The Archetypal Calculus Part 4: Wholes and Fields

In last week’s post, I ended with the claim that there were two errors made by thinkers such as Spengler in relation to the nature of society, culture, and civilisation. The first was to apply the organic mode of understanding to a level of being “higher” than that mode, and the second was to apply it to something that was not a Whole in the first place.

It is worth reiterating that these “errors” are not the categorical kind of errors we are still used to thinking about when it comes to the subject of being wrong. We still want to believe that when somebody is wrong, they are 100% wrong, and their position can be completely ignored. Holistic thinking claims that this attitude is invalid, at least in relation to seriously thought out paradigms that have been stood the test of time. The scientific materialists are not entirely wrong, only partially wrong. The same goes for those who put all their faith in the organic and mental realms. What holistic thinking aims to do is find a way to integrate the truths of each viewpoint.

This notion of partial truth or falsity is mirrored in some of the core concepts of holism. Smuts often refers to “partial Wholes” or “limited Wholes” in his book. These share some of the properties of Wholes without actually being Wholes. To illustrate these notions, we can use Schumacher’s levels of being concept.

If we denote matter, life, mind, and self-awareness by the letters m, l, x, and y, respectively, then what we find is that each level of being adds one new property on top of the properties that already existed. Since holism assumes that these properties were added successively over time, this also represents the chronological order in which they arose. We can represent this as follows:-

Level of beingExample WholeSymbolic Representation
MatterAtom, moleculem
LifeCell, organismm + l
MindAnimalm + l + x
Self-AwarenessHumanm + l + x + y

Shown this way, we can see that the problem of scientific materialism is not that it focuses on matter since matter is present at each stage of evolution and all Wholes are made of matter. The problem is to assume that matter is all that matters (see what I did there?). When you do that, you get only partial truths.

Since Smuts asserts that cultures and civilisations are limited Wholes, it follows that characterising them as Wholes is also not entirely wrong, since they share a number of properties with Wholes. This raises two questions. 1) What is a Whole? 2) If civilisation is not a Whole, what is it instead?

We have already listed some examples of Wholes including atoms, molecules, cells, organisms, plants, animals, and humans. What properties do all of these have in common that make them Wholes? A Whole must have some power of self-action, preservation, and renewal. A Whole must have parts. Those parts must work together to maintain the Whole as a unified entity. A Whole has structure, and, at higher levels of being, a Whole has functions. In general, a Whole is a creative synthesis that evolves over time in both its internal relations and its relations with its environment.

It’s in this latter property, a Whole’s relations with its environment, that we get to the second main concept we need, which is the Field. Smuts defines a Field as what lies behind the sensible data. When we look at the external world, we see things, objects, and gestalts. That is the sensible data that we receive from the world about Wholes. What lies behind the sensible data are the Fields.

The simplest way to summarise what this means is that a Field is the set of relationships the Whole has with the world. Fields are about influences, interactions, and interrelationships. These occur at all levels of being. For higher Wholes such as animals and humans, we belong to Fields in the physical realm such as causality, gravity, electromagnetism, etc. We also belong to organic fields, such as ecosystems. Finally, we belong to mental fields, and that is where culture, society, and civilisation come into the picture. To learn to “see” Fields we must become used to looking not for Wholes but for the relationships between them.

It follows from this that Wholes and Fields always go together. You cannot have one without the other. This, of course, raises a classic chicken-and-egg problem of which came first, the Whole or the Field. How it all began is a question we will set aside for now in the interests of brevity. How it gets maintained, however, can be known since Wholes and Fields are in a constant process of symbiosis. Each of us is a Whole born into a society and culture (a Field). From the very beginning, we are brought forth into an array of different Fields in the physical, organic and cultural realms.

Fields can be incredibly powerful. We all live on a planet that is part of a Field known as the solar system. If the position of the Earth within that Field were to change significantly, the prospects for ourselves would not be good. You might even say that we rely on that Field. Viewed this way, we can see why some people might assert that Fields are, in fact, more important than Wholes.

A prime example of a Field, and one that is close to my heart since I did my degree in the subject, is human language. What we call the English language is a Field that is created by the interrelationships and interactions of the Wholes (people) who speak the language. We learn our native tongue only through our interrelationships with other people. In cases where a person grows up without such interrelationships (e.g., the wolf boy of Aveyron), they fail to learn a language or learn it only to a lesser degree of fluency.

There is another interesting property of language, however, and one that is directly relevant to the larger Field we call civilisation. It is possible to learn a language that is “dead”. Latin is a prime example. There are no native speakers of Latin anymore, but we can learn that language through written records. Since written records are derived from a live speech community that once existed, learning a language in this fashion amounts to connecting backwards in time to the prior state of a Field.

The English languge, of course, has an enormous number of words derived from Latin and so it is very much a language built out of a relationship with the past, just as Faustian civilisation in general was built on such a relation with the Classical world.

This highlights a point that Smuts made about Fields which is that they stretch backwards to the past and also forwards to the future. The philosophical doctrine of determinism says that once we have learned the rules that govern Fields we can predict the future with absolute certainty. Holism rejects this notion since it allows for the emergence of novelty, which cannot be predicted in advance.

Part of how this novelty occurs is because the rules of Fields are made to be broken. Language provides another useful frame to understand this idea since language consists of a dizzying array of rules, all of which are learned and internalised as we grow up in a culture where that language is spoken. These rules include syntactic, semantic, phonetic, phonological, and morphological rules, and that’s before we get into idiom, vernacular, style, and a host of unspoken meta-rules.

We may break the rules of language for artistic or humorous effect, such as in puns. If we break the rules of language in an unsophisticated fashion, we end up speaking nonsense. Repeated breaking of the rules in this fashion will have ramifications related to the Field in question. Keep speaking nonsense, and bad things will happen. You might accidentally become an economist, a public health bureaucrat, or the President of the United States. For most of us, repeated breaking of the rules will see us punished or excluded from the Field altogether (e.g., people will stop talking to us and we cease to be a member of the speech community). The same is true in the organic and physical domains, where breaking the rules leads to illness, injury, or death.

This brief introduction gives us some idea of the difference between Wholes and Fields. Nevertheless, trying to nail down the definitive differences between them is a very difficult exercise that has been perplexing thinkers for a long time.

Holism claims that Wholes are unified syntheses which are greater than the sum of their parts. But the same can be said for Fields. Holists point out that Wholes may act with a unified purpose encompassed in a cognition of that purpose. Clearly, some Fields can do that, too. What’s more, as both Schumacher and Smuts pointed out, the highest human attainment of Self-Awareness (Smuts’ Personality) is rare, and even those who get to that level invariably slip back into a lower level of being. It’s as if Self-Awareness is a new Whole that is trying to come into being but hasn’t been fully realised yet. But couldn’t the same be said for civilisation? If Toynbee and Spengler are correct, civilisation has come into being perhaps only a couple of dozen times and then slipped away again.

In order to play Devil’s Advocate, I’d like to finish with a thought experiment. What if both Self-Awareness and Civilisation are two new Wholes that are in the process of coming into being and may, in fact, be fighting each other for supremacy? This is plausible within the holistic framework since Smuts called his book Holism and Evolution, and what evolution implies is that new Wholes are always in the process of coming into being.

Recall that one of the properties of Wholes is that they subsume their parts. The Whole is not just greater than the sum of its parts; it is qualitatively different from them. An implication of this, which is glossed over by the holistic thinkers, is that the parts must give up their own agency. That means that lesser Wholes have been progressively losing agency to greater ones over time. Atoms lost their agency to molecules, who lost theirs to cells.

The same is true for organisms. When I decide to get a glass of water from the kitchen, the lesser Wholes that constitute my body (e.g., cells and organs) do not get a say in the matter. They must follow the agency of the larger Whole of which they are a part. Now, it may be the case that I have an injury or illness, which means that some of those parts may impede my goal. We call that state of affairs disease, and this relates back to a point I’ve made numerous times, which is that the word healthy is etymologically related to the word whole. Illness and disease violate the unity of purpose that resides in the greater Whole. The parts of the Whole are failing to do their job of following orders.

Although exponents of holism like to frame their theory in rosy terms, the truth is that there is an implied domination in the progression of Wholes as the greater subsume the lesser. When it comes to atoms and molecules, we don’t think much of it, but it becomes far more important when it is ourselves who are involved. It was Nietzsche who worked through the ramifications of this and built it into his philosophy as will to power.

If, indeed, there are new Wholes coming into existence, they build on top of what is there by creating a higher agency that the lesser Wholes will follow. If civilisation is a new Whole that is emerging, then we would expect it to become the higher agency built on top of the existing Wholes which are human individuals. The individual then gets subsumed within the larger Whole of civilisation. This is exactly what Spengler enunciated in Decline of the West, but he was certainly not alone. Thinkers including Plato, Hobbes and many others have posited a similar idea.

This works within the holistic theory since we know that civilisation is a relatively new phenomenon in the overall arc of human history and post-dates the arrival of humans as Wholes. If civilisation were a new Whole, we would expect it to establish dominance over humans as individuals. This is exactly what the historical record suggests, and that’s why Toynbee named the elites of the second half of the cycle of civilisation the Dominant Minority.

It is this dominance that we see in dystopian works of fiction such as 1984, Brave New World, and The Matrix. We all got a taste of what such a dominance feels like during the Corona hysteria.

Putting it all together, we can hypothesise that civilisation is a new Whole that has emerged perhaps only in the last several thousand years. If that were true, it would appear in the chronology of Wholes as follows:


The alternative idea to this is the concept of Schumacher’s Self-Awareness, Smuts’ Personality or Nietzsche’s übermensch. These are concepts for the individual not as a physical hero but a person capable of self-actualisation. This self-actualisation sits above both body and mind. It is primarily an Esoteric notion and this works within the framework of Holism which assumes that the creativity of new Wholes must arise first in the Esoteric domain and only later become solidified.

We can place this idea in the chronological table as follows:-


Having played Devil’s Advocate, let’s finish with the way in which Smuts’ model would explain the relationship between the individual and civilisation.

Civilisation is a Field, which is to say, a set of relations. But we know from Toynbee and Spengler that the relations are dominated by the elites of civilisation. We might think of them as a sub-Field inside the larger Field. It is the willingness of the general public to acquiesce to the elite sub-Field that constitutes civilisation, a process which intensifies in the latter stages of the civilisational cycle by what Toynbee called proletarianisation and which I identified with the Orphan archetype.

Thus, even if civilisation is a Field and not a Whole, it can still dominate Wholes. This is true even of the elites. Smuts himself made the point that the leaders of nations are often lacking in what he called Personality. It seems that allowing the Field of civilisation to dominate individuality constitutes a renunciation of the pursuit the highest form of individuality we have called Self-Awareness.

This battle between the individual and civilisation is the central theme of one of my favourite novels, one that I have written about several times over the last couple of years: Dostoevsky’s The Brother Karamazov. Alyosha represents the Self-Aware individual in its highest manifestation, while the Grand Inquisitor represents the elites of civilisation, who would burn even Jesus at the stake in the name of power.

Civilisation “wins” to the extent that individuals are willing to give up their freedom to self-actualise. It is perhaps the case that civilisation and individuality are now in a kind of arms race and the dominance of the former can only be negated by the strengthening of the latter. It is Alyosha vs the Grand Inquisitor.

8 thoughts on “The Archetypal Calculus Part 4: Wholes and Fields”

  1. I figure this is as good an explanation as any as to why so called ‘leaders’ of (almost) anything lose their ability to be individuals and get subsumed into following the herd. It was absolutely creepy how directly and uniformly that happened through corona, thoroughly curing me of any ambition to ever lead anything.

    You might like reading about the Buddhist doctrine of Two Truths (with a rare example of Wikipedia being a reasonable reference:

    Note that in my understanding ultimate truth, whilst typically presented as an final end-point or ‘ultimate’, is closer to ‘grand’ in your sense of the use of the word field. In some ways it is an emergent property that indicates a subtler understanding which is not necessarily of everything, or at least does not begin that way. The reason a fully enlightened Buddha is said to be omniscient is because they have realised the complete field of all existence – realisation of the three times and the ten directions. It is not something we can conceive of (which points at our problem), so it is difficult to grasp the shear enormity of it.

    Relative truth is closer to the parts, or wholes. It can only ever be piece-meal, and thus never perfectly explain anything. I’ve sometimes mused that Godel’s incompleteness theorem could be extended to cover all potential knowledge, not just logic, and that if one fundamentally realised such it would be a western method to understand shunyata.

  2. Daniel – thanks for that. I know very little about Buddhism but I do seem to recall that idea which implies that, in ultimate reality, there are no Wholes but only Fields. I’m starting to wonder whether “Wholes” are always what is “dead” (has lost agency). This follows from Holism since the emergence of something new is always said to be Esoteric and therefore spiritual. In that case, Fields are what leads the way and Wholes are what happens when Fields have become fully established. Civilisation becomes more oppressive (Whole-like) as it becomes more powerful. This is actually the conclusion I came to in my book “The Universal State of America” but the doctrine of Holism gives me a proper framework to explain it.

  3. Skip – yes. Fields are about the interactions between Wholes and not the Wholes themselves. Where it gets more mind-bending, though, is a point that Gregory Bateson, made which is that every perception of a Whole is already a relationship. There must be a perceiver and the thing perceived. Even if the perceiver is a Whole and the thing perceived is a Whole, the only way these Wholes can know each other is via a Field!

  4. Yeah it seems to have a lot in common to me with fields in other fields (pardon the pun) in particular physics, and the observer/observed relation is the same enunciation as quantum mechanics.

    Sets of relations is also one of the main mythic structures of western thought and comes out in everything from music to drama to science to diplomacy to military actions. An full firing western orchestra is the dynamic relation field brought to it’s artistic peak.

    It’s why I think it’s important to differentiate any potential new science’s technical application side from the abstract theory because the latter always seems to just circle back around to the same bunch of western myths that have always been there, namely dynamic relationality/function and development/evolution/progress. Things like Holism seem like the turn in thr secular return lap back to Western God.

  5. Isn’t all philosophy a return to God? Pretty sure that’s exactly what Plato said.

    I’m not sure it’s possible to separate technology from theory. In fact, I’d look at it the other way around: technology is actually the best way to “see” novel theory i.e. we can get to theoretical novelty far easier through technology precisely because it has no need to explain itself like philosophy always does. I think the exact same thing is true of art which is why you can understand a culture far better through art and technology than by asking somebody to explain the culture in abstract terms.

  6. Hi Simon,

    I’m about halfway through ‘The Universal State of America’, and was wondering how the concept of the elites turning their backs on the older esoteric forms, interacts with your recent essay, most especially the sentence:

    “seems that allowing the Field of civilisation to dominate individuality constitutes a renunciation of the pursuit the highest form of individuality we have called Self-Awareness”.

    To live consciously by an individual requires a degree of letting go of the perquisites which the elites place on offer, or at least that is how I see things. Isn’t that the fertile ground where new modes come to emerge? And the idea just popped into my head, isn’t the failure point somewhere when the costs of renunciation of self awareness, aren’t reciprocated by the promised benefits of err, giving oneself over? Dunno.



  7. Chris – I can now see how the Whole/Field concepts relates to the idea of being “born again” that I talk about in the book. To be born again is to learn to see the Field of civilisation and, while you can never be free of it, you can at least learn to work with it rather than have it dominate you. The story of Jesus is probably the greatest born again story. But it’s the same underlying pattern with Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov, Luke Skywalker in Star Wars and Neo in The Matrix. In relation to the elites, the question then is are they born again? Do they know civilisation is a Field?

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