Towards a Philosophy of Holism
University of Tennessee-Knoxville
Philosophy 4000: Process Philosophy
Dr. Jim Bennett
1. Philosophy itself, and the need for a holistic approach
This paper represents an attempt to do philosophy the way I think it should be done. Therefore, I am not only setting forth philosophical concepts and examining them logically, but also demonstrating a methodology, an approach, which I think is both useful and meaningful. Without rejecting abstraction (which is an essential part of philosophy --and of all thought, for that matter), I attempt to keep sight of the actual, the truth of which it is the "job" of philosophy to discover, describe, and elucidate. My own approach is, I think, purely logical, starting from traditional concepts with their given meanings; and is also, to some extent, speculative, insofar as no theory, no system, no movement of thought is complete or final, but must always point beyond its own limits. Thus philosophy as mental activity is always in process; and even if there is a mode of apprehension which involves the passivity of mental activity, and a direct intuitive perception, as the mystics insist there is, then even this understanding is partial and ongoing -- i.e., even when philosophy (as mental activity) has resolved itself to allow for intuition.
Philosophy must be holistic. It has suffered, over the past two and a half millennia, from increasing fragmentation and specialization. The academicians want to become experts, and so they focus on one fixed area -- the thought of some past thinker, of one school, or one branch of philosophy. Perhaps few thinkers have the capacity of a Plato or an Aristotle, a Kant or a Hegel, and are by nature limited in scope. But the cost of the fracturing of philosophy into fields is the loss of its wholeness, and thus of the clarity of its nature -- its purpose or function. So philosophy needs to be carried out as a whole inquiry, with an understanding of its basic questions and of the branches that arise from concentration on those questions. Holistic philosophy deals with the whole tree, not with its separate, dead branches. Holistic philosophy must also remain practical, rooted in actual life; for life itself is being threatened by a sickness that has somehow gripped the minds of humankind, and the best and clearest minds must be aware of the world problems and not float off in a semi-neurotic fashion into ideal worlds of purest fantasy. This is the ethical imperative that must drive a holistic philosophy -- a philosophy which must deal with nothing less than the whole phenomenon of existence.
What is philosophy? (Not in traditional practice, for tradition has gone wrong and must be questioned -- we must start afresh.) The word itself means "the love of wisdom." For "wisdom" we might read "the knowledge of truth;" but by "knowledge" we mean an intimate perception, awareness or understanding: philosophy is the love of truth and the pursuit of truth. Truth is the true, the actual, the fact, the present, what is, the real, reality -- and if there is such a thing, the "ground of Being," or simply Being. So philosophy asks the question: "What is the truth? What is the nature of existence, the meaning or purpose of life?" (for the purpose of a thing is surely contained in the very nature of that thing). And this question, which is the beginning of ontology, implies or begs a second question: "How are we to find out? What is it to know -- or can we know -- Truth? What is the nature and limitations of thought, knowledge, and consciousness?" This second question is the basis or beginning of epistemology; but obviously the two overlap and only suffer a lack of clarity if they are separated. The other important philosophical questions are the aesthetic ("What is beauty?" or, "What is special about the experience of beauty?" -- which is really part of epistemology, which must account for perception and experience of all sorts); the logical ("What is the structure of thought? of common sense?" and "How can we deduce and speculate correctly and safely from what is known?" -- which is really part of epistemology also); and, finally, the ethical ("What is true action, right living? What are the true values of things?" -- which is really just a putting into practice of the wisdom hopefully gained by ontological inquiry -- or, lacking that wisdom, the logical living based on what is determined by epistemology).
So we see that the various branches of philosophy do and must cohere, following logically from the primary questions of "What is truth?" and "How to know it?" After introducing the basic ideas of Holism, as I conceive it, borrowing from various sources, I will go through each of the five branches of philosophy and sketch in some of the more obvious implications that follow from these basic ideas.
2. The basic ideas of holism
The word "holism" is derived from the Greek holos, meaning "whole" and also "safe." The usual definition of holism (following Smuts, I suppose) is as "a theory that the universe and especially nature is correctly seen in terms of interacting wholes (as of living organisms) that are more than the sum of elementary particles."1 Although I agree with this theory, I want to take the concept much further to emphasize the idea of wholeness in the ultimate sense of oneness. I want to say that all of nature, and all of existence, forms a whole -- in a real, ontologically unified way. Of course, this is already implied in the notion of substance (in the sense of underlying stratum) and in the very word universe (from the Latin uni-versus, "turned toward the one").
Of that highest and most abstract creation of man, the concept of Being, I want to say that it refers to something that really that really is -- i.e., that everything falls under this category in the special sense of being part of the One. And the parts are therefore not really, ultimately, actually -- or in any way other than practically and conceptually -- truly separate. To refer to them as parts is to imply the whole to which they belong; but since things are usually called "things" and not "parts of the Whole," there is a false emphasis on the conceptually separated finite -- an emphasis that amounts to an ontological category error. For the word finite itself means "bounded," and the conceptual boundary of finitude is drawn through an operation of thought as definition, naming or terming (cf. terminus), delimiting (cf. lemma), etc. Each thing or part, I am saying, is the whole, the One -- in more than the sense of being "an expression of" or "a manifestation of" that One.
A useful model for understanding this concept of being, is that of the hologram. A hologram is a special sort of photographic glass plate which will project a three-dimensional image when laser light is shone through it. The remarkable trait of the plate is that, if shattered, each fragment will still project the whole picture, with a loss of detail or resolution only. In short, each part contains the whole. The hologram model of the universe is thus that expressed in the adage "As above, so below" or the phrase "the macrocosm is within the microcosm." Blake praised the mystic’s ability to "see the world in a grain of sand" and Lao-tze (traditional founder of Taoism) proclaimed that "the greatest is within the smallest." Leibniz’s monad theory has shared characteristics with this hologram model.
The hologram model has been invoked by several respectable thinkers, including theoretical physicist David Bohm.2 One way of interpreting the so-called ERP effect of the Einstein-Rosen-Podolsky thought experiment of 1935, according to Bell’s Theory (1964), is that locality (the limits of which are set by the speed of light) fails.3 The rather wild implications of this include those suggested by Fritjof Capra’s "Bootstrap Theory," which allows for the immediate, causal interconnectedness of all things. Itzhak Bentov gets the same effect from the notion that everything is, at the subatomic level, constantly vibrating or oscillating: at the "apex" and "nadir" of each "wave," (as when the pendulum stops for a split instant before the back-swing), time stops and there is a space-like expansion at almost infinite velocity. That is, everything is constantly blinking in and out of locality -- to the boundaries of the universe and back.4 The hologram model has also been applied to the brain specifically, by the noted researcher Karl Pribam.5 Whitehead, of course, made a number of statements such as "There is a way in which all things are in all places at the same time."6
The hologram model would explain practically all ESP phenomena and such feats as telekinesis. For on this model, the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line (through space), but immediate access through the "inside," as it were. Therefore, any two minds are always in contact; the mind "touches" things and can thus bend spoons; etc.7
How much of the foregoing will be borne out by scientific investigation will be determined by time. Meanwhile, the hologram model gives us a picture with which to understand the holistic idea that the part is itself a whole, contains or reflects the 1arger whole, and thus is the Whole. Holism shares this emphasis on oneness, fundamental unity, with the mystical tradition, especially with Buddhism, which some think found its highest expression in the "totalism" of the Chinese Hua-yen school.8
3. Holism as Philosophy
The basic ideas of holism are clearly ontologica1 ones. To those which we have examined let me add two assumptions which are rather common-sensical, even though many philosophers historically seem to have departed from them:
1) Ideals, concepts, universals, ideas, systems of ideas, etc. (including holism, ontology, and philosophy, and so on) are dependent for their existence on the existence of minds -- specifically of human minds; and,
2) A human mind is inseparable from, ontologically dependent on, and somehow is, a human brain (which is inseparable from the body as a whole, from the environment, from matter, etc.).
These assumptions are in keeping with the idea that man is a whole being. All further notions will be implications of these fundamental notions.
To identify, as we have, the mind with the brain (in some sense of "identification") normally leads either to materialism or to idealism. My identification is motivated by a tendency towards ultimate simplification (radical monism, if you will, arriving at the One). But idealism without realism seems as unsatisfactory as materialism without mentalism. A compromise lies along the lines of mystical realism.9 But "materialism" itself is still viable for compromise with spiritualism; or, rather, it is "in for" some radical revision, along with the common conception of matter. As it turns out, what the physicist used to call "matter" is very much like what the eastern mystics call their linguistic equivalent of God -- for energy is a rather vital, insubstantial, even spiritual sort of thing.
In a final aside before touching upon the other branches of philosophy., let me mention some interesting parallels between physicalist and mystical concepts which are of ontological significance. (Ontology must deal with the physical as well as the metaphysical, insofar as what is physical has any "being." Holistic philosophy, especially, must deal -- again -- with the whole phenomenon of existence.) David Bohm told me that he had calculated that in any region of empty space there is infinite energy.10 Now, some interpreters of Einstein’s theory of relativity say that the concept of empty space is no longer meaningful -- that there is no such thing (Whitehead agrees).11 But others, such as John A. Wheeler, interpret Einstein in a way that supports Bohm’s "calculation": "Einstein, above his work and writing, held a long-term vision: There is nothing in the world except curved empty space... Matter, charge, electromagnetism, and other fields are only manifestations of the bending of space."12 I take this to mean that what we call (finite) energy is what "leaks out" of empty space (i.e., infinite energy) when space is bent. The finite is the infinite, then; but it is also a "separate" manifestation that has ontological status of its own: there is literally a world of difference between the infinite and the finite! Now, if there is infinite energy in empty space, then within the region "surrounding" an instance of matter there is an infinity. This brings us back to the notion of the hologram: at each point, the whole is accessible.
Now I would like to draw soma parallels between the above version of the new physics view of energy, the cosmology of Tantric Yoga, and the ontology implicit in the ideas of Jiddu Krishnamurti. In Tantrism, "Shakti" is more or less equivalent to material, physical energy. Within man, there is thought to be a special reservoir of pure physical energy at the base of the spine (though on a subtler level than the gross physical level of the body). This energy is called kundalini and is thought generally to be the evolutionary force, thus active in all mental and spiritual growth. In Tantric Yoga, kundalini-shakti is awakened and encouraged to rise up the spine (through a hollow channel, the sushumna) through various spiritual centers (chakras, corresponding to the major nerve plexuses) until it reaches the highest center, at the top of the brain. At this point it merges with Shiva, which in itself is categorically different from Shakti, being the source of all physical and subtle energy. Kundalini (literally, "coiled up") is pictured as a snake; Shiva as the sun. When these two aspects -- the female and the male, respectively -- unite., the yogi is in a state of highest consciousness-being.13 Now, Shakti can be thought of as being equivalent to finite energy; Shiva to infinite energy (empty space, the source of being as we know it). If man can consciously enjoy intercourse with the infinity which in some sense he is, then surely his consciousness will be infinite or cosmic, and his knowledge omniscient or "godlike." If matter is, when in motion, equivalent to what Krishnamurti calls "directional energy" (and whit Aristotle might have meant by motion -- "impure" energy); and, when still, what he calls "non-directional energy" (or what Aristotle might have meant by pure energy, or energeia); then the parallel with finite/infinite energy is clear. The latter, as finite energy, is always moving, directional (for Bergson, "extension"); whereas the primordial, pure form of energy remains infinite (in empty space, or as empty space; energy or energeia means "to work within" as a sort of nonextended vital potential; for Bergson, matter or extension cones about through an inversion of the primordial élan vital, which retrains as "tension" or "intension" a sort of pure potential, "pure creativity"). The finite, then, is the manifestation of the unmanifest infinite; the particular form of that manifestation is the particular way in which space is curved, which determines all physical laws the entire structure of the universe.
To point out, now, some of the more obvious implications for the several branches of philosophy, we begin with epistemology. Epistemology, I think, is the beginning point, the first step, in philosophy -- after having asked the question "what is the true nature of things? Who am I? How do I fit in?" etc. For epistemology includes logic and the search for a tool or instrument (perhaps other than logic, reason, or thought) for knowing, for finding out the answer to that primary question (which is not three questions but one which is expressed many ways). Methodology, then, is a very important part of epistemology, which must also account for the evident nature of perception, consciousness, the immediately present mind, experience, etc. Of course, a great deal of "knowledge" is given already -- in memory, as language, etc. The epistemology of holism has the special task of determining whether the ontological speculations of holism (together with all given "knowledge") are true or constitute an adequate mental representation of what it is they are intended to represent. Truth is thus, in one sense, the adequation (the tentative, trail-and-error movement "toward equation") of mind and nature, thought and thing; in another sense, of course, truth is "what is," including the brain, the mind, thoughts, etc. Holistically speaking, mind must also account for itself and for its relationship to reality; and it is this account (ontology-epistemology) which must be verified by what is determined to be the proper instrument of knowing. The determination of the instrument -- the business of epistemology -- is thus also an account of mind (i.e., an ontology); holistic epistemology (non-separate from ontology) is thus self-reflective.
The peculiar ontology of holism implies that the philosopher himself is the One. The Advaita (Nondualism) school of Vedanta (Hinduism) deals with this point in an interesting way. The concept of Brahman (as the One taken in its nondualistic aspect of unmanifest infinity) is argued to be the highest reality, the highest state of consciousness, and the highest value -- simultaneously. Thus ontology is verified through consciously being Brahman -- or, in effect and by definition, by being that which you really are. But Advaita is an absolute idealism that has no aspect of phenomenalism or realism whatsoever, denying any ontological status to appearance (or to the real world which Kantians, for instance, believe to underlie, in some sense, phenomena). It admits that appearance and multiplicity cannot be accounted for, and calls it maya (illusion). What the Advaitan "does" to have a realization of Brahman is to understand that the apparent multiplicity of the world, with its separation of subject and object, is merely an effect of -- or is -- mental construct (vikalpa).14 Following the lead of Krishnamurti, we might afford a definite reality to the universal process (i.e., that which is present in sense perception and that which is probed by science), understanding that the division between things is both a matter of arbitrary practicality of thought and abstraction and a real fact (i.e., the snake is different from the stick, the table from the chair, etc., even if they are ultimately grounded in, and are, "the One"). In search of the one Truth, then, we must see our inward connection with all things, and with the One, and thus go beyond the subject-object dichotomy and the divisiveness of thought. Thought, for Krishnamurti, is a material process in the brain and is just the reaction or conditioned response of memory (past experience and ideas) to present experience and ideas. As such, thought is conditioned by the past and is thus necessarily partial or fragmentary insofar as the whole cannot be known in its wholeness but only piecemeal (through analysis, recognition, association of aspects of experience with familiar aspects of memory, etc.) and insofar as the whole is changing continuously while thought relies on static memory and mental constructs. Thought, then, as activity in the brain, must cease -- become still or quiet -- for an experience that is not fragmented but whole (though memory, presumably, remains intact, and thus the capacity for thinking if it is necessary).15
The epistemology of holism thus discovers the limitations of thought, understands the non-difference of self and other, (as two aspects of the One), and uses the only possible tool for determining the whole truth of non-dual holism: being it. (If there is such a thing as non-dual Oneness.) Knowing and being are thus identical in holism: perhaps man’s essential nature is as awareness -- that is, his being is that of an awareness (of being, of beings, and of Being).
The ethics of holism begins with the primary value of the One, as being, and of oneness, as human experience or state of being;. If One is the truth, oneness is of supreme importance as a state to be achieved and lived. In oneness, we should say, there is a sense of the unity of all things and also of the individuality of all things. Thus aesthetics, as acute sensitivity, is inseparable from ethics. Aesthetic appreciation is seeing a thing as being what it is; both as an individual unique event, and as a manifestation of the One (i.e., as the One). (Please note that this is not a dualism; we are saving that the dichotomy of infinite/finite of one/many, is a matter of convenience, a mental construct, and that the primary and everlasting fact is nondual oneness.) The part is seen simultaneously as apart from and as a Tart of the whole. The nature of a thing just is the place it occupies in the whole order of things. Krishnamurti talks of "the art of seeing" as a seeing in which everything is seen as it is, in its proper place: the order of actuality is seen. "Art" literally means "to fit, to place" (Gk. araskein) and so "to put everything in its proper place." Thus thought (as memory, preconception, etc.) has no proper place in perception, though it does in recognition and cognition; and seeing does not impose order, but sense, the order that is. Likewise, action will be an appropriate response -- an action in its proper place -- to the actual situation as given in clear perception. Action is not reaction, conditioned by memory, but a clear response which involves clear seeing -- and then clear thinking, and as action which tines knowledge rather than vice versa.
As the Greeks noted, "to know the Good is to do the good." Thus philosophy without ethics is a shoddy thing and contains no true "wisdom" (knowledge of truth) at all; for truth (including the dangers of the world condition at present) demands action. Knowing the Truth, we are saying, is being the Truth, not shifting symbols and images in the brain; and as the Greeks equated the True, the Good, and the Beautiful so must we equate the ontological, the ethical, and the aesthetic -- all experienced in accord with a self-descriptive epistemology. Here, in a nutshell, is the philosophy of holism.
If being human is to be a whole, then the philosopher is physically healthy -- for the mind is the brain and the brain is the body. He is also sensitive to the wholeness of life, and is thus concerned with ecology, human rights, the eventual disarmament of all weapons designed by man to destroy man, the eventual disinfection of the government and the economy, etc. He cannot remain in an "ivory tower," especially in times as insane ("unclean") as the present. Wholeness, cleanness, saneness, a clear perception of the fact that Life itself is surely of the highest possible value -- these are essential if man is to survive.
An interesting use of the hologram model is implied by the idea of rhythm entrainment, which might be useful as a model for harmonization of oneself with the whole. Rhythm entrainment is a natural phenomenon whereby the blinking of lightning bugs, the ticking of pendulum clocks, the menstrual cycles of women who work together, etc. are harmonized. If clocks with pendulums of equal length are hung on a wall and set going at different times but with the same rates, they will eventually fall into a rhythm in which they tick together (by means of vibrations through the wall).16 By analogy, the human being who is holistic, whole, within himself, is thus in tune with the wholeness of life. George Leonard uses the term holonomy to describe the quality of being a hologram or of being hologram-like -- of being whole and containing or reflecting the whole. By rhythm entrainment, one who is whole or holonomic tunes in with his own individual pulse, which is at the sane time a holoid of "identity" -- the oneness of the universe with its own pulse reflected in the part.17
The logic of holism is just common sense. That a thing both is and is not itself is rather paradoxical, to be sure; and a dialectical logic such as that of the twelfth century Buddhists or of Hegel would be more appropriate for dealing with holistic ontology. Hegel noted the "radical self-contradictoriness" of the finite: its being essentially that which it is not -- i.e., what it is is the whole, the infinite; yet thought has defined and delimited it as the finite and takes it as such. Thought is thus a negation of wholeness; and dialectical thinking would attempt to go beyond thought by realizing this limitation and by negating thought. Through negation of the negative, or negation of negation, one comes upon the positive, Wholeness.18
1 Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield: G. & C. Merriam Co, 1974), p. 546. Christian Smuts authored Holism and Evolution.
2 I spoke with Dr. Bohm (author of Causality and Chance in Modern Physics, Quantum Theory, and the standard The Special Theory of Relativity) briefly when I traveled in England a couple of years ago, and he used the hologram model then. Physicist Jack Sarfatti uses the model in Space, Time and Beyond, which I have not seen. Itzhak Bentov uses it in a popular look at mysticism and new scientific speculations, Stalking the Wild Pendulum: On the mechanics of consciousness (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1977). Anthropologists Terrence L. and Dennis J. McKenna discuss the model in The Invisible Landscape (New York: Seabury Press, 1975). The Egyptian Tablet of Hermes originally stated that "That which is above is in that which is below." which alchemists and occultists put in terms of macro- and microcosm. (Robert A. Wilson, Cosmic Trigger (Berkeley: And/or Press 1977), p. 216). Krishnamurti emphasizes that "you are the world and the world is you," that you are the universe" -- The Wholeness of Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 66.
3 See Wilson, op cit., pp. 189-95.
4 Bentov, op cit., p. 70, 94.
5 Karl Pribam, Language of the Brain (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1971), chapter eight. He elaborates the theory to include the idea that the earth is a hologram. Noted in Joseph C. Pearce, The Magical Child (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1977).
6 Quoted (without source citation, unfortunately) by Pearce, op cit., p. 215.
7 Pearce notes that Bohm and other physicists, working at London University’s Blackstock College and elsewhere with "Geller children," are trying to rewrite subquantum physics in light of rigorously observed psychic phenomena. Such work is also being done by Brian Josephson, 1973 Nobel laureate in physics, at Cambridge, and by others elsewhere. Pearce, ibid., ch. 17, and in an interview in New Age Journal, Oct. 1976, pp. 19-26.
8 See Garma C. C. Chang, The Buddhist Teaching of Totality: The philosophy of Hwa Yen Buddhism (University Park: Penn. State U. Press, 1971). (Hwa Yen is an alternate to Hua-yen.)
9 A term used to describe the Zen philosophy of Dogen in Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen Kigen -- Mystical Realist (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1975).
10 Actually, Dr. Bohm said "virtually infinite energy," but, for the purposes of my own speculation, I am ignoring the word "virtually." He might have intended a technical meaning: "infinite virtual energy" where actual energy is what we call finite energy and where virtual energy is merely potential. There is some evidence, I hear, that (finite) energy does, indeed, "appear" from nowhere (i.e., from "empty" space), and also disappears. Bohm, by the way, was a protégé of Einstein’s and is, in Pearce’s opinion, "certainly one of the greatest physicists we have today" (New Age, ibid., p. 23).
11 I think Capek denies emptiness in "The Second Scientific Revolution," in Diogenes, 63 (1968), pp.114-133.
12 Quoted in Peter S. Stevens, Patterns in Nature (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1974), p. 6. Stevens cites these sources for Wheeler’s ideas: "Geometrodynamics," in Cecile Dewitt and John A. Wheeler, eds., 1967 Battelle Rencontres (New York: W. A. Benjamin, Inc., 1968); "Our Universe: The known and the unknown," American Scientist 56, no. 1 (1968): 1-20; the New York Times, Feb. 5, 1967, p. E5; and April 4, 1971, p. E7.
13 A good introduction is Gopi Krishna, Kundalini: the evolutionary energy in man (Boulder: Shambhala, 1971).
14 S. G. Mudgal, Advaita of Sankara: A Reappraisal (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1975), p. x.
Avidya (ignorance) is the failure to see the ultimate oneness of Brahman, with which one is oneself self-identical; adhyasa (superimposition) is the mistake, of ascribing the qualities of infinitude to the infinite (Brahman), thus arriving at multiplicity. A very good introduction is Eliot Deutsch, Eliot. Advaita Vedanta: A Philosophical Reconstruction. Honolulu: East-West Center Press, 1969.
15 Krishnamurti’s ideas are more or less contained in each of his talks, recorded and published in his books. The Impossible Question (New York: Harper & Row, 1972) is as good as any of his books to begin with.
16 Bentov, pp. 32-3, 37+
17 George Leonard, The Silent Pulse. I have not seen this but it supposedly also attempts to explain quantum mechanics in everyday terms. I read an interview either in Psychology Today or in New Age Journal, issue unknown.
18 See Thomas J. J. Altizer, "An Inquiry into the Meaning of Negation in the Dialectical Logics of East and West," in R. H. Ayers and W. T. Blackstone, eds., Religious Language and Knowledge (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1972), pp. 97-118.
Krishnamurti also speaks of arriving at the positive through negation -- see, e.g., op cit., pp. 150-53.
In Advaita, the via negativa or neti, neti method (Brahman is "not this, not that") is also used.
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