Philosophical Skeleton Keys: The Ontological Priority of Wholes to Parts

I struggled for several decades to understand composite wholes (organisms, organs, ecologies, societies, and so forth (not to mention molecules, atoms (in the Rutherfordian sense rather than the Democritean), cells, organelles, hadrons, etc.)) as deriving from and completely explained by the interactions of their constituent parts, until I finally realized that it simply can’t be done. Such “explanations” inevitably invoke the whole they are trying to explain as an obscure feature of their parts. They are, i.e., somehow or other circular. This is why honest and careful materialism *just is* eliminative.

The derivation must run the other way, if we are to understand either wholes or their parts. And once we run the derivation in the proper direction, taking the whole as itself an ontological real independent of its parts, and prior thereto, and furthermore definitive thereof, why then all sorts of vexing problems that simply cannot be solved under the terms of materialist modernism – the mind/body problem, in particular – simply vanish. There are to such ontological holism furthermore all sorts of interesting consequences, that tend to validate both our quotidian experience and the deliverances of traditional supernaturalism.

  • The whole subvenes its parts, and not – as improper reductionism thinks – vice versa. It is the whole that is basic. The parts are parts at all only in virtue of their participation in some prior whole.
  • So, then: first, duction by a superordinate whole; only then, perhaps, reduction to its parts.
  • Reduction can work – can be proper – only insofar as it presupposes and derives from a prior duction. Ditto for emergence; it can work only as holist. Reduction and emergence then both implicitly presuppose duction; improper reduction and improper emergence explicitly deny it.
  • Notice then also that, analogously, a set is not defined by its members, but by its definition – i.e., by the character of the set itself, as a whole. Consider: you don’t build a set by glomming together a bunch of disparate items and then figuring out what they have in common. On the contrary, you establish the criteria for membership in the set, and then figure out what items meet those criteria. For, apart from some constraining definition of the character of the members of a set, anything at all might be in it; and such an unconstrained set would not be distinguishable – which is to say, that (since its boundaries were not … set) it would be indefinite, fluid. It would not be properly a set in the first place. But given such a definition, the members of a set, which all meet it, may be ascertained.
  • So, it is in virtue of the actuality of the whole organism that its constituent parts are its constituent parts. Otherwise, they would be simply individuals, having nothing to do with each other.
  • No whole, then no parts thereof, whatsoever. Mere parts in the absence of wholes to which they are constituent are not parts at all – to speak of them as such is to misspeak – but rather pure unconstrained individuals.
  • Parts then supervene upon wholes. The wholes then are more basic than the parts, and are superior in the abstractive hierarchy, as an angel is nobler than his man. As nobler than their subsidiaries, wholes are more causally potent, thus more actual. It follows straightforwardly that organisms (for example) are more actual than their constituents.
  • Kingdoms, then, are more actual than their subjects, families more actual than their members, nations more actual than their nationals, and so forth. So divorce is akin to murder. Nay; divorce just is a sort of murder.
  • Again, wholes are more actual than their constituents, qua constituents. Individuals are inherently actual in their own right, to be sure – in no other way could they become actual constituents. But by involving the part in the far more efficacious acts of the whole, participation of a whole imbues the part with some of the causal power of the whole. It makes the part powerful along the qualitative dimensions of the power of the whole, many of which would never have been possible to the part individually. As making the part more variously powerful than it could have been on its own, the whole ennobles the part. It shares with the part some of its own ontological valences; it thereby makes the part more actual than it could have been as isolate.
  • With that greater actuality and power and nobility of participation comes some degree of exaltation, and joy, an expansion and intensification of individual comprehension in virtue of participation in the comprehension of the whole. With membership comes love: love felt toward others, the love of others enjoyed. And that love reiterated among the members of a whole is the loyalty that binds them together, and the source of their morale – of their moral courage.
  • Thus the allure toward participation and joining felt by almost all things. Things want to belong.
  • Stability of corporeal form is evidence of a sort of continued loyalty of its constituents to its concrete implementation in an actual whole; of their fealty to the lordship of the whole they constitute.
  • At the apogee of social coordination, there is ecstasy. This runs from an exquisite double play up the gamut to the spiritual unity experienced in the musical flow of a tight ensemble performing sublime sacred music.
  • This is why admission to membership is an honor, and a blessing, and a privilege. It is why boys are crushed if they are not chosen for the team, and rejoice when they are. It is why men would die for a leader, or for their company, or for their nation, or for their people. It is why men fear banishment or ostracism more almost than anything. It is why men want to be hired, to be vassals and good employees; it is why they seek promotion in the honor of the company to which they have pledged themselves.
  • Yet again, wholes are more actual than their parts; so the medieval doctrine of the king’s two bodies turns out to be more than a bunch of mystical mumbo jumbo, or a mere artifact of typological thinking, or a manner of speech, or a legal heuristic. So likewise the notion that the House of Abraham is the body of Abraham. The kingdom is the king’s body ontologically, just like his individual body. That the body is extensively distributed across many members in either case does not mean that the body is not truly and really a body. Likewise with the House of Israel: that it is extensively distributed across continents and ages does not mean that it is not an organism. Ditto then a fortiori for the Church.
  • The form of a holon must be actual to effect its parts & so complete its implementation. The parts are not parts at all, except insofar as they partake a prior whole. So, the whole is prior to its parts, not just logically, but ontologically. There must be an actual, concrete whole before there can be any parts of that whole.
  • Then it is the form of the whole that informs the parts, and thus assembles them in the pattern of the whole that characterizes that whole. Take the chemical constituents of the human body and put them all together in a vessel, or a location, and without the form of the body given in and as the soul of it, they will not form a human body at all, but rather only a mess of a puddle gassing off a cloud.
  • But you can’t obtain an actual form except as the form of a concrete actual. Forms exist at all only insofar as they are somehow actual (or eminent in some actual – i.e., virtually actual). If a form is not actualized, then it just isn’t at all, anywhere. And if it isn’t at all, then it certainly can’t do anything, such as informing its parts and coordinating them to itself.
  • The actuality of the form of the whole, then, is logically prior to the actuality of its parts, qua parts. There must first be an actual whole in order for there to be then any parts of it.
  • Parts then are per se artifacts of wholes.
  • Even if the whole is no more than the sum of its parts, nevertheless it is at the very least the sum of its parts – if not much, much more – and therefore not their mere agglomeration.
  • The sum is not the derivate of the parts, but vice versa. First in logic there is the sum; then there is the agglomeration of its parts. For, again, parts can’t be parts except in virtue of the sum of which they partake.
  • Sum: I AM. Every whole – every sum – is an act of being.
  • Religious faith is the trust of the part in its dim intuition of the whole, in virtue of which it is a part, and then the assent of the intellect to the truth of that intuition of the whole – this being the belief bit of the motion of faith – and then the sacrifice of the will to the love of that whole, and then the love of that whole, which is the worship thereof.
  • Upon that trust, and that love, hang all the law and the Prophets.
  • The Incarnation is the archetypal instance of the ontological priority of whole to part. First there is the Logos; only then (not “afterwards,” but rather “ergo“), there is Jesus of Nazareth.
  • Upon the fealty of part to whole, and of the part’s participation of the whole, hangs the entirety of ecclesiology – and the theology of the Mass to boot, and so therefore of the apotheosis of all things at the eschaton.

4 thoughts on “Philosophical Skeleton Keys: The Ontological Priority of Wholes to Parts

  1. Pingback: Philosophical Skeleton Keys: The Ontological Priority of Wholes to Parts | @the_arv

  2. Pingback: Marriage as an Ontological Real – The Orthosphere

  3. Pingback: Philosophical Skeleton Keys: The Ontological Priority of Wholes to Parts | Reaction Times

  4. Pingback: More on the priority of wholes – The Orthosphere


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