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.

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