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The Prevalence of Holism

November 20, 2013

Holistic thinking has gradually took over nearly all aspects of how we view the world. The reductionist approach has had to retreat to its remaining strongholds of analytical philosophy, philosophy of mind, biology, and certain lingering interpretations of physics and cosmology that emphasize entropy, closed systems and hope for a unification of gravity and quantum forces. It holds so little actual ground, yet in our imagination it still seems to be a powerful force in society.

Holism guides the now dominant interpretation of Quantum physics, it guides nearly all sociological enquiries. It is central to ecological thinking, and the politics of environmental conservation. It is present throughout most 20th century work in continental philosophy, from Karl Jaspers, to Merleau-Ponty, to Foucault, to Derrida. It is the conclusion of Quine’s pragmatism and of the later work of Wittgenstein. It is the fundamental insight of many new-age spiritual lifestyles and self-help books. It is vital to the economic insight that stock market crashes are systemic failings, not just unfortunate accidents or incidents. As the economist Schumpeter showed. In Psychology, despite stubborn clinging of some to brain reductionism of consciousness, despite this, in all its practical applications of helping people with psychological issues a holistic method is invariably followed of looking at their whole life situation, including past memories, habits, etc…

So the holistic approach has now largely taken over. As thinkers such as Fritjof Capra were forecasting and prognosticating 30 to 40 years ago. Yet the shadow of reductionism remains hanging over us it seems. Journalists can still make catchy stories out of it. Certain eccentric individuals can still make a living selling books of their courageous attempts to make reductionism work, in line with some nostalgic vision they have of the function of science. They may even explicitly claim not to be doing this in one sentence, while every other sentence implies it and is orientated relative to it. You cannot blame them for trying!

What drives all this continuing interest? Simple: reductionism preserves for certain “experts” in their field a privileged status. The speaker of such insights is the maker of the “reduced world” in which the rest of us then have to live. He is the puppet master, and we are his puppets. This power relationship is what keeps it in the spotlight, despite its gradual disappearance from nearly all practical science over the last fifty years. It is a great way for journalists to keep people down by spreading a fatalist, dis-empowering outlook on the world. It is a great way to keep people feeding the  pharmaceutical  companies. As such, reductionism is purely politically motivated and has no basis in a considered appreciation of the reality that surrounds us.

It is quite a relief then, that holism has prevailed in our social thinking day to day, for without it our awareness of our surroundings would be severely curtailed. It is so prevalent I think we just take it for granted. I was trying to think what holism is earlier, then I realised the philosophy I have followed most of my adult life of phenomenology is a great example of holistic thinking. It was there in the background all along! On the horizon of my awareness, to speak holistically. So I had nothing to worry about, nothing to fear from the scare-mongering of the wannabe puppet masters out there. No one is pulling my strings, and no one is pulling yours, so lets embrace the freedom we have in this new-age era of holism.

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