than oneself; something that transcends the mundane trifles and ambitions of the individual for a greater good, a higher purpose. However, this is in tension with the justified aspirations for self-expression and self-actualisation that need freedom to bloom. As usual, then, there is a need for balance and good judgement in one’s outlook on the world.
Thanks for reading Worldview Encounters! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support our work.
We can distinguish between ontological and epistemological holism or reductionism. Epistemological reductionism takes the behaviour and properties of wholes to be theoretically derivable from the behaviour and properties of the parts; holism denies this possibility. It is in this approximate sense that holism and reductionism are used in the article. Ontological reductionism takes wholes to be composed of parts without remainder; holism adds something to the mere collection of parts in order to form the whole. This can be related to the different ways of characterising part-whole relationships, of which a possible categorisation is provided below. What follows is a series of increasingly (ontologically) holist metaphysical frameworks with following elements: parts, wholes, rules or natural laws, and properties. The article assumes the second position listed.
Unit parts obey rules at their level, unencumbered by other parts or wholes—this would mean that there are no interactions at all and so no complexity.
Unit parts obey rules at their level, which (also) determine interactions between unit parts and only by extension determine the behaviour of wholes—this is the framework of classical physics, which formalises the interaction in laws such as the universal law of gravitation or Coulomb’s law of the electrostatic interaction.
These laws only hold between unit parts (particles) but by virtue of the composition of forces they also hold of (symmetrical) wholes. For example, with respect to gravity planets behave as point particles, making application of the law of gravitation straightforward.
In this case there can be downward causation from the whole by limiting the interaction abilities of the parts, thereby giving it new properties. For example, the ability of an electron (part) to be influenced by an external electric field is limited when composed with a proton (part) to form an atom (whole), which becomes effectively neutral in charge (new property).
Unit parts and wholes obey the same rules but at their respective levels—the phenomenon of entanglement in quantum mechanics can be interpreted along these lines: the Schrödinger equation is applicable to both pure states (parts) and mixed (entangled) states (wholes).
Unit parts and wholes obey different rules at their respective levels, this is called strong emergence—historically, vitalism, the idea that there is a special life force that distinguishes living from non-living entities, fits this framework.
The contention between the holist and reductionist worldviews of the article, then, is whether the behaviour and properties of wholes can be (usefully) derived epistemologically from the behaviour and properties of the parts in framework two (that of classical physics). While this is the case for the gravitational force of planets or the charge of atoms, it is far less clear whether this is possible for living organisms and societies, even in principle. For example, there is a prominent research programme in economics that attempts to deduce the behaviour of an economy from the behaviour of economic agents, usually through assuming these agents to be rational utility maximisers. This fits the reductionist worldview. What is not under examination is whether there is something additional to human beings and the various economic factors that makes up the economy (e.g. strongly emergent properties or laws).