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Introduction | Types of Holism
Introduction Back to Top

Holism in general terms (whether in science, sociology, economics, linguistics or philosophy) is the idea that all the properties of a given system cannot be determined or explained by its component parts alone, but the system as a whole determines in an important way how the parts behave.

In philosophy, the principle of Holism (which comes from the Greek "holos" meaning "all" or "total") was concisely summarized by Aristotle in his "Metaphysics": "The whole is more than the sum of its parts". However, the term "holism" was only introduced into the language by the South African statesman Jan Smuts as recently as 1926.

Holism has significance for Epistemology and the Philosophy of Language in particular. It is contrasted to Epistemological Reductionism (the position that a complex system can be explained by reduction to its fundamental parts) or of Atomism (insofar as it relates to Philosophy of Language, this is the position that sentences have meaning or content completely independently of their relations to other sentences or beliefs).

There are two main types, Epistemological Holism (or Confirmation Holism) and Semantic Holism which are discussed in more detail below.

Types of Holism Back to Top

Epistemological Holism (or Confirmation Holism) is the claim that a single scientific theory cannot be tested in isolation, because a test of one theory always depends on other theories and hypotheses. One aspect of this is that the interpretation of observation is "theory-laden" (dependent on theory); another aspect is that evidence alone is insufficient to determine which theory is correct.

Semantic Holism is a doctrine in the Philosophy of Language to the effect that a certain part of language (e.g. a term or a complete sentence) can only be understood through its relations to a (previously understood) larger segment of language, possibly the entire language. Up until the end of the 19th Century, it was always assumed that a word gets its meaning in isolation, independently from all the rest of the words in a language. In 1884, Gottlob Frege formulated his influential Context Principle, according to which it is only within the context of a proposition or sentence that a word acquires its meaning.

In the 1950's and 1960's, philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, W.V.O. Quine and Donald Davidson broadened this principle still further to arrive at the position that a sentence (and therefore a word) has meaning only in the context of a whole language. However, problems arise with the theory because, given the limits of our cognitive abilities, we will never be able to master the whole of any language, and it also fails to explain how two speakers can mean the same thing when using the same linguistic expression (and how communication is even possible between them).

Confirmation Holism and Semantic Holism are inextricably linked, and yet, although Confirmation Holism is widely accepted among philosophers, Semantic Holism is much less so. The question remains as to how the two holisms can be distinguished, and how the undesirable consequences of "unbuttoned holism" can be limited.

Moderate Holism (or Semantic Molecularism) is a compromise position, which holds that the meanings of words depend on some subset of the language (not the entire language). The argument then arises as to which parts of a language are "constitutive" of the meaning of an expression.

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