by Flemming Funch, 4 Feb 95.

Holarchy is a word coined by Arthur Koestler. It is a combination between the Greek word 'holos' meaning whole and the word 'hierarchy'. It is a hierarchically organized structure of units or entities that are called 'Holons'.

Each Holon could be regarded as either a whole or as a part depending on how one looks at it. A Holon will look as a whole to those parts beneath it in the hierarchy, but it will look as a part to the wholes above it. So, a Holarchy is then a whole that is also a structure of parts that are in themselves wholes.

Here is a biological example of a Holarchy:

Just about anything you would choose to study could be regarded as either an independent whole or as a part of something bigger. A lot of interesting and puzzling phenomena come out of this dualism. It creates dichotomies of independence versus integration, individuation versus unity, competition versus cooperation, cause versus effect, etc.

Neither of the two extremes provides a complete theory for understanding life. We can't just say that everything is separate and doesn't depend on anything else. We can't say either that everything is being controlled by something else. Seems that we have to juggle the apparent self-contradiction of everything being both cause and effect, and both part and whole, depending on how you look at it.

For example, it becomes interesting when we look at the relations and groupings of people. Some philosophical systems regard an individual as a totally independent and self-determined unit that can and has to be fully in control of its own destiny. Other philosophical systems would regard an individual as totally a product of biological and environmental factors beyond its control. However, neither extreme will in itself successfully explain much about human interaction. The Holarchy/Holon scheme might provide for a more satisfying model.

For example, we can draw a Holarchy of domains of life:

or we could emphasize ecology more:

One person observed as an individual can be regarded as fully self-controlled. She can basically think and do whatever she wants. We can regard one individual as a whole. But that person probably has some close interaction with people around her, she probably has family and friends. We find that the individual as a part of some relationship is not just determined by her own self-interest. She will cooperate with the other individuals and might work at doing what is best for them as a whole. And when we look at a group we find that individuals and particular relationships become even more sub-ordinate. If you are working for a company, you have to be there on time, do certain things that somebody else assigns to you and so forth. If you do that well and you cooperate with the other members of the group, it allows the group to function as a whole. But that is not the end of it. The group will engage in competition with other groups. But if we go one step up we find that all the groups belong to the same overall human race of people. Maybe they will cooperate for the good of mankind and the race can become a whole. And so forth.

The higher we go in the holarchy, the more freedom and the more overall range of activity can be observed. If you command a universe there is so much more you can do than if you just have one individual human being to move around. But then again, a universe might still just be a part of something bigger that it is sub-ordinate to.

We could say that the higher we go, the closer we get to a statement of the true whole nature of things. We could possibly say that there is an absolute, infinite top of the scale, All-that-is, that isn't part of anything else. But any other concept, beingness, or grouping of any kind is inherently both a part and a whole.

A Holon is a node in a Holarchy. A Holon looks up for what it needs to cooperate with and integrate with. It looks sideways for what it needs to compete with. It looks down for what it wants to command. Each holon can not be fully explained by or predicted by a study of its parts. It is something more. A Holon is also part of something bigger that it is being affected by. But at the same time it has a high degree of autonomy, it has a life of its own.

To sort out a conflict between Holons, one needs to take a step up to the next higher whole and to establish more integration and cooperation among its parts. For example, to sort out a conflict between two people, we can't resolve it just by looking into their individual minds. But if we take a step up and examine what kind of relationship they have, or what kind of group they are both part of, we can then work to establish cooperation.

It becomes obvious that we can optimize a certain whole by re-aligning its parts. And just as obvious that if we want to handle higher level wholes we would move up in the holarchy. We can make one individual more integrated by working with her parts. But if we want to make the group she is part of work better, then we need to move up further. We would have to get the attention of and interact with the actual group, not just one of its parts, one individual.

Likewise, if several parts of a person are in conflict with each other, we don't get much resolution from examining just those parts in themselves. We need to take a step up and examine what the whole person is about. Only then can we align the parts with the whole and make them more integrated.

Now, life isn't really a nicely organized hierarchy. Charts like these are in themselves gross over-simplifications. A clean model is a useful tool to work with in making sense out of things. However reality consist just as much of cross-associations. Parts of wholes might associate with parts of other wholes, thereby creating new wholes that can again be split into parts, and so forth ad infinitum. That is what makes life a challenging puzzle. But the tool of looking at one holarchy or one holon at a time can be valuable in figuring things out. Each Holon can be considered an integral entity. It connects upwards towards bigger wholes and downwards towards smaller parts.