Edgar Morin: Parts and wholes

Edgar Morin part and whole

“The whole exists for and by means of the parts, and the parts for and by means of the whole,” write Giuseppe Longo, Maël Montévil, and Stuart Kauffman in 2012’s “No entailing laws, but enablement in the evolution of the biosphere,” which I wrote about here.

I was reminded of this piece from the enablement paper when reading Edgar Morin’s On Complexity, a 2008 book comprised of essays from the 1970s-90s, with a fascinating foreword by Alfonso Montuori, available online here.


Systems theory reacted to reductionism with its idea of the whole, but believing it had surpassed reductionism, its “holism” merely brought about a reduction to the whole, from which arose not only blindness to the parts as parts but its myopia with respect to organization as organization, and its ignorance of the complexity at the heart of any global unity.

In either case, reductionistic or holist explanation seeks to simplify the problem of complex unity. The one reduces explanation of the whole to the properties of the parts conceived in isolation. The other reduces the properties of the parts to the properties of the whole, also conceived in isolation. These two mutually repelling explanations each arose out of the same paradigm.

The conception that is revealed here places us at once beyond reductionism and holism, and summons a principle of intelligibility and integrates the portion of truth included in each; there should neither be annihilation of the whole by the parts not of the parts by the whole. It is essential, therefore, to clarify the relations between parts and whole, where each term refers back to the other: “I consider it as impossible,” said Pascal, “to know the parts without knowing the whole, as to know the whole without precise knowledge of the parts.” In the twentieth century, reductionist and holist ideas still do not measure of the level of such a formulation.

The truth of the matter is that, even more than mutually referring to one another, the interrelation that links explanation of the parts to that of the whole, and vice versa, is an invitation to recursive description and explanation; that is, description (explanation) of the parts depends upon that of the whole, which depends upon that of the parts, and it is in the circuit that the description of explanation constitutes itself.

This signifies that neither one of the two terms is reducible to the other. Thus, if the parts must be conceived in function to the whole, they must also be conceived in isolation: a part has its proper irreducibility in relation to the system. It is necessary, moreover, to know the qualities or properties of the parts that are inhibited, virtualized, and, therefore, invisible at the heart of the system, not only to correctly understand the parts, but also to better understand the constraints, inhibitions, and transformations effected by the organization of the whole.

  • Gilbert Jones 23 Jan 2024, 10:44 am

    Morin is asking for a paradigm shift in cognition for those of us brought up in the disciplines of reductive science. Ironically, however, the model that, I think, helps me most in trying to think in the complex way Morin describes in the above snippet comes from modeling interactions between ligands and their receptors: functional regions of molecules that have over time formed in three dimensions in such a way as to bind together and be changed by, to use Morin’s term, their confluence. This confluence then results in particular molecular actions.
    Morin’s description seems to expand on Dewey and Bentley’s (1948/1960) description of “trans-action”. They provide a rather long example of trans-action thinking:
    “a trade, or commercial transaction, for example. This transaction determines one participant to be a buyer and the other to be a seller. No one exists as a buyer or seller save in and because of the transaction in which each is engaged. Nor is that all; specific things become goods or commodities because they are engaged in the transaction. There is no commercial transaction without things which only are goods, utilities, commodities, in and because of a transaction. Moreover, because of the exchange or transfer, both parties undergo change; and the goods undergo at the very least a change of locus by which they gain and lose certain connective relations or capacities previously possessed.
    Furthermore, no given transaction of trade stands alone. It is enmeshed in a body of activities in which are included those of production, whether in farming, mining, fishing, or manufacture. And this body of transactions is itself enmeshed in transactions that are neither industrial, commercial, nor financial; to which the name “intangible” is often given, but which can be more safely named by means of specifying rules and regulations that proceed from the system of customs in which the transactions exist and take place.” (pp. 270-271)
    Perhaps this example, which at first glance seems rather prosaic, provides some form by which to understand Morin’s insights.

Leave a Comment