The Whole is ________ than the sum of its parts:


One of the common expressions depicting holistic thinking is – “the whole is larger/greater than the sum of its parts.” In today’s post I would like to look at this expression from a few different perspectives.

Kurt Koffka:

Kurt Koffka (1886 – 1941), the brilliant Gestalt psychologist said, “the whole is other than the sum of its parts.” Koffka was adamant to not misstate him as the whole being larger than the sum of its parts. He was pointing out that the whole is not merely an addition of parts, and that the whole has a separate existence. We humans tend to organize our percepts into wholes. Our mental shortcuts first make us see the whole, rather than the parts. The term “gestalt” itself refers to form or pattern. We are prone to identifying larger patterns from partial data.

Andras Angyal:

Andras Angyal (1902 – 1960) was an American psychiatrist and a Systems Theorist. He emphasized the importance of positional values of parts within a system. He did not view the whole being more than the sum of its parts.

Summation, however, is not organization, but it is of little help simply to say that a system is more than the sum of its parts…“A system is a distribution of constituents with positional values in a dimensional domain.” Functional relationship is the key concept of the reductive approach. For a systems approach a different concept, such as that of positional value, is required which expresses arrangement and compels reference of the parts back to the whole. The value of parts is what they do for the whole. Their function is its maintenance. Only a whole maintained in this way can relate to an environment. To make possible relations with an environment is the function of the whole.

An easy example is to put together three sticks of different lengths. The order of the sticks does not matter for the total length of the three sticks put together. For contrast, let’s look at a car. For a car, the positional value or the order of the parts are of utmost importance. They have to go together in a specific manner for the car to be a car.

Edgar Morin:

Edgar Morin, the brilliant French philosopher says that “the whole is less than the sum of its parts.” This is a powerful statement. The parts lose its freedom when it is constrained to be in a specific form of organization. The whole is more constrained, or has less freedom than the sum of freedoms of the parts put together. The parts give up some of its properties when it organizes to be a whole. At the same time, the whole is also more than the sum of its parts. Morin says:

In order to understand the apparent contradiction of a whole that is simultaneously more and less than the sum of its parts, I claim the heritage of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, from the 6th century BC: when you reach a contradiction, it doesn’t necessarily mean an error, but rather that you have touched on a fundamental problem. Therefore, I believe that these contradictions should be recognized and upheld, rather than circumvented.

Additionally, Morin stated:

The whole is greater than the sum of the parts (a principle which is widely acknowledged and intuitively recognized at all macroscopic levels), since a macro-unity arises at the level of the whole, along with emergent phenomena, i.e., new qualities or properties.

The whole is less than the sum of the parts, since some of the qualities or properties of the parts are inhibited or suppressed altogether under the influence of the constraints resulting from the organization of the whole.

The whole is greater than the whole, since the whole as a whole affects the parts retroactively, while the parts in turn retroactively affect the whole (in other words, the whole is more than a global entity-it has a dynamic organization).

Morin had strong words about just using holism:

Holism is a partial, one-dimensional, and simplifying vision of the whole. It reduces all other system-related ideas to the idea of totality, whereas it should be a question of confluence. Holism thus arises from the paradigm of simplification (or reduction of the complex to a master-concept or master-category).

Final Words:

The idea that the whole is different or other than the sum of its parts is a different way of thinking. Holism can be as limiting as reductionism. One might say that thinking in terms of wholes is very much thinking in terms of parts since the whole can be construed to be a part of a larger system. The emphasis is on the observer and the purpose that the observer has with the specific perspective that he or she is taking. All humans are purposeful creatures. What one observes, depends upon the properties of the observer. This also means that the other observers, the cocreators or the participants in the system, have their own purposes. We cannot stipulate the purpose(s) for a fellow being. To paraphrase West Churchman, systems thinking begins when one sees through the eyes of another.

The idea that the whole is more important than the part should be challenged, especially when it comes to human systems. All human systems are in a delicate balance with each other, which can tip one way or the other based on emerging attractors. The individual strives for autonomy, while the larger human systems the individual is part of, strive for homonomy. One should not ignore the other.

I will finish with another lesson from Morin:

The parts are at once less and greater than the parts. The most remarkable emergent phenomena within a highly complex system, such as human society, occur not only at the level of the whole (society), but also at the level of the individuals (even especially at that level-witness the fact that self-consciousness only emerges in individuals). In this sense: The parts are sometimes greater than the whole. As Stafford Beer has noted: “[T]he most profitable control system for the parts does not exclude the bankruptcy of the whole.” “Progress” does not necessarily consist in the construction of larger and larger wholes; on the contrary, it may lie in the freedom and independence of small components. The richness of the universe is not found in its dissipative totality, but in the small reflexive entities-the deviant and peripheral units-which have self-assembled within it…

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Constructivism at the Gemba: