I have just attended an academic conference on holism.

As with so many technical terms, that word shifts in meaning, depending on the contextual discourse during which it is invoked, and/or the disciplinary framework applied to it.

But, by and large, it means what it appears to mean and what a lay dictionary says it does in the first instance: “The theory that certain wholes are greater than the sum of their parts”. Aristotle said that, more or less, and Jan Smuts — British-South African philosopher, soldier, statesman and champion both of the League of Nations and racial segregation — is generally credited with coining the term.

I feared the inter/cross/pan/tran-disciplinary (take your pick, I prefer the last) conference might prove academically peripheral and philosophically opaque.

In fact, I concluded at its end, to my huge surprise, that its theme addressed the single most important characteristic of the human condition, and even of existence itself. Gulp.

That characteristic is the discrimination and relationship of parts and wholes; in the case of the individual psyche, they are its conscious and unconscious features, in the case of society, politics and economics, its individuals and its groups, and, in the case of existence, the discrete and the universal (should either have any reality).

Enthralling papers by artists, philosophers, psychoanalysts and social scientists explored this ontological fissure with gusto and originality, and a scholastic openness appropriate to the conference title: Holism: Possibilities and Problems.
I long ago concluded that, ultimately, the discrete is conceptual and not actual, particularly that most personal atom of all: the soul or individual self.

Shortly after I came to that conclusion as a 15-year-old, I discovered it was the world view of Buddhism and the Buddha dharma. At about the same time, I began a lifelong study of C.G. Jung whose often enigmatic examination of Self led me to interrogate my epiphany. That internal dialogue continues to this day.

Even as a teenager who scratched a C (or was it a D?) in O-Level maths, it seemed obvious to me that one plus one gives rise to three: the first two part and the resulting third. And that is really what Aristotle meant, and what other thinkers have tinkered with ever since.

There is no neat equivalence between the relationship of ‘me’ and ‘I’, the conscious and unconscious, Hinduism’s Atman and Brahman, the book religions’ soul and God, Jung’s ego and Self or Freud’s tripartite ego/id/superego. Even Buddhism’s denial of a ‘real’ self paradoxically, and comfortably, allows for the ‘rebirth’ of that illusory entitity, or the continuation of ‘its journey’, the transference of its ‘flame’ depending which metaphor most easily negotiates the cogitator’s synapses.

I am neither a trained philosopher nor theologian, but it seems to me that the feature common to all these world views is the interface within the human experience, individual and collective, of the whole and the part. Whether those two are actual or illusory is, in a way, of no import. Our postmodern sophistication delivers us from any Cartesian anxiety. The interfacial activity is real and observable. And that is the heart of our consciousness, our humanness.

The whole can only have meaning if it contains tensions. And they are birthed by oppositional forces, whether discrete or integrational.

Yep, that conference certainly got me thinking. So job done!

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