1: Introduction [and Summary]
What happens next is always intimately related to what went before. It is not a question of merely adding up disparate things connected by inevitable succession, but events are logically interdependent. Just as the realities are established in tune with one another, so in the world of sense, phenomena do not occur merely in succession, but they display an amazing affinity with one another.|
---- Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations
This is a most relevant antithesis humanistically, for perspectives on wholes lead to views on the pre-eminence of the individual versus social wholes, such as of a race, a class, or a state. Moreover, the antithesis underlies many epistemological questions on social knowledge, for example, as to whether knowledge of social wholes like institutions must ultimately be reduced to knowledge of individuals to be meaningful. The sociological issue, usually termed as methodological individualism versus methodological holism, will be considered after the general question of wholes is discussed.
Atomism began with the philosophy of Leucippius and Democritus, who found a compromise between the universal unity and unchangeability of Parmenides and the commonsense world of diversity and change. Their argument was that the sensory world was reducible to indivisible particles, called atoms, which themselves were identical and unchanging--hence providing a fundamental unity and unchangeableness to the universe. Thus, nature's wholes were simply a sum (configuration) of its parts (atoms).
From its beginning, this basic doctrine has undergone a number of interpretations as it was espoused by such as Epicurus, Lucretius, Gassendi, and William Boyle. However, its core notion of irreducible particles common to all wholes became a general theory of mechanistic science in the seventeenth century, underlying the philosophical perspective of, say, Hobbes and later Holbach and La Mettrie. This view was pervasive in nineteenth-and twentieth- century physics, chemistry, and biology, and we are now seeing its influence in the social sciences (behaviorism).2 Essentially, the mechanistic philosophy à la Hobbes sees commonsense wholes as made up of patterns and motion of basic particles. The fundamental laws involve the motions of these particles and their configurations; regularities found for wholes should be reducible to these laws. Moreover, causes are simply the action of one particle upon another (action-at- a-distance, such as gravity, was indeed troublesome to this philosophy as discussed in Section 2.1 of Chapter 2, and led to imaginative attempts to define a corpuscular ether transmitting such causes). Things themselves can only act as a consequence of being acted upon.
Because particles were considered similar, if not identical, this mechanistic perspective generally led to emphasizing quantity over qualities, "primary" over "secondary" characteristics. Mass, length, and velocity become fundamental concepts of reality, superordinate to "subjective" qualities like color, texture, odor, taste, and shape. Reality was seen as a universal machine, set in motion, perhaps by God, constructed of elementary particles, governed by mathematical laws, and fully determined.
Mechanism, while still a popular commonsense philosophy and a methodological paradigm for social scientists, has lost its scientific base. Few physicists accept it today. The mechanical view has failed in its attempts to construct ethers, light corpuscles, and mechanical models to account for physical phenomena. Scientists increasingly have had to employ constructs without mechanical meaning (such as electromagnetic field) whose interpretations lie wholly within the mathematical equations of which it is a part. Mechanical models are no longer felt to be needed, even if at all conceivably possible. The focus is now on mathematical abstractions--functions, not material particles.
Mechanism has had considerable influence on our view of living things. Are living things sui generis, containing some life-giving entity as the vitalist claimed or, at a minimum, governed by distinctive laws and processes as the organicist would assert? Or are living things simply sophisticated machines? This latter view has had a number of adherents. Descartes held that animals were machines of a particular kind and in the eighteenth century La Mettrie included humans in this category. This specific view finds few takers today, although the development of cybernetics since the 1940s, appearing to show that machines can exercise purposive behavior,3 has propped up the mechanistic case for some.
Most biologists subscribe to a more sophisticated mechanism. Believing the machine analogy is naive in the light of modern science, they simply assert that biological events will be ultimately reducible to nonbiological laws, that the laws and processes governing physiochemical phenomena eventually will be extended to cover all organic phenomena. This softer variety of mechanism basically reduces to a modern materialism as discussed previously.
Vitalism as a biological theory goes back at least to Aristotle. He argued that life equals the psyche of an organism, which has the power to determine organic form; that in understanding life we have to consider purposive acts, organic unity, and embryological development; and that the character of organic parts cannot be adequately described without reference to the whole. In the early twentieth century, vitalism received its chief support from Hans Driesch4 and Henri Bergson.5 Driesch believed that life--that which inhabits living things and which we mean when we say "he lost his life"--is a substantial entelechy, physically autonomous and mindlike, controlling organic processes. Physiochemical laws provide the range of alternatives to the future of organic growth and evolution; entelechy determines the particular future (in Driesch's favored simile, the entelechy is like an artist turning pigments, turpentine, and canvas into a painting). Bergson also saw a special agency, which he termed elan vital, at work supporting life, giving life its major characteristics, and explaining organic evolution. It is the force known to us by introspection and that is moving living things toward more complexity. Bergson used the organism as a model of the universe, and argued that wholes (which can only be known by intuition) are fundamental. Things are meaningful only in the context of some whole.
One aspect of organicism is to see a fundamental unity in all things; to see beneath all diversity an unchanging (Parmenides) unity, a unity in nature of which we are a part, and an interrelatedness of all things (Taoists); and to see existing a spiritual causality whereby what we are now is a consequence of our moral behavior in a previous life (Hindu doctrine of Karma). Another aspect is to see wholes as somehow different from their constituent elements, as a work of art may be viewed as a Gestalt, clearly more than its separate figures and pigments; as for Hegel, the state is an organic whole, of which individuals are only a particularization; and as for Bertalanffy, organisms are wholes obeying irreducible system laws.
Specifically in biology, organicists believe that areas of knowledge and research exist (such as theories of evolution or embryology) where mechanism is not a fruitful view, and the analytic (breaking into parts) methods of the natural sciences are not applicable. It is argued that life is hierarchically organized such that processes found at higher levels are not understandable in terms of knowledge about lower levels; the laws of one level do not explain the organic processes higher up, and organisms are therefore wholes with their own laws.
One argument general to the variety of organismic philosophers (and scientists like Bertalariffy regarding general systems theory and Koffka regarding Gestalt psychology) is that in some way the whole, however defined, is greater than the sum of its parts. Rarely is there a careful dissection of the meaning of whole, sum, and part.6
Whole can mean a concrete thing, such as apple, house, or star; an attribute of an object, such as its color or smell; a pattern of characteristics, such as democracy or written words; an aggregate, such as a parade or a bucket of soil. Whole therefore, has no general meaning, except apparently to refer to something which is abstractly or concretely divisible into parts. What does it then mean to say that the whole is greater than the sum of these parts?
Clearly, addition or analogous mathematical operations are not being referred to here, for (as in the statement that a melody is something more than the sum of its notes) usually the arithmetic sum has no relevant meaning for the whole. Perhaps it might make more sense to turn this around and ask how a machine is the sum of its parts, since mechanism is the bête noire of the organicist. But even in the most mechanical case, as with a clock, we can see that "sum" has no clear meaning. Nagel7 provides a useful interpretation here. He argues that what is meant by sum is that, from the theory of mechanics and specific information on the parts, we can deduce the properties and the behavior of a clock. Thus, "sum" in this case simply means being able to move from the conjunction of laws and information regarding the parts to the behavior of the whole. With this meaning of sum, the organicist can assert that water is more than the sum of hydrogen and oxygen, since from the laws governing these elements and specifics about their combination, we cannot deduce the properties of water. Let us take this as one meaning of sum.
Another meaning of "sum" is that the parts contribute to a whole without themselves undergoing change in their formation of the whole. The parts to be understood must be studied in the context of the whole. A spring is identically the same whether as a part of a functioning clock or alone on a clockmaker's table. Moreover, the rest of the clock remains mechanically unaltered when the spring is removed. However, remove the heart or brain from a living thing, and both the whole and the separated part become significantly altered; remove a part of a soap bubble, a region of its surface, and both part and whole are changed.
Finally, "sum" can mean that a whole can be built seriatim out of its parts, as a clock, an automobile, and a house. To argue that a whole is greater than its sum would mean that, like a living thing, the whole is not simply a construction that comes into being when the parts take on a certain configuration. Rather, the whole is "born" (like a soap bubble) and at birth the collection of parts is altered as a whole.
However defined, the whole-part-sum argument is central to both the organicist (the whole is greater ... ) and mechanists or atomists (the whole is equal ... ) positions. That there are wholes greater than the sum of their parts and that wholes must be studied and understood as wholes is a belief underlying many contemporary scientific-philosophical schools and, specifically, the argument between methodological holists and methodological individualists in the social sciences.
On the other hand, methodological individualists like Hobbes, F. A. Hayek and Karl Popper believe that societal facts and laws are ultimately reducible to the individual, his relations, his situation. This makes psychology and social psychology the basic sciences, the laws of which can be made to cover the whole sociocultural realm. Of course, this is a program and not an achievement. Until such laws are fully known, however, holistic or macrogeneralizations and theories are possible and temporarily useful. But a full knowledge, a really basic and meaningful understanding of society, will not be achieved until these are reduced to laws and theories governing individuals.
Perhaps I should not belabor these distinctions for, as in international relations studies, the social sciences generally have had a running debate over the reality of social wholes which has familiarized most with the dispute. The question of concern to me here is which of these contradictories to accept, or whether a reformulation is possible to remove the contradiction and enable a middle way. In particular, is our intentional field viewed holistically? Is it an organismic field, or is field simply a representation ordering individual level influences, processes, and behavior? Let me approach these questions by considering the arguments for and against holism, which may be categorized as normative, empirical, and epistemological.
The normative argument against holism, for example, posed by Popper against Hegel's social philosophy,10 is that emphasizing social wholes above the individual leads to totalitarianism: the subordination of individual needs, desires, and freedom to some alleged greater qualities or goals of the whole. Quite the contrary, holists may respond, it is methodological individualism that has undesirable sociopolitical consequences, leading to the excesses of unregulated capitalism and, at the extreme, anarchy. It is true that holistic doctrines of race, state, and class underlie such modern totalitarian movements as national socialism, fascism, and communism; and that individualism pervaded the nineteenth-century laissez-faire liberalism of Adam Smith, Bentham, and John Stuart Mill. There is, however, no necessity to the connection between political philosophy or doctrine, and holism or individualism. One can be a methodological individualist like Hobbes and still argue for an all-powerful Leviathan governing us. Totalitarian conclusions can follow in Hobbesian style from individual level assumptions. Or one can be a holist like Bergson and argue, as he did, for an "open" society (as does the methodological individualist Popper), progressive, encouraging diversity, and emphasizing freedom and spontaneity.11
Leaving such examples aside however, the fact that holistic doctrines underlie totalitarian ideologies still does not show that such organicism is a sufficient condition for accepting these ideologies. Moreover, even if sufficient, it would then be incumbent upon those who argue this point to show what is bad about these consequences. In other words, to invoke normative consequences against holding a holistic doctrine demands that first there be a normative exegesis and justification. Finally, were holism sufficient (recognizing exceptions) for totalitarian ideologies and an ethical base laid for asserting that this consequence is bad, and were there a choice in fact and theory between holism and individualism, then the normative argument would be decisive. But if indeed holism is found more consonant with our empirical perspective--with our social laws and theories--than is individualism, then the normative argument fails, for what ought to be cannot logically dictate what is. That we ought to be the center of our universe does not mean that all astronomical bodies rotate about the earth.12 Thus, the normative argument against either antitheses leads to considerable qualification, not the least of which is that were empirical-theoretical evidence to support holism or individualism, the normative argument would then become superfluous.
The ontological argument is concerned directly with the factual existence of wholes. Individualists assert, atomistically, that society is really made up of only people. A state, for example, does not exist by itself; it is only a spatial configuration of people in a particular relation to each other. Moreover, only people can think and act; wholes cannot do so except as represented by people. The holist will assert that this is naive reductionism. If social wholes are made up of people, why in fact do we deal at the level of wholes, in everyday conversation, in philosophy, and in the procedures, theories, and concepts of social science? We could not communicate about nor understand our social world without such concepts as family, state, corporation, church, city, and government. And it is no good to argue that such wholes simply stand for particular individual leaders or decision makers, or defined relationships among specific people, for generally, such wholes have sufficient reality that we are willing to die for them. We will often go to war, not for a leader nor for people, but for the Nation.
The holist argument has merit and can be put more forcefully in the following way. The holist may point out that the individualist is mixing his categories of being. Of course, the state, let us say, does not have the same concrete reality as a human being, and in this sense the individualist is correct. A human is a real being, a power with existence apart from our knowledge, as is a rock, an apple, or a rose. A social whole is not real in this sense. Rather a social whole is a logical being, a meaning whose reality lies in the human mind and in the human behavior and material agents that objectify this. The state as a thing exists in our mind. It is an idea, an aspect of our social perspective. It becomes known objectively by its manifest effects on our behavior, the concrete symbols we use to represent it, and its manifestation in documents, buildings, representatives, and so on. Thus, we can seek laws and develop theories about this social whole in terms of its concrete effects, processes, and manifestations. To try to reduce this whole to the individual, however, is to assume identity between the idea and some of its consequences. Government, to shift the example, is a whole whose true existence is in our minds. It has subtlety and emotional nuances to it, cultural and sociological overlays, and inner significance, simply not reducible to laws governing real beings.13 To try to eliminate these logical beings--these wholes--from our social-scientific vocabulary would be to rid us of our sociocultural heritage. Our culture, which gives us our language and knowledge separating us from other animals, is mainly a system of logical beings, mental wholes, constituting the meanings, values, and norms pervading our material culture.
I can now move on to the epistemological argument against holism. Individualists may accept the view that the state of our social and psychological sciences does not enable at this time reduction to individual level laws; however, they may say, in order to really understand society, we must ultimately deal with individuals. The basis for this understanding may be analogous to the mechanistic reduction of chemistry and mechanics to fundamental units (and the greater power of explanation this presumably gave) or to the operation of verstehen, which gives individuals insight and understanding into the behavior of others. In any event, the argument is misconceived. This is no reason for laws at the individual level to convey more understanding than those dealing with the objectifications of social wholes (which, be it remembered, are mental). If anything, a better argument could be made for understanding at the level of our ideas, than of objective individual behavior.
What about this intentional field itself? Is it a social whole? Clearly, the field as a thing is a logical being; it exists in the mind. It is reality endowed with our meanings and values. It is reality seen through our perspective. True, our dispositions are actualized by a variety of powers, some of which are mental, biological, or physical. But the whole through which these dispositions and powers are interrelated and which gives significance and relative importance to them is mental, like the whole which is a baseball or a chess game. The separable aspects of the intentional field cannot be understood apart from the field, and their relative importance in influencing social behavior is given by the field. Thus, the field is organismic, in the sense that its parts are not separable without changing both the part and the field. And the field is more than the sum of these parts, in that social laws and theories dealing with individuals alone, environment alone, society alone, or culture alone, will not explain fully our behavior. These aspects are interrelated; they form transactional matrix (to borrow John Dewey's term), an organic unity. It is only in the context of this complex, this field, that our behavior can be phenomenally understood and gauged.
In general, then, the emphasis on wholes enables us to see things in context, to synthesize diverse phenomena, to understand the patterns in nature, and to represent the interrelatedness and unity of mind and body, ideas and matter, and freedom and determinism. And the this field of humanity as a whole rests on two principles:
(1) The intentional field is more than the sum of its biopsychological, environmental, and sociocultural elements. That is, laws and theories governing field structures, influences, and processes are not reducible to separate biopsychological, physical, and sociocultural laws and knowledge. The field is more than the addition of our compartmentalized physiological, genetic, neurological, psychological, geographical, ecological, sociological, anthropological, economic, and political knowledge, for the field comprises the organic interrelatedness of all these aspects.
(2) As various sociocultural, physical, and biopsychological elements of our field are given meaning for us and make our behavior intelligible only as part of the field. Cutting culture away from the field, for example, and studying it separately from our biology and ecology may provide some structural knowledge, like studying a heart removed from a body. But to understand how culture works and affects us, its interrelatedness with other elements in the field, requires studying culture in the ongoing context of the field of human beings.15
* Scanned from Chapter 33 in R.J. Rummel, The Dynamic Psychological Field, 1975. For full reference to the book and the list of its contents in hypertext, click book. Typographical errors have been corrected, clarifications added, and style updated.
1. A key assumption to Gestalt theory is that there are wholes that are more than the sum of their parts and I have made no secret of my agreement with this throughout. See Section 3.2 of Chapter 3.
2. See Section 3.1 of Chapter 3.
3. This is an inflated claim which, when hedged with necessary qualifications, simply amounts to defining a specific kind of machine, hardly duplicating the goal-selection, goal-directed, behavior of higher animals.
4. Science and Philosophy of the Organism (1908).
5. Creative Evolution (1907).
6. For one of the few thorough analyses of the variety of possible meanings, see Stuart Nagel, The Structure of Science (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961): 380-398.
8. See also Maurice Mandelbaum, "Societal Facts," British Journal of Sociology 6, no. 4 (1955): 305-317; "Societal Laws," British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 8, no. 31 (1957): 211-224; Ernest Gellner, "Explanations in History," Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society Supplement 30 (1956): 157-176.
9. Organicism--the emphasis on wholes--has taken a number of directions in the social sciences; for example, functionalism, systems analysis, transactional analysis, and situational analysis are holistic.
10. Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies (New York: Harper & Row, 1963).
11. The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, trans. by R. A. Andra and Cloudesley Brereton (London, 1935).
12. As previously argued, our values can and should dictate our perspectives on reality. The choice of empirical perspectives is limited by this reality, however. We can choose our perspective on a table, for example, but the potentialities inherent in this region of space-time called a table still bound our choices. More prosaically, you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.
13. To appreciate my meaning here, the reader might put this book aside and try to reduce "government" to social-psychological laws and facts alone. I find it inconceivable, as I do the possibility of reducing a "statue" to the physiochemical laws governing marble molecules.
14. See Section 24.1 of Chapter 24.
15. The significance of this point can be demonstrated in part by a common social research error pointed out by Sorokin (Fads and Foibles in Modern Sociology and Related Sciences, Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1956: 166). This is to take a part out of a whole as an independent variable and then treat the whole itself as dependent. It is like trying to account for the four-dimensional space-time movement of an object by a one-dimensional variable, or the diverse nature of a horse from the length of its hind leg.
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