# Grey Walter and Norbert Wiener Regarding Holism

Grey Walter writes: Even in the very simplest system, with two active elements, multiple interconnection between elements give several modes for which simple observation is useless. The study of mentality, a product of interlaced patterns far too numerous to even write down, cannot therefore be defined, let alone solved, by contemplation of behavior, however patient the experiments, however sensitive his instruments. But nor is mentality made any clearer or more tractable by glib assertions of studying the organism as a whole. A holistic approach is not a practical strategy [either]. Norbert Wiener very properly stigmatizes holism as a bogey: `If a phenomenon can only be grasped as a whole and is completely unresponsive to analysis, there is no suitable material for any scientific description of it, for the whole is never at our disposal.' If, and in so far as, mentality must be defined as a function of the whole assembly of possible brain conditions, then, and to that extent, attempts to describe mentality in physiological terms are vain. But, mental phenomena are accessible to analysis, can be studied in groups of manageable size, and can be predicted from experimental observations.'' (WALTER, GREY. 1953. The Living Brain. LONDON: DUCKWORTH. WIENER, NORBERT. 1950(9). Maxims for Biologists and Psychologists. Dialectica 4(3):186--191.)

He is against both behaviorism and holistic phenomenalism; his approach is basically cognitive: one at a time experimentation with specific but whole parts of the brain and construction of purposive models at the level of brain processes and their functions, not of stimuli and responses of neurons or entire organisms which is all that is directly and easily measurable (behaviorism), nor of minds as units with social histories that must all be known (holistic phenomenalism). Only behaviorist criticism of holism and holistic criticism of behaviorism are common in the literature 1920--1950.

There are plenty of old behaviorist criticisms of holism. (They drop out with behaviorism.) Also there are many criticisms of behaviorism along the lines of absence of any one to one property in brain function and input and behavior. (This is one of them.) But what are the references prior this one that argue the same way against too broad holism in the context of brain information processing?

• I do not have access to the book so it is unclear to me what exactly Walter argues for. Is he saying that physiological reduction is hopeless because "the whole is never at our disposal", and so we should switch to mentalistic description "accessible to analysis in groups of manageable size"? Is this the approach that you say began getting traction in cognitive science? If that is the case then the use of "holism" is odd, mentalistic approaches like psychoanalysis and gestalt psychology are typically called "holistic", and predate 1950. – Conifold Dec 16 '16 at 23:18
• He is against both behaviorism and holistic phenomenalism; his approach is basically cognitive: one at a time experimentation with specific but whole parts of the brain and construction of purposive models at the level of brain processes and their functions, not of stimuli and responses of neurons or entire organisms which is all that is directly and easily measurable (behaviorism), nor of minds as units with social histories that must all be known (holistic phenomenalism). Only behaviorist criticism of holism and holistic criticism of behaviorism are common in the literature 1920--1950. – Gottfried William Dec 17 '16 at 2:49
• This is still very vague for me, but I'll point out Head's Aphasia and Kindred Disorders of Speech (1926) and Lashley's Brain Mechanisms and Intelligence (1929) as possible early examples of what you call "cognitive" approach. I am not sure if they advanced methodological arguments you are looking for though. Luria and Vygotsky Circle in general is another possibility. – Conifold Dec 17 '16 at 22:21