Holon (philosophy)

Holon (philosophy)

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A holon is something that is simultaneously a whole and a part. The word was coined by Arthur Koestler
Arthur Koestler
Arthur Koestler CBE was a Hungarian author and journalist. Koestler was born in Budapest and, apart from his early school years, was educated in Austria...

 in his book The Ghost in the Machine
The Ghost in the Machine
The Ghost in the Machine is Arthur Koestler's, 1967, non-fiction polemic against any such ghost. The phrase of the title was coined by Gilbert Ryle, with whom he shares the concept that the mind of a person is not an independent entity, temporarily inhabiting and governing the body...

(1967, p. 48). Koestler was compelled by two observations in proposing the notion of the holon. The first observation was influenced by Nobel Prize
Nobel Prize
The Nobel Prizes are annual international awards bestowed by Scandinavian committees in recognition of cultural and scientific advances. The will of the Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, established the prizes in 1895...

 winner Herbert Simon
Herbert Simon
Herbert Alexander Simon was an American political scientist, economist, sociologist, and psychologist, and professor—most notably at Carnegie Mellon University—whose research ranged across the fields of cognitive psychology, cognitive science, computer science, public administration, economics,...

's parable
A parable is a succinct story, in prose or verse, which illustrates one or more instructive principles, or lessons, or a normative principle. It differs from a fable in that fables use animals, plants, inanimate objects, and forces of nature as characters, while parables generally feature human...

 of the two watchmakers, wherein Simon concludes that complex systems will evolve from simple systems much more rapidly if there are stable intermediate forms present in that evolutionary process than if they are not present. The second observation was made by Koestler himself in his analysis of hierarchies and stable intermediate forms in both living organisms and social organizations. He concluded that, although it is easy to identify sub-wholes or parts, wholes and parts in an absolute sense do not exist anywhere. Koestler proposed the word holon to describe the hybrid nature of sub-wholes and parts within in vivo systems. From this perspective, holons exist simultaneously as self-contained wholes in relation to their sub-ordinate parts, and dependent parts when considered from the inverse direction.

Koestler also says holons are autonomous, self-reliant units that possess a degree of independence and handle contingencies without asking higher authorities for instructions. These holons are also simultaneously subject to control from one or more of these higher authorities. The first property ensures that holons are stable forms that are able to withstand disturbances, while the latter property signifies that they are intermediate forms, providing a context for the proper functionality for the larger whole.

Finally, Koestler defines a holarchy as a hierarchy of self-regulating holons that function first as autonomous wholes in supra-ordination to their parts, secondly as dependent parts in sub- ordination to controls on higher levels, and thirdly in coordination with their local environment.

General definition

A holon is a system
System is a set of interacting or interdependent components forming an integrated whole....

 (or phenomenon
A phenomenon , plural phenomena, is any observable occurrence. Phenomena are often, but not always, understood as 'appearances' or 'experiences'...

) which is an evolving
Evolution is any change across successive generations in the heritable characteristics of biological populations. Evolutionary processes give rise to diversity at every level of biological organisation, including species, individual organisms and molecules such as DNA and proteins.Life on Earth...

 self-organizing dissipative structure, composed of other holons, whose structures exist at a balance point between chaos and order. It is maintained by the throughput of matter
Matter is a general term for the substance of which all physical objects consist. Typically, matter includes atoms and other particles which have mass. A common way of defining matter is as anything that has mass and occupies volume...

In physics, energy is an indirectly observed quantity. It is often understood as the ability a physical system has to do work on other physical systems...

 and information
Information in its most restricted technical sense is a message or collection of messages that consists of an ordered sequence of symbols, or it is the meaning that can be interpreted from such a message or collection of messages. Information can be recorded or transmitted. It can be recorded as...

Entropy is a thermodynamic property that can be used to determine the energy available for useful work in a thermodynamic process, such as in energy conversion devices, engines, or machines. Such devices can only be driven by convertible energy, and have a theoretical maximum efficiency when...

 connected to other holons and is simultaneously a whole in and itself at the same time being nested within another holon and so is a part of something much larger than itself. Holons range in size from the smallest subatomic particles and strings
String theory
String theory is an active research framework in particle physics that attempts to reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity. It is a contender for a theory of everything , a manner of describing the known fundamental forces and matter in a mathematically complete system...

, all the way up to the multiverse
The multiverse is the hypothetical set of multiple possible universes that together comprise all of reality.Multiverse may also refer to:-In fiction:* Multiverse , the fictional multiverse used by DC Comics...

, comprising many universes. Individual human
Humans are the only living species in the Homo genus...

s, their societies
A society, or a human society, is a group of people related to each other through persistent relations, or a large social grouping sharing the same geographical or virtual territory, subject to the same political authority and dominant cultural expectations...

 and their culture
Culture is a term that has many different inter-related meanings. For example, in 1952, Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn compiled a list of 164 definitions of "culture" in Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions...

s are intermediate level holons, created by the interaction of forces working upon us both top-down and bottom-up
Bottom-up may refer to:* In business development, a bottom-up approach means that the adviser takes the needs and wishes of the would-be entrepreneur as the starting point, rather than a market opportunity ....

. On a non-physical level, words, ideas, sounds, emotions—everything that can be identified—is simultaneously part of something, and can be viewed as having parts of its own, similar to sign
Sign (semiotics)
A sign is understood as a discrete unit of meaning in semiotics. It is defined as "something that stands for something, to someone in some capacity" It includes words, images, gestures, scents, tastes, textures, sounds – essentially all of the ways in which information can be...

 in regard of semiotics.

Since a holon is embedded in larger wholes, it is influenced by and influences these larger wholes. And since a holon also contains subsystems, or parts, it is similarly influenced by and influences these parts. Information flows bidirectionally between smaller and larger systems as well as rhizomatic contagion
Contagion may refer to:In medicine:* Infectious disease, also known as contagious disease, with infection, or the infectious agent, also known as contagionIn media* Batman: Contagion, a story arc in the Batman comic book series...

. When this bidirectionality of information flow
Information flow (information theory)
Information flow in an information theoretical context is the transfer of information from a variable x to a variable y in a given process.Not all flows may be desirable. For example, a system shouldn't leak any secret to public observers....

 and understanding of role is compromised, for whatever reason, the system begins to break down: wholes no longer recognize their dependence on their subsidiary
A subsidiary company, subsidiary, or daughter company is a company that is completely or partly owned and wholly controlled by another company that owns more than half of the subsidiary's stock. The subsidiary can be a company, corporation, or limited liability company. In some cases it is a...

 parts, and parts no longer recognize the organizing authority of the wholes. Cancer
Cancer , known medically as a malignant neoplasm, is a large group of different diseases, all involving unregulated cell growth. In cancer, cells divide and grow uncontrollably, forming malignant tumors, and invade nearby parts of the body. The cancer may also spread to more distant parts of the...

 may be understood as such a breakdown in the biological realm
A realm is a dominion of a monarch or other sovereign ruler.The Old French word reaume, modern French royaume, was the word first adopted in English; the fixed modern spelling does not appear until the beginning of the 17th century...


A hierarchy
A hierarchy is an arrangement of items in which the items are represented as being "above," "below," or "at the same level as" one another...

 of holons is called a holarchy
A holarchy, in the terminology of Arthur Koestler, is a connection between holons – where a holon is both a part and a whole. The term was coined in Koestler's 1967 book The Ghost in the Machine...

. The holarchic model can be seen as an attempt to modify and modernise perceptions of natural hierarchy.

Ken Wilber
Ken Wilber
Kenneth Earl Wilber II is an American author who has written about mysticism, philosophy, ecology, and developmental psychology. His work formulates what he calls Integral Theory. In 1998, he founded the Integral Institute, for teaching and applications of Integral theory.-Biography:Ken Wilber was...

 comments that the test of holon hierarchy (e.g. holarchy) is that if a type of holon is removed from existence, then all other holons of which it formed a part must necessarily cease to exist too. Thus an atom is of a lower standing in the hierarchy than a molecule, because if you removed all molecules, atoms could still exist, whereas if you removed all atoms, molecules, in a strict sense would cease to exist. Wilber's concept is known as the doctrine of the fundamental and the significant. A hydrogen atom is more fundamental than an ant, but an ant is more significant.

The doctrine of the fundamental and the significant are contrasted by the radical
Radical (chemistry)
Radicals are atoms, molecules, or ions with unpaired electrons on an open shell configuration. Free radicals may have positive, negative, or zero charge...

Rhizome (philosophy)
Rhizome is a philosophical concept developed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in their Capitalism and Schizophrenia project...

 oriented pragmatics
Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition centered on the linking of practice and theory. It describes a process where theory is extracted from practice, and applied back to practice to form what is called intelligent practice...

 of Deleuze and Guattari, and other continental philosophy
Continental philosophy
Continental philosophy, in contemporary usage, refers to a set of traditions of 19th and 20th century philosophy from mainland Europe. This sense of the term originated among English-speaking philosophers in the second half of the 20th century, who used it to refer to a range of thinkers and...


A significant feature of Koestler's concept of holarchy is that it is open ended both in the macrocosmic as well as in the microcosmic dimensions. This aspect of his theory has several important implications. The holarchic system does not begin with strings or end with the multiverse. Those are just the existing limits of the reach of the human mind in the two dimensions at the present time. Those limits will be crossed later on because they do not encompass the whole of reality. Popper (Objective Knowledge) teaches that what the human mind knows and will ever know of truth at a given point of time and space is verisimilitude - something like truth, and that the human mind will continue to get closer to reality but never reach it. In other words, the human quest for knowledge is an unending journey with innumerable grand sights ahead but with no possibility of reaching the journey's end. The work of modern physicists designed to discover the theory of everything (TOE) is reaching deep into the microcosm under the assumption that the macrocosm is eventually made of the microcosm. This approach falls short on two counts: the first is that the fundamental is not the same as significant and the second is that this approach does not take into account that the microcosmic dimension is open ended. It follows that the search for TOE will discover phenomena more microcosmic than strings or the more comprehensive M theory. It is also the case that many laws of nature that apply to systems relatively low in the hierarchy cease to apply at higher levels. M theory might have predictive power at the sub-atomic level but it will inform but little about reality at higher levels. The work of the particle physicists is indeed laudable but they should give the theory they are looking for another name. This is not to claim that the concept of holarchy is already the theory of every thing.

Individual holon

An individual holon possesses a dominant monad; that is, it possesses a definable "I-ness". An individual holon is discrete, self-contained, and also demonstrates the quality of agency, or self-directed behavior. The individual holon, although a discrete and self-contained whole, is made up of parts; in the case of a human, examples of these parts would include the heart, lungs, liver, brain, spleen, etc. When a human exercises agency, taking a step to the left, for example, the entire holon, including the constituent parts, moves together as one unit.

Social holon

A social holon does not possess a dominant monad; it possesses only a definable "we-ness", as it is a collective made up of individual holons. In addition, rather than possessing discrete agency, a social holon possesses what is defined as nexus agency. An illustration of nexus agency is best described by a flock of geese. Each goose is an individual holon, the flock makes up a social holon. Although the flock moves as one unit when flying, and it is "directed" by the choices of the lead goose, the flock itself is not mandated to follow that lead goose. Another way to consider this would be collective activity that has the potential for independent internal activity at any given moment.


American Philosopher Ken Wilber includes Artifacts in his theory of holons. Artifacts are anything (e.g. a statue or a piece of music) that is created by either an individual holon or a social holon. While lacking any of the defining structural characteristics - agency; self-maintenance; I-ness; Self Transcendence - of the previous two holons, Artifacts are useful to include in a comprehensive scheme due to their potential to replicate aspects of and profoundly affect (via, say interpretation) the previously described holons.
It should also be noted that Artifacts are made up individual or social holons (e.g. a statue is made up atoms).
As an interesting aside, the development of Artificial Intelligence
Artificial intelligence
Artificial intelligence is the intelligence of machines and the branch of computer science that aims to create it. AI textbooks define the field as "the study and design of intelligent agents" where an intelligent agent is a system that perceives its environment and takes actions that maximize its...

 may force us to question where the line should be drawn between the individual holon and the artifact.


Heaps are defined as random collections of holons that lack any sort of organisational significance. A pile of leaves would be an example of a heap. Note, one could question whether a pile of leaves could be an "artifact" of an ecosystem "social holon". This raises a problem of intentionality: in short, if social holons create artifacts but lack intentionality (the domain of individual holons) how can we distinguish between heaps and artifacts? Further, if an artist (individual holon) paints a picture (artifact) in a
deliberately chaotic and unstructured way does it become a heap?

Holon in Multiagent Systems

Multiagent systems are systems composed of autonomous software entities. They are able to simulate a system or to solve problems. Holon may be viewed as a sort of recursive agent: an agent composed of agents which an agent at a given level has its own behavior as a partial consequence of these part's behaviors.

Janus Multiagent Platform
Janus (multi-agent and holonic platform)
Janus is the name of a multiagent simulation platform, useful for simulating the interaction of agents and their emergent collective behavior...

 is a software platform able to execute holons.

See also

  • Bell's Theorem
    Bell's theorem
    In theoretical physics, Bell's theorem is a no-go theorem, loosely stating that:The theorem has great importance for physics and the philosophy of science, as it implies that quantum physics must necessarily violate either the principle of locality or counterfactual definiteness...

  • Heterarchy
    A heterarchy is a system of organization replete with overlap, multiplicity, mixed ascendancy, and/or divergent-but-coexistent patterns of relation...

  • Holarchy
    A holarchy, in the terminology of Arthur Koestler, is a connection between holons – where a holon is both a part and a whole. The term was coined in Koestler's 1967 book The Ghost in the Machine...

  • Holism
    Holism is the idea that all the properties of a given system cannot be determined or explained by its component parts alone...

  • Holism in ecological anthropology
    Holism in ecological anthropology
    Holism on its own is a method or tool for thinking critically about a certain topic or issue. It is an all-inclusive idea that the "whole is greater than the sum of its parts". A way to ensure that all aspects of an issue are considered and all perspectives are taken into consideration. ...

  • Holism in science
    Holism in science
    Holism in science, or Holistic science, is an approach to research that emphasizes the study of complex systems. This practice is in contrast to a purely analytic tradition which aims to gain understanding of systems by dividing them into smaller composing elements and gaining understanding of the...

  • Holomovement
    The holomovement is a key concept in David Bohm's interpretation of quantum mechanics and for his overall wordview. It brings together the holistic principle of "undivided wholeness" with the idea that everything is in a state of process or becoming...

  • Integral Theory
    Integral Theory
    Integral Theory is a philosophy posited by Ken Wilber that seeks a synthesis of the best of pre-modern, modern, and postmodern reality. It claims to be a "theory of everything," and offers an approach "to draw together an already existing number of separate paradigms into an interrelated network of...

  • Janus
    -General:*Janus , the two-faced Roman god of gates, doors, doorways, beginnings, and endings*Janus , a moon of Saturn*Janus Patera, a shallow volcanic crater on Io, a moon of Jupiter...

  • Metasystem transition
    Metasystem transition
    A metasystem transition is the emergence, through evolution, of a higher level of organization or control.Prime examples are the origin of life, the transition from unicellular to multicellular organisms, the emergence of eusociality or symbolic thought...

  • Philotics
  • Protocol stack
    Protocol stack
    The protocol stack is an implementation of a computer networking protocol suite. The terms are often used interchangeably. Strictly speaking, the suite is the definition of the protocols, and the stack is the software implementation of them....

  • Writers:
    • David Bohm
      David Bohm
      David Joseph Bohm FRS was an American-born British quantum physicist who contributed to theoretical physics, philosophy, neuropsychology, and the Manhattan Project.-Youth and college:...

    • Herbert Simon
      Herbert Simon
      Herbert Alexander Simon was an American political scientist, economist, sociologist, and psychologist, and professor—most notably at Carnegie Mellon University—whose research ranged across the fields of cognitive psychology, cognitive science, computer science, public administration, economics,...

    • Ken Wilber
      Ken Wilber
      Kenneth Earl Wilber II is an American author who has written about mysticism, philosophy, ecology, and developmental psychology. His work formulates what he calls Integral Theory. In 1998, he founded the Integral Institute, for teaching and applications of Integral theory.-Biography:Ken Wilber was...

External links


  • Prigogine, I. Stengers, E. 1984. Order out of Chaos. New York: Bantam Books
  • Koestler, Arthur, 1967. The Ghost in the Machine. London: Hutchinson. 1990 reprint edition, Penguin Group. ISBN 0-14-019192-5.