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How Holistic Science helps us to solve real-world problems by Philip Franses


Philip Franses looks back at the evolution of the MSc Holistic Science ahead of the first workshop next month of Global Synapses, a new forum for mentoring people and projects using holistic science methods.

The Masters in Holistic Science took this year to look deeply into its long term development and uncover new ways of reaching out and being effective. For me it has been life-changing exploring this renewal and I started working into looking at its application in the world.  To give you some history of Holistic Science and how it came to the College:

Brian Goodwin and Margaret Colquhoun at different times both studied under Conrad Waddington in Edinburgh, looking to produce an alternative foundation of complexity and emergence for biology. Brian introduced a whole new relational field of structuralism into biology and Margaret completed a doctorate in the Department of Zoology. Both came to a junction of realising that what was at stake here was more than just a change of explanation.  This feeling of a much deeper impulse brought them to explore Goethe’s (1749-1832) work on the nature of biological form (Pearl Goodwin, Brian’s first wife instigated this change).

In a parallel development Henri Bortoft studied with David Bohm who was similarly trying to reform physics through the idea of a “living wholeness.“ Henri too had moved from making a theoretical argument about the structure of the atom, to encountering the work of Goethe and realising that this “living wholeness” was beyond mere theoretical description.

In 1998, these were the threads that were woven together to form the Masters programme in Holistic Science at Schumacher College.  Although it was based around Goethe and a living connection to the world, it was rooted in the attempt to reinvigorate mainstream science. The course was beyond only ecological renewal and was about giving theoretical renewal to science though a re-engagement with the spirit.

“Can this magic extend to a process out in the world, applied to some of the many challenges our worldview has perpetrated, but seems unable to resolve?”

This innovative and unusual course has developed over the last 20 years. With Brian’s encouragement I started teaching with him on the Masters in 2008, and eventually took over from him in 2009, teaching fulltime on the program with Stephan Harding since then. It has always been an immense honour for me to be a part of the inquiry into a ‘living wholeness’ the MSc has held. 

When I began teaching on the MSc with Brian, at that time, mainstream science was in its ascendency and Holistic Science seemed like a well-meaning but perhaps, ultimately, a futile rebellion.
However, those coming on the course had made huge commitments to spend a year in this inquiry that had no obvious application.  The college was quiet and the atmosphere studious and people did get somewhere in themselves through this enquiry.

Today this picture is very different. So many of the systems of education, governance, finance, technology and climate that had seemed perfectly understood in their working a few years ago, are now, to most observers, understood to be falling apart. Rational analyses of the problems are unable to diagnose any solutions.  In 2009, Brain Goodwin passed away, in 2012 Henri Bortoft passed away, in 2017 Margaret Colquhoun passed away. So it seems a good time to review Holistic Science and its direction.

The message of Holistic Science of the centrality of form and coherence above specialism and detail is suddenly very appropriate to our time. Schumacher MSc graduates, from all walks of life, have shared a process of committing to a year’s course, without prior definition of what this involves, yet finding a magic in the experience that informs their beings throughout their lives.

The question we are asking now is “can this magic extend to a process out in the world, applied to some of the many challenges our worldview has perpetrated, but seems unable to resolve?”  Can Holistic Science help address these challenges, how might that work practically and how can that effort be noticed and picked up beyond a small group of people at the College?

I am reminded of a conversation with Brian, when he saw the future of Holistic Science in identifying and holding the movement of transformation practically in the world. In the upheaval of looking at the roots of Holistic Science, a form for this realisation has presented itself. Global Synapses, the forum I am setting up, has been given space by Dartington at Foxhole, as a temporary, experimental place for holding conversations, developing a mentoring approach and attracting people and projects in various fields.

It’s a novel experiment into the application of Holistic Science in the world. I will also be continuing the development of the online Certificate in Holistic Science and the Holistic Science mentoring programme worldwide and running the short course with Jude Currivan Emergency to Emergence at the College May 24th to 27th.
If you are curious and would like to play a part, then please email me at .  Global Synapses is holding its first workshop (with more to follow) at Foxhole in collaboration with the Flow Partnership on the 3rd of March with Rajendra Singh, the Waterman of India, looking into applying holistic methods to Reviving Dangerous Landscapes so that they can support life once more.

You can find out more information about the MSC Holistic Science here