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Smuts, Jan Christiaan (1870–1950)


Jan Christiaan Smuts, the South African statesman, soldier, and scholar, introduced the concept of "holism" into philosophy. Smuts was born on a farm near Riebeek West, Cape Colony (now Western Cape Province). He was graduated from Victoria College, Stellenbosch, in 1891 and from Cambridge in 1894, where he studied law. At both places his record was brilliant, but he had the reputation of being a bookish recluse who made few friends. Returning home in 1895, he was admitted to the bar, entered political life, and during the Boer War commanded a force against the British with the rank of general. However, when World War I broke out in 1914 he became a staunch defender of the Allied cause. In 1918 he published a pamphlet titled The League of Nations: A Practical Suggestion, which helped to form President Woodrow Wilson's ideas. From 1919 to 1924, and again from 1939 to 1948, he was prime minister of South Africa. In the intervening period he completed his only philosophical work, Holism and Evolution (New York, 1926). Smuts was a dominant figure in the politics of his country for over half a century and an influential figure on the world scene. His enemies considered him arrogant and ruthless, more interested in ideas than in people. Yet the theme of his politics, as of his philosophy, was the integration of parts into wholes.

This theme is central to Holism and Evolution, where it is used to integrate the results of the sciences, especially the biological sciences, and where it becomes the basis of "a new Weltanschauung within the general framework of Science." The background was supplied by the theory of evolution, so interpreted as to preclude mechanistic or materialistic formulations of it. Such formulations, Smuts held, are incompatible with the fact that evolution is creative, having successively brought into existence items that are genuinely novel and that were not even potentially existent before they appeared on the scene. These items he called "wholes." Their appearance was explained by postulating a primordial whole-making, or "holistic," factor in the universe. This factor he also called a "creative tendency or principle" operative throughout the history of nature.

Smuts apparently wished to distinguish wholes in the strict sense from mere aggregates, mechanical systems, and chemical compounds. In a true whole the parts lose forever their prior identity. In aggregates, mechanical systems, and chemical compounds, however, the identity of the parts or elements is not lost but is always recoverable. There are certain entities, such as biochemical systems, which appear to have an intermediate status. For they display "a mixture of mechanism and holism." These systems form "the vast ladder of life." At the bottom of the ladder, mechanistic features predominate; at the top, holistic features predominate. True wholes, free of any admixture of mechanism, are exemplified in minds or psychic structures, which first appear among higher organisms, and in human personality, "the supreme embodiment of Holism."

Smuts sometimes spoke of atoms and molecules as wholes, presumably using the term in other than the strict sense he had defined. The broader use allowed him to affirm that the factor of holism is "responsible for the total course of evolution, inorganic as well as organic. All the great main types of existence are due to it." Long before organisms or minds arose, the holistic factor was producing elementary wholes of a purely physical kind. Later, through a series of "creative leaps," it became more fully embodied in biological structures, minds, and persons. Indeed, "it is in the sphere of spiritual values that Holism finds its clearest embodiment," for in this sphere love, beauty, goodness, and truth have their source.

Smuts nowhere attributed to the holistic factor any teleological orientation. Nor did he apply to it any personal or spiritual categories. It was represented as an ultimate principle, metaphysical rather than religious, at work and still working in the cosmos.

There is a considerable resemblance between Smuts's philosophical views and those of Henri Bergson and C. Lloyd Morgan. All three philosophers stressed the creativity of evolution, its engendering of novelties whose presence invalidates mechanistic materialism. All were critical of Darwinism and opposed it with arguments and assertions couched in highly general terms. Smuts differed from the other two philosophers in refusing to state explicitly that the holistic factor is spiritual or akin to mind. But at bottom it remains as inscrutable as Bergson's élan vital or Morgan's directing Activity.

See also African Philosophy; Bergson, Henri; Darwinism; Holism and Individualism in History and Social Science; Morgan, C. Lloyd.


McDougall, William. "The Confusion of the Concept." Journal of Philosophical Studies 3 (1928): 440442.

Morgan, C. Lloyd. Review of Holism and Evolution. Journal of Philosophical Studies (1927): 8589.

T. A. Goudge (1967)

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