By David Boje September 30, 1999, Last Revision September 8, 2000

My granddad worked one farm his whole life, worked for Pittsburgh Plate and Glass as a journeyman glass window maker for churches his whole life and stayed married to the same woman his whole life, and lived in the same community his whole life and went to the same church his whole life. His day began with the milking of cows, followed by a big breakfast of homemade bread and honey from the bees he kept. He knew who his people were and he lived a life grounded in one time and one place. Our lives have turned more mobile, our families move, our careers change, and our identities fragment and recompose.  We live in systems within systems and communities within communities and identities within identities in ways my grandparents did not imagine.

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Overview - At a beginning level, I want to explore holons (whole/part relations in transorganizational fragmentation and plurality) with simple exercises that I do in my classes, then advance to a look at Ken Wilber's tenets for holon theory, followed by a graduate-level look at narrative in juxtaposition to Peppers infamous four metaphors of the world. We know organization studies is caught up in mechanistic and organic metaphors. Pepper also draws in formistic (e.g. ideal types) and contextualist metaphors (as explored most often by the Emerys- See Emery Square). Then on to more advanced level-- The Pepper framework is flawed because it is just one more dualism of a pair of dimensions.  If we take holons seriously, then we must look for inter-connections among the dualized parts, or what Deleuze and Guattari called rhizomatic relationships (Graduate Level). The essay therefore switches to a post-graduate level where I explore the relation between transorganizational holons, narrative, and transversality. Guattari's point is that rather than creating more Cartesian dualisms such as that of Pepper's metaphors of the world, we can focus on the the transversal interconnections and on movement and acts of becoming. Transversality appears in many fields: from physics, fibers, math, to social science. I am particularly interested in relating holons and rhetoric to transversal theory begun by Jean-Paul Sartre and continued by Giles Deleuze and than several others. You will find references at the end plus links to other summaries and essays on these topics throughout my essay.

Beginner Level Material
In the search for festival in the midst of our spectacle world, I have found it useful to look at how I am mired in various holons.  A "holon" is Greek for "whole/parts" meaning literally the whole that is simultaneously a part, and vice versa. The Greek word "holon" became popularized in Arthur Koestler's (1967) book, The Ghost in the Machine and Ken Wilber's  A Brief History of Time. Wilber (1996a, 1996b) has also applied holon in numerous ways we will soon explore. "We exist in fields within fields, patterns within patterns, contexts within contexts, endlessly" (1996b: 65). To me this is the basis of several worldviews of transorganizational systems I would like to explore (See Table One Below).  Transorganization is the holon of how many organizations we are a part of from multiple work organizations, such as professional associations, suppliers, customers, vendors, subcontractors, Chamber of Commerce, etc. on to our volunteer relations in religious and civic organizations. Transorganization is also composed of sub-holons and emerging, deconstructing, and recomposing holons and subholons. This activity of holon decomposing and novelty creation accelerates in the postmodern world of global commerce, virtual work on the Internet, and the mobility our great grandparents did not face.

An Opening Exercise- Holons Within Holons - This is a simple opening exercise I use in transorganization workshops to get across the idea of holons. The idea as the above figure illustrates is to examine "who are my people" in the many holons we live in (left side of figure) and how these relationships affect the frames we fashion for our identities and worldviews (right side of figure).  We seem to be traversing so many systems, communities, and sotries that our identities have turned multiple, our time accelerates into spectacles of shrot term and virtual relationship, and we may find it more and more difficult to find festive moments.

Question: "Who are my people?" (From Kaylynn Twotrees). When Kaylynn asked me this question years ago, I was stuck by silence. I could not think of who my people? Ihad moved about as an Army brat, then moved from Spokane to Anchorage to Paris as the phone company my dad worked was bought by ATT and then that by ITT. And my family roots, they are so fractured (part Danish, part Scotch, and so many moves) who can tell who are my people? As someone in a recent workshop put it: "I am a Heinz 57." Or as Ortiz put it:

We are born into a story, we restory ourselves, and we live in stories within stories.  We live in texts others have written, we sometimes write our own texts. All of these holons form our identities. We are Heinz 57, whole parts of many cultural homes, language groups, racial heritages, ethnicities, spiritualities, and masculinities and feminities. After you answer the question WHO ARE MY PEOPLE, try this one.

Make a list of your HOLONS. You can do this individually or in small groups. Locate each of the following lists in your various relationships:

More Advanced Holon Theory - Wilber (1996a) in The History of Everything invents twenty Holon tenets, the first four we can apply to transorganization theory.

Pepper's Four Worldviews and Holons - Let us assume people and organizations are transorganizational whole/parts of at least four hypothetical worlds (Pepper, 1942), organic, mechanistic, formistic, and contextualistic (press for table). Here I am concerned with people in their whole/part relation to organizations that are whole/parts of mechanistic networks, organic communities, organizations, nations and the bios-universe, and the formistic ideal types our theories and metaphors (even these) impose on the world. Physical and social science has spent five centuries debating mechanistic versus organic worldviews, and several doing formistic classification and logical deductive work. The fourth worldview of contextualism, primarily the terrain of the pragmatists, particularly Charles Sanders Peirce, is a recent arrival. Contextualism is explored in organization theory by the pioneering work of Fred and Merrelyn Emery (press here).

Never one to leave a good typology well enough alone I have been working with several colleagues to craft a fifth worldview, "narrativistic" (Boje & Luhman, 1999; Boje, Alvarez & Schooling, 1999). For Pepper and Peirce and the Emerys' application, contextualistic is a pragmatist epistemology and ontology. For Wilber (1996a, 1996b: 63) it is transpersonal hermeneutics. Wilber (1996b: 64) also makes the point that "deconstruction maintained that all meaning is context-dependent, and contexts are boundless. For Wilber (1996b: 65) the postmodernists are lost in aperspectival space. Wilber's solution to the postmodern babble of interpretations and self-deconstructing boundless contexts is transpersonal hermeneutics. I go a different postmodern direction.

Fifth World Hypothesis -Narrativistic - I see organizations as storytelling systems, with people a part of their own and others' stories, which are part of storytelling embedded in transorganization networks of stories. We are holon stories, between mythical whole stories that are part of microstories. And there are no whole stories, and no autonomous local story parts anywhere, there are only whole/part or holon stories.

While postmodernists and poststructuralists are critical of Grand narratives (Lyotard, 1984) that violently aggregate it all into universal histories. Yet most of postmodernists take a less radical stance that says, "you can not just toss all grand narratives" because some are humane and they just keep being constructed all about us (Best, 1995; Best & Kellner, 1991, 1997). A middle ground is to see the relation of micro and macro story as part/whole or holon. Microstories are embedded within macrostories within Grand narratives, and contexts within contexts. It is without foundation and without end. Grand narratives of great-men (Generals and Presidents leading Great nations) are emerging and self-deconstructing into multiple postmodern histories and thousands of "little people" stories that were being marginalized in the grand aggregations. Elsewhere I review the relation of Grand narrative and microstoria (Boje, 1999).
Table One: Five Storied Worldviews of Transorganizations and Holons
1. ORGANIC HOLON TRANSORGANIZATIONS - people and organizations are part of natural living "transorganiztional" systems and processes i.e. the ecological world, the Gaia universe. Living systems of chaos and complexity (ecological holons -modeling human relations on observations of "real world" cycles of life). This is definitely a bios-emergence of life cyclical worldview. A cell-part is an emergent part of the living organism-whole. A part can become a whole and a part of another whole or decompose. Critique - natural world has been reengineered by humans such that "natural" is the simulacra of a manicured State Park or the spectacle of a Disney plastic tree or the in-door tropics of Las Vegas casino.
2. MECHANISTIC HOLON TRANSORGANIZATIONS - body, world and cosmos are engineered mechanisms i.e. railways, autos, satellites, computers are "transorganizational systems" the Social Engineers love to redesign: Hobbes Leviathan; Taylor's Scientific Management; Hammer's reengineering (realist/positivist holons in "hard system" world) i.e. "it is a system." Definite materialistic worldview - a cog-part is part of a machine-whole; a planet is a cog in the universe. Critique - "The wholeness of the holon is not found in any of its parts, and that puts an end to a certain reductionistic frenzy that has plagued Western science virtually form its inception" (Wilber, 1996a: 25).
3. FORMISTIC HOLON TRANSORGANIZATIONS - "transorganizations" are abstract models, typologies, i.e. mathematics, philosophy e.g. Weber, Durkheim, Burns & Stalker, Mintzberg, Evans, Trist, Aldrich, Pfeffer & Salancik - abstract logical-deductive ideal types of systems and interpretativist holons (fields, interorganizational networks, referent organizations). Nominalism- "What if it were a system?" Critique - Definite phallologocentric worldview - an ideal type-part is a part of typology-whole. Metaphor and myth classification schemes fit here. 
4. CONTEXTUALISTIC HOLON TRANSORGANIZATIONS - Holon Theory of parts and wholes; contexts embedded in contexts i.e. person, transpersonal, family, organization, transorganization, nation, transnational, global, transglobal. Exemplars - Fred and Merrelyn Emery's purposive systems and contextualism applications of Pepper and Peirce (abduction). Ken Wilber (1996b: 63-91) (holons embedded within holons). Abduction is a "softer system" of inquiry to explore and trace holonic embedded contexts. Definite holonic worldview "reality is composed of whole/parts or 'holons'" (Wilber, 1996a: 20). "There is no whole that isn't also simultaneously a part of some other whole, indefinitely, unendingly… At no point do we have the whole, because there is no whole, there are only whole/parts forever" (1996a: 20) -A person-part is part of a family-whole, a whole/part of the universe forever. Critique - context, like form, machine and organ are metaphors, and acts of narrating.
5. NARRATIVISTIC HOLON TRANSORGANIZATIONS - People are storytelling animals. They commune to construct storytelling organizations. These organizations and people are whole/parts or holons of transorganization communities that narrate in ways that script their relationships. Transorganizational storytelling organization networks are all about constructing and deconstructing one another's narratives (Boje, 1991, 1995; Boje & Luhman, 1999). The narratives are whole/parts the wholes of self-deconstructing Grand narratives of macrohistory and teleology and the parts of microstories are holons, whole/part relations. Critique -. The technological developments, organic knowledge, formistic idea systems and the networks of relations in which people narrate shape our day to day narrating. We narrate across and between contexts, belief systems, etc.

For the narrative theorists, particularly the post-varieties, truth and meaning are bound by context rather than being universal and unchanging. "One could therefore," says Culler, "identify deconstruction with the twin principles of the contextual determination of meaning and the infinite extendability of context" (Culler, 1982: 216). Wilber (1996b: 66-67) summarizes this as an insistence that truths and meanings are "context-bound."

Follow Up Exercise - Now identify which holons and subholons are organic, mechanistic, formistic, contextualistic and narrativistic.

Are there different types of transorganizations? One type might be mechanistic and formistic. Another organic and contextualistic? Are there "real" transorganizations or just metaphors and stories? - I leave you with these questions.

Holons, Narrativity, and Transversality Theory
There is a relationship between narrating, holons and transversality thoery. Transversality was first used in a philosophical context by Jean-Paul Sartre and has also been applied by Gilles Deleuze (1984) as well as (Welsch, 1987/1993; Schrag, 1989; Welsch & Sandbothe, 1996; Sandbothe, 1996). I want to explore what  Sartre (1957), then Gilles Deleuze  (1972, 1984) develop as "transversality theory" and apply it to narrative theory and holons. For a good summary of the relations of narrating and transverality see Schrag (1989) who develops transversal theories of narrative rationality and sense-giving articulations that transcend basic dualities (i.e. self/other). For example he says "Storytelling is a way of presencing sense and reference as moments within a configurative project of understanding" (1989: 90). The holon aspects of narratiing to me are captured in the following quote:

Roots of Transversality Theory - Jean-Paul Sartre (1957) wrote a critique of Husserl's transcendental ego, showing this act of modernist abstraction was flawed because it tires to be ahistorical and a priori to lets say acts of narrating changes in our sociohistorical experience of context (others, traditions, beliefs, other stories, and nature).
What transversality accomplishes is to make narrative intertextual. As Schrag puts it, "No narrative is an island...each narrative is woven into a network of stories."  That to me is also holon theory.

Giles Deleuze (1984) develps the transversality theory in studies of a psychiatric ward.  He says  "Transversality is a dimension that tries to overcome both the impasse of pure verticality [i.e. modernity] and that of mere horizontality [i.e. postmodernity]' it tends to be achieved when there is a maximum communication among the different levels and, above all, in different meanings" (Deleuze, 1984: 18, additions mine).

Two Applications of Transversality Theory - Schrag (1989) applies Deleuze's (1984) approach to transversality as a way to transcend the duality of modernity/postmodernity.  He argues that modernity is caught up in the ahistoricism project, in attempts to develop abstract universals, essentialisms, foundational rules, and other truth games (see Boje, 1995 for definitions and examples of these terms).  This modern project he describes using the strange term of "verticality."  Postmodernists, on the other hand, are seen as attempting to put the modern project into fragmentation, novelty, and acts of historicizing, such as Foucault's work in geological method. This postmodern project he calls by another strange term horizontality.  Obviously he has set up a duality: verticality/horizontality, which he then attmepts to resituates using narrativity along a third transversality dimension.  In short, while modernity is ahistorical, postmodernity is historical in its advocacy of local narratives over grand universalizing narratives.  Modernists and postmodernists, then are seen as narrating differently. To resituate, Schrag contends that we can look at instances of "narrative rationality" that transcend several important dualities. These are self/other, sense/reference, and meaning/fact.  The holon implications are that in narrating, the narrator is situating his or her story in contxts of shared language, common social practices, shared beliefs, and traditions that are given historical meaning.  In addition, narrating overcomes an important fourth duality, that of temporal splitting of past, present, and future.  In narratiing, the narrator does a presencing of the past and a projection of future conditioins and consequences. In this way, for Schrag, the narrator is able to overcome the limits of the postmodernists who say the salf and history is dead (not all do this of course).  And, in positing a narrative rationality that is more or less Ricoeur's notion of the "grasping together" of narrative elements (scenes, acts, characters, events) into plots or emplotments, Schrag achieves a rationality that is different from the modernity project. In modernity rationality is soveign meaning, a centered subject, primal authority, and the imposition of order on pre-narratied forms (i.e. universal and foundational forms of presumed transcendent truths).

What this means is that the narrating voice grasps together plots and characters into a space that is between modernity and postmodernity.   In narrating we are invited into the existential realities of the narrator's and our own co-created everyday lives.  The narrtor stitches together his or her and our own fragmented and ruptured life with bits of past memories and pieces of anticipated futures. The narrator is creating holons of amalgamated selves and scoial scenes, interweaving a plethera of conflicting beliefs, and crossing between intersubjectivities and disparate contexts.  And this narration patterns and draws together into more or less coherence, the changing configurations of belief and social practice contexts.

A second application of Transversality Theory - Welsch (1987/1993: 804-826) defines reason as that faculty whose task it is to reflect upon the relationship between different types of rationality.  Sandbothe (1996) summarizes Welsch's (1987/1993, 1996) approach to transversality and reason in three theses (press here for complete text):

Welsch (1987/1993) says  "the real constitution of rationalities"(p. 448) is within a  "moving and changing, net and web-like architectures" (p. 943).  This obviously draws upon Deleuze and Guattari's rhizomatics (i.e. making interconnections among roots rather than splitting into tree-like branches and sub-branches as if there were no transversing connections). Sandbothe applies tranversalism to his analysis of the Internet, "On the level of texts, pictures and Web pages, search robots, bookmarks and hotlists function as instantiations of transversal reason in software... Transversal gateways, through which the various providers are linked to the World Wide Web and to each other, relativize the view of the Net given by a particular provider."

It would be interesting to research the ways in which narrating trnsverses hlons, articulates self-identity, and accmplishes sense-giving configurations of meaning and reference.  We might explore the hermeneutics of constituting agency, referentiality, and how we embed our storytelling to communities of interpretation and intertextuality. That is, texts within texts, stories within stories, contexts within contexts, etc. The irony is our narrating while not an island, is never able to grasp together the whole context, the whole of time or tell the whole story.  We are between the parts and wholes, narrating and transversing holons.



HOLON PRIMER - tied to hyperlinks to other texts. What follows are several appendices to help you explore holon theory.

Holon comes from the Greek holos meaning "whole" and on meaning "part" or particle. The key characteristics of a holon include that it asserts its individuality in order to maintain the set order in the tree structure, but it also submits to the demands of the whole tree structure (the system) in order to make the system viable. Holons are self-contained, autonomous pieces, which follow a prescribed set of rules. The holon has a "self-assertiveness tendency" (wholeness) as well as an "integrative tendency" (part). This duality is similar to the particle/wave duality of light (Koestler, Arthur (1967) The Ghost in the Machine Arkana, London.). (press here)


A holarchy is a hierarchy of holons. Entire organs such as the kidneys, heart, and brain are capable of continuing their functions, as quasi-independent wholes, when isolated from the organism and suplied with the proper nutrients.
Characteristics of Holarchies:

Bi-directionality: Each holon can receive signals as well as send signals. The "flow" in a holarchy is both up and down.

  1. Level behavior: The holon at one level is not necessarily the "sum" of its subordinates. The characteristics of holons at one level are not representative of the characteristics of the level above or below them. The further down the holarchy, the more mechanized, stereotyped, and predictable the behavior. Higher level holons have more flexibility and function a more abstract state.
  2. Flexibility: Holarchies are not rigid structures; they allow modification and adaptability. A holon can be part of multiple holarchies.
  3. Open-ended: The top and the bottom of holarchies are not absolute. A holarchy can be augmented or interwoven with another holarchy.
(Koestler, 1967)



'System' is an overloaded word (See Boulding's Hierarchy of Systems) (press for Boulding Slide view).

Education system

Transport system

'The' system

An ontological misconception à Confuses reality itself with one way of thinking about reality It is a system (realism) v.

What if it were a system? (nominalism)

Use the term 'holon' for the technical concept of an organized whole & leave system as a general term (Press here).





Holon References to show how holon is being appropriated into many different worldviews.


Holon Zen Meditation Project (press here). Collection of notes.


Holon Project in robotics (press here) - Pavlo Rudakevych. " Koestler's holon is a unit of organization, a distinct part of a larger system that is in turn composed of smaller units…The holon robot will operate in un-modeled environments using only tactile sensing capabilities, and its behavioral control system will allow it to perform complex autonomous mobility and manipulation tasks…The 2PLHM's design is based on the principle of holonic modules, a concept first introduced by Hungarian author and philosopher Arthur Koestler." (Press here) for Holon Engineering; A embedded systems tool for Holon engineering (press here). Holon intranet Consortium (press here).

For More Reading on Holons, Transversality, and Ideas in this Paper