The art—in contrast with reductionism — of seeing a complex system as a whole. Holism knows the limits to its understanding; it acknowledges that the system has its wildness, its privacy, its own reasons, its defences against invasive explanation. It does not approach systems with crafted innocence and call it evidence-based science. It does not pretend to understand the whole school just on the evidence of dissecting the geography teacher. It is not embarrassed by the application of judgment.H20

But holism can lead the way into fallacies. First, it can be misconstrued as a mandate for top-down control, without regard for detail and for the system’s structure of parts and subassemblies. For example, it is sometimes argued that an appropriate model for a carbon rationing system would be a global system in which people trade worldwide within a single carbon budget. On the contrary, such a system would require well-developed subsystems (e.g., at the level of the nation and below) to manage their own rationing schemes adapted to local circumstances, but within the wider global framework. As the System Scale Rule has it: large-scale problems do not require large-scale solutions; they require small-scale solutions within a large-scale framework.

Secondly, holism is sometimes reduced to a brief and benign glance at the surface, rather than persistent and deep engagement with a system, including some painstaking understanding of at least some of its parts. Without that, you are not being “holistic”; you are flattering your intuition with powers of insight which you may not have fully earned.

Despite the risks, holism is a key ethic. It is both lean thinking and systems thinking, but it can make a claim to be more than either. To encounter the connections between the particular matter before you today and all other matters is to get close to the quality of Tao—the Way which connects us to the logic of our existence.H21 It is an ethic which we cannot define, but which we can explore, though it is uphill work.

On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what th’ hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

John Donne, Satire III, c.1593.H22


Related entries:

Division Fallacy, Systems Thinking.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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