Mechanism and Holism in Modernity


A Holistic Approach to Making Sense of the Modern World

            While science has been an important avenue through which humans have attempted to explore and understand their surroundings since the time of the Greeks, it was not until the late nineteenth-century that its methods, across the increasingly specialized and defined scientific disciplines, began to take on a single, well-defined appearance. The mechanical worldview — I use the world worldview here because, as this essay will examine, its basic components began to appear in more and more aspects of human life — is characterized by attempts to reduce and simplify the universe into quantitative units, and then to analyze and use those units to understand and manipulate nature (and later, people) in ways previously impossible. The method’s success in the “harder” sciences in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries — physics, chemistry, and some aspects of biology — led many scientists to attempt to apply it also to other areas of human inquiry. As the twenty first-century approached, however, the mechanistic outlook’s inability to deal with the complex problems of the life and social sciences became increasingly apparent.

In this essay, I want to examine the mechanistic methodology’s entrance into the softer sciences, and I want to discuss the problems inherent in such a reductionist approach to the complicated questions life and social sciences attempt to answer. How did it influence the types of questions that scientists asked, and what would alternative questions (with a more holistic basis) have looked like? And finally, I want to end with a brief discussion of how humanity is still firmly in the grip of the mechanistic worldview, and how it continues to shape the way we understand our surroundings and ourselves. The questions that scientists ask, I want to argue, are influenced by the methods (and philosophical understandings of those methods) to which they ascribe, and the implications of this association for the kind of science being done affects far more than just the scientific community.