Part / Whole

Part                      -       Whole
Closed                  -       Open
State                     -       Process
Nodes                   -       Connections
Independent         -       Dependent
Free                      -       Constrained

Juarrero points out how the quantum level - those things that "go without saying" - affects the everyday level. For the most part we can ignore it, especially within a cohesive culture in which everyone shares "the same historical background and contextual setting." 

But when humans seek to explain each other, neither comes context free. Each brings their own case history, their own biases, prejudices, etc. 

The world of Heidegger's 'present at hand' - the abstracted world of the left-hemisphere - proceeds from the complex, interconnected world of the 'ready to hand', the right hemisphere. Left is contained by right, the masculine by the feminine.

Context implies connections, relatedness. Connections work like tethers, constraining the freedom of the individual. Freedom is another way of saying 'context independent.' The Free Space of science is freedom from context.

[…] absolutism of conduct can be secured only by means of an absolutism of doctrine, by means of the doctrine that good and evil traits and actions are inherently distinct from one another and that their character does not depends on the character of those who manifest and engage in them on each particular occasion.

[…] this approach creates the view that “there are actions that are good and bad in themselves,” whereas in reality, according to Nietzsche, “an action in itself is perfectly devoid of value: it depends on who performs it,” for what reason and with what effect.

[Alexander Nehamas]
Nietzsche: Life as Literature, p. 213-14

[General systems theory’s] fundamental claim is that when living things are embedded in an orderly context, properties emerge that are not present when the things exist as isolated individuals. 

Picking up where Darwin left off, systems theory continued the revival of relational or secondary properties by reminding us that context matters.

[Alicia Juarrero]
Dynamics in Action, p.108

[…] Zeleny (1980, 20) suggests that the lesson to be learned from the theory of autopoiesis is precisely "the lesson of holism." 

Far from being an inert epiphenomenon, the dynamics of the autopoietic whole serve as the orderly context that structures the behavioral characteristics and activities of the parts, a clear formulation of one of Bunge's (1979, 39) characteristics of a holistic point of view: the dynamics of the global level control the functioning of components at the lower level. 

The whole as whole most assuredly acts on its parts: self-cause - but not, as some would have it, qua other - one part forcefully impressing itself on another. Instead, complex adaptive systems exhibit true self-cause: parts interact to produce novel, emergent wholes; in turn, these distributed wholes as wholes regulate and constrain the parts that make them up. 

[Alicia Juarrero]
Dynamics in Action, p.130

I propose that explaining complex systems, including human beings and their actions, must […] proceed hermeneutically, not deductively. 

In textual interpretation "the anticipation of meaning in which the whole is envisaged becomes explicit understanding in that the parts, that are determined by the whole, themselves also determine this whole" (Gadamer 1985, 259). Interpreters must move back and forth: the whole text guides the understanding of individual passages; yet the whole can be understood only by understanding the individual passages. 

This interlevel recursiveness, characteristic of hermeneutics, is thus "a continuous dialectical tacking between the most local of local detail and the most global of global structure in such a way as to bring both into view simultaneously" (Geertz 1979, 239). The interlevel tacking of the hermeneutic "circle” reproduces the self-organization of complex dynamical processes. By showing the dynamics of complex adaptive systems, hermeneutical narratives are uniquely suited as the logic of explanation of these strange-loop phenomena.

The logic of explanation of hermeneutics is therefore appropriate for explananda whose very nature is a product of that strange circle of whole and part. 

In contrast to covering laws and algorithms and deductions therefrom, that is, interpretation or hermeneutics reproduces the very logic of nature's open, adaptive dynamics. Like intentional actions, interpretations are characterized by strange-loop, interlevel relations and are, in consequence, essentially contextual and historical. Interpretations therefore explain by showing those nonlinear, interlevel processes at work. 

The threat of relativism lurking in the hermeneutic circle has often encouraged philosophers to reject it.

By drawing the explainer and the explanation into its strange loop, hermeneutics appears to forestall the possibility of any claim to truth and certainty. If we live in a dynamical universe, the novelty and creativity such complex systems display do indeed signal the end of eternal, unchanging, and universal certainty. 

Unlike modern science, however, dynamical systems theory provides an understanding of both the construction and integrity of wholes that does not dissolve their unity at that level. According to Gadamer (1985), the resolution to the circularity of hermeneutics is found in Heidegger's recognition that “the circle of the whole and the part is not dissolved in perfect understanding but on the contrary, is most fully realized"

[Alicia Juarrero]
Dynamics in Action, p.223

Nineteenth-century hermeneuties failed to take into account that the explainer, as much as the phenomenon explained, is embedded in time and space. Twentieth-century students of hermeneutics, in contrast, have finally come to appreciate that interpretation is doubly historical. 

The phenomenon being explained has a history, and so must be understood within that history; but interpreters, too, are situated within history, within a tradition, which their interpretation both reflects and influences. 

This double historicity affects the pragmatics of explanation. When the subject is planetary orbits and billiard balls, that is, when interactions can be ignored, the role of interpreter recedes in importance; not so when the subject is either quantum processes or human actions. Dynamical systems have therefore brought the interpreter back into the pragmatics of explaining action (if not into the metaphysics of explanation, as quantum processes have).

In dynamical terms, the tradition in which interpreters are situated is itself an attractor. As social beings, interpreters are embedded in its dynamics. As Gadamer (1985, 216) notes, "[t]he anticipation of meaning that governs our understanding of a text is not an act of subjectivity, but proceeds from the communality that binds us to the tradition." Jurors as well as the rest of us are located within a tradition, which frames our interpretation. This fact, which even the popular media harp on, need not lead either to paralysis or to the deconstructionist's conclusion that any interpretation is as good as any other. As Umberto Eco (1990, 21) insists and our discussion of top-down constraints has shown, context constrains the range of plausible interpretations. "A text is a place where the irreducible polysemy of symbols is in fact reduced because in a text symbols are anchored in their context."

Following Eco's lead, I submit that two contexts provide an action's "literal" meaning: the historical background and contextual setting in which the action was performed, and the context established by the "small world" of the action itself. Two contexts likewise frame the meaning of a hermeneutical explanation: the historical background and contextual setting in which the interpretation is offered, and the context established by the "small world" of the interpretation itself. 

When both the explainer and the agent whose action is being explained share the same historical background and contextual setting, interpretation usually proceeds smoothly. Not so in a society whose members bring with them radically different backgrounds and perspectives. 

If explainers are as much situated in a context (a tradition) as the phenomenon they are trying to explain, bringing this background-that-goes-without-saying to the foreground is a valuable contribution to the pragmatics of explanation: it helps determine how much the explanatory context itself has contributed to the explanation. 

[Alicia Juarrero]
Dynamics in Action, p. 237

The individual organism [...] is not fundamental to life, but something that emerges when genes, which at the beginning of evolution were separate, warring entities, gang together in cooperative groups, as 'selfish co-operators'.

The individual organism is not exactly an illusion. It is too concrete for that. But it is a secondary, derived phenomenon, cobbled together as a consequence of the actions of fundamentally separate, even warring agents.

Perhaps the subjective ‘I’, the person that I feel myself to be, is the same kind of semi-illusion ... The subjective feeling of 'somebody in there' may be a cobbled, emergent, semi-illusion analogous to the individual body emerging in evolution from the uneasy co-operation of genes.

[Richard Dawkins]
Unweaving the Rainbow, 308-9

[…] atomistic doctrines rest on the idea that competition between separate units is the ultimate law of life.

[They] ignore the obviously equal importance of co-operation between organisms - and between the parts of organisms - at all levels. [They] therefore depend on a rather odd piece of metaphysics, namely the 'reductive' assumption that certain parts are, in some sense, always more real and significant than the whole they belong to.

What can it actually mean to suggest that the things that we directly deal with are in some sense less real than certain selected parts – or alleged parts - of them?

This mysterious point is seldom spelt out but it appears to centre on causality. The suggestion is that only these special parts are causally active. They are spontaneous, self-moving movers, while the wholes that they compose are mere passive outcomes of their activity.

Dawkins' wording here suggests that this is a historical truth - that these parts actually existed on their own before these wholes and gave rise to them. But this is not literal fact; it is a piece of symbolism. Memes, if they can be said to exist at all, certainly do so only as emergent aspects of human social life. Even their most fervent supporters have not suggested that they pre-existed as spiritual beings who originally produced that life.

'Reality' turns out to contain many different kinds of pattern at different levels. No one of these discoveries therefore should be expressed in the dramatic metaphysical language of reality and illusion.

Different ways of thinking co-exist and are appropriate on different scales. No one of them dominates or invalidates the others.

[Mary Midgley]
Science and Poetry, p. 4, 5, 8

The Pintupi are dominated by immediacy. Nothing seems settled unconditionally.

Thus, a man who deeply desired that a particular girl be married to him could, through intimidation, force her relatives to break a promise of bestowal to another.

A similar context-dependence may underlie their relations with outsiders.

[Fred R. Myers]
Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self, p.17

Heidegger introduces a distinction between two ways of approaching the world: the present-at-hand (Vorhandenheit) and the ready-to-hand (Zuhandenheit).

Present-at-hand refers to our theoretical apprehension of a world made up of objects. It is the conception of the world from which science begins. The ready-to-hand describes our practical relation to things that are handy or useful.

Heidegger's basic claim is that practice precedes theory, and that the ready-to-hand is prior to the present-at-hand.

The problem with most philosophy after Descartes is that it conceives of the world theoretically and thus imagines, like Descartes, that I can doubt the existence of the external world and even the reality of the persons that fill it – who knows, they might be robots! For Heidegger, by contrast, who we are as human beings is inextricably bound up and bound together with the complex web of social practices that make up my world. The world is part of who I am.

For Heidegger, to cut oneself off from the world, like Descartes, is to miss the point entirely: the fabric of our openedness to the world is one piece. And that piece should not be cut up.

[Simon Critchley]
'Being and Time, part 3: Being-in-the-world', The Guardian

The behaviour of a system is not determined primarily by the properties of individual components of the system, but is the result of complex patterns of interaction.

The structure of the system is not the result of an a priori design, nor is it determined directly by external conditions. It is a result of interaction between the system and its environment.

Self-organisation is an emergent property of a system as a whole (or of large enough sub-systems). The system's individual components only operate on local information and general principles.

The macroscopic behaviour emerges from microscopic interactions that by themselves have a very meagre information content (only traces).

[Paul Cilliers]
Complexity and Postmodernism, p.91-2

The theory of evolution attempts to explain how biological systems, from generation to generation, develop certain capabilities that enhance their survivability. This theory largely explains the predetermined side of biological systems' behaviour, and does not really say anything about the adaptive behaviour of any specific organism.

To ensure its survival, an organism must not only learn to cope with its changing environment, but it must do so within its own lifetime, in what is known as 'somatic time'.

If we can link the notion of self-organisation to that of evolution, i.e. if we can develop a more general understanding of the notion of selection, it would be possible to argue that the distinction between predetermined and adaptive behaviour is not rigid.

How can a system respond to its environment? Changeaux et al. (1984) mention two mechanisms similar to those referred to above:

An instructive mechanism where the environment imposes order directly on the structure of the system.

A selective (Darwinian) mechanism where the increase in order is a result of an interaction between the system and the environment. The environment does not determine the structure of the system, but influences the development, as well as the transformation, reinforcement and stabilisation of patterns in the system.

In neural network terminology, the above distinction can be made in terms of supervised and unsupervised learning. The meaning of these terms will become clear in the process of analysing why both Changeaux and Edelman reject the first option.

The rejection results from a denial of the idea that the world is pre-arranged in an informational fashion, i.e. of the idea that things are categorised in an a priori fashion, and that these categories can be known objectively.

It is thus a rejection of that family of ideas that includes Platonism and logical positivism - the same family that forms the theoretical framework for classical AI.

One of the fundamental tasks of the nervous system is to carry on adaptive perceptual categorisation in an ‘unlabelled’ world - one in which the macroscopic order and arrangement of objects and events (and even their definition or discrimination) cannot be prefigured for an organism, despite the fact that such objects and events obey the laws of physics (Edelman 1987: 7)

[Paul Cilliers]
Complexity and Postmodernism, p.100-1

Garfinkel (1987: 202-203) discusses the relationships between parts and whole in a biological context:

We have seen that modeling aggregation requires us to transcend the level of the individual cells to describe the system by holistic variables. But in classical reductionism, the behavior of holistic entities must ultimately be explained by reference to the nature of their constituents, because those entities 'are just' collections of the lower-level objects with their interactions.

Although it may be true in some sense that systems ‘are just’ collections of their elements, it does not follow that we can explain the system's behaviour by reference to its parts, together with a theory of their connections.

In particular, in dealing with systems of large numbers of similar components, we must make recourse to holistic concepts that refer to the behavior of the system as a whole. We have seen here, for example, concepts such as entrainment, global attractors, waves of aggregation, and so on.


[Blackwell (1976)] emphasises that a structure is ‘a system of transformations, rather than a system of parts or elements.’ The self-maintenance (read self-organisation) of the system is aimed at maintaining the dynamic structure and not the existence of any specific element.

In developing scientific theories, one should not fall for the temptation of identifying basic elements and then ask how they are combined to form a theory. ‘This is precisely the wrong approach and, in our opinion, is the main reason for the failure of contemporary philosophy of science to formulate an adequate account of theories.’

According to his ‘mid-stream principle’, theories have no ultimate elements, only intermediate ones. One should focus not on the elements, but on the system. Theories are hereby ‘designated as processes, not as static, logical formalisms.’

[Paul Cilliers]
Complexity and Postmodernism, p.106, 131

Well, there's a whole number of reasons, but the simplest starting point is something called human exceptionalism. There's a kind of philosophical underpinning to the whole of […] mainstream techno industrial society. It goes way, way back, several hundred years, but flourished in the enlightenment and scientific revolution, that kept humans separate from nature.

We are not like the other species. We are in denial of our animal nature. And so this isolation or separation of humans from the rest of the nature is why ecologists don't study human beings. And economists in setting up the economy, don't consider it as part of the natural environment.

Another problem about human beings we can talk about later, something called the social construction of reality. That is we develop mental models of how things are […] based on our beliefs, values, assumptions, and experience in some cases.

We articulate these models, we discuss them, and they become formal theories. People buy into them [and] we start to live out of these models as if they were real.

So if we look at economics, we start from the position that humans aren't part of nature. It's called the exchange value model, where you have firms and households - the households spend money on products produced by firms, but then the firms pay the household salary and dividends so that money comes back to the households.

And so it's a circular self-perpetuating circular flow of exchange value. But the basic models in every single economics textbook, that we're still teaching in class, […] make no connection to anything outside themselves. We have the economy operating in complete isolation from the environment as a separate discreet, non-dependent system.

Attached to it [is] the notion that human ingenuity is our most important natural resource, [and] that technology will help us out of any kinky situation we might get into with respect to the natural environment.

The two beliefs - that we're separate from nature and that technology can handle any residual problems - are all you need as a mental construct, a social construct to develop a whole world economy based on the idea that there's no limits to growth that technology can't resolve.

And so we have now underpinned our belief in human exceptionalism. It's now moving forward on a foundation of economic thinking that completely ignores the natural environment. We have an economy and a set of economic paradigms, and laws and strategies and so on, that sees us separate from nature; when any material flows analysis of the kind we've done in my work shows that humans are the single most important and major species in terms of material flows through every ecosystem on the planet.

How can you possibly imagine governing a planet where we are the single largest component of every ecosystem using models that don't even consider us to be connected?

[...] every growth of the economy, every growth in income increases the human demand on the shrinking biocapacity of Earth. It's a perfect example of how the mental models from which we live often have no correlate in the natural world upon which we are living.

So the new paradigm, the new vision, the new cultural narrative has to be one which sees human beings as an integral component of the ecosystems upon which we literally [depend]. Currently, we're parasitic, but we now have to become commensalist.

[William Rees]
‘William E. Rees: "The Fundamental Issue - Overshoot" | The Great Simplification #53’, Nate Hagens, YouTube

Empiricists, such as Locke or Hume, tried to give an account of personal identity solely in terms of psychological states or events. Analytical philosophers, in so many ways their heirs as well as their critics, have wrestled with the connection between those states and events and strict identity understood in terms of Leibniz's Law.

Both have failed to see that a background has been omitted, the lack of which makes the problems insoluble. That background is provided by the concept of a story and of that kind of unity of character which a story requires.

Just as a history is not a sequence of actions, but the concept of an action is that of a moment in an actual or possible history abstracted for some purpose from that history, so the characters in a history are not a collection of persons, but the concept of a person is that of a character abstracted from a history.

The concepts of narrative, intelligibility and accountability presuppose the applicability of the concept of personal identity, just as it presupposes their applicability and just as indeed each of these three presupposes the applicability of the two others. The relationship is one of mutual presupposition.

It does follow of course that all attempts to elucidate the notion of personal identity independently of and in isolation from the notions of narrative, intelligibility and accountability are bound to fail. As all such attempts have.

[...] any specific account of the virtues presupposes an equally specific account of the narrative structure and unity of a human life and vice versa.

[Alasdair MacIntyre]
After Virtue, p.251-3, 282