Words: Holistic

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THE PRINCE of Wales, in his endearing way, told a television interviewer last week that he wanted 'a more holistic approach' in architecture, medicine and agriculture. The word dates from 1926, when it was coined by Jan Christian Smuts, the lawyer-philosopher-scientist, in a break from governing South Africa. 'The rise and self-perfection of wholes in the Whole,' he wrote in his big book on the subject, 'is the slow but unerring process and goal of this Holistic universe.' This is a grand elaboration of the idea that all organisms, whether a cell or a cosmos, must be greater than the sums of their parts. Gilbert Murray, that formidable classicist, jibbed at Smuts's adaptation of the Greek holos, or whole. 'It is etymologically correct and logically appropriate,' he told him, 'but aesthetically unpleasing.' One can only agree.

Since then holism has more or less bifurcated. One stream carries us through dense jungles of philosophical speculation, where it divides again into constitutive, interpretative, methodological and psychological streamlets; paddles are not provided. The second flows through the gentler country claimed by ecologists, greens and the wiser sort of doctor, who examines the whole person as well as the odd symptom. Here it is often spelt wholism (Murray would have had a seizure), possibly through association with nice words like wholesome and wholemeal, rather than the vacuous hole.

The Prince's use of holistic follows the second stream, though his thinking may partly chime with Smuts's too. In the end Smuts seems to have got a bit lost in his search for what philosophers used to call quiddity (or, as the Prince might say, 'the thinginess of things'), musing at the age of 78 that 'something holistic is at the heart of things', as though he had disappeared up his own concept. His critics, jeering a little, said he was only looking for God.