The whole is more than the sum of its parts

The whole is more than the sum of its partsAristotle

whole help

Can you make the whole group better by helping another? Whether it’s by knowledge or skill, we can help.

What does that mean?
Also translated as “The whole is greater than the part,” this quote is about how much better things are together than as pieces.

The idea is used heavily in Synergy and Gestalt as well as in non-linear fields. It is also used by people looking for something somewhat cryptic to say to sound smart.

This quote reminds us that what one can do, many can do better. At least in most cases. Put the opposite way, if you take something that works and remove some parts, it’s not as useful as it was.

But putting that part back in, the thing is whole again, and much more useful than the pile of parts it was before.

Why is being part of the whole important?
Any one modern invention is nice, but a phone without electricity isn’t good for very long. In human terms, the quote is about being more by being part of a group. One person can do a lot, but more people can devote themselves to different tasks. Of course that doesn’t mean becoming part of a group blindly.

For the quote to be true, not only does the group have to benefit, but so do you. If you add your ability and your talents, you should do at least a little better than you were before, and the group should also be doing better. This is usually due to specialization, as no one person has to do everything anymore.

This can also be applied to your social life as well. One person can have a lot of fun, but some things are better in a group. Cheering for your favorite sports team can be fun, but it’s more fun with friends. Think of the difference between sitting at a campfire alone, and having friends with you to share stories.

The quote doesn’t insist we must always be part of the whole, and I realize more than most the value of solitude and reflection. But there are times for each activity in our lives, and sharing our knowledge, our skills, our experience and our emotion with others is important, as we work with the rest of our friends, with the whole.

Where can I apply this in my life?
I have been reading the Covey book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People‘ which is roughly half devoted to how to work together with other people. The other (first) half is how to best work alone. The book states that the improvement of being properly part of the whole can lead to a 20 to 50 times increase of productivity.

I don’t know about you, but I’d love to have 20 to 50 times more of almost anything. That’s part of why I’m reading the book. As an engineer, I’m fairly good at self-organizing and working independently, but teams of engineers are notoriously unproductive. So I’m looking for something to help me at work, and in the rest of my life.

How are you part of a team, of a ‘whole’ in your life? If you have a family, you are part of a team. If you go to school, you have a team, a whole you are or were once part of. While not all families or schools are the best examples of things going well, there are a great many which are shining examples of how well it works.

Consider a time when you might have quit, given up, or simply not done your best. Whether it was with your family, in school or even in the gym, was there a time when a friend urged you to try harder? While it doesn’t always change the result, I have found it helps me do better. How have your experiences worked out for you?

Whether you call it synergy, teamwork or something else, there is something special that happens when we work together towards a common goal. And that is the best application for the quote, when it comes to people. It can be applied to machines as well, as a washer and dryer together are far better than either one alone.

Similarly, we have the appliances in our kitchens because they work well together. You don’t need a blender, but it can certainly make things easier, make the whole of the kitchen more efficient, right? The same can be said of a TV. a media player, signal source. The more you have, the better it gets.

Take a moment to think about what things you have which are a ‘whole’ and the parts they are made from. What other parts could be added to make them better, to make the whole even greater? Now do the same for the people in your life. What groups are the ‘whole’ in your life? I mentioned some before, but are there more?

What can you do to make more of yourself? How can you help and be helped by the whole, whatever that group might be? Whether it’s at school, at work, or at home, you can help yourself and others and make life better for everyone, for the whole. What will you commit to doing to help yourself and others be more than they are now?

From: Twitter, @philo_quotes
confirmed at : Metaphysics, Book VIII, 1045a.8–10 3rd entry
photo by GotCredit also at

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4 Responses to The whole is more than the sum of its parts

  1. sarahreagan 21 March 2016 at 12:40 pm #

    Henri Bortoft would call this a “counterfeit” whole…this [whole-is-more-than-sum-of-parts] approach in essence places the whole outside of and into a false transcendental position of coming before its parts; in essence viewing from within an analytical relationality as opposed to a synergistic one. “So it is that science today, by virtue of the [reductionist] method which is its hallmark, is left with a fragmented world of things which it must then try to put together.” (p. 17, The Wholeness of Nature)

    • philosiblog 24 March 2016 at 4:27 am #

      Thanks for stopping by and for taking the time to leave such an interesting comment.

      That is an interesting way of putting it, but hopefully my comments made it clear that my position is more of synergy (although I tried to avoid using the word too much, perhaps I overdid it?). I understand the quote you gave, and in my field of engineering, see it done far too much. Thanks for the reminder.

      • sarahreagan 24 March 2016 at 1:13 pm #

        Yes, your intent did come thru, and my comment was made with the best of intentions. I’m involved in natural health, and it is one of those fields in which this phrase is completely misunderstood so I tend to take opportunities when I see them. 🙂 thanks!

      • philosiblog 28 March 2016 at 3:51 am #

        Thanks for getting back to me. Glad we have an agreement. I understand that some terms have very specific meanings to others, and my sloppy use of it (in their eyes) can be off-putting.

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