Holism & the Gestalt

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Introduction

The notion that the world is a changeless unity at some level can be traced back to Parmenides, although the word in its current form was coined in the early 1920s by Jan Smuts, who defined it as “The tendency in nature to form wholes that are greater than the sum of the parts through creative evolution”. It is my contention this notion is fundamentally misunderstood at all levels, and that the resulting holism-reductionism debate is in fact no more than a trivial non-issue.

I shall begin this essay by providing a high-level view of some principal areas whose outlook is tantamount to holism. I shall attempt to provide clear examples of the holist position and its supposed reverse, Reductionism.

The second part of this essay will attempt to show how these issues are encapsulated in our understanding of the space around us. In particular, I will examine the notion of abandonment and its place in the development of states and of objects. I will argue that through an understanding of the examples provided, we can come to understand how the debate reduces to an analysis of language – ‘For the philosopher, as an analyst, is not directly concerned with the physical properties of things. He is concerned only with the way in which we speak about them.’ (Ayer, 1946)

Thirdly, I shall draw the threads of the essay together in attempting to show that positing any form of meaningful debate between holism and reductionism results in a failure of rationality, and that such a position is thus devoid of meaning.

Holism : From Gestalt to Emergence

The early Greek atomism of Leucippus and Democritus was a forerunner of classical physics. According to their view, everything in the universe consists of indivisible, indestructible atoms of various kinds. Change is a rearrangement of these atoms. This kind of thinking was a reaction to the still earlier position of Parmenides, who argued that at some primary level the world is a changeless unity.

In the seventeenth century, at the same time that classical physics gave renewed emphasis to atomism and reductionism, Spinoza developed a philosophy reminiscent of Parmenides. According to Spinoza, all the differences and apparent divisions we see in the world are really only aspects of an underlying single substance, which he called God or nature. Based on pantheistic religious experience, this emphasis on an underlying unity is reflected in the mystical thinking of most major spiritual traditions. It also reflects developments in modern quantum field theory, which describes all existence as an excitation of the underlying quantum vacuum, as though all existing things were like ripples on a universal pond.

It was not until the 20th century that the term Holism was first coined. The South African politician Jan Smuts saw that ‘Creative evolution synthesises from the parts a new entity not only different from them, but quite transcending them. That is the essence of a whole. It is always transcendent to its parts, and its character cannot be inferred from the characters of its parts.’ (Holism & Evolution, 192x)

Work by the Gestalt theorists Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka and others in the early 20th century can be seen quite clearly to belong to the Holist view. It was their position that the classical theories of, amongst others, JS Mill and H von Helmholtz were insufficient in their reduction of the world to atomistic principles. The classical view held that our sensory receptors analyse the energies provided by the world into independent but unnoticeable sensations – Mill, for example, defined matter as ‘the permanent possibility of sensation’. However many perceptual phenomena seem to defy analysis in terms of such independent or atomistic sensations. A melody sounds the same when transposed to a new key – and is thus to perceived as new auditory sensations; objects moving through the field of one’s view display physical constancy despite a changing set of physical receptors; etc.

In addition, the classical theory seemed unable to account for what is known as the ‘figure-ground phenomenon’ – the way in which a given outline can be perceived as very different shapes. Rubin (1921) showed that the area considered to be the ‘figure’ is a definite, bounded space – whereas the ground is less well-defined. This ability to recognise shapes given their setting requires that the form be identified – in the well-known figure-ground example that represents either a vase or two faces talking, we discard information in the first case that we need in the other. Classical theory, reducing the task to its constituent elements, did not appear to account wholly for shape perception.

This perceived failure is part of what drove the Gestalt theorists to claim that form is the most basic element of perception, with properties derived from underlying brain processes configured by a direct response to patterned energies acting on the sensory nervous system. Although this physiological model does not appear to have a great deal of basis in fact, and although the notion of steady-state form-based process models seems inherently flawed – in order to perceive any large object, one’s vision is directed at a number of different places at a rate of four times a second, providing a rapid superimposition of fragmentary information for the hypothesised brain field – there is a lasting impact of the Gestalt school in their ‘laws of organisation’.

Many of these ‘laws’ were proposed: the ‘law of enclosedness’, stating that any enclosed region tends to be perceived as figure; the ‘law of good continuation’, stating that we perceive the organisation that interrupts the fewest lines; etc. This approach does seem to suggest that there are evolved structures or patterns by which we interpret our sensations – a topic which would later receive significant interest with the development of evolutionary psychology as a discipline in the early 90s – but suffer from a failure at the predictive level. The relative strengths of such laws are unknown, and potential conflict cannot be resolved.

Another area which has had increasing visibility in recent years has been the field of Emergence. In the study of complex systems one often sees that a collection of interacting systems shows collective behaviour. This is intuitively what we understand by emergence. Johnson (2001) traces the development of emergence as a field of study back to the development of information theory and the subsequent work by Warren Weaver which divided the world of scientific inquiry into three camps. The first two types of problem – two or three variable problems, such as the rotation of planets, and what he called problems of ‘disorganized complexity’ characterized by millions or billions of variables, had both been fairly well understood. There was, however, a third group of problems which involved a moderate number of variables and which – far from needing the statistical approach that problems of disorganized complexity required – exhibited instead some essential features of self-organization. He called these problems of organized complexity.

Predominantly, these problems display behaviour which comes about not through top-down decision making but through bottom-up accumulative actions. The simplest way to understand these problems is not through the number of variables but through their ability, over iterations, to show behaviour that looks controlled – something often seen, for example, in the insect kingdom

There are many cases where emergent properties can be observed. What is most interesting to us here, however, is the level of similarity between Holism and Emergence. For example, Baas & Emmeche (1997) comment that :

“As we see it here emergence is just the same as holism. An emergent structure is a holistic structure. We should emphasize, that from this refined notion of holism, it does not follow that `the whole’ cannot be analyzed, nor that it is always impossible to deduce the properties of the whole from its constituents and the observational mechanisms.”

In each of these areas and others, the term ‘holism’ is used to discuss wholes whose very existence defies any ordering of the parts making them up; that the meaning of the parts is given if and only if they are combined in the whole. In contrast, the reductionist view is taken to refer to a number of related, contentious theories holding that the nature of complex things can always be reduced to simpler or more fundamental things. This is said of objects, phenomena, explanations, theories, and meanings.

What is clear is that so-called reductionism, like so-called holism, can take on many forms. Dennett (1995) coined the term ‘greedy reductionism’ to describe reductionist theories that attempt to explain too much with too little – while it may at some level be meaningful for me to describe the behaviour of my car with reference to sub-atomic particle behaviour, I will lose much of the useful context. Reductionist explanations can be conducted at different levels, maintaining this context – a hierarchic reductionism (Dawkins, 1986) which allows that explanation has meaning at a given level, but not at another.

In considering Holism and Reductionism as two diametrically or philosophically opposed positions, I have touched briefly on three areas of a broadly holist disposition and highlighted how reductionism takes a different approach.

Decline & Fall : Ózd

The Hungarian town of Ózd is situated some three hours’ drive to the north-east of Budapest, on the Slovak border. It is an easy drive for the first two hours; for the final hour it is instead picturesque, taking a winding path up and down a two-lane forest road. The town itself, however, is singularly bereft of charm. With forty-two thousand inhabitants, it is the second largest town in Borsod County, and is unusual for its octopus-shaped layout which reaches far into various river valleys.

Germuska (2002) comments that Ózd is “is a typical ‘one plant- one town” settlement. Based on the geographical makeup of the area, rich in brown coal and iron-ore, the iron industry is considered to be traditional, with small-scale works having been the norm at the beginning of the 19th century. These were later replaced by larger factorys :

The factory was built from 1846 to 1847 at the joining of the surrounding hills’ valleys along the Hangony stream. The factory had become the generator of settlement, the organizing power of the urban structure situated in the centre and, as a result of its extensive economic and social activity, which had created and maintained the new settlement Ózd, the industrial town. Therefore the factory had become the centre of the little villages situated in the joining valleys. As factory workers lived in these villages, they became a part of the urban structure of Ózd, too, but keeping their local architectural images. Consequently the centre of the town is not a historical town centre (in Hungary traditionally with a church and a main square) but a factory itself. (Vasczi, 2003)

The entire life of the town was built around this colossal factory, which during the latter part of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century built a large number of residential areas in order to house its workers. The factory site covered 50 hectares – together with these residential areas making up a major part of the central area of the town. In addition, the ‘colonies’ themselves were built along the hierarchical lines of the factory politic; the area named ‘Big America’, built for directors and clerks of the factory, was positioned so as to have a direct view over ‘Little America’, which was built for the skilled workers. Other areas were the ‘Untidy Colony’ for unskilled workers, and ‘Venice’ which lay alongside a canal. At one point the factory employed 14,000 workers.

The extent to which the factory affected the life of the town is hard to gauge without having been there. In Vasczi’s 2003 lecture she mentions that the sign language which was used amongst workers in the factory was also used by schoolchildren; that the factory hooter structured the life of the town instead of the more-usual church bell; that the factory built a number of public buildings, which street became the centre of the town’s corporate life.

Almost 150 years of development and prosperity followed the building of the factory. There was a deal of regime change in Hungary driven in part by the failure of economic reforms dating from 1968, and the country’s apparent prosperity was maintained from foreign loans which incurred significant debt for the country. The collapse of the economy and the closure of the factory meant that Ozd lost 15% of its population between 1980 and 2000 (Germuska, 2002)

From a physical perspective, much of the factory has now been destroyed – the so-called ‘chimney cathedral’ razed, and many buildings left standing empty. Necessary maintenance has not been carried out, leaving what is left in a precarious state of disrepair. Despite the investments of foreign business, a large number of young and educated people left the town in its decline, stripping it of such resources for the immediate future. Unemployment reached nearly 30%. A shopping centre project begun in 1969 remains unfinished, and the effective centre of the town is a short side street predominantly notable for its grim aspect.

There is much that we can understand about abandonment in this story: economic planning that undercut a country’s progress; political instability leading to democracy; a town deserted by its own future. From a philosophical perspective, however, my question is based on how we can begin to understand the reality that is Ózd; and it is here that questions of Holism & Reductionism come into play. If I stand in the ruins of the factory, to what extent can I understand the establishment and subsequent disbanding of COMECON – a period in history critical to understand the cause of the ruins? Or, indeed, the Marshall Plan? Or the history that led to WWII? If I wish to understand the current state of Ózd, is it necessary for me to understand these things? Each of the moving parts may be known, but the makeup of each of these parts seems to require tougher enquiry.

Perhaps a more important question is how abandonment has affected Ózd. A visit to the town today reveals it to be without any meaningful centre, with the hulls of former factory buildings visible from almost any point. The former workers’ settlements, predominantly occupied by unskilled workers and those on the bread line, cry out for immediate attention – the shops in these areas are heavily barred. The town has been quite comprehensively abandoned in social and civil terms, which fact gives it an existence defined almost wholly through the degree of abandonment evidenced in the facades and in the visible poverty.

There are infinite levels by which this small city can be understood: as personal spaces, constituting homes and lives; as part of a great socio-economic cycle; as the conjunction of a teeming legion of tinier parts, subatomic particles about which only accurate prediction can be made. The so-called Reductionist perspective seems not to serve me particularly well. An examination of the buildings’ elements – their bricks, the physical elements that make them up – would be a hopeless and some might argue meaningless task. On the other hand, surely I can enumerate all of the parts that make up the locations’ current state, even if in order to do so I must use entities which themselves defy a level of reductionist explanation at some level.

It would be possible to take the most extreme Logical Positivist approach to the question at hand, and while agreeing with a form of Gestaltism, or Holism, simultaneously argue that the perspective is meaningless as philosophers do not speak of the properties of objects but instead ‘express definitions, or the formal consequences of definitions’ (Ayer, 1946). Similarly, it would be possible to argue that as quantum physics has shown us that entanglement is a very real consequence of the properties of matter, and leads to some non-local effects for which simple causal explanations are not workable, no reductionism can ever be whole, or complete: as in Gödel-sentences, any formally reductionist system would always contain at least one step which was holist in nature and thus would prove its Achilles heel. However, it seems to me that our problem is not in discussing either the whole, or its parts. Our problem is in the sum.

Let us take the simplest example:

1+1=2

Here, the whole seems very much the sum of its parts. But why? Presumably because there is a value associated with these formal symbols.

1+1=11

And why not? Well, because in addition to the value given by the symbols, the combination thereof also acts according to certain rules – in this case, mathematics combined with number theory. Knowing the rules, and recognising the symbols, I can start with 2 and arrive at 1 and 1 – so in this case, one might say, the whole is exactly equal to the sum of its parts. That does not mean, however, that I can necessarily, given the number 2, arrive at the sum 1+1. I may arrive at a quite different and infinitely more complex system of operations, all of which adhere rigidly to the same rules and theory. What one means when one says that the whole is the sum of its parts in this case is simple : given the whole, and the sum, it is possible to deduce the properties of the whole from its constituents.

Is there any meaningful difference between this simple case and the case of, say, a non-linear equation whose output is predictable only between certain values? When we know the process for arriving at one from the other, we have the whole story. At what point did something else creep in? For when I say ‘sum’, I am speaking of a precise combination, not the vagaries of chance. The whole of a chaotic equation’s output may be a diagram complete with strange attractor; it becomes useful as an object of study by conjunction of whole and parts, through the controlled sum.

Critics of reductionism, according to Ayer, point out that few – if any – complex objects in this world are simply the sum of their parts. It is my contention that a simple error divides the Holists – whose focus is naturally on the behaviour of the whole – and the Reductionists, whose behaviour is naturally focused on the parts. Without focus on the sum, neither position is complete: once one focuses on the sum, the differentiation becomes meaningless, trivial.

Looking once again at Ózd, we can say that the situation is the result of a number of social and political currents and actions, that together created record levels of unemployment and poverty in the town. We can say that the factory buildings, abandoned as they have been, can be understood through reference to their position in that conjunction. This is simple holism. There is a level, however, in which it is meaningful to talk of the town as a combination of its buildings, a building as a combination of bricks, a brick as a combination of sand, water, and so on. This is a form of hierarchic reductionism.

If two things, or positions, are effectively the same then we must call them the same – to do otherwise, and furthermore to pit one against the other in a trivial contest of wills, constitutes nothing less than a failure of rationality. It is my belief that by dividing explanations into either of these two supposed camps is a mistake that has wasted enough time and should be put behind us.

Conclusion : Abandonment as Elision

In considering the debate concerning the supposedly opposed positions of Holism and Reductionism, I reviewed in some detail two positions forming a base for modern Holism – Gestalt Theory and Emergence. I then laid out the story of two locations whose history is not unlike a cabinet of threads. Each location has been abandoned in some way and yet attempts remain today to revive it – in Princelet Street, the charity is ready to take any form of financial help, and in Ózd a level of regeneration is being brought about through efforts to list buildings & gather financial aid.

It is my view that this abandonment is critical in understanding any location, or any complex structure. In a case such as Princelet Street, it is part of the dialectic of the building, one of the parts that make up the sum – should the current caretakers fail in their grandiose scheme to turn this dilapidated building into a museum for immigration, the dialectic will continue. In Ózd, the extremity of its plight has changed the face of the town forever – at this stage, it is perhaps one of the important elements or processes by which the town has come to be as it is.

In either case it is by understanding not simply the parts or the whole but the sum thereof that we come to understand the world around us. A division of perspectives into ‘Holist’ and ‘Reductionist’ is based not on any basic methodological schism but rather on the elision of the word ‘sum’ and all that it entails. By placing this term centre-stage, the debate is revealed as nothing more than an error occasioned by a lack of understanding, and should now be closed.

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Source by Stephen Levy