Edgar Morin: “The whole is less than the sum of its parts” (1977).

I have translated the following passage from Edgar Morin’s La Methode: La Nature de la Nature (1977, 112-114). Morin, the pioneer of critical complexity theory, notes that “A system is not only enriching, it is also impoverishing, and the impoverishment can be greater than the enrichment” (p. 114). To account for the latter, we need to acknowledge circumstances under which “The whole is less than the sum of its parts” (p. 112), something “very rarely formulated” (p. 112). Now, more than four decades later, this fundamental characteristic of systems continues to be ignored in much of the discourse on complex systems.

B. The constraints: the whole is less than the sum of its parts

As soon as we conceive of a system, the notion of global unity is so strong that it blinds us; the blindness of reductionism (which sees only the constituent elements) gives way to the blindness of “holism”(which sees only the whole). Thus, while it has often been noted that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, the contrary notion — the whole is less than the sum of its parts– is very rarely formulated…

1. The constraints

The whole is less than the sum of its parts: this means that some qualities, some properties belonging to the parts, when considered in isolation, vanish within the system. Such an idea is rarely recognized. Yet, it can be deduced from the idea of ​​organization, and can be conceived much more logically than emergence.

Ashby noted that the presence of organization among variables is equivalent to the existence of constraints on the production of possibilities (1962). We can generalize this proposition and posit that any organizational relationship places restrictions or constraints on the elements or parts to which it is – and the word is fitting – subject.

It is effectively when its components cannot embrace all its possible states that a system exists.

Internal determinism, rules, regularities, subordination of components to the whole, adjustment of complementary features, specialization, feedback of the whole, the stability of the whole and, in living systems, regulation and control devices, systemic order – all translate, in a word, to so many constraints. Every association involves constraints: constraints wielded by interdependent parts, one over the other, constraints of parts over the whole, constraints of the whole over the parts. But, while the constraints of the parts over the whole have to do primarily with the material nature of the parts, the constraints of the whole over the parts have to do primarily with organization.

2. The whole is less than the sum of its parts

All organization entails diverse degrees of subordination at the level of its constituents (we will see that the development of organization does not necessarily signify an increase of constraints; indeed, we will see that the progress of organizational complexity is based on the “freedoms” of the individuals constituting the system).

Always, in every system, even those that give rise to emergence, some constraints over the parts impose restrictions and subservience. These constraints, restrictions, subservience inhibit or cause them to lose some qualities or properties. The whole is therefore, in this sense, less than the sum of its parts…

As we shall see, any organization that establishes and develops specialization and hierarchy, establishes and develops constraints, subservience and repression. We know today that each cell of an organism carries with it genetic information about the entire organism. But most of this information is repressed, with only a miniscule part of the cell corresponding to a specialized activity able to express itself.

The constraints that inhibit enzymes, genes, even cells do not diminish freedom; it is non-existent at this level; freedom only emerges at the level of individual complexity where there is the possibility of choice; [constraints] inhibit qualities, possibilities of action or expression. It is only at the level of individuals with a capacity for choice, decision and complex development that constraints can become destructive of freedom, that is, oppressive. Thus, this problem of constraints arises in a way that is both ambivalent and tragic at the level of societies, particularly human societies.

Culture certainly permits the potential of the human mind to develop. Society certainly constitutes a solidary whole, protecting individuals who obey its rules. But it is also the case that society imposes coercion and repression on all activities, from sexual to intellectual. Finally, and above all, in societies of recorded history, hierarchical domination and the specialization of work, oppression and slavery inhibit and prohibit the creative potential of their subjects.

Thus, certain systems pay for development with formidable underdevelopment of the possibilities that lie within them.

From the broadest perspective, we arrive at a vision of complexity, ambiguity and systemic diversity. Hereafter, we should take into account in every system, not only what is gained through emergence but also what is lost through constraints, subservience and repression. A system is not only enriching, it is also impoverishing, and the impoverishment can be greater than the enrichment. This shows us likewise that systems differ one from the other, not only in terms of their physical constituents or their type of organization, but also by the class of constraints and emergence they produce. Within the same class of systems, there can be a fundamental opposition between systems dominated by micro and macro-emergence production, and those dominated by repression and enslavement.

C. The formation of the whole and the transformation of the parts.

A system is simultaneously more, less, other than the sum of its parts. The parts themselves are less, eventually more, in every way something other than what they were or would be apart from the system.

This paradoxical formulation shows above all the absurdity of reducing the description of the system to a quantitative level. It means for us not only that the description should be qualitative but should, above all, be complex.

This paradoxical formulation shows us at the same time that a system is a whole that takes shape at the same time its elements are transformed (italics in the original).

The idea of emergence is inseparable from systemic morphogenesis, from, that is to say, the creation of a new form that constitutes a whole: complex organized unity. It is a matter of morphogenesis since the system constitutes a topologically, structurally, qualitatively new reality in space and time. Organization transforms a discontinuous diversity of elements into a global form. What emerges are properties, global and particular, arising out of this formation, inseparable from the transformation of its elements.

The qualitative gains and losses indicate to us that the elements partaking in the system are transformed, above all as parts of a whole.

We arrive at a key systemic principle: the link between formation and transformation. All that takes form transforms (italics in the original). This principle will become active and dialectical at the scale of living organization, where transformation and formation constitute an uninterrupted recursive loop.

One thought on “Edgar Morin: “The whole is less than the sum of its parts” (1977).

  1. Pingback: Education Beat: Chaotic Ed Board meetings in September draw… – Education

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