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.

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