Archive for May, 2012

I’ve spent the past two weeks battling my way through the book which is considered to be the first expression of holism as a coherent philosophy: W.E. Ritter’s The Unity of the Organism; or, The Organismal Conception of Life (1918). Ritter’s work is generally acknowledged to have set off the flood of holistic writings that appeared over the following decade — but I’m finding it hard to understand just why it made the impact it did.

For one thing, the book doesn’t seem to have much to do with holism as we now know it. For another, it’s not particularly well-written, but is as awkward throughout as its title. I’ve been tempted to conclude that it merely said the right things at the right time to appeal to people who were desperate for any alternative to mechanistic science.

And yet I keep feeling that buried within the clumsy language is a message that is as relevant today as it was a century ago — if we can only tune our ears to catch what Ritter was really saying.

At the present moment, after all, the holism vision has lost much of its original transcendence. It’s in serious need of something that can remind it of its origins and stretch it beyond its present limitations — and how better to do that than by dialing up the radio message from the past that is The Unity of the Organism?

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In previous entries, I’ve suggested that a counterculture is born when the senior member of a dominant partnership is discredited, the partnership collapses, and the junior member is left demoralized and directionless. As I focus on the development of the holism vision in the early 20th century, however, I’m reminded that the collapse of a partnership is actually an extended and complex process.

For one thing, each dominant partnership undergoes a final revival during the period immediately preceding its collapse. At that time, the intellectual ferment and political turmoil of the “romantic break” die down, the younger visions are pushed to the margins of society, and there is an overwhelming desire for social stabilization and tranquility.

But it’s exactly that desire which leads to disillusionment with the partnership when it fails to make good on its promises of security.

Then, even after the senior vision has failed and brought the partnership down with it, the junior vision does not immediately relinquish its hold on the social consensus. Instead, lacking any external constraints on its authority, it becomes more arrogant and self-willed than ever — and the resulting moral void is what really triggers the start of the counterculture.

This dynamic can be seen on full display at the present moment. An initial crisis — the attacks of September 11 — provided the conditions for a final revival of the democracy-and-chaos partnership in something resembling its classic Reagan-era configuration. In the upshot, however, the Bush administration not only undercut democracy but helped bring on a second and more devastating crisis, the great financial meltdown of 2008.

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