Holism is the theory that parts of a whole are in intimate interconnection, such that they cannot exist independently of the whole or cannot be understood without reference to the whole, i.e. the whole is more than the sum of its parts. If you believe in the power of synergy, then 2+2 may equal 5. While it is sometimes very useful from a scientific point of view to break things down into smaller and smaller parts to analyze and measure them, what we sometimes forget is that things are lost in the breaking down and things end up missing in the re-construction. The question is, how do the parts relate to the whole?

"Grass," photo by Flickr user Johan Blomström.
“Grass,” photo by Flickr user Johan Blomström

Scientists and philosophers have pondered this question for hundreds of years. Darwin (1809-1882) said, “In order to be an astute observer, you have to be an active integrator.” Kurt Goldstein (1878-1965) believed, “ You can’t treat a symptom without understanding the whole of the individual.” In short, no empirical data can ever be readily intelligible unless grasped from an ideational frame of reference. Husserl (1859-1938) asked us to “challenge the assumption that our human experience is a mere chaotic jumble of disconnected elements.” He suggested that life and soul emerge from physical material but grow into forces of their own and, in turn, influence the physical. Even earlier, Hegel (1770-1831) argued 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.” He insisted that “the unity we find in our experience of the world is not constructed by us out of a plurality of intuitions.” Alfred Adler (1870-1937) believed that the individual (an integrated whole expressed through a self-consistent unity of thinking, feeling, and action), must be understood within the larger wholes of society, from the groups to which he belongs, 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.

In current times, Carkhuff (1935 – ), one of the most referenced social scientists of the last century, proposes that the most helpful way to understand the parts is to start with a model of the whole, map all of the elements under consideration into the model, and then process what’s missing and what possibilities still remain to be explored. This entails using deductive methodologies instead of inductive approaches. He suggests that you can’t understand the higher in terms of the lower.

So what does all this mean for our contemporary lives and the daunting challenges we face?

On an individual level, it means that we can’t entirely understand the emotional, spiritual, and intellectual dimensions of our lives by reducing our body parts to smaller and smaller areas of specialization. We are more than the sum of our individual body parts. As I discussed in the post “THIS and that,” it is impossible to explain every aspect of our experience. The mystery is in the experience.

On a religious level, it means we can’t understand the fullness and limitations of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. by assigning characteristics to the whole by the action of any one of its parts. For example, we can’t understand Islam through the actions of extremist terrorist groups, and we can’t understand Christianity through the actions of a few predatory priests.

On a social level, we need to distinguish between our independent desires and our interdependent needs. As Adler said, we need to see ourselves as part of the whole of humankind. We are one small part of an interconnected and interdependent fabric. The shift from independent thinking (only concerned with satisfying our personal goals) to interdependent thinking (actively seeking ways to help each other succeed) is a huge leap. The problem in achieving the shift is, as Carkhuff has suggested, we can’t understand the higher in terms of the lower. As I discussed on my post, “The Consciousness Solution”, if our consciousness is at the survival or tribal compliance level (levels 1 and 2), then we can’t understand the requirements or benefits of harmonious inclusion or enlightened service (levels 6 and 7). All we see is enemies with whom to compete instead of partners with whom to collaborate.

Given all this background, I still believe 2 + 2 = 5, maybe even 10. I wish I could figure out a way to change the math. To me, the whole is more that the sum of the parts. I can’t explain it, but I can experience it. What about you?

Also published on Medium.

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Artie Egendorf

Amen brother. :-)
PS & BTW: “Amen” = Hebrew acronym for the words “God oh faithful King,” understood mystically as Ultimate Singular Mystery, One Beyond Number, ever Present Originating of each and All. And of course, you can gloss this in one of your forthcoming posts by drawing out related, not exactly the same, intent in each of the Great Traditions.


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