The whole is greater than the sum of its parts

I am having difficulty in understanding the true meaning of “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. How it is different from “emergence”

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These are common ideas from systems theory, that unfortunately get mangled when repeated by someone who doesn’t necessarily understand some fine points.

The “greater than” is a misquote of a translation from the German, from Kurt Koffka, circa 1932. The better way of expressing this is …

  • The whole is different from the sum of the parts.

We can take hydrogen and oxygen together, and not get water. If we were to ensure that the ratio of hydrogen to oxygen is 2:1, and get more and more of each, we might not still get water. Thus, water is different from the sum of hydrogen and oxygen.

See more about this in the second section of “Synergy, parts, wholes” at

Emergence has a meaning as a process. Emergent properties depend on the system of interest (e.g. wetness is a property of water, not hydrogen or oxygen).

A encyclopedia excerpt is at .


Ability to recognize emergence is a cornerstone, now as a next step, what are the uses of emergence?

Can we predict emergent properties in our designs?

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“It is however in a sense also less: as atoms enter in combination , they actualize potentially possible relationships, but also preclude others. In short emergence and reductionism offer complementary and necessary views and it is a gross mistake to oppose them in an exclusive way.”

This passage re: emergence was quite enlightening.

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The next step in appreciating emergence is that it happen at varying levels of hierarchy. The entry on Hierarchy Theory on Wikipedia is unfortunately minimal. (Not wrong, just not enough).

If you’re energetic, you might search on “hierarchy theory allen” to find the works of Timothy F.H. Allen.

One person who is recently catching up is Phillipe Vanderbroeck | “V. Ahl & T.F.H. Allen: Hierarchy Theory (1996)” | Feb. 24, 2020 | Medium at .

The “uses of emergence”, in this sense, is recognizing systems at different scales, and how they interact with each other. As an example, I often see people approaching human issues from a psychology perspective, but there’s also a social perspective that may contribute to the behaviour of an individual.

If you can predict that the property of wetness of water will emerge from the combination of hydrogen and oxygen, then you’ll be getting into the work of Anticipatory Systems, and Robert Rosen. (We’re honoured to have daughter @judithlrosen in this community, too!)

We should be careful with language, when we’re referring to systems thinking.

The standard understanding (via Ackoff) is that with systems thinking, synthesis (putting things together) should precede analysis (taking things apart). I’ve also been at enough ISSS meetings to recall Len Troncale saying that we need both synthesis and analysis (particularly in science, otherwise we would never get anything done).

Just searching, I discovered a really old video, with transcripts, of “From Mechanistic to Systemic Thinking” | Russell Ackoff | November 1993 | Systems Thinking in Action conference at . (I hadn’t seen that particular video before, but have since seen Russ speak multiple times).

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