The concept of holons has been in contention from the early formulations of AQAL to the present day. Even the most savvy integralist might be inclined to wonder: what really are holons? Are holons an ontologically fact about the world (are they real)? And how does such a notion truly contribute to an understanding of the territory and not just the map?
In this 2003 essay, Mark Edwards examines the history, use and relevance of the concept of holons in integral theory:
A Brief History of Holons - by Mark EdwardsRead the entire essay: Here“This concept has a long and respectable ancestry. So much so that defenders of orthodoxy are inclined to dismiss it as "old hat" - and often in the same breath to deny its validity. Yet I hope to show as we go along that this old hat, handled with some affection, can produce lively rabbits.” -- Arthur Koestler, 1967, p.45The idea of hierarchy and of their constituent part-wholes, or holons, has, as Arthur Koestler points out in the opening quote, a long and distinguished history. There are many philosophers who have proposed abstract systems for explaining natural and social phenomena. In pre-Socratic Greece Leuciddus and Deocritus developed the abstract concept of the atom and used it to develop a philosophy that could explain all observed events. Aristotle used hierarchy as the methodology for accumulating and connecting biological knowledge. Hierarchy was perhaps the dominant way of viewing the connection between the natural, the human and the supernatural orders of being through the middles ages.
In the 17th century Leibnitz proposed his "monad" as an irreducible unit for explaining not only the material world but the inner world of the soul. In the early twentieth century there was a flurry of interest in holism and hierarchy that owed its genesis to the impact of Darwin's evolutionary theory. I think the contribution of Jan Smuts in his publication of "Evolution and Holism" in 1926 is particularly important. Smuts was a soldier, a revolutionist republican, a lawyer, the Premier of the Republic of South Africa for several years (before the instigation of political apartheid), a globalist, and one of the founders of the United nations. writers of the UN founding charter. He also was a philosopher who saw the deep connections between the natural and social worlds and his concept of holism clearly influenced Wilber's ideas in this area. Wilber quotes Smuts at the very beginning of his first major work that fully utilized the concept of hierarchy – The Atman Project - "Everywhere we look in nature we see nothing but wholes" (cited in Wilber, 1980). While all these various threads of ideas included the consideration of hierarchical networks and levels and orders of development it was not until the work of writer-philosopher Arthur Koestler that a fully theory of holarchy and holons was proposed.
"A new perspective on whole-part relationships is taking shape around the concept of the holon - a term coined by Arthur Koestler to designate that which is simultaneously a whole in its own right and a part of a larger whole. An atom is a whole in itself. When it is also part of a molecule it becomes a holon, or a whole-part. The molecule that is also part of a cell is a holon, as is the cell that is part of an organ, and so on.
This hierarchy of relationships from the atom to the organism is known as a holarchy. The concepts of holon and holarchy are fundamental to understanding the healthy function of complex living systems, which requires that each of their whole-parts maintain its own identity and boundaries even as it functions as part of the larger whole." - David C. Korten (The Post-Corporate World)