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”

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?

“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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