Holism and Existence



Holism and Existence


Holism is an ontological doctrine: it says that the existence, nature and identity of individual things depend on their place in a wider whole consisting of other individual things. To be a certain entity is to stand in a network of related entities: the being of one thing is bound up with the being of other things existing in the same totality. Thus we cannot analyze a whole into parts that have an existence and identity independently of the whole to which they belong. The whole is reflected in the individuals that make it up. I will argue that no such doctrine can possibly be true, because it leads to absurd consequences.

            Let’s first consider the strongest possible form of holism, which I will call cosmic holism. This is the doctrine that everything in the universe has a nature that includes every other thing: nothing can exist without all the other things in the universe existing (think Hegel). This is certainly an extreme doctrine and not one with any immediate plausibility, but it may be said that we should be open to the possibility that common sense (and science) are simply wrong about the nature of things—we are under an “illusion of plurality”. Really, everything is connected to everything else, inextricably so. What is the argument against such a view? Here is one argument: if that were so, nothing could come into existence unless everything came into existence with it. That would mean, for example, that an atom of hydrogen couldn’t come existence at the time of the big bang unless dinosaurs came into existence at the same time, since hydrogen atoms and dinosaurs depend on each other for their existence according to cosmic holism. But that seems completely false: things come into existence in a temporal sequence, some before others. Holism implies that everything must come into existence simultaneously, since the identity of any one thing is bound up with the identity of every other thing. Cosmic holism precludes sequential coming-into-existence. In fact it leads to the idea that there has to be a God that creates everything simultaneously, since the being of every individual thing is bound up (allegedly) with the being of every other thing. So cosmic holism looks to have a problem with history—with things coming to exist at different times. It ties the existence of things too closely to the existence of other things, thus ruling out the emergence of things over time.

            Now consider conceptual holism: the doctrine that concepts join together to form indissoluble wholes. Each concept owes its identity to the other concepts with which it shares a conceptual scheme. Again, we have a problem with respect to development over time: you can’t have one concept at time t without having all your concepts at t. For the identity of a particular concept is fixed by all the concepts that are possessed by the thinker in question at a given time. So that implies that a thinker must acquire all his concepts at the same time: now no concepts, now all concepts! You can’t acquire your concepts over time, one after the other. Once all the concepts are in place they determine the identity of any concept in the whole set, so any individual concept cannot be possessed without the possession of the whole set of concepts. But surely we can acquire our concepts over time in such a way that earlier concepts can be possessed before later ones are. And here is a second problem: if each concept has its identity fixed by the whole of which it is a part, then won’t each concept end up being identical to every other concept? For the same whole fixes the identity of each concept: each concept has its content determined by the whole of which it is a part, but there is only one whole, so each concept must have the same content. Only if we deny conceptual holism can this consequence be avoided: there has to be something about each concept that is independent of the whole, in which case concept identity is not fixed holistically. In fact, the very idea of concepts as parts of a larger whole collapses under conceptual holism, since each concept is said to be individuated by the whole of which it is a part—it has no other identity. But parts can never be identical to wholes. The trouble is that holism leads to the dissolution of the individual concept into the whole of which is held to be a part. The only way to avoid this consequence is to weaken the holism so that it allows some independent identity to the individual concept, but then we have abandoned the doctrine. We are now contemplating some sort of hybrid theory according to which a concept has its own specific atomic identity and a penumbra of holistically determined content. That is a very strange animal, part discrete beast and part herd.

            Finally, consider causal holism: the doctrine that causation works holistically, so that a given cause always includes a wider totality of causes. Suppose we claim that every cause in a certain domain includes every other cause in that domain: then it will follow that every cause is identical to the same totality of causes (e.g. every action is caused by the entirety of a person’s psychological state). But how can different effects have the same cause? Won’t we end up saying that the effects are identical too? Again, in order to preserve some individuality in the cause we will need to qualify the holism, i.e. abandon it. There must be something about the cause that is not fixed by the whole of which it is a part. And won’t that be the cause in question? Holism inevitably leads to the collapse of individuality—the merging of the individual into the crowd. Of course, the individual may play a role in the crowd, but it doesn’t follow that its very identity is determined by the whole in which it plays that role. Atoms play roles in larger wholes too, but they are still atoms. There is always more to an individual thing than the role it plays in the groups to which it belongs—whether it is a physical atom, a human being, or a concept.

            It follows that reality can always be divided into parts: it is always analyzable into autonomous units. Reality is always a synthesis of separable entities (or just a collection). It never consists of indivisible wholes whose parts (sic) have their identity fixed by the whole. That idea is ultimately incoherent. Holism is impossible.[1]


Colin McGinn

[1] There was a time when the “holism of the mental” was a favored doctrine, though it never progressed much beyond metaphor. No one ever mentioned that this was a more limited version of Hegelian metaphysics, but the logic of both is the same. Here I have stated the doctrine sharply and literally with a view to reductio. The upshot is that analysis is the proper way to proceed in science and philosophy. Reality is a multiplicity not a seamless unity.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.