by Flemming Funch
Holarchy is a word coined by Arthur Koestler. It is a combination
between the Greek word 'holos' meaning whole and the word 'hierarchy'.
It is a hierarchically organized structure of units or entities that
are called 'Holons'.
Each Holon could be regarded as either a whole or as a part depending
on how one looks at it. A Holon will look as a whole to those parts
beneath it in the hierarchy, but it will look as a part to the wholes
above it. So, a Holarchy is then a whole that is also a structure
of parts that are in themselves wholes.
Here is a biological example of a Holarchy:
Just about anything you would choose to study could be regarded
as either an independent whole or as a part of something bigger. A
lot of interesting and puzzling phenomena come out of this dualism.
It creates dichotomies of independence versus integration, individuation
versus unity, competition versus cooperation, cause versus effect,
Neither of the two extremes provides a complete theory for understanding
life. We can't just say that everything is separate and doesn't depend
on anything else. We can't say either that everything is being controlled
by something else. Seems that we have to juggle the apparent self-contradiction
of everything being both cause and effect, and both part and whole,
depending on how you look at it.
For example, it becomes interesting when we look at the relations
and groupings of people. Some philosophical systems regard an individual
as a totally independent and self-determined unit that can and has
to be fully in control of its own destiny. Other philosophical systems
would regard an individual as totally a product of biological and
environmental factors beyond its control. However, neither extreme
will in itself successfully explain much about human interaction.
The Holarchy/Holon scheme might provide for a more satisfying model.
For example, we can draw a Holarchy of domains of life:
or we could emphasize ecology more:
One person observed as an individual can be regarded as fully self-controlled.
She can basically think and do whatever she wants. We can regard one
individual as a whole. But that person probably has some close interaction
with people around her, she probably has family and friends. We find
that the individual as a part of some relationship is not just determined
by her own self-interest. She will cooperate with the other individuals
and might work at doing what is best for them as a whole. And when
we look at a group we find that individuals and particular relationships
become even more sub-ordinate. If you are working for a company, you
have to be there on time, do certain things that somebody else assigns
to you and so forth. If you do that well and you cooperate with the
other members of the group, it allows the group to function as a whole.
But that is not the end of it. The group will engage in competition
with other groups. But if we go one step up we find that all the groups
belong to the same overall human race of people. Maybe they will cooperate
for the good of mankind and the race can become a whole. And so forth.
The higher we go in the holarchy, the more freedom and the more
overall range of activity can be observed. If you command a universe
there is so much more you can do than if you just have one individual
human being to move around. But then again, a universe might still
just be a part of something bigger that it is sub-ordinate to.
We could say that the higher we go, the closer we get to a statement
of the true whole nature of things. We could possibly say that there
is an absolute, infinite top of the scale, All-that-is, that isn't
part of anything else. But any other concept, beingness, or grouping
of any kind is inherently both a part and a whole.
A Holon is a node in a Holarchy. A Holon looks up for what it needs
to cooperate with and integrate with. It looks sideways for what it
needs to compete with. It looks down for what it wants to command.
Each holon can not be fully explained by or predicted by a study of
its parts. It is something more. A Holon is also part of something
bigger that it is being affected by. But at the same time it has a
high degree of autonomy, it has a life of its own.
To sort out a conflict between Holons, one needs to take a step
up to the next higher whole and to establish more integration and
cooperation among its parts. For example, to sort out a conflict between
two people, we can't resolve it just by looking into their individual
minds. But if we take a step up and examine what kind of relationship
they have, or what kind of group they are both part of, we can then
work to establish cooperation.
It becomes obvious that we can optimize a certain whole by re-aligning
its parts. And just as obvious that if we want to handle higher level
wholes we would move up in the holarchy. We can make one individual
more integrated by working with her parts. But if we want to make
the group she is part of work better, then we need to move up further.
We would have to get the attention of and interact with the actual
group, not just one of its parts, one individual.
Likewise, if several parts of a person are in conflict with each
other, we don't get much resolution from examining just those parts
in themselves. We need to take a step up and examine what the whole
person is about. Only then can we align the parts with the whole and
make them more integrated.
Now, life isn't really a nicely organized hierarchy. Charts like
these are in themselves gross over-simplifications. A clean model
is a useful tool to work with in making sense out of things. However
reality consist just as much of cross-associations. Parts of wholes
might associate with parts of other wholes, thereby creating new wholes
that can again be split into parts, and so forth ad infinitum. That
is what makes life a challenging puzzle. But the tool of looking at
one holarchy or one holon at a time can be valuable in figuring things
out. Each Holon can be considered an integral entity. It connects
upwards towards bigger wholes and downwards towards smaller parts.