Is the car more important than the engine? In engineering terms, we would consider the latter to be a sub-system of the former. But can they be understood without each other? Or should they be understood in relationship to each other?
I've been fascinated by Bortfot's book Taking appearance seriously, in which he outlines "a different approach to wholeness." He criticizes general systems theory to be a limited view of the actual wholeness (or authentic wholeness, how he called it), and draws our attention to applying a hermeneutic lens instead.
Bortoft likens the differences between the systems theory and hermeneutic approach to the wholeness to how the world is mediated through the two hemispheres of the brain:
... the right hemisphere mediates the lived experience of wholeness, the left hemisphere mediates its representation—it replaces experience with a model of experience, which then gets confused with and mistaken for experience itself. The wholeness of the system is the left brain representation of the wholeness which presences through the right brain. This explains why it is that the systems approach seems to be dealing with wholeness, but does so in an artificial way that is a counterfeit of authentic wholeness.
He argues that the advantages of such a view are:
- Avoiding reductionism without replacing it by holism.
- A different way of thinking, in which the parts depend upon the whole, but equally the whole depends on the parts.
- The whole is always implicit and can never become explicit as such—if it did it would become 'present' as an object (it would come 'outside') and hence separate from the parts.
- If the whole presences within the parts, then the only way to encounter the whole is within the parts through which it presences, and not by standing back from the parts to try and get an 'overview' of the whole.
My two key take-aways from the above are (1) that paying attention to relationships between the parts is as important as parts themselves, and (2) in order to understand, experience, and influence the whole system, one must be immersed in it.