The early Greek atomism of Leucippus and Democritus (fifth century B.C.) was a forerunner of classical physics. According to their view, everything in the universe consists of indivisible, indestructible atoms of various kinds. Change is a rearrangement of these atoms. This kind of thinking was a reaction to the still earlier cocepts of Parmenides. Indian Vaisheshik and Nyaya philosophies were also earliest atomistic worldviews.
In the seventeenth century, at the same time that classical physics gave renewed emphasis to atomism and reductionism.
Parmenides, a very early Greek philospher, had argued that at some primary level the world is a changeless unity. According to him, “All is One. Nor is it divisible, wherefore it is wholly continuous…. It is complete on every side like the mass of a rounded sphere.”
The ideas similar to modern holism have ancient roots and its examples can be found throughout human history in the most diverse socio-cultural contexts as has been confirmed by many ethnological studies.
Similar concepts also played a pivotal role in philosophy of Spinoza and more recently in that of Hegel and Husserl.
Spinoza developed a philosophy reminiscent of Parmenides and proposed that all the differences and apparent divisions we see in the World are Really only aspects of an underlying single substance, which he called ‘God’ or ‘Nature’.
Hegel rejected “the fundamentally atomistic conception of the object,” arguing that “individual objects exist as manifestations of indivisible substance-universals, which cannot be reduced to a set of properties or attributes; he therefore holds that the object should be treated as an ontologically primary whole.” 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 of a plurality of intuitions. In his ontological scheme a concrete individual is not reducible to a plurality of sensible properties, but rather exemplifies a substance universal. His point is that it is a mistake to treat an organic substance like blood as nothing more than a compound of unchanging chemical elements, that can be separated and united without being fundamentally altered. In Hegel’s view, a substance like blood is thus more of an organic unity and cannot be understood as just an external composition of the sort of distinct substances that were discussed at the level of chemistry. Thus, in Hegel’s view, blood is blood is blood and cannot be successfully reduced to what we consider are its component parts; we must view it as a whole substance entire unto itself. This is most certainly a fundamentally holistic view. Hegel, too, had mystical visions of the unity of all things, on which he based his own holistic philosophy of nature and the state. Nature consists of one timeless, unified, rational and spiritual reality. Hegel’s state is a quasi-mystical collective, an “invisible and higher reality,” from which participating individuals derive their authentic identity, and to which they owe their loyalty and obedience. All modern collectivist political thinkers stress some higher collective reality, the unity, the whole, the group, though nearly always at the cost of minimizing the importance of difference, the part, the individual. Against individualism, all emphasize the social whole or social forces that somehow possess a character and have a will of their own, over and above the characters and wills of individual members.
Jan Smuts, a South African statesman, in his book, Holism and Evolution (1926) coined the modern term ‘holism’ and defined it as “The tendency in nature to form wholes that are greater than the sum of the parts through creative evolution”. He believed that the new thinking and convergence in science and philosophy would lead to emergence of new points of view. There would be shift from mechanistic world-view to a wider view of finding ways to link concepts together. It would thus be possible to explore further the relationship between mind, matter and knowledge. Smuts worked out an ascending order of wholes culminating in final values, which, when set free from human personality, are seen as the creative factors in developing ideas and spiritual values.
Alfred Adler (1927) 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.
Maurice Leenhardt (1947), a French Protestant missionary, 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.
Gestalt psychology was a major holist movement in the early twentieth century. Its 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.
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.
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 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 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”. This notion involves the philosophies of such figures as Frege, Wittgenstein, and Quine. Epistemological and confirmation holism are mainstream ideas in contemporary philosophy. Ontological holism was espoused by David Bohm (1980) in his theory of The Implicate Order.
Holism as an idea or philosophical concept is diametrically opposed to atomism. Where the atomist believes that any whole can be broken down or analyzed into its separate parts and the relationships between them, the holist maintains that the whole is primary and often greater than the sum of its parts. The atomist divides things up in order to know them better; the holist looks at things or systems in aggregate and argues that we can know more about them viewed as such, and better understand their nature and their purpose.
Based on pantheistic religious experience, this emphasis on an underlying unity is reflected in the mystical thinking of most major spiritual traditions. It also reflects developments in modern quantum field theory, which describes all existence as an excitation of the underlying quantum vacuum, as though all existing things were like ripples on a universal pond. The twentieth century has seen a tentative movement toward hoilism in such diverse areas as politics, social thinking, psychology, management theory, and medicine, systems theory, and concern with the whole person in alternative medicine. All these have been reactions against excessive individualism with its attendant alienation and fragmentation, and exhibit a commonsense appreciation of human beings’ interdependency with one another and with the environment.
Where atomism was apparently legitimized by the sweeping sucesses of classical physics, holism found no such foundation in the hard sciences. It remained a change of emphasis rather than a new philosophical position. There were attempts to found it on the idea of organism in biology – the emergence of biological form and the cooperative relation between biological and ecological systems – but these too were ultimately reduced to simpler parts, their properties and the relations between them. Even systems theory, although it emphasizes the complexity of aggregates, does so in terms of causal feedback loops between various constituent parts.
It is only with quantum theory and the dependence of the very being or identity of quantum entities upon their contexts and relationships that a genuinely new, “deep” holism emerges. Relational Holism in Quantum Mechanics is of the view that ‘Every quantum entity has both a wavelike and a particlelike aspect. The wavelike aspect is indeterminate, spread out all over space and time and the realm of possibility’. The particle-like aspect is determinate, located at one place in space and time and limited to the domain of actuality. The particle-like aspect is fixed, but the wavelike aspect becomes fixed only in dialogue with its surroundings – in dialogue with an experimental context or in relationship to another entity in measurement or observation. It is the indeterminate, wave-like aspect – the set of potentialities associated with the entity – that unites quantum things or systems in a truly emergent, relational holism that cannot be reduced to any previously existing parts or their properties. If two or more quantum entities are “introduced” – that is, issue from the same source – their potentialities are entangled. Their indeterminate wave aspects are literally interwoven, to the extent that a change in potentiality in one brings about a correlated change in the same potentiality of the other. In the nonlocality experiments, measuring the previously indeterminate polarization of a photon on one side of a room effects an instantaneous fixing of the polarization of a paired photon shot off to the other side of the room. The polarizations are said to be correlated; they are always determined simultaneously and always found to be opposite. This paired-though-opposite polarization is described as an emergent property of the photons’ “relational holism” – a property that comes into being only through the entanglement of their potentialities. It is not based on individual polarizations, which are not present until the photons are observed. They literally do not previously exist, although their oppositeness was a fixed characteristic of their combined system when it was formed. In the coming together or simultaneous measurement of any two entangled quantum entities, their relationship brings about a “further fact.” Quantum relationship evokes a new reality that could not have been predicted by breaking down the two relational entities into their individual properties. The emergence of a quantum entity’s previously indeterminate properties in the context of a given experimental situation is another example of relational holism. We cannot say that a photon is a wave or a particle until it is measured, and how we measure it determines what we will see. The quantum entity acquires a certain new property – position, momentum, polarization – only in relation to its measuring apparatus. The property did not exist prior to this relationship. It was indeterminate. Quantum relational holism, resting on the nonlocal entanglement of potentialities, is a kind of holism not previously defined. Because each related entity has some characteristics – mass, charge, spin – before its emergent properties are evoked, each can be reduced to some extent to atomistic parts, as in classical physics.
The modern holism is not the extreme holism of Parmenides or Spinoza, where everything is an aspect of the One. Yet, because some of their properties emerge only through relationship, quantum entities are not wholly subject to reduction either. The truth is somewhere between Newton and Spinoza. A quantum system may also vary between being more atomistic at some times and more holistic at others; the degrees of entanglement vary.
The primitive societies have an instinctive holistic view, which is derived from their knowledge of the local ecosystems in their environment. Each such society treats the local ecosystem as dominant and makes all human activities subservient to it. This approach is also observed in ancient and oriental civilisations. The holistic thinking continued to prevail in the western world in some or the other form up to the Renaissance Period. However, with the rise of scientific movement in the mid-17th century, the materialistic-mechanistic world-view and the reductionist approach to analysis became dominant. This led to shifting of focus from the whole to parts and the holistic thinking was gradually abandoned. The non-holistic nature of much of the modern education leaves most the people with conceptual frameworks that are too narrow to allow holistic thinking. However, there was a decline in reductionist thinking in the last few decades of 20th century. Serious attempts were made to build a synthesis of ideas and evolve holistic paradigms in every field.


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