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Holism (from Ancient Greek ὅλος (hólos) 'all, whole, entire',and -ism ) is the idea that various systems (e.g. physical, biological, social) should be viewed as wholes, not merely as a collection of parts. [1] [2] The term "holism" was coined by Jan Smuts in his 1926 book Holism and Evolution . [3] While his ideas had racist connotations, the modern use of the word generally refers to treating a person as an integrated whole, rather than as a collection of separate systems. For example, well-being may be regarded as not merely physical health, but also psychological and spiritual well-being. [4]



The exact meaning of "holism" depends on context. Jan Smuts originally used "holism" to refer to the tendency in nature to produce wholes from the ordered grouping of unit structures. [3] However, in common usage, "holism" usually refers to the idea that a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. [5] In this sense, "holism" may also be spelled "wholism" (although the two are not etymologically related), and it may be contrasted with reductionism or atomism. [6]


The term holistic when applied to diet refers to an intuitive approach to food, eating, or lifestyle. One example is in the context of holistic nursing, where "holism" refers to assessment of a person's health, including psychological and societal factors, rather than only their physical conditions or symptoms. [7] In this sense, holism may also be called "holiatry." [8] Some religious institutions practice a holistic dietary and health approach, such as Hinduism and the Seventh-day Adventist Church.


In philosophy of science, logical holism is the concept that a theory can only be understood in its entirety. This has also been called methodological holism. Similarly, semantic holism makes the claim that meaningful statements about complex phenomena cannot be reduced to the actions of individuals. [9]

Michael Esfeld has suggested that holism is opposed to analytic philosophy, "holism with respect to intentional phenomena is widespread among analytic philosophers". [10]


Holism in physics refers to the inseparability of certain phenomena, especially quantum phenomena. Classical physics cannot be regarded as holistic, as the behavior of individual parts represents the whole. However, the state of a system in quantum theory resists similar analysis. The quantum state of a system is often described as 'entangled', and thus inseparable for meaningful analysis. [11]

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Metaphysics</span> Branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of reality

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that studies the fundamental nature of reality, the first principles of being, identity and change, space and time, causality, necessity, and possibility. It includes questions about the nature of consciousness and the relationship between mind and matter, between substance and attribute, and between potentiality and actuality. The word "metaphysics" comes from two Greek words that, together, literally mean "after or behind or among [the study of] the natural". It has been suggested that the term might have been coined by a first century CE editor who assembled various small selections of Aristotle's works into the treatise we now know by the name Metaphysics.

Materialism is a form of philosophical monism which holds matter to be the fundamental substance in nature, and all things, including mental states and consciousness, are results of material interactions. According to philosophical materialism, mind and consciousness are by-products or epiphenomena of material processes, without which they cannot exist. This concept directly contrasts with idealism, where mind and consciousness are first-order realities to which matter is dependent while material interactions are secondary.

Reality is the sum or aggregate of all that is real or existent within a system, as opposed to that which is only imaginary. The term is also used to refer to the ontological status of things, indicating their existence. In physical terms, reality is the totality of a system, known and unknown.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Reductionism</span> Philosophical view explaining systems in terms of smaller parts

Reductionism is any of several related philosophical ideas regarding the associations between phenomena which can be described in terms of other simpler or more fundamental phenomena. It is also described as an intellectual and philosophical position that interprets a complex system as the sum of its parts.

An interpretation of quantum mechanics is an attempt to explain how the mathematical theory of quantum mechanics might correspond to experienced reality. Although quantum mechanics has held up to rigorous and extremely precise tests in an extraordinarily broad range of experiments, there exist a number of contending schools of thought over their interpretation. These views on interpretation differ on such fundamental questions as whether quantum mechanics is deterministic or stochastic, which elements of quantum mechanics can be considered real, and what the nature of measurement is, among other matters.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fritjof Capra</span> American physicist

Fritjof Capra is an Austrian-born American physicist, systems theorist and deep ecologist. In 1995, he became a founding director of the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, California. He is on the faculty of Schumacher College.

Scientific realism is the view that the universe described by science is real regardless of how it may be interpreted.

In philosophical epistemology, there are two types of coherentism: the coherence theory of truth; and the coherence theory of justification.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Panpsychism</span> View that mind is a fundamental feature of reality

In the philosophy of mind, panpsychism is the view that the mind or a mindlike aspect is a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of reality. It is also described as a theory that "the mind is a fundamental feature of the world which exists throughout the universe." It is one of the oldest philosophical theories, and has been ascribed to philosophers including Thales, Plato, Spinoza, Leibniz, William James, Alfred North Whitehead, Bertrand Russell, and Galen Strawson. In the 19th century, panpsychism was the default philosophy of mind in Western thought, but it saw a decline in the mid-20th century with the rise of logical positivism. Recent interest in the hard problem of consciousness and developments in the fields of neuroscience, psychology, and quantum physics have revived interest in panpsychism in the 21st century.

In philosophy, emergentism is the belief in emergence, particularly as it involves consciousness and the philosophy of mind. A property of a system is said to be emergent if it is a new outcome of some other properties of the system and their interaction, while it is itself different from them. Within the philosophy of science, emergentism is analyzed both as it contrasts with and parallels reductionism.

Organicism is the philosophical position that states that the universe and its various parts ought to be considered alive and naturally ordered, much like a living organism. Vital to the position is the idea that organicistic elements are not dormant "things" per se but rather dynamic components in a comprehensive system that is, as a whole, everchanging. Organicism is related to but remains distinct from holism insofar as it prefigures holism; while the latter concept is applied more broadly to universal part-whole interconnections such as in anthropology and sociology, the former is traditionally applied only in philosophy and biology. Furthermore, organicism is incongruous with reductionism because of organicism's consideration of "both bottom-up and top-down causation." Regarded as a fundamental tenet in natural philosophy, organicism has remained a vital current in modern thought, alongside both reductionism and mechanism, that has guided scientific inquiry since the early 17th century.

Holism in science, holistic science, or methodological holism is an approach to research that emphasizes the study of complex systems. Systems are approached as coherent wholes whose component parts are best understood in context and in relation to both each other and to the whole. Holism typically stands in contrast with reductionism, which describes systems by dividing them into smaller components in order to understand them through their elemental properties.

Holistic education is a movement in education that seeks to engage all aspects of the learner, including mind, body, and spirit. Its philosophy, which is also identified as holistic learning theory, is based on the premise that each person finds identity, meaning, and purpose in life through connections to their local community, to the natural world, and to humanitarian values such as compassion and peace.

Antireductionism is the position in science and metaphysics that stands in contrast to reductionism (anti-holism) by advocating that not all properties of a system can be explained in terms of its constituent parts and their interactions.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Double-aspect theory</span> Theory in the philosophy of mind

In the philosophy of mind, double-aspect theory is the view that the mental and the physical are two aspects of, or perspectives on, the same substance. It is also called dual-aspect monism, not to be confused with mind–body dualism. The theory's relationship to neutral monism is ill-defined, but one proffered distinction says that whereas neutral monism allows the context of a given group of neutral elements to determine whether the group is mental, physical, both, or neither, double-aspect theory requires the mental and the physical to be inseparable and mutually irreducible.

Karen Michelle Barad is an American feminist theorist, known particularly for their theory of agential realism.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Theoretical physics</span> Branch of physics

Theoretical physics is a branch of physics that employs mathematical models and abstractions of physical objects and systems to rationalize, explain and predict natural phenomena. This is in contrast to experimental physics, which uses experimental tools to probe these phenomena.

Rolf Sattler FLS FRSC is a Canadian plant morphologist, biologist, philosopher, and educator. He is considered one of the most significant contributors to the field of plant morphology and "one of the foremost plant morphologists in the world." His contributions are not only empirical but involved also a revision of the most fundamental concepts, theories, and philosophical assumptions. He published the award-winning Organogenesis of Flowers (1973) and nearly a hundred scientific papers, mainly on plant morphology. As well he has contributed to many national and international symposia and also organized and chaired symposia at international congresses, edited the proceedings of two of them and published them as books.

Alex Hankey is a theoretical physicist trained at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cambridge University. He was a post-doctoral fellow at Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. Deeply interested in Vedanta, Yoga, and Ayurveda, he played a vital role in setting up Maharishi University of Management and later on became a professor at it, where he taught the first undergraduate course in philosophy of science. His current work relates to applying a combination of philosophical arguments and knowledge of Vedic sciences to solve the problems with in modern science, and thereby refining the foundations of physics, biology, and information theory.

<i>Holism and Evolution</i> 1926 book by Jan Smuts

Holism and Evolution is a 1926 book by South African statesman Jan Smuts, in which he coined the word "holism", although Smuts' meaning differs from the modern concept of holism. Smuts defined holism as the "fundamental factor operative towards the creation of wholes in the universe."


  1. Oshry, Barry (2008), Seeing Systems: Unlocking the Mysteries of Organizational Life, Berrett-Koehler.
  2. Auyang, Sunny Y (1999), Foundations of Complex-system Theories: in Economics, Evolutionary Biology, and Statistical Physics, Cambridge University Press.
  3. 1 2 "holism, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2019, www.oed.com/view/Entry/87726. Accessed 23 October 2019.
  4. "Beginners Guide to Holistic Health". Chopra. 2019-08-27. Retrieved 2022-09-28.
  5. J. C. Poynton (1987) SMUTS'S HOLISM AND EVOLUTION SIXTY YEARS ON, Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa, 46:3, 181-189, DOI:10.1080/00359198709520121
  6. "wholism, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2019, www.oed.com/view/Entry/228738. Accessed 23 October 2019.
  7. "holistic, adj." OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2019, www.oed.com/view/Entry/87727. Accessed 23 October 2019.
  8. "Definition of holism | Dictionary.com". www.dictionary.com.
  9. "holism | philosophy | Britannica". www.britannica.com. Retrieved 2022-09-28.
  10. Michael Esfeld, Holism and Analytic Philosophy. Mind, Vol. 107(426), 1998, pg. 365
  11. Healey, Richard; Gomes, Henrique (2022), Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), "Holism and Nonseparability in Physics", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2022 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2022-09-28

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