The whole is greater than the sum of its parts?

I have always heard the cliche that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and have always thought that it referred to humans and the idea that there is more to us than we can ever figure out or create. And also that it is unique to us and doesn’t refer to animals, plants or anything else.

Well I was going to use this idea in a paper I’m writing but when I went back to look it up in my Psych 101 textbook the only reference to it I could find is the Gestalt method of psychoanalysis. It basically refers only to psychoanalysis and how we should not try to break it down into parts but to look at the whole picture.

So, have I been hallucinating about the cliche refering to human beings? Has anyone else ever heard it in that context before and can you recall who established it like a well known psychologist?

A boring thread I know but I’d appreciate the feedback.

Look up synergy.

Gestalt, the German word for “whole” or “form”, was applied to the early psychologists who disagreed with Wilhelm Wundt’s practice of elementism (experimental psychology). Wundt believed through dissection and experimentation he could find the key to human consciousness.

Behaviorists believed consciousness was not something that could be located experimentally. They believed that consciousness could only be studied through introspection. The dissected brain was useless in the quest for human consciousness. Thus, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

This Gestalt theory of psychology can be linked to a number of philosophers such as Kant, Mach, Wm. James and others.
Max Wertheimer is given credit as the founder of Gestalt Psychology however.

You could do some rooting about in the psych literature on positive feedback processes. There’s lots of examples of systems that display such nonadditive behavior.

Try searching with keywords:

+consciousness +“emergent property”

What is “emergence?” It’s where complicated and fascinating patterns emerge spontaneously from collections of boring simple parts. Put a thin layer of sand on a flat landscape, add uniform unvarying wind, and all sorts of sand dunes appear. The “plans” for the sand dunes weren’t in the wind or in the sand; the whole dunes are not just the sum of the sand grain parts. Put a bunch of “slime mole” amoebas on a petri dish, let them communicate chemically, and a spore on the end of a stalk appears. Where was such a geometry stored? Mix up a batch of chemicals to produce “BZ” reaction-diffusion oscillations, and amazing patterns appear:

So, gather a huge pile of interconnected neurons, zap them with nerve impulses of sensory input, and animal behavior appears? And maybe even consciousness?

Another term for this can be holistic or holism.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts can refer to much more than just humans. Take just about anything and you could apply this.

For example take the Space Shuttle. It is comprised of something like 1 million parts. All those parts in a pile don’t get you much but when arranged and assembled in a specific fashion you get something much more than just the parts themselves added togetehr randomly would get you. Hence the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

This is wildly disputed within systems science. Russell Ackoff claimed that “a system is not the sum of the behaviour of its parts. It’s the product of their interactions.” and that even if you were to improve a single part in a system, it would not necessarily follow that the entire system would improve. Others (I can’t find a cite right now) did claim that a system is the sum of it’s parts. A number of parts forms a whole which cannot (without losing functionality) be divided. This whole is the sum of the properties of the parts.

I hope this piece of obfuscation helped. :slight_smile:

Another interesting example of the “whole being greater than the sum of the parts” is film editing. Take an image of a man staring with no expression on his face (a blank look) and combine it with a scene of a child falling down and getting hurt. Most people will interpret his expression to be one of sadness. You create a scenario that didn’t exist by combining the two scenes. That’s why skilled editing can make a good movie great.

Sergei Eisenstein developed this by use of the montage.

Copper_moon I don’t know for sure if my answer was what you were seeking. There have been several posts regarding the modern application of Gestalt theory.
Originally, the phrase: “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts”, referred to man’s conscious recognition of self.

This characteristic is/was generally regarded as being unique among humans in nature. The human mind has the capacity to question its’ own existence. Yet, it lacks understanding of it own origin.

There are numerous variations to the Gestalt approach, but its basic concept is applicable only to humanity.

Obviously, all things can be broken down to its basic elements and studied. The information gathered as a result of experimentation may explain how interaction is accomplished between components of the study.

Yet, scientists still are unable to explain the conscious nature of Man!

Thanks everybody but especially you t-keela. That’s what I was looking for.

Still interested in anybody else’s info though.

There’s a really good SF novel by Theodore Sturgeon called More Than Human that delves into this concept. Sadly it’s out of print, but used copies are available, and there is the library.

Consider John, Paul, George and Ringo, separately.

Now consider the Beatles.