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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 the sum of 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".

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. Essentially, chemistry is reducible to physics, biology is reducible to chemistry and physics, psychology and sociology are reducible to biology, etc. 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. 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" (cf. Henri Bergson).

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.

Holism in science Edit

Main article: Holism in science

In the latter half of the 20th century, holism led to systems thinking and its derivatives, like the sciences of chaos and complexity. 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. (Bertalanffy 1968, 54.)

But scientists who find themselves unable to explain the behavior of their systems from the properties of elements may incorrectly cite holism even if the system in question happens to behave in accord with a conceivable (but unseen) statistical explanation. Holism has thus been used as a catchword to[How to reference and link to summary or text] 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.

Scientific holism holds that the behavior of a system cannot be perfectly predicted, no matter how much data is available. Simple 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, thus evading predictions except by brute force simulation. Steven 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 a holistic, 'bottom-up' approach towards understanding complex adaptive systems and as such its methods can be seen as the polar opposite to reductive methods. A general theory of complexity has been realized, and numerous complexity institutes and departments have sprung up around the world. The Santa Fe Institute is arguably the most famous of them.

Holism in philosophyEdit

Main article: Semantic holism

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.

Holism in medicine Edit

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 to soma, 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. (Lipowski 1977) 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 of medicine.

In alternative medicine, a holistic approach to healing recognizes that the emotional, mental, spiritual and physical elements of each person comprise a system, and attempts to treat the whole person in its context,[1] concentrating on the cause of the illness as well as symptoms. Examples of such holistic therapies include Acupuncture, Ayurveda, Chinese medicine, Indian Head Massage, Naturopathic medicine, Qi Gong, Reiki, and Reflexology. They usually do not originate from the western medical-scientific tradition, and lack scientific evidence to verify their claims.

Holism in sociology Edit

Main article: Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft

Emile Durkheim 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 (1984) 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.

Holism in economics Edit

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 evolve overtime. 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 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.

Teleological holism in psychology Edit

Alfred Adler 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.

Holism in theological anthropology Edit

In theological anthropology, holism is the belief that the nature of humans consists of an indivisible union of components such as body, soul and spirit.

Holism in education reform Edit

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.[2] 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.

See also Edit


  1. Definition holism
  2. Rubrics (Authentic Assessment Toolbox) "So, when might you use a holistic rubric? Holistic rubrics tend to be used when a quick or gross judgment needs to be made" [1]


  • Bertalanffy, Ludvig von: General System Theory. Foundations Development Applications. Allen Lane 1971 (1968)
  • Lipowski, Z.J.: "Psychosomatic medicine in seventies". Am. J. Psych. 134:3:233-244
  • Smuts, Jan C.: 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.

Further reading Edit

  • 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.

External links Edit

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