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What The Hell Does ‘Holistic’ Mean?

Updated: Jul 16, 2021

I sometimes feel that for many complementary therapists the word ‘holistic’ serves as an incantation invoking some unspecified power for their therapeutic interventions. Should one ask just what is meant by holistic one would no doubt get a reply that talked vaguely about treating the whole person, which I suspect patients find more beguiling than they should, I am after all not aware of any medical system that advocates healing half the person. The reply might also include some of the supposed benefits of a holistic approach relative to the reductive paradigm of conventional medicine. I think that a deeper understanding of the term ‘holistic’ might illuminate some of the theory underpinning my work as a 5 Element acupuncturist.

The term holistic derives from the word holism which was coined by Jan Smuts, the South African statesman, General and philosopher, who used it in the title of his 1926 book Holism and Evolution. Smut’s ideas were part of a broader critique of reductionism in science and the book makes the case that nature has a tendency to produce wholes from the ordered grouping (structuring) of parts but that the resulting whole cannot be understood simply in terms of its parts. What he suggests is that it’s the process by which those parts are assembled and the structure or order in which they are assembled that is of prime importance in understanding the whole, rather than the nature of the parts themselves; an idea popularised with the phrase ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’.

For Smuts, drawing on the work of A.N. Whitehead, holism implied that material beings were processes rather than discreet things, but he saw his idea applying not just to the physical realm but also to mind and personality, political organisation and, ultimately, spiritual and Absolute values. In all this there’s a sense of a hierarchical progression, from less complex (structured) to more, and his formulation of holism has also been linked with his political-military activity, especially his aspiration to create a league of nations. Indeed this implication of a hierarchy within natural orders was criticised by one of the founders of the science of ecology, a contemporary of Smuts called Arthur Tansley. Tansley suggested that Smuts was using the ideas of ecology to justify the political structures within which Smuts had risen to power and that such hierarchical ordering was in no way implicit in the science of ecology from which Smuts drew inspiration.

Despite these criticisms Smuts’ work would strongly influence the thinker Arthur Koestler who, in a 1967 book entitled The Ghost in the Machine put forward the idea of holons. Koestler’s aim was to produce a theory that could bridge the gap between the mechanistic, reductionist world view of behaviourist psychology and the humanistic worldview of the Freudian, Rogerian and Gestalt psychologies. For Koestler both the atomist view of the reductionist and the holistic view of the humanist were one sided and incomplete because each took their view as absolute, failing to account for the relationship between part and whole. The concept of the ‘holon’ was Koestler’s solution to this problem.

The word holon is a construct made up from the Greek ‘holos’ meaning whole and the suffix ‘on’, as in proton or neutron, suggesting a part. So a holon, as Koestler devised the term, is an identifiable part of a system that has a unique identity, yet is made up of sub-ordinate parts and in turn is part of a larger whole. Like Smuts, Koestler thought evolution inevitably implied a hierarchical organisation but the development of the concept of holons radically changed the character of that organisation and he coined the term holarchy in order to make clear those differences. So while a hierarchy has a clear bottom up, vertical structure, with an implication of some sort of progress as one moves higher up that structure, a holarchy is more complex, with feedback loops and dependencies between parts making such vertical structuring. In its place is an egalitarian structure in which the parts constantly interact to produce larger holons of increasing complexity. An example might be a tree in a tropical rainforest. The tree is complete in itself but is also part of the larger whole which is made up of more than simply trees. But while complete in itself each tree requires the larger whole in order to create the climate for its individual existence. So rather than simple hierarchical structures we have patterns of dynamic interdependence. In this way the development of the concept of holons makes explicit Smut’s idea that material beings are more process than discrete things but without the implication of hierarchical structure to which Tansley objected.

It’s not really possible to do justice to these ideas in a few short paragraphs, after all Koestler spent years and wrote thousands of pages developing them (I’ll put some links to further reading below). But what Koestler’s work gives us is a part/whole model of reality which privileges neither and instead highlights the importance of the relationships between them in order that we may have the fullest understanding possible of any phenomena. Which is all very well, but by now you’re probably wondering just what any of this might have to do with Traditional Oriental Medicine generally and 5Element acupuncture in particular.

As I’ve sat here thinking about how I might start to make that connection I’ve been staring out the window and realised spring is in full swing. There’s a wren returning to a nest in a honeysuckle outside our kitchen window, the buds are breaking on the hazel tree in the corner of the garden, I hear more birds singing in the morning. etc etc. The lengthening days seem to affect the behaviour of the world in predictable ways.

Mostly we imagine that these changes are things that happen to the world we see through our windows or on Springwatch on the TV. But both Traditional Oriental Medicine and Koestler’s idea of holons suggest that we are not just influenced by seasonal changes but that these changes are also happening within us. And why would they not be, we are after all part of the world and made of the same stuff. The 5 Element Tradition explicitly recognises this connection and has a number of seasonal treatments aimed at aligning a person with the changes implicit in the seasonal rhythms of the world. If that sounds far-fetched I’d suggest that one of the ways one could understand a condition such as seasonal affective disorder is as an inability to move smoothly into a new season and its appropriate, or in classical terminology corresponding, modes of being.

The Classics of Chinese Medicine detail these correspondences in quite some detail and the table below outlines just a little part of this as it pertains to the Wood Element which corresponds to Spring.

It’s perhaps easy to see why Spring would have been seen to correspond to the colour Green but at first sight the association of Spring with Anger seems somewhat bizarre. The key is to see that the correspondence is at the level of energetics. To the ancient Chinese spring had the same urgency and drive that anger has, and just as anger rises in the body so the sap rises in spring. From there the sound of a shout, an abrupt and forceful utterance makes sense because it shares that quality. But what has this to do with the Liver?

The first thing to understand is that in Traditional Oriental Medicine the Liver isn’t simply the fleshy organ sitting just under your ribs on the right side of your body. It is that, but a reference to the Liver is also a reference to a wider range of functions and tissues within the body. I’ve listed these in a simplified form in the table below.

At first sight these seem somewhat alien. But in fact the Liver does hold a lot of blood (about 13% of all your blood ) and one of the first signs of jaundice is the whites of the eyes taking on a yellow hue*. Perhaps the roles of ensuring the smooth flow of Qi and of ‘controlling the tendons’ take us closer to what, in Chinese Medicine, are seen as the energetic qualities of Wood and Spring. Ideally Wood should be strong and flexible like bamboo, and healthy tendons, well supplied with Blood, give this quality to the human body. The possible association between arthritis and liver disease was first observed in 1897 and is now well established (,and there’s even some research suggesting those with severe liver disease are more likely to suffer problems with their knees). While the smooth flow of Qi mirrors the energetic of Spring when movement returns to the world after the stillness of Winter.

Lastly we have the Hun Spirit which mirrors in the psychological realm many of the physical qualities attributed to the Liver and of which the teacher Lorie Dechar says:

the Hun spirit represents the psychological faculty of vision, imagination, clear direction… It endows us with the ability to discern our path, stay clear in our direction, imagine possibilities, move forward toward our goals.

I can imagine to anyone not familiar with the theories of Chinese Medicine all this can seem strange and perhaps somewhat far-fetched. But the more one explores the more one sees these connections and correspondences born out by contemporary research. For instance in Traditional Chinese Medicine a ischemic stroke might commonly be diagnosed as Wind Stroke. Wind is the climate associated with the Liver and Anger its corresponding emotion. Modern research is now finding a link between and anger and the incidence of stroke.

So what I see in these tables of correspondences and functions are the outlines of Holons; organised units comprised of multiple independent parts organised and acting in concert. That the organ networks of Chinese Medicine have spirits or aspects of consciousness attached to them might seem unwarranted to those of a more materialist bent. To me its interesting to think that the philosophy of panpsychism suggests that all self-organising systems have consciousness and so the organ systems would inevitably have aspect of consciousness that, when those systems are organised together, provide us with our consciousness or spirit.

I’m not sure if I’ve really answered the question I posed in the title. But it seems to me that the very ideas that Smuts and more particularly Koestler developed are already present in the conception of the body/person that Chinese Medicine has. Its not that I, as a practitioner of Chinese Medicine, makes some attempt to take all aspects of a person into account. Its more that there is no difference between these aspects – a physical aspect will inevitably have emotional, psychological and spiritual dimensions (and vice versa). The only question is if I’m perceptive enough to recognise them, to understand which should be given primacy in any situation and to structure treatment accordingly.

* It’s interesting to note that in the 5 Element model the Wood Element of which the Liver is the primary aspect within the body controls the Earth Element. The colour of Earth is yellow and so in a person with jaundice, whose liver is weak and/or diseased Wood fails to control Earth which then becomes over stronger than it would otherwise be and this appears as a yellow colour, first in the eyes and then on the skin.

Further Reading


Bruce Bell is a fully trained 5 Element Acupuncturist working in the Midsomer Norton / Radstock area, and also from a clinic on the edge of Bath.

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