The whole and the parts

Sal Bader asked:

I have a question concerning the difference between predication and constitution.

In predication there is something said of another thing so we are talking about a property that belongs to something not something in itself but in constitution. The parts seem to be independent real entities so how could they be united and belong to something or else there won’t be one thing really.

So, first, whats the relation between the part and the whole ? And second can we view constitution in a similar way to predication? For example can i say of the the whole after its constitution that the being of the parts now belongs to it and all that the part included itself now belongs to the whole so the parts are said of the whole or the whole is somehow present to all the parts?

Answer by Peter Jones

Nice question. Predication is a problem, as you say, since it creates a separation between subject and predicate. For this reason Bradley says, and I believe he is correct, that in metaphysics predication is both necessary and illegitimate. This is rather like Lao Tsu’s comment that Tao cannot be spoken but must be spoken, (I believe it’s exactly the same point). So you’ve asked about a genuine and important philosophical issue.

Predicates are attributes. It the the separation between attributes and essences that leads Kant to the ‘thing-in-itself’. There has to be something that ‘has’ its attributes and yet if it only ‘has’ attributes then in-itself ‘it’ has none. This allows his ‘thing-in-itself’ to be a unity and not an aggregation. Thus his unity is not a collection, but a phenomenon that is apart from and additional to its attributes and predicates. This allows him to avoid the problems you mention.

Russell’s paradox is an example of the trouble one gets into if one confuses a collection of parts with a unity.

A unity is not an aggregation. As Leibnitz and Animaximander note, a unity has no parts. A ‘whole’ can have parts (given the way we usually use the word), so a ‘whole’ football team is an aggregate of eleven players. If we say in this way that the whole is a collection of parts no problems arise. Problems arise only where we say the whole is a unity, thus not an aggregate. This leads to a lot of muddle.

It is strongly stressed in the perennial tradition, which endorses a doctrine of Unity, that a Unity is not an aggregate. It is not a collection of other things. It is not the set-of-all-sets. As you have spotted, collecting a lot of parts into a pile creates an aggregated whole, not a unity. For unification the parts would have to be transcended for some underlying shared identity.

Kant’s ‘thing-in-itself’ is a shared identity, not an aggregate. The ‘One’ of Plotinus’ is likewise a shared identity, not an aggregate. The problems you mention in your question arise only where we confuse a collection with a unified ‘thing’. All Kantian phenomena are aggregates. They may be called ‘wholes’ but they are collections of parts. This is presumably what Margaret Thatcher was trying to say when she said there’s no such thing as society. In the end there are just individual people, and even these are aggregates.

In short, I think that if you make a distinction between ‘whole’ (an aggregation) and ‘unity’ (not an aggregation) then any problems should go away. Exploring this issue in depth may be worthwhile since it will reveals many hidden linguistic and conceptual muddles arising from our idea of parts. wholes, unities and sets that plague philosophy. Bradley might be worth reading for the reasoning that leads him to judge predication invalid in metaphysics, and there is plenty of literature on the relation between parts and wholes. You will end up studying the meaning of the word ‘unity’, the most difficult word in all of philosophy.

One thought on “The whole and the parts

  1. Great answer
    Thank you, that why i believe that in geniun unity the parts are not real but but only potencies that belong to the object similar to its attributes for otherwise there is many things not one and so if i assume some identical subject or thing in itself in all the parts for if there is a thing nothing prevent it from being a part of larger or stronger thing, so from all the parts ine subject or one new being arise that contains virtuall the parts the i think the problem might be solved

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