Mechanism and Holism in Modernity

A Holistic Approach to Making Sense of the Modern World

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

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

Scientific management provides a good point of departure in a discussion about mechanically-influenced social science. Frederick Winslow Taylor’s 1911 book on the subject, The Principles of Scientific Management, elucidates his ideas on the topic; he proposes a managerial system in which the knowledge of the worker is systematized so that the manager can plan his laborers’ tasks in the most efficient way possible. By scientifically calculating the most productive a man can be, the manager can optimize his employee’s productivity and, Taylor asserts, also the worker’s satisfaction and happiness. An obsession with gathering knowledge, quantifying, and analyzing it, so characteristic of mechanical methodology, underlies Taylor’s solution to inefficient work. The workingman is objectified, made into a machine whose output can be optimized. Although Taylor stresses the individuality of each worker in the sense that every man has different working strengths, he certainly is not implying that what makes a man individual are his ideas or preferences; like any machine, every man was made for a certain kind of task.

Taylor is attempting to answer the question, how can labor be made the most efficient, the most mechanical, possible? How can humans be optimized? The humanity of the humans being reduced so as to be made efficient is not a factor in his carefully outlined methodology, just as it is not addressed in his question. Mechanical thought had no room for humanity because many parts of humanity are difficult, if not impossible, to quantify. As a result, Taylor did not ask the question, how can we improve the quality of life of workers and managers in the workplace? or how can we further individualize the workplace experience so that everyone feels equally valued and appreciated? Instead of asking questions aimed at improving the lives and experiences of human actors in a human production, Taylor’s questions focused on how to make man the machine more efficient. His resolutions also fell victim to the methods of mechanization because they were framed by the questions they were attempting to answer.

The same fundamental mistake — removing the humanity from very human endeavors in order to simplify and control them — was made in an experiment conducted by Herbert S. Terrace and his research team in the 1970s. The researchers were venturing to find an answer to the question, embedded in a much larger scientific quest to discover what exactly makes humans human, of whether or not language acquisition was possible for chimpanzees if raised in a human environment. Researchers involved in the project spent extended time with the chimpanzee, Nim, and they naturally developed relationships with the intelligent test subject. Problems arose in the research program from many different sources; certain members of the team had different ideas of how the research should be conducted, attachment to Nim and other members of the team problematized the “objectivity” of the research, and Nim’s growth and development rendered him volatile and dangerous as he reached adolescence.[1]

The issues, again, began with the type of questions asked and the methods implicit in mechanistic research programs. The very fundamental lines of inquiry in Project Nim — What is it exactly that makes humans human? Is language what distinguishes humans from other animals? Can we define humanity by the ability to verbally communicate? — assume that the mechanical experimental process can provide definitive answers to such questions. Humanity, Terrace et al. believed, could be quantifiably explained by how many vocabulary words could be memorized and placed in the context of sentences. These researchers, taking mechanistic thought to a level beyond even Taylor’s scientific management, were trying to simplify and categorize humanity itself instead of simply leaving it out of consideration. Reducing humanity’s complexity to language abilities, they failed to see the human being as a complex and multi-faceted whole. Questions outside of the mechanistic way of thinking could have been more along the lines of, how do different aspects of humanity interact with one another, and how does this create a uniquely human experience? How do the complex interactions of language, technology development, and emotional capacity affect humanity’s interaction with its surroundings? The experiment conducted by Terrace and his team would not have a purpose in this line of inquiry because the need to reduce and define humanity is absent, and in its place an emphasis on interactions of parts of wholes takes precedence.

Through the brief analyses of Taylor and Terrace’s mechanistically-informed work, we can understand how mechanical thinking manifested itself in the types of questions asked in twentieth century science, and by asking questions more informed by a holistic worldview, we can see that mechanistic thinking is far from all-encompassing or inevitable. But I want to take that point a step further and discuss how this method of research still influences the way not only science is conducted, but the way institutions are run and how this filters down into the everyday human experience. This will also support a claim I made earlier; the kinds of questions that scientists ask, informed as they are by their methodological foundations, can (and often do) have major effects on human thinking as a whole.

The modern example I am most able to grapple with — as I have been participating in it for almost the entirety of my twenty-two years — is the education system. Beginning in the twentieth century, educators and psychologists introduced standardized testing as a way to, initially, provide individuals with education most suited to their needs.[2] The testing craze quickly evolved into something far more institutionalized, however, and became the basis for creating aptitude hierarchies of students all vying for increasingly competitive places in schools and universities. Like Taylor’s ideas on scientific management, the tests have provided a way for the education system to be streamlined and made more efficient; based on ACT scores, institutions and individuals can quickly decide who is and is not worth the time and money required for a college education. Certain machines are best suited for certain tasks, after all. Resources spent on trying to make a deep fryer capable of space travel would indeed be wasted.

By treating students like cogs in the machine of efficient production, the educational system has largely removed human individuality in favor of a single, mechanistic idea of what intelligence and aptitude are. Standardized testing is a solution to the issue of, how can we homogenize intelligence? How can we quickly and efficiently decide who is and is not worth the resources of education? A different approach, one more informed by thinking of humans as dynamic and individual, might grapple with the issues of education in a different manner; what sort of educational environment (including the people involved, the goals set, the curriculum followed) is most conducive to making students excel? How can we create a more inclusive educational experience? By embracing human variety and interconnectivity, these sorts of questions might offer up very different means of addressing the question of who should or should not be given the benefit of educational privilege.

            In a die-hard quest to optimize our world, we have repeatedly employed a reductionist, mechanistic approach to understanding and shaping our surroundings. It has clearly permeated the realm of the scientific, as evidenced by the kind of work done by Frederick Winslow Taylor and Herbert S. Terrace. Equally evident in their studies is the increasing tendency of these ideas to encroach upon the more social and soft sciences closer to humans’ understandings of themselves. Finally, mechanistic worldview’s influence on institutionalized education provides a modern example of how the questions and methodologies employed have shaped human lives and individuals’ beliefs about themselves and their capabilities. In all of these instances, as I hope to have shown through posing questions from an alternate standpoint, reductionism was not inevitable, nor has it been/is it the best approach available for the more nuanced issues with which softer sciences concern themselves.

[1] Project Nim, directed by James Marsh (2011).

[2] Katherine Pandora, “Disciplining Science in the Search for the Control of Nature,” (lecture, HSCI 5533, Norman, OK, October 27, 2016).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s