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Arthur Koestler - Mini-Bio

Koestler lived his life, and wrote books and articles as well; some of them non-fiction. An article on humour in the Encyclopedia Britannica is by him. He is known for complex elaborations of "bisociation" and "holon", two main concepts in his major non-fictional books (further down). By the word "bisociation" he explains an underlying feature of humour and acts of creativity, including developments in science. His "holon" understanding fits some sides to branched organisations. - Tormod Kinnes>

Early years on his guard

Born a Hungarian Jew in Budapest, Arthur Koestler (1905–83) in time became a Hungarian-British author and journalist.

In 1919 the Koestler family fled Hungary after a right-wing coup. Arthur Koestler's higher education he got in Austria. In 1922 he began studying engineering and physics at the Vienna Technische Hochschule.

He became a Jewish nationalist and in 1925 left the university for a kibbutz in Palestine. The community living did not suit him, so he moved to Tel Aviv, where he began to concentrate on journalism. He also became a correspondent for the Ullstein press in the Middle East. His reputation grew, along with his disenchantment with Zionism. In 1929 he left Palestine for Ullstein's Paris office, and in 1930 he moved to Berlin to work as a science editor there.

The communist Koestler

Next year he joined the German Communist Party. This had him sacked by Ullstein Verlag.

The Communist International sent him to the Soviet Union. He travelled extensively there, but the book he wrote based on his travels and research, contained so much criticism that the Soviet authorities rejected it. Koestler now moved to Paris where he edited the weekly journal, Zukunft. In he 1935 he married Dorothea Ascher.

When the Spanish Civil War broke out, he was sent by the Communist Party to spy on the Nationalist forces. He posed as a right-wing Hungarian journalist working for the News Chronicle, but was arrested as a suspect in Seville in February 1937. He was released the next year in an exchange of prisoners.

The released Koestler moved to England. There, Victor Gollancz commissioned him to write a book about his experiences. Spanish Testament was published and acclaimed in 1937.

A communist no longer

In 1938 Koestler left the British Communist Party, for he did not appreciate how Joseph Stalin was dealing with his critics in the Soviet Union. Stalin had civilians killed in the millions - some murdered, some starved to death as victims of the deliberate killing policy, and some sent to Siberia, where estimatedly two or three millions died. The total figure of civilians deliberately killed under Stalinism, is estimatedly around six millions. (Snyder 2011)

In 1939 Kostler published his first novel. It was about the Spartacus slave revolt, where he used the story of Spartacus as an allegory for the corruption of socialism by Stalin.

In September 1939, Koestler was arrested in France, wrongly assumed to be a security risk, and was imprisoned in a Concentration Camp until January 1940. His views on totalitarian rule appeared in his second novel, the anti-totalitarian and penetrating Darkness at Noon (1940). The novel was an immediate success. Among other things it gave vent to Koestler's disillusionment with the Communist party. The novel was followed by The Scum of the Earth (1941).

Koestler joined the British Army in 1941, but had difficulty with military discipline. Next year he had other work, and began his third novel, Arrival and Departure (1943).

By the end of the war Koestler had returned to his earlier Zionism and was a vocal advocate of the Jewish national cause. After a visit to Palestine he published Thieves in the Night (1946).

In 1948 or 1949 (sources differ) Koestler became a British citizen., and in 1951 he published his fourth novel.

Koestler's non-fiction. In addition to seven novels, a drama and six autobiographical writings, Koestler wrote non-fiction, which encompasses about thirty writings. Three of them, included in the book list below, were published in this order: The Act of Creation came out in 1964, and The Ghost in the Machine in 1967. In 1978 he published Janus: A Summing Up, after he had been diagnosed as having Parkinson's disease two years earlier.

The alarming love life

The full extent of his often brutal philandering, however, now threatens to overshadow his reputation as one of the foremost writers and thinkers of the 20th century. (Simkin 2014)

In 1944 Koestler met Mamaine Paget, who was eleven years younger than him. After he and his wife Dorothy had their marriage annulled in 1949, he married Mamaine in 1950. They were divorced in 1952. She passed away in 1944.

In 1955 Koestler had a daughter, Cristina, with Janine Graetez, but he at once disowned the girl, despite repeated attempts by Janine to persuade him to show some interest in her. Koestler had almost no contact with his daughter throughout his life.

According to Kevin McCarron: "Koestler was . . . sexually predatory all his life . . . and he was capable of treating women brutally . . . A chain-smoker and heavy drinker, he could be arrogant, dogmatic, and violent, but he was financially generous [and a] too lively company."

Richard Brooks has argued that "Koestler was a compulsive adulterer who conducted hundreds of affairs throughout his marriages". Michael Scammell agreed and accused him of "chronic promiscuity" and claimed that Koestler's lovers included Simone de Beauvoir, Elizabeth Jane Howard and Sonia Brownell, who described him as a "sadist"

. David Cesarani alleged that Koestler had been a serial rapist, citing as evidence that the British feminist writer Jill Craigie had claimed that she had been one of his victims in 1951. In 1965, the sixty-year-old Koestler married the thirty-seven year old, Cynthia Jefferies, who had been his secretary and occasional lover since 1948. He continued to write.

"The end crowns the work"

In 1968, he was awarded the Sonning Prize "for outstanding contribution to European culture" and in 1972 he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).

Mysticism and a fascination with the paranormal imbued much of his later work. He endorsed such as extrasensory perception, psychokinesis and telepathy, and co-founded a society to sponsor paranormal research. It is now located at the University of Edinburgh.

In 1976 Koestler was diagnosed as having Parkinson's disease and later got terminal leukaemia.

His farewell letter was dated 1982: "My reasons for deciding to put an end to my life are . . . Parkinson's Disease and the slow-killing variety of leukaemia." His wife, although afraid of dying, wished to die with him, and so she did. In early March 1983, they were found dead in their London apartment. Koestler left bequests which totalled almost one million pounds to further the study of parapsychology.

[Key sources: WP, sv. "Arthur Koestler"; Simkin 1997-2014]

Koestler contributions from his non-fiction writings

1, Koestler's work The Act of Creation is his attempt to develop a general theory of human creativity. He postulates that the essence of creativity lies in "the perceiving of a situation or idea . . . in two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference." However, "incompatible frames" may be replaced by "different" or "formerly not converged" or "previously unrelated". Koestler uses "bisociation of previously unrelated matrices" to describe it. He himself coined the term "bisociation" for bringing together and fusing two separate frames of references somewhat - or up to wholly.

In the book, he goes into the similarities and differences between creativity in humour, science and the arts. What is different in these contexts, is the framing or emotional context of the creative act - of bisociation of previously non brought together matrices.

By the fusion of different frames of references a surplus energy is brought about many a time. Laughter and humour derives from it, as well as word coinages and development of ideas and theories in science and many sorts of novelties in art too. The article "Humour" in EB (Encyclopedia Britannica) brings in much from his book.

2. In The Ghost in the Machine Koestler tackles organisation, and points out that higher, complex organism are arranged through branched hierarchies. He deals in reality with the evolutionary idea that life evolves complex organisms after simple organisms. The high and complex wholes may contain sub-wholes, like organ systems in the body.

He terms sub-wholes holons, and explores the construct throughout chapter 3. He also walks out of many dark sides to reductionism, including behaviorism with its simplified linear chains of stimulus and reactions. The coinage "holon" applies to organisms with their organ systems and their smaller parts. The parts of higher organisms are not merely single cells, but they come grouped and differentiated, for example in organ systems. Organ systems illustrate Koestler's holons - dependent on and directed from the whole, orderly arranged in branched hierarchies, and with some degree of independent functioning or fluctuations within limits in the totality (the whole). Some holons are intertwined as well. Holons are understood as sub-wholes, sub assemblies, sub-structures, sub-skills, sub-systems. The coined term derives from the Greek holos, whole, with the additionion 'on' to denote 'part'. Thus: whole-part", holon.

In other words: The organism is regarded as a multi-levelled hierarchy of semi-autonomous sub-wholes, branching into sub-wholes of a lower order, and so on. Sub-wholes on any level of the hierarchy are referred to as holons.

Holons (for example organ systems), can have many interfaces. One is topwards, serving the balances of the whole, and another is more internal, serving sub-holons and further downwards in often intertwining patterns. The effects of holons or organ systems intertwine, and there is likely to be a host of balances to be attended to. The concept of holon (separate units in a whole) has to take multiple interfaces and intertwinings into account to avoid being of too little value. There is often complex interaction within a holon's parts, and also with other holons.

Structurally, the mature organism is a hierarchy of parts within parts. The relative autonomy of its constituent holons are demonstrated by transplant surgery. Body analogies aside, "there is much in the sea apart from sea lions", and different trees fit for holons. There are simple and complex organisms, shallow and deep social organisations, like schools, or academic hierarchies, and further.

3. In Janus: A Summing-Up is Arthur Koestler's attempt to join a lifetime of reading and experience under one larger idea which he called the "holon." The concept of the holon is supposed to reconcile atomistic and holistic approaches.

Koestler puts together broad based arguments for a theory of complex systems, linking much to the philosophy of science and epistemology. He is clearly allied with the evolutionary trend towards "spontaneously developing states of greater heterogeneity and complexity", and uses the two-faced Janus to illustrate the special feature of "double-sided relating" of holons in hierarchical trees. However, as shown by higher organisms, the relating is more complex than just dual, two-sided. It can be many-many-sided.

Koestler repeats and elaborates on his idea of holarchy (holon-hierarchy) - that hierachies tend to have sub-wholes arranged in tree-like structures and interacting too. Many holons have holons inside them on the lower levels of the system. Every holon is like a two-faced Janus, the Roman god: one side (the whole) looks down (or inward); the other side (the part) looks up (or outward). Each whole and holon part is an organising whole to what constitutes it.

An example: In the performance of learnt skills, including verbal skills, a generalized implicit command is spelled out in explicit terms and calling on well triggered action by activated their sub-units in a more or less apt order, guided by feedbacks. Relevant content is coming through, often it by being filtered from less relevant or surrounding "noice". Sound skills tend with increasing practice to become automatised routines. And as for thinking and spelling as well as in society at large, on successive lower levels we find increasingly mechanized, stereotyped and predictable patterns.


Arthur Koestler gathered deep topics and tried to arrange them orderly. His main ideas of bisociation, holon and trees of branching hierarchies are very rich in content, by and large.

Koestler-linked thought

One sort of disorder occurs when the power of the whole over its parts erodes their autonomy and individuality. This may lead to a regression.

The self-serving of a social holon (or society) feeds on such as altruism and inculcated, deep loyalty of members.


Arthur Koestler, Literature  

Three non-fiction books by Koestler are selected for the list.

EB: Encyclopedia Britannica Online, s.v "Humour" and "Arthur Koestler".

Koestler, Arthur. Janus: A Summing Up. London: Hutchinson, 1978.

Koestler, Arthur. The Act of Creation. London: Arkana/Penguin Books, 1989 (1964).

Koestler, Arthur. The Ghost in the Machine. Danube ed. London: Hutchinson, 1976.

Simkin, John. "Arthur Koestler Biography". In Spartacus Educational. 1997 - 2014. Online.

Pierce, Marcus. "Notes on The Act of Creation by Arthur Koestler." London: Department of Computing, City University, London. (nd). Online.

Snyder, Timoty. "Hitler vs. Stalin: Who Killed More?" The New York Review. 10 March 2011. Online.

WP: "Arthur Koestler"

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