Definition: Holism: any doctrine that emphasizes the priority of a
whole over its parts.
STUDENT: Can you expand upon this basic definition of holism?
LEWIS: Holism is an approach to systemic thinking that states that the
various elements within a system influence each other in ways that
cannot be explained or determined by understanding, measuring, or
defining any individual unit within that system. It can include nutrition, herbs, corporate chair massage, stress management and many other approaches.
STUDENT: What is the origin of the word Holism?
LEWIS: The word Holism comes from the ancient Greek word (ὅλος holos,
meaning total, all, or entire). The concept of holistic thinking has
ancient roots going back to Aristotle and was greatly expanded upon by
Jan Smuts and R. Buckminster Fuller (See the Conversation: R. Buckminster
Fuller). Jan Smuts named the concept Holism and explained it in his
1926 book, Holism and Evolution. According to Smuts holism is “The
tendency in nature to form wholes that are greater than the sum of the
parts through creative evolution.”
Interestingly, the term Holistic did not come into common usage until
the 1960’s. Since then, the words holism and holistic have become
clichés of sorts for every “new age” idea to come along and this has
lead to some resistance among scientists to explore scientific
interpretation of holism. However, respected visionaries like Fuller
understood the concept and wrote extensively on it, even naming the
process of the sum being greater than the parts “Synergy.”
STUDENT: How can the sum be greater than the parts?
LEWIS: Read on and you will see.
STUDENT: How widespread is holistic thinking in the academic world?
LEWIS: It is commonly used in the social sciences but is still
considered a radical concept in the mainstream scientific community.
Much of what is now known as “systems thinking” can be traced to
It has greater popularity in the social sciences than in the natural
sciences (See the Conversation: Social Paradigms and Paradigms). However,
scientists are encountering problems of ever-greater complexity, that
though unsolvable by the traditional approach of deducing information
from the properties of the basic parts of systems alone, can in fact be
explained by exploring the influence of certain units in a system upon
other units in that same system.
STUDENT: Are their any scientific systems that accept holism as a
valid interpretation of systems?
LEWIS: Yes. Any scientist knows that even in the most logical
approach to natural systems may produce surprisingly unexpected behavior.
Holism based models can address why these events occur.
STUDENT: What professions and academic specialties are most inclined
to explore holism as a valid approach to systematic thinking?
LEWIS: Holistic Theory has applications in fields as diverse as
architecture, biology, economics, industrial design, linguistics,
philosophy and sociology.
STUDENT: What is Holistic medicine?
LEWIS: There are also many physicians that apply holistic models to
health care and there are many physicists that accept the concept of
which many now call “scientific holism”. In healthcare, these approaches
have come to be known as Holistic medicine and Holistic healing.
STUDENT: Define Scientific Holism?
LEWIS: Scientific Holism holds that the behavior of a system cannot
be perfectly predicted, no matter how much data is available. In the
Harrison Mentoring Process this is addressed in the Conversation “Linear Codes
and Non-Linear Factors.”
STUDENT: How does holism apply to linguistics?
LEWIS: Through a theory called “semantic holism.” This theory presents
the idea that the meaning of an individual word or sentence can only
be understood in terms of its relations to a larger body of language.
(See the Conversation: Language and the see the Conversation: Ludwig
STUDENT: As I study the many Conversations that make up the Harrison
Mentoring Process, I often come across two seemingly valid points that
also seem to contradict each other. How can this be and still be
rational and logical?
LEWIS: Much of the Harrison Process is fueled by a dance of Polarities
– the interaction of contradictory opposites. This can be confusing.
There are schools of thought within academia that wrestle with this
reality of opposites. Two such schools of thought are “Holism” and
STUDENT: Please speak about reductionism?
LEWIS: Reductionism is the most popular of theories for solving
problems and understanding the world through the scientific method.
Reductionism presents the idea that any system, no matter how complex
it may be, can be understood by reducing it to its most basic units.
Thus, from the reductionist perspective, the basics of chemistry can be
found in physics, the basics of biology can be understood through the
essential elements found through chemistry and psychology and
sociology can be reduced to biology. Reductionism defines much of what
has come to be known as the classical scientific perspective.
STUDENT: How does the Theory of Reductionism contradict the theory of Holism?
LEWIS: Reductionism tells us that if we can understand what is basic
in a system, than we can understand what is complex. Holism
tells us that nothing is as it seems in a system, since that basic
thing you can isolate will still be influenced by every other unit in
STUDENT: One might say that in reductionism what you see is what you get?
LEWIS: This is correct. There is much more going on between the
lines. In Holism the sum may end up being greater than the parts. 2
plus 2 is four in reductionism. In holism there will be times when 2 plus 2 will equal 5.
STUDENT: How can the contradiction between the holistic model and the
reductionist model be reconciled? LEWIS: There is no need to create
forced conciliation of these ideas. When things are linear and logical,
reductionism is the way to go, however in a world where all things are
not as they seem and intuition, the visionary process, and right
brain/left braining thinking exists, it will be a natural process for
these two ideas to integrate. For the extraordinary person Holism and
Reductionism become complementary. (See the Conversation: Right Brain/Left
STUDENT: What can an extraordinary person see here than an ordinary
person will miss?
LEWIS: That Holism is really just a non-linear form of reductionism.
After all, in a holistic model, you are reducing the system to its basic
unit. In many cases, the most basic unit consists of more than one
quality. For example In Holistic medicine a human being may seem like
a single unit, but we know that in fact all humans are made up of many
chemicals and can also be characterized as structural, chemical, and
emotional parts. He or she may seem like “one” but is actually “many.”
STUDENT: What is the practical application of this explanation?
LEWIS: Holistic healing and Holistic medicine –the emotional
biochemical, structural and spiritual aspects of the client must be
addressed to have a successful outcome. Only dealing with one of these
will limit the success of the healing process.
To explore more advanced applications for Holism see the following
Conversations in the Harrison’s Applied Game Theory Manual:
• Linear Codes and Non-Linear Factors
• Black Swan Theory
• The Butterfly Effect