Part and Whole

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Part and Whole


philosophical categories expressing the relationship of an aggregate of objects (or elements of a single object) to the connection that joins the objects together and endows the aggregate with a new set of integrative properties and regularities not inherent in the objects when separate. As a result of this connection, a whole is formed, with the individual objects representing its parts.

The categories of the part and the whole also characterize the general movement of knowledge, which usually begins with the undifferentiated representation of the whole, then proceeds to the analysis of the whole and its breakdown into parts, and completes the process by reconstructing the object in the mind in the form of a concrete whole. These principles pertaining to the knowledge of whole objects were formulated by K. Marx in his “Economic Manuscripts of 1857–59” (see K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 46, part 1). The overall strategy of scientific knowledge, as it develops in any given period, is determined to a significant extent by the particular treatment of the categories of the part and the whole and the specific interpretation of the related question of wholeness.

The problem of the relationship of parts and wholes, raised in ancient times by Plato and Aristotle, has been examined by all the important schools of philosophy. The scientifically oriented materialist views of F. Bacon, T. Hobbes, J. Locke, and the 18th-century French materialists were usually associated with a mechanistic and summary conception of the whole, borrowed from mechanics and later from classical physics. In classical natural science, knowledge of the whole was sought only from the point of view of its composition and structure. In contrast, the idealist philosophers—Plato, the medieval Scholastics, and, to a certain extent, G. von Leibniz—insisted that the whole could not be reduced to the sum of its parts. Only the products of mental activity were seen by them as truly whole, while material entities were regarded as mechanical wholes, or dead aggregates.

The gap between these contrasting concepts—the mechanistic sum of the parts at one extreme and the mystical mental whole at the other—leads to the following important antinomies with respect to parts and wholes:

(1) Thesis: The whole is equal to the sum of its parts. Antithesis: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

(2) The parts precede the whole. The whole precedes its parts.

(3) The whole is causally determined by its parts. Wholeness contradicts and excludes causality.

(4) The whole is understood through knowledge of its parts. The parts, as products of the division of the whole, can be understood only through knowledge of the whole.

The classical German philosophy of F. von Schelling and G. Hegel introduced the distinction between the inorganic and the organic (or self-developing) whole; the organic whole, however, was associated with nonmaterial development only, and not with matter. In the 19th and 20th centuries the relationship between parts and wholes was treated in similar terms in the various idealist schools of thought, such as neovitalism, holism, and intuitivism.

K. Marx critically reinterpreted the traditions of classical German philosophy and formulated a set of principles for the study of organic wholes, including the method of ascent from the abstract to the concrete and the dialectical interpretation of analysis and synthesis. He was also the founder of the methodology for the scientific study of society as a whole. Dialectical materialism provides a rational explanation of the dialectics of parts and wholes by combining the data of theoretical conceptions and disciplines based on the integral approach to objects—for example, the concept of integrative levels in theoretical biology and the results of research in genetics, ecology, physiology, psychology, and linguistics.

It has been demonstrated not only theoretically but also on the basis of experimental data that the whole cannot be reduced to the sum of its parts in objects that have a complex structure. The formula “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” has proved inadequate to resolve the problem, since the formula implicitly presumes additivity (or summariness, which does not constitute wholeness) of the properties of the whole; wholeness here seems to be what remains after the sum of the parts is subtracted from the whole. The answer is that the whole is characterized by new properties and qualities, which are not inherent in the individual parts (or elements) but which appear as a result of the latter’s interaction within a particular system of connections.

This property of any form of a whole, which may be called the integrative property, also makes it possible to understand all the other specific properties of the whole. Such properties include the appearance of something new in the process of development, the emergence of new types of wholeness, the appearance of new structural levels and their hierarchical order, and the distinction between organic and inorganic wholes—a distinction based on the fact that in inorganic wholes (such as atoms or molecules) the properties of the parts, even though reflecting the nature of the whole, are determined primarily by the internal nature of the parts, whereas in organic systems (such as biological or social objects) the properties of the parts are wholly determined by the properties of the whole.

Further logical contradictions arise in the general formulation of the question of what comes first—the whole or its parts. In the relationship of parts and wholes, as Hegel showed early on, neither can be considered without the other. The whole is inconceivable without or before the parts; on the other hand, a part outside the whole is no longer a part but a different object, since the parts of the whole express the nature of the whole and acquire its specific properties.

The relationship between the parts of an organic whole, as well as the relationship between the parts and the whole, is not a simple functional dependence but a much more complex system of different types of connections, including structural and genetic connections and the connections of subordination and control. Within this system, causes are simultaneously effects, and what is posited is simultaneously a premise. The interdependence of the parts here is such that it appears not in the form of a linear causal series but rather as a special type of closed circle within which each element of the connection is both a condition of and conditioned by the next element (see K. Marx, ibid., p. 229). This structural approach to the whole is not an alternative to causal explanation; it merely demonstrates the inadequacy of univocal causality in the analysis of a complex system of connections. Moreover, the principle of structural explanation may itself be regarded in a certain sense as an extension of the principle of causality.

Modern knowledge also provides the solution for a well-known cognitive paradox—namely, how can the whole be known before the parts if this presupposes knowledge of the parts before knowledge of the whole? The parts and the whole become known at the same time; the parts are identified and analyzed as elements of the given whole, and as a result of synthesis the whole emerges as dialectically broken up into and consisting of its parts. In the final analysis, study of the parts is the only possible means of studying the whole. At the same time, the results of the study of the parts are incorporated into the system of scientific knowledge only because they represent new information about the whole. The analysis of the dialectical interrelation of parts and wholes is a very important methodological principle of scientific knowledge.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.