Wholes and Parts—Which is Which?

applegraphicIn chapter two of Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education, entitled “The Philosophical Foundations,” Dr. James Taylor traces the historical “Great Conversation” of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and others on the validity of poetic knowledge from its known roots to the present. The topic crystallizes in a few key ways. To begin with, poetic knowledge is closely allied with love. Education is concerned with “ordering the affections”—teaching us to know and love that which is beautiful and good.


Augustine wrote:

Because love is a movement [of the soul] and every movement is always toward something, when we ask what ought to be loved, we are therefore asking what it is that we ought to be moving toward….It is the thing in regard to which possession and knowing are one and the same.

Poetic, or synthetic, knowledge is not a thing that can be accomplished by systems, lesson plans, or direct command. You can make a child memorize the multiplication table, but you cannot force him to see the relationships that exist within it, and thrill with appreciation for the patterns and wholeness and orderliness of it. For that relationship to occur, you have to give him a chance to know it and “discover” for himself some of the possibilities. Poetic knowledge cannot be forced, and it is perhaps unlikely that every single person will develop a poetic relationship with every single area of knowledge. We can but make the introduction, which is why Charlotte Mason urges us that it is not “how much” a scholar knows that is the measure of his progress, but “how much he cares,” and about how many things has he learned to care?

Caring about something…loving it…requires that a person be allowed to interact with the wholeness of the subject at hand—to meet the universal in the particulars, and to interact with it personally. A required unit on insects, for example, which points out the peculiar characteristics of all insects, perhaps requires the identification of a few (via pictures), and finishes with a written test on the subject matter before moving on to reptiles is not likely to produce a roomful of enthusiastic amateur entomologists. Consider the child who has leisure to observe a beehive, an anthill, a ladybug. Perhaps he knows its name, or perhaps he has to ask (asking shows that he cares a little bit already). Perhaps he wonders what they are doing, or why. Perhaps he is amazed by some insect feat of prowess, or overwhelmed by their numbers, or curious about their ability to fly. Perhaps he is merely amused at the idea of walking on six feet. If he is anything at all besides indifferent, he is experiencing the tiny beginning of a relationship with knowledge of insects, a poetic understanding of their little lives that no factual “knowing about” will ever match. How far his interest in insects will go depends on many things, but his relational knowledge of one kind of insect that he has observed closely is the gateway to the greater, more universal knowledge that could be learned.

So is that whole-to-part learning, or part-to-whole?

I sometimes find the discussion of synthetic and analytic thinking recast into these familiar terms, and for many, I am sure the familiarity of the terms increases understanding. However, I fear that many of us, educated in the fragmented, analytic system of education, can be confused about what constitutes wholes and parts. There is a weakness in these terms that may not be at first apparent, and quite heated discussions can take place if two parties have an opinion about whole-to-part or part-to-whole learning, but have not taken the trouble to define their terms.

What is a whole?

What is a part?

In Consider This, I chose to use an apple as an illustration of a “whole,” and how a whole may be broken into parts. In my illustration, the apple is a “whole” thing, and half an apple is not a “part”—it is merely a smaller portion of the whole apple. The parts, in my illustration, are juice, fiber, vitamins—things which together make up an apple, but are not immediately identifiable unless the apple is reduced to something less than it is in its natural state.

However, I used this illustration of an apple deliberately, because it actually begs the question, “Isn’t an apple a part of something larger—an apple tree?” And the answer is yes—yes, it is. An apple is a whole thing in itself, but it is also part of a larger thing, the fruit of a living tree, which has other parts such as bark, trunk, branches, leaves, and roots.

And while we’re thinking of the tree as a whole, and the apple as a part of it, we might ask if the tree itself isn’t part of something yet larger—an orchard? And whether the orchard is part of a farm, the farm a part of a town, and the town a part of a state? And if we get that far, it’s not that hard to find that a state is part of a country, a country is part of a continent, and a continent is part of the planet.

If we keep going, we soon realize that every “whole” thing is probably also a part of something larger. The relationships end only when we reach the Infinite Creator himself, who is self-existing and can never be a part.

And yet, the fact that something is part of a larger “whole,” does not make it less than a “whole thing” by itself. An apple is an apple. You recognize one when you see it, you know what it tastes like, and you know how to use and enjoy it. You can have a relationship with—an affection for—apples.

I once participated in a warm discussion in which the argument of parts and wholes took place in the context of art. My opponent argued that Art was a whole thing, and individual paintings, for example, were parts of that whole. I maintained that every individual painting was a whole thing, made up of parts such as hue, line, color, and shape. I don’t think I was wrong, but I think she had a point. Like the apple, a painting may be both whole and part of a yet greater whole.

Perhaps we should hesitate to use the terms “whole” and “part” without clear and consistent definitions. They are useful in a discussion of synthetic and analytic thinking, but perhaps we would be wise to pause and define them carefully, because they are by no means used consistently wherever we may meet them.

As long as our primary desire is to allow our pupils to develop poetic, synthetic relationships with knowledge, we must confine our efforts to realms in which relationships are possible.

“Art” is not a whole thing to be introduced. You cannot know “art” or develop a relationship with “art.” You can acquire poetic knowledge about an individual picture or sculpture, and through close association and affection for some pieces of art, develop an understanding about the more universal topic of “art.” The universe is made up of whole things within greater whole things, which work together to make up still greater whole things, and not of discrete things that have no connection to anything else.

In our increasingly fragmented post-modern culture, letting our children experience the wholeness and connectedness of knowledge is probably one of the most important things we can do for them. One of the reasons a synthetic approach to knowledge is important is because it recognizes the wholeness of the learner in the first place. We are neither entirely material or entirely spiritual beings—we are both. We perceive the world through our senses, but we also bring emotions and rationality to bear on what we perceive. James Taylor’s conclusion in that chapter rings true:

It is also important to restate that this is all an integrated experience, not occurring in mechanical steps or linked together as a chain…

Wholeness. Oneness. Integration. Unity. We live in a synthetic universe in which all things interlock and move and work together in an organic whole that staggers the mind, and makes the most complex mechanical process look shabby by comparison. We can’t grasp that all at once, or perhaps not ever completely. But like the child who spends a half-hour watching the activity around an anthill, we give ourselves a little time to develop a relationship with knowledge. God meant us to learn this way! He said, “Go to the ant…consider her ways and be wise.” When we deal with knowledge in terms of wholeness rather than as isolated parts, we are functioning in the poetic, synthetic mode, and behaving as whole-hearted human beings; we are experiencing in the knowable particulars the greater universal truths. Like the poet Blake, we may see the universe in a grain of sand.