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CLARK, John. A Social Ecology. 02. A Dialectical Holism

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1. The Social and the Ecological

A Dialectical Holism

A social ecology, as a holistic vision, seeks to relate all phenomena to the larger direction of evolution and emergence in the universe as a whole. Within this context, it also examines the course of planetary evolution as a movement toward increasing complexity and diversity and the progressive emergence of value. According to Mumford, an examination of the « creative process » of « cosmic evolution » reveals it to be « neither random nor predetermined » and shows that a « basic tendency toward self-organization, unrecognizable until billions of years had passed, increasingly gave direction to the process. » [1]

This outlook is related to the long teleological tradition extending « from ancient Greek thought to the most recent organicist and process philosophies. It is in accord with Hegel’s insight that « substance is subject, » if this is interpreted in an evolutionary sense. There is no complete and « given » form of either subject or substance, but rather a universal process of substance-becoming-subject. Substance tends toward self-organization, life, consciousness, self-consciousness, and, finally, transpersonal consciousness (though the development takes place at all levels of being and not merely in consciousness). Social ecology is thus linked to theories of evolutionary emergence. Such a position remains implicit in Hegel’s dialectical idealism, [2] receives a more explicit expression in Samuel Alexander’s cosmic evolutionism, [3] underlies the metaphysics of Whitehead and contemporary process philosophy, [4] is given a rather technocentric and anti-naturalist turn in Teilhard de Chardin, [5] is synthesized with Eastern traditions in Radhakrishnan and Aurobindo, [6] and finds its most developed expression in Ken Wilber’s recent effort at grand evolutionary synthesis. [7]

A social ecology interprets planetary evolution and the realization of social and ecological possibilities as a holistic process, rather than merely as a mechanism of adaptation. This evolution can only be understood adequately by examining the interaction and mutual determination between species and species, between species and ecosystem, and between species, ecosystem and the earth as a whole, and by studying particular communities and ecosystems as complex, developing wholes. Such an examination reveals that the progressive unfolding of the potentiality for freedom (as self-organization, self-determination, and self-realization) depends on the existence of symbiotic cooperation at all levels—as Kropotkin pointed out almost a century ago. We can therefore see a striking degree of continuity in nature, so that the cooperative ecological society that is the goal of a social ecology is found to be rooted in the most basic levels of being.

Some critics of social ecology have claimed that its emphasis on the place of human beings in the evolutionary process betrays a non-ecological anthropocentrism. While this may be true of some aspects of Bookchin’s thought, it does not describe what is essential to a social ecology. Although we must understand the special place that humanity has within universe and earth history, the consequences of such understanding are far from being hierarchical, dualistic, or anthropocentric. A dialectical analysis rejects all « centrisms, » for all beings are at once centers (of structuration, self-organization, perceiving, feeling, sensing, knowing, etc.) and also expressions of that which exists at a distance, since from a dialectical perspective, determination is negation, the other is immanent in a being, and the whole is immanent in the part. There exists not only unity-in-diversity, and unity-in-difference but also unity-in-distance. We must interpret our place in nature in accord with such an analysis, comprehending the ways in which our being is internally related, we might say « vertically, » to more encompassing realms of being, and, we might say « horizontally, » to wider realms of being. By exploring our many modes of relatedness we discover our social and ecological responsibility—our capacity to respond to the needs of the human and natural communities in which we participate. [8]

The use of metaphors such as community and organism in a dialectical and holistic account of diverse phenomena is certainly not unproblematical. There has rightly been much debate in ecophilosophy concerning the status of such images, and their function and limitations must be a subject of continuing reflection. [9] A dialectical approach assumes their provisional nature, the importance of avoiding their use in a rigid, objectifying way, and the necessity of allowing all theoretical concepts to develop in the course of inquiry. Thus, there are certainly senses in which the earth or the biosphere cannot be described as a community. One might define community as a relationship existing between beings who can act reciprocally in certain ways, taking the criterion for reciprocity to be showing respect, carrying out obligations, or some other capacity. If one adopts such a « model » of a community, the earth is certainly not one, any more than it is an organic whole, if that term is taken to mean having the qualities of a biological organism. Yet the term « community » has in fact much more expansive connotations than those just mentioned. A community is sometimes thought to include not only competent adult human beings (moral agents), but infants and children, the mentally incompetent, past generations, future generations, domesticated animals, artifacts, architecture, public works, values and ideals, principles, goals, symbols, imaginary significations, language, history, customs and traditions, territory, biota, ecosystems and other constituents that are thought essential to its peculiar identity. To be a member of a community is often thought to imply responsibilities of many kinds in relation to some or all of the categories listed.

Questions are also raised about the totalizing implications of holism. Critics of holism sometimes identify it with an extreme organicism that denies the significance, reality, or the value of the parts. [10] It is important therefore to understand that « holism » does not refer exclusively to a view in which the whole is ontologically prior to the part, more metaphysically real than the part, or deserving of more moral consideration than the part. In fact, a dialectical holism rejects the idea that the being, reality or value of the parts can be distinguished from that of the whole in the manner presupposed by such a critique.

This is sometimes misunderstood when critics overlook an important distinction within a dialectical holism. In its comprehensively holistic analysis, the parts of a whole are not mere parts but rather holons, which are themselves relative wholes in relation to their own parts. [11] The good of the part can therefore not be reduced to a function of its contribution to the good of the whole. Its good can be also be considered in relation to its participation in the attainment of the good of a whole which it helps constitute. But beyond this, to mention what is most relevant to the critiques of holism, its attainment of its own good as a unique expression of wholeness must also be considered. There is a striking irony here. An authentic holism is capable of appreciating the value of kinds of wholeness (realized form, self-organization, attainment of good) that are often ignored by « individualisms » that defend one level of wholeness against its possible dissolution in some larger whole. Holism does not mean the fetishization of some particular kind of whole, which would constitute a version of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, but rather an exploration of the meaning of many kinds of wholeness that appear in many ways and on many levels within developing unity-in-diversity.

Continued :

3. No Nature

4. The Ecological Self

5. A Social Ecology of Value

6. An Ecology of the Imagination

7. An Ecological Imaginary

8. Freedom and Domination

9. Eco-Communitarian Politics

10. Social Eco-nomics

11. The New Leviathan

12. The Future of Social Ecology


[1Mumford, The Pentagon of Power, p. 390.

[2« But God does not remain stony and dead ; the stones cry out and raise themselves to Spirit. » Hegel, Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences 247, cited in Harris, The Spirit of Hegel, (Atlantic Highlands, NJ : Humanities Press, 1993), p. 103.

[3See Alexander’s classic evolutionary treatise, Space, Time, and Deity. 2 vols. (New York : Dover Publications, 1966.

[4The ecological and cosmic evolutionary implications that are implicit in a Whiteheadian « philosophy of organism » are elaborated eloquently in Charles Birch and John B. Cobb, Jr., The Liberation of Life (Denton, TX : Environmental Ethics Books, 1990).

[5See Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (New York : Harper and Row, 1961) and The Future of Man. (New York : Harper and Row, 1969).

[6See S. Radhakrishnan, An Idealist View of Life (New York : Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1964), ch. vi., « Matter, Life and Mind, » and Sri Aurobindo, The Essential Aurobindo (New York : Schocken Books, 1973), part one, « Man in Evolution. »

[7See Ken Wilber, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (Boston : Shambhala, 1995) and A Brief History of Everything (Boston : Shambhala, 1996).

[8We do not simply « identify » with a larger whole, but rather explore specific modes of relatedness and develop our outlook and feelings in relation to what we discover about self and other. In this analysis, a dialectical social ecology has more in common with eco-feminist thought than with those ecological theories that stress « expanded » selfhood.

[9As in Eric Katz’s very useful discussion in « Organism, Community, and the ’Substitution Problem’« in Environmental Ethics 7 (1985) : 241-256. Katz raises many important issues, though he overstates the opposition between the two approaches by interpreting them as rather rigid « models. »

[10The most flagrant case is Tom Regan’s attack on « Holism as Environmental Fascism » in his essay « Ethical Vegetarianism and Commercial Animal Farming, » reprinted in James White, ed. Contemporary Moral Problems (St. Paul MN : West Publishing Co., 1988) : 327-341. Note Mumford’s severe critique, from a holistic, « organicist » perspective, of the extreme, totalizing holism of Teilhard de Chardin in The Pentagon of Power, pp. 314-319.

[11The concept of the « holon » was first proposed by Arthur Koestler in The Ghost in the Machine (Chicago : Henry Regnery Co., 1967), ch. 3 and passim. Its fundamental importance has recently been defended by Ken Wilber. For a concise discussion of Wilber’s analysis of holons, their characteristics of « identity, » « autonomy » and « agency, » and their constitution of « holarchies, » see A Brief History of Everything, ch. 1.


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CLARK, John. A Social Ecology. 02. A Dialectical Holism,
Dernières modifications : 25 avril 2015. [En ligne].
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[Consulté le 23 novembre 2017]



CLARK, John P. (New Orleans, USA. 21/6/1945 - )
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