Holism (from ὅλος holos, a Greek word meaning all, entire, total) is the idea that all the properties of a given system (physical, biological, chemical, social, economic, mental, linguistic, etc.) cannot be determined or explained by 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" (1045a10).
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. For example, the processes of biology are reducible to chemistry and the laws of chemistry are explained by physics.
The term holism was introduced by the South African statesman Jan Smuts in his 1926 book, Holism and Evolution. Smuts defined holism as "The tendency in nature to form wholes that are greater than the sum of the parts through creative evolution."
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.
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 is, or appears, "new" or "emergent": it cannot be deduced from the properties of the elements alone.
Holism has thus been used as a catchword. 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.
Further resistance to holism has come from the association of the concept with quantum mysticism. Recently, however, public understanding has grown over the realities of such concepts, and more scientists are beginning to accept serious research into the concept such as cell biologist Bruce Lipton .
Scientific holism holds that the behavior of a system cannot be perfectly predicted, no matter how much data is available. Natural 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 due to the principle of interconnectivity, thus evading predictions except by brute force simulation. Stephen 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 both computational and holistic, relational approaches towards understanding complex adaptive systems and, especially in the latter, its methods can be seen as the polar opposite to reductive methods. General theories of complexity have been proposed, and numerous complexity institutes and departments have sprung up around the world. The Santa Fe Institute is arguably the most famous of them.
There is an ongoing dispute as to whether anthropology is intrinsically holistic. Supporters of this concept consider anthropology holistic in two senses. First, it is concerned with all human beings across times and places, and with all dimensions of humanity (evolutionary, biophysical, sociopolitical, economic, cultural, psychological, etc.). Further, many academic programs following this approach take a "four-field" approach to anthropology that encompasses physical anthropology, archeology, linguistics, and cultural anthropology or social anthropology.
Some leading anthropologists disagree, and consider anthropological holism to be an artifact from 19th century social evolutionary thought that inappropriately imposes scientific positivism upon cultural anthropology.
The term "holism" is additionally used within social and cultural anthropology to refer to an analysis of a society as a whole which refuses to break society into component parts. One definition says: "as a methodological ideal, holism implies ... that one does not permit oneself to believe that our own established institutional boundaries (e.g. between politics, sexuality, religion, economics) necessarily may be found also in foreign societies."
Ecology is the leading and most important approach to holism, as it tries to include biological, chemical, physical and economic views in a given area. The complexity grows with the area, so that it is necessary to reduce the characteristic of the view in other ways, for example to a specific time of duration.
John Muir, Scots born early conservationist, wrote "When we try to pick out anything by itself we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe"
More information are to be found in the field of systems ecology, a cross-disciplinary field influenced by general systems theory. see Holistic Community.
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 evolves over time. 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 Michael 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.
In philosophy, any doctrine that emphasizes the priority of a whole over its parts is holism. Some suggest that such a definition owes its origins to a non-holistic view of language and places it in the reductivist camp. Alternately, a 'holistic' definition of holism denies the necessity of a division between the function of separate parts and the workings of the 'whole'. It suggests that the key recognisable 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 verification of its concept of how the parts function within the whole. 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. Ontological holism was espoused by David Bohm in his theory on The Implicate Order.
Martin Luther King Jr had a holistic view of social justice. In Letter from Birmingham Jail he famously said: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere".
Scholars such as David Bohm  and M. I. Sanduk  consider the society through the Plasma Physics. From physics point of view, the interaction of individuals within a group may lead a continuous model. Therefore for M. I. Sanduk “The nature of fluidity of plasma (ionized gas) arises from the interaction of its free interactive charges, so the society may behave as a fluid owing to the free interactive individuals. This fluid model may explain many social phenomena like social instability, diffusion, flow, viscosity...So the society behaves as a sort of intellectual fluid”.
In psychology of perception
A major holist movement in the early twentieth century was gestalt psychology. The claim was that perception is not an aggregation of atomic sense data but a field, in which there is a figure and a ground. Background has holistic effects on the perceived figure. Gestalt psychologists included Wolfgang Koehler, Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka. Koehler claimed the perceptual fields corresponded to electrical fields in the brain. Karl Lashley did experiments with gold foil pieces inserted in monkey brains purporting to show that such fields did not exist. However, many of the perceptual illusions and visual phenomena exhibited by the gestaltists were taken over (often without credit) by later perceptual psychologists. Gestalt psychology had influence on Fritz Perls' gestalt therapy, although some old-line gestaltists opposed the association with counter-cultural and New Age trends later associated with gestalt therapy. Gestalt theory was also influential on phenomenology. Aron Gurwitsch wrote on the role of the field of consciousness in gestalt theory in relation to phenomenology. Maurice Merleau-Ponty made much use of holistic psychologists such as work of Kurt Goldstein in his "Phenomenology of Perception."
In teleological psychology
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.
Mel Levine, M.D., author of A Mind at a Time, and co-founder (with Charles R. Schwab) of the not-for-profit organization All Kinds of Minds, can be considered a holist based on his view of the 'whole child' as a product of many systems and his work supporting the educational needs of children through the management of a child's educational profile as a whole rather than isolated weaknesses in that profile.
In theological anthropology
In theological anthropology, which belongs to theology and not to anthropology, holism is the belief that the nature of humans consists of an ultimately divisible union of components such as body, soul and spirit.
Holistic concepts are strongly represented within the thoughts expressed within Logos (per Heraclitus), Panentheism and Pantheism.
A lively debate has run since the end of the 19th century regarding the functional organization of the brain. The holistic tradition (e.g., Pierre Marie) maintained that the brain was a homogeneous organ with no specific subparts whereas the localizationists (e.g., Paul Broca) argued that the brain was organized in functionally distinct cortical areas which were each specialized to process a given type of information or implement specific mental operations. The controversy was epitomized with the existence of a language area in the brain, nowadays known as the Broca's area. Although Broca's view has gained acceptance, the issue isn't settled insofar as the brain as a whole is a highly connected organ at every level from the individual neuron to the hemispheres.
Architecture is often argued by design academics and those practicing in design to be a holistic enterprise. Used in this context, holism tends to imply an all-inclusive design perspective. This trait is considered exclusive to architecture, distinct from other professions involved in design projects.
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 tests, a standards based assessment uses trained scorers to score open-response items using holistic scoring methods. 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 instructed 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.
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. 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.
Alternative medicine practitioners adopt a holistic approach to healing.
- ^ According to the Oxford English Dictionary
- ^ cf. Henri Bergson.
- ^ Bertalanffy 1968, p.54.
- ^ Finding My Religion San Francisco Chronicle, retrieved on March 2nd, 2010
- ^ S. Wolfram, Cellular automata as models of complexity, Nature 311, 419 - 424 (1984)
- ^ Shore, Bradd (1999) Strange Fate of Holism. Anthropology News 40(9): 4-5.
- ^ Segal, Daniel A.; Sylvia J. Yanagisako (eds.), James Clifford, Ian Hodder, Rena Lederman, Michael Silverstein (2005). Unwrapping the Sacred Bundle: Reflections on the Disciplining of Anthropology. Duke University Press. http://www.dukeupress.edu/cgibin/forwardsql/search.cgi?template0=nomatch.htm&template2=books/book_detail_page.htm&user_id=11016434335&Bmain.Btitle_option=1&Bmain.Btitle=Unwrapping+the+Sacred+Bundle.
- ^ anthrobase definition of holism
- ^ Reconnecting with John Muir By Terry Gifford, University of Georgia, 2006
- ^ Louis Dumont, 1984
- ^ Wilkins, M., (1986) Oral history interviews with David Bohm, 16 tapes, undated transcript (AIP and Birkbeck college Library, London), 253-254.
- ^ M. I. Sanduk, Does Society Exhibit Same Behaviour of Plasma Fluid? http://philpapers.org/rec/DSE
- ^ (Simon & Schuster, 2002)
- ^ 'Does Broca's area exist?': Christofredo Jakob's 1906 response to Pierre Marie's holistic stance. Kyrana Tsapkini, Ana B. Vivas, Lazaros C. Triarhou. Brain and Language, Volume 105, Issue 3, June 2008, Pages 211-219, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bandl.2007.07.124
- ^ Holm, Ivar (2006). Ideas and Beliefs in Architecture: How attitudes, orientations, and underlying assumptions shape the built environment. Oslo School of Architecture and Design. ISBN 8254701741.
- ^ 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" 
- ^ Lipowski, 1977.
- Ludwig von Bertalanffy,1971 General System Theory. Foundations Development Applications. Allen Lane (1968)
- 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. Psych. 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
- 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 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.
- Lopez, F. Il pensiero olistico di Ippocrate, vol. I-IIA, Ed. Pubblisfera, Cosenza Italy 2004-2008.