As is known, there are two main types of thinking that differ in the nature of cognitive processes: analytical (reductionist) and holistic (intuitive). Bearers of the first type view object as constant and changing according to their internal laws rather than interacting with the external environment. Holists, on the contrary, understand the world as a complex structure, where one thing affects another, and therefore pay increased attention to the connections between objects and phenomena.
Holistic vs. Analytic and Тheory of Complexity top

Holism is an idealistic doctrine

Holism is an idealistic doctrine that views the world as the result of creative evolution guided by a so-called immaterial factor of wholeness. From a holistic point of view, the whole world is a single whole, and the separate phenomena and objects we distinguish only make sense as part of a whole. Accordingly, the development of the world must be guided by forces external to it. Holism dominated European thinking from antiquity to the 17th century. An example of a holistic statement from the works of Hippocrates: “man is a universal and unified part of the surrounding world”, or “microcosm in macrocosm”.


With the development of science and the spread of reductionism, which was the main methodological principle of science and assumed an analytical approach to the phenomenon under study, some primary elements and laws were highlighted. These elements should be sufficiently independent, resistant to external influences, simple to study. It was assumed that complete knowledge about the primary aspects is sufficient to know everything about the whole by applying deductive analysis methods. That is, by decomposing the complex into the simple, to obtain, through the simple, information about the complex. As a methodological principle, reductionism ignored the influence of the external environment on the phenomenon or object under study. As a result, holism was conceptualized as a separate doctrine, was assessed as a philosophical concept of no practical value, and was forced out of the mass consciousness.

A way of understanding complex self-organizing systems

Holism as a way of understanding complex self-organizing systems and their evolution gets new impulses for development within the framework of the new concept of enactivism, which emerged in cognitive science at the very end of the 20th century. When attempts began to develop a “first-person methodology,” to conceptualize the phenomena of consciousness, the properties and patterns describing “my personal experience of perception and action” in this world, that is, to consider qualia as sensual qualities of consciousness. In contemporary philosophy of consciousness, the term “qualia” is widely used as an unusual term for the most ordinary thing possible for us: the way things look to us. The ‘what it is like’ character of mental states. When a phenomenon is not detached from the observer but instead is immersed and woven into his individuality, we can speak of the inactivity of perception. Simply put, inactivity is a person’s engagement with the world and understanding of the activity of a complex system and environment. A man always cognizes only through action; intellect is forged, and cognitive abilities are developed. The key point is the concept of experience. The world of experience is created in man’s interaction as a complex entity with the world, in a dialogue with it, and in structural conjunction with environmental systems. Perception is understood as directly connected to action. The soul-body problem becomes a problem of direct experience. Mind is seen as enactive, hence bodily, emergent, dynamic, connected to the body and the surroundings. Consciousness is seen as an operationally closed, self-organizing system, i.e., a system that constructs, generates itself. It is, therefore, difficult to draw a line between the external and the internal.

Consciousness intertwines the level of feelings and the level of rational thought, verbal and figurative, logic and intuition, analytical and synthetic abilities of perception and thinking, local and global, analog and digital. Man is a corporeal being, and, as they now say, the sense-making and thinking mind itself is within him. The activity and corporeality of perceptions, their connection with the motor activity of the human body, is what the contemporary cognitive science and philosophy of consciousness claim. And man thinks not only with his brain, feels not only with his mind, he thinks and feels with his whole body. We can talk about the “mind’s eye,” i.e., visual thinking, characteristic of high creativity when consciousness sees how the whole is assembled from the parts. Consciousness is holistic, whole.

Theory of complexity

Theory of complexity reveals patterns of evolution in complex self-organizing systems, thus attempting to construct a new evolutionary holism. Holistic is the very way of analyzing complex systems and determining possible ways of their evolution. After all, to describe the complex, it is necessary to reduce it in some way to the simple and establish the dynamic characteristics of the system’s evolution as a whole. Theory of complexity investigates and studies the laws of correct assembly of a complex evolutionary whole from parts, the construction of different types of complex structures from simple ones. It is as if the usual principle of superposition is violated: the sum of partial solutions is not the solution of the equation. The whole is no longer equal to the sum of its parts. The traditional principle of holism, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” is essentially supplemented. The whole is neither larger nor smaller than its parts: it is qualitatively different from the parts that comprise it.
As already noted, holism in the theory of complexity is evolutionary in nature. Structures of different ages, different stages of development are combined in a complex structure. The principles of combining such differently-aged structures into a more complex one are revealed. The first of the principles of combining such different structures is that the synthesis of simple into one complex one occurs by establishing a common rate of their evolution. How, then, can these structures fall into the same tempo world? The mechanism of synchronization of their rate of development is based on chaos, which manifests itself at the macro level in the form of dispersing processes of various kinds as an exchange of matter, energy, and information.

A connection between atomicity and integral integrity

A complex system can function stably if sufficient diversity of its elements, subsystems are maintained. Unity is built through diversity. Recall that Pythagoras taught that the one is the most complex. The theory of complexity reveals a deep connection between atomicity and integral integrity, their reversibility, and possible transformation into each other. On the one hand, the complex integrity of man or a coherent team can maintain its identity, it is unique and not reducible to other wholes, and in this sense, it is atomic. A human being is a unit coagulating the whole world within himself! On the other hand, anything or being, becoming an element of a complex system, acquires new systemic qualities. Having transformed, this begins to carry the nature of the whole, such as the natural environment, society, family, etc., and thus becomes holistic.

Let us look at the connection between atomism, as a view of the discrete structure of all things characteristic of different cultures and eras, and holism. Atomism and holism are considered as two opposing but complementary approaches in the modern theory of complex self-organizing systems, also called the theory of complexity. Atomism is connected with consideration of nesting of complex world structures, their fractal organization, based on fragments of which self-similar spatial and temporal structures grow. The whole theory of complexity is permeated by holism, which has an evolutionary character.

A hierarchy of complex self-organizing systems

A hierarchy of complex self-organizing systems, systems inactivism connected with the environment, a world with an open future, and many alternatives for development – this is how we see the world from the perspective of the modern theory of complexity. In this, perhaps, atomism and holism can be regarded as styles of thinking. In other words, atomism and holism are the key concepts of the modern scientific picture of the world.

The opposition and interrelation of atomism and holism in science today can be seen in the following aspects: considering the problem of what is primary and what is secondary (part or whole) and considering evolutionary ways of the interconnection of parts as a whole. The analysis of discreteness and continuity in phenomena and processes in nature, society, and human activity is interesting and important. Continuity is related to the very processivity of the world, discreteness to its structural organization. It is also necessary to establish a connection between discreteness and quantum processes in the world. Because quantumness is connected with the discontinuous transition between organization levels and the existence of thresholds of sensibility or thresholds of perception of complex formations of the world.

So, mass interest in the ideas of holism was revived anew in the 20th century. The founder of modern holism is the prominent politician and statesman of South Africa, Jan Christian Smuts. The former Prime Minister of South Africa introduced the term “holism” into philosophical speech in 1926, based on the idea, which goes back to Aristotle’s Metaphysics, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The era in which Smuts lived and acted posed many intractable questions for humanity. The experience of a politician, trying to overcome the contradictions and dilemmas of his time, formed the basis of an original worldview. Idealistically interpreting the irreducibility of the whole to the sum of its parts, Smuts argues that a holistic process governs the world – the process of creative evolution, the creation of new wholes and that in the course of evolution, forms of matter are continually emerging and renewed. Also, holism is linked to the achievement of purpose, which is the construction of wholeness, and to global evolutionism. According to the philosophy of holism, which Smuts developed throughout his life, every natural organism is integrity, which has a “field” in which the program of its further development is concentrated. In his work Holism and Evolution, he set out to determine the “fundamental connecting point” of the concepts of matter, life, and consciousness. In the future, holism will become more specialized according to the subject areas in which it will be applied.

Methodological principle of integrity

In a rapidly changing and information-rich world, the understanding of academic literacy goes beyond subject knowledge, skills, and abilities, shifting the focus to developing the ability to extract, compare, and analyze information, critically evaluate it, and interpret ideas and hidden meanings. The holistic principle is a methodological principle of integrity: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This principle begins to be widely used in interpreting pedagogical phenomena and the disclosure of their essence. Skills of the 21st century we shall call the ability of a person to solve atypical problems in situations that differ from all academic and use the competence of critical thinking, creativity, communication skills, ability to work in a team and individually. For this, humanity needs to learn the fundamental principle of holism, which expresses a holistic understanding of man and the world as a system.

Holistic medicine

Holistic medicine, for example, is usually defined as “the art and science of healing that addresses the whole person – body, mind, and spirit.” Simply put, European (analytical) medicine is built on methods of analyzing the work of each organ individually. In contrast, Eastern (holistic) medicine evaluates the body as a whole – hence the different approach to treatment. At this stage of medicine development, we can talk about integrative and holistic medicine, reflecting the next natural step of interaction between non-conventional and traditional medicine. The main postulate of holistic movement as a direction in medicine is the consideration of a human being in the unity of biological, emotional, psychological, and social manifestations. Such understanding of health, in some cases, turns out to be more adequate for the treatment and prevention of such diseases as atherosclerosis, hypertension, stenocardia, obesity, and diabetes. It should be noted that the principles of holistic medicine are highly close to the philosophical concepts of Oriental medicine, which also consider the principles of the general interconnection of all life on Earth and the cosmos. There is a Big Cosmos and a Small Cosmos, i.e., a human being, and they are closely connected. Destruction of nature, the environment is a road to the self-destruction of humankind, including through diseases.

When you are faced with the choice of food for your pet, among the variety of products from different brands and manufacturers, sometimes you can see the word Holistic on the package. But what does it really mean, because using it entails certain ideas about what food should be? Suppose you see high-quality animal proteins, healthy fats, and digestible carbohydrates at the top of the ingredient list and don’t see any artificial or poor-quality ingredients. In that case, the term holistic may actually refer to the quality of the product.

The analytical point of view

In recent decades, scientists have actively researched this direction, describing the characteristics of the worldview and thinking of representatives of different nations worldwide. However, the difference in thinking is manifested only in the so-called everyday situations. If we are talking, for example, about serious scientific work, the thinking of representatives of the West and the East is not much different. In general, culturally conditioned peculiarities of thinking manifest precisely in people who are not engaged in intellectual work. But what if we try to find differences between holists and analysts in solving specific problems? In earlier experiments involving logical problem solving, speed tests, the ability to think more broadly, and when comparing Eastern collectivism vs. Western individualism, holists demonstrated a wider range of decision-making. On specific tasks, people with an intuitive mindset gave far more varied answers than those with an analytical mindset. It was also noted that people with an oriental mindset thought more slowly in competitive conditions, where the outcome depended on the quality of the work done individually and made faster decisions in a cooperative series of experiments where they worked together for the result. The results show that people from Eastern cultures work more intensively in groups than those from Western cultures. On the other hand, the latter show higher results on the speed of thinking during individual tasks, tend to be more individualistic and independent. Perhaps this is because analysts look for a solution “according to a formula,” a clear algorithm, while holists prefer a freer search for answers. And here success depends on what kind of task people have. For example, analysts are better at logical tasks that require a step-by-step solution, while holists perform better where the overall context must be considered to get the correct answer.

The analytical (reductionist) approach

At present, the analytical (reductionist) approach to research still prevails. The analytical method achieves the best results if the whole can be divided into parts independent of one another. In this case, their separate consideration makes it possible to form an accurate idea of their contribution to the overall effect. This applies, for example, to the accumulation of money, the making of a mosaic, in the case of integral calculus. However, cases, where a system is the sum of its parts, are not the rule but rather the exception. The rule is that the contribution of a given part to the system-wide effect depends on the contributions of the other parts. And that is why, if you make each part function in the best possible way, the effect as a whole will not be the highest. And the emphasis should be on looking not at the individual parts but at their interaction. However, this is a more difficult task.

Man exists for a finite time and has limited material, energy, and information resources. And yet, humanity manages to understand the world and, as its practice shows, do so in the right way in some respects. Albert Einstein noted that the most amazing thing in nature is that it is cognizable.

Analytical vs. Holistic

The contradictions between the infinity of nature and the finiteness of human resources, between the limitlessness of human desires to know the world and the limitations of existing opportunities to do so, have many important consequences, including in the very process of human cognition of the world around us. One such feature of cognition, which allows for a gradual resolution of these contradictions, is the presence of analytical and holistic (synthetic) ways of thinking. The essence of analysis is to divide the whole into parts, to represent the complex in the form of a set of simpler components. But to cognize the whole, the complex, the reverse process – the so-called synthesis – is also necessary. This applies not only to individual thinking but also to universal knowledge.

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