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Holistic Aspects in Systems Research, InterSymp ‘97, Baden-Baden August 18-23, 1997


History, Concepts and Potentials of Holism.

Heiner Benking, Martin van Meurs

Abstract: (also available onsite Baden-Baden, 1997)

The paper begins by reviewing the holistic outlook of J.C. Smuts. The first part, based on the recent thesis of Martin v. Meurs, summarizes the personality of Smuts, as a Statesman, General and Holist and tries to re-design the holistic picture as Smuts developed it first in - Inquiry into the Whole - (1912) and later in - Evolution and Cognition - (1926).  

In the second part are some later ideas about wholeness and holism and how our current scientific paradigm, based on reductionistic or synoptic models, falls short if perspectives beyond ubiquitous and prevailing dualistic thinking are omitted. As some questions regarding other early models, such as Gestalt, Ecology, etc. will necessarily arise, we will try to share in the seminar where we are and how we might design a new model by having reductionistic and holistic concepts coexist synergistically. 


Historical review

The South African J.C. Smuts (1870 - 1950 ) is well remembered as a statesman but only few people know that he is also the founding father of holism, the word he coined from the Greek Holus meaning Whole. Nowadays Smuts the politican is history but his holistic vision is more actual than ever. That is why we first present a short introduction in the development of Smut’s holistic vision.

In 1912 Smuts completed his Inquiry into the Whole the first complete exposition of his holistic philosophy. This book which contains 286 pages was never published and still rests in the State archives in Pretoria. In his book Smuts analyses the idea of the Whole. "From the parts it is never possible to reach the whole, because the sum of the parts still gives us a collection of partial and external relations and not that inward totality which constitutes the whole". The vision of Smuts is organic. For him reality is dynamic, energetic, evolutionary, biological and spiritual. Smuts rejects the analytical and mechanical visions on science that overlook the fundamental and creative activity of the whole in the universe. Smuts sees a rise of evolution from simple to complex, from unicellular to multifarious, from imperfect to perfect. His expectation is that this grow to perfection will continue and that not only man will develop into a more perfect personality but also that the holistic ideals: Freedom, Purity, Love and Truth will come closer all the time. This holistic vision of Smuts that was in fact born out of the poetry of Walt Whitman and Johann Wolfgang Goethe remained a bit vague because Smuts at that time was not able to give his view on the world a firm footing in the scientific outlook of his time. Besides he had not yet developed a clear alternative for Darwin`s theory of evolution. That is why he would shape his ideas anew in the twenties.

Smuts became prime minister of South Africa in 1919. His period of government 1919 - 1924 was no culminating point in the life of Smuts because in this time an economic recession coincided with a period of dryness. Beside it there were lots of incidents, with the great strike in the goldmines as a lowest point. After the defeat in the elections of 1924 Smuts went in the opposition. He would remain an oppositionleader until 1933 when his party, the South African Party, formed a coalition with the Nationalistic Party of prime-minister Hertzog. A year later the two parties even merged into the United Party.

The years of opposition gave Smuts a bit of space for his hobby, botany, and his scientific work. In this period he published his most important work Holism and Evolution (1926). The developments in many branches of science offered Smuts the possibility to bring his holistic vision in accordance with the latest scientific facts. The breakthroughs in theoretical physics caused by the theory of relativity of Einstein and the new insights of quantum mechanics gave him all the changes he needed. The world no longer seemed to be some sort of machine but turned out to be, as he foresaw, an organic unity, a web of relations. With that the transitions between matter, life and mind became fluid and this offered Smuts the opportunity to harmonise his organic theory of evolution with reality, because for him it was impossible to bring his holistic vision in accordance with the old reductionist and mechanical concepts of the world, with their hard lines of demarcation. The development in Smuts thinking is clear. In the Inquiry into the Whole he found his holistic ideas mainly in poetry and by instinct but in Holism and Evolution he succeeded to derive his holism from the new scientific world-view.

Now he also came with his most important contribution to science: the holistic evolution in which he tried to complete Darwin’s theory of evolution. According to Smuts Darwin could not explain creative evolution and gave no answer to the question why evolution tended to perfection because Darwinism never discovered the driving force of the Whole towards perfection. In the holistic evolution there is always this development towards the future in which the wholes become more perfect all the time. "To me the conclusion of the matter is, that the inexhaustible whole is itself at work, that Holism is an active factor interacting with the Darwinian forces, that it is not only its aim but also its output that far exceed the immediate present utilities and needs of organic evolution, and that its bow is bent for distant horizons, far beyond all human power of vision and understanding".

Smuts wanted to develop his thoughts much further but his planned sequel never appeared because of his busy political activities.

For Smuts the underlying unity between matter life and mind are essential with the holistic evolution as the heart of the matter. Smuts differs from Darwin when it comes to question of purpose in evolution. Darwin`s opinion was: "There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows". Smuts on the contrary is convinced that evolution is on the way to more perfect wholes. Paradise will be reached in the future and does not lie behind us. Essential in his conviction is that the cosmos is a living inspired organism. Everything contributes to the harmonic ordering of the whole. That is why Smuts concludes: "This world is a good world". God has no place in Smuts` philosophy although he had a personal belief in God. Smuts points out, that man has become the most important factor of evolution. More than nature itself it is man who directs the course of evolution. Smuts believed that his holistic vision could fill the cap between science and philosophy. Ever since the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century science and philosophy had driven apart. Smuts hoped that holism could restore the unity between Weltanschauung and science.

For a moment it seemed that Smuts took holism with him into the grave. Especially when Karl Popper in 1957 in his book The property of historicism, used the world holism wrongly to describe such collective systems as Marxism and fascism. But in the eighties holism underwent a remarkable rebirth. Marilyn Ferguson`s Aquarian Conspiracy and Fritjof Capra`s The turning point were million-sellers and proclaimed the holistic vision. These authors recognised Smuts as the founding father of holism. Holism gained more and more influence in the last twenty years including in the different branches of science. Smuts`program is ambitious. He wanted nothing less but a new outlook in life. In his own life he worked hard in favour of his new vision. He tried to inspire people by his book Holism and Evolution and used his qualities as a statesman and a general to serve his holistic vision. Whether or not he was successful time will show.

Die Geschichte des menschlichen Denkens
hat oft die fruchtbarsten Entwicklungen dort ergeben,
wo sich zwei verschiedene Arten des Denkens getroffen haben.

Werner Heisenberg

The history of human thinking
has produced the most fruitful results at places,
where two different kinds (forms) of thinking have met.

Werner Heisenberg



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