Hierachy 2: Basic Holonic Theory

The last post introduced the idea of natural or healthy hierarchy. Let us look again at the developmental sequence:

particles, atoms, molecules, cells, organisms

We can see that every entity at each level has simultaneously two characteristics. It is both a coherent whole in its own right and a part of entities higher up the scale. It is a whole/part. These whole/parts are called Holons (a term coined by Arthur Koestler) and natural hierarchies that have a holonic nature are termed Holarchies. (unfortunately this terminology is not commonly used and its use in general discourse is limited, which is a shame as it clearly distinguishes natural hierarchies from unhealthy hierarchies).

Furthermore we can see that as wholes all holons have rights. and as parts all holons have responsibilities. (maybe you can start to get an inkling of the usefulness of this framework!)

We can also note that the more junior a level is in a holarchy; the more fundamental it is. The more senior a level is; the more significant it is.

We can always do a quick test if we are not sure which level is more senior. If we destroy all holons on one level level all senior level holons disappear and all junior level holons remain. For example if we destroy all cells in the universe, all organisms disappear but all particles, atoms and molecules remain.

As holarchies evolve the number of holons at the more senior levels reduces. As depth increases, span decreases. There will always be more atoms in the universe than cells.

When I first came across the idea of holarchies it transformed the way I thought of development. I came to see that all normal development, evolution, growth and maturation is best understood within this framework. From individual personal maturation to large scale socio-cultural development. That is not to say that everything can be understood holarchically. There are vast realms of life that are not arranged holarchically. In human life at any level there are rainbows of diversity of equally depthed holons where any attempt to force a ranking is deeply suspicious (technically, equally depthed holons relate heterachically – ie: without ranking distinctions). In any discourse and analysis keeping all rankings strictly limited to those aspects that are related holarchically is of critical importance.

Of course development does not always proceed healthily. Senior levels in a holarchy can, instead of transcending and including junior levels in a compassionate embrace, dissociate and repress them. We humans seem particularly prone to this pathology in our psychological development. We split off, deny, suppress and generally treat pretty badly fundamental parts of ourselves which results in myriad forms of psychological and social problems for ourselves and others. Trying to untangle these types of  issues as they present themselves in modern life will be a major aim of this Blog.

For further reading on Holonic theory try the following:

Sex, Ecology, Spirituality  by Ken Wilber, especially the ‘twenty tenets’

A Guide for the Perplexed by EF Schumacher

2 thoughts on “Hierachy 2: Basic Holonic Theory”

  1. I’m a bit nervous about making the first comment on your blog – also my first engagement with any blog! Still, let’s give it a try.
    I have been pondering the topics in your blog for some time now and reading your initial blogs it reinforces my realisation that much of my struggling with these ideas has been fuelled by a problem with semantics. Not surprisingly many words in the English language have very varied associations and understanding to different people – none, probably more contentious than the seemingly straightforward word ‘hierarchy’. My background and intellectual development have led me to have a great suspicion of this concept associating it negatively with, oppression, superiority, elitism etc, etc….This, I am sure, has hampered me in fully engaging with and understanding the topics you are introducing. It shows how essential it is for all participants involved in exploring ideas and concepts that they make sure that the words they use are elucidating discussions not fogging and muddling them.
    Having recognised my unwitting bias I do now feel excited by these ideas and concepts and want to explore them further both in discussion and study. Natural hierarchy as an embracing and respectful enhancing of a progression of ‘whole/parts’ is a logical and appealing concept, though the capacity for both individual and groups of humans to so easily distort and abuse this is depressing. I can understand the hierarchical nature of human evolvement and development, but do not fully understand how this applies to individual human development. Are we as humans all at the same level within an embracing hierarchy or do we each have our own hierarchy of development? I’m getting muddled – look forward to more reading and more discussion!

  2. Thankyou so much for your thoughtful comment, I am so pleased that some of the ideas that I am introducing are challenging some of your previously held assumptions. I think that the bare theory of natural hierarchy/holarchy is pretty dry and as this Blog progresses some of the issues you raise will become clear. The application of these ideas to human development, both individual psychological growth from infancy to maturity, and broader socio-cultural evolution, is really where the fun is at! Hope you hang around to help me articulate it as best I can.

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