Holism’s Moral Center

on July 1, 2012

Over the past few entries, I’ve been trying to pin down the exact sequence of events that took the holism vision from being a hot new thing in the late 1910’s and early 20’s, to becoming culturally marginalized in the middle 30’s, and then into a fruitful association with the new-born horizontalism vision by the end of the decade.

The first step in that sequence was when the democracy vision emerged from the counterculture of the 1910’s in the perfect Goldilocks position — neither too old and tired nor too new and untested — to be accepted as the consensus vision of the era.

The second step came when democracy entered into a partnership with a pared-down version of scientific materialism, depending on the older vision to reinforce its bottom-up view of society while not getting in the way of its agenda of human triumphalism.

The third step took place around 1934, when the chaos vision was hauled into the orbit of the emerging scientific-materialism-and-democracy partnership, at the cost of its long-time relationship with holism.

And the fourth occurred in 1936-39, when holism responded to its growing isolation by forming a new association with horizontalism.

When I first discussed this series of events, I compared it to a Rube Goldberg machine, with visions randomly bouncing off each other — but I’m finally starting to understand that it was both orderly and inevitable.

For one thing, holism could never have gone along with the demands of the democracy vision the way scientific materialism did. Holism was younger and more vibrant than democracy and was responsive only to its own inner compass. It had no incentive to support a worldview based on atomism, reductionism, and the Conquest of Nature.

However, the inability of holism to embrace democracy left it in a moral quandary. Scientifically-based visions are prone to ruthlessness and inhumanity if they are not called upon to serve the needs of society, and though holism’s lack of social morality might not have been seen as an issue during the anything-goes Twenties, it became increasingly problematic once the scientific-materialism-and-democracy partnership took hold.

The resulting tension is apparent in the implementation in 1934 of the Motion Picture Production Code, which suppressed or sanitized the monster movies, gangster films, subversive comedies, and surreal cartoons that had thrived during the early years of the Great Depression.

An additional complication was that the Nazis had their own ant-hill version of chaos-plus-holism, in which the state was an all-powerful super-organism and individuals were mindlessly bound to it by instinct. In reaction, the chaos vision in more democratic nations began to shy away from holism — as can be seen in the screwball comedies typical of the middle and late 30’s, where chaos was acknowledged solely in the democracy-friendly form of free-spirited individualism.

With scientific materialism, democracy, and chaos forming a united front, the holism vision had become almost completely isolated by 1935-36. That is not a healthy situation for any vision — especially since it appears to be the associations between visions, rather than the visions themselves, that we chiefly look to for clues about our own nature and our place in society and in the universe.

At that point, holism desperately needed to establish an association with a younger socially-based vision in order to become both relevant and morally grounded. And of course such a vision already existed, in the form of horizontalism.

The horizontalism vision had been born during the recent countercultural period out of all the strangest and most radical bits that the democracy vision had left behind when it became domesticated and homogenized. But even in the middle 30’s, horizontalism was still no more than a collection of scattered hints — some deeply-felt populist idealism here, hatred of racism and other forms of discrimination there, plus a dawning sense of the possibility of people working together in a society that would be neither top-down nor bottom-up but peer-to-peer.

Holism and horizontalism were thus brought together by their mutual need. Horizontalism needed the concept of society as an ecosystem to assemble its separate fragments and fuse them into a coherent whole. And holism needed horizontalism to rescue it from irrelevance, to provide it with a sense of moral purpose, and to ask provocative questions about the proper relationship between nature and society.

Of course, the visions themselves don’t actually do anything — people do. And in the 1930’s, it was only a small number of forward-looking individuals who could see the potential value of combining holism and horizontalism.

One was the pioneering British geneticist, J.B.S. Haldane. As a young man, Haldane had endorsed a variety of holism that retained an aura of both vitalism and elitism, writing in 1921 that “mechanism, life, and personality belong to different categories constituting a genuine hierarchy such that the higher is not reducible to the lower.” Ten years later, he was still insisting, “Biologists have almost unanimously abandoned vitalism as an acknowledged belief. At the same time a purely mechanistic interpretation cannot account for the coordination that is so characteristic of life.”

But in the course of the 1930’s, both scientific and political developments caused Haldane’s thought to change so dramatically that by 1940 he could confidently write an essay titled “Why I am a Materialist.”

That essay is usually described as Haldane reverting to old-fashioned materialism. But if you actually read it, it turns out that what he had come to perceive as materialism was very different from anything that would have passed under that name just a decade or two previously.

For one thing, Haldane indicated that he had been drawn to materialism by his reading of Engels and Lenin, but also noted that what he valued most about Marxism was the ability of dialectical materialism to offer an answer to the perplexities of the wave-particle duality.

That’s likely to strike the present-day reader as a bizarre argument — but it makes a lot more sense if you recall that Haldane had famously stated in 1927, in response to the initial findings of quantum mechanics, “Now my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

If Haldane’s ultimate goal was to reconcile the quasi-vitalistic holism of his youth, the egalitarian but relatively old-fashioned and static materialism of someone like Thomas Chamberlin, the issues of conscience provoked by the rise of fascism, and the strange dislocations of reality inherent in quantum physics, then the form of evolutionary materialism at the heart of Marxism might have seemed to be just what he needed to make everything come out even.

However he got there, Haldane succeeded fully in this goal — as indicated by a paragraph near the end of the essay which demonstrates that he hadn’t rejected holism at all, but had reconceived it as both more scientifically rigorous and more humanly relevant.

“We are only on the very fringe of the necessary investigations,” he wrote, “but it is becoming daily more plausible that our minds are physical realities acted on by the rest of the world and reacting on it. Our minds are processes which occur in our brains. Until recently it was quite impossible to see how the processes going on in thousands of millions of cells could possibly form a unity such as we find in our consciousness. We are now, however, discovering both in atoms and molecules properties of a system as a whole which cannot be located at any particular place in it. There is nothing in any way mystical about these properties. They can be very precisely measured and calculated. They are expressions of the fact that the various constituents of nature are much less isolated than was at one time thought.”

Haldane, however, was not the only person to blend holism with 1930’s radicalism and wind up at horizontalism. In the United States, holism had from the start possessed a more egalitarian aspect, exemplified by W.E. Ritter, who insisted in The Unity of the Organism that he considered his own popular and democratic ideals to be inseparable from his holistic understanding of nature.

“No faith of mine is greater because none is rooted more deeply in my scientific philosophy,” he wrote, “than that in the ultimate triumph of popular, that is of democratic principles in all aspects of civilization. Indeed the facts — not the theories — of organic unity and integration which have dominated all my later work are the foundation of this faith.”

Ritter’s philosophy had a profound influence on a whole generation of California biologists, and when a young John Steinbeck took a course in marine biology at Stanford University in the summer of 1923, his teacher was one of Ritter’s own graduate students. Experts on Steinbeck’s works agree that his exposure to Ritter’s ideas during that course had a formative influence on his writing.

Steinbeck’s personal combination of holism and horizontalism is most evident in his celebrations of working-class and anti-fascist solidarity, but there’s an additional element — his abiding love of myth — which at times took his writing into a dimension that goes beyond either science or society.

This mythic dimension is nowhere more apparent than at the conclusion of The Grapes of Wrath (1939), where Tom Joad vanishes after telling his mother, “Maybe it’s like Casy says. A fellow ain’t got a soul of his own, just little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody. . . . Then it don’t matter. I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere.”

In these words, we catch the precise moment of formation of a new association, in which holism and horizontalism, together with a hint of something transcending the hyper-individualism of democratic chaos, came together in one epitomal statement of higher possibility.


A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

A simple list of all the visions can be found here.

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