The emergent longing for wholeness

I have long been interested in the emergent effect of complexity, particularly in human affairs. It seems that any coordinated relation of parts tends to summon some whole which becomes an actor in its own right independent of any particular decision. All of us adapt ourselves to wholes without realizing what we are doing. Think of how each group that stays together develops a specific character, almost a personality, and this quasi-independence of the emergent whole often seems resistant to any of the actor’s attempts to change it: a corporate culture or the ethos of family, tribe or nation. Some of these emergent effects can seem bad, whether on Wall Street or unhappy workplaces or dysfunctional athletic teams, but I wonder if the integrity that each emergent whole makes present is not at heart a good thing that only becomes perverted by resisting the full summons of the encompassing whole’s drive toward a greater integrity. Wholeness is normative and the source of all that is truly desirable. Human beings long for community/koinonia, a longing that has as its engine the encompassing whole that is transcendent to each participant but immanent within the larger body of participants.

Here are two citations from Plato that point to what I am groping to convey:

Parmenides 157c-e (Perseus project translation): “But the whole must be one composed of many and of this the parts are parts. For each of the parts must be a part, not of many, but of a whole.” “How is that?” “If anything is a part of many, and is itself one of the many, it will be a part of itself, which is impossible, and of each one of the others, if it is a part of all. For if it is not a part of some particular one, it will be a part of the rest, with the exception of that one, and thus it will not be a part of each one, and not being a part of each one, it will not be a part of any one of the many. But that which belongs to none cannot belong, whether as a part or as anything else, to all those things to none of which it belongs.” “That is clear.” “Then the part is a part, not of the many nor of all, but of a single form and a single concept which we call a whole, a perfect unity created out of all this it is of which the part is a part.”


Symposium (Jowett translation): “[H]uman nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called Eros.”

The part must relate to the whole to be what it is. The part has no life as the part it is without subsuming itself to its whole. Every part, to the extent it is a part, essentially desires to be integrated into its defining whole. This relation to the whole is ontologically prior to every other relationship. The part’s participation in the whole cannot be achieved without the co-participation of the other parts. Human beings long to be themselves and yet this longing unsettles any presumed independence. The deficiency out of which human eros springs is a lack of wholeness. (Partial) participation in the whole excites a part toward full participation. One can only fully participate by coming into relationship with other parts of the same ordering whole. One part cannot fully relate to the whole without cooperating with the other parts in achieving their relation to the whole. I cannot be what I ultimately want to be unless the other has also achieved his/her proper fulfillment. Our longing for wholeness is thus necessarily a mutuality of aspiration. I cannot enter the human whole, the koinonia of the one, without loving the others enfolded within the same whole as me. Any interest of mine that interferes with the neighbor’s own true interest must be self-deluded.

The whole must agree with all its parts; the parts must agree with each other; each part must agree with the whole. This trinity of agreements is the basis of all true integrity, community and desire.


4 thoughts on “The emergent longing for wholeness

  1. David,
    I’ll try to do this inductively with a few examples:
    1. Liquidity. From studying the nature of water molecules alone, one couldn’t anticipate the higher level quality of liquidity that emerges with enough quantity and under the right conditions. Liquidity is an emergent feature of H2O, a quality that exists at the higher emerges through patterns of interactions at the lower. A crude example, but enough to get started. Liquidity comes from the behavior of water molecules, but the higher order property of liquidity begins to govern the shape of those interactions. One can then study the properties of fluids without even considering the underlying molecular movements and collisions.
    2. The market. Semi-stable prices emerge from the disparate actions of many unconnected market participants. Market prices are a higher level emergence from lower level activity. This gets closer to the point of my post. One needs knowledge of the whole (i.e. prices) to coordinate intelligently with the masses of otherwise anonymous fellow participants. Prices in a fair market provide invaluable information about the situation of the whole. Gaming the market to gain an advantage of another also unsettles the coordinating truth of the price system: creating scarcities and oversupplies where none should exist. See the Soviet economy of the mischief that arises when some part of the system tries to dominate over the whole. Definitely read F.A. Hayek’s great essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” Hayek was one of the great champions of emergent order.
    3. Other examples: life from chemistry, consciousness from life, language from signalling, self-consciousness from consciousness.
    4. In my reading the virtues are emergent products of social interactions. This does not make them fully relative. What emerges is a preexisting form of possibility becoming actual. Looked at in genetic sequence, it will seem that the social activity causes the virtue to emerge. Looked at from the higher level, the higher order virtue exerts its normative pattern on the lower. That which emerges increasingly governs its own emergence. Emergence is possibility become potent. Matter taking on form and form governing matter.

  2. Something like bird-flocking patterns? Where 30 something behavioral rules produce thousands of sophisticated group movements? I think I understand what you mean by emergent now.

  3. Yes, that is another example. Each bird’s movements are biased by a simple rule: fly toward the rest of the flock. The flock emerges from the disparate activity of the various birds but the flock itself exerts its own pressure on how the birds fly.

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