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A Brief Overview and Comparison of Holism and Reductionism

A Brief Overview and Comparison of Holism and Reductionism

Origin of the Two Theories

The origin of Reductionism dates back to the 1600s when Descartes and Newton used Aristotle's Laws of Thought to explain their theories. In contrast, Holism as a term was first used by South African statesman Jan Smuts, in 1926, in his book 'Holism and Evolution'.

'Holism' is a philosophical doctrine that advocates the view that any natural system or entity should be viewed as a whole or in its entirety and not as a sum of its component parts. A simple example of holism can be the way the health of an individual is judged. A person is said to be healthy if his overall well-being is healthy and not just his/her individual body organs.

Another example that can further illustrate this concept. In an electrical transmission line, the sending end voltage is equal to the receiving end voltage in theory. But for a long transmission line, an astonishing phenomenon called the 'Ferranti Effect' is observed. Due to this effect, the receiving end voltage of a transmission line is greater than the sending end voltage; a result of the intermediate charging capacitance. In other words, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. This in short can be termed as 'Holism' in philosophy.

On the other hand, 'reductionism' is the complement of holism, it believes that a system or entity is the sum of its parts or components, and understanding the basic components or parts can give us an understanding of the entire system. Here, again, this concept can be better understood with an analogy. A lumped electrical circuit consisting of separable elements like a resistance, capacitance, and inductance can be analyzed as a sum of its individual parts. Let us take a closer look at the meaning, examples, and comparison of these two theories.

The term is derived from the Greek word 'holos' meaning all, whole or entire. It was introduced by Jan Smuts, an African Statesman, in his book 'Holism and Evolution' (1926). He defined it as "the tendency in nature to form wholes that are greater than sum of the parts through creative evolution." In philosophy, any doctrine that prioritizes the whole over its parts, is holism.

Confirmation holism was a theory put forth by the American philosopher Quine. It states that no individual statement is subject to an empirical test, but only to a set of statements (whole theory).

Functionalism in philosophy is based on holism. Semantic holism states that words can be understood semantically only by referring to the language they belong to. Following are some generic examples of holism .

Martin Luther King

● When Martin Luther King said that " Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.", he had a holistic view of social justice.

● As mentioned above, functionalism states that a mental state may be identified only in terms of its relation with others, which is pertaining to the whole, as opposed to its internal constituents.

● Another example of holism is Cellular automata. Its behavior is simple in most cases, but highly unpredictable on rare occasions.

● Gestalt psychology is an example of holistic approach because it looks at the human mind and behavior as a whole.

● Macrosociology which studies society as a whole rather than just a collection of individuals, is based on holism.

● An all-inclusive design perspective adopted by an architect makes architecture a holistic profession.

It is a doctrine which states that a system, phenomenon, or theory can be explained as the sum of its individual parts. The view that laws of chemistry are based on physics is reductionist. Explaining one theory with the laws of another, more generalized theory is known as 'Theoretical Reductionism'.

While reducing every scientific theory to the smallest possible entities is known as 'Methodological Reductionism'. Related to metaphysics, 'Ontological Reductionism' is defined as the belief that reality is composed of a number of entities or substances .

Following are some examples of a reductionist approach .

● The claim that all sciences are reducible to physics is reductionist.

● The Kirchhoff's circuit laws are reductionist in nature. Kirchhoff's Current Law (KCL) states that at any junction in an electrical circuit, the sum of the currents flowing into that junction (node) is equal to the sum of currents flowing out of that node. Kirchhoff's Voltage Law (KVL) states that the sum of the electromotive force in any closed loop of an electrical circuit is equivalent to the sum of the potential drops in that loop.

● A machine is the sum of its individual parts. Individual parts functioning independently sum up the whole. This is a prime example of reductionism.

● A reductionist approach is useful in understanding human genetics. This approach is also useful in predicting weather patterns. Computer simulated three-dimensional modeling is also largely based on an reductionist approach, wherein the bigger model is broken down into smaller components for easier simulation.

● Structuralism and Behaviorism in psychology are examples of reductionism. Structuralism treats the adult mind as a sum total of experience from birth to the present. Behaviorism is an analysis of elements that define human behavior.

● Henry Ford's 'Assembly Line' for automobile production is based on reductionism as the entire production of a car was considered as an assembly of its component parts.

● Emotions like anger or sarcasm cannot be understood by studying the individual body parts. They can only be studied as a whole; with a holistic point of view.

● 'Turbulence', a phenomenon studied in fluid dynamics involving the irregular motion of air, cannot be explained by scientific reductionism.

● In neurology, proponents of holism argued that the brain was a homogeneous part with no specific sub parts; while localization argued that the brain was organized in functionally distinct cortical areas.

This was a brief discourse on the two philosophical approaches to any theory, system or phenomenon. It can be seen that they are not mutually exclusive, as the study of individual parts and that of the whole is supplementary.

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Reductionism vs holism essay

Reductionism vs holism essay

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Holism vs

“Science, as ordinarily understood, is concerned with those phenomena revealed through the five senses, particularly tha eyes. From a host of observations on instruments of various sorts, the physicist infers the existence of electrons, atoms and so forth. But each of us has another sort of knowledge of one special part of the universe, of one special phenomenon of the universe, namely himself” (Birch 229).

Much debate has centered around the dichotomy of wholes and parts from as early as Democritus (5th century BCE) and Aristotle (4th century BCE). Democritean and Aristotelian philosophies have each had their favor during parts of history. Aristotle was the earliest systematic biologist and, following an encyclopedic treatment of his personal observations on around 500 different types of animals (Swanson 23), he found as the most striking character of biological phenomena its finalism. He later extended this concept into a teleological philosophy, and although he did eventually introduce the concept of a causal necessity, the main conclusion emerging from his analysis was that by far the most important cause in biological and physical phenomena is the final cause (Montalenti 20). His was the most widely accepted view in the West for many centuries due mainly to Aquinas. Dante, for instance, reproaches Democritus for having attributed the world to the mere work of chance (inf. IV, 131, 136). Although that was not altogether precise, for the medieval Aristotelian it came down to the same thing: how can one attempt to explain the harmony of the world without resorting to final causes? Democritus, in turn, presented the West with a much valued causal interpretation of nature. For Democritus, all things resulted from the movement and interactions between atoms, soul atoms being simply a somewhat more subtle version of the others (Reeves 58).

The debate between Democritean and Aristotelian points of views in science and the philosophy of the sciences centers around the question of whether novelties occur or whether all phenomena can be explained as resulting purely from elementary interactions. Both views stand on weak foundations on their own. ‘Reductionism’, as it is often called, aims at explaining the universe 1) without consorting to a fundamental notion of functionally irreducible units, and 2) by outlining the behavior and interaction between what have been shown to be probabilistic – rather than deterministic – elementary particles.

In response to that view, Polanyi states that “the mechanistic explanation of the universe is a meaningless ideal. Not because of the much invoked Principle of Indeterminacy, which is irrelevant, but because the prediction of all atomic positions in the universe would not answer any question of interest to anybody” (41-42). But ‘holism’ does not have it easy either. It can not cling to intuitive notions (i.e. vitalism) and must make amends with the fact that matter is what there is and what ultimately forms the complexities around us – as well as ourselves.

The question is, do we have the right concept of matter? In 1926 J.C. Smuts called for a reform of the concept of matter, stating that “the acceptance of the view for which the materialists fought so hard means in effect a complete transformation of the simple situation which they envisaged”; since matter is capable of life and consciousness, “[it] is no longer the old matter which was merely the vehicle of motion and energy” (10). This view is akin to Birch’s account of a lecture in which Professor W.E. Agar said “a few thousand million years ago there was primeval chaos, and now, here we are, and I think few people can really sustain a belief that a universe which produced life and man requires no different kind of explanation than would be demanded by a universe which did not do so” (Birch 230).

In 1843, J.S. Mill sought to develop a middle way through what came to be known as ‘emergence’: the idea that material complexity leads to the emergence of novel properties, and that properties belonging to a system’s components may become suppressed at these higher levels of integration. It remains a matter of debate whether emergent properties may have any causal power within a system. William Hasker believes so; he maintains that although mental properties emerge from the brain and are inseparable from it, conscious properties are not logical consequences of any combination of properties and of relations between the material constituents of the brain. He further maintains that a “new individual entity” emerges of a certain functional configuration of the material constituents of the brain and nervous system, endowed with “libertarian freedom” (230).

Perhaps the fact that our knowledge of elemental particles weakened rather than reinforced the Democritean ideal, we find a number of quantum physicists taking seriously the notion of irreducible unity. Schrödinger postulates that “the best possible knowledge of a whole does not necessarily include the best possible knowledge of all its parts, even though they may be entirely separate and therefore virtually capable of being ‘best possibly known,’ i.e. of possessing, each of them, a representative of its own. The lack of knowledge is by no means due to the interaction being insufficiently known — at least not in the way that it could possibly be known more completely — it is due to the interaction itself” (Schrödinger 555). David Bohm, in turn, argues that “all action is in the form of definite and measurable units of energy, momentum and other properties called quanta which cannot be further divided… [Thus,] when particles interact, it is as if they were all connected by indivisible links into a single whole” (90)

It might be, as Laszlo views it, that contemporary science has tacitly abandoned the notion of isolated particulars as its units of investigation, and now concerns itself with “ordered totalities” (Laszlo 2). However, in a world made up of systems within systems, ‘totalities’ are not easily defined. One very good definition of ‘unities’ is given to us by Maturana and Varela under the term ‘autopoiesis’ – self-production or self-creation. Autopoiesis seeks to convey ‘autonomy’ as the central feature of the organization of “living autopoietic machines”, which they define as “a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components that produces the components which… regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and… constitute it… as a concrete unity” (Maturana and Varela 79).

Holism versus Reductionism

The way I learnt to spell Czechoslovakia, was to break it into two halves. Memorize the tricky and more difficult part ‘Czecho’ and then confidently add the easier and the more obvious ‘slovakia’.

How we all learnt to multiply 13×12 mentally, was by breaking one of the multipliers in its simpler factors and, add! It is much faster for most of us to mentally calculate (13×10) + (13×2) = 156. Frankly, I never had the memory to remember those tables all the way up to 20. Thankfully, factors came to my rescue.

Elementary science text books educate young students about smaller and smaller division achievable. All matter is made of molecules, molecules of atoms and atoms from electron, proton and neutrons.

It is not difficult to realize why analytical behavior is a natural instinct for most of us. Reductionism or attempting to understand visible complexity by breaking it into smaller constituent parts forms the core of our primary education structure.

Systems thinking however incorporate ‘Holism’ as one of its primary tenet.

Holism stands for the idea that all properties of a given system cannot be determined or explained by its component parts alone.

But how do we visualize holism around us? As we saw above, Reductionism happens all around us. Appears in every analysis we do. Where do we search for Holism? Why does it not make itself evident?

Indeed, holism is all around us. All we need is to train our faculties to look at the larger picture and not merely at the constituent parts. In fact, there are certain systems that not be explained at all, by a purely reductionist approach.

Let us look around, holistically. Let us look at ‘Life’.

Life itself is a holistic phenomenon. In case of living systems, nobody would deny that an organization is a collection of atoms. The mistake is what certain reductionist scientists make very often. To suppose that it is nothing but a collection of atoms.

Such a claim is as absurd as asserting that all Ustad Bismillah Khan’s masterpiece was nothing more than a collection of notes played on his shehnai or that a Shakespeare’s classic is nothing more than a collection of words.

The property of life, the theme of the tune or the plot of Shakespeare’s play is what is known as the ‘emergent’ property. Emergence is largely an outcome of holistic view and is also another tenet of systems thinking.

You would realize that the ‘emergent’ properties only make sense at collective level and are rather meaningless at the component level.

It is important for us to acknowledge at this point in time that the idea of this article is not establish superiority of one mode of the two ‘isms’ in understanding or defining the system.

The component level description, does not contradict the holistic description. Instead the two are complimentary to each other. The two point of views are both valid and useful at their own level. The use of either one of them depends on what you want to know.

I have come to realize that a graphical or illustrative representation of a newly introduced concept, leaves a much lasting impression on the reader’s memories. Keeping inline with this understanding, I have fetched for you the following –

While you look at the whole, what you get is the Monalisa. A historic work of art that invokes impressions of beauty, mystery, sophestication and grace in your heart.

With reductionism, all that you are left with with is 3,604 cups of coffee, with different proportions of milk and coffee.

If you are wondering, where did Monalisa along with feelings of beauty and mystery that she invoked in your hearts, go? Then don’t.

All of them are emergent properties of this system, that only have an existence at a holistic frame of reference. A part of this system, a cup of coffee surely does not have beauty or mystery as an intrinsic property.

Will await your comments, feedback, questions or contributions.

Request your participation and sharing. Sharing of knowledge is the only reduction, that leads to holistic growth.

An amazing writeup. It certainly has got me thinking on situations where in you have the reductionist approach and holistic approach or rather a ‘Whole’ approach.

Now, what I’ve understood from this is, in a reductionists approach, we can solve and understand the objectivity or the purpose of the worldly things which are rather evident and obvious. However, if we take the w holistic approach, we see the purpose of the things which are not quite evident to the eye and requires a certain amount of consciousness and understanding of a higher region.

A single day in a life is just a molecule of the whole life. It has got the colors of the coffee. Sometimes they are bitter and most of the times they are sweet too. There are times when we wonder why do we actually need sorrow or the bitterness of it. The reason is beautifully explained using the Monalisa example. The picture would not have looked like Monalisa, had all the cups had the right amount of milk and coffee in it. To make the entire life beautiful, we need all the factors(happiness, sorrow, troubles, successes, etc;) that amount to it.
I can sense a question here. Why to look at the w holisitic view at all?

Umm….the answer which I can make out of my way of holistic thinking is, to be happy.
We as an individual have our life, and similarly there are thousands of living creatures in and around us. All of it comprise into a living world. The whole world needs a balance of all textures that each has to offer. Thus, the balance of life is attained. So, whatever unpleasant happens and is not under our control, we need to understand that it is there and happenning for a purpose.

This was my view of the approaches. Kindly correct me if I got wrong in my understanding.

Interesting… Just a quick comment. Will be back again…
Although the premise / hypothesis to start with is that one approach fits all instances…That is usually not the case….In fact there are cases where you actually enjoy both the approaches…. Take for instance the game of cricket…I enjoy the part- where I see a brilliant batting shot etc and the end result also impacts… Likewise one has to have a good mix of both to get going…
But an interesting discussion…

Amazing, easy and well set examples to understand the approach. Keep it up.

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HOLISM VS REDUCTIONSIM 2 Table of contents Holism……………………………………………………………………………………. 3 Reductionism……………………………………………………………………………. 5 Comparison ……………………………………………………………………………….7 References ………………………………………………………………………………. 8 Holism Holism refers to a concept or idea that all the part of a system cannot be understood or explained with the presence of the components part alone. Holism emphasizes on a system as a whole and not the constituent parts. The concept of holism follows the belief that the characteristics of the components and part of a system contribute to the understanding of the entire system, which means the whole system can be understood with the understanding of the components that makes that system (Ostreng, 2005). Holism helps to identify a system as a whole. Holism is applied and used in many areas, which includes engineering, science, biology, ecology and medicine. Holism is also used in research and findings, which is referred to as holistic research. In holistic research decision is not made in both research units and observation units (Vesrcherun, 2001). For example, when conducting a holistic research in an organization,

HOLISM VS REDUCTIONSIM 3 employees may not be asked what task they are performing at a specific time, but they holistic researcher may just study the activities and task themselves through participant observation. According to Vescherum (2001), an holistic researcher studies complex information, which may include processes, patterns, meanings, configurations and types instead of relying on single data (p. 394). A holistic researcher often deals with collective information, which includes team spirit, group culture and working environment instead of selective information like variable of various employees, which may include age, DOB, level of education and other related information (Vesrcherun, 2001). Hence, holistic approach is case oriented.

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