This quote about systems thinking is commonly used, even by scientists. But it can be daunting to realize how off the mark it actually is. Let’s journey through time as we trace its roots.
Looking at the direct quotes of Aristotle and Euclid, 4th century Greek philosophers, they did not say that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
As we make decisions, speak with others and build credibility, the accuracy of what we convey is crucial. Otherwise, we risk laying a hollow foundation to important affairs in society.
Commonly, people think the above quoted statement is from Aristotle. Let’s look at the direct quotes from Aristotle and Euclid.
Aristotle: The whole is something besides the parts
“The totality is not, as it were, a mere heap, but the whole is something besides the parts; there is a cause.” (Aristotle as translated by Ross, 1908 in Cohen, Stanford Encyclopedia, 2016.)
As seen in the direct quote, Aristotle says that the whole is something else besides its parts. This calls for a deeper appreciation of the whole — how it comes to be and what caused the parts to become a whole/totality. The keyword here is cause.
For instance, a social organization (the whole) is not just a group of individuals. We do not define an organization just from a list of its members. An organization and its members are bound by a (cause) common purpose, interests, advocacies, and the like. The members (parts) also play a vital role in how the organization functions as a whole.
If you notice, he makes a distinction between the two (whole vs parts) as both important entities in a system. But he places no judgement on which has a greater or lesser value. Thus, Aristotle did not say that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Euclid: The whole is greater than the part
Another similar source of the quote is from Euclid, a mathematician, who said that “The whole is greater than the part (Euclid’s Elements, Book I, Common Notion 5).”
At first glance, one might think, eureka, we’ve found it! But look closely. It is almost identical, but note that it says “part” in its singular form, and NOT the usually misquoted plural form (parts).
Here’s a simple example from Clark University math professor David Joyce (1996). On Euclid’s Common Notion #5 (the whole is greater than its part): if A = B + C, than A is greater than B.
As Joyce illustrated, note that Euclid did not say the “…sum of its parts,” but instead he refers only to one single part, B. No summation whatsoever of B + C in the comparison.
Various math professors from these universities also use references/textbooks that cite Euclid and also do NOT use the quote, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
- Cornell University (Henderson, et. al., 2005);
- University of Washington (Lee, 2013); and
- Clark University (Joyce, 1996), to name a few.
Make fact-finding a habit
Misquoting the original words of some of the great minds in human history, such as Euclid and Aristotle, without reference to their original text is such a dodgy risk to take.
There are many “quotable quotes” floating around, especially in a digital world where everyone is a content creator. We need to take great caution and make fact-finding a habit in this digital age.
It’s a great skill to have, to cite quotes that are historically and scientifically accurate. Else, we’d just be using baseless quotable quotes as the foundation for making critical decisions in life and at work.
This is most important especially when we engage in business/industry, public opinion, governance/policy, teaching/mentoring, and even in casual conversations.
In conclusion, it would be best to use the correct quotes directly from Aristotle and/or Euclid in lieu of the more common yet misquoted version that we’ve grown accustomed to.
Cheers to fact-finding!