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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

versión On-line ISSN 2224-7912
versión impresa ISSN 0041-4751


DU PISANI, Kobus. Father of holism: Was Jan Smuts an intellectual?. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2018, vol.58, n.1, pp.1-16. ISSN 2224-7912.

Jan Smuts (1870-1950), the famous South African statesman, politician and military commander, made significant intellectual contributions to society. There is difference of opinion as to whether these contributions are of such a nature that they entitle him to be called an intellectual. The aim of the article is to try and establish whether Smuts was indeed an intellectual and, if so, on which grounds he deserves to be classified as such. Smuts's extraordinary record as student at Stellenbosch and Cambridge confirms that he was highly intelligent. Even Einstein had a high regard for his intelligence. He was a scientist in his own right, a botanist with expert knowledge on grasses. He was a patron of the sciences and contributed to scientific literature and discourses. In this article an attempt is made to determine whether Smuts's intellectual achievements and contributions were of such a high order that they elevated him to the status ofan intellectual. The starting point was to try and measure Smuts's career against a generally accepted definition of what it means to be an intellectual and the accompanying criteria set for a person to be classified as an intellectual. However, from the extensive literature on the concept of the intellectual it is evident that it is such a fluid and changing concept that no single definition or single set of criteria for a person to qualify as an intellectual is possible. In the light of the evasiveness of the concept of the intellectual the following two questions were formulated to measure Smuts's intellectual contributions against some of the widely accepted characteristics of the intellectual: • Did Smuts make an original contribution to public discourse in his lifetime? • Was his contribution recognised and did it have a significant impact on society during and after his lifespan? The claim that Smuts deserves to be classified as an intellectual revolves around his concept of holism and its impact. He explained his concept, which he had been developing since his youth, in his book Holism and evolution, first published in 1926. Smuts is regarded as the "father of holism", although he was not the first person to reflect on the relationship between parts and wholes. Smuts introduced the concept of holism at a time when a paradigm shift was occurring in scientific thinking, which led people to view the universe as a dynamic ever-changing whole. Smuts was aware of the latest developments in scientific thinking. By incorporating the ideas of Kant, Freud, Einstein, Spinoza, Hegel, Leibniz and Darwin into his own holistic thinking, he tried to synthesise the existing knowledge available in his time. In Holism and evolution Smuts attempted to explain the relationship between matter, life and mind by arguing that holism was the creative and coordinating principle thatjoined these elements and kept the parts of complex organisms together. Although Smuts failed to explain the origin of life, his book was acclaimed. Holism became a prominent topic of discussion in scientific circles. Through the work of Smuts's contemporaries it became an influential concept in some disciplines, e.g. through Alfred Adler's and Adolf Meyer's work in psychology and psychiatry. Prominent scholars supported Smuts's holistic ideas. Smuts rose in esteem, he received invitations to address scientific associations and he was even elected as president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Smuts's ideas about holism had the effect of involving him in an intense dispute between the idealistic and materialistic approaches to the ecological sciences. Smuts resisted the materialistic approach that was becoming dominant at the time and preferred the teleologic view of purposiveness in creation, arguing that through evolution a hierarchy of wholes was being created that represented progression towards perfection in nature. Smuts was supported by other idealists, including Fredric Clements, the American plant ecologist whose theory of botanic succession towards a climax was influential. South African ecologists and botanists, including John Phillips and John Williams Bews, were also in Smuts's camp. Materialists, including Lancelot Hogben, Hyman Levy, H.G. Wells, Julian Huxley and G.P. Wells, opposed the teleologic-idealistic concept of ecological holism. Arthur Tansley, a leading British ecologist, was the main adversary of Smuts and his supporters. He strongly criticised the ideas that ecological succession was inherently progressive and that holism was the cause and effect of everything in nature. As counter he developed his materialistic-holistic ecosystem concept, that would supersede Clements's climax theory as the dominant paradigm in ecology. Tansley and others one-sidedly linked Smuts's ideas about race to his holism and alleged that he used holism to try and justify racial discrimination and oppression in South Africa. Some critics speciously argued that Smuts's racism compromised the value of his holistic insights. In the 1980s the concept of holism was revived as a central issue in scientific thinking. The explosion of knowledge made it obvious to scientists that reductionism, the study of constituent parts in isolation, was inadequate for the understanding of complex systems and that a holistic approach was indispensable. Holism became a basic concept in complexity studies, systems science and general systems theory and an important element in academic discourses in a variety of natural, applied, human and social sciences. Many prominent scientists in various fields of research associated themselves with holistic thinking. Holism found practical application in different disciplines. Several scholars, including J.C. Poynton, Daniel Christian Wahl, Claudius van Wyk and Dalene Heyns, have argued that Smuts, who had meagre scientific resources at his disposal, intuitively and imaginatively pointed the way towards future investigation. He was ahead of his time and holism has only recently come into its own as a key concept in scientific thinking as a counter to reductionism and mechanistic materialism. Smuts's concept of holism was part of the twentieth-century paradigm shift in scientific thinking and today remains a valid epistemological approach. My conclusion is that both questions posed above can be answered in the affirmative and that Smuts can indeed be regarded as an intellectual who has made significant contributions to public discourses in the twentieth and even the twenty-first centuries. Einstein's forecast that relativity and holism would be the key scientific concepts in the new millennium was not far off the mark.

Palabras clave : J.C. Smuts; intellectual; holism; Holism and evolution; scientific discourse; idealism; materialism; reductionism; scientific paradigms; matter and life; Arthur Tansley; Fredric Clements; teleology; ecology; racial views; systems sciences; systems theory.

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