…Ida Rolf and the Two Paradigms, cont’d
Wholism, To and Fro
Meanwhile, wholism had taken a hit during the scientific paradigm’s emergence as a dominant force. During the vacuum the American medical world experienced in the 19th century, several wholistic disciplines had emerged. Homeopathy and Natural Hygiene arose in the early 1800’s, then in the last decades of the century, chiropractic, naturopathy and osteopathy were developed. All were firmly in the wholistic tradition, all dedicated to the Hippocratic goal of supporting a return to systemic balance as the basis for healing. All enjoyed varying degrees of public favor (John D Rockefeller had a homeopathic physician even as he was forming his namesake institute.)
However, the early 20th century was not kind to the new professions. The political and cultural environments were swinging almost totally in favor of biomedicine. In 1910, commissioned by the Carnegie Foundation, the Flexner Report was issued, authored by Simon Flexner’s brother Abraham. Its aim was to examine the conditions in American medical schools, and it was a scathing indictment, recommending that 80% of all medical schools be shut down. But it focused on homeopathic and osteopathic schools as well, and it was blistering in its assessment of their activities. The report used the terms “utterly hopeless”, “absurdly inadequate”, and “fatally defective” to describe the wholistic schools that Flexner visited. He regarded chiropractic as not even worthy of consideration, calling chiropractors “unconscionable quacks” and recommending that “the public prosecutor and the grand jury are the proper agencies for dealing with them”. He regarded wholistic or alternative approaches as “indefensible”13 in the new era of scientific medicine.
Out of the Flexner Report, wholistic schools and practitioners came to be viewed, by the medical world and to a degree by the public at large, as incompetent at best, and as frauds at worst. At the same time, William Welch was using his powers to direct the flow of research money in the field, and the money decidedly did not flow in the direction of any of the wholistic disciplines. As a result, wholistic practitioners were left marginalized on the fringes of health care.
(One of the ironies of Dr Rolf’s career is that the brother of her boss at Rockefeller – and she had a great deal of admiration and respect for Simon Flexner -, had as his partial goal the eradication of the field in which she would later spend most of her professional life.)
Einstein and Wholism, Part 2
But while reductionism was reigning supreme in the medical world as the 20th century dawned, the scientific world was about to undergo another tectonic shift. Hippocrates was about to fight back, and in the unlikely person of a Swiss patent clerk. In 1905, Albert Einstein published two papers, one on special relativity theory and one that would help develop quantum theory (Max Plank had introduced the idea that energy is quantized five year earlier). In 1916, while Ida Rolf was graduating from Barnard College, Einstein added gravity to the mix to present his general relativity theory. (Gravity according to Einstein is not a force as Newton claimed, but a warping of spacetime. The Earth doesn’t move in an elliptical orbit around the sun; rather, it moves in an apparent straight line through the curvature of space.)
The implications of relativity theory and quantum theory, and their impact on science and culture in the 20th century, are way beyond the scope of this article (Fritjof Capra alone has several books on the subject). But 20th century physics – especially quantum theory – set a scientific framework by which wholism could be understood and appreciated. It also showed Descartes to be wrong, or at least limited, in at least one key way.
Descartes believed in a physical universe made of discrete parts, which could be studied and understood. Quantum theory has shown this not to be the case. At the smallest, most fundamental level – the atomic level – the smallest particles are not discrete things, but are more accurately thought of as interconnections (the word “particle” itself is inadequate and misleading at the atomic level). Quantum theory leads not to things, but to constant relationship. The world can be broken down into parts to a point, but as the parts get tinier and tinier, they become something else, less accurately thought of as parts and more accurately as a complex web of relations.
Descartes also believed that there is absolute truth in science, and that truth can be proven by the scientific method. Fritjof Capra argues in “The Turning Point”, “Twentieth century physics has shown us very forcefully that there is no absolute truth in science, that all our concepts and theories are limited and approximate.”14 The critics of reductionism argue that the scientific method, while useful and powerful, has its limits in understanding reality.
(A note about relativity theory is useful here. Einstein never believed that his theory should or could be accurately applied to moral or metaphysical matters. A great many philosophers and physicists believe that Capra and others have misused relativity theory by making claims about its application to relativism in other arenas. Quantum theory is a different matter, and Capra is probably on less shaky ground by applying it to broader issues, although this is an issue for endless debate among scientists, philosophers and laymen alike.)
“The world thus appears as a complicated tissue of events, in which connections of different kinds alternate or overlap or combine and thereby determine the texture of the whole.”15
“Your security comes only from relationships…A Rolfer’s only secure ground in a body is to establish balanced relationship. That is your secure ground, and it is not possible to convert it into something that is solid like a wall.”16