The totality is greater than the sum of the parts.

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” A phrase attributed come Aristotle and also misquoted through those seek to recognize one that the most mysterious properties of a system: Emergence. The phrase is also used to explain the prestige of Synergy and the structures of Gestalt theory. Let’s take it a closer look at this expression and try to ascertain what Aristotle was trying come say when he wrote the phase some 2370 year ago.

The phase can be found in Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Within this creating the phrase, “The whole is greater than the amount of the parts” doesn’t turn up until publication VIII, 1045a.8–10. Let’s look in ~ the entirety quote and shot to view if the context of Aristotle’s thought process can it is in understood. This is the 1908 translate into by W. D. Ross:

“In the situation of all things which have actually several parts and in i beg your pardon the totality is not, as it were, a just heap, yet the totality is something besides the parts, there is a cause; for even in bodies contact is the cause of unity in part cases, and in others viscosity or some other such quality.” <1>

As you deserve to see, the phrase is no as attributed. Words “besides” is used instead of ‘“sum of.” “Besides” is a much better word, due to the fact that using words “sum” evokes Euclid and also the prospect that this concept utilizes mathematics in part way. Actually Math comes to a different conclusion as soon as it pertains to “the sum of the parts.” Euclid indigenous his famous publication Elements, publication I, usual Notion 5 says, “The whole is better than the part.” <2> Which appears close come our phrase however Euclid is expressing just how a whole can be separation into parts, and any one of those parts, contrasted to the whole, is less than the whole. And also using the Segment enhancement Postulate – If allude P is between points A and B, climate AP + PB = AB. Ipso facto, the sum of components equal the whole. therefore Aristotle’s “something as well as the parts” is not a mathematics observation but a language observation. Or is it?


Let’s step back even further in context as to why Aristotle made this statements in the an initial place and try to bring some context to the situation.

Aristotle’s Metaphysics is a collection of writings or a collection of disparate treatises which are separated into fourteen books of different lengths and also complexities. Aristotle never ever used the term Metaphysics (which literally way ‘After Physics’) but he did explain the subject issue of the work-related as ‘first philosophy’, or ‘wisdom’, or ‘theology’. He indicated that this to be all around the study of ‘being qua being’ -- or ‘beings, in so much as they are beings.’ Aristotle is not straightforward read. Words, meanings, and definitions are slightly various than their contemporary equivalents. Also the meaning of “definition” needs to it is in re-examined in light of Aristotle"s time and also place. As defined by S. Marc Cohen in his write-up "Aristotle"s Metaphysics", from the digital Stanford Encyclopedia that Philosophy,

“It is necessary to remember that for Aristotle, one specifies things, not words. The meaning of tiger does no tell united state the definition of words ‘tiger’; it tells us what the is to be a tiger, what a tiger is claimed to it is in in respect that itself. Thus, the meaning of tiger claims the essence—the what it is to be’ of a tiger, ....” <3>

Understanding Aristotle"s concept of definition is crucial when friend step earlier and inspection the whole paragraph that has our “the totality is something as well as the parts” phrase.

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


You now find yourself in the midst of one Aristotle’s long and winding arguments, as he explains earlier in Metaphysics, a difficulty of the “unity that definition.” meanings get facility when they begin including plenty of terms (or parts). This isn’t simply a language trouble for Aristotle. Remember, because that Aristotle, a meaning is “an account which signifies what the is come be for something.” an alert he uses instances of objects not words.

Aristotle actually dealt with this worry of a an interpretation (object) and terms (parts) in his writing on the art of dialectic — object — in book VI the this work he obsessively explains "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 type just described; because that a male who defines in this way seems to assert that the components are the same as the whole. The disagreements are an especially appropriate in cases where the procedure of putting the components together is obvious, as in a house and also other points of that sort: because that there, clearly, you may have the parts and yet not have actually the whole, so the parts and whole can not be the same.” <4>

So us have uncovered two estimates by Aristotle that are very close come the phrase, “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts” yet not quite. And we now have the right to see that Aristotle to be mainly involved with explaining the multifaceted aspects of meaning (object) and also terms (parts). Yet this concept around the whole, and also its connection to its parts, is the start of thinking about Systems and that very an overwhelming and mysterious property of Emergence.

So allow me shot rephrase the phase making use of a more contemporary Systems design language,

“The system is other beside, and also not the same, together its elements.”

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

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

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

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