Sex, Ecology, Spirituality—The Concept of a Holon

Lana Wachowski is the co-director with her brother Andy of the recent movie Cloud Atlas as well as such films as The Matrix Trilogy, and V for Vendetta. I saw the movie and read a review of the movie in the New York Review of Books.* I was reminded of the fact that Ken Wilber, the philosopher who wrote A Theory of Everything, stands was her philosophical muse in the same way that Joseph Campbell was to George Lucas, who based Star Wars on the “monomyth” described in Campbell’s The Hero of A Thousand Faces. Having read Ken Wilber’s book mentioned above, I decided to go deeper into his philosophical writings by reading his magnum opus, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (aka SES) and take some notes while I go through the book. I will do posts regarding his book from time to time as I take some “time off” from writing about my usual subjects of project management, quality control, and globalization.

(The review can be found at

1. The Three Books of SES

Sex, Ecology, Spirituality actually is three books, two books plus the footnotes to both. The first book contains his notes on Integral Theory, which looks at experience from a series of different perspectives. The second book discusses the barriers that people face in opening up their vision to the different perspectives of Integral Theory. The third book contains the “graduate level” discussion of many of the points brought up in the first and second books.

2. First Book, Chapter 1: The Web of Life (review)

The first chapter, The Web of Life, introduced the modern ecological meme of the “Web of Life”, and how it is related to its philosophical forerunner in the Middle Ages called the Great Chain of Being.

The intellectual history of this relationship shows three main overall stages, the medieval or pre-modern synthesis of the Great Chain of Being, the break-up of that synthesis with the rise of modern science, and the new post-modern synthesis that emerged during the latter part of the 20th century called The Web of Life.

These two memes are from two different worldviews (medieval and post-modern), and yet they share the same structure of a “nest of concentric circles” which Ken Wilber referred to as a “holarchy”, to differentiate it from a linear vertical relationship (hierarchy) or linear horizontal relationship (heterarchy).

The Great Chain of Being and the Web of Life are two philosophical memes which represent a holarchy, and I believe that’s why he presented them in this first chapter before he presented the details of holons, which come in the next chapter.

3. First Book, Chapter 2: The Pattern that Connects

The second chapter, after having introduced by example what a holarchy is, he then spends the next chapter describing what he refers as to as holons. A holarchy is a series of nested holons, where each thing or process is a part of a larger whole, and so can be considered technically a part or a whole, but BOTH. This term was coined by Arthur Koesler, but you can see it’s philosophical significance as finally solving the philosophical dilemma of “the one and the many.” The universe can be seen as the sum of its parts (“the many”) or the totality or whole (“the one”). Which is the more essential or “real”?

Plato was a proponent of the “one over many” school, saying in the Republic:“We customarily hypothesize a single form in connection with each collection of many things to which we apply the same name.”
Heraclitus on the other hand thought that the world consisted of many parts, some of which were in opposition to each other, and that the opposition between these parts was what held them together as One. Democritus, with his theory of atoms, was a proponent that the parts (atoms) were the most important. So one theme running through Greek Philosophy is explaining the relationship of the One to the Many. The concept of holons, where objects or processes are both One (the whole containing smaller parts) and the Many (a part of a larger whole) bridges these two themes very well.

In the next post, I will list the 20 tenets or principles that Ken Wilber has developed for these holons regarding how they are interrelated, how they develop or evolve, and how they sometimes devolve or dissipate. This is probably the most arcane of the chapters, even according to Ken Wilber, but I think some examples will allow people to relate to the underlying principles of what he’s trying to get across.


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