Atomism and holism in the understanding of society and social systems


Personality Ideal
Science Ideal
Social Collectivities
Community Relationships


Throughout its history, reflection on human society has been torn apart by the opposing views of atomism and holism. Traditional societies, the city state of ancient Greece as well as the medieval perfect society apparently resemble a whole with its parts. Early modernity continued this holistic inclination for a while, but soon reverted to atomistic theories of the (hypothetical) social contract. Modern humanism dominated the subsequent views articulated in terms of the dialectical tension between nature and freedom (science ideal and personality ideal) – including mechanistic and vitalistic approaches as well as the more recent acknowledgment of irreducibly complex systems (Behe, 2003). In Wiener’s (1954; 1956) “technologicism” human responsibility and freedom are sacrificed. An alternative view is advanced in terms of the normativity of societal life as well as its many-sidedness. It is shown that theories of social systems increasingly tend to explore avenues transcending the limitations of the atomistic additive approach and the boundary-leveling whole-parts scheme entailed in social systems theory. This development is used as a starting point for the classification of social interaction and for underscoring the scope of the principle of sphere-sovereignty for a multidisciplinary understanding of social systems.