It was when I said "more than the sum of the parts" that I always saw it: "huh?" was the best interpretation I could make of the blank expressions that gazed back. Yes, teaching what health means to advanced university students of the health professions had moments like this.

Was I disappointed? You bet. Was I surprised? Not really. You see, after that many years of western education and enculturation it was inevitable. Western thinking is by its very nature particularistic and reductionist. We are expert at analysis, but as any academic can tell you, not so strong on synthesis.

We pull things apart to learn what makes them tick. This is as true for ideas and concepts as it is for physical things. When you pull a machine apart it can be studied in minute detail, examined from every angle, subjected to all manner of tests, reassembled and dissassembled many times, put to work under varying conditions, and so on. Eventually we may consider that we know everything there is to know about it. Our analysis is complete.

To continue the machine analogy, someone may come along after an Edward deBono lateral thinking seminar, let’s say, and blow us away with countless new ways of using and approaching the machine. Astounded and impressed, we eagerly add to our knowledge of the machine. Perhaps now our analysis is complete. We feel satisfied. What is more, we now probably know how to apply some creativity, to use synthesis, to improve the machine. Our detailed knowledge and creativity has enabled us to achieve success.

Such success is very rewarding of the pattern of thinking and style of behavior that produced it. Those same strategies have been repeated as approaches to learning just about everything since the cradle. They are deeply ingrained. It is the way we think. What is more, that way is invisible to us, it simply seems so natural we are mostly unaware of it.

Therefore, to understand something, we habitually seek to find and study its parts. Having done so, we conclude with sound western logic, that if we add up what we know about each and every part we must know about the whole thing. If we feel that we don’t know everything about it, then with sufficient motivation we simply delve back into the parts, adding to our accumulated knowledge, deepening it until satisfied.

Is there anything wrong with this? No. At least, not as far as it goes. It is the way we approach life and learning. After all, western civilization has achieved quite a lot.

So when people study health they naturally approach it in a particularistic fashion. And they don’t even know that’s what they’re doing. It just seems to be the normal way to gain an understanding. Of course by the time of advanced university studies, a feeling of more-or-less complete understanding is achieved in the areas supposedly mastered.

Such study will have broken health down into parts, or aspects or dimensions. We study physical, mental and social health, and some also study spiritual health, after a fashion. Each of these is in turn broken down further. So, for example, physical health may be approached in terms of body systems, organs, tissues and cells from the perspectives of anatomy, physiology, pathophysiology, histology and so on. Further, the gross structure and function may be considered at the level of the complete person.

Equally, the effects of social-interpersonal and physical environmental factors will be considered and added to the growing understanding. I’m sure you get the picture. The study of health, which curiously enough actually emphasizes disease, is built up piece by piece in an attempt to grasp the whole.

So how do we understand the whole? Obviously by adding together all of the understood parts. Even if honesty and self-awareness dictate a confession that we don’t know it all, we can readily conceptualize that such a whole theoretically exists, and the purpose of our study is therefore to move steadily towards that defined goal by adding more parts of knowledge.

Now, at this point I have to say something quite shocking. This will disturb some people. The fact is that the vast majority of western people who claim to understand holism or holistic health really haven’t got much of a clue. They mean well and certainly believe they understand the concepts, but they don’t.

How do I know? What gives me the right to make such a judgement? Fair questions. Bear with me a little longer.

You see, one of the most fundamental things that people absorb from their culture is language. There is great philosophical debate about the nature of the relationship bewteen thought and language, but suffice it to say that a person’s ideas, thoughts and understandings can be deduced from the language they use to express them. We base our whole education system and most social interaction on this belief.

Herein lies the problem for would-be western holists. Our language itself reflects the particularistic orientation of western thought forms, making it extremely difficult for us to firstly truely comprehend and then to convey the nature of holism.

The consequence is that many people teach holism and indeed, holistic health, without the language to convey what it really means. Additionally, they are commonly completely stumped when asked to give practical applications of the concept. As soon as they try, they have to fall back on the language of particularism, since that’s all they have at their disposal, and what they say isn’t actually about holism at all.

You see, the language of particularism is not equipped to explain holism. I have encountered countless attempts. They usually falter by starting to add more parts. Typically it goes like this. They say:

Holistic health is about the whole person. Holistic comes from holos, meaning whole or complete. It’s not just about treating one or a few parts of a person, like their physical and psychological needs. It involves everything, the whole person, their spiritual, social, etc.

You see by the time they have reached where I placed the ‘etc’, they have lost it. What are they doing? They have resorted to a catalog of parts. They are adding dimensions. They have lost the essence of the meaning of holism. What they are describing is simply a high quality western approach to health (all too rare in my opinion, but normal enough nonetheless).

It is impossible to understand or to convey holism or holistic health (which is itself a reduction of the concept) by summing (or adding up) the parts. No matter how impressive or unusual or outrageous your list of parts, it cannot ever achieve the whole, according to holistic thinking.

You see, the very essence of holism is enshrined in the phrase and concept, more than the sum of the parts. It is the more than everything you can possibly add up that defies and befuddles western thinking. Now, have I given you something to think about?

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