Abhinav Sinha

Holism versus Reductionism

In Emergence, Holism, Systems Thinking on June 29, 2010 at 10:03 pm

The way I learnt to spell Czechoslovakia, was to break it into two halves. Memorize the tricky and more difficult part ‘Czecho’ and then confidently add the easier and the more obvious ‘slovakia’.

How we all learnt to multiply 13×12 mentally, was by breaking one of the multipliers in its simpler factors and, add! It is much faster for most of us to mentally calculate (13×10) + (13×2) = 156. Frankly, I never had the memory to remember those tables all the way up to 20. Thankfully, factors came to my rescue.

Elementary science text books educate young students about smaller and smaller division achievable. All matter is made of molecules, molecules of atoms and atoms from electron, proton and neutrons.

It is not difficult to realize why analytical behavior is a natural instinct for most of us. Reductionism or attempting to understand visible complexity by breaking it into smaller constituent parts forms the core of our primary education structure.

Systems thinking however incorporate ‘Holism’ as one of its primary tenet.

Holism stands for the idea that all properties of a given system cannot be determined or explained by its component parts alone.

But how do we visualize holism around us? As we saw above, Reductionism happens all around us. Appears in every analysis we do. Where do we search for Holism? Why does it not make itself evident?

Indeed, holism is all around us. All we need is to train our faculties to look at the larger picture and not merely at the constituent parts. In fact, there are certain systems that not be explained at all, by a purely reductionist approach.

Let us look around, holistically. Let us look at ‘Life’.

Life itself is a holistic phenomenon. In case of living systems, nobody would deny that an organization is a collection of atoms. The mistake is what certain reductionist scientists make very often. To suppose that it is nothing but a collection of atoms.

Such a claim is as absurd as asserting that all Ustad Bismillah Khan’s masterpiece was nothing more than a collection of notes played on his shehnai or that a Shakespeare’s classic is nothing more than a collection of words.

The property of life, the theme of the tune or the plot of Shakespeare’s play is what is known as the ‘emergent’ property. Emergence is largely an outcome of holistic view and is also another tenet of systems thinking.

You would realize that the ‘emergent’ properties only make sense at collective level and are rather meaningless at the component level.

It is important for us to acknowledge at this point in time that the idea of this article is not establish superiority of one mode of the two ‘isms’ in understanding or defining the system.

The component level description, does not contradict the holistic description. Instead the two are complimentary to each other. The two point of views are both valid and useful at their own level. The use of either one of them depends on what you want to know.

I have come to realize that a graphical or illustrative representation of a newly introduced concept, leaves a much lasting impression on the reader’s memories. Keeping inline with this understanding, I have fetched for you the following –

While you look at the whole, what you get is the Monalisa. A historic work of art that invokes impressions of beauty,  mystery, sophestication and grace in your heart.

Next, while you put on your reductionist lens this is all that you get –  

With reductionism, all that you are left with with is 3,604 cups of coffee, with different proportions of milk and coffee.

If you are wondering, where did Monalisa along with feelings of beauty and mystery that she invoked in your hearts, go? Then don’t.

All of them are emergent properties of this system, that only have an existence at a holistic frame of reference. A part of this system, a cup of coffee surely does not have beauty or mystery as an intrinsic property. 

Will await your comments, feedback, questions or contributions.

Request your participation and sharing. Sharing of knowledge is the only reduction, that leads to holistic growth. 

  1. I like the way you explain your point and choose appropriate examples 🙂

  2. Well written, Nice & Thought Provoking.. 🙂

  3. An amazing writeup. It certainly has got me thinking on situations where in you have the reductionist approach and holistic approach or rather a ‘Whole’ approach.

    Now, what I’ve understood from this is, in a reductionists approach, we can solve and understand the objectivity or the purpose of the worldly things which are rather evident and obvious. However, if we take the w holistic approach, we see the purpose of the things which are not quite evident to the eye and requires a certain amount of consciousness and understanding of a higher region.

    A single day in a life is just a molecule of the whole life. It has got the colors of the coffee. Sometimes they are bitter and most of the times they are sweet too. There are times when we wonder why do we actually need sorrow or the bitterness of it. The reason is beautifully explained using the Monalisa example. The picture would not have looked like Monalisa, had all the cups had the right amount of milk and coffee in it. To make the entire life beautiful, we need all the factors(happiness, sorrow, troubles, successes, etc;) that amount to it.
    I can sense a question here. Why to look at the w holisitic view at all?

    Umm….the answer which I can make out of my way of holistic thinking is, to be happy.
    We as an individual have our life, and similarly there are thousands of living creatures in and around us. All of it comprise into a living world. The whole world needs a balance of all textures that each has to offer. Thus, the balance of life is attained. So, whatever unpleasant happens and is not under our control, we need to understand that it is there and happenning for a purpose.

    This was my view of the approaches. Kindly correct me if I got wrong in my understanding.

  4. Interesting… Just a quick comment .. Will be back again…
    Although the premise / hypothesis to start with is that one approach fits all instances…That is usually not the case….In fact there are cases where you actually enjoy both the approaches…. Take for instance the game of cricket…I enjoy the part- where I see a brilliant batting shot etc and the end result also impacts… Likewise one has to have a good mix of both to get going…
    But an interesting discussion…

  5. Amazing, easy and well set examples to understand the approach. Keep it up.

  6. @ Gaurav –


    Thanks for sparing your time and sharing your valuable comments. You are absolutely right in your observations. Indeed both the approaches are complimentary to each other. A component level description does not contradict the holistic emergent properties of the system.

    In Greek there is a word ‘Holon’, that refers to an entity that is both a part and a whole at the same time. A nicely executed cricket shot itself is a whole in a sense that it takes practice, skill, timing, foot work and focus as parts to produce that splendid shot. And we would agree that the the shot is much more than merely the summation of all parts said above. It is a delight to watch.

    ‘Delight’ here is an emergent property of the system called ‘cricket shot’.

    System thinking deals with the interconnectedness of such parts to understand the whole. The two point of views (Holism and Reductionism) are both valid and useful at their own level. The use of one of them depends on what you want to know about the system!

  7. @ Ravi –

    You are absolutely right. You have indeed touched upon a perspective that even I had failed to see. Keep sharing!

  8. It is interesting to go through this account. Everybody talks of the holistic approach these days. I, too, would I like to use it. But it appears to me that it is not so simple to use this approach. It might require collection of large amount of data on various parameters for interpretation of results. Complex mathematical calculations might also be needed to be done, which is not everyone’s cup of tea. Kindly let me know what do I need to know (I mean, mathematics) so that I may make use of it practically.
    To me it appears that the reductionism theory might give quick results many a times. I can give an instance to make my point clear. A colleague of mine used to try a number of combinations of vase solutions to extend the shelf life of some cut flower. To my knowledge he made modifications, here and there, to some already known combinations which are tried the world over. I believe he could not reach at any worthwhile conclusion for several years. I insisted upon to study the response of different constituents separately. Once this response was known, we could develop combinations that gave marvellous results. We could do better research and conduct further experiments more confidently. So, unless and until, the response of each factor is correctly known, we cannot think of using them collectively. I feel that we should first try to get information bit by bit (in piece meals), and when we know a lot more, then only we should think of more complex interactions.

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