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Holism (Systems Thinking) vs. Reductionism Featured

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Holism is an approach that emphasizes the whole system rather than the parts. Reductionism requires that the system is broken down into its simplest parts, and the parts analyzed. From the perspective of Holism, breaking down systems into parts is only a step, but not a full process in understanding how systems function. According to holism, piecing the parts together and studying the interrelationships is necessary to understand the system. Systems approach can be applied to solve problems in a variety of disciplines including medicine, information technology, ecology, psychology, and many other practical areas.



Philosophies as the general and fundamental methodologies of explaining systems in sciences and engineering have been evolving over time in the history of human existence (Wang, 2008). However, there are two core philosophical methodologies that have remained stable. The two are reductionism and holism. Perhaps, it is essential to understand what the system is before seeking to understand what the two philosophies hold. A system is a group of interdependent, interrelated, and interacting parts or elements that function together as a whole to accomplish a purpose (Jacobs, 2010). Reductionism and holism are philosophical approaches to the understanding of how systems function.

The Difference between Holism and Reductionism

Reductionism is a concept derived from the classical Newtonian assumption that holds that the dynamics of a complex system can be understood from the study of the properties of its parts. In the context of reductionism, complex systems are broken down into components and the components analyzed or studied individually. According to reductionism, once the parts are understood, the dynamics of the whole can be derived. Therefore, reductionism explores a phenomenon and the functioning of the system by a decomposition and analytic approach.

Holism derives from the Greek word Holos, meaning total, all, or entire (Jacobs, 2010). Holism is a philosophical concept that perceives a system or phenomenon with wholeness in a systematic, synthetic, and integrated approach (Wang, 2007). The underpinning assumption for this approach is that the properties or features of the parts contribute to the understanding of the whole but that properties can only be understood fully through the dynamics of the whole. Therefore, the study f a system focuses on the relationships between components, i.e. the interdependencies, interactions, and interconnectedness. Aristotle summarized the concept by stating that the whole is different or greater than the sum of its parts (Jacobs, 2010). From this perspective, breaking down the system into individual parts by reductionism is only the first approximation of the truth. In order to attain complete knowledge of the system, scientists need to connect the pieces together again by means of holism.

Systems Thinking as a Tool for Solving Problems

In Systems Thinking, attention is focused not on parts, but rather on the interrelations or interdependencies between them and the environment and on how properties emerge that define the whole and which none of the parts possesses (Jackson, 2001). The concept of holism has several connotations and applications to real life problems in many disciplines. Holism is applied to solve problems in psychology to understand the behavior (Edmonds, 1999). When looking at human behavior, it is essential to look at the unified whole, totalities, and complete structures. For example, in order to explain abnormal behaviors, one might take into account the social, biological, and cognitive causes.

There are other areas of application in which the systems approach would be useful. Applications of holism can be found in many other disciplines including science, engineering, economics, education, and ecology. In ecology, biological, physical, chemical, and economic views are considered as interrelated in specific aspects. In solving a problem related to ecology, the interrelationship between the chemical, economic, physical, and biological influences or attributes are considered. In medicine, complementary alternative medicine (CAM) applies the concept of holism. In CAM, the physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional aspects of the patient are considered interrelated. In this context, an intervention that reflects a consideration of these realms is provided. The aim is to manage the realms holistically, rather than individually.


Figure 1. Interrelationships between realms of existence (Jacobs, 2010)

I believe that Systems Thinking is an appropriate way of solving problems than reductionism. In the context of Systems Thinking, people master how to read situations from varying points of view and gain an advantage over those who are committed to a fixed position. The systems approach allows people to observe how problems and other situations can be framed and reframed in different ways, enabling the emergence of new forms of solutions. Reductionism has limitation as it observes the system from a given perspective. The approach does not recognize the interdependencies and interrelationships between the parts of the system. Holism or Systems Thinking encourages creativity by examining the problem from different viewpoints. Through the understanding of the interdependencies of parts that form a system, it is possible to consider the alternatives or changes to the system. An example is how an organization is organized in units or departments. Systems thinking approach allows managers to arrange and re-arrange units in many ways, allowing the flexibility required for improvement.


The philosophical concepts of holism and reductionism are applied as methodologies or approaches of solving problems in science, engineering, information and technology, medicine, and other disciplines. While reductionism seeks to understand the system by breaking it down and studying the parts, holism involves studying the interconnectedness, interdependencies, and interrelationships between the components of the system. Holism is a preferred approach in modern settings in which the whole is considered more important than the sum of the parts.


Edmonds, B. (1999). Pragmatic Holism (or Pragmatic Reductionism). Foundations of Science, 4, 57-82

Jackson, M. (2001). Systems Thinking: Creative Holism for Managers. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons

Jacobs, J. (2010). Messages from the Soul. Bloomington, IN: Xlibris Corporation

Wang, Y. (2008). Software Engineering Foundations. Boca Raton, FL: Taylor & Francis

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