The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







Holism (from holon, a Greek word meaning entity) or wholism is the idea that the properties of a system cannot be determined or explained by the sum of its components alone. The word, along with the adjective holistic, was coined in the early 1920s by Jan Smuts. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Smuts defined holism as "The tendency in nature to form wholes that are greater than the sum of the parts through creative evolution."

Holism (or nonreductionism) is sometimes described as the opposite of reductionism, although proponents of scientific reductionism state that it is better regarded as the opposite of greedy reductionism. It may also be contrasted with atomism.


Types of Holism

In addition to being a general approach or way of thinking, holism can be applied to many different areas of study. Ontological holism, for example, holds that reality is fundamentally made of wholes. Confirmation holism in the philosophy of science, on the other hand, simply means that theories should be confirmed or denied as a whole, rather than in parts.

Other varieties of holism include epistemological, social, methodological, ethical, semantic, meaning, and typological holism.

Holism in physics

In quantum physics, phenomena seem to arise only in systems and cannot currently be explained by the interaction of the system's individual parts alone. To some observers, this indicates that a non-reductive approach is necessary.

David Bohm's interpretation of quantum mechanics sees the universe as a hologram in motion, which he calls a holomovement. If true, this theory would have many important ramifications for holism in physics.

See also: Implicate and Explicate Order,

Ontological Holism

In The Ghost in the Machine, Arthur Koestler theorized that existence consists of a vast hierarchy of nested wholes, which he calls a holarchy) Types of wholes constitute levels of organization of the system. These levels include, for example, quarks, protons, atoms, molecules, organelles, cells, tissues, organisms, populations. Thus, a large-scale body such as the biosphere cannot be understood by only studying the elements, but should be considered as a whole entity, studied through the different hierarchical levels, and with the different relations between the different elements. Some compare Koestler's ontology to the Great Chain of Being.

American philosopher Ken Wilber has expanded upon Koestler's theory significantly. On his view, "it's turtles all the way up and all the way down." That is to say, the nested hierarchies of wholes (or holarchies) continue infinitely, both up and down. In his book Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, Wilber listed twenty tenets that all holons share [1]. These include the properties of self-transcendence, self-dissolution, and, to varying degrees, consciousness.

Systems thinking is closely related to ontological holism. According to systems theory, phenomena such as life, mind and consciousness only arise in systems. This means these things cannot be explained by the study of cells, atoms, or subatomic particles alone, just as the circulatory system cannot be explained by reference to blood cells or muscle cells alone.

See also: Co-evolution, Complex systems, Ecology, Emergence, Self-organization

Typological Holism

In classification and typology, holism means that with only a few well-chosen characteristics, an object or a system can be recognised as a type. Soil, vegetation (land cover), biomes are commonly considered to be wholes and hence can be classified using a set of diagnostic characteristics (see for example land classification).

Holism in psychology

Ken Wilber and the Spiral Dynamics theorists consider holism to be a particular level of human development which occurs subsequent to the integral or systemic level. In Spiral Dynamic theory, holism is the most advanced level of human development that has yet been documented. Wilber, however, sees higher, mystical levels.

See also: Gestalt psychology, Gestalt therapy, Gestalt effect

Holism in Medicine

See: Hodges Health Career Model, Holistic health, Nutrition

Responses to holism

Holism, especially in its metaphysical varieties, is controversial. Many scientists and philosophers regard some of these claims as unfalsifiable or less meaningful than holism's proponents do. Others see them as incorrect or as pseudoscience. Some forms, however, like epistemological and confirmation holism, are mainstream ideas in contemporary philosophy.

See also: Philosophy of language

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Last updated: 06-02-2005 05:31:18
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