Was Jan Smuts the father of Holism?


With reference:

Jan C. Smuts, Holism and Evolution

With what I've found so far it seems he has had an enormous impact on the world that we have, so:

Is there any secondary readings on the philosophy, and influence, of Jan Smuts within the context of holism?

Bonus question: One comment stated "...[he] was a favorite correspondent of Einstein's during the period the theory of relativity was evolving" Any sources and resource around this would be most welcome


Posted 2018-10-18T04:21:17.590

Reputation: 2 265


"The tern Holism was coined by Jan Smuts; see Holism and Evolution (1927, 2nd edition)."

– Mauro ALLEGRANZA – 2018-10-18T06:11:46.813

Smuts did coin the term but the idea was common currency, "part of a broader trend of interest in holism in European and colonial academia during the early twentieth century", as Wikipedia puts it. In fact, the idea is much older, see e.g. Bergson's Creative Evolution (1907) or Spencer's Progress (1862). At the root of it was recycling of Lamarck's evolutionary theory because Darwinian one was too "mechanistic", and Lamarck himself drew on even older notion of elan vital.

– Conifold – 2018-11-07T20:15:14.090

@Conifold The evolutionary connection is quite interesting, and retrospectively obvious given Smuts' political program. Is there any works mentioning his views in this regard? – christo183 – 2018-11-07T20:49:17.103




'Holism' has in recent years acquired a different meaning from the one Smuts intended. But the philosophy presented in Holism and Evolution in 1925 was genuinely novel under that name except under a reservation regarding John Tyndall (1820-93) :

to establish his thesis that the whole of creation is conditioned by the existence of a universal tendency towards completeness, governing every stage and every aspect of an evolutionary process in continuous operation. The known facts regarding atomic structure, the association of atoms in a molecule and of molecules, on the one hand in the unit structures from which crystals are formed, or on the other hand in the colloidal state, enabled him to discern a continuity of development throughout lifeless, but as he emphasizes by no means inert, matter towards structures endowed with life. Having thus bridged the gap between matter and life he had no difficulty in picturing the development of mind in its most primitive form in a differentiated multicellular organism. The next gap between mind and soul could be similarly bridged. Life, mind and soul being thus conceived-as indeed Tyndall had contended much earlier-not as something added to matter from without but as some- thing arising from within matter the whole grand design of creation stands revealed as something all-embracing, springing into existence in response to a universal urge towards completeness. (Waverley, 'Jan Christiaan Smuts. 1870-1950', Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol. 8, No. 21 (Nov., 1952), pp. 271-273 : 272.)

I haven't an exact reference for Tyndall but Roy MacLeod, "John Tyndall," Dictionary of Scientific Biography, 16 vols. (New York: Scribners, 1970-1981), Vol. XIII, pp. 521-524 should be of use.


I cannot find evidence for correspondence between Smuts and Einstein 'during the period the theory of relativity was evolving' if this refers to 1905 (or earlier) and 1915. It is unlikely that Smuts could have made any technical contribution and hard to to make out what else any correspondence could have been about.

There is another angle, however.

Standing at the forefront of all major campaigns of the peace movement of the 1920s and early 1930s - among them disarmament, conscientious objection, and the formation of a European Union - Einstein positioned himself at the vanguard of an uncompromising anti-war activism. (Ofer Ashkenazi, 'Reframing the Interwar Peace Movement: The Curious Case of Albert Einstein', Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 46, No. 4 (OCTOBER 2011), pp. 741-766 : 744-5.) Smuts was much involved in the interwar years (1918-39) in disarmament and international co-operation. So there was that degree of interlock between Einstein and Smuts.

There is a puzzling point which I can't resolve here. Ashkenazi writes : 'Einstein's 'immense authority' and his status of a 'great leader' are recurrently mentioned by his correspondents throughout the interwar years: for instance, General L.S. Smuts to Albert Einstein, 15 May 1936' (Askenazi, 744 fn 14). I know of no General L.S. Smuts and am pretty sure this is a misprint referring to General J.C. Smuts. But I don't have access to Einstein's correspondence for 1936, so this is conjectural.

Geoffrey Thomas

Posted 2018-10-18T04:21:17.590

Reputation: 34 276

1Another area of contact could have been Smuts' support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland. At any rate, what these men could have been conversing truly piqued my interest. – christo183 – 2018-10-18T13:37:29.093

@christo. A point well made. The question of a Jewish homeland would have been pressing already in 1936 - if the 'General LS Smuts' is from Jan Smuts. But their shared concern for a Jewish homeland could explain correspondence between them at any time between the wars. Thanks for this addition. Best : GT – Geoffrey Thomas – 2018-10-18T13:47:33.720