The Holon: Toward a consciousness that we are both parts and wholes

Note after weeks of reflection: I also want to let the reader know that the word “part” can, and maybe should, be substituted with “nested whole.” Parts as a word is problematic because it is associated with mechanisms ad machines. Nester wholes connotes essence in itself. That said, I will leave this as an issue of semantics rather than definitions. Alfred Korzybski, founder of General Semantics, explained that semantics is about learning to image in the mind what happens as you think and use a language, less about defining. I’ll trust the reader will go with that.

Take a moment to look at the model below. What does it represent for you? What do you see?

An army command structure? The way a laptop is made of components and subcomponents? A galaxy cluster containing hundreds of galaxies, which in turn contain hundreds of billions of individual solar systems? Where does your imagination take you as you interpret the picture?

Since I am the one who drew the picture, there are only two possible answers to what it represents (at least with my intention as the starting point). The first possibility is, quite simply, the concept I had in mind when I chose to simplify a complex hierarchy using a model: it could be anything I want it to be, and the answer to our question is specific to the one thing I had in mind (whatever that is).

The only other possibility is that the picture is not a model but a framework that explains everything in the universe. In this case, the answer to our question is infinite, and yet only one. It is the living system within which everything exists and is interconnected. This might sound a bit weird (and even tautological), and I’ll get back to this in a moment.

I won’t spend time going over what student-centered approaches to learning are. You already have a list of characteristics in your mind, which most likely shares many, if not all, the same characteristics as what are on someone else’s list. The devil in this case is not in the detail but in the concept. I have already written about how it is time we move beyond student-centered approaches if we are to contribute to changing the course of the meta-crisis: the convergence of civilization-threatening crises whose origins are increasingly considered to be the same. These include climate change, socio-economic injustice, and the precariousness of our relationships with others and ourselves (there are other conceptualizations, I chose these three). I contend that in addition to celebrating divergence, it is wise to move also toward convergence and common purpose; ripping out the roots of the meta-crisis by recognizing our common interests (we are part of the bio-collective—every living thing that has an interest in the healthfulness of the planet). These roots run deep because they have grown into and fed off our collective psyche for thousands of years—at least in the European intellectual tradition, which has increasingly marginalized all other traditions over the past few centuries. 

These roots start to grow at the point where we frame our identities, which are plural, not singular. In the European tradition, our identities begin with the self. Eighteen centuries ago, with the best intentions, Hierocles drew Concentric Circles so the individual would find virtue in spreading love into the world (see below). The first circle represents the self. It is held within the close family circle which, along with the next wider circle (distant family), is contained within even bigger circles: fellow citizens, countrymen, and finally, the outermost and largest circle, whole human race*. Hierocles wanted us see the outer circles as equally worthy of our concern as the inner ones. In this way, we would transcend ourselves and feel we belong within each ever-wider circle, thereby treating members of each concentric circle with the same respect, care, and love that we apply to our selves.

This is a simplified representation of the Concentric Circles. Image from

It is where we start with ourselves as individuals, that the problems begin. It is here where we perpetuate the false notion that we exist only as individuals, as if we were whole onto ourselves. Everything else is an extension of this point of origin (the individual). We may reach out to a farther circle, we may see ourselves as part of a nation and envelope ourselves in that identity, but, according to the circles, we do so while keeping our “self identity” as the core, as home base.  Ancient wisdoms and quantum mechanics alike posit that this mental model is an illusion (quantum physics even proves it experimentally). Both see the ego a construct through which we perceive the world, but the ego does not reflect reality, because there is no one reality (since there is no universal time or space and all is left to perception through consciousness). There are many books that explore these questions and will save me from having to unravel them here.

There is a second problem with the Circles: Hierocles’ largest circle represents humanity. While it does not take much ingenuity for someone to add more circles that extend to the universe, it is worth pausing on how the Hieroclean Circles are both egocentric and anthropocentric, two views that reflect one another and sources of egotism… this is the real circle offered by Hierocles: starting from the self and ending with the self—our species—creating a closed system.

When we conceptualize the world through Hieroclean Circles, we too may have the best intentions, wanting to extend love for ourselves onto humanity, but in the end, we are perpetuating egocentrism. Egocentrism is literally what happens when we put the self in the center. When we live life egocentrically, we cultivate egotism and disconnect ourselves from the world because we create distance between ourselves and the world. We may be embedded within larger circles, but it is up to us to reach out to these other circles. Connections to the outer circles are left to human will, misapprehending our regenerative and original conditions**. This way of looking at the world is unskillful because it does not reflect the way the universe is organized, only the way in which our perceptions interpret the world and our place within it. 

More to the point, it poses barriers to recognizing our common interests as a bio-collective.

Student-centered approaches—placing the child at the center of the learning experiences—risk putting the same emphasis on the individual and the ego. In a desire to fix a broken education system, advocates of student-centered learning have shifted the focus away from the curriculum onto the child. This is a step in the right direction. Finding malleability in the curriculum to meet the needs of the learner moves us away from standardizing the learning experience. Standardization is a term from the industrial era, referring to the interchangeability of replacement parts. When we standardize curriculum and assessment, we treat children as cogs in the machine.

There is another way to look the world, one that dispels illusions by shifting our focus. Rather than in concentric circles that center around the self, let’s consider the universe as ordered hierarchically (or as a holarchy, see below), as in the framework we saw above. It is based on the idea of holon and looks like this:

The holon is Arthur Koestler’s neologism to explain how complex systems evolve from simpler systems, with intermediate forms layered in between. Everything is both a whole and a part of a larger system. Koestler constructed the word holon from the Greek holos (whole) and the suffix -on, which suggests a part (as in proton, neutron, and electron)†. 

A hierarchy of holons is called a holarchy. Within a holarchy,  each and every thing in the universe is both a whole and a part onto itself. A “part” is by definition a fragment and cannot exist on its own. A “whole” is something that is complete in itself, but cannot exist independently of other wholes (which makes it a part). If it did exist independently, with no interaction with other wholes, it would exist outside of all phenomena and be a static thing, never change, never age—in effect, dead. Such a whole cannot exist without violating the laws of quantum mechanics that state that everything is phenomena: ceaseless interactions of all things in the universe that take place beyond the illusory concepts of time and space (cf. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle). If all wholes are connected with other wholes, then they must be parts of a system. Hence the idea of holon.

In one sense, we do exist as wholes, but just as we can adjust the magnification of a microscope to look at a specimen in different ways, we exist both as parts of a living system and as wholes composed of many parts, which, in turn, are wholes in themselves. Our hearts, lungs, and stomachs exist as wholes but are each parts of their own systems: cardio-vascular, pulmonary, and digestive. These systems are interconnected with each other, making up the corporeal system which is one part of what makes you, you—along with consciousness, which is only separate from the body if we isolate it as its own system, but consciousness is inseparable from the rest of you, if we go up the hierarchy into what makes you, you.

The universe is not organized around our egos at the center of concentric circles. These are the constructs with which we perceive the world. The universe is a living system of nested wholes, each made of parts, and together constituting parts of a larger whole, at a higher level—a holarchy.

The holarchy doesn’t extend forever. Its largest boundary is the macroscale of the observable universe, which extends 1X1035 meters (that’s 1 followed by 35 zeros). In the opposite direction, the smallest outer boundary is the Planck scale, coming in at 1X10-33 meters (a decimal point preceded by 35 zeros). Now, here is the weird part: The exact center of that scale is at the level of the cells that make up the foundational building blocks of life. The universe truly is biocentric—but rather than within concentric circles, life is the center of a universal scale and extends in both directions.

What does this have to do with student-centered approaches perhaps contributing to the meta-crisis?

Student-centered approaches that fail to appreciate our existence as part of a holarchy keep us attached to the ego, to anthropocentrism. They keep us in a state where our self identity prevails over our other identities. It is still about me, even if “me” is part of a bigger circle. We can extend our love to the outside, but the primacy remains us.

On the other hand, student-centered approaches that recognize they are part of a living systems framework shed the ego. Rather than seeing the world in terms of circles, these approaches are able to shift the focus along the holarchy. One moment student-centered, the next community-centered, family-centered, species-centered, or ecosystems-centered; an infinite amount of approaches. The framework allows us to recognize that each level of the holarchy is itself a whole and that no level is more worthy than any other. 

Imagine voice and choice, agency, decisions about how and what to learn and do, monitoring of learning, learning about what interests, co-designing curriculum at the level of group, family, community, or species…all the same characteristics of student-centered learning, but at higher levels within the holarchy. This would dispel reductionist models of learning and assessment and open up to the contributions of the plurality, of the commons. Why shouldn’t we be able to learn and assess the actions of a collective? Who says?

When we remained stuck to the self, when we fail to have what Koestler calls “hierarchic awareness,” that is, an understanding our dual nature as both wholes and parts, we remain egotistical. This is what, on a metaphysical level, creates separation from ourselves and the world and, on a practical level, what feeds consumerism, hostility, wastefulness, and unkindness. 

I will conclude by pointing out that there there are more insidious dangers. When we fail to have hierarchic awareness, moving up and down the holarchy with intentions and mindfulness, we risk causing harm even when we mean to be altruistic. We want to do good, we want to embrace a cause, we want to join with others to make the world a better place… but unless we maintain an integrative approach at every level, that is, unless we feel that we are part of something bigger than the level on which we are now, we still can fall prey to egotism. The altruism of the individual feeds the egotism of the group: violent nationalism, genocide, religious purges… all in the name of the good of the group, all carried out by countless individuals who felt altruistic yet never overcame the egotism of the larger holon.

At a time when the world is so fractured, at a time when the chasm is so wide that we cannot hear each other anymore, everyone on either side believes they are doing what is right for their group. They are altruistic individually yet act egotistically as a group, at a higher level.

Perhaps greater hierarchical awareness is the key to kindness, to seeing our differences on one level and our commonalities on another. 

This is why we talk of the bio-collective. The bio-collective is the highest level of the holarchy for life on this planet. This is why contributing to the welfare of the bio-collective seeps down to all living things.. 

Including you, no longer the center of concentric circles, but a whole that is part of the entire universe.

What does this have to do with schools? It is part of the development of the awareness that may just lead us out of the meta-crisis.

* Hierocles was a bit more layered: 
The first and closest circle is the one which a person has drawn as though around a center, his own mind. This circle encloses the body and anything taken for the sake of the body. For it is virtually the smallest circle, and almost touches the center itself. Next, the second one further removed from the center but enclosing the first circle; this contains parents, siblings, wife, and children. The third one has in it uncles and aunts, grandparents, nephews, nieces, and cousins. The next circle includes the other relatives, and this is followed by the circle of local residents, then the circle of fellow tribesmen, next that of fellow citizens, and then in the same way the circle of people from neighboring towns, and then the circle of fellow-countrymen. The outermost and largest circle, which encompasses all the rest, is that of the whole human race (

** Infants do not distinguish between themselves and what is outside of them. It is only later that they make the separation. See Piaget and Sigmund Freud.

† Note that it is no coincidence that Koestler made connections with subatomic particles since atom comes from the Greek atomos, which means indivisible, yet even these particles are wholes because they are made up of their own sub-particles, quarks, for instance.

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