"A descriptive and investigative strategy which seeks to find the smallest number of explanatory principles by paying careful attention to the emergent properties of the whole, as opposed to the behavior of the isolated parts, as chosen by the observer in a reductionist strategy" (T.F.H. ALLEN & T.B. STARR, 1982, p.270).
The term and the concept were introduced in 1926 by the South African general and statesman Jan SMUTS. The term was derived from the Greek: "holos" = whole.
SMUTS wrote: "The idea of wholes and wholeness should… not be confined to the biological domain: it covers both inorganic substances and the highest manifestations of the human spirit. Taking a plant or an animal as a type of a whole, we notice the fundamental holistic character as a unity of parts which is so close and intense 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 their synthesis that their functions are altered; the synthesis affects and determines the parts, so that they function towards the whole; and the whole and the parts therefore reciprocally influence and determine each other, and appear to merge more or less their individual characters: the whole is in the parts and the 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" (1926-1973, p.86).
M. BUNGE describes as follows the characteristic theses of holism, "the ontological view that stresses the integrity of systems at the expense of their components and the mutual actions among them":
"1. The whole precedes its parts.
"2. The whole acts on its parts.
"3. The whole is more than the sum of its parts.
"4. Wholes emerge under the action of agents that transcend both the actions among the components and the environmental influences.
"5. Totalities cannot be explained by analysis: they are irrational.
"6. The whole is better than any of its parts" (1979, p.39-40).
BUNGE sharply criticizes these thesis, reproduced however by him in a somewhat caricatural form (see hereafter)
According to ALLEN and STARR, both holism and reductionism seek to explain emergent behavior by invoking a lower level of organization (p.270).
Thus, both strategies admit the existence of hierarchies in systems.
J.A. GOGUEN and F.J. VARELA however observe: "Most discussions place holism/reductionism in polar opposition. This seems to stem from the historical split between empirical sciences viewed as mainly reductionist or analytic, and the (European) schools of philosophy and social sciences that grope toward a dynamics of totalities" (1979, p.40).
However: "It seems that both these directions of analysis always coexist, either implicitly or explicitly, because these descriptive levels are mutually interdependent for the observer. We cannot conceive of components if there is no system from which they are abstracted, and there cannot be a whole unless there are constitutive elements" (p.41).
These authors give the excellent example of harmony and melody, which are at "… a level of organization above that of the notes themselves" (Ibid).
Finally: "Reductionism implies attention to a lower level, while holism implies attention to a higher level. These are intertwined in any satisfactory description; and each entails some loss relative to our cognitive preferences, as well as some gain" (p.42).
M. BUNGE holds a dim view on holism, which he carefully distinguishes from systemics, as holism "recognizes the existence of systems with specific characters (emergent properties), but treats them as totalities or black boxes". According to him holism "… refuses to analyse them and to explain the formation and the collapse of wholes in function of their components and the interactions between them" (1995, p.16). He also indicts holism as "responsible for the backwardness of the nonphysical sciences. It has contributed precious little to serious systemics, precisely because: (a) it has not engaged in the study of the links that hold any system together, and (b) rather than constructing conceptual systems (theories) to account for concrete systems, it has spent itself in attacking analytical or atomistic approach and praising totality as such. Whatever truth there is in holism – namely that there are totalities, that they have properties of their own, and they should be treated as wholes – is contained in system, or the philosophy underpinning systemics" (p.410).
The most equilibrated view has been offered by G. KLIR who considers that present systems thinking: "… represents a synthesis of the reductionistic thesis and the holistic antithesis" (1993, p.36).
The French philosopher B. PASCAL anticipated (1670!) this view: "I consider impossible to obtain knowledge of the parts without knowing the whole, nor to know the whole without particular knowledge of the parts" (Quoted by R. VALLÉE, 1995, p.11).
The concept of Gestalt, as refering to the perception of wholes, also is another conspicuous root of holism.
Some view holism itself as a kind of reductionism. K. BAUSCH for ex. defines it as "A reductionist descriptive and investigative strategy for generating explanatory principles of whole systems"(Glossary, Pers.comm., 2002)
Indeed: "Attention is focused on the emergent properties of the whole rather than on the behavior of the isolates parts "(Ibid).
Of course, holistic models should be paired with classical reductionist ones as both aspects are complementary and necessary for comprehensive explanations.
As a very simple illustration, while H2O has expecific properties as a whole, its constitution can be understood only by knowing the chemical and physical characteristics of Hand O that allow them to combine.
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Bertalanffy Center for the Study of Systems Science (2020). Title of the entry. In Charles François (Ed.), International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics (2). Retrieved from www.systemspedia.org/[full/url]
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