What does 'holistic' mean?

Holistic means as much as all-embracing. Holism is a philosophical doctrine according to which all forms of existence in the universe (physical, biological, but also cultural) have the tendency to join together to form more highly integrated units. According to this teaching, the complexity of the universe increases. With wholeness, something new arises from the integration of parts at a higher level. Holism regards given forms of existence as something whole and not as something composed of parts. Only the connection of the components causes the structure of wholeness. The term 'holism' was coined by the South African Jan Christiaan Smuts (1870-1950). But Aristotle already taught that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. The systematic approach was first developed by the English biologist John Scott Haldane.

Holistic thinking has its attention on the relationship between the focused object and the context in which it is located. One tries to explain and predict events on this basis (rather than on the basis of rules). Holistic approaches are based on experience rather than abstract logic. Holistic thinking can be intuitive. It means including the connection of everything with everything.


Shamanism is the oldest holistic method that people have used over long periods of time. Alexander Zick has clarified what is meant by holistic in a working paper of the Faculty of Economics of the FH Hannover on the basis of shamanism: In the shamanic world view a human is part of the cosmos and the interrelations between a human being and the fellow creatures is the focus of interest.

Shamans are mainly mediators between this world and the hereafter, humans and spiritual powers, the living and the dead (ancestors). This is existential indispensable, since the worlds form a complementary whole, well-being and misconduct in their effects never remain locally limited to one, but always the others, i.e.co influence the entire nature. In shamanism science is only one explanatory factor among many. It is related to other explanatory factors in order to understand phenomena of different levels of knowledge and interrelated forms of human experience, perception and feelings.

Also the cosmos, in its parts and as a whole, has a will, a consciousness and sensations according to these ideas. All phenomena of this shamanic universe influence each other to different degrees and with different power. The shamanism offers the necessary connection to the earth, to the original, living earth (the earth understood as living being), to the living space, in which the human being is only one of the possibilities. The shaman works for a harmonious, peaceful world of humans and nature or of nature and humans. Nature does not need humans, but humans need nature.

Dualism versus Holism

The differences between the Western science's developed concept of the universe, nature, humans and consciousness and that of pre-industrial societies (including shamanic cultures) are usually explained by the superiority of materialistic science over the superstition and primitive magical thinking of these cultures. Shamanism is based on mythical and magical knowledge that cannot be learned in our Western sense, but in which one is initiated. While Western science tries to draw the world into our head and dissect it there, the shamans and holistic thinking are about putting your head into the world and looking around (and leaving the world completely).

For the shaman there is no dualism, but a continuous continuum: Everything is interconnected and interwoven in an endless web of life. The shaman accepts the whole life as a system of the "Great Mother", in which he cannot and does not want to change anything. It is as it is, and it remains as it is, it only changes.

Today we mainly cultivate the belief that we live separate from nature and the spiritual realms. The Western, atomistic worldview recognizes only matter and movement as real, the whole is equated with the sum of the parts, and living systems are reduced to inorganic matter, with the result that nature ultimately appears dead.

Holism, however, states that process, form and relationship are the most important, that wholenesses have properties that their parts do not have, that living systems, like spirit, are not reducible to their components, with the result that nature appears alive.

The entire building of modern science was based on the view of nature, which has basically been divided into two separate and independent areas: matter and spirit. This view was the basis for all scientists to treat matter as lifeless and thus separate from the individual self, and to see the material world as a profound accumulation of individual things with a separate identity from themselves, forming a gigantic machine with a certain order.

The representation of the various phenomena by Newtonian physics and its confirmations only proved affirmative of the philosophy of Descartes, the "Cogito ergo sum - I think so I am", so that Western societies began to equate their identity with mind.

The Holistic Principle in Science

The fact that the holistic view has nevertheless found its way into science is illustrated in the following section by means of examples.

Newtonian physics and the mechanistic view of the world have been highly successful in establishing an entire scientific culture in Western societies with spectacular successes in the fields of physics, biology, medicine and chemistry.
But Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had already conceived of a forward-looking science by seeing self- and world knowledge in its complementarity and wholeness: "To explore nature at the same time and oneself, to do neither violence to it nor to one's spirit, but to balance both by slight influence of change", he saw as the right scientific approach.

In the botanical field Goethe developed the concept of the primordial plant. He regarded all the plant's organs as a metamorphosis of the leaf's creative powers. Especially in his theory of colours, to which he dedicated a large part of his life, Goethe showed how an understanding of optical phenomena and colours can be developed purely from the phenomena of light and darkness, which connects with the human sensation.

Goethe strongly attacked his contemporary Isaac Newton, who in a very abstract way, detached from human perception, describes light with mechanistic models.
Nevertheless, Newton prevailed. Today, instead of colour sensations, only abstract wave lengths of electromagnetic waves are permitted for a scientific understanding of light, but not our actual experience of colour, light and darkness.

Physics finally brought about a softening of rigid Western rationality: in the 19th century, the science of thermodynamics emerged, which identified the irreversible nature of macroscopic processes as a result of interactions within complete collections of molecules and thus initiated the break of time symmetry in physics.
Thus time was given a direction from the past into the future. But the thermodynamics of the 19th century only recognized motion towards a state of equilibrium, a state of maximum entropy. Order cannot arise in this way, only collapse.

Physical phenomena could be clearly characterized: either as localizable mass particles or as spatio-temporally continuous electromagnetic waves, but not both at the same time. Quantum mechanics as a breakthrough in the subatomic range at the beginning of the 20th century represented the decisive step towards overcoming a dualistic world view. There were experiments which no longer allowed a certain object to be unambiguously classified as a mass particle or unambiguously as an electromagnetic wave.

Nevertheless, the philosophical consequences of this phenomenon only slowly drip into everyday consciousness. Radical separateness has been cultivated for too long and it is still difficult to allow two different states of being at the same time in our accustomed thinking. Obviously it requires some practice to re-integrate the holistic view of the world and to bring it into harmony with the findings of science.