Holistic Approach

views updated

Holistic approach

First formulated by Jan Smuts, holism has been traditionally defined as a philosophical theory that states that the determining factors in nature are wholes which are irreducible to the sum of their parts and that the evolution of the universe is the record of the activity and making of such wholes. More generally, it is the concept that wholes cannot be analyzed into parts or reduced to discrete elements without unexplainable residuals. Holism may also be defined by what it is not: it is not synonymous with organicism; holism does not require an entity to be alive or even a part of living processes. And neither is holism confined to spiritual mysticism, unaccessible to scientific methods or study.

The holistic approach in ecology and environmental science derives from the idea proposed by Harrison Brown that "a precondition for solving [complex] problems is a realization that all of them are interlocked, with the result that they cannot be solved piecemeal." For some scholars holism is the rationale for the very existence of ecology. As David Gates notes, "the very definition of the discipline of ecology implies a holistic study."

The holistic approach has been successfully applied to environmental management. The United States Forest Service , for example, has implemented a multi-level approach to management that takes into account the complexity of forest ecosystems, rather than the traditional focus on isolated incidents or problems.

Some people believe that a holistic approach to nature and the world will counter the effects of "reductionism"excessive individualism, atomization, mechanistic worldview, objectivism, materialism, and anthropocentrism. Advocates of holism claim that its emphasis on connectivity, community, processes, networks, participation, synthesis, systems, and emergent properties will undo the "ills" of reductionism. Others warn that a balance between reductionism and holism is necessary. American ecologist Eugene Odum mandated that "ecology must combine holism with reductionism if applications are to benefit society." Parts and wholes, at the macro- and micro-level, must be understood. The basic lesson of a combined and complementary parts-whole approach is that every entity is both part and wholean idea reenforced by Arthur Koestler's concept of a holon. A holon is any entity that is both a part of a larger system and itself a system made up of parts. It is essential to recognize that holism can include the study of any whole, the entirety of any individual in all its ramifications, without implying any organic analogy other than organisms themselves. A holistic approach alone, especially in its extreme form, is unrealistic, condemning scholars to an unproductive wallowing in an unmanageable complexity. Holism and reductionism are both needed for accessing and understanding an increasingly complex world.

See also Environmental ethics

[Gerald L. Young Ph.D. ]



Bowen, W. "Reductions and Holism." In Thinking About Nature: An Investigation of Nature, Value and Ecology. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988.

Johnson, L. E. "Holism." In A Morally Deep World: An Essay on Moral Significance and Environmental Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Savory, A. Holistic Resource Management. Covelo, CA: Island Press, 1988.


Krippner, S. "The Holistic Paradigm." World Futures 30 (1991): 13340.

Marietta Jr., D. E. "Environmental Holism and Individuals." Environmental Ethics 10 (Fall 1988): 25158.

McCarty, D. C. "The Philosophy of Logical Wholism." Synthese 87 (April 1991): 51123.

Van Steenbergen, B. "Potential Influence of the Holistic Paradigm on the Social Sciences." Futures 22 (December 1990): 107183.