Arthur Koestler on holons

Holon Music refers to Arthur Koestler’s concept the holon: something which is simultaneously a composite of smaller parts, an individual unit, and a piece of a larger whole. A holon is a node in an open hierarchical system, a universal building block in all societies, organisms languages and many other systems. Koestler’s definition is in great depth, but these excerpts from the appendix to The Ghost in the Machine are relevant to understanding the term in this context:

1.3 Parts and wholes in an absolute sense do not exist in the domain of life. The concept of the holon is intended to reconcile the atomistic and holistic approaches.

1.5 More generally, the term ‘holon’ may be applied to any stable biological or social sub-whole which displays rule-governed behaviour and/or structural Gestalt-constancy. Thus organelles and homologous organs are evolutionary holons; morphogenic fields are ontogenic holons; the ethologist’s ‘fixed action-patterns’ and the sub-routines of acquired skills are behavioural holonsl phenomes, morphemes, words, phrases are linguistic holons; individuals, families, tribes, nations are social holons.

3.1 Functional holons are governed by fixed sets of rules and display more or less flexible strategies.

3.7 Structurally, the mature organism is a hierarchy of parts within parts. Its ‘dissectibility’ and the relative autonomy of its constituent holons are demonstrated by transplant surgery.

3.8 Functionally, the behaviour of organisms is governed by ‘rules of the game’ which account for its coherence, stability and specified pattern.

3.9 Skills, whether inborn or acquired, are functional hierarchies, with sub-skills as holons, governed by sub-rules.

8. Holons on successively higher levels of the hierarchy show increasingly complex, more flexible and less predictable patterns of activity, while on successive lower levels we find increasingly mechanised, stereotyped and predictable patterns.

8.2 Other things being equal, a monotonous environment facilitates mechanisation.

From The Ghost in the Machine by Arthur Koestler, 1976 edition


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