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The Holonic Revolution Holons, Holarchies and Holonic Networks. The Ghost in the Production Machine


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A minor conceptual revolution has been under way for less than forty years now, beginning in 1967 with the publication of Arthur Koestler's The Ghost in the Machine – a phantasmagorical book in terms of the breath and variety of its content – which formally introduced the concepts of holon and holarchy (the hierarchical ordering of holons). Koestler's idea is clear and simple: in observing the Universe surrounding us (at the physical and biological level and in the real or formal sense) we must take into account the whole/part relationship between observed "entities". In other words, we must not only consider atoms, molecules, cells, individuals, systems, words or concepts as autonomous and independent units, but we must always be aware that each of these units is at the same time a whole – composed of smaller parts – and part of a larger whole. In fact, they are holons. The entire machine of life and of the Universe itself evolves toward ever more complex states, as if a ghost were operating the machine. The concepts of holon and holarchy have since been used, especially in recent times, by a number of writers in a variety of disciplines and contexts, and these concepts are rapidly spreading to all sectors of research. In particular these concept are more and more frequently found in the literature of physics, biology, organizational studies, management science, business administration and entrepreneurship, production and supply chain systems. Connected to these ideas are those of holonic networks, holonic and virtual enterprises, virtual organizations, agile manufacturing networks, holonic manufacturing systems, fractal enterprise and bionic manufacturing.
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Editoria scientifica
Pavia University Press
P M
e Holonic Revolution
Holons, Holarchies and Holonic Networks
e Ghost in the Production Machine
The Holonic Revolution
ISBN 978-88-96764-00-8
A minor conceptual revolution has been under way for less than forty years now,
beginning in 1967 with the publication of Arthur Koestler’s e Ghost in the Machine a
phantasmagorical book in terms of the breath and variety of its content which formally
introduced the concepts of holon and holarchy (the hierarchical ordering of holons).
Koestler’s idea is clear and simple: in observing the Universe surrounding us (at the physical
and biological level and in the real or formal sense) we must take into account the whole/part
relationship between observed “entities”.
In other words, we must not only consider atoms, molecules, cells, individuals, systems, words
or concepts as autonomous and independent units, but we must always be aware that each of
these units is at the same time a whole – composed of smaller parts – and part of a larger whole.
In fact, they are holons. e entire machine of life and of the Universe itself evolves toward ever
more complex states, as if a ghost were operating the machine.
e concepts of holon and holarchy have since been used, especially in recent times, by a
number of writers in a variety of disciplines and contexts, and these concepts are rapidly
spreading to all sectors of research. In particular these concept are more and more frequently
found in the literature of physics, biology, organizational studies, management science,
business administration and entrepreneurship, production and supply chain systems.
Connected to these ideas are those of holonic networks, holonic and virtual enterprises,
virtual organizations, agile manufacturing networks, holonic manufacturing systems, fractal
enterprise and bionic manufacturing.
Piero Mella is Full Professor of Business Economics and Control eory at the Faculty of
Economics, University of Pavia. In the past he has been the Dean of the Faculty as well as the
Director of its Department of Business Research. Author of dozens of publications (among
which a treatise entitled Amministrazione d’Impresa [Management of the Firm], UTET Press),
for years he has researched systems theory from multiple perspectives. His recent essays
about Systems theory include: Guida al Systems inking [A Guide to Systems inking] (Il
Sole24Ore, Milano, 2007) and Sistemi di controllo [Control Systems] (Franco Angeli, Milano,
2008). He has developed the eory of Combinatory Systems (; he is editor
of the journal «Economia Aziendale on-line» (
Web-page and complete bio: E-mail:
volume-scient-17x24-blu-cornice.indd 1 22/12/2009 15.17.02
The Holonic Revolution
Holons, Holarchies and Holonic Networks
The Ghost in the Production Machine
The holonic revolution : holons, holarchies and holonic networks :
the ghost in the production machine / Piero Mella. – Pavia : Pavia
University Press, 2009. – VIII, 124 p. ; 24 cm.
Soggetto: Organizzazione
Classificazione: 302.35 - INTERAZIONE SOCIALE IN GRUPPI
© Piero Mella 2009 - Pavia
ISBN: 978-88-96764-00-8
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic
or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval
system, without written permission from the author.
First Edition: La rivoluzione olonica. Oloni, olarchie e reti oloniche. Il fantasma nel kosmos
produttivo, Franco Angeli, Milano, 2005. Translated by Robert Ponzini, Lecturer in English
Language (University of Pavia, Italy).
Publisher: Pavia University Press – Edizioni dell’Università degli Studi di Pavia
Biblioteca Delle Scienze - Via Bassi, 6 – 27100 Pavia
Printed by Print Service – Strada Nuova, 67 – 27100 Pavia
Preface......................................................................................................................... V
1 – Holons
1.1 The Holistic View and System Thinking ................................................................. 1
1.2 The Holon and the Holonic View according to Arthur Koestler .............................. 3
1.3 The Holonic View and Ken Wilber’s Classification “by nature”............................. 6
1.4 The Formal Characteristics of the Holon ............................................................... 10
1.5 Three Functional Interpretations............................................................................13
1.6 The Holonic View and Enkapsis, or Encapsulation ...............................................14
2 – Holarchies
2.1 Holarchies ............................................................................................................. 17
2.2 The Formal Characteristics of Holarchies.............................................................. 20
2.3 Structural Holarchies. Modular and Fractal Holarchies. Systems of Classification .....24
2.4 Cognitive Holarchies. Koestler’s SOHO ............................................................... 27
2.5 Cognitive Holarchies. Wilber’s KOSMOS............................................................29
2.6 Beer’s Viable System Model.................................................................................33
2.7 Operational Holarchies. Finite State Machines ......................................................36
2.8 Shimizu’s Autonomic Cognitive Computer........................................................... 39
2.9 The Holonic Interpretation of the Stock Exchange and of the Calculation of
Production Costs with the MLCC and the ABCM ................................................... 41
2.10 Holonic Control Systems..................................................................................... 47
3 – Organizations and Orgonizations
3.1 Not Only Holarchies. Organizations as Social Systems ......................................... 53
3.2 The Holonic View of Organizations ......................................................................55
3.3 From Organizations to Holonic Organizations ...................................................... 58
3.4 From Holonic Organizations to Orgonizations ...................................................... 62
3.5 Organs vs. Orgons. Distinctive Differences........................................................... 65
3.6 Orgonizations Everywhere. Strategic Alliances.....................................................66
3.7 Continuation: Corporate Groups............................................................................67
Piero Mella – The holonic revolution
4 – Holonic and Orgonic Networks
4.1 Not Only Holarchies: Holonic Networks............................................................... 71
4.2 Features of Holonic Networks...............................................................................73
4.3 From Holonic Networks to Reticular Holarchies and Orgonic Networks ..............74
4.4 Holonic Networks Everywhere..............................................................................75
4.5 Information Networks, HCN and R-DHD .............................................................76
4.6 Holonic Manufacturing Systems............................................................................76
4.7 Bionic Manufacturing Systems..............................................................................79
4.8 Fractal Manufacturing Systems ............................................................................. 82
4.9 Agile Manufacturing Systems ...............................................................................82
4.10 Interfirm Networks and Holonic Firms................................................................ 83
4.11 Agile Networks ...................................................................................................85
5 – The Production Kosmos as a Selfish Orgonic Network
5.1 A Change in Perspective........................................................................................87
5.2 Production Networks.............................................................................................88
5.3. Production Organizations as Network Nodes ....................................................... 90
5.4 The Holonic View of the Production Network. Orgons ......................................... 92
5.5 The Minimal Structure of Orgons..........................................................................93
5.6 Selfish Orgons. The First 5 Rules of Selfishness...................................................94
5.7 The Reservoir of Demand and the Resource Reservoir..........................................95
5.8 The Formation of Orgonic Networks..................................................................... 98
5.9 Five Additional Rules of Selfish Behaviour of Orgons Viewed as a Janus-faced
5.10 The Holonic Nature of Production Networks.....................................................104
5.11 The Operational Program of the Production Kosmos......................................... 106
5.12 Three “Laws of Production Networks”. First Law: Expansion ..........................108
5.13 Second Law: Orgonic Networks tend to increase the quality of their
performance through a non-linear cumulative process........................................110
5.14 Third Law: Orgonic Networks are resilient networks that tend to continue on as
if they were living entities..................................................................................111
5.15 No Production without Consumption................................................................. 113
Bibliography ............................................................................................................ 115
Index of Figures.......................................................................................................123
Quod est inferius est sicut quod est superius, et quod est superius est sicut quod est
inferius ad perpetranda miracola Rei Unius.
That which is below is like that which is above, and that which is above is like that which
is below, to make a miracle of the thing that is unity (Smeraldine Table of Ermete
A minor conceptual revolution has been under way for less than forty years now,
beginning in 1967 with the publication of Arthur Koestler’s The Ghost in the
Machine – a phantasmagorical book in terms of the breath and variety of its content
– which formally introduced the concepts of holon and holarchy (the hierarchical
ordering of holons).
Koestler’s idea is clear and simple: in observing the Universe surrounding us (at
the physical and biological level and in the real or formal sense) we must take into
account the whole/part relationship between observed “entities”. In other words, we
must not only consider atoms, molecules, cells, individuals, systems, words or
concepts as autonomous and independent units, but we must always be aware that
each of these units is at the same time a whole – composed of smaller parts – and
part of a larger whole.
In fact, they are holons.
By systematically applying the whole/part observational relationship, or the
equivalent one of containing/contained, the Universe appears to us as a hierarchy of
holons: that is, as a holarchy where, at each hierarchical level, the holons undergo the
effects of the structural or operational variations of the subordinate holons and in turn
produce variations in the behaviour of the superordinate ones.
The entire machine of life and of the Universe itself evolves toward ever more
complex states, as if a ghost were operating the machine.
The concepts of holon and holarchy have since been used, especially in recent
times, by a number of writers in a variety of disciplines and contexts, and these concepts
are rapidly spreading to all sectors of research. Physics (Capra 1982), engineering
(Babiceanu et al. 2005; Dani et al. 2004)), robotics, biology (Shafaei – Aghaee, 2008),
organizational studies, management science (Zhang et al. 2003; Ng et al. 1996),
business administration and entrepreneurship (Chirn – McFarlane 2001), production and
Piero Mella – The Holonic Revolution
supply chain systems (McFarlane – Bussmann 2000; Aktürk – Türkcan 2000; Amiri
2006). Connected to these ideas are those of holonic networks, holonic and virtual
enterprises, virtual organizations, agile manufacturing networks, holonic manufacturing
systems, fractal enterprise and bionic manufacturing (Chapter 5).
This short essay, written from an economic-business point of view, has four objectives.
The first (covering the first two chapters) provides the reader with a brief but precise
theoretical framework for understanding the meaning of the new terms that increasingly
come up in business literature (outside Italy as well) and which refer directly or indirectly
to the ideas of holon and holarchy. Connected to these terms are those of holonic
network, holonic firm and enterprise, holonic manufacturing systems, holonic production,
bionic production, fractal enterprise, and virtual enterprise, to name but a few.
Since I have observed that often the term “holon” has been improperly used,
without any reference to the original sources, leading to models and conclusions that
are absolutely inappropriate, I feel it is useful to provide the theoretical framework
within which these terms can be properly used, considering not only Koestler’s
definition but also the ideas of Ken Wilber, which are based on this notion.
I also feel it is useful to examine several fundamental classes of holarchies in order
to show that the idea of a hierarchical order among classes of holons can be applied to a
variety of contexts. In particular I have presented Koestler’s Self-organizing Open
Hierarchical Order, Wilber’s Kosmos and Shimizu’s Autonomic Cognitive Computer
as applications that illustrate the concept of a holon.
The second objective (presented in Chapter 3) is to extend the notion of holon
while respecting its original meaning, in order to apply it to organizations.
Starting from the definition of organizations as systems whose organs are
composed of individuals or groups of individuals, I have attempted to demonstrate two
interconnected aspects: on the one hand, that organizations are holons that derive from
a holarchy of organs (from their functionalities), and on the other that organizations can
be formed by other holon-organizations – which I have labelled orgons – that are
connected in a holarchy that I have called an orgonization.
When we observe the functionality and the function of its organs we see that an
organization can be thought of as a macro system whose purpose is the attainment of a
macro objective. It immediately follows that it can be compared to an Holonic
Manufacturing System, or to an Autonomic Cognitive Computer; that is, to a holarchy
of operators at different levels – each included in the other, so as to form parts of ever
smaller size – each capable of pursuing part of the macro objective.
When there is a larger objective to achieve, rather than add levels to the
organization we can form an organization of organizations, that is an orgonization with
unique characteristics.
The third objective is to show (Chapter 4) how holons can be connected not only in
the typical hierarchical structure – the holarchy – but, by stretching somewhat the original
meaning, also in a reticular structure in order to form holonic networks in which the
vertical ordering (above and below) is replaced by a horizontal one (before and after).
Within the holonic networks the holons maintain their autonomy and their
whole/part relationship, which together characterize holarchies. However, for this
reason the dominant feature is their horizontal systemic interconnections; each holon
becomes a node of input-output interconnections between holons that come before and
those that come after in the structure.
I have thus discovered that even holonic networks can be made up of orgons that
form orgonic networks.
Since holarchies, orgonizations, holonic networks and orgonic networks are
present everywhere – in firms and between firms, as well as in the economic system of
which they are a vital part – it is useful to present a general survey.
Among the many types of holonic networks, I have chosen to examine the main
sources of inspiration for those production systems referred to as the Holonic
Manufacturing Systems, comparing these to those defined as Bionic and Fractal
Manufacturing Systems. I have also considered the numerous forms of Inter-
organizational Networks as well as the Holonic and Virtual Organizations.
The fourth objective (Chapter 5) is perhaps the most ambitious one, since I
have tried to extend the holonic vision to the global production-economic system, or
Production Kosmos.
Globally we are witnessing the continual and accelerated economic progress of
mankind. There is an increase in the quantity and quality of needs that are satisfied and
those still to be satisfied, and in the aspirations achieved and yet to be achieved. The
increase in productivity and quality is unstoppable, and appears to guide the other
variables in the system.
It is natural to ask who activates and governs such phenomena. The answer is that
they are self-generated and self-organized in the context of reticular holarchies and
orgonic networks formed by production enterprises – or production organizations – that
comprise the integrated process of global production.
On a continental scale, it makes sense to consider production in terms of networks
of orgons in which, by choice or not, every firm that produces final consumption goods
is linked at several levels to a number of other suppliers of materials, components,
machines and other structural factors. We can easily observe that the large continental
production networks – in North America, China, Japan, India and Europe – are not yet
integrated but are becoming larger and increasingly connected, while other local
networks are developing in other countries.
In order to understand how things are evolving in a context where there is a
connection between firm and production organization we need a conceptual framework
that does not limit our observations to the single production units, searching therein for
Piero Mella – The Holonic Revolution
the laws of survival, but one which, at least in principle, is able to explain how the large
orgonic networks internally produce self-organization and self-development.
The theory of systems provides two particularly interesting approaches: one that
considers firms as adaptive systems that operate according to local rules and that
spontaneously and inevitably generate production networks understood as complex
adaptive systems, and that which considers production organizations as holons that,
given their arrangement in a multi-level holarchy, generate the production networks in
which progress appears as the inevitable consequence of the holarchic ordering of the
Economic-Production Kosmos.
This essay considers the second approach, presenting the holarchic model of the
analysis of production networks. It assumes that in an economy based on knowledge,
where the limits of time and space are tenuous, production must increasingly refer not
to a single firm but to a system of firms (a super-organizational network) or to
operational units (inter-organizational network) conceived of as an operative,
information or cognitive network.
It truly appears there is a Ghost in the Machine, whose invisible hand produces
growing levels of productivity and quality, increases the quality and quantity of
satisfied needs and aspirations, and reduces the burden of work, thereby continually
increasing the level of progress in the entire Kosmos.
It is useful to conclude with a bibliographical note.
The conceptual revolution begun in 1967 has not yet led to a relevant number of
monographs. On the other hand, there is a substantial bibliography containing journal
articles, papers presented at congresses, and opinions and documents from discussion
forums. The Internet has been crucial for gaining access to recent material.
In the citations I have indicated the page of the reference only for monographs
and articles. Those citations from the Internet, even though in quotation marks, do not
contain the page reference but only that of the author and of the URL of the site they
were taken from.
NOTE. This book is the English version of «La Rivoluzione Olonica. Oloni,
Olarchie e Reti Oloniche. Il Fantasma nel Kosmos Produttivo», published in Italian
by Franco Angeli, Milan, 2005. The first four chapters are more or less unchanged,
with the exception of some updated information and expanded treatment. Chapter 5,
on the other hand, has been entirely rewritten to bring out more clearly the logic of
the Production Kosmos.
Department of Business Research
University of Pavia
Chapter 1
Parts and wholes in an absolute sense do not exist in the domain of life […] The
organism is to be regarded as a multi-levelled hierarchy of semi-autonomous
sub-wholes, branching into sub-wholes of a lower order, and so on. Sub-wholes
on any level of the hierarchy are referred to as holons. Biological holons are self-
regulating open systems which display both the autonomous properties of wholes
and the dependent properties of parts. This dichotomy is present on every level
of every type of hierarchic organization, and is referred to as the Janus Effect
[…] The concept of holon is intended to reconcile the atomistic and holistic
approaches (Koestler 1967, Appendix I.1).
The world is not composed of atoms or symbols or cells or concepts. It is
composed of holons (Wilber 2001, p. 21).
1.1 The Holistic View and System Thinking
As we see from the two quotes at the beginning of this chapter, by holon we do not
mean an object or concept but a way of connoting objects and concepts; it is not a
thought but a vision of the world, the holonic vision.
Before presenting the definition it is useful to note that the notion of holon is
connected to the holistic conception of “Reality”.
“Holism” – from the Greek holos, which means all, in the sense of unity, whole,
complete in all its parts, with reference to persons, things, events or phenomena – is a
term introduced by Jan Smuts who – following Aristotle (Metaphysics) «The whole is
more than the sum of its parts» – defined holism as «the tendency in nature to form wholes
that are greater than the sum of the parts through creative evolution» (Smuts 1926).
Holism, which is typically evolutionist, contrasts with reductionism or
molecularism, which are typical of mechanism, in that it focuses attention:
a. on the globality, on all (the whole), rather than on the particular or the
part, considering the whole as characterized by emerging properties that
are not found in its constituents, or in sub-wholes of the latter;
Piero Mella – The Holonic Revolution
b. on the relations between parts and whole, and on the function of the parts
in the whole;
c. on the context (or environment), which must be considered an essential
element for understanding and analyzing any particular phenomena.1
Since by nature our mind conceives and observes individual structures, isolating these
from the context – I conceive of the hand as distinct from the arm, and the arm as
distinct from the bust, etc.; I observe the trunk as distinct from the roots and foliage,
and a twig as distinct from the branch it is connected to, and the latter as distinct from
the main trunk, etc. – operationally holism accepts the assumption that “Reality”, at
whatever level it is considered, consists of elementary structures (elements or modules)
which, even though capable of being conceived of or observed autonomously, include
structures which are less extensive but also recursively included in vaster structures
(systems, networks, orderings, or hierarchies).
Every element in the reality can be described as a unity only if we ignore the
aspects that connect it to the other objects to which it is recursively linked, thereby
eventually forming the “Whole”.
As a result: each element “exists”, or takes on significance, only in a context of
relationships with both the elements it is made up of and the structure it belongs to;2
any event that involves an element produces a realignment, no matter how slight, in the
entire structure; and, recursively, in all the superordinate and/or subordinate structures.
Thus, in its global, multi-layered and multi-leveled view of reality, holism
assumes an elementary structure – a basic unit – that acts as a component in the
observation of the “whole”.
The holistic vision is typical of System Thinking (Mella 2007, 2008; Richardson
1999; Senge 1990) – which represents a necessary paradigm for business and
management studies – according to which the basic unit of observation is a system (Gall
1978; Weinberg 1975), with each system having to be observed, vertically, in its
interactions with super- and sub-system components; and, horizontally, in its
1 According the most famous Italian Dictionary, we find the following meanings:
1 TS biol., theory according to which every living organism has its own characteristics, which are not
referable to the simple sum of its parts, and whose vital manifestations can be explained on the basis of the
functional relationships among its constituent elements;
2 TS life sciences, any philosophical and sociological view according to which society is a whole that cannot
be reduced to the sum of its individuals and their actions;
3 TS philos., in epistemology, the theory that considers scientific knowledge as a set of strongly connected
propositions, so that it is not possible to empirically prove an individual hypothesis but only more or less
extensive parts of the whole.”
2 «The set of properties that establish a holon as a self-defining group entity, are termed its ‘Self-
Assertive’ properties. The set of properties that establish a holon as a dependent member of a group that
makes up a higher-level holon, are termed its ‘Integrative’ properties» (Burns 2004).
Chapter 1 – Holons
interactions with other parallel systems, in order to form a network whose boundaries
are given by the need for observation more than by the intrinsic limits of the system.
The holistic vision of System Thinking contains several general assumptions
a. systems are everywhere (they are an objective reality), or can be observed
everywhere (they are subjectively formed by an observer);
b. systems are characterized by a structure of interrelated elements – separate
from an external environment – that, by changing their states over time,
produce a network of processes that define the global process of the
system (Sandquist 1985);
c. within the system the interdependence relationship (functional, temporal
or spatial) predominates among the elements of the structure; there are no
causal chains, only circular causal interconnections;
d. the systems are interconnected:
1. external to each system is a vaster system of which it is an element;
2. internal to each system are elements which in turn are themselves systems;
e. Reality is permeated by systems, of increasingly vaster dimensions, which
form a global structure that produces a global process. Thus:
f. we can not be only on the outside or the inside of a system. Since a system
is connected to others and includes others, an understanding of the inputs
and the outputs makes no sense unless at the same time we also consider
the feedback among systems and their processes; the idea of feedback is
necessary for an analysis of systems from a holistic point of view;
g. in order to understand the behaviour of the system we must examine:
1. from an analytical point of view, its structure and functioning; that is,
the network of processes it can carry out;
2. from a synthetic point of view, its function and functionality; that is,
the global emergent process that is produced and the connections with
the supersystem.
These premises make it easier to present the holistic view.
1.2 The Holon and the Holonic View according to Arthur Koestler
Holon – which derives from the combination of holos, whole, and the suffix on, which
indicates the neuter form and means particle or part (as in proton, neutron and electron) –
Piero Mella – The Holonic Revolution
is the term coined by Arthur Koestler3 in his fundamental works The Ghost in the
Machine (1967) and Janus; a summing up (1978) to represent the basic element of a
particular holistic view – called holonic view – which views as relevant not so much
the connection between “elements” as their inclusion in others.
Koestler saw the holon as a whole that is part of a vaster whole,
and which at the same time contains elements, or sub-parts, of
which it is composed and which provide its structural and
functional meaning.
Each holon includes those from a lower level, but cannot be
reduced to these; it transcends them at the same time that it
includes them, and it has emerging properties (Edwards 2003b).4
With this term Koestler tried to interpret nature, the structure and
the dynamics of autonomous biological and social systems
(organizations) that always possess internal components but are
also always components of vaster systems. Thus, the holon shows the tendency for both
survival and integration:
Every holon has the dual tendency to preserve and assert its individuality as a quasi-
autonomous whole; and to function as an integrated part of a larger whole. This
polarity between the Self-Assertive and Integrative tendencies is inherent in the
concept of hierarchic order; a universal characteristic of life. (Koestler 1967, p. 343).
In this observational context a holon is viewed as an entity that is at the same time
autonomous, self-reliant and dependent; interactive vertically and characterized by
rules of behaviour.
Autonomy is revealed in the holon’s structure and functioning, which must permit a
dynamics that is distinct from the context and that refers to the holon-unit. The holon thus
has a stable form that gives it vitality and allows it to survive environmental disturbances.
Self-reliance resides in its ability both to deal with contingent circumstances without
requiring “authorization” or “instructions” from some superordinate unit and to control in
some way the units it includes.
Dependence implies that the holon is subject to some form of “control” by the
superordinate unit precisely because it has a role in the survival of the vaster structure
that contains it. The superordinate structure can set the behavioural objectives of the
subordinate structure, which transmits the results of its activities to the superior level.
3 There is a complete bibliography of the author at: <>.
4 «In [complex] systems, the whole is more than the sum of its parts, not in an ultimate, metaphysical
sense, but in the important pragmatic sense that, given the properties of the parts and the laws of their
interaction, it is not a trivial matter to infer the properties of the whole. In the face of complexity, an in-
principle reductionist may be at the same time a pragmatic holist» (Simon 1969, p. 68).
Chapter 1 – Holons
Interactivity is revealed by the two-way connection between the whole and the
parts comprising it.
The rules represent the set of constraints on the actions of the holon due to its being
both a whole and a part. The holon is defined by the position it occupies and by the
direction of observation.
Thus for Koestler the holon is a whole characterized by a self-assertive tendency –
which derives from its autonomy; by its ability to interact and coordinate with other
superordinate and subordinate holons (integrative tendency) – which derives from its
being at the same time both included and inclusive; and by its own dynamic ability for
self-preservation, though in a context of vertical interrelationships.
Nevertheless this term is spreading to all types of disciplines, and indicates a
systemic entity – conceptual or observational – that is both autonomous and dependent,
since it is both a whole (autonomous and containing) and a part (dependent and
contained) of a nidified hierarchy called a holarchy (for example, quark, protons, atoms,
molecules, cells, tissues, organs, organisms, social groups, populations, federations,
planets, solar systems, galaxies, galaxy clusters, etc.).5
In this sense, the holon is like a double-headed Janus: if it observes its own interior
– that is, the lowest levels of the hierarchical structure – it considers itself a whole formed
by (containing) subordinate parts; if it observes its exterior, it considers itself a part or
element of (contained in) a vaster whole (Barlow 1991). If, however, it observes itself, it
sees itself as an independent (self-reliant) and unique individual that must survive («Each
holon must preserve and assert its autonomy»).6
Generalizing, according to Koestler the term “holon” indicates any object or concept
observable on three levels: (1) as an autonomous and independent unit that acts according
to its own behavioural “canons”; (2) as a superordinate unit, possessing emerging
properties, with respect to the component parts that it transcends; and (3) as a subordinate
unit in that it is part of a vaster whole that conditions it.
5 «At each level the system under consideration may constitute an individual organism. A cell may be part
of a tissue but may also be a microorganism which is part of an ecosystem, and very often it is impossible
to draw a clear-cut distinction between these descriptions. Every sub-system is a relatively autonomous
organism while also being a component of a larger organism; it is a “holon”, in Arthur Koestler’s term,
manifesting both the independent properties of wholes and the dependent properties of parts. Thus the
pervasiveness or order in the universe takes on a new meaning; order at one system level is the
consequence of self-organization at a larger level» (Capra 1982).
6 «These sub-wholes - or ‘holons’, as I have proposed to call them - are Janus-faced entities which display
both the independent properties of wholes and the dependent properties of parts. Each holon must preserve
and assert its autonomy, otherwise the organism would lose its articulation and dissolve into an amorphous
mass - but at the same time the holon must remain subordinate to the demands of the (existing or evolving)
whole. ‘Autonomy’ in this context means that organelles, cells, muscles, nerves, organs, all have their
intrinsic rhythm and pattern of functioning, aided by self-regulatory devices; and that they tend to persist in
and assert their characteristic patterns of activity. This 'self-assertive tendency' is a fundamental and
universal characteristic of holons, manifested on every level, from cells to individuals to social groups»
(Koestler 1972, pp. 111-112).
Piero Mella – The Holonic Revolution
This view produces an important methodological inversion: from the holonic point of
view reality is not made up of systems or interrelated elements that form structures but of
relationships of inclusion among structures or elements. What is key here is the notion of
inclusion rather than that of interconnection. The holonic view considers each element as a
member of a hierarchy of “Wholes” and “Parts”. It views as primary the observation of the
whole/part relationships, but it also believes it is fundamental to take account of the feedback
among the various levels of the wholes and parts.
Koestler nevertheless observes that “Superior” and “Inferior”, “Whole” and “Part” do not
exist in an absolute sense but are instead defined by rules and observational strategies for those
relationships7 called observational rules. For example, if I observe a territory, I can divide it into
areas, and these into sub-areas, and these again into sub-sub-areas, based on an observational
strategy; if I observe relations of authority, that of a subordinate is included in the sphere of
authority of a superordinate, which in turn is contained in that of its superordinate etc.; if I
observe semantic relations, then each concept belongs to a concept that belongs to a concept,
etc.; if I consider a project, then this can be broken up into sub-projects, which in turn can be
broken up into sub-sub-projects, and so on until we arrive at unitary tasks that are no longer
divisible. We can use a similar subdivision to divide complex machines into sub-machines and
into sub-sub-machines, whose functioning (based on the whole/part relationship) is equivalent
to that of the complete machine (as indicated below, par. 2.6).
1.3 The Holonic View and Ken Wilber’s Classification “by nature”
Thirty years later, Ken Wilber (1995)8 attempted to construct a holistic
model to describe and understand – from a metaphysical and religious9
point of view (theory of self-transcendence) – the dynamics of the
entire universe – the Kosmos – by generalizing the concept of holon;
on the one hand, he emphasized the latter’s relative and conceptual
nature (Kofman, 2000), and on the other its unit/part/whole properties
as a component part of the Kosmos rather than the logical nature of
containing/contained: «The world is not composed of atoms or
symbols or cells or concepts. It is composed of holons» (Wilber 2001, p. 21).
7 «Whatever the nature of a hierarchic organisation, its constituent holons are defined by fixed rules and
flexible strategies» (Koestler 1967, p. 55).
8 A detailed biography can be found in Wilber’s personal web page at: <>.
Wilber’s vast work can generally be found in the original language at: <>.
«It is not by accident, I believe, that the two founders of holon theory [Koestler and Wilber] have both come from outside of
academia. One from the world of journalism and real politic [Koestler] and the other [Wilber] from the world of contemporary
spirituality and the human potential movement» (Edwards 2003b). A rich collection of papers from various authors on
the various aspects of Ken Wilber's vision is presented on the following website: <>.
9 Wilber follows the schema and teachings of Eastern religions referring to Buddhist doctrine.
Chapter 1 – Holons
Wilber sees the Universe as moving towards ever higher states of self-awareness,
and to take account of this he came up with the idea of a holon as a unit characterized in
varying degrees by interiority and the awareness of an internal and external world10
composed of sub-units and belonging to a vaster unit, typically though not exclusively
along hierarchical lines (Battista 1985).
However it is viewed – at a physical-reactive, biological-active, human-cognitive,
formal-logical level – the holon must have four fundamental features:
a. Self preservation (agency): the holon must possess the characteristics that
permit it to maintain its structure “as such” (pattern) independently of the
material it is composed of. In inanimate nature physical forces maintain
the holon’s identity; in animate nature autopoiesis intervenes, which
allows the holon to maintain its organization over time, even if the
structural components change (in the sense of Maturana and Varela,
1980); and in the world of logic it is the rules of combination and of
derivation that preserve the holon’s identity;
b. Self-adaptation (communion): since it is part of a vaster whole, the holon
must be able to adapt and to link up with other superordinate holons; that
is, to react mechanically, biologically or intentionally to the stimuli of the
other superordinate holons;
c. Self-transcendence: the holon has its own new and emerging qualities
which are not found in the holons that it includes. If all the holons have
such properties, then not only is the universe dynamic but it is also
“creative”, since it causes new properties to emerge for the subsequent
inclusion of holons in superordinate holons and also for the creation of
new classes of holons;
d. Self-dissolution: the holons break up along the same vertical lines they
used to form; the process of subsequent inclusion in an upward direction is
transformed into a process of subsequent breakup or splitting.
In a coherent summary Wilber has introduced a classification by nature that specifies four
types of holons according to whether or not they are (a) sentient or (b) non-sentient:
(a) sentient holons:
1. individual holons, or holons in the proper sense: these are entities that
have a localized interiority or an objective consciousness that carry out
10 «Conscious means ‘having an awareness of one's inner and outer worlds; mentally perceptive, awake,
mindful’» (Wilber 2004a, 2004b).
Piero Mella – The Holonic Revolution
autonomous activities;11 at each level the senior holons are composed of
junior holons, but these in turn are constituent parts of higher level holons.
The constitutive function of the holons of a certain level with regard to
those of a higher level is the founding element of the individual holons.
The holons are instantly defined, and at each subsequent moment the
senior holon includes and transcends itself from the preceding moment
(junior holon), thereby showing a continuous evolution;
2. social holons: these are entities represented by groups of individual holons
that have stable models of interaction – and thus an autonomous existence
– but which do not have localized interiority or objective consciousness,
even if we can infer in them an intersubjective and non-localized
consciousness with regard to the individual holons. Nevertheless the latter
do not constitute social holons nor are they components of these; they are
instead individual members based on a relationship of belonging though
not a constituent one;12
(b) non-sentient, or pseudo holons:
1. artifacts or physical systems: these are entities produced by holons which,
though presenting a stable organized model of the constituent elements, do
not have an interior dimension13 (machines and instruments created and
utilized by sentient holons, including all types of language);
2. heaps: these are entities that have neither an interior dimension nor a
stable model of organization or of observation.14
We must note that for Wilber only the sentient entities (atoms, cells, vegetables,
animals and man above all) are typical holons. Strictly speaking, non-sentient entities
(artifacts and heaps) cannot be considered holons, and thus there are no holarchies,
even though the terms artifactarchy and heaparchy have been coined for artifacts and
heaps (Smith 2004).
In particular, despite the fact the social component is implicit in each individual
holon, the social holons not only represent a different class than the individual ones but
appear to represent the highest level of observation of all the individual holons.
11 «Individual holons are entities that have agency and localized interiority or consciousness—in addition to
unified exteriority. (If the interiority was not localized or the exteriority not unified we would be talking
about collective or macro, as opposed to individual or micro holons)» (Kofman 2000).
12 «Social Holons are groups of individual holons that have a patterned mode of interaction. Social holons
do not have localized interiority or consciousness; they have inter-subjectivity or non-localized
consciousness. Social Holons do not have unified exteriors. They are composed of a plurality of individual
holons and artifacts. For example, an ant colony (as a social holon) is composed of the ants (individuals)
and the physical structure of the anthill (an artifact)» (Kofman 2000).
13 «Artifacts are entities with no interior dimension. They are things that have been (instinctively or
purposefully) produced by holons» (Kofman 2000).
14 «Heaps are different than artifacts since they have no imprinted organizing pattern» (Kofman 2000).
Chapter 1 – Holons
The sentient individual is the holon at the highest level of the class 1) but, at the
same time, it is the basic holon of the class 2); from this it follows that if we wish to
extend the holonic view to levels higher than that of the individual holon we must enter
the class of the social holons.15
If, on the one hand, this classification has the merit of demonstrating that we can
imagine different species of holons, thereby extending the possibilities of the holonic
view of nature (heaps that comprise heaps that, in turn, comprise heaps, and so on;
artifacts that constitute artifacts that, in turn, compose higher level artifacts, and so
on), on the other it is open to a number of criticisms due to the logical difficulties of
identifying a clear-cut separation among the four classes (Jantsch 1980; Edwards
2003a; Smith 2004).
There are two important observations to make. First, precisely because Wilber’s
approach emphasizes the holon-entity view – giving secondary importance to the
containing/contained relationships, which Koestler considered to be essential for
describing holons – it is difficult to distinguish between holons and individuals (more
generally, structural entities), and thus the two concepts overlap. Secondly, the Wilberian
approach omits the idea of organization as a particular holon that cannot be absorbed by a
social holon but that nevertheless appears like an entity, even though it is formed by a
plurality of individual holons.16
Paralled to Wilber’s interpretation, Andrew Smith classified holons into two classes:
autonomous, or fundamental holons, which can exist independently of higher-order
holons, and intermediate, or social holons, which can only exist within higher-order
holons. The autonomous holons are, in turn, divided into inert holons, existing
independently, and interactive holons, which associate with other holons to form
intermediate holons.17
15 «The first problem is that “an individual” is not a well-defined holon. In order to define the holon, it is
necessary to establish its “level” or “depth” of consciousness […]. The second problem is that “a group” is
not a well-defined holon either. One needs to define the general level (or center of gravity) of intersubjective
consciousness of the group to more accurately identify it […]. There is no higher “container” for evolution
than the individual human being. As Wilber said in our conversation: as far as we know, the individual body
is the highest possible external surface of any manifest holon». (Kofman 2000).
Smith (2000, 2004 and numerous other articles), after showing that the social holons are autonomous
entities with respect to the individual holons, proposes a dynamic process for the Kosmos composed of the
sequence: heaps, social holons, individual holons, heaps, social holons (but, as we shall see, he does not
recognize the organizations in this dynamic process).
16 For a discussion of these aspects, see below par. 3.1.
17 «Classes. There are two kinds of holons, autonomous or fundamental holons and intermediate or social
holons. Fundamental holons, including atoms, cells and organisms, can exist independently of higher-order
holons as well as within them. Social holons exist only within higher-order holons. Subclasses. There are
two kinds of fundamental holons, inert and interactive. Inert holons exist independently of higher-order
holons. Interactive holons associate with each other and form all the higher stages (social holons) of their
level of existence» (Smith 2000).
Piero Mella – The Holonic Revolution
1.4 The Formal Characteristics of the Holon
We can generalize the notion of holon.
In its broadest formal significance a holon can be thought of as a conceptual, non-
observable entity that functions as a connective or intermediary element among
hierarchical levels of “Reality”; «the different levels represent different stages of
development, and the holons […] reflect intermediary structures at these stages»:
Koestler (1967, p. 61). The holon is a point of reference to give a hierarchical meaning to
a reality, called a holarchy, that is interconnected through inclusion at multiple levels.
Thus, the holon does not correspond to any observational structure (observed or
hypothesized). The holon is not the structure but of the structure, a center for the
relationships with the other component, subordinate and composed, and superordinate
structures (figure 1).
If we let Sin
be the i-th autonomous structure or system (or an object of
observation), observable at the n-th level – and deriving from a Technical Description
(Mella 2009) – then we can view a holon Hin
1, n,n
as the Technical
Description of Sin
integrated by the relations Including (composed of) the
– that is, all the structures x connected with the i of the level (n-1) and
included in (composed of)
,nS yi ; in other words, the structure y of the level (n+1)
to which the i-th structure of the level (n) is connected; that is: Hin1, n,n1
Including Sx,in
Included in Si,yn
as shown in figure 1.
Figure 1. Holon H of the structure S.
Chapter 1 – Holons
From this perspective the holon is a structuring entity (it includes its own parts) as
well as a structured one (it is part of another holon), and it is not defined a priori:18 it is
not a physical object, an individual or a system, but a particular view of these. From
this holistic viewpoint everything can be considered a holon – a real object from a
concrete system as well as a conceptual entity from a thought system – and the entire
“Reality” must be observed in terms of holons and their vertical arrangement, which is
defined by the connections of inclusion (figure 2).
1 PHYSICS Particles Atoms Molecules
2 CHEMISTRY Molecules Compounds Bases
3 GENETICS Bases DNA Genes
4 BIOLOGY Genes Chromosomes Cells
5 ANATOMY Cells Organs Individuals (Biota)
systems Gaia (Earth)
7 ASTRONOMY Earth Solar system Galaxy
8 SOCIOLOGY Individuals Families Communities
9 ORGANISATIONS Autonomous cells/
divisions Firms Keiretsu/groups
10 MONDRAGÓN CO-OP Work groups Social council General assembly/
11 MONDRAGÓN SYSTEM Co-operative Cooperative
Corporación (MCC)
12 VISA CARD Geographic unit Member bank VISA International
13 GOVERNMENT Communities/towns Regions/States Nations
14 ENGINEERING Components Sub-assemblies Machine
15 SOFTWARE DESIGN Sub-routines Routines
Figure 2. Holons everywhere. Examples of holons and of their levels: in nature (lines 1-7), social
groups (lines 8-13), and engineering (lines 14 and 15) (Source: Turnbull 2001).
The preceding considerations allow us to sum up the characteristics of the holon as follows:
1. The holon is an independent conceptual entity, based on self-assertive
properties, which gains significance from being at the same time a whole,
a containing and a contained entity, in the context of a nidified
hierarchical ordering of at least three (or, in particular cases, two) levels.
18 «A Holon is a part of the universe which is complete and consistent in itself, but is also a necessary
integral part of a greater system which encompasses it» (MacGill 2002).
Piero Mella – The Holonic Revolution
2. A holon at level (n) is a whole that has unique characteristics, but it is also
double-faced: it includes (contains, is composed of, recombines) other
subordinate holons of level (n-1), or sub-holons, and is included in
(comprises) a superordinate holon, or super-holon, at level (n+1);
i) no holon of level (n) can be included in holons of level (n-1);
ii) no holon of level (n) can at the same time be included in more than one
holon of level (n+1);
iii) holons from the same level cannot be included in each other;
iv) two holons of the same level will always have a superordinate holon
from level (n+m, m1) that includes both of them.
3. Each holon has three observational dimensions: absolute, internal and
external, corresponding to the levels (n), (n-1) and (n+1), respectively;
i) if viewed in absolute terms, with respect to level (n) it is an
independent entity;
ii) if viewed internally, with respect to level (n-1), its structure is formed
by subordinate (structuring) holons;
iii) if viewed externally, with respect to level (n+1), it is part of a vaster
structure, or group, of holons at the same level that come together there,
and of which it is a (structured) component.
4. A holon that does not include holons of level (n-1) is a primal or bottom
holon; a holon that is not included in any holon of level (n+1) is a final
or top holon;
i) recursively, holons that are not primary contain all the subordinate
holons, down to the primal holons;
ii) recursively, the holons that are not final are contained in all the
superordinate holons, down to the final holon;
5. The dimensions of a holon (however defined) cannot be less than the
dimensions of the holons included in it;
i) a holon can never have a dimension greater than that of the holon that
includes it.
6. Each holon of level (n) produces a dynamic process and shows properties
that are unique to it; these are emergent with respect to those of the holons
of level (n-1) and confluent with those of level (n+1);
i) the properties and dynamic process of the level (n) holon produce those
of the level (n+1) holon, without determining them;
ii) the final holon has a dynamic process and properties that transcend
those of all the other holons.
7. [the numeration continues in par. 2.2].
Chapter 1 – Holons
1.5 Three Functional Interpretations
Even though “holon” refers to a conceptual entity, a means to denominate “nidified”
structures that are part of multi-layered arrangements in several hierarchical levels (cell A
part of-included in tissue X and including molecules Y; zone A part of-included in X and
including Ys; component A of the subgroup X formed by the subcomponents Y; etc.), all
the authors have usually, as we have seen, used the term to indicate those same elements
(cell A, individual A, component A, etc.) as entities objectively arranged in a hierarchy,
favouring the typical point of view of the single level (n), thereby ignoring, or implying,
the hierarchical relation of containing/contained with the levels (n-1) and (n+1).
This viewpoint, focussed on the entity at level (n), leads to different interpretations,
specifications and applications of the notion of holon-entity.
Considering the function and the functionality of the holons understood as entities
arranged in a hierarchy, there are three that are particularly significant.
a. Modular interpretation: the holon represents a module in a vertical
ordering of other, vaster modules that contain it; holons at the same level
are similar and, by means of some form of composition based on specific
rules (see below, par. 2.3), give rise to superordinate modules that are
likewise similar (letters give rise to words, words to sentences, sentences
to paragraphs, paragraphs to chapters, chapters to texts, etc.; quarks form
protons, protons are holons for atoms; atoms are holons for molecules,
etc.). The holons are uniquely and univocally defined, in terms of their
structure and dynamic process, by their position, independently of what
they represent and of how they operate;
b. Cognitive interpretation: the holon is viewed as an autonomous cognitive,
sentient entity, and at higher levels of the holarchy as also equipped with
awareness and consciousness. The holons of a given level are included in
the superordinate holon that has cognitive capacities and autonomy,
including those that characterize the component holons (micro-
organisms and living things from the vegetable kingdom are sentient
holons; the holons represented by the animal kingdom possess
awareness; the holons represented by human beings or by cognitively
autonomous groups of human beings are conscious entities). This is the
typical interpretation by Koestler, Wilber, Smith, and all those who use
the concept to investigate the dynamic process of interconnected reality
in ever wider observational spheres;
c. Operative interpretation: the holon embodies an operator or an operation
involving processing carried out in parallel, characterized by its own
inputs and outputs; it can be a biological individual, a machine, or even an
Piero Mella – The Holonic Revolution
entire organization. Holons from the same level process, by means of their
own procedures, elements or information from subordinate holons and
transmit the results to those at a higher level for further processing; the
processes originate from those of the subordinate holons and, carried out
in parallel, shape those of the superordinate ones (Mesarovic et al. 1970).
This interpretation is typical of the biological analysis of cognitive processes
(Bioholonics) and of the engineering analysis of the production processes (Holonic
Manufacturing Systems), information processes (multi-processing), and the
management processes (multi-agent decision making) carried out by decentralized,
distributed, cooperative and negotiating agents (Chapters 2 and 4).
We must distinguish between these three interpretations, since different forms of
holarchies and other interesting aggregations of varying significance derive from them, as
we shall observe in Chapter 2.
1.6 The Holonic View and Enkapsis, or Encapsulation
The holonic view is not the only special form of the holistic view
which is based on the containing/contained relation.
Back in 1953 the Dutch philosopher, Herman Dooyeweerd, came
up with the theory of enkapsis – or encapsulation – taking the
concept, as he himself acknowledged, from the Swiss biologist-
anatomist, Theodor Haering.19
The basic idea is linked to the observation that some structures –
conceived of as entities, or wholes – are in fact composed of
incorporated or nested sub-structures that not only are parts but are, in turn, conceived of as
entities, since they have their own structure and processes that cannot be found in the
complete structure, although they contribute to the latter’s creation.
Referring to living beings, Dooyeweerd acknowledges that their processes are
produced by two forms of nested structures: those that derive from the part/whole
19 «The term enkapsis was borrowed from the famous anatomist Heidenhain by Theodor Haering, who gave it
a general philosophical meaning. Heidenhain used the term enkapsis or encapsulation to denote the relation
between the separate organs and the total organism in the structure of a living creature. His scientific
investigations had taught him that the organs of a living body such as the kidneys, the lungs, etc. are not
simply “parts” of this body in the usual sense of dependent components, but that they are relatively
independent individuals. Their growth proves to be a continuous self-propagation, a continuous self-division.
On the other hand the total organism reveals itself as an individual whole of relatively independent
individualities. […] This term “enkapsis” introduced by Heidenhain is used by Haering promiscuously with
Funktionseinheit (functional unity) or Ganzes mit Gliedere (a whole and its member)» (Dooyeweerd 1953, p.
III 634) (the bibliographical citations are from Dooyeweerd).
Chapter 1 – Holons
relation, which is applied to the biological sub-groups (cells, tissues, organs), and those
that refer to inert structures (atoms, molecules). In particular, he has used the term
enkapsis only in reference to the incorporation of inert structures in organisms formed by
biological organs.
The organism becomes an encaptor, capable of incorporating structures that are not
typically living in order to form and maintain the biological and living structures20 in an
autopoietic process (as it would subsequently come to be defined by Maturana et al. 1980).
Nevertheless, the term subsequently came to have a broader significance, and
indicated all the forms in which the component structures appear incapsulated in the
composite structure, just as organs appear incapsulated in the organism they are part of,
or a statue is incapsulated in the block of marble from which it is created, or a cathedral
in its host city.
By generalizing, Dooyeweerd in effect presents diverse forms of enkapsis, among which:
foundational enkapsis (the statue is incapsulated in the marble);
subject-object enkapsis (the oyster is incapsulated in the valve);
symbiotic enkapsis (parasites are incapsulated in the host);
correlative enkapsis (people are incapsulated in a community);
constitutive encapsulation (two spouses are incapsulated in the couple);
territorial enkapsis (the cathedral is incapsulated in its city);
functional encapsulation (the water system is incapsulated in the city).
There are several important differences with respect to the holonic view:
a. enkapsis is not only a vertical relation between the whole and the parts
(as in Wilber), between component and system, but rather it designates
the whole as being composed of its interconnected parts (point of view
of the entity) and the parts as being incapsulated in the whole (point of
view of the parts);
b. enkapsis is not so much a simple inclusion (as in Koestler) but an
interlacement, an interwoveness, a true structural systemic
interconnection that transforms the parts into a whole with diverse and
emerging properties. When the whole breaks up, the component parts
regain their individuality; «In my opinion the term ‘enkapsis’ expresses
much rather an interwovenness of individuality-structures that cannot at
20 «If a thing (e.g. a molecule) with a particular individuality structure functions enkaptically in a thing
with a different (biotic) structure, this enkaptic interlacement always means a binding of the first (inert)
structure. That is to say the molecule exceeds the boundaries of its internal structural principle in this
enkaptic function within a living thing» (Dooyeweerd 1953, p. I 639).
Piero Mella – The Holonic Revolution
all be qualified as the relation of a whole and its parts» (Dooyeweerd
1953, p. III 636);
c. enkapsis has a broader viewpoint than the holonic one, since it considers
the holons as incapsulated in an operational environment that allows
them to reveal themselves and to produce the dynamic process for the
entire holarchy;
d. enkapsis does not limit itself to considering the relation of inclusion of
holons of a certain type (atoms, words, components, individuals) in those
of an including (encompassing) higher kind (molecules, sentences,
subgroups, social groups), but recognizes the importance of the
encapsulation of components of differing, though complementary, natures
and qualities (a social group not only includes individuals but
encapsulates a code of behaviour; a sentence not only includes the
component words but encapsulates a semantic structure; an individual not
only includes organs but encapsulates a system of knowledge; etc.).
Despite a different, though similar, underlying principle the holonic view is simpler in
its conception and more effective in its application. It allows us to immediately
perceive the logical interrelations between containing and contained, and the unlimited
chain of these relations, rather than the physical encapsulation of the parts in the whole.
On the other hand enkapsis, precisely because it extends the containing/contained
relation to heterogeneous entities, is more suitable to the systemic holistic logic than to
the immediate perception of holarchies.
Chapter 2
It is fashionable to feel that there is a ‘bottom’ line in fundamental physics; a basic
collection of individual entities obeying a small number of mathematical rules in terms of
which everything else can in principle be described. But the world may not be like this.
Like a sequence of Russian dolls, there may be an unending sequence of levels of
complexity, with very little (if any) evidence of the next level down displayed by each of
them. (Barrow 1998, p. 99).
2.1 Holarchies
By definition the fact of being a double-headed Janus (par. 1.2) implies that holons must
necessarily be included in other holons in a typical vertical arrangement, with progressive
accumulation and forming a nested hierarchical order called a holarchy, which can be
represented as an arborised structure (turned upside down to fit this particular context)
whose branches become larger at each successive hierarchical level (figure 1).
Each holon becomes a head holon for the subtended branch and a member holon for
the upper part of the branch it forms.1
In formal terms the holarchies begin with the lowest level holons – the primal or
base holons – and end with the highest level ones – the final or top or vertex holon. They
interconnect with the environment and by definition are open.
Because of the typical whole/part relation, each holon is connected to the higher
level – containing – and the lower level – contained – ones, but not with those at the
same level (Pichler 2000). Thus, holons from the same level can only interconnect2
through the higher level holon. Horizontal relations are not considered in Koestler’s
model (even if some form of horizontal interaction is admitted in Wilber’s conceptual
1 «Every holarchy is composed of holons, each one simultaneously a part and a whole. As a part, we have
called the holon a ‘junior’ or ‘constitutive element’; other names we could use are ‘primitive’ or ‘root’. As a
whole, we have called the holon a ‘senior’ or ‘holonic system’». (Kofman 2000).
2 «A holarchy in the sense of Koestler can be classified as a multi-level system in a kind of a multi-layer
system (in the sense of Mesarovic-Takahara 1970) with – as seen top-down – a graph-theoretical tree-
structure» (Pichler 2000). A formal treatment of the Holonic Multiagent Systems and of the Holonic
Organizations is presented by Fischer (Fischer et al. 2003).
Piero Mella – The Holonic Revolution
framework), even though there is the implicit possibility for cognitive and operative
holons to interact with their own micro environment (Mesarovich et al. 1970) and thus to
observe holons from the same level.
The holarchy can arise out of a single primal holon by means of subsequent
decomposition. In this case the holarchy is descendant (the base holons are at level (N);
the final holon at level (0), as in the model in figure 1, or it can be formed by a set of
primal holons through subsequent composition, thereby producing an ascendant holarchy
(the base holons are at level (0) and the final holon at level (N).
The holarchy can be viewed as a multi-strata or multi-layer structure.
If we observe the multi-strata holarchy bottom up, then each level of the hierarchy
always includes all the base holons; if observed top down it represents a form of
segmentation of the final holon.
Each subordinate level constitutes a more minute representation of the superordinate
holons (reticulation effect).
In the multi-level holarchy each head holon is broken down into the subordinate
holons, though each level does not necessarily have to include all the base holons.
Each subordinate level represents holons which are less extensive and which are
recompressed into the holons at the superordinate level (arborisation effect).
We indicate by Hi(n) the ith holon of the nth level (n = 0, 1, 2, …, N-1) of a
descendant holarchy (where the head holon is H(0) as in figure 1); based on the
definitions in par. 1.4, a holon’s interactions with the other elements of the holarchy must
respect the following rules (figure 1):
1. at the subordinate level (n+1), each “whole” holon Hi(n) is coupled with the
component holons Hji(n+1), where “j”, which depends on “i”, is the
countersign of the holons “j”, which are part of the “i”th holon; thus Hji(n+1)
indicates every holon included in Hi(n) at level (n+1);
2. at the superordinate level (n-1), for each whole holon Hi(n) of level (n) there
is one and only one whole holon Hih(n-1) of which Hi(n) is a part;
3. only holon H1(0) appears at the maximum level (level (0));
4. the holons Hi1(1), which are part of H1(0), are indicated at level (1);
5. the holons Hji1(2), which are part of the holons Hi1(1), are indicated at level (2);
6. the holons Hkji1(3), which are part of the holons Hji1(2), are indicated at level (3);
7. and so on, recursively, until we reach the minimum level (N>1), where all
the base holons which must be included in the higher level, (N-1), are
contained; and so on, recursively, moving upwards in the holarchy to H1(0);
8. at the lower level all the base holons are connected to the environment in
some way; thus, even the final holon must be considered linked to the
environment from which the holarchy is isolated for observational reasons.
Chapter 2 – Holarchies
The completeness principle must apply in any event in the multi-layer holarchy: that is,
all the holons of a certain level must be included in those of the higher level and include
all the holons of the lower level.
As a result, each level of the holarchy includes, on the one hand, all the base holons,
and on the other represents a segmentation into parts of the final holon.
In the multi-level holarchy the congruence principle must apply, in the sense
that all the holons of the same level must have characteristics congruent with those
of the superordinate holons, it being understood that all the base holons must be
included in the final holon.
As shown in figure 1, a holon may be included in a particular level but not in
the lower one, since it is not composed of parts, as we can see for the holons
H211(2) and H221(2).
In order to respect the principle of completeness in the multi-layer order it is
necessary to introduce virtual holons (the grey cells) in the graph, whose function is to
bring to a lower level the non-decomposed holons, or to a higher level the holons which
are not directly a part of this structure, as illustrated in figure 1.
Figure 1. Model of a Holarcy (descendant). The holons in the grey cells are virtual holons.
(Source: Presentation of Mesarovich’s schema 1975).
The properties of the holons from a particular level are in any event emerging with
respect to those of subordinate holons.
Independently of the nature of the holons, the relation between those at level (n) and
those at level (n+1) can take on different forms that derive from the rules of composition
(2) H
(3) H
(3) H
(3) H
(3) H
(2) H
(2) H
(3) H
(3) H
(3) H
(3) H
(3) H
(2) H
Piero Mella – The Holonic Revolution
used to include the holons of one level in those of a higher level. These rules are
represented in figure 2, which is self-evident.
One thing to note: holarchies are not holons – or physical systems of holons – but
are conceptual arrangements of holons that represent the basic formal entities for an
holonic interpretation of the structures and dynamics of “Reality”.
Their function is to underscore that the emerging properties of the holons from a
particular level of the holarchy and the forms of self-organization can be understood only
by knowing both the properties of the subordinate holons that form its structure as well as
those of the superordinate ones of which they are structural elements; we cannot conceive
of an individual animal as a super cell, an ecosystem as a super organism, or the
ecosphere as a super ecosystem; these are different objects with their own characteristics
which cannot be derived from those of the constituent holons.
From the definitions in par. 1.2, it follows that this is true recursively, in a top-down
direction, all the way down to the primal holons, as well as a bottom-up direction, as far
as the final holon.
2.2 The Formal Characteristics of Holarchies
From what we have said so far, in particular with reference to figure 1, Chapter 1, and
figures 1 and 2, Chapter 2, we can derive the following principles (we continue the
numeration from par. 1.4).
7. Holons are observed in holarchies:
a. a stand alone holon is a final holon, or a base holon observed only
at level (n);
b. if characterized by several observational dimensions a holon can be
part of several holarchies, even contemporaneously; there can be only
one holarchy for each dimension.
8. Holarchies can be conceived of as arborising structures (upside down)
composed of nested branches, with a base made up of the initial holons, and
a vertex, the final holon (figure 1);
a. the extension of level (n) (the number of holons at that level) cannot be
greater than that of the holons of level (n+1);
b. holarchies are open towards both the bottom and the top; their depth
(number of levels) depends on the number of observations of the base
and final holons;
c. if we hold constant the number of base holons, then the greater the
depth, the greater the reduction in the extension of each level;
Chapter 2 – Holarchies
d. all the base holons are contained in the final holon, as well as in each
level of the holarchy (including virtual holons).
9. There can be both multi-strata or multi-layer holarchies;
a. Multi-strata holarchies abide by the completeness principle; at each
level of the holarchy the holons include all those of the lower level and
constitute all those of the higher level (figure 1, all cells);
b. The congruence principle holds in the multi-level holarchies; assuming
that all the base holons must be included in the final holon, the holons of a
particular level include only those holons of the lower level whose
features and qualities are congruent, and are included only in those holons
of the higher level that they are congruent to (figure 1, white cells).
10. Holarchies are two-directional, but can only have vertical connections
(ascendant or descendant) along the branches formed by the
constituent holons;
a. holarchies observed in an ascendant direction (bottom up) are push
holarchies, since we can assume that holons of a given level create
(push) the superordinate ones;
i) in the ascendant holarchies the maximum level (N) distinguishes the
final holon; the minimum level (0) distinguishes the base holons;
ii) the holons of level (n<N) plan and control those of level (n-1);
iii) the holons of level (n) adapt to those of level (n+1);
b. the descendant holarchies (top down) are of the pull type, since it is
natural to assume that the holarchy originated from the final holon that
forms (leads) the subordinate ones;
i) in the descendant holarchies the maximum level (N) distinguishes
the base holons; the minimum level distinguishes the head holon;
ii) the holons of level (n) plan and control those of level (n+1);
iii) the holons of level (n) adapt to those of level (n-1);
c. holons of the same level are not connected, unless through the
superordinate holons; however, they “observe” one another.
11. The including/included relations imply that the properties of the level
(n) holons are emerging; but, on the one hand, they depend on the
properties of the subordinate level holons – which they transcend, by
the integrative properties rule – and on the other they limit the
production of those properties;
a. the integrative properties rule for ascendant holarchies that include the
following cases:
i) Union: the level (n-1) holons merge with those of level (n), where
they are no longer distinguishable (figure 2-a);
ii) Aggregation: the subordinate holons join together, thereby losing
Piero Mella – The Holonic Revolution
their individuality; however, they can still be traced to the
superordinate holon (figure 2-b);
iii) Interaction: the subordinate holons interact according to a model – or
schema – but remain disaggregated and distinctly traceable to the
superordinate holon (figure 2-c);
iv) Internal coordination: the subordinate holons coordinate according
to a stable model while remaining traceable to the superordinate
holon; one of the holons serves as coordinator (figure 2-d); if there is
no coordinator self-organization occurs;
v) External coordination: the subordinate holons are coordinated based
on a stable model by means of a superordinate holon (figure 2-e);
vi) Evolution: the temporal reference of the level (n) holon is period (t);
this holon results from the evolution of one or more holons from
level (n-1) with reference to period (t-1); the levels correspond to
successive time periods (figure 2-f);
b. the integrative properties rule for descendant holarchies involve
symmetrical cases with the appropriate inversions.
12. It follows from the including/included relations that any change in the
characteristics (qualities, processes, cognition, etc.) of a holon of a given
level is transmitted to the lower- and/or superordinate holons;
a. there is a feedback loop for holons with those at both a higher and a
lower level;
b. a holarchy is reinforcing if “small” changes of holons from a given
level produce “large” changes in those at the other levels
(amplifying the changes);
c. in the opposite case the holarchy is balancing (dampening the changes).
13. Each final holon includes the entire holarchy;
a. each level always includes the base holons;
b. each head holon includes those of the subordinate branch;
c. in the descendant holarchies the dissolution of the head holon leads to
the dissolution of all the subordinate holons (for ex: with the elimination
of the living forms, the tissues, organs and cells dissolve);
d. in the ascendant holarchies the dissolution of a head holon leads to the
dissolution of the superordinate holons (the disappearance of the cells
leads to that of the tissues, the organs and the organism);
e. the dissolution of the base holons leads to the disappearance of
the holarchy.
Chapter 2 – Holarchies
Figure 2. The integrative properties rule of holon.
14. Viewed in a dynamical sense, the holarchy usually evolves toward forms of
ever greater efficiency of the component holons, thanks to the self-learning
of the holons at the various levels;
a. Particular types of descending reinforcing holarchies are the output
holarchies (Koestler 1967, p. 344), which operate according to the
trigger-release principle, where the top holon produces its processes
thanks to the activity of the subordinate holons, which it coordinates by
sending information about the activities they must undertake.
b. Particular types of ascending balancing holarchies are the input
Piero Mella – The Holonic Revolution
holarchies, which operate based on the filtering principle; these produce
progressive syntheses from the subordinate to superordinate levels, as if,
at each level, the holons filter or synthesize the inputs from the
subordinate holons.
Many types of holarchies can be built with reference to the holonic view of reality;
however, according to the various interpretations of holons the following three types
can be identified:
a) structural holarchies: these derive from the arrangement of holons into
subgroups of increasing size which are considered to be similar “modules”
that form a more or less vertically extended structure; they represent the
elementary idea according to which holons are considered uniquely for their
qualitative and structural features and for their similarities of genus and
species (Baldwin – Clark 2000);
b) self-organizing cognitive holarchies characterized by self-organization: these
derive from the arrangement of holons in groups of increasing size
considered as autonomous “cognitive entities”, interconnected by means of
relations of programming, coordination and control (typical of sentient,
individual and social holons) in order to form larger entities (Smith 2000);
c) operational holarchies: these come from the arrangement of holons –
sentient or artificial – in subgroups of increasing size considered as
“processors” or “processes”, interconnected in ever-larger operational
structures through their inputs and outputs (Mesarovic et al. 1970).
Some of the more important cases will be presented in the following sections:
A. structural holarchies: modular holarchies and fractal holarchies;
B. cognitive holarchies: Koestler’s Open Hierarchic Systems (OHS) (or Self-
organizing Open Hierarchical Order, SOHO), Wilber’s Kosmos, and Beer’s
Viable System Model;
C. operative holarchies: Shimizu’s Autonomic Cognitive Computer, the Holonic
Manufacturing Systems, and the Holonic Control Systems (HCS).
2.3 Structural Holarchies. Modular and Fractal Holarchies. Systems of Classification
The simplest form of structural holarchy is the modular holarchy, an ordered arrangement
of holons conceived of as component module-entities, composed of smaller modules, that
form larger modules.
Chapter 2 – Holarchies
In the case of these holarchies we are not so much interested in the nature of the
modules as in their position, which depends on – and at the same time gives significance
to – the structure and function of the base modules.
The typical modular holarchy has the form of a mosaic, however the latter is
conceived. The mosaic is a unitary structure but is conceived of as the final holon of a
holarchy in which the tesserae represent the base holons.
Each “tessera” is significant in that it is part of a form that, in turn, is part of a larger
form whose significance depends in the end both on the component forms – thus on the
base tesserae – and on the form it helps constitute; and so on, recursively, down to the
final holon, represented by the entire mosaic.
For example, in the mosaic shown in figure 3 the triangular tessera that forms the
right foot of the bird is important not for its shape – which is similar to that of the tessera
of the beak – but because it is inserted in the claw, which in turn is significant because it
is inserted in the foot, which is then included in the shape of the bird, which finally is part
of the general form.
Figure 3. The mosaic as a modular holarchy. “Little bird on the branch”
(Source: Sant’Apollinare in Classe Basilica, Ravenna, Italy).
Piero Mella – The Holonic Revolution
The containing/contained logic guides the holarchy of increasingly larger forms that,
starting from the individual tesserae, go on to form the mosaic as the final holon of the
entire holarchy.
Figure 4. Examples of ascendant Holarchies as systems of classification.
(Source: Funch 1995).
The holarchies in figure 4 are also typical modular holarchies, to which we can add the
modular holarchy represented by the interplanetary cosmos: the planets and their
satellites make up the planetary system that, together with a star, makes up the stellar
systems, which form the galaxies, which are included in nebulae and so on.
A similar observational strategy explains how a modular holarchy is formed from the
decomposition of any physical body, down to the molecules, which in turn are composed
of atom-elements that include even tinier elements.
Fractal holarchies are special forms of multi-strata modular holarchies. They are
composed of similar elements that are arranged in levels that in the end form a fractal
holarchy similar to that in figure 5.
Each element from a given level includes all those of the preceding level, to which
new elements are added based on specific rules.
Or, as exemplified in figure 5, at each level the elements of the preceding level
gradually increase in size, while maintaining the same structure, and include new
elements in the same structure.
A third important form of holarchic arrangement are the systems of classification,
whose aim is to separate out the elements of a group in order to assign these to some class
of elements with similar characteristics in accordance with fixed cognitive objectives.
The logic behind classificatory systems is to identify a succession of classes whose
properties are increasingly more specific.
Each class has its own content, but at the same time is also a subclass of a vaster
class, and in turn contains other, less extensive subclasses.
Each class thus represents a holon, since it is included in a wider class and includes
Chapter 2 – Holarchies
smaller classes (for ex.: living, warm-blooded, mammals, humans, males, height up to X,
age up to Y, living in Z, etc.).
Figure 5. A modular holarchy with a particular fractal form.
(Source: Günther 2006).
2.4 Cognitive Holarchies. Koestler’s SOHO
The concept of the Self-Organizing Open Hierarchical Order (SOHO) comes from
Koestler, who also used the simplified term Open Hierarchical Systems.3
The author used this term to indicate a holarchy understood not only as an
ordered arrangement of modules but as a vertical system of ever larger cognitive units
possessing consciousness («Holons as an aggregate of consciousness working in some
fashion as one unit»).
In holarchies the holon from a given level includes and coordinates, by means of its
own cognitive processes, holons of a subordinate level, and transmits the information
necessary to conform the superordinate holon, thereby producing an evolutionary
dynamic process.
3 The SOHO acronym is also interpreted as Self Organizing Hierarchical and Open systems, Self Organizing
Holonic Organization, or Self-Regulating Open Hierarchic Order.
Piero Mella – The Holonic Revolution
Koestler describes his evolutionary theory, which refers to social development, in an
Appendix to his important work (1967) entitled General Properties of Open Hierarchical
Systems, which sets out a succession of numerous interrelated principles that refer mainly
to the domain of cognitive holons and of life.4
It is particularly interesting to note that after having proclaimed the relativity of
holonic observations («Parts and wholes in an absolute sense do not exist in the domain
of life») and defined holarchies as arborising structures, both downwardly and upwardly
open-ended («The [holarchy] is open-ended in the downward, as it is in the upward
direction»), he also acknowledges the possibility of the formation of horizontal networks
among branches of parallel holarchies («Hierarchies can be regarded as 'vertically'
arborising structures whose branches interlock with those of other hierarchies at a
multiplicity of levels and form 'horizontal' networks»).
Not only does each holon in the holarchy tend to persist according to a canon («The
canon of a social holon represents not only constraints imposed on its actions, but also
embodies maxims of conduct, moral imperatives and systems of value»), it also shows a
natural tendency to become integrated: that is, along with other holons of the same level
to become a part of a higher-level holon.
There is thus a continual increase in the depth of the holarchies of life and of society,
and we observe a continual tendency toward greater structural and operational complexity
(«Holons on successively higher levels of the hierarchy show increasingly complex, more
flexible and less predictable patterns of activity, while on successive lower levels we find
increasingly mechanised stereotyped and predictable patterns»).
Within this dynamic process consciousness is revealed as the emerging quality of
high-level biological holons.
Consciousness increases complexity and flexibility, and thus the decision-making
capacity and freedom for superordinate holons that emerges into free will.
In this sense the holarchy for Koestler must no longer be considered only as a
conceptual model, useful from an observational point of view, but as a true autonomous
systemic entity possessing order and its own dynamic process, as well as being open
and capable of self-organizing its changes, whether casual or planned, at whatever level
these are manifested.
The self-organizing dynamic process is no longer in the holarchy but becomes of the
holarchy, which appears as the representation of a unit, of a whole, of a system, with its
own dynamic characteristics and controls. In this sense Koestler’s holarchy is an
operative view that represented the starting point for Wilber’s construction (par. 2.5).
By making local decisions for their survival based on their own canon holons send
out and receive information along vertical lines, and adapt and evolve while maintaining
4 Koestler underscores not only the cognitive aspect of holons but also their reproductive possibilities, with
particular reference in this case to the sentient holons.
Chapter 2 – Holarchies
and gradually improving the entire holarchy, producing cognitive performances that are
more relevant the more they are produced by superordinate holons.5
We can distinguish input-holarchies, or push holarchies – whose dynamic process
is determined by the base holarchies that transmit their information and their states to
the superordinates – and the output, or pull, holarchies whose dynamic process is
determined by the final holon that, based on its operational and information needs, in
some way spurs the dynamic processes of the subordinate holons.
The self-organization process of the SOHO is immediately evident as soon as
we realize that modifying some property of a holon of a given level produces, as we
have seen, effects on the properties of the superordinate holons. This effect spreads
to the higher branches of the holarchy, and ends up by modifying the properties of
the final holon.
These changes not only take place in an upward direction but can also show their
effects in a downward one, due to the coordinating capacity holons of a given level have
with respect to those composing the lower branch of the holarchy.6
The holarchy thus has numerous feedback loops that permit not only self-
organization but also the gradual adaptation of the cognitive performance at each level.
Advantageous changes improve the holarchy while disadvantageous ones are
eliminated or mitigated. In the contrary case the branch of the holarchy where these
changes appear are suppressed. Certain changes at a given level of the holarchy can
even produce new branches.
2.5 Cognitive Holarchies. Wilber’s Kosmos
Ken Wilber (1995) also adopts the holonic view in order to demonstrate the evolutionary
path of “Nature” toward the consciousness that characterizes man and his social
groupings. Precisely for this reason he has adopted a particular notion of holon – as an
5 «These are hierarchies which model the overall system, where the components receive ‘orders’ from
components above and transmit ‘orders’ to components on the next lower layer of the model.» (Pichler 2000).
«The ‘Janus face’ of those holons, with respect to its looking ‘up’, can usually not be achieved by learning
alone but needs a certain talent to build the proper reference system. On the other hand, holons which are
situated on the lowest layer need for the ‘