Atomism and holism are two mindsets that we all have but through blind copying we are taught to favor one over the other. The West favors atomism and the East favors holism. Wait?!? You say I have atomism and holism but I’ve literally never even heard of them. Well, let’s change that right now. You may have heard someone say “He can’t see the forest for the trees.” Well, that’s atomism at work.
Atomism comes from the same root as atom. Atomism is what allows us to break things down into tiny, little pieces. It’s what allows us to look at a big, old forest and focus in on a tiny speck of one tree. Meanwhile, holism is that BIG PICTURE view where we back up and see how it all fits together into a forest.
The West favors atomism. That’s because the Ancient Greeks were fisherman, traders and pirates. It was everyone for themselves. For fun, the Greeks went into the marketplace and picked apart each other’s arguments into tiny little pieces. They made arguments based on logic that were all about a nice sequential straight line argument of little piece lined up in a row. And they tried to distinguish themselves at an event called the Olympics that was all about who could stand out most in running, throwing and jumping.
Meanwhile, in Ancient China, people fed themselves with rice agriculture. Rice agriculture depends on A LOT of water. You need water from your neighbor up the hill. Your neighbor down the hill needs water from you. You have to think about relationships. You have to think holistically. It’s all connected, man!
The result is that the Ancient Chinese evolved a culture that saw everything as interconnected. Feng Shui is about the flows of energy between people. Chinese medicine is holistic medicine and sees everything as connected. And Confucianism is all about the relationships between different people in society. You can read more about this in Richard Nisbett’s amazing book The Geography of Thought.
The West’s “Me” culture celebrates the individual over the collective and shows up in lots of ways. Take, for example, the creation and development of the assembly line. There’s a very good reason it took an Atomistic thinker like Henry Ford (Westerner!) to develop it. He saw the automobile, not as the finished product, but as a collection of individual parts that could be assembled by individual humans. This greatly reduced the time it took to build a car. But this atomistic approach was terrible at getting all the pieces to work together. Workers lost the sense of responsibility for their work and craftsmanship suffered because they were told to just do their little piece no questions asked.
The Japanese took a Holistic approach to the assembly line and saw efficiency improve while at the same time reducing errors, a development that altered the balance of automobile production quickly, dramatically and permanently. While the assembly line remained essentially the same, the Japanese removed the hierarchical nature from the process and put all the workers on a level playing field. In the legendary Toyota Production System, the worker was the expert at their station and could stop the process when there was a problem without fear of being scolded by some boss who was atomistically focused on fulfilling some quota. The result of this holistic perspective was business success. Until very recently, Toyota was the world’s largest car manufacturer.
Put simply, atomism sees a collection of individual trees, where holism sees a forest. These cultural biases are expressed in many ways: health and medicine, food production and preparation, approach to history and general worldview. What’s important for us to know practically is that these two mindsets are complementary.
Atomism created the assembly line, holism improved it. You could call this “cultural appropriation” but we say “Bullshit! That’s how cultural evolution works!”
Neither atomism nor holism is better than the other, but understanding their benefits and limitations of each will serve you in the Mind-Fu Dojo. If you want to up your Mixed Mental Arts game and create a better culture, it’s essential to use the mindset that best fits the task at hand.
Go forth and be aware, Grasshopper!