“What alone can our teaching be? – That no one gives a human being his qualities: not God, not society, not his parents or ancestors, not he himself…”
“The fatality of his nature cannot be disentangled from the fatality of all that which has been and will be…it is absurd to want to hand over his nature to some purpose or other. We invented the concept ‘purpose’: in reality purpose is lacking…One is necessary, one is a piece of fate, one belongs to the whole, one is in the whole – there exists nothing which could judge, measure, compare, condemn our being, for that would be to judge, measure, compare, condemn the whole…But nothing exists apart from the whole!”
— Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, 1888
In this work, one of his last and written in last year of his sane life, Nietzsche ventures a summation of the views he articulated over the previous 16 years. In contrast to dualism, determinism, materialism, psychology and sociology, Nietzsche offers a refreshing ontology based on the concept of “the whole”.
At the time of Twilight, ontology was rigidly divided into two schools, neither one to the liking of Nietzsche. On one side, Christian philosophy and its descendants held the individual responsible for his qualities (his actions). Various agencies were proposed to account for this: mind, soul, spirit, consciousness, conscience, will, etc… But each of these agents works in contrast to the influences of the physical world. Each such ‘solution’ fits Gilbert Ryle’s famous characterization: a ‘ghost in a machine’. Therefore, all of these proposed ‘solutions’ lead to the fallacy of ‘dualism’.
Long before Gilbert Ryle wrote his seminal attack on dualism, The Concept of Mind, Nietzsche intuitively understood that uni-verse could not be divided against itself in this way. If there are two ‘substances’, then there are two universes and they cannot interact with one another; but if there is just one substance and one universe, then where does the agency of personal responsibility come from?
On the other side, The Enlightenment had seen the rise of science and with it the theory of determinism. Classical determinism (Laplace, c. 1800) understands all events as hard wired consequences of antecedent causes. But by the time of Nietzsche, the deterministic spirit (or to use a broader phrase, the ‘mechanistic spirit’) was expressed in many other forms: I am who I am and I do what I do because of my genes, because of childhood trauma, because my mother didn’t love me enough, because I was brought up bourgeois, etc…
So philosophy is caught on the horns of a dilemma. Either the subject is isolated from the physical universe (dualism), in which case we stand on the abyss of solipsism, the first null point of philosophy, or the subject is immersed in the physical universe (determinism), in which case we stand on the abyss of nihilism, the second null point. Either way, the actions of the subject are without meaning or import; they contain zero information.
In some respects, the history of Western Philosophy can be understood as a battle between the chimera of ‘free will’ and the wasteland of ‘mechanism’. No wonder most folks think all philosophy is nonsense; they are not far off.
Against this dismal background, Nietzsche understood the need “to philosophize with a hammer”. He was equally merciless in his attacks on the various ‘isms’ of his day as he was in his attacks on the contemporary vestiges of Christianity. He recognized the need to transcend the Western philosophical dichotomy, to find a new path, and ultimately he succeeded in developing a genuine alternative – a monistic, holistic concept of the ‘subject’.
In this respect at least, if in few others, history has treated Nietzsche kindly. Quantum Field Theory with its emphasis on whole systems replaced 19th century mechanics; John Bell proved that processes occurring simultaneously at opposite ends of the universe can in fact constitute a single event. Jean Paul Sartre proposed to avoid dualism by replacing concepts like ‘mind’ and ‘soul’ with Le Neant, nothingness; and Alfred North Whitehead developed ‘The Philosophy of Organism’, a metaphysics that, in my view at least, successfully accounts for the twin phenomena of unity and diversity without falling into either fallacy: dualism or mechanism.
Nietzsche switched the spot light from the part to the whole and for this he deserves our appreciation and gratitude. Yet Nietzsche’s model is also fatally flawed. “Nothing exists apart from the whole”…but the whole turns out to be a black box; there is no way “to judge, measure, compare, condemn the whole”. In the face of such a universe one can merely sigh and say, “It is!”
Things happen, I am as I am, I do as I do. There is no purpose, no cause, no explanation. It is not even ‘random’. It’s just ‘fate’. But what is this fate? We cannot say. It is a property of a whole which we cannot judge, measure, compare or condemn. It is something that lies outside the universe of discourse. It is the source of all that is but it is entirely inscrutable. We are right back where we started: no meaning, no import, no information.
But Nietzsche’s argument may not be entirely consistent. First he writes, “One is in the whole”; but then he goes on to say, “There exists nothing which could judge, measure, compare, condemn our being for that would be to judge, measure, compare, condemn the whole.”
In the first instance, he assumes that each of us is in the whole as a part of that whole but later be equates our being with the whole. Finally, he glosses over this possible contradiction with his grand holistic summation, “But nothing exists apart from the whole!” If we are merely “in the whole”, then perhaps we do not have the ontological standing to judge, measure, condemn, compare that whole; but if our being is the whole, then we might be looking at a horse of a very different color.
But what if both propositions were true? What if we are the whole and we are also in the whole? Being the whole would give us the ontological standing to judge it while being part of the whole would give us a perspective from which to judge. Now turn the problem around. The existence of valid judgments about the whole is what constitutes the identity of the whole with some or all of its parts.
I do not think that Nietzsche had such an idea in mind. Had he, he would have immersed himself in a line of philosophical inheritance that goes back to the very dawn of Western philosophy. In addition to spiritualism and mechanism (and in sharp contrast to both), it turns out that there has been a ‘third voice’ in Western philosophy all along.
In this essay, we’ll look at just four examples of this ‘third voice’: four philosophies from four very different eras, coming out of four very different intellectual backgrounds, and proposing four very different holistic models. Each of these philosophies faces a single, common, immediate objection: How can a ’part’ be the ‘whole’? It sounds ridiculous on the face of it. And yet each of these philosophies proposes a unique mechanism that accounts, successfully in my view, for just such a phenomenon.
We begin with Europe’s first real philosopher (as far as we know), Anaximander. He believed that things come into being by a process of mutual letting-be (‘granting reck’). This letting-be precedes, at least logically, the things that come to be in the process, i.e. the things that actually grant each other reck. The predicate precedes the subject. It is the letting-be that constitutes the whole before (again, logically speaking) there are any parts.
The whole is the letting-be process; out of that process, parts precipitate. But in a sense each of these parts is the whole. Each part is constituted by letting-be and is characterized by letting-be. Letting-be is its substance and its essential nature. Therefore, every part is the same as the whole, functions the same as the whole and therefore is the whole. Yet each part also functions as one of three necessary moments (‘part’, ‘other part’ and ‘letting-be’) that constitute the whole.
Anaximander provided the Western world with its first philosophical model of ontology and in that model part is whole without ceasing to be part. In that sense the long history of dualism and mechanism can be seen as degeneration from the initial insight of Anaximander. On this point, Nietzsche would have concurred; in Twilight he wrote, “I recognized Socrates and Plato as symptoms of decay…”, referring back to his Birth of Tragedy (1872).
True, Anaximander’s intuition has not dominated the Western philosophical debate as it deserves to; but neither was it ever totally extinguished! Wherever and whenever there is thirst for a meaningful ontology situated somewhere between the Scylla of solipsism and the Charybdis of nihilism, Anaximander’s fundamental insight recurs.
500 years after Anaximander, the Apostle John, Bishop of Ephesus, wrote what was perhaps the first systematic statement of Christian theology. Quoting an earlier source (hymn?), he began his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word (logos) and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Like Anaximander, John posits a whole made up of parts where each part is the whole.
John continued, “He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him and without him nothing came to be.” The process that is God, the dialectic of part and whole, is the process by which all things that are come to be.
“What came to be through him was life and this life was the light of the human race.” John is not speaking of ‘life’ in the abstract; he speaking of the life of Jesus, the Christ, the Incarnation of God.
It is important to keep in mind the importance of ‘light’ in Judeo-Christian cosmology…and in ancient Greek philosophy. In Genesis, the process of creation begins with God saying, “Let there be light.” And according to Heraclitus, it is light (or more accurately, lightening) that brings into being the world of objects and spatiotemporal relations.
In John, it is the light of Christ that guarantees eternal life: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” In other words, things come to be and do not cease to be. The light of Christ is the instantaneous lightening of Heraclitus…eternalized.
“He was in the world and the world came to be through him but the world did not know him…And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” This is the ultimate statement of the Doctrine of Incarnation. God, who is the whole (“All things came to be through him”) becomes a part, a quantum (a single human being, initially a single cell) in that whole.
If Jesus Christ (“fully man and fully God”) is indeed fully quantum, fully whole, then every other quantum is at least potentially the whole as well.
Later (1714), at the beginning of the post-Christian era and in the throes of The Enlightenment, Gottfried Leibniz (Monadologie) described a universe made up of simple, non-interacting “monads”, each reflecting the entire universe and co-existing according to a pre-established harmony. According to this ontology, the universe is composed of parts, monads, each one of which is, by reflection, the whole universe. Each monad differs from every other monad only by its unique perspective on the whole. Each monad is the whole ‘seen’ (or experienced) from a unique point of view.
Finally, another 300 years on, Alfred North Whitehead developed the Philosophy of Organism (above). Whitehead’s world consists entirely of ‘actual entities’. But unlike Leibniz’ monads, Whitehead’s actual entities do not just ‘reflect’ the universe, they ‘feel’ it; they feel (or ‘prehend’) the other actual entities that make it up and the ‘eternal objects’ (universals) that characterize those actual entities.
Each actual entity is a process of becoming called a ‘concrescence’. Because the universe is always and everywhere in the process of becoming, each actual entity has a unique ‘actual world’ that provides material for its concrescence. Every item in the universe of an actual entity is involved in the concrescence of that entity. Therefore, each actual entity is its universe, the universe, the whole.
Now it might be objected that since every actual entity has its own unique universe, every actual entity is only ‘the whole’ relatively speaking, not absolutely. But that would be wrong!
Whitehead’s cosmology includes an ultimate actual entity whose conceptual ‘prehensions’ constitute the ‘creation’ of the universe and whose physical ‘prehensions’ constitute its ‘salvation’. Whitehead calls this ultimate actual entity “God”.
God is the whole, not relatively but absolutely, and because God is the whole, God does not relate to other actual entities through the mediation of spacetime. God exists and therefore God exists in the actual worlds of all actual entities; therefore (above) God participates in every concrescence.
God is an element in every concrescence and every concrescence is an element in God. The whole includes every actual entity in its constitution and every actual entity includes the whole in its constitution. Each actual entity is a part of the whole reflecting on the whole itself. Specifically, each actual entity judges, measures, compares, and potentially condemns the whole just as the whole judges, measures, compares and potentially condemns each actual entity. Through the medium of an actual entity, any actual entity, every actual entity, the whole reflects upon itself. And so we can say that every actual entity is the whole, not relatively but absolutely.
These are just four examples of holistic ontologies that break the cycle of dualism and mechanism. What do they all have in common? A mechanism by which the whole can reflect on itself.
In Anaximander it is in the spontaneous reciprocity of letting be that the part fully experiences the whole and becomes that whole. In John it is the Incarnation, the whole, assuming the function of a part in that whole. In Leibnitz it is the monad’s fundamental nature as a reflection of the whole and in Whitehead, it is whole prehended by the each and every actual entity.
These four philosophers take radically different paths to arrive at a common conclusion: the whole can indeed “judge, measure, compare, condemn” itself. They give us the gift of a universe that is recursive, self-reflexive and in this they succeed where Nietzsche ultimately came up short.