The entirety is better than the sum of the parts.

You are watching: Greater than the sum of its parts meaning

” A expression attributed come Aristotle and misquoted by those seeking to know one that the many mysterious nature of a system: Emergence. The expression is also used to explain the importance of Synergy and the foundations of Gestalt theory. Let’s take it a closer look at this expression and shot to ascertain what Aristotle to be trying come say when he composed the phase some 2370 years ago.

The phase can be discovered in Aristotle’s Metaphysics. In ~ this creating the phrase, “The whole is higher than the sum of the parts” doesn’t revolve up until publication VIII, 1045a.8–10. Stop look at the whole quote and try to watch if the paper definition of Aristotle’s thought process can be understood. Here’s the 1908 translate in by W. D. Ross:

“In the instance of all things which have several parts and also in which the totality is not, together it were, a mere heap, yet the entirety is something as well as the parts, there is a cause; for also in bodies call is the cause of unity in some cases, and in rather viscosity or some other such quality.” <1>

As you have the right to see, the phrase is not as attributed. The word “besides” is used rather of ‘“sum of.” “Besides” is a better word, due to the fact that using the word “sum” evokes Euclid and also the possibility that this concept utilizes mathematics in part way. In reality Math concerns a different conclusion as soon as it concerns “the sum of the parts.” Euclid from his famous book Elements, book I, common Notion 5 says, “The totality is greater than the part.” <2> Which seems close come our phrase but Euclid is expressing exactly how a entirety can be break-up into parts, and any one of those parts, contrasted to the whole, is much less than the whole. And also using the Segment addition Postulate – If point P is between points A and also B, then AP + PB = AB. Ipso facto, the sum of components equal the whole. therefore Aristotle’s “something besides the parts” is not a mathematics observation however a language observation. Or is it?


Let’s step ago even more in context regarding why Aristotle make this explanation in the first place and shot to lug some context to the situation.

Aristotle’s Metaphysics is a collection of writings or a repertoire of disparate treatises which are separated into fourteen books of different lengths and complexities. Aristotle never used the hatchet Metaphysics (which literally means ‘After Physics’) yet he did describe the subject issue of the job-related as ‘first philosophy’, or ‘wisdom’, or ‘theology’. He suggested that this was all around the study of ‘being qua being’ -- or ‘beings, in so much as they room beings.’ Aristotle is not simple read. Words, meanings, and also definitions are slightly different than their modern equivalents. Even the an interpretation of “definition” requirements to it is in re-examined in light of Aristotle"s time and place. As defined by S. Marc Cohen in his short article "Aristotle"s Metaphysics", from the digital Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

“It is vital to remember that for Aristotle, one defines things, not words. The definition of tiger does not tell united state the an interpretation of the word ‘tiger’; that tells us what the is to it is in a tiger, what a tiger is claimed to it is in in respect that itself. Thus, the an interpretation of tiger says the essence—the what it is come be’ the a tiger, ....” <3>

Understanding Aristotle"s concept of an interpretation is vital when you step ago and investigate the whole paragraph that has our “the totality is something besides the parts” phrase.

“To return to the difficulty which has actually been proclaimed with respect both come definitions and to numbers, what is the reason of their unity? In the situation of all things which have actually several parts and in which the totality is not, as it were, a only heap, but the totality is something alongside the parts, over there is a cause; for also in bodies contact is the reason of unified in part cases, and also in others viscosity or some various other such quality. And a definition is a set of words which is one not by being associated together, like the Iliad, yet by handling one object.—What then, is it the makes man one; why is that one and not many, e.g. Animal + biped, specifically if over there are, as some say, one animal-itself and a biped-itself? Why are not those forms themselves the man, so that men would exist through participation no in man, no one in-one Form, but in two, animal and also biped, and in general man would be no one but more than one thing, animal and biped?” <1>


You now find yourself in the middle of one Aristotle’s long and winding arguments, together he explains earlier in Metaphysics, a difficulty of the “unity that definition.” interpretations get complex when they start including countless terms (or parts). This isn’t just a language problem for Aristotle. Remember, because that Aristotle, a an interpretation is “an account which signifies what that is to be because that something.” notice he uses examples of objects not words.

Aristotle actually dealt with this worry of a definition (object) and terms (parts) in his treatise on the art of dialectic — object — in book VI the this work-related he obsessively defines "definition" and also the numerous way that might be offered to attack and defend a definition. In thing 13, the states

“... that the entirety is no the very same as the amount of its components are helpful in conference the form just described; because that a man who defines in this method seems come assert the the parts are the very same as the whole. The debates are particularly appropriate in situations where the procedure of placing the components together is obvious, as in a house and also other things of that sort: because that there, clearly, you may have actually the parts and yet not have the whole, so the parts and also whole can not be the same.” <4>

So us have discovered two quotes by Aristotle that are very close come the phrase, “The entirety is higher than the amount of the parts” however not quite. And also we now have the right to see the Aristotle to be mainly pertained to with explaining the multifaceted elements of an interpretation (object) and terms (parts). However this concept about the whole, and also its relationship to the parts, is the beginning of thinking about Systems and also that very an overwhelming and mysterious residential or commercial property of Emergence.

So permit me shot rephrase the phase using a more modern Systems engineering language,

“The system is miscellaneous beside, and not the same, as its elements.”

Not together pithy together the misquoted original yet still a plausible meaning of Emergence.

See more: Will Ferrell Total Eclipse Of The Heart If*#Kin Love The Dan Band


<1> Aristotle 980a Metaphysics,Translated through W. D. Ross

<2> Euclid, Elements, publication I, usual Notion 5

<3> Cohen, S. Marc, "Aristotle"s Metaphysics", The Stanford Encyclopedia of approach (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =>.