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