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.