Holism in Soviet & Anglo-American
philosophical dictionaries & encyclopedias

Holism, an idealist ‟philosophy of wholenessˮ, ideologically close to the theory of emergent evolution (q.v.), the notion introduced by the South African Field-Marshal J. C. Smuts in his Holism and Evolution (1926). While advancing an idealist interpretation of the fact that a whole can never be understood as a sum total of its parts, Smuts insisted that the world is governed by a holistic process, one of a creative evolution, of formation of new wholes. In that evolutionary process the forms of matter continuously multiply and renew. The holistic process, according to Smuts, denies the law of the preservation of matter. ‟The factor of wholenessˮ is considered by H. non-material and non-cognisable and of a mystical nature. The ideas of H. were also developed by J. S. Haldane (The Philosophical Basis of Biology, 1931) and A. Meyer-Abich (Ideen und Ideale der biologischen Erkenntnis, 1934).

SOURCE: Dictionary of Philosophy, edited by I. Frolov, translated & edited by Murad Saifulin and Richard R. Dixon [from 4th Russian ed. 1980]. Moscow: Progress Publishers [2nd rev. ed.]; New York: International Publishers [1st ed.], 1984. ‟Holism,ˮ p. 176.

Holism. Idealist ‟philosophy of integrityˮ. This concept was introduced by Field-Marshal J. Smuts of South Africa in his book Holism and Evolution (1926). Idealistically interpreting the irreducibility of the whole to the sum of its parts, Smuts asserted that the world is governed by a holistic process—the process of creative evolution, the creation of new integrities, in the course of which the forms of matter are constantly increasing. According to Smuts, the holistic process negates the law of preservation of matter. He considered the ‟factor of integrityˮ to be non-material and unknowable, attributing to it a mystic character. Smuts saw the political embodiment of the holist principle in the Union of South Africa with the regime of social oppression and racial discrimination prevailing in it.

SOURCE: A Dictionary of Philosophy, edited by M. Rosenthal and P. Yudin, translated & edited by Richard R. Dixon and Murad Saifulin. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1967. ‟Holism,ˮ pp. 194-195.

Holism: an idealist philosophy of “wholes.” The term was introduced by J. Smuts in his Holism and Evolution (1926).

According to holism, the world is governed by a process of creative evolution, or the process of creating new “wholes.” In the course of evolution, the forms of matter are transformed and renewed, never remaining constant; the holistic process rejects the law of conservation of matter. An unperceived, nonmaterial field, similar to Leibnitz’ monad, which remains constant throughout all of an organism’s changes, is considered to be the bearer of all organic attributes. The “whole” is interpreted in holism as the highest philosophical concept, which synthesizes in itself the objective and the subjective; it is considered to be the “last reality of the universe.” According to holism, the highest concrete form of organic “whole” is the human personality. Imparting a mystical character to the “factor of wholeness,” holism considers it to be nonmaterial and unknowable.

Holistic ideas have been developed by A. Meyer-Abich in Germany and A. Leman in France. In modern Western literature the term is sometimes used to designate the principle of integrity.


Bogomolov, A. S. Ideia razvitiia v burzhuaznoi filosofii 19 i 20 vekov. Moscow, 1962.
Kremianskii, V. I. Strukturnye urovni zhivoi materii. Moscow, 1969.
Haldane, J. S. The Philosophical Basis of Biology. London, 1931.

SOURCE: Blauberg, I. V. ‟Holism,ˮ in The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979), A. M. Prokhorov, editor in chief. New York: Macmillan, 1973-1983.

Note: While there are several conceptions of holism not noted here, this vital one is curiously absent from English online reference sources, including philosophical dictionaries and encyclopedias I have seen. Similar disparaging references to this sort of holism are scattered in various other Soviet philosophical works one can find in English.  I became aware of Smuts and the dark side of the concept in my counterculture days, an environment oblivious to the origins of its concepts and their laundering for popular consumption.

Note that all of these reference source define ‘holism’ (and related ‘holistic’ concepts) as used within the realm of professional philosophy. Popular usage in English of the word ‘holistic’ involves notions of New Age or mystical/esoteric thought, integrated approaches to living, therapy, thinking, etc., or notions of health and nutrition, alternative medicine. In these contexts, peculiarly, the noun ‘holism’ rarely shows up. (I looked at two New Age encyclopedias. Both use the word ‘holistic’ in abundance. ‘Holism’ is entirely absent from one, and mentioned in the other only in passing, once in the entry for ‘Gaia hypothesis’, the other in the entry for ‘ yoga’.)

Anglo-American philosophical reference sources generally reflect the emphases if not biases of this sphere of philosophical activity. Looking through the contents of an entire bookcase of reference works, I see that there where the general ontological position of holism is covered, details and distinctions are often parsimonious at best. (The next level up from dictionaries and encyclopedias would be ‘handbooks’.) Rarely is Smuts ever mentioned or footnoted. Here are some significant mentions:

A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, edited by Tom Bottomore, Laurence Harris, V.G. Kiernan, Ralph Miliband. 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991. (1st ed., 1983.)

knowledge, theory of (by Roy Bhashar, pp. 285-294): On Louis Althusser (p. 292):

Althusser reasserts the ideas of structure and complexity, on the one hand, and of irreducible sociality, on the other in his view of the social totality as an overdetermined, decentred complex, pre-given whole, structured in dominance. Against empiricism, it is a whole and structured, and its form of causality is not Newtonian (mechanistic); against historicism and holism it is complex and overdetermined, not an 'expressive totality', susceptible to an 'essential section' or characterized by a homogeneous temporality, and its form of causality is not Leibnizian (expressive).

The Dictionary of Philosophy, edited by Dagobert D. Runes. New York: Philosophical Library, 1942. The entry:

Whole (pp. 335-336): The term "whole" has been used frequently in attempts to describe or to explain certain features of biological, psychological, or sociological (but sometimes also of physical and chemical) phenomena which were said to be inaccessible to a "merely mechanistic" or "summative" analysis. In fact, most applications of the concept of whole explicitly resort to a principle which asserts that a whole is more than the sum of its parts.

From the viewpoint of empiricist methodology, that whole-part principle, and in most cases also the use of the term "whole" is open to various objections. In particular, the meanings of the terms "whole", "part", "sum", and "more" are far from clear and change from case to case, and accordingly, so does the meaning and the validity of the part-whole principle: In many cases, a whole is simply meant to be an object of study which has parts (in some one of the many senses of the word), and the part-whole principle is taken to assert either (1) that for a complete knowledge of such an object or system, not only those parts, but also their mutual relationships have to be known, or (2) that such an object has properties which can be found in none of its parts. In either of these interpretations, the part-whole principle is trivially true in every case, but just for this reason it cannot furnish an explanation of any empirical phenomenon such as the specific behavior of a developing embryo, taken as a "biological whole", or of visual gestalten, etc.

For that explanatory function, empirical laws are needed, and occasionally the part-whole principle is tacitly identified with some specific law (or group of laws) governing the phenomenon under consideration. Whatever explanation is achieved in such a case, is obviously due, not to the vague part-whole principle but rather to the specific empirical law which is tacitly supplanted for it; and any empirical law which might be chosen here, applies to a certain specific type of phenomena only and cannot pass for a comprehensive principle governing all kinds of wholes.

According to another interpretation of the notion of whole and of the part-whole principle, a whole is an object whose parts are mutually interdependent in the sense that a change affecting one of its parts will bring about changes in all of the other parts, and because of this interdependence the whole is said to be "more" than the sum of its parts. The part-whole principle then obviously is true simply by definition, and again, lacks explanatory value. Besides, if the above interdependence criterion for wholes is taken literally, then any object turns out to be a whole. What the concept of whole is actually meant to refer to, are specific types of interdependence as found in living organisms, etc., but then, again, an adequate description and explanation of those phenomena can be attained only by a study of their special regularities, not by a sweeping use of the vague concept of whole and of the unclear part-whole principle. (For the points referred to in the preceding remarks, see also Emergent Evolution, Gestalt, Holism, Mechanism, Vitalism.)

Recently, the Polish logician St. Lesniewski has developed a formal theory of the part-whole relationship within the framework of a so-called calculus of individuals, one of the theorems of this theory states that every object is identical with the sum of its parts. This is, of course, a consequence of the way in which the axioms of that calculus were chosen, but that particular construction of the theory was carried out with an eye to applications in logical and epistemological analysis, and the calculus of individuals has already begun to show its value in these fields. See Leonard and Goodman, The Calculus of Individuals and Its Uses, The Journal of Symbolic Logic, 5 (1940, pp. 45-55. — C.G.H. [Carl G. Hempel]

Bloomsbury Guide To Human Thought: Ideas That Shaped The World, edited by Kenneth McLeish. London: Bloomsbury, 1993.

Holism (p. 353): credits Smuts as an originator of the term/concept. Short entry emphasizes ontology, with a paragraph on sociology.

Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion: Eastern and Western Thought, by William L. Reese. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1980. (Not the later, expanded edition.)

Smuts, Jan Christian, 1870-1950 (p. 533): (Holism entry only sends the reader to Smuts.) Brief statement of his official career and his conception of holism.

The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thinkers, edited by John Cumming, R B Woodings, Alan Bulloch. London: Fontana Paperbacks, 1993. (Original publication, 1983.)

Smuts, Jan Christiaan (p. 711): Brief summary of his metaphysics, mostly discussion of his international, national, and racial politics.

Dictionary of World Philosophy, by A. Pablo Iannone. London; New York: Routledge, 2001.

evolution (pp. 204-206): Smuts is listed among others (p. 205) as a contributor to the concept of ‘emergent evolution’.

holism (pp. 246-247): This encyclopedia emphasizes its global scope, but these entries are congruent with other reference works covering ‘Western philosophy’. This entry very concisely lists variant ontological holist positions, indicates links to organicism and emergentism, contrasts holism with ‘descriptive individualism’, defines doxastic/epistemic, semantic/meaning, and methodological holism (social ontology), mentions political (corporatism et al), psychological (Gestalt), and biological linkages (vitalism).

The Edinburgh Dictionary of Continental Philosophy, edited by John Protevi. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005.

Throughout this volume reference is made to Hegel’s ontological holism. Otherwise, other than in the entries highlighted below, the word ‘holistic’ is used in passing to refer to meaning (Davidson, p. 122) and language Humboldt, p. 289), a way of philosophizing (Russian existentialism, 505) and working out ŗ la Heidegger the framework of ‘the enframing situation’ (Technology, philosophy of; p. 573).

British idealism (by William Mander, pp. 75-77): The British Idealists, and specifically the social and political views of Bradley, Green, and Bosanquet, are characterized as holistic, an orientation which I would interpret as organic conservatism.

Feminist epistemology (by Elizabeth Potter, pp. 206-213): Holism (pp. 210-211): This is unconventional with respect to other epistemological formulations. Caveats applying to African ethnophilosophy (see below) may apply here too. Most of the section is devoted to Nelson, but Elizabeth Anderson on theory confirmation is also mentioned. This section begins:

Lynn Hankinson Nelsonís epistemology and philosophy of science takes up a pragmatist holism recognising no bright line between scientific, philosophical and common-sense theories.

The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Robert Audi, general editor. 3rd. ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

holism (by Laird Addis, p. 470): Entry is unchanged from 2nd ed. (1999). Covers a variety of ontological and formulations of the concept, especially in the social sciences and biology, also methodological positions, objections, and later uses of the concept (semantic holism, etc.). As usual in anglophone sources, there is no distinction between holism in sociology (Durkheim et al) and dialectics in Marxism (not mentioned in this entry at all). Smuts is not mentioned. There are cross-references to Koöhler [Wolfgang], methodological holism, philosophy of biology, philosophy of the social sciences, semantic holism. Confirmational holism is to be found under philosophy of science.

The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 8 vols., Paul Edwards, editor in chief. New York, Macmillan, 1967. This was the most extensive English encyclopedia prior to Routledge.

Holism and Individualism in History and Social Science (by W. H. Dray, pp. 53-58): The pros and cons of methodological individualism and its opposite are treated at length here, as this is one of the major issues of Anglo-American thought in the 20th century.

Smuts, Jan Christian (1870-1950) (by T. A. Gouge, vol. 7 & 8, pp. 464-465): His biography and political role are summarized, but with no mention of race. His conception of ‘holism’ (he is credited with originating the concept) is outlined.

Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward Craig, general editor. 10 vols. London; New York: Routledge, 1998. This is now available as a continually updated database for subscribers. It is not perfect, but it is the gold standard at this point for traditionally compiled philosophical encyclopedias in English.

Ethnophilosophy, African (by Ivan Karp, D. A. Masolo): 2/ African ethnophilosophy: This article is refreshingly critical. This section begins:

Both African socialism and more strictly philosophical works of ethnophilosophy celebrate the subordination of the individual to the community that they argue is central to African culture and philosophy. On the surface this position appears to be radically non-Western and opposed to the emphasis on the adversarial individual in Western thought and culture. Actually it accepts a distinct opposition between individual and community that is not only Western but profoundly rooted in nineteenth-century utilitarian thought.

Holism and individualism in history and social science (by Rajeev Bhargava): See also the entries “Social sciences, philosophy of”; “Systems theory in social science”. This article is extensive, but it starts out with this:

Methodological individualists such as Mill, Weber, Schumpeter, Popper, Hayek and Elster argue that all social facts must be explained wholly and exhaustively in terms of the actions, beliefs and desires of individuals. On the other hand, methodological holists, such as Durkheim and Marx, tend in their explanations to bypass individual action.

Holism: mental and semantic (by Ned Block).

Logic of ethical discourse (by Mark Timmons): 6/ Particularism, reasons holism, and the rejection of moral principles.

Marxist philosophy of science (by Richard W. Miller): 2/ Holism: This whole article is refreshing for a mainstream reference work. The three paragraphs of section 2 deftly refute the assertion in the “Holism and individualism...” article above. The argument is too lengthy to fit here, but this brief passage is indicative of Miller’s argument:

How can large-scale functional characteristics such as the expansive needs of capitalist production regulate these individualist causes when the satisfaction of these functions is not a typical dominant reason for which participants act? Here, Marx is psychologically ingenious in a way that breaks down rigid separations of the structural from the individual.

ó RD

Engels contra Holism

Historicism and Historical Prediction
by Maurice Cornforth

Louis Althusser on Hegel’s Expressive Totality

Skepticism in Soviet Philosophical Dictionaries

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia: Selected Entries on Philosophical & Related Topics

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

Holistic Thought, New Age Obscurantism, Occultism, the Sciences, & Fascism

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

Washington Philosophy Circle: Links to Other Sites


Jan Smuts - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Holism - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Holism - definition of holism by The Free Dictionary

Holism | Article about holism by The Free Dictionary

Meaning Holism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Methodological Holism in the Social Sciences (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Holism and Nonseparability in Physics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Handbook of Philosophy
ed. by Howard Selsam
(International Publishers, 1949)

Great Soviet Encyclopedia - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

(Russian) Great Soviet Encyclopedia online

Holismo - Vikipedio

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