The Roots of Smuts’ Holism Theory


Jan Christian Smuts was born on 24 May 1870 on his the family farm, Bovenplaats, near Malmesbury, in the then Cape Colony. During his childhood, he often went out alone, exploring the surrounding countryside, while performing his duty of looking after the free roaming cattle, this instilled a lifelong a passion for nature, which was “an early awakening of the feelings and faculties that were shaping him as a person and would one day shape his thought about the atom, the cell, mind, personality, the whole universe” (Hancock, 1962, p. 8). In those days a full formal education was typically reserved only for the first son, and being the second son of the family dictated, by rural custom, that he would remain working on the farm. One of Smuts’ favorite boyhood recollection in later years was walking around the ‘veld’ with old Adam, an aged black servant of the family, who loved to teach him various aspects of the veld, like where to dig for edible roots and look for tortoises (Hancock, 1962). Based on Smuts’ writings about his childhood it can be assumed that his rudimentary ideas of Holism were mystical insights or peak experiences while walking in the veld (Translation, countryside).

When Smuts was twelve years old his older brother died and, and now as the eldest son of the family, he was then sent to school. Despite his late start he caught up with his classmates within four years and went to Victoria College in Stellenbosch where he attained a combined degree in Arts and Science. At Victoria College he won the Ebden scholarship for Christ’s College Cambridge University, where he studied Law, and became the only person ever to have written both parts of the Law Tripos in one year and achieve a Double First. While at Cambridge Smuts was described by Professor Maitland, a leading figure among English legal historians, as the most brilliant student he had ever met. Lord Todd said in 1970 that “in 500 years of the College’s history, of all its members, past and present, three had been truly outstanding: John Milton, Charles Darwin and Jan Smuts” (Smuts, 1994, p. 19).

The academic origins of Smuts’ holistic thinking can be traced back to his days as a student at Cambridge University. In 1891, as a first-year law student he wrote a commentary called The Nature and Function of Law in the History of Human Society. Although never entirely completed it was nevertheless published as a shortened version, then titled, Law, A Liberal Study in the college magazine (Anker, 2001). In this article Smuts applied an developmental approach to culture, and understood it as a “gradual evolutionary liberation from the biological realm (the origin of the word “liberal” in his title)” (Anker, 2001, p. 43), Moreover, he also viewed the history of civil law from a developmental perspective as developing from an archaic law in “the embryonic stages in society” to a sophisticated law in modern “Teutonic Europe” (Smuts, 1893/1996a, p. 40), and argued that public law evolved “from the primitive Family to the modern State” (Smuts, 1893/1996a, p. 41). He pointed out “that public laws gradually progressed towards more and more respect for individual freedom and greater unity within humanity” (Anker, 200, p. 43). Smuts (1893/1996) says that “[t]he Person is recognized more and more; the rights of personality become more and more inviolable,” with “one law for all humanity” as the endgame for the evolutionary process of civil rights (p. 41). All Smuts’ subsequent ideas on Holism and politics were a modification and further development on the basic ideas expressed in this article.

Shortly after the aforementioned article Smuts (1892) wrote an essay, On the Application of Some Physical Concepts to Biological Phenomena, where he attempted to point out the natural law that is responsible for the evolution of civil rights in culture. In this essay he points out that there is an inherent life-force in matter that accounts for the evolution from the inorganic to the organic world, and served as the “ultimate foundation for human evolution and the progress of civil society” (Anker, 2001, p. 43).

In 1895 he completed a book on Walt Whitman, after receiving an honorary grant, which allowed him to write on a topic of his own choosing. Shortly after finishing his book he submitted it to various publishers who did not accept the book, likely due to commercial reasons. The book was later published in 1973 as Walt Whitman: A Study in the Evolution of Personality. The aim of this book was to investigate the development of Walt Whitman’s personality “like any other organism” (Smuts in Hancock and Van der Poel, 1966, p. 53). Smuts understood Whitman as “an organic personality developing all his lifetime like a product of nature, travelling through the successive cycles of his growth.” (Smuts 1895/1973, p. 30) Smuts believed personalities like Whitman and Goethe had achieved it highest possible development and therefore would prove to be valuable subjects of study when trying to understand the personality as a whole. Smuts (1895/1973), believed that Whitman was “a true personality, strong, original, organic; . . . a whole and sound piece of manhood” (p. 30) and that a study of his life, like other evolved wholes, could reveal a deeper insight in the nature of the evolutionary process of the universe.

Smuts believed that the human mind and personality was not “an herbarium” of dead species; it was rather a synthetic, creative whole, a “Hegelian Idee inherent in the personality” (Smuts in Anker, 2001, p.44), where its diverse appearances are more than the sum of its parts. “The application of the idea of evolution has hitherto been too analytic,” Smuts lamented and instead advocated a holistic view of evolution because “life is the most synthetic phenomenon we know” (Smuts 1895/1973, p. 31).

Between 1911 and 1912 Smuts worked on a manuscript called An Inquiry into the Whole. In this manuscript he continued to deepen the ideas explored in his earlier writing. It is in this manuscript that Smuts first coined the term “Holism”, which later appeared in print in 1926 in Holism and Evolution. In 1912 Smuts sent a draft of the book to his lifelong Cambridge friend and mentor, H.J. Wolstenholme. To Smuts’ disappointment Wolstenholme was highly critical of the book and skeptical about the concept of Holism (Hancock, 1962). Many of the ideas contained within An Inquiry in the Whole, was later expanded upon and reworked in Holism and Evolution.

This blog post is an extract from a presentation at the Fourth International Integral Theory Conference 2015, The Integral Jan Smuts, by myself and Dr. Robert Weathers. All citations in the blog can be found in the reference list in The Integral Jan Smuts, on my Resources page of my website.

The Holism of Jan Smuts


Although the concept of holism has been implied by many thinkers, the term Holism, as an academic terminology, was first introduced and appeared publicly in print, by Smuts (1926) is his book Holism and Evolution. He writes that: “Holism (from ολος = whole) is the term here coined for this fundamental factor operative towards the creation of wholes in the universe” (p. 86). Today, the concept holism is common place in many fields of study for example, physics, general systems theory, biology, anthropology, medicine, cybernetics, holography, and various branches of psychology. It must be noted that the concept of “Holism” as introduced and applied by Smuts is not the same as the word holism as it is generally applied in many disciplines. Smuts uses the word in a metaphysical context (as an ontological phenomenon inherent in nature), not as a broad principle as it is often used today, succinctly articulated by Aristotle as “The sum is bigger than its parts.” Smuts (1927) defined Holism as “the ultimate synthetic, ordering, organising, regulative activity in the universe which accounts for all the structural groupings and syntheses in it, from the atom and the physic-chemical structures, through the cell and organisms, through Mind in animals, to Personality in man” (p. 326).

Although Holism is an “attempt at a synthesis” it is not be understood as a system of philosophy, as Smuts did not “believe very much in systems”, and went on to say that Holism “tries to emphasize one aspect of thought that has hitherto a neglected factor. I am trying to hammer out this neglected factor, which is, to my mind, all-important in getting the synoptic vision” (1942, p. 147).

Holism and Evolution

Smuts wrote Holism and Evolution in 1926, in which he provided an overview of his theory of Holism, during a time that a materialistic worldview was dominant in philosophy and science. When Smuts developed his theory, the deterministic views of Hegel were popular, and Darwinian evolutionary theory was being gradually accepted. Smuts strongly opposed the deterministic view of Hegel, and set out to explore the deeper “internal” structures behind Darwin’s theory of evolution from a scientific point-of-view. Holism and Evolution can be understood as a rebellion against the reductionist science and philosophy of his time, and an attempt at laying a new ontological foundation to understand the seemingly creative nature of evolution and man.

Smuts (1926/1987) states: “At present the concept of life is so indefinite and vague that, although the Kingdom of life is fully recognised, its government is placed under the rule of physical force or Mechanism. Life is practically banished from its own domain, and its throne is occupied by a usurper. Biology thus becomes a subject province of physical science—the Kingdom of Beauty, the free artistic plastic Kingdom of the universe, is inappropriately placed under the iron rule of force. Mind again, which is closest to us in experience, becomes farthest from us in exact thought” (pp. 3 – 4).

As mentioned already, Smuts’ notion of Holism is not meant to be a complete integrative system of thought, and as such it is better understood as a foundational ontological concept. Smuts’ (1926) book Holism and Evolution was at its core an attempt to provide such a new foundational concept into our understanding of the world, and which he hoped would show that life and mind “are in their own right as true operative factors, and play a real and unmistakable part in determining both the advance and its specific direction” (p. 15), and not “to reduce life and mind to a subsidiary and subordinate position as a mere epiphenomena, as appearances on the surface of the one reality, matter” (p. 8), as the scientific materialists proposed.

Smuts (1927) was well versed in Einstein’s theory of relativity and pointed out that the universe was created in successive and progressive increments as the result of activity in Space-Time “which expresses itself actuality as a passage, a process, a passing beyond existing forms and structures” (p. 337), and that any phenomenon is really a “synthesised ‘event’ in the system of Relativity” (p. 89). Smuts (1927) concluded that there existed an “inner driving force” and “creative principle” as an intrinsic part of the progress of evolution and referred to this creative and active force as Holism (p. 101). Holism was the creative factor responsible for the progressive evolution from matter, to life, to mind and finally the human personality. “Holism constitutes them all, connects them all, and so far as explanations are at all possible, explains and accounts for them all” (Smuts, 1927, p. 329).
Smuts (1927) suggested that when observing material structures the traces of Holism would be barely detectable, but when we study complex organisms we would find that “something more” exists beyond the elements which holds it all together. “This ‘something more’ we have identified as Holism, and we have explained it as not something additional quantitatively, but as a more refined and intimate structural relation of the elements themselves” (p. 282).

A shallow reading of Smuts can easily give the impression that he is suggesting a type of teleological animism, but Smuts rejected the theory of animism, and he also rejected a common-place idea at the time, which suggested that a transcendent spiritual realm acts on physical matter to animate it (Whitford, 1998). He believed that it was equally inaccurate “to reduce the lowly organisms at the beginning of life to pure mechanism,” as it was “to explain them on the assumption of their having a complete personality like human beings” (Smuts, as cited by Hancock 1962, p. 292). In critiquing other approaches that attempt to explain the emergence of life from matter, Smuts (1927) points out that Naturalism does not account for creative evolution; Monadism incorrectly attributes mind and spirit to the inorganic realm; Idealism inaccurately assumes that “spirit” was present from the beginning of evolution and does not recognize that spirit evolved creatively; and Spiritual pluralism fails to recognize the “really creative work of evolution” (p. 327).

This blog post is an extract from a presentation at the Fourth International Integral Theory Conference 2015, The Integral Jan Smuts, by myself and Dr. Robert Weathers. All citations in the blog can be found in the reference list in The Integral Jan Smuts, on my Resources page of my website.

Addiction: A multiple object as a continuum of ontological complexity


Integral Enactment Theory highlights the phenomenon of addiction as a multiple and dynamic object arising along a continuum of ontological complexity. Integral Enactment Theory adeptly points out how etiological models “co-arise” in relation to methodology (methodological pluralism) and enacts a particular reality of addiction (ontological pluralism), while being mediated by the world view of the subject applying the method (epistemological pluralism).
Esbjörn-Hargens (2010) explains that at the core of Integral Enactment Theory is the triadic notion of Integral Pluralism. He identifies three pluralisms that should be explicit within Integral Theory, namely epistemological, methodological, and ontological. Esbjörn-Hargens and Zimmerman (2009) developed a framework for this triadic structure where “epistemology is connected to ontology via methodologies. So, if we are going to have epistemological pluralism (the Who) and methodological pluralism (the How), then we ought logically (or integrally) to have ontological pluralism (the What)” (p. 146). Esbjörn-Hargens call this triadic arrangement Integral Pluralism.

Integral Pluralism is composed of Integral Epistemological Pluralism (IEP), Integral Methodological Pluralism (IMP), and Integral Ontological Pluralism (IOP) (Esbjörn-Hargens & Zimmerman, 2009; Esbjörn-Hargens, 2010).
Before exploring the three facets of Integral Pluralism, there will be a brief focus on the relevance of the concept of “enactment”, an essential feature of Integral Theory’s post-metaphysical position (Wilber, 2003a, 2003b, 2006; Esbjörn-Hargens & Zimmerman, 2009; Esbjörn-Hargens, 2010).

The notion of enactment is vital in understanding why different theories of addiction do not have to be in contradiction of each other, as they are often interpreted, but can rather be understood as “true but partial”. Enactment is the bringing forth of certain aspects of reality (ontology) when using a certain lens (methodology) to view it (Esbjörn-Hargens, 2010).

In short, reality is not to be discovered as a “pre-given” truth, but rather we co-create or “co-enact” reality as we use various paradigms to explore it (using paradigm in the Kuhnian sense – which includes the social injunctions associated with a certain worldview). For example, when attempting to understand addiction using objective empirical research methods we enact a different ontological reality than when using a phenomenological approach. By avoiding what Wilber refers to as the “myth of the given” we understand addiction as a multiple object with no existing “pre-given” reality to be discovered (Wilber, 2003a, 2003b, 2006). Yet it must be noted we are not referring here to the conception of immaterialism. Integral Pluralism and its conception of enactment can be seen as an option “between” subjective idealism or immaterialism (Berkley) and positivism or materialism. Wilber (in Esbjörn-Hargens, 2010) says: “This is why I use the word sub-sist. There is a reality or a What that subsists and has intrinsic features but it doesn’t ex-ist without a Who and a How. So that is where Integral Pluralism in general comes into being: it is bringing forth a reality but it is not creating the reality à la subjective idealism” (p. 169)”.

Different research methods in addictionology enact addiction in unique ways, and consequently bring forth different etiological models. Virtually all etiological models (typically based on a positivist foundation, including intrapsychic models founded on psychoanalytic metapsychology) treat addiction as a single object “out there” to be discovered or uncovered, and therefore, eventually run into trouble attempting to explain a feature of addiction outside of its enacted reality. For example, physiological models and their accompanying research (naturalistic scientific) methodologies, enact the biological reality of addiction, and are inherently incapable of showing any truth of addiction outside the realm of biology, i.e. societal, existential, and so forth. In acknowledging the multiplicity of addiction’s ontological existence, the “incompatibility” of the various etiological models disappears, because we can see that each enacts a different reality of addiction – each bringing forth valuable insights in its specific ontological domain. What one considers real depends in part on the means and apparatus one uses, so objects are therefore “enacted” (Murray, 2010).

In discussing the status of the ontology of climate change Esbjörn-Hargens (2010) raises some stimulating points, that is relevant to this topic. In explaining the “inevitability of ontological pluralism” of climate change, he points out a relationship between the various methods that are used to “see” or enact this complex phenomenon, i.e. the relationship of (1) the common professions that encounter the phenomenon (the Who), (2) the associated methodology of each discipline (the How), and (3) the consequent view of climate change (the What). Exactly the same assertion can be made for the “enactment” of addiction models. Applying the above-mentioned triadic relationship to the phenomenon of addiction highlights some fascinating, but seldom acknowledged, issues. When the various professions explore etiological models and apply their respective clinical methodologies, they may not refer to the same ontic phenomenon. We often acknowledge that various researchers and clinicians explore or treat different aspects of addiction, but often this is based on the assumption of a common ontic reality of addiction, and when “puzzled” together we assume it forms a comprehensive picture of addiction (this is the underlying ontological and epistemological assumption of the BPS model and other compound models).

Is the above-mentioned statement a correct ontological assumption (What) to build theories (Why) on? Is the neurobiologist seeing the same addiction as the existential therapist? Is the psychoanalyst talking about the same addiction as the 12 step counsellor? Is the biochemist measuring the same addiction as the social scientist? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that that they all attempt to view the socially defined and agreed-upon phenomena called addiction; and no, in the sense that they are “bringing-forth-into-the-world” and enacting different realities of the phenomenon of addiction, ranging in ontological complexity (first, second and third orders of ontology) – which can “overlap” ontologically, but are not the same ontic phenomenon.

In short: there are essential structures of addiction that share the “various enactments” of it, but how it “exists-in-the-world” (in a Heideggerian sense) varies, depending on the unique permutation of its integral enactment triad of “Who–How–What”. Esbjörn-Hargens (2010) says: “In fact, there is not a clear, single, independently existing object, nor are there multiple different objects. There is something in-between: a multiple object … This multiple object [addiction] is actually a complex set of phenomena that cannot easily be reduced to a single independent object” (p. 148).

References to this blog post can be found in my articles as indicated on my Publications and Research page of my website

Typology and Addiction

The usefulness of viewing addiction and recovery from a typology perspective is illustrated in the following two examples. First, in the discussion of states, we see that among addicts there are typically three different types of coping styles (satiation, arousal, or fantasy) that correlate with their drug of choice (depressants, stimulants, or hallucinogens).

Milkman and Sunderwirth (2010) state, “After studying the life histories of drug abusers, we have seen that drugs of choice are harmonious with an individual’s usual means of coping with stress” (p. 19). Applying this simple typology to a client’s drug of choice informs the therapist regarding a number of important factors. It enables the therapist to identify the client’s primary mode of stress reduction by correlating it to their drug of choice. When in recovery, the client will continue to use a preferred coping style and will be attracted to activities that produce a similar effect to their drug of choice. For example, an amphetamine user will likely be attracted to high-risk, physically demanding activities that are stimulating. Secondly, another useful typology is the bioself-psychological typology of addiction of Ulman and Paul (2006), which is a synthesis of the self-psychological and biological-psychiatric versions of bipolarity. Kohut (cited in Ulman and Paul, 2006), whose concept of the bipolar self represents the foundation for the model of Ulman and Paul, states that: “The self should be conceptualized as a lifelong arc linking two polar sets of experiences: on one side, a pole of ambitions related to the original grandiosity as it was affirmed by the mirroring self-object, more often the mother; on the other side, a pole of idealizations, the person’s realized goals, which, particularly in the boy though not always, are laid down from the original relationship to the self-object that is represented by the father and his greatness” (p. 30).

In the bioself-psychological typology, addiction is understood as a psychological end-result of developmental arrest in the bipolarity of the formation of the self. Biological psychiatrists, in their conception of bipolar spectrum disorder, devote considerable attention to depression and mania as they manifest in this disorder. These mood disorders correlate with disorders of the bipolar self as understood by Kohut (cited in Ulman & Paul, 2006, pp. 395-396): “In general, a disturbance in the pole of grandiosity may find expression in either an empty, depleted depression or, in contrast, in over-expansive and over-exuberant mania or hypomania; whereas a disturbance in the pole of omnipotence may appear in either depressive disillusionment and disappointment in the idealized or, in contrast, in manic (or hypomanic) delusions of superhuman physical and/or mental powers. We maintain that an individual may be subject to specific outcomes resulting from a disturbance in either or both of these poles of the self”.

Owing to the specific accompanying mood disorder of each of the possible disturbances of the poles of the self, individuals will be attracted to certain psychoactive substances, which can be understood as an unconscious attempt at rectifying a specific deficit in self and coping style (Wieder & Kaplan, 1969).Using the masculine and feminine typology as articulated in Integral Theory, we can see from the two examples provided above how the psychopharmacological properties of certain classes of substances correlate with masculine and feminine typologies (i.e. depressants/feminine and stimulants/masculine), and how these poles of the self can also be classified within a masculine and feminine typology (pole of grandiosity/feminine and pole of idealizations/masculine). We can therefore see how certain “masculine or feminine drugs” acts as a “structural prosthesis” in an attempt to rectify dysfunctional masculine or feminine poles of the self and coping styles (Du Plessis, 2010).

There are many personality types that can be applied in the context of addiction and recovery. One example is that of feminine and masculine types. “When we speak of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ we are not necessarily speaking of biological ‘male’ or ‘female’. Rather we are referring to a spectrum of attitudes, behaviours, cognitive styles, and emotional energies” (Dupuy, 2007, p. 37). The psychoactive properties of drugs and even aspects of process addictions can have a masculine or feminine “voice”. “Downers” such as tranquilizers, barbiturates and heroin can be understood as having a feminine “voice,” and moreover addictions such as co-dependency, love addiction, certain aspects of sex addiction, and certain aspects of gambling (particularly slot machines) have a similar voice. On the other hand, “uppers” such as cocaine, methamphetamine and process addictions such as certain high-risk aspects of sex addiction and gambling (especially gamblers who play tables) have a more masculine “voice”. These masculine or feminine “voices” of specific addiction may correlate with certain addiction neuropathways. The “masculine addictions” activate the “arousal neuropathways” of the brain which are about pleasure and intensity. The more “feminine addictions” activate the “numbing neuropathways” of the brain which produce a calming, relaxing and soothing effect (Du Plessis, 2010, 2012a).

Furthermore, I have observed a correlation between the “object-relations” that addicts have with their parents and their drug(s) of choice (Kernberg, 1975; Kohurt, 1977). The reason for this may be that the addict’s “object-relations” can have pathological masculine and/or feminine aspects and consequently alter brain chemistry, resulting in the individual being more prone to certain “masculine or feminine addictions”, in order to try to rectify the neurochemical abnormalities the dysfunctional “object-relations” has caused. This may explain my observation that many heroin addicts have distant or absent fathers, while being enmeshed with their mothers; whereas many cocaine addicts tend to have distant or absent mothers and domineering fathers. Therefore, from one perspective addiction might be seen as a dysfunctional attempt to rectify the addict’s pathological masculine and feminine “object-relations”. Consequently the relationship addicts in early recovery have with their counsellors or therapists are crucial in healing these dysfunctional “object-relations”. Left untreated, the addict will seek to rectify imbalances in dysfunctional ways. The author observed that when addicts cross-addict they tend to stay within the masculine or feminine “addiction types” (Du Plessis, 2010, 2012a).

Understanding the “voice” of the addiction can help in choosing an appropriate therapeutic treatment plan. Furthermore many addictions and addiction systems only survive in the dialectic between the masculine and feminine “voices”, i.e. the alcoholic and the co-dependent enabler, the “dance” of the love addict and the love avoidant (Whitfield, 1991; Schaeffer, 1997). It is important for the treatment professional to know which “voice” has become pathological and to bring that “voice” back into healthy balance.

References to this blog post can be found in my articles as indicated on my Publications and Research page of my website

An Altered State of Consciousness Perspective of Addiction

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Understanding addiction and recovery from a state perspective may be one of the missing links in contemporary addiction treatment programmes’ attempts to create sustainable treatment protocols. Addicts are obviously experts on states. Using substances or engaging in any mind-altering behaviour is an attempt to create an altered state of consciousness (ASC), and the specific psychoactive effect of various drugs and mind-altering behaviour creates various types of ASCs (Milkman & Sunderwirth, 2010). It follows that viewing addiction in terms of an ASC perspective is crucial for a complete understanding of the nature of addiction (Winkelman, 2001).

Some researchers have argued that the majority of addiction treatment programs fail to integrate a huge body of literature that highlights the therapeutic benefits for addicts in experiencing ASCs. They propose that a principal reason for the high relapse rate in treatment programs is the failure of those programs to address the basic need to achieve ASCs (McPeake et al., 1991). Some scholars believe that humans have an innate drive to seek ASCs (e.g., McPeak et al. 1991; Weil, 1972; Winkelman, 2001; Ken Wilber, personal communication, January 13, 2011). They believe that addicts follow a normal human motive to achieve ASCs, but they use maladaptive methods because they are not provided with the opportunity to learn “constructive alternative methods for experiencing non-ordinary consciousness” (McPeak et al., 1991, as cited in Winkelman, 2001, p. 340). From this viewpoint, drug use and addiction are not understood as an intrinsic anomaly, but rather as a yearning for an inherent human need to be met.
In some instances the etiological roots for certain individuals’ addiction may be a dysfunctional attempt, borrowing terms from Robert Assagiloi (1975), at “self-realization”, and the consequent flawed channeling of “superconscious spiritual energies,” energies to which these individuals are often sensitive but which have not found suitable ways to be actualised. It is obvious that drug use and addiction are associated with an alteration of consciousness; however addiction has seldom been analysed from the perspective of consciousness theory or cross-cultural patterns of the use of ASC. Weil (1972) and Siegal (1984) propose that humans have an innate drive to seek ASC. From this perspective, drug use and addiction are not understood as an inherent abnormality but as a striving to meet an innate human need.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) acknowledges the importance of an alteration of consciousness for recovery to be effective: it calls for “a new state of consciousness and being” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1987, p. 106) designed to replace the self-destructive pursuit of alcohol-induced states with a more healthy life-enhancing approach. AA advocates meditation, a change in consciousness, and spiritual awakening as fundamental in achieving and maintaining sobriety.

Blum (1995) believes that addicts often have a neurologically based inability to experience pleasant feelings within simple life experiences and suggests that a neurological-normalising shift may happen as a result of neurotherapy which rectifies the endless quest for neurotransmitter balance, as explained by his Reward Deficiency Syndrome Model. In Integral Theory, states refer to the various states of consciousness available at any stage of development (Wilber, 2006).

Every human being engages in various activities to feel good. Feeling good and avoiding unnecessary pain are universal needs. To feel good, we seek out activities that alter our brain chemistry. Addiction can be understood as this normal need gone awry. Milkman and Sunderwirth (2010) state, “In light of the seemingly universal need to seek out altered states, it behooves researchers, educators, parents, politicians, public health administrators, and treatment practitioners to promote healthy means to alter brain chemistry” (p. 6). Addicts have found a dysfunctional way to meet this innate need through substances or certain behaviours to which they become addicted. Addicts normally have three dominant ways of seeking comfort and altering their consciousness: “We repeatedly pursue three avenues of experience as antidotes for psychic pain. These preferred styles of coping – satiation, arousal, and fantasy – may have their origins in the first years of life. Childhood experiences combined with genetic predisposition are the foundations of adult compulsion. The drug group of choice – depressants, stimulants, or hallucinogens – is the one that best fits the individual’s characteristic way of coping with stress or feelings of unworthiness. People do not become addicted to drugs or mood-altering activities as such, but rather to the satiation, arousal, or fantasy experiences that can be achieved through them” (Milkman & Sunderwirth, 2010, p. 19).

The quotation above clearly points to the need for addicts in recovery to find healthy behaviours and activities to manifest their preferred coping style, since this preferred coping style (satiation, arousal, or fantasy) correlates with their drug of choice (Du Plessis, 2012).

References to this blog post can be found in my articles as indicated on my Publications and Research page of my website

The Need for a New Ontological Foundation of Addiction

I believe one of the central problems in addition studies is that research and theories are based on “outdated” ontological assumptions about human nature. In philosophy the term ontology is often used within the context of metaphysics, and refers to what exists or what can exist in the world. Epistemology refers to the nature of human knowledge and understanding that can be obtained through various types of investigation (Slife, 2005).

Ontological and epistemological questions often concern what is referred to as a person’s Weltanschauung or worldview. Philosophers and theoretical psychologists point out that all theories have ontological and epistemological ancestry or foundational assumptions, whether implicitly or explicitly stated (Bishop, 2007; Polkinghorn, 2004; Slife, 2005). Consequently conceptions of addiction, like conceptions in any science, are based on certain philosophical assumptions, which influence the trajectory of the development of the concept (Richardson, 2002; Bohman, 1993). In addiction science these initial assumptions often go unnoticed and consequently are uncontested once treatment methodologies are employed and made the objects of research (Hill, 2010).

For example, Ribes-Inesta (2003) commented “…psychologists have paid little attention to the nature of concepts they use, to the assumptions that underlie their theories, and the ways such concepts are applied in the study of behaviour”. Within the field of psychology there exists various ontological worldviews and hidden assumptions (Hill, 2010).Hill (2010) points out that theories about and definitions of addiction and treatment methodologies may in the same manner been influenced by ontological assumptions which often remain implicit. In his PhD dissertation, An ontological analysis of mainstream addiction theories, Hill (2010) says that there are certain (often unrecognised) ontological assumptions made by those who study addiction (or any human behaviour), and he points out that most of these assumptions are abstractionist or positivist, which he believes is problematic. The popular biopsychosocial model of addiction is such an example.

In the last ten years the field of addictionology has seen a progressive movement toward compound models of addiction (DiClemete, 2003). The integrated or compound approach to addiction is an attempt to integrate the divergent and often conflicting philosophical foundations of the biomedical, psychological, and sociological perspectives of human behaviour (Graham et al., 2008; Levant, 2004; Pilgrim, 2002; Wallace, 1993).Although the BPS model approach could be viewed as approximating a comprehensive integrated approach, there are still considerable positivistic, ontological and epistemological underpinnings and assumptions which hinder a comprehensive conceptual framework. It has been argued that the BPS model does not provide an adequate integrative conceptual framework for the many antecedent variables that it acknowledges, and for which it provides a semantic linking, at best (DiClemente, 2003; Hill, 2010; Alexander, 2008).

I proposed that that an adequate foundation can be found for addiction studies by developing an integrative meta-approach, a unifying approach – a pluralistic ontological and epistemological foundation for the study of addiction (Du Plessis, 2012, 2013, 2014). I will expand on this proposition in other blog posts.

References to this blog post can be found in my articles as indicated on my Publications and Research page of my website

Myth of the brain disease model of addiction

images2The brain disease model of addiction is one of the most prevailing myths in our understanding of addiction. It is indubitable that addiction has a significant neurological component, but to reduce addition to neurophysiology is a gross error. The reason this way of thinking is so readily accepted is that it is congruent with the prevailing scientific materialistic worldview that dominates most analysis of addiction, and human behavior. Although many adherents of the brain disease model acknowledge the interplay of psychosocial factors with physiology, they nonetheless place primary emphasis on biology. Below is will briefly try and point out that viewing addiction as a brain disease is making an error in assigning addiction an ontological status, that is not befitting of its true complexity.

Integral scholar Sean Esbjörn-Hargens (2010) describes that the ontic status of a phenomena can be understood as having three potential orders of complexity, “the first order is characterized by phenomena that we can more or less ‘see’ with our own senses. The second order is the result of using various extensions of our senses (instruments, computer programs, charts) to see the phenomena … The third order cannot be seen with our senses nor indirectly by our instruments, but only by indications” (p. 159). Certain phenomena can be adequate accounted for when viewed as a first or second order ontological complexity, but certain phenomena has to be understood as a third order complexity, to avoid running the risk of developing over-simplified and reductionist understanding of the phenomenon.

At the highest level of abstraction lies the notion of an individual’s addiction-in-the-world, which is a staggeringly complex phenomenon beyond our senses or instruments. So addiction “is two steps removed from our direct experience (the first order) and our perception of it relies on many abstract indicators (the second order), which are epistemologically distant and ontologically complex” (Esbjörn-Hargens, 2010, p. 159). Therefore is best viewed as a “probability continuum” of ontological complexity, co-arising and enacted through different methodologies and worldviews. For example, a first order ontology could be the experience of being high on the drug. It is available to our senses. A second order ontology could be the pharmacological effect of a drug on neurotransmitter levels or unconscious psychological drives as risk factors to substance abuse. This we can understand only through measurement and calculations, and through a metapsychological perspective. Both these approaches can grasp only partial aspects of human existence.

When understanding addiction as a third order ontology, we begin to understand why certain models of addictions, especially the single-factor models, give rise to such partial and reductionist explanations. They are good at explaining certain “archaic features” of addiction in the realm of its enacted first or second order ontology, but methodologically and epistemologically, they are incapable of enacting addiction on a third order ontology. Technically, a third order ontology is actually the level of ontological complexity where the notion of addiction exists (a first or second order ontology cannot articulate a complex phenomenon like addiction, and can only enact “archaic-addiction” probabilities).
Most of the models of addiction have as their foundation a worldview of scientific materialism and positivistic methodology that are typically adequate for exploring phenomena existing on the first and second order of ontological complexity. However, such models are hopelessly inadequate in explaining complex phenomena such as addiction (or any human behaviour) which “exist” on the third order of ontological complexity. For example, reward deficiency syndrome (Blum, 1995) can only be understood as one of many possible physiological risks that interact with other aspects of being human, without having to reduce human behaviour and motivation to neurotransmitter levels. Simply put, even though an addict has abnormal neurotransmitter levels, at the molecular realm of brain physiology concepts such as addiction are meaningless. To talk at molecular level about addiction is like saying that an amoeba, which only primarily exists in a primitive level of ontological complexity, has abandonment issues originating from poor object relations.

Medard Boss (1983) points out that the natural scientific method has its limitations in explaining the human realm, as it originated from and is only sovereign in the non-human realm (natural sciences). Boss’s approach of Daseinsanalysis, based on Heidegger’s (1962/1927) ontology, could be described as an ontic “articulation of Heidegger’s” ontology. In our current context we could say that by using Heidegger’s method in exploring psychology and psychiatry, Boss echoes the dangers of explaining higher-order complex phenomenon (which includes any aspect of human-being-in-the-world) by using methodology (i.e. empirical observation) and epistemology (i.e. positivistic) dominant in lower orders of complexity. He believes that in Freud’s metapsychology (and most other theory of human existence) there is inevitably an abstraction and tapering from our lived engagement in-the-world (human-being-in-the-world reduced to first and second order ontology).

In summary: the phenomenon of addiction is best understood as a third order ontology, which can only be co-enacted (“brought-forth-in-the-world”) when juxtaposed with associated “methodological variety” and “epistemological depth” (Esbjörn-Hargens, 2010). The notion of epistemological distance highlights that some facts of addiction “speak louder” than others and some elements of addiction facts are only enacted within certain worldviews. Methodological variety refers to the fact that “the more epistemological distance and ontological complexity increase, the more methodological variety will increase. Thus, the more multiple an object becomes (the What), the more methods and disciplines you will need to study and make sense of it (the How), and the more perspectives there will be on what is or is not the nature of that object (the Who)” (Esbjörn-Hargens, 2010, p. 162). In short, trying to reduce any human’s being-in-the-world to a first or second order ontology, as the “brain disease” model tries to do, is fundamentally flawed. Addiction is caused by, affects and manifests in all areas of our being-in-the-world, and only paradigms (or rather meta-paradigms) that function on this level of ontological complexity may suffice, if we are ever to understand, and successfully treat this colossal nemesis.

References to this blog post can be found in my articles as indicated on my Publications and Research page of my website