I'm thinking about a circular situation where the parts can only be understood in relation to the whole, and the whole in relation to the parts. A hermeneutic circle might be one good example of this, but I have a feeling that it is a specialized term limited to the interpretation of texts. Is there a good term to describe the more general situation? Another instance of this situation might be a network of people. A person can only understand him or herself in relation to the network. But the network can only be understood in terms of individuals.

  • 2
    I am not sure what the question is. Understanding the parts from the perspective of the whole is called holism, understanding the whole in terms of parts and their interactions is called reductionism.
    – Conifold
    Commented Nov 4, 2017 at 0:35
  • @Conifold Well, the question is quite simply the title question: "What is it called when the whole can only be understood in relation to its parts, and the parts in relation to the whole?" While your examples are related and helpful, I don't think they answer the question.
    – ktm5124
    Commented Nov 4, 2017 at 0:37
  • Well, does "holism" answer it?
    – Conifold
    Commented Nov 4, 2017 at 0:38
  • @Conifold But there are two conditions... and holism only seems to cover one.
    – ktm5124
    Commented Nov 4, 2017 at 0:39
  • An interesting person to look into would be Max Wertheimer, unfortunately he is not so easy to investigate. He was a better lecturer than he was a writer. en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Max_Wertheimer
    – Gordon
    Commented Nov 4, 2017 at 0:59

3 Answers 3


Hermeneutic circle was not invented to exactly support Holism. St. Augustine of Hippo was the first philosopher and theologian to have introduced the hermeneutic cycle to explain the puzzled, entangled and cyclic relation between faith and reason. Modern existentialist Martin Heidegger hold similar hermeneutic position and argued that both artists and art works can only be understood with reference to each other, and that neither can be understood apart from 'art,' which, as well, cannot be understood apart from the former two...So for me, it's more like epistemic Coherentism, anti-Cartesianism or postmodern Derrida's Deconstructionism to reject object/subject dualist division. Under this hermeneutic (holographic) view, we can even speculate by thoroughly acquiring one knowledge a sufficiently intelligible rational mind may proceed to knowing all there is to know...

Personally I view holism is intrinsically related to Emergentism or some kind of System Theory mainly due to the practical limitation that most of our real life system is open-ended thus resists full reduction.


As @Conifold I believe correctly pointed out in his comment, Holism and Reductionism pretty much describe the epistemological territory you are in:

Reductionism is any of several related philosophical ideas regarding the associations between phenomena which can be described in terms of other simpler or more fundamental phenomena. It is also described as an intellectual and philosophical position that interprets a complex system as the sum of its parts. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reductionism


Holism (from Greek ὅλος holos "all, whole, entire") is the idea that various systems (e.g. physical, biological, social) should be viewed as wholes, not merely as a collection of parts

More interestingly, however, is that you may have stumbled upon Kantian Antinomy: contradictions which he considered to necessarily follow from our attempts to rationally conceive the nature of transcendent reality. Which is precisely your project. He named four, one of which, Atomism, to some extent covers the intellectual vertigo you describe in your post:

The Second Antinomy (of atomism):

Thesis:Every composite substance in the world is made up of simple parts, and nothing anywhere exists save the simple or what is composed of the simple.

Anti-thesis: No composite thing in the world is made up of simple parts, and there nowhere exists in the world anything simple. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kant%27s_antinomies

  • @Geremia Does this answer address whatever caused you to repost this question?
    – gonzo
    Commented Nov 3, 2020 at 17:26


... which implies that the whole MUST represent the parts and vice versa. This is the reason:

Since you use the terms whole and parts, this answer refers to the systems theory. To start, it is of key importance to know why does the systems theory approach a whole made of interrelated parts. This is because the most common mechanism to resolve a complex problem (complex: that cannot be understood) is to divide the problem in simple parts (simple: that can be understood).

In a simple manner: the systems theory helps solving complex problems by dividing them in solvable simple problems. The method of turning big unsolvable problems in small solvable problems existed probably since humans started to think. The systems theory is just a formalization of it. Formalizing the method helps applying the method in hugely complex problems of all kinds and has proven to be a success when it's correctly applied.

And this key fact implies that the parts MUST be different to the whole.

Explanation: when doctor X treats a patient with constant stomach aches, of course he would not prescribe painkillers for life. It is better to use a systemic approach. He might start by dividing the problem in parts: he might consider the liver and the stomach. So, he checks two simpler problems. Which are DIFFERENT to the previous one. Otherwise, he would not be using the systemic approach (or as it is called, systemic thinking), and he would just ask for a biopsy of the liver AND a biopsy of the stomach.

So, under the systemic approach, parts might differ between them, but they MUST be different to the whole.

And the consequence of such difference is the answer to the question: parts cannot be understood ONLY in function of the whole, and vice versa. A quark will never be understood only in function of a dog, or a dog will never be understood only in function of quarks.

But, yes, parts can be equal to the whole, so in some exceptional cases, the whole can be understood in function of the parts, and vice versa. And this happens only with fractals.

Holism and reductionism are bad clues to follow. They refer precisely to the opposite issue you address: each describe a single and unilateral perspective. A reductionist understanding of a person could be the one of a chemist: he knows a lot of parts, but not of the whole. A tribe healer could have a holist approach on how to treat stomach aches: he knows the whole, not the parts. An MD, an example of systemic thinking, would grasp both approaches and use them to heal in the most efficient way.

The hermeneutic circle can be described as a fractal process. Reading the whole would give provide an understanding of the parts iif reading parts would provide an understanding of the whole, which implies that parts are representative of the whole and vice versa. It would have depth 2 if the book represents chapters, chapters represent paragraphs and vice-vice versa, paragraphs represent chapters and chapters represent the book. Evidently, a fractal composition does not imply infinite depth, like a fractal canopy.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .