Sep 16, 2022Liked by Brendan Graham Dempsey

HI Brendan. I thought you might enjoy this piece from the essay on Symmathesy (2015) on parts and wholes.(https://journals.isss.org/index.php/proceedings59th/article/view/2720)

"As a word, “symmathesy” is part of a family of terms of description of the relational characteristics of the living world. Other terms in this family include “symmetry,” “symbiosis,” “sympoiesis “and “system.” Each of these terms includes a prefix indicating ‘together’, sym, or syn—followed by focus on order, growth, pattern and more. Symmathesy is potentially a newcomer to this family of concepts and attracts attention to mutual learning.

The tendency to think in terms of functioning parts and wholes is misleading for our future inquiry of living, co-evolving systems.

Metabolism, immunity, cognition, culture and ecology are all examples of living interactions. Within these examples, perception, communication and learning are observable as open-ended interchanges in and between a tangle of varying perspectives. In an attempt to address the increasing mix-ups in our inquiry of living “systems” as they are differentiated from mechanical ones, a new vocabulary is needed. It has now been more than half a century since the Macy Conferences which marked the emergence of cybernetics, yet we still are not able to properly refer to the living world with anything more articulating than this one overarching term: “System”. The primary downside of the word “system” is its invocation of “arrangement” (inherent in the Greek prefix “sys”).

The way in which we have culturally been trained to explain and study our world is laced with habits of thinking in terms of parts and wholes and the way they “work” together. The connotations of this systemic functional arrangement are mechanistic; which does not lend itself to an understanding of the messy contextual and mutual learning/evolution of the living world.

Reductionism lurks around every corner; mocking the complexity of the living world we are part of. It is not easy to maintain a discourse in which the topic of study is both in detail, and in context. The tendency is to draw categories, and to assign correlations between them. But an assigned correlation between a handful of “disciplinary” perspectives, as we often see—does not adequately represent the diversity of the learning fields within the context (s). The language of systems is built around describing chains of interaction. But when we consider a forest, a marriage, and a family, we can see that living entities such as these require another conceptual addition in their description: learning.

If systems are comprised of parts and wholes, what is symmathesy comprised of?

Shifting our understanding of the make-up of the conglomeration of interactions that form a living entity so that we are not defining parts and wholes is the first step in our understanding of this new term. After all, the “parts” in a living entity are also learning from each other within the context of interrelationship with the external environment. As such they are hardly distinguishable as “parts”.

How can we assist ourselves in this thinking? The paradox of looking at the context or ‘whole’ as produced by its components or ‘parts’ is confusing since not only the outline of the context is scalable, but the idea of parts is blurred. I am not suggesting that that our inquiry should be only in terms of wholes. Obviously there are boundaries. The boundaries of our own bodies, cities, or the oceans, are easy for us to see as ‘parts’ of the world. Often our drawing of these boundaries is based upon arbitrary lines that are convenient for our description.

The habit of conceptualizing in this way creates confusion at another level…the level of how to see the interactions and interrelationships. If we perceive that the functions of living ecologies are the effect of processes taking place between parts and wholes we become prone to assigning agency to “parts”. We divide the ecology in order to label it and specify the “functions” of the processes that give the ecology life. The drawback with this approach is that the focus centers on the bits and their ‘roles’ while losing sight of the contextual integrity. Agency infers that parts can be separated from wholes and exert individuated action. In symmathesic thinking, the notion of agency does not apply. This is because the formation of the ecology in question is necessarily evolving within its context, not its parts.

The context is not inside any of the parts but is created in the interaction. Where is the culture of a city? Is it in the history? In the language? In the religion? In the environmental constraints? It is not findable in any of these ‘parts’, yet all of them are integral. In hopes of finding new clarity around our inquiry into what takes place interrelationally, we need to change our terminology away from a language of “parts.” As a habit of thought this ‘parts and wholes’ tendency pulls us back into a mechanistic model. We might do better to employ a word that invites us to think in terms of the “parts” being alive, and not simply cogs.

At the same time the “whole” is best thought of as another interactive symmathesy at the next larger context. In the example of the human body it is habitual to think of our organs as parts of the whole, but each of these are in fact contributing to a contextual interaction. The “function” per se of the “parts” is indistinguishable from their interaction (the “whole”) that is always learning. Their mutual interaction in turn becomes the immanent viability of the entity in a contextual evolution (learning).

Defining life in terms of “parts and wholes” quickly slips into thinking in terms of arrangement and mechanistic function. The upside of that genre of thinking is that it provides separated subject boxes for us to study and arrange our studies within. It has leveraged our thinking into all that we know as science and technology at this time. But the downsides are that arrangements of “parts and wholes” blind us to the developing interactions that take place in life. The “parts,” like members of a family, organs in a body, species in a jungle, etc. are inside evolutionary processes. These living “parts” do not “work” in the way that an engine works, not even a very complicated engine. The difference is the compensatory relationality and communication. Through complex cybernetic entanglements of interaction living entities become vessels of communication.

Instead of “parts” and “wholes”, let us think of boundaries in symmathesy as interfaces of learning. We will refer to these interfaces as “vitae” (a term derived from the Latin vita, meaning life)"

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