The Oxford English Dictionary has this entry:
a manufacturing town in west central Israel, part of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa metropolitan area; population 170,600 (est. 2008).
Which is not the sense of the word we need here. So, we have to define our own terms here, and potentially makes it a bit tougher:
a thing which is simultaneously a whole and a part.
Seems simple enough, right? Maybe…possibly…perhaps? Let’s go with a system, made up of sub-systems.
For the developers in the room, this is like the recursive acronym: GNU. Which stands for GNU’s not UNIX, which, if we take the acronym GNU by itself, just keeps going.
For the scientists, think of a person. A person is a holon. That person has multiple organ systems; let’s use the digestive system. The digestive system, is a holon. The digestive is made up of multiple organs (tongue, stomach, intestine, and so on).
Continuing with the human, holons also go higher in complexity. However, people organize in communities and collectives, which are also holons (social holons as opposed to individual holons, which the digestive system and its components are technically neither of those).
Confused yet? Great, that’s a wonderful place to start. Seriously though, sometimes you just have to make up some words.
So, a holon is a whole in and of itself, as well as a part. Stomach. Human. Society. All holons.
Individual holons are holons which possess an “I-ness”; or, to use more plain language, an individual holon has its own agency. It’s own autonomy. So, you are an individual holon. You are made up of other holons. And, in general, all the sub-holons move together (you can’t really leave your stomach in a jar and walk away).
Social holons are holons which have no agency in and of themselves. Society is a social holon. However, society does not consciously act or move in a certain way. Instead, any movements and actions occur either through a request from a perceived or accepted leader or from the desire of the majority of individual holons. Businesses are social holons: Google did not create Android, humans (individual holons) working for Google did; Apple did not engineer the iPhone, humans working for Apple did. America (400,000,000 people) does not collectively choose to do anything. And so on.
Individual holons equal individualism. Social holons equal collectivism.
Recognizing and respecting the difference, in my opinion, is what synthesizes the two.
Social holons do not have agency. Governments, does not have agency. Men do not have agency. Women do not have agency. Having said that, through research, we can aggregate the data of how individuals within those groups act, think, and respond to certain stimuli. However, the results do not remove the individuality of those people.
Christians are neither sinners nor saints, as a whole. Republicans. Democratics. Libertarians. And so on. The hard part from an outsider’s perspective, looking at a social holon, is identifying what exactly, is common across the individual holons within the social holon(s).
I feel as though I might be beating you over the head here. And I want to acknowledge, apologize, and explain. I do apologize if you’re reading this and saying, “All right, I get it.” The reason this one is so important to me is that I believe it is the foundation for things like racism, sexism, and all other similar prejudices.
Hypothetically, I mug you. That is a negatively traumatic experience for you. You want to avoid that in the future. There are two parts to that: a) What you should change about yourself in the future and b) what characteristics should you be on the lookout for.
You noticed I was male. You noticed I was white. You noticed I had brown hair. You noticed I am roughly six feet tall. You noticed I have hazel eyes. And so on.
Later, someone else mugs you. They too are male. And Roughly six feet tall.
Now you have two of the same experiences, with two characteristics of the perpetrator in common. Subsequently, you start becoming weary about men who are roughly six feet tall.
Then you start hearing stories from people you trust about their experiences with men who are roughly six feet tall. They too, have been mugged by men who are roughly six feet tall. This serves to reenforce that perspective.
And now, all men who are roughly six feet tall are really just muggers who haven’t got to you yet.
The collectivism side gives humans a great advantage by being able to group things by arbitrary categories and automate certain decision making processes. But, it can easily turn into something dark.
A person is a thing with agency and autonomy. A collective is a thing without agency and autonomy.