Atomism vs. Holism (2) 'Semantic Relationship between Part and Whole'


As I pointed out in my previous article, the key concept of traditional Oriental medicine lies in 'Holism' while modern (Western) medicine is based on 'Atomism'. Approaches to the understanding of human body and disease are completely different from each other.

Here is a simple comparison. Look at the above three pictures. The left one is the picture about the three body parts: duodenum, bile ducts, and gall bladder, from the anatomy textbook that many medical students read. This picture looks 'realistic.' Each of the organs is divided and has its name. In other words, the body parts look like machine elements or parts. Therefore, when a physician performs abdominal exam, she or he usually examine the condition of each organ.

In short. a human body is composed of parts: organs, cells, molecules and DNA, atoms, ...etc. Because the atom is the smallest unit of material, such approach is called 'Atomism'.

However, traditional Oriental (Chinese) medicine has its opposite concept. Although practitioners see the part of the body, they believe the part often represents whole. For instance, acupuncture doctors use the middle picture for abdominal examination. This picture is a 'conceptual map' for human body. When an acupuncture doctor performs abdominal exam, she or he does NOT examine a certain organ. The doctor strives to understand the condition of the patient's body and disease through abdomen, a part of the body.

In my field, the NDM studies, intuitive people can grasp what will happen next through part of the information. When a fire fighter smells something, she or he will notice gas is burning from the underground. From part of the information, the expert can understand what is happening as a whole. We researcher call this 'Sensemaking'.

Holism in traditional Oriental medicine teaches me how acupuncture doctors make sense of what happens in the patient's body.

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