Dialectic relationship between the part and the whole: the philosophical thinking from individual representation to holistic cognition

“The whole and the part constitute a pair of age-old philosophical concepts. In the history of philosophy, Aristotle has already given a systematic treatment regarding the relationship between the whole and the part, believing that the whole is composed of individual parts and that people can understand the whole by developing knowledge about the parts.”22 Within the Marxist philosophical framework, the materialist dialectics assumes that “the entire world and everything within this world which people come to know are in a state of general correlation and constant motion and development.”23 In Chinese ancient philosophical thinking, there are such classical expressions as “nothing in this world is isolated” and “everything in the world is interdependent.” The currently prevalent “Systems Theory” has further expounded on this viewpoint, claiming that

“a system is a unified scheme consisting of a certain number of interconnected factors and that the systems theory itself is both an outlook and a methodology of uncovering the specific systematic connections and the underlying laws of the subject under investigation.”24 Since all things in the world do not exist in isolation, and there are a multitude of connections among them, it can be concluded that the whole and the part should also be interrelated. The only fact is that the two are not fully equivalent but are closely related, constituting a relationship of dialectical unity. We should acknowledge that the relationship between the part and the whole is not that of equivalence, as there are important differences between the two. But those differences are not sufficient to prevent them from having a close interrelationship because, between them, there exists a certain degree of unity. This is precisely the philosophical premise which makes it possible to extrapolate about the whole on the basis of the part. Therefore, in their efforts to understand the world, people can resort to reasonable ways to understand and even change the whole of a thing based on the part. This is the methodology of reductionism, a way in which the investigation and the modification of an individual element can result in the examination and the improvement of the overall properties of the thing itself.

Of course, this perspective is not designed to make people bogged in the fallacy of partiality, as in the case of only seeing individual trees without realizing that together, they make a forest. This is because there is always some kind of relationship between different things and in their act of understanding the world human beings tend to voluntarily link “this” with “that” and thus communicate new meanings. The reason why we have to discuss the dialectical relationship between the part and the whole here is that we hope to provide a justification for the mechanism of metalanguage which we will subsequently analyze so that the mechanism of symbolic communication can be better illuminated.

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