Holistic Worldviews: an introduction

Daniel Christian Wahl
Published in
6 min readMar 30, 2017


“If the soul of our civilization is to be saved we shall have to find new and fuller expression for the great saving unities — the unity of reality in all its range, the unity of life in all its form, the unity of ideas throughout human civilization, and the unity of the human’s spirit with the mysteries of the Cosmos … evolution is nothing but the gradual development and stratification of progressive series of wholes, stretching from the inorganic beginnings to the highest levels of spiritual creation … the old fixed concepts and contours of thought are breaking down … Holism is a process of creative synthesis; the resulting wholes are not static, but dynamic, evolutionary, and creative. …We are out of the bonds of the old crude mechanical ideas, and we enter an altogether new zone of ideas and categories.” — Jan Christian Smuts (in Thomson & Geddes, 1931, pp.1114–1116).

Graphic representation of a holarchy based on holons that are simulartneously wholes within larger wholes (Image)

The term holism was coined in 1926 by the South African scientist, philosopher and statesman, Jan Christian Smuts. He was among the first to point out “that the biosphere consists of nothing but wholes that are both partly autonomous and partly dependent upon or subsidiary to greater wholes” (Lemkow, 1995, p.100). In his book Holism and Evolution, Smuts defined the term holism as “the tendency, as in nature, to form connected wholes” (in Brown et al., 2005, p.135).

Christian Smuts. (image)

[This article is an excerpt from the Worldview Dimension of Gaia Education´s online programme in Design for Sustainability. The course is based on four dimensions plus a design studio. I wrote this course for Gaia Education in 2012 and revised and updated this dimension in 2016.]

The Scottish polymath Sir Patrick Geddes, a biologist, sociologist and town planner, called holism “a serious contribution towards the upbuilding of a new constructive worldview.” Smuts and Geddes understood the importance of our worldview in informing and guiding the survival of humanity. In Life — Outlines of a General Biology, Geddes writes: “in the last resort a civilization depends on its general ideas” (Thomson & Geddes, 1931, p.1114).

Holism and Evolution, Jan Christian Smuts. (image)

Arthur Koestler tried to provide a new terminology for holistic thinking that overcomes the dualistic mutually exclusive definition of the words ‘whole’ and ‘part.’ He focussed on the fact that within the whole that contains everything, there are many wholes that are simultaneously parts of larger wholes.

Koestler referred to this property of parts — being both wholes and parts — as the Janus Effect (after the ancient Roman deity Janus, often depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions). He regarded the Janus Effect as “a fundamental characteristic of all sub-wholes in all types of hierarchies.” Koestler argued that “there is no satisfactory word in our vocabulary to refer to these Janus-faced entities” since sub-whole, sub-structure and sub-system did not properly indicate the relationship of simultaneous independence and interdependence. He therefore proposed the term holon, “from the Greek holos = whole, with the suffix on which, as in proton or neutron, suggests a particle or part” (Koestler, 1989, p.48).

The two-faced god Janus is the god of beginnings and transitions, he looks to the future and the past. The Janus Effect, introduced by Arthur Koestler, refers to the property of parts of being both wholes and parts (Image)

“Wholes and parts cannot exist by themselves either at a biological or social level. What we find are intermediary structures on a series of levels in ascending order of complexity, each of which has two faces looking in opposite directions; the face turned towards the lower levels is that of an autonomous whole, the one turned upward that of a dependent part.” — Arthur Koestler (in Goldsmith, 1996, p.236)

[This module will explore the emerging holistic worldview in science, philosophy, history, culture, and many of the social movements and practical initiatives that are working for a more just and sustainable world.] We are living through a fundamental shift in the guiding worldview of humanity. At the same time as we are rediscovering the wisdom encoded in the diverse worldviews of so many of the world’s traditional cultures and indigenous people, we are also faced with the challenge of integrating these perspectives into a larger guidance system that can help to sustain human and all other life at a planetary scale. Reason and Goodwin explain: “The principle of holism argues that there are no privileged parts, no primary causes, no blueprints which define the emergent order” (1999, p.287).

“The new biology of complexity and emergent properties shows just how limited and aberrant is a reductionist view of life, and how inappropriate is a relationship to nature based on control and manipulation.” — Prof. Brian Goodwin (1999a, p.9).

Brian Goodwin was one of the prominent scientists who contributed to the development of complexity theory. He was also instrumental in creating the Masters in Holistic Science at Schumacher College.

Here is a video (10mins) that explains his contribution.

During the course of almost a century, we have been witnessing the emergence of a fundamentally participatory picture of reality that “turns out to be, in general, holistic, unpredictable and creative” (Goodwin, 2001, p.42). The physicist Arthur Zajonc suggest that we have to expand our foundation of inquiry and develop a holistic epistemology “that is broad enough to include on the one hand a reinterpreted conventional science, but also open enough to include a science of qualities and beyond the science of qualities to a science of spirit — a science of the contemplative” (Zajonc, 2002).

The ecological and spiritual activist Satish Kumar, co-founder of Schumacher College, has suggested that “unless we are able to heal the rift between science and spirituality, and develop a holistic perspective of life, peace will remain a distant dream” (Kumar, 2002).

A recent two-year project by the ‘Royal Society for the promotion of commerce, manufacturing and the arts’ (RSA) on the role of spirituality in modern societies concluded with a report entitled ‘Spiritualise: revitalizing spirituality to address 21st Century challenges’. It essentially suggested that a renewed public dialogue about the role of spirituality and meaning making may help us to address the deeper underlying causes of many of todays problems and also give us a meaningful framework to contextualize our interconnectedness and interdependence with each other and with life as a whole.

Paying attention to what worldview informs our perspective of reality and influences our decisions and goals is a crucial process of self-reflection and increasing self-awareness that opens up the potential for transformative and wise action in ourselves and in groups of collaborators.

… cont.

Note: This is an excerpt from the Worldview Dimension of Gaia Education’s online course in Design for Sustainability. In 2012 I was asked to rewrite this dimension as part of a collaboration between Gaia Education and the Open University of Catalunya (UOC) and in 2016 I revised it again into this current version. The next opportunity to join the course is with the start of the Worldview Dimension on June 1st, 2020. You might also enjoy my book ‘Designing Regenerative Cultures’.



Daniel Christian Wahl

Catalysing transformative innovation, cultural co-creation, whole systems design, and bioregional regeneration. Author of Designing Regenerative Cultures