Holism versus Reductionism

Comparison Holism versus Reductionism

A principle of systems thinking is a kernel of the systems philosophy, which assumes the consideration of the studied set of objects, including phenomena and processes, from the perspective of the general theory of systems. It reflects the features of the ratio of the whole and parts and their interactions with the environment. The basic provisions of the systems thinking principle include the integral character of systems, the interrelation of the whole and parts in the system, the primacy of the whole over the parts, and the hierarchy of the system structure, among others (Pan, Valerdi, & Kang, 2011, p. 1028). The given research paper analyzes the concepts of holism and reductionism, as well as compares and contrasts them.

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Holism is the system of views, which had dominated European thinking until the 17th century. Furthermore, holism represents the concept connected with the development of the systems methodology and systems paradigm in the knowledge of the 20th century (Mittelstrass, 2014, p. 51). The holistic position consists in the prior consideration of the whole from the point of view of the elements arising due to the interaction of the new qualitative and complete properties in the system. The allocation and consideration of properties allow dividing systems by nature of the interaction of their elements into the additive or summative and emergent or entire. The former presupposes that the whole is equal to the sum of its parts, such as different combinations and mechanical mixtures. On the other hand, the latter means that systems possess special qualities, for instance, organic, psychosocial, and social. The holistic approach is crucial in the informative relation, as there is an interaction between the elements of any system. Otherwise, they would not be considered systems.


Holism is the belief in the universalism of the methodological thinking and reflexive management of other types of thinking. An ontological holism approves the supremacy of integrity if compared to the separate elements while a methodological holism explains separate phenomena in their communication with integrity. In a broad sense, holism represents the belief in the accounting of all parts of the considered phenomenon and the critical relation to any unilateral approach (Mittelstrass, 2014, p. 51). Holism enjoys wide popularity in numerous different doctrines. At present, it is developed in the general theory of systems.

The holistic doctrine was formulated by J. C. Smuts, the South African philosopher, in his work Holism and Evolution in 1926 (Mittelstrass, 2014, p. 51). The originality of the doctrine consists of the hypertrophy of the formula “the whole is more than its parts” up to the exclusive priority of the whole over its parts. The highest ontological idea of holism includes world integrity which is shown in the psychological, biological, and physical perspectives. Holism is considered in both qualitative and organizational relations. The whole is the central notion of holism and represents the last, inseparable reality of universalism. It is the cornerstone of the word evolution, which creates new integrities. The carrier of all organic properties includes the sensual indiscernible material field, preserved stable during all changes of an organism. An individual personality is the highest form of organic integrity (Pan et al., 2011, p. 1033).

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The whole in the format of systems thinking is the best set of the ways of survival, preservation, and development. However, the substantiality of this statement does not exclude the existence of the environmental parts for which the destruction of other parts of the environment is the best means of survival, preservation, and development. The systems concept as the basis of the systems thinking contains some more important components of the systems plan. It is still at the stage of quite intensive development and, therefore, many of these elements have neither an unambiguous definition nor a rigid structure.


Reductionism is a widespread philosophical point of view according to which difficult phenomena can be best of all understood by the analysis of the components which break the phenomena into their fundamental, elementary aspects (Fang & Casadevall, 2012, p. 1401). The main idea of the reductionist position is that a bigger insight into the nature is achieved by means of the repeated analysis directed from one level to the deeper basic level. Thus, a question of reductionism in science is the question of the degree of pragmatic reasons and mysterious quality, namely elegance.

Reductionism is a global and universal principle of science, the strict and the faultless criterion of the truth in its discoveries and ideas. According to this principle, the fundamental laws based on the first layers of knowledge and the lower steps of the hierarchy of the sciences should also be executed absolutely precisely on the top layers (Fang & Casadevall, 2012, p. 1402). The new knowledge includes the old one as a component. Reductionism is not simply a way of hierarchical thinking but also the principle of the construction of the universe, its fundamental association, and monumental unity (Mittelstrass, 2014, p. 49).

Reductionism is the methodological belief focused on the solution of the problem of scientific knowledge unity on the basis of the development of the general unified language for all scientific disciplines. The essence of reductionism as a scientific method consists of the solution of any task. A researcher reduces its structure to the simpler option available to the analysis or decision. Reductionism absolutizes the principle of reduction, namely the simplification of the complex and highest things to the simplest and lowest ones (Fang & Casadevall, 2012, p. 1401). The reductionism process is an integral part of the system of scientific knowledge methods. It is a methodological method of the transformation of the data connected with the solution of a particular scientific task for the purpose of its simplification and representation by means of some more exact language.

Being a philosophical approach, reductionism historically suppressed holism (Mittelstrass, 2014). Ren? Descartes was the first scientist who spoke about the reductionism approach to the world. Reductionism is defined as the domination of the analytical approach directing the thinking at the search of the simplest, further indecomposable elements. Reductionism in science is an aspiration to describe more difficult phenomena by the language of science describing less complex phenomena or a class of the phenomena, for example, the explanation of biology in terms of mechanics.

The scientific knowledge at any stage of its development is characterized by the definite structure and is organized based on the fundamental theories. In the development of science, the degree of its unity increases, and the interrelations between various areas of science amplify. On the basis of the development of fundamental knowledge, there are increasing opportunities for the synthesis of knowledge gained both within the separate sciences and science, in general, which shows its unity. These justifications of reductionism seem convincing and firm as there is an extremely powerful reinforcement of the methodology of reductionism.

Thus, reductionism is the methodological principle according to which difficult phenomena can be completely explained by means of the laws peculiar to simpler phenomena (Fang & Casadevall, 2012, p. 1403). For example, sociological phenomena are explained in terms of biological or economic laws. Reductionism absolutizes the principle of reduction, ignoring the specifics of the higher organizational levels. In modern western philosophy, reductionism yielded its position to holism.

Comparison and Contrast of Reductionism and Holism

Holism and reductionism are only two steps in a never-ending scale of the ranks of the Universe (Pan et al., 2011). Both are two complementary approaches that attempt to understand the structure of reality at a certain level. Thus, reductionism can be useful in the predictive plan but holism can be helpful in the explanatory one. Reductionism and holism, like analysis and synthesis, have to be considered as two complementary informative methods that contribute to the solution of the corresponding problems. On the one hand, reductionism allows solving the structural tasks and finding the communications of the highest levels with the lowest ones. In its turn, holism is helpful in the reconstruction of the complete picture of an object or phenomenon, especially in the functional relation (Correll, Sarikaya, Alexander, Gleicher, & Albers, 2014, p. 2; Fang & Casadevall, 2012, p. 1403).

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To explain the universality of the systems nature, the systems concept is based on either the reductionism philosophy, which is more characteristic of scientists, or the holism philosophy, which more peculiar to the representatives of the humanists. According to reductionism, all signs of the system, including again arisen qualities on the macro level, should and can be reduced and, therefore, explained by the signs and qualities of the micro-level consisting of the system elements (Fang & Casadevall, 2012, p. 1402). According to the holistic concept, the again arisen qualities of the system define its integrity. The hierarchy of systems considered in terms of holism is meant as an absolutely indivisible and ontologically individual structure, not allowing the decomposition (Correll et al., 2014, p. 2). From the point of view of holism, the independence of the levels is only relative. From the point of view of reductionism, the studying of the interactions in multicomponent systems leads to the understanding of the principles of how almost closed substructures are organized in such systems. Thus, the reductionism position will completely reduce the highest to the lowest and refuse the specifics and independence of the highest forms (Correll et al., 2014, p. 4). The absolutization of holism can lead to the separation of the highest from the lowest in the structural, genetic, and evolutionary relationships.


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