The Whole Shebang: “to understand all and put everything together”

07 September 2021 in Resource Center.

The featured quote in the title comes from Buckminster Fuller’s 1969 book “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth”. When we previously explored this book in the resource The Comprehensive Thinking of R. Buckminster Fuller, we described this quote as “the creed of the comprehensivist”. This resource will interpret the quote to identify issues of wholeness in comprehensive inquiry and action.

To gain insights into the wholeness implicit in our highlighted quote, we will consider three additional resources: Buckminster Fuller’s “Synergetics”, Jan Zwicky’s summary of the gestalt theory of learning in “The Experience of Meaning”, and “The Design Way” by Harold G. Nelson and Erik Stolterman which has an extensive chapter on “The Whole”. This will give us an adequate first-cut attempt at indicating the nature and importance of wholeness in comprehensive exploration.

Starting with Universe

“Bucky” is a moniker for Buckminster Fuller. His full quote excerpted in our title is “Nothing seems to be more prominent about human life than its wanting to understand all and put everything together”. The quote highlights important values for our comprehensivity, our inclination for comprehensive inquiry and action to better understand and participate in the world.

“To understand all” gestures toward a broad understanding of the whole world, of the Universe. In the resource on Bucky’s comprehensive thinking, we learned that he defined Universe as “all of humanity’s consciously-apprehended and communicated experience”. We may interpret this to include our entire cultural heritage since all the experience available to us comes from our cultural inventory of artifacts, stories, and bundles of experiences. This heritage therefore embodies all our possible sources for our learning and each thread from this great amalgamation of experiences, of the Universe, might be distinguished as one of humanity’s traditions of inquiry and action.

In Bucky’s 1975 magnum opus “Synergetics” he suggests that all inquiry should begin with Universe:

Problem solving starts with Universe and thereafter subdivides by progressively discarding irrelevancies thereby to identify the “critical path” priorities and order of overlapping developments that will most economically and efficiently and expeditiously realize the problem’s solution by special local problem identification and location within the totality of the problem-solving scenario.

— Buckminster Fuller, Synergetics 537.31

We can think of problem solving here as a synecdoche, a figure of speech where in this case the part, problem solving, represents the whole, any arbitrary form of inquiry and action. Bucky, in this interpretation, is recommending that all inquiry and action start with Universe, start with all humanity’s experience. So, the way “to understand all” is through this breadth of consideration. The breadth of our inquiry and action begins with our cultural heritage including all the approaches, assumptions, perspectives, hypotheses, theories, doctrines, stories, rituals, conditioned reflexes, and all the other accoutrements of our cultural milieu, our social environment.

With our breadth, we need to be wary of the dangers of the paralysis of wholism (a phrase from “The Design Way”) which can frustrate the effectiveness of our comprehensive initiatives. The entirety of all humanity’s experiences, the whole of Universe, and all of our cultural heritage are so vast, so multitudinous that our exploration can become paralysed if we do not limit the breadth of our attempts “to understand all”. In our Art of Comprehensivity, our learning practices for building an ever more extensive, ever more intensive, and ever more integrated understanding of our worlds and its peoples, we can manage the risk of the paralysis of wholism by setting our primary epistemic virtue to gathering an adequately broad collection of sources to start our comprehensive inquiry and action. Perhaps therefore, we should aim to be as broad as we can without succumbing to a paralysis of wholism.

In short, identifying an adequate breadth of resources characterizes the whole we use to aspire to the whole of understanding all. Our adequately broad purview may successfully prepare us for the whole of our comprehensive understanding of everything. Or, to put it more dramatically, the whole of our adequately curated breadth starts us on an exploration to understand the whole shebang. This process will be explored in the next section.

How does the wholeness of an adequate breadth of resources curated for the start and the scope of any initiative to comprehensively understand and participate in the world shape our exploration?

How Wholes Become Meanings

The other half of our guiding quote, “to put everything together” suggests both a process and a result or output for any inquiry or action. Let’s first consider the process, the how of putting everything together. We can learn about the process of putting everything together from the gestalt theory of learning which is effectively summarized by Jan Zwicky in her 2013 video presentation “The Experience of Meaning” and in her expansion of it in the 2019 book “The Experience of Meaning”.

Zwicky argues, “wholes are different than the sums of their parts; and we perceive wholes first. Wholes… are both logically and epistemologically prior to their parts”. She quotes Michael Wertheimer: “parts do not become parts, do not function as parts, until there is a whole of which they are parts”. She marshals an impressive amount of evidence in her presentation including the ease with which non-musicians can recognize melodies as “aural shapes” even when in the wrong key. In addition, she considers facial recognition, literature, the phi phenomenon where two flashing lights are perceived as a moving light, visual proofs in mathematics, visual puzzles, and Jonathan Schooler’s research on “verbal overshadowing” where language sometimes impedes our ability to think effectively.

Zwicky gives a definition for wholes or gestalts: “A Gestalt itself … may be defined as a structure all of whose aspects are in dynamic interrelation with each other and with the whole.” She explains how the structure of a gestalt experience is comprised of “resonant internal relations” so that “the aspects of a gestalt are interdefined”. She adds, “the whole is experienced through the particular, which is an aspect of it. This is possible only if every part is internally related to every other part: if it is the nature of the whole that determines both what and that any part is.”

Bucky describes a related dynamic in Synergetics 141.00 with his “Principle of the Whole System, which states that the known behaviors of the whole plus the known behaviors of some of the parts may make possible discovery of the presence of other parts and their behaviors, kinetics, structures, and relative dimensionalities.” “The Design Way” adds further definition to this dynamic process:

Although it’s true that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” we must also acknowledge that the whole is of those parts. … The whole takes its emerging essence from the nature of its parts. There is an inseparable relationship between the parts and the whole. We also need to remember that any whole is always part of something more comprehensive—another whole. This means that there are emergent qualities of a whole that can only be revealed as transcendent properties, different from those properties displayed by the individual and separate parts of the whole. These emergent qualities are the result of the relations and connections binding the elements together in unity.

“The Design Way”, Chapter 5 “The Whole”

Zwicky observes that even though the words “insight” and “recognition” are often applied to gestalt perception and that these words imply a sense of truth, in fact, gestalt experiences may not be veridical, may not be true, may not truly represent reality. She cites several examples including the phi phenomenon where we come to realize that our gestalt perception is erroneous. Nonetheless, for Zwicky these possibly not true gestalt insights comprise our experience of meaning: “to have a gestalt crystallize out of chaos, or to sense the internal relations between one gestalt and another”.

While Zwicky’s presentation of her gestalt theory of meaning illuminates a lot about the process of forming wholes “to put everything together”, how does it fit into our schema for comprehensive learning?

In the resource on mistake mystique we observed that knowledge is formed by guesses, hypotheses, theories, assumptions, or other kinds of assertions which stand together with the questions they attempt to answer. In the resource on the crises of ignorance, we further explained that the questions and assertions of our refined ignorance stand together to form the hypostasis or foundation of our knowledge. In the resource on perspective shifting, our emerging schema for comprehensive learning more deeply examined this knowledge as a thoroughly refined ignorance. Our ever more nuanced questions more and more thoroughly refine and hone our integrated interpretations of the experiences, assumptions, perspectives, hypotheses, theories, stories, rituals, conditioned reflexes, artifacts, and other ideas we consider in our comprehensive explorations.

As we articulate the dynamic “resonant internal relations” of our gestalts with all our questions, ideas, and interpretations, our exploration may precipitate new gestalts of refined ignorance in an experience of meaning. This is the meaning making process of exploration seen as gestalt learning.

As we re-consider our initial whole of curated scope (our adequate breadth of curated sources) and all the dynamic gestalt insights we find in our iterative exploration to further refine our ignorance, we may glimpse the significance of our efforts as an experience of meaning resulting from our comprehensive exploration. In sum, thoroughly refining our ignorance with the dynamics of wholes is how we “put everything together” and tentatively apprehend the whole shebang.

How can the gestalt insights accumulating during any initiative to understand and participate in the world bring meaning of the whole shebang in our comprehensive inquiry and action?

The Output of Comprehensive Initiatives

Earlier we observed that half of our guiding quote “to put everything together” suggests a result or an output for an inquiry or action, the what that we put together. Now, let’s consider the intended result or objective of our comprehensive practice to better understand and participate in the world. Our objective may stem from our desire to better understand or act in the world, or perhaps we have an intention to create a more desirable future. In each case, our comprehensive inquiry and action can be seen as a design initiative.

In their chapter on “The Whole”, “The Design Way” by Harold G. Nelson and Erik Stolterman surveys many ideas about the whole as they attempt to identify its significance in creating intentional change. Their ideas can help us to better assess the whole in the output of our effort to “put everything together”.

“The Design Way” emphasizes the emergent quality of wholes:

In design, when we say that something is a whole we mean that it is a complex ensemble of relations, connections, and an underlying unifying force or principle—that which causes things to stand together—that when taken together results in emergent qualities.

“The Design Way”, Chapter 5 “The Whole”

What emerges may be what we intended or not. Sometimes we may get stuck in the weeds. Sometimes our ideals may steer us toward unattainable futures. We have already looked at the paralysis of wholism that limits our breadth. Similarly, the dangers of analysis paralysis limit us in our depth and the dangers of value paralysis limit us in striving to accommodate all of the desires and values that we and others may bring to our initiative. In each of these cases, the adequate is the principle for more effective inquiry and action recommended by “The Design Way”:

The most elusive and unfamiliar concept in design—from a holistic perspective—may be the idea of the adequate. … a definition of the adequate, seen from the perspective of the whole, states that the elements of a whole are formed with respect to the aim and purpose of the whole, meaning that components, relationships, and connections may be suboptimized in order to optimize the performance or behavior of the whole.

“The Design Way”, Chapter 5 “The Whole”

That is, the whole of the new understanding, action, or future that we desire to create in any comprehensive undertaking must be of adequate breadth, of adequate depth, and of adequate value. Creating effective outputs from our efforts evidently imposes upon us a diligent inquiry to find the adequate in the ocean of possibilities in the whole Universe, the whole of our cultural heritage, and in a world of manifold desires.

The notion of the whole is a foundational property of design that is realized through the careful and creative ordering and organizing of elements through intentional relations and connections.

“The Design Way”, Chapter on “The Whole”

How does the whole of the output or intended result of our comprehensive practice to better understand and participate in the world affect the design of our comprehensive inquiry and action?

The Whole Shebang

In considering the Bucky quote “to understand all and put everything together”, we have explored three aspects of wholeness that are important for comprehensive understanding and participation in the world. First, we considered how starting with the Universe gave us an adequate breadth of sources to curate our comprehensive exploration. Secondly, we considered how the gestalt theory of learning, the principle of the whole system, and the notion of emergence of the whole can help us explore the dynamics of gestalts which may give us a new experience of meaning. Finally, we considered how “The Design Way” positions the importance of the whole as we design an emerging result from our comprehensive inquiry and action.

There are many other ideas about the whole or wholeness which might affect the whole shebang of our comprehensive exploration. “The Design Way” surveys at least 9 additional ideas of the whole that we might consider. But the three we have highlighted adequately characterize the whole shebang of our featured Bucky quote “to understand all and put everything together”:

  1. The whole of our adequately curated breadth of sources provides the whole shebang of our scoped topic in any comprehensive inquiry and action.
  2. The whole of our dynamic refinement of ignorance as we process gestalts form the whole shebang of meaning-making in any comprehensive initiative.
  3. The whole of the emerging result produced is the whole shebang of each comprehensive undertaking to better understand and participate in the world.

In short, we start from a whole, create meaning from wholes, and end with a whole. At least these three aspects of wholeness are significant in our comprehensive practice. They manifest as the whole shebang of our efforts “to understand all and put everything together”.

This essay was written to provide ideas in support of the 15 September 2021 session of “Comprehensivist Wednesdays” at 52 Living Ideas (crossposted at The Greater Philadelphia Thinking Society).

Addendum: 1h 56m video from the 15 September 2021 event:

Read Other Resource Center Essays

Posted by CJ Fearnley

Explorer in Universe.

1 comment

CJ Fearnley

To help clarify the issues in this essay further, here are some more thoughts about parts, wholes, and the experience of meaning.

As we think through our subject, whatever it might be, we identify things. Whatever we identify is, at first, a whole. Then we notice other things and start identifying relationships between these wholes. Some of the wholes start to be seen as parts of other wholes. A priori we cannot know what is part and what is whole: that is an imaginative realization. We might eventually realize we are deceived by an optical illusion and the internal relations between part and whole further transform in our thinking … could it be that this is the whole? Or is that the whole? ….

The experience of meaning occurs when we identify a way of seeing a unifying whole and the internal relations between the parts of that whole which resonate, which gives us a sense of meaning, which clicks to us as the right way to see things. Thinking is the search for the good characterization of part and whole to make sense of all the relations we are seeing.

I think the experience of meaning is in the resonance, in the feeling that we have organized a meaningful wholistic perspective or hypothesis that accounts for all the relations powerfully cohering. The resonance and its cascade of awarenesses manifest as “aha”, they manifest as the experience of meaning.

That is the abstract perspective. In a more operational perspective, the meaning making process is the exploration of questions, hypotheses, perspectives, of parts, of wholes, and of their relations. The meanings that we take away are our observations and the “resonant internal relations” that we identify. Our resonating experience of meaning might not be true, but we have found something worthy of further examination or maybe even for writing out like Kepler’s Mysterium Cosmographicum (published first in 1597 and in a second edition in 1621 as the idea of a planetary system of regular polyhedra resonated so strongly for him even though Kepler himself realized that it didn’t agree with observational data).

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