Archive for June, 2012

For a brief period in the early 1920’s, holism might have appeared to be on the verge of sweeping scientific materialism aside entirely. It had the philosophical ambition, the artistic creativity, and the popular excitement that the older vision lacked. And yet that never happened. Instead, scientific materialism made a triumphant comeback, pushing the holism vision to the margins of the culture, where it would remain for the next several decades.

On one level, there was nothing strange about this, since the same thing happens at the end of every counterculture. The powerful dynamic that has favored change and innovation burns itself out and is replaced by a widespread impulse to retreat from the sea of infinite possibility and regroup in more familiar territory.

Once that urge to restabilize the culture takes hold, it quickly becomes obvious that the newest visions are not yet mature enough to provide the basis of a social consensus. They are too mystical and otherworldly, or too radical and untested in the crucible of practical politics, or too prone to fly off in all directions. They need more time to ripen and discover their place in the larger scheme of things.

In the case of the 1920’s, this means that society could not cast its lot with the upstart new association of chaos and holism — but neither was it prepared to revert to the discredited partnership of reason-and-scientific-materialism. Instead, it gravitated towards the sweet spot between those two extremes: the democracy vision.

Read the rest of this entry »

The most radical implications of W.E. Ritter’s philosophy of “organismalism” could not have been apparent when he published The Unity of the Organism in 1918.

For one thing, there was a crucial vagueness in his assertion that “the organism in its totality is as essential to an explanation of its elements as its elements are to an explanation of the organism.” Was he simply trying to say that science could not understand cells or organs without a recognition of the roles they played in the complete organism? Or did he have something deeper in mind?

Over the next few years, however, both the vocabulary and the concepts of the new philosophy came into sharper focus. By 1926, Jan Smuts had introduced the more streamlined term “holism,” which he defined in the 1927 Encyclopedia Britannica as “the theory which makes the existence of ‘wholes’ a fundamental feature of the world.”

“It regards natural objects, both animate and inanimate, as ‘wholes’ and not merely as assemblages of elements or parts,” Smuts explained. “It looks upon nature as consisting of discrete, concrete bodies and things, and not as a diffusive homogeneous continuum. And these bodies or things are not entirely resolvable into parts; in one degree or another they are wholes which are more than the sum of their parts, and the mechanical putting together of their parts will not produce them or account for their characters and behaviour.”

Ritter was quick to adopt this simpler terminology of wholes and parts. In a book co-authored with one of his students in 1928, he wrote, “Wholes are so related to their parts that not only does the existence of the whole depend on the orderly cooperation and interdependence of its parts, but the whole exercises a measure of determinative control over its parts. … Structurally, functionally, and generatively, they are reciprocals of each other.”

Read the rest of this entry »