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Not to be confused with -holism.

Holism (from Greek holos "all, whole, entire") is the idea that systems (physical
gical, chemical, social, economic, mental, linguistic, etc.) and their propertie
s should be viewed as wholes, not just as a collection of parts.[1][2]
The term Holism was coined by J C Smuts in Holism and Evolution.[3][4] It was Sm
uts' opinion that Holism is a concept that represents all of the wholes in the u
niverse, and these wholes are the real factors in the universe. Further, that Ho
lism also denoted a theory of the universe in the same vein as Materialism and S
piritualism.[3]:120 121
The derived adjective holistic has been applied to a wide range of fields where
they incorporate the concept of holism.
Synopsis of Holism and Evolution
After identifying the need for reform in the fundamental concepts of matter, lif
e and mind (chapter 1) Smuts examines the reformed concepts (as of 1926) of spac
e 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, implies that there is a fundam
ental principle (Holism) of which they are the progressive outcome.[3]:86 Chapte
rs 5 and 6 provide the general concept, functions and categories of Holism; chap
ters 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 t
he metaphysical categories (mind, personality, ideals) and the book concludes wi
th 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, f
unctions, and categories of Holism; like the definition of Holism, other than th
e idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, the editor is unawar
e of any authoritative secondary sources corroborating Smuts' opinions.
Wholes are composites which have an internal structure, function or character wh
ich clearly differentiates them from mechanical additions, aggregates, and const
ructions, such as science assumes on the mechanical hypothesis.[3]:106 The conce
pt of structure is not confined to the physical domain (e.g. chemical, biologica
l and artifacts); it also applies to the metaphysical domain (e.g. mental struct
ures, 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 futur
e potentialities.[3]:89 As such, the concept of field entails both activity and
Darwin's theory of organic descent placed primary emphasis on the role of natura
l selection but there would be nothing to select if not for variation. Variation
s that are the result of mutations in the biological sense and variations that a
re the result of individually acquired modifications in the personal sense are a
ttributed 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 indiv
idual selections, it is holistic.[3]:190 192
The whole exhibits a discernible regulatory function as it relates to cooperatio
n 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 an
d functions. The activities of the parts are directed to central ends; co-operat
ion and unified action instead of the separate mechanical activities of the part
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 matt
er could not have been the mother of the universe. This function, or factor of c
reativity is even more marked in biology where the protoplasm of the cell is vit
ally active in an ongoing process of creative change where parts are continually
being destroyed and replaced by new protoplasm. With minds the regulatory funct
ion of Holism acquires consciousness and freedom, demonstrating a creative power
of the most far-reaching character. Holism is not only creative but self-creati
ve, 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 Whitehead, and indirectly Sp
inoza; the Whitehead premise is that organic mechanism is a fundamental process
which realizes and actualizes individual syntheses or unities. Holism (the facto
r) exemplifies this same idea while emphasizing the holistic character of the pr
ocess. 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 rel
ates to causality was added in the second edition and, of course, will not be fo
und in reprints of the first edition; nor is it included in the most recent Hols
t 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 in
tense 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 t
heir synthesis that their functions are altered; the synthesis affects and deter
mines the parts, so that they function towards the whole; and the whole and the
parts, therefore reciprocally influence and determine each other, and appear mor
e or less to merge their individual characters: the whole is in the parts and th
e 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]
Progressive grading of wholes
A "rough and provisional" summary of the progressive grading of wholes that comp
rise 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-prima
rily implicit and unconscious
4. Personality, characterized as conscious central control
5. States and similar group organizations characterized by central
control that involves many people.
6. Holistic Ideals, or absolute Values, distinct from human persona
lity that are creative factors in the creation of a spiritual world, for example
Truth, Beauty and Goodness.
Indications of holism in philosophy
Main articles: Confirmation holism and Semantic holism
In philosophy, any doctrine that emphasizes the priority of a whole over its par
ts is holism. Some suggest that such a definition owes its origins to a non-holi
stic view of language and places it in the reductivist camp. Alternately, a 'hol
istic' definition of holism denies the necessity of a division between the funct
ion of separate parts and the workings of the 'whole'. It suggests that the key
recognizable characteristic of a concept of holism is a sense of the fundamental
truth of any particular experience. This exists in contradistinction to what is
perceived as the reductivist reliance on inductive method as the key to verific
ation of its concept of how the parts function within the whole.
Philosophy of language
In the philosophy of language this becomes the claim, called semantic holism, th
at 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 l
anguage. In the philosophy of mind, a mental state may be identified only in ter
ms of its relations with others. This is often referred to as "content holism" o
r "holism of the mental". This notion involves the philosophies of such figures
as Frege, Wittgenstein, and Quine.[5]
Epistemological and confirmation holism
Epistemological and confirmation holism are mainstream ideas in contemporary phi
Ontological holism
Ontological holism was espoused by David Bohm in his theory[6] on the implicate
and explicate order.
Hegel rejected "the fundamentally atomistic conception of the object," (Stern, 3
8) arguing that "individual objects exist as manifestations of indivisible subst
ance-universals, which cannot be reduced to a set of properties or attributes; h
e therefore holds that the object should be treated as an ontologically primary
whole." (Stern, 40) In direct opposition to Kant, therefore, "Hegel insists that
the unity we find in our experience of the world is not constructed by us out o
f a plurality of intuitions." (Stern, 40) In "his ontological scheme a concrete
individual is not reducible to a plurality of sensible properties, but rather ex
emplifies a substance universal." (Stern, 41) His point is that it is "a mistake
to treat an organic substance like blood as nothing more than a compound of unc
hanging chemical elements, that can be separated and united without being fundam
entally altered." (Stern, 103) In Hegel's view, a substance like blood is thus "
more of an organic unity and cannot be understood as just an external compositio
n of the sort of distinct substances that were discussed at the level of chemist
ry." (Stern, 103) Thus in Hegel's view, blood is blood and cannot be successfull
y reduced to what we consider are its component parts; we must view it as a whol
e substance entire unto itself. This is most certainly a fundamentally holistic
The concept of holism played a pivotal role in Baruch Spinoza's philosophy[8][9]