Holism

Holism:

A New Framework for Thinking About Business

Article by Wayne Visser

The Phoenix of Business

For me, the image of the phoenix from Native American Indian mythology rising up from the ashes of its dead body symbolises our potential to transform the dying metaphor of business as a ‘rational machine’ into a new metaphor:  business as a ‘living whole’.

This idea arose out of one of my business lectures at university some years ago in which Peters and Waterman’s famed bestseller, In Search of Excellence (1982), was under discussion.  As it happened, I was concurrently reading Jan Smuts’ scientific and philosophic treatise, Holism and Evolution (1926) and was struck by the conceptual parallels between the ‘rational mode’ of business which Peters and Waterman were criticising and the restrictive ‘mechanism’ which Smuts attributed to the scientific community of the 1920s.  Since Smuts regarded his theory of holism as the “necessary antidote to the analytical methods which prevailed”, I began to wonder about its remedial potential for the ailing business theory of the present day.

This article is the fruit of my contemplation along those lines – namely, how holism might be applied as a new framework for thinking about business.

Mechanism in Science in the 1920s

Smuts’ starting point in the 1920s was his conviction that the prevailing view of science was both outdated and limiting.  He was referring, of course, to the commonly-held believe that the universe was “a system or combination whose action can be mathematically calculated from those of its component parts”.  In more simple terms, it was Newton’s concept of the clockwork universe where, “when isolated elements or factors of the complex situation have been separately studied, they are recombined in order to reconstitute the original situation”.

Smuts’ main criticism of this reductionistic view of reality, which he called ‘mechanism’, centred on its failure to recognise the countless synergies which exist in the world around and within us, as well as its inability to account for the process of creative evolution.  In his own words, it was “a fixed dogma, that there could be no more in the effect than there was in the cause; hence creativity and real progress became impossible … In its analytical pursuit of the part”, therefore, “science had missed the whole, and thus tended to reduce the world to dead aggregations rather than to the real living wholes which make up nature.”

Smuts’ belief was that “in studying and interpreting Nature, we need to be faithful to our experience of her”, and that, “our experience is largely fluid and plastic, with little that is rigid and much that is indefinite about it”.  His recommendation was that “we should as far as possible withstand the temptation to pour this plastic experience into the moulds of our hard and narrow preconceived notions.”

Rationalism in Business in the 1980s

This diagnosis by Smuts of the malaise infecting science of the 1920s bears striking resemblance, we find, to the critique by Peters and Waterman of the ‘rationalist view’ which was dominating business thinking in the 1980s.  In a sense, this is not surprising, given that both stem from what …

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Cite this article

Visser, W. (1995) Holism: A New Framework for Thinking about Business. New Perspectives, No. 7.

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