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.[1][2]

The term holism was coined by Jan Smuts.[3][4] Alfred Adler considered holism as 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.[3]:120–121

Synopsis of 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, imply that there is a fundamental principle (Holism) of which they are the progressive outcome.[3]: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 monistic ontology.

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 differentiate them from mechanical additions, aggregates, and constructions, such as science assumes on the mechanical hypothesis.[3]: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.)[3]: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.[3]: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.[3]:89 As such, the concept of field entails both activity and structure.[3]: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.[3]: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.[3]: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.[3]: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.[3]: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.[3]:88

Progressive grading of wholes

Smuts suggests "rough and provisional" summary of the progressive grading of wholes that comprise holism is as follows:[3]:109

  1. Material structure e.g. a chemical compound
  2. Functional structure in living bodies
  3. Animals, which exhibit a degree of central control that is primarily implicit and unconscious
  4. Personality, characterized as conscious central control
  5. States and similar group organizations characterized by central control that involve many people
  6. 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.

See also


  1. ^ Oshry, Barry (2008), Seeing Systems: Unlocking the Mysteries of Organizational Life, Berrett-Koehler.
  2. ^ Auyang, Sunny Y (1999), Foundations of Complex-system Theories: in Economics, Evolutionary Biology, and Statistical Physics, Cambridge University Press.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Smuts, Jan Christiaan (1927). Holism and Evolution 2nd Edition. Macmillan and Co.
  4. ^ The first publication of Holism and Evolution was by Macmillan 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, and 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 page.


  • von Bertalanffy, Ludwig (1971) [1968], General System Theory. Foundations Development Applications, Allen Lane.
  • Bohm, D. (1980) Wholeness and the Implicate Order. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-7100-0971-2
  • Leenhardt, M. 1947 Do Kamo. La personne et le mythe dans le monde mélanésien. Gallimard. Paris.
  • Lipowski, Z.J. "Psychosomatic medicine in seventies". Am. J. Psychiatry. 134 (3): 233–244.
  • Jan C. Smuts, 1926 Holism and Evolution 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

Further reading

  • 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 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". The Review of Metaphysics. 34: 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.
  • Lopez, F. Il pensiero olistico di Ippocrate, vol. I-IIA, Ed. Pubblisfera, Cosenza Italy 2004-2008.
  • Robert Stern, Hegel, Kant and the Structure of the Object, London: Routledge Chapman Hall, 1990
  • Sen, R. K., Aesthetic Enjoyment: Its Background in Philosophy and Medicine, Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1966

External links


Antireductionism is the position in science and metaphysics that stands in contrast to reductionism (anti-holism) by advocating that not all properties of a system can be explained in terms of its constituent parts and their interactions.

Confirmation holism

In philosophy of science, confirmation holism, also called epistemological holism, is the view that no individual statement can be confirmed or disconfirmed by an empirical test, but only a set of statements (a whole theory).

It is attributed to Willard Van Orman Quine who motivated his holism through extending Pierre Duhem's problem of underdetermination in physical theory to all knowledge claims. Duhem's idea was, roughly, that no theory of any type can be tested in isolation but only when embedded in a background of other hypotheses, e.g. hypotheses about initial conditions. Quine thought that this background involved not only such hypotheses but also our whole web-of-belief, which, among other things, includes our mathematical and logical theories and our scientific theories. This last claim is sometimes known as the Duhem–Quine thesis. A related claim made by Quine, though contested by some (see Adolf Grünbaum 1962), is that one can always protect one's theory against refutation by attributing failure to some other part of our web-of-belief. In his own words, "Any statement can be held true come what may, if we make drastic enough adjustments elsewhere in the system.".

Ecological anthropology

Ecological anthropology is a sub-field of anthropology and is defined as the "study of cultural adaptations to environments". The sub-field is also defined as, "the study of relationships between a population of humans and their biophysical environment". The focus of its research concerns "how cultural beliefs and practices helped human populations adapt to their environments, and how people used elements of their culture to maintain their ecosystems". Ecological anthropology developed from the approach of cultural ecology, and it provided a conceptual framework more suitable for scientific inquiry than the cultural ecology approach. Research pursued under this approach aims to study a wide range of human responses to environmental problems.


Gestalt, a German word for form or shape, may refer to:

Holism, the idea that natural systems and their properties should be viewed as wholes, not as loose collections of parts


A holarchy is a connection between holons, where a holon is both a part and a whole. The term was coined in Arthur Koestler's 1967 book The Ghost in the Machine.

Holarchy is commonly referred to as a form of hierarchy; however, hierarchy, by its definition, has both an absolute top and bottom. But this is not logically possible in a holon, as it is both a whole and a part. The "hierarchical relationship" between holons at different levels can just as meaningfully be described with terms like "in and out", as they can with "up and down" or "left and right"; perhaps more generally, one can say that holons at one level are "made up of, or make up" the holons or parts of another level. This can be demonstrated in the holarchic relationship (subatomic particles ↔ atoms ↔ molecules ↔ macromolecules ↔ organelles ↔ cells ↔ tissues ↔ organs ↔ organisms ↔ communities ↔ societies) where each holon is a "level" of organization, and all are ultimately descriptive of the same set (e.g., a particular collection of matter). The top can be a bottom, a bottom can be a top, and, like a fractal, the patterns evident at one level can be similar to those at another.

Holism in science

Holism in science, or holistic science, is an approach to research that emphasizes the study of complex systems. Systems are approached as coherent wholes whose component parts are best understood in context and in relation to one another and to the whole. This practice is in contrast to a purely analytic tradition (sometimes called reductionism) which aims to gain understanding of systems by dividing them into smaller composing elements and gaining understanding of the system through understanding their elemental properties. The holism-reductionism dichotomy is often evident in conflicting interpretations of experimental findings and in setting priorities for future research.

Holon (philosophy)

A holon (Greek: ὅλον, holon neuter form of ὅλος, holos "whole") is something that is simultaneously a whole and a part. The word was used by Arthur Koestler in his book The Ghost in the Machine (1967, p. 48) and the phrase to hólon is a Greek translation from the Latin word universum, in the sense of totality, a whole. Koestler was influenced by two observations in proposing the notion of the holon. The first observation was influenced by Herbert A. Simon's parable of the two watchmakers—in which Simon concludes that complex systems evolve from simple systems much more rapidly when there are stable intermediate forms present in the evolutionary process than if they are not present. The second observation was made by Koestler himself in his analysis of hierarchies and stable intermediate forms in non-living matter (atomic and molecular structure), living organisms, and social organizations. He concluded that, although it is easy to identify sub-wholes or parts, wholes and parts in an absolute sense do not exist anywhere. Koestler proposed the word holon to describe the hybrid nature of sub-wholes and parts within in vivo systems. From this perspective, holons exist simultaneously as self-contained wholes in relation to their sub-ordinate parts, and as dependent parts when considered from the inverse direction.

Koestler also says that holons are self-reliant units that possess a degree of independence and can handle contingencies without asking higher authorities for instructions. I.e. they have a degree of autonomy. These holons are also simultaneously subject to control from one or more of these higher authorities. The first property ensures that holons are stable forms that are able to withstand disturbances, while the latter property signifies that they are intermediate forms, providing a context for the proper functionality for the larger whole.

Finally, Koestler defines a holarchy as a hierarchy of self-regulating holons that function first as autonomous wholes in supra-ordination to their parts, secondly as dependent parts in sub-ordination to controls on higher levels, and thirdly in coordination with their local environment.

Logical holism

Logical holism is the belief that the world operates in such a way that no part can be known without the whole being known first. Bertrand Russell concluded that "Hegel's dialectical logical holism should be dismissed in favour of the new logic of propositional analysis."

Methodological individualism

In the social sciences, methodological individualism is the principle that subjective individual motivation explains social phenomena, rather than class or group dynamics which are (according to proponents of individualistic principles) illusory or artificial and therefore cannot truly explain market or social phenomena. Methodological individualism is often contrasted with methodological holism.

Modular design

Modular design, or "modularity in design", is an approach (design and otherwise) that subdivides a system into smaller parts called modules or skids, that can be independently created and then used in different systems. A modular system can be characterized by functional partitioning into discrete scalable, reusable modules; rigorous use of well-defined modular interfaces; and making use of industry standards for interfaces.

Modularity offers benefits such as reduction in cost (due to less customization), shorter learning time, flexibility in design, augmentation (adding new solution by merely plugging in a new module), and exclusion.

Cars, computers, process systems, solar panels, wind turbines, elevators, furniture, looms, railroad signaling systems, telephone exchanges, pipe organs, synthesizers, electric power distribution systems and modular buildings are examples of modular systems.

Evolution also results in the modular design of species in that homologous modules sharing approximately the same form or function appear in different organisms. Computers use modularity to overcome changing customer demands and to make the manufacturing process more adaptive to change (see modular programming). Modular design is an attempt to combine the advantages of standardization (high volume normally equals low manufacturing costs) with those of customization. A downside to modularity (and this depends on the extent of modularity) is that low quality modular systems are not optimized for performance. This is usually due to the cost of putting up interfaces between modules.


The noosphere (; sometimes noösphere) is the sphere of human thought. The word derives from the Greek νοῦς (nous "mind") and σφαῖρα (sphaira "sphere"), in lexical analogy to "atmosphere" and "biosphere". It was introduced by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in 1922 in his Cosmogenesis. Another possibility is the first use of the term by Édouard Le Roy (1870–1954), who together with Teilhard was listening to lectures of Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky at the Sorbonne. In 1936, Vernadsky accepted the idea of the noosphere in a letter to Boris Leonidovich Lichkov (though he states that the concept derives from Le Roy. Citing the work of Teilhard's biographer—Rene Cuenot—Sampson and Pitt stated that although the concept was jointly developed by all three men (Vernadsky, LeRoy, and Teilhard), Teilhard believed that he actually invented the word: "I believe, so far as one can ever tell, that the word 'noosphere' was my invention: but it was he [Le Roy] who launched it."


Organicism is the philosophical perspective which views the universe and its parts as organic wholes and – either by analogy or literally – as living organisms. It can be synonymous with holism. Organicism is an important tradition within the history of natural philosophy where it has remained as a vital current alongside reductionism and mechanism, the approaches that have dominated science since the seventeenth century. Plato is among the earliest philosophers to have regarded the universe as an intelligent living being (see Timaeus). Organicism flourished for a period during the era of German romanticism during which time the new science of biology was first defined by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Within modern-day biological sciences organicism is the approach that stresses the organization (particularly the self-organizing properties), rather than the composition, of organisms. John Scott Haldane was the first biologist to use the term to describe his philosophical views in 1917, after which it was followed by certain other biologists in the 20th century.

Semantic holism

Semantic holism is a theory in the philosophy of language to the effect that a certain part of language, be it a term or a complete sentence, can only be understood through its relations to a (previously understood) larger segment of language. There is substantial controversy, however, as to exactly what the larger segment of language in question consists of. In recent years, the debate surrounding semantic holism, which is one among the many forms of holism that are debated and discussed in contemporary philosophy, has tended to centre on the view that the "whole" in question consists of an entire language.


Sphoṭa (Devanagari स्फोट, the Sanskrit for "bursting, opening", "spurt") is an important concept in the Indian grammatical tradition of Vyakarana, relating to the problem of speech production, how the mind orders linguistic units into coherent discourse and meaning.

The theory of sphoṭa is associated with Bhartṛhari (c. 5th century), an early figure in Indic linguistic theory, mentioned in the 670s by Chinese traveller Yi-Jing.

Bhartṛhari is the author of the Vākyapadīya ("[treatise] on words and sentences"). The work is divided into three books, the Brahma-kāṇḍa, (or Āgama-samuccaya "aggregation of traditions"), the Vākya-kāṇḍa, and the Pada-kāṇḍa (or Prakīrṇaka "miscellaneous").

He theorized the act of speech as being made up of three stages:

Conceptualization by the speaker (Paśyantī "idea")

Performance of speaking (Madhyamā "medium")

Comprehension by the interpreter (Vaikharī "complete utterance").Bhartṛhari is of the śabda-advaita "speech monistic" school which identifies language and cognition.

According to George Cardona, "Vākyapadīya is considered to be the major Indian work of its time on grammar, semantics and philosophy."


A superorganism or supraorganism (the latter is less frequently used but more etymologically correct) is a group of synergetically interacting organisms of the same species. A community of synergetically interacting organisms of different species is called a holobiont.

Synergetics (Haken)

Synergetics is an interdisciplinary science explaining the formation and self-organization of patterns and structures in open systems far from thermodynamic equilibrium. It is founded by Hermann Haken, inspired by the laser theory. Haken's interpretation of the laser principles as self-organization of non-equilibrium systems paved the way at the end of the 1960s to the development of synergetics. One of his successful popular books is Erfolgsgeheimnisse der Natur, translated into English as The Science of Structure: Synergetics.

Self-organization requires a 'macroscopic' system, consisting of many nonlinearly interacting subsystems. Depending on the external control parameters (environment, energy-fluxes) self-organization takes place.

Transcendental humanism

Transcendental humanism in philosophy considers what is proper treatment of humans outside of nature and decides they have inherent rights, simply from being human. It is also positive that man is capable of transcending the material self and can also free himself from surrounding influences. An example of this is when he thinks about himself and his character traits as if two different people. Kant by the term meant humans are both a part of 'creation' and able to transcend reflexive obedience to the laws of nature.

Two Dogmas of Empiricism

"Two Dogmas of Empiricism" is a paper by analytic philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine published in 1951. According to University of Sydney professor of philosophy Peter Godfrey-Smith, this "paper [is] sometimes regarded as the most important in all of twentieth-century philosophy". The paper is an attack on two central aspects of the logical positivists' philosophy. One is the analytic–synthetic distinction between analytic truths and synthetic truths, explained by Quine as truths grounded only in meanings and independent of facts, and truths grounded in facts. The other is reductionism, the theory that each meaningful statement gets its meaning from some logical construction of terms that refers exclusively to immediate experience.

"Two Dogmas" has six sections. The first four focus on analyticity, the last two on reductionism. There, Quine turns the focus to the logical positivists' theory of meaning. He also presents his own holistic theory of meaning.

Willard Van Orman Quine

Willard Van Orman Quine (; known to intimates as "Van"; June 25, 1908 – December 25, 2000) was an American philosopher and logician in the analytic tradition, recognized as "one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century." From 1930 until his death 70 years later, Quine was continually affiliated with Harvard University in one way or another, first as a student, then as a professor of philosophy and a teacher of logic and set theory, and finally as a professor emeritus who published or revised several books in retirement. He filled the Edgar Pierce Chair of Philosophy at Harvard from 1956 to 1978. A 2009 poll conducted among analytic philosophers named Quine as the fifth most important philosopher of the past two centuries. He won the first Schock Prize in Logic and Philosophy in 1993 for "his systematical and penetrating discussions of how learning of language and communication are based on socially available evidence and of the consequences of this for theories on knowledge and linguistic meaning." In 1996 he was awarded the Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy for his "outstanding contributions to the progress of philosophy in the 20th century by proposing numerous theories based on keen insights in logic, epistemology, philosophy of science and philosophy of language."Quine falls squarely into the analytic philosophy tradition while also being the main proponent of the view that philosophy is not conceptual analysis but the abstract branch of the empirical sciences. His major writings include "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" (1951), which attacked the distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions and advocated a form of semantic holism, and Word and Object (1960), which further developed these positions and introduced Quine's famous indeterminacy of translation thesis, advocating a behaviorist theory of meaning. He also developed an influential naturalized epistemology that tried to provide "an improved scientific explanation of how we have developed elaborate scientific theories on the basis of meager sensory input." He is also important in philosophy of science for his "systematic attempt to understand science from within the resources of science itself" and for his conception of philosophy as continuous with science. This led to his famous quip that "philosophy of science is philosophy enough." In philosophy of mathematics, he and his Harvard colleague Hilary Putnam developed the "Quine–Putnam indispensability thesis," an argument for the reality of mathematical entities.

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