Monday, 14 March 2022

A Scientific Method of Holism

by Thomas O. Scarborough

Holistic thinking is much to be desired. It makes us more rounded, more balanced, and more skilled in every sphere, whether practical, structural, moral, intellectual, physical, emotional, or spiritual.

Yet how may we attain it?

Is holism something that we may merely hope for, merely aspire to, as we make our own best way forward—or is there a scientific method of pursuing it? Happily, yes, there is a scientific method of holism, although it is little known.

The video clip above, of 11 March 2022, gives us a classic example of the method—or rather, of one of its aspects. Here, CNN interviewer Alex Marquardt asks (so called) oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, ‘Do they have any influence, these oligarchs ... any pressure, any sway, that they can put on President Putin?’

Khodorkovsky replies, ‘They cannot influence him. However, he can use them as a tool of influence, to influence the West.’

Notice, firstly, that the interviewer’s question is limited to the possibility of oligarchs influencing President Putin. It does not appear to cross his mind that influence could have another direction.

Khodorkovsky therefore brings a directional opposite into play, to reveal something that the interviewer does not see. In this way, he greatly expands our undertstanding of the situation. Khodorkovsky could have measured his answer to the question—'Do they have any influence ... on President Putin?’—but he did not. Instantly, he thought more holistically.

In linguistics, a directional opposite is one of several types of opposite—sometimes called oppositions. Directional opposites represent opposite directions on an axis: I influence you, you influence me; this goes up, that goes down, and so on. 

Two more familiar types of opposite are the antonym, which represents opposite extremes on a scale: that house is big, this house is small; we could seek war, we could seek peace. Then, there are heteronyms,* which represent alternatives within a given domain: Monday comes before Tuesday, which comes before Wednesday; we could travel by car, by boat, or by plane.

How then may we apply these types of opposite? 

In any given situation, we may examine the words which we use to describe it. Then we may search for their directional opposites, antonyms, heteronyms**—to consider how these may complement or expand the thoughts which we have thought so far.

As observed in the video clip above, this is not merely ‘semantics’. It genuinely opens up other possibilities to our thinking, and leads us into a greater holism. This applies in a multitude of fields, whether, for example, researching a subject, crafting an object, pursuing a goal, or solving a personal dilemma.

* Heteronyms may be variously defined. The linguist Sebastian Löbner defines them as 'members of a set'. This is how I define them here.
** One may add, in particular, complementaries and converses.


Keith said...

An interesting read, Thomas.

I would suggest considering that even opposites aren’t enough to achieve holism. I believe Marquardt’s question was perfectly reasonable, as far as his assumptions went. And I believe Khordokovsky’s answer was also perfectly reasonable, as far as his assumptions went.

But I’d contend that even combined, these opposites (the two individuals’ actual statements and implied assumptions) don’t actually achieve holism. Perhaps far from it, even.

There are surely other — possibly many other — ways to view the potential roles of Russia’s oligarchs at this moment in history. One additional way to view the situation comes from the leverage that economic sanctions catalyse.

That is, as economic sanctions painfully strip the oligarchs of reachable assets, the West might be using the oligarchs as examples of consequences. Specifically, as examples of the penalty paid by even hugely wealthy, normally favoured individuals intimately tied to a regime like Russia’s, now leveling Ukraine.

The measure serving as a form of punishment and of deterrence — conceptually helping to expand, but by no means achieve all-inclusivity, of the complete set of imaginable opposites.

It wouldn’t take much reflection of further what-ifs to come up with other examples of what Marquardt and Khordokovsky left out in their exchange of opposites.

After all, let’s face it, neither person, as a practical matter, pretended to pursue ‘holism’ in respectively addressing the possible roles of Russia’s oligarchs — either to Russia’s advantage or to the West’s advantage — in the destruction now underway.

Perhaps, therefore, even opposites don’t (can’t) tell it all, as useful as they rightly may be.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you Keith.

Do I notice the use of opposites in your reply?

A reservation which I myself have about my post is reflected in the first sentence: 'Holistic thinking is much to be desired.' I think my reservation is reflected in your reply. Holism is much to be desired by many, but not all. It would seem that there are some who would prefer to be parochial, short-sighted, or self-interested. As to why that is, is a bigger question still.

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