Conventional Thought on the Concept of a Whole
I have previously asserted that there is no such thing as a car (Dakers, 2014). In conventional thinking, a car is thought of as an objective whole entity, one that has some essential enduring quality expressed in terms of the parts that combine to give it or them an enduring identifiable trait: “The essence of a thing is that which explains its identity, that is, those fundamental traits without which an object would not be what it is. If such an essence is shared by many objects, then possession of a common essence would also explain the fact that these objects resemble each other and, indeed that they form a distinct natural kind of things” (Delanda, 2002, p. 9; italics in original).
In other words, there are defining characteristics that explain an object and so differentiate it from other objects. In so doing, these characteristics combine to form part of a classifiable, identifiable species, or “wholes,” that will all resemble each other (trees, humans, cows, or cars, for example). Thus, in conventional thinking, a whole is generally considered to be something that is logically deducible from general principles. For example, it is universally accepted that the general principle of combining a variety of specific entities—wheels, windscreens, seats, engines, and so on—in a specific way will form a quantitative whole that we have come to know as being a car. Moreover, a whole—in this case a car—will also have certain essential qualities that are expressed in terms of its parts. A car is essentially the combination of a number of recognizable and established components that, when combined, are identifiable as belonging to our conception of what constitutes a car. If, for example, only two wheels were to form part of the ensemble, we would reconceptualize the whole as being a bicycle or a motorbike. A less complex example of a whole is water. The combination of two specific atoms in a specific way, one of oxygen and two of hydrogen, will form a quantitative whole that we have come to understand as being water, or H2O. A whole in conventional terms, then, is an entity—whether material or immaterial (a car, water, a human, or thoughts expressed in the form of a poem, for example)—that comprises the sum of its parts, is identifiable (or at least has the capacity to be identified), and is, significantly, subject to dissolution or complete loss of identity should a component part be removed. If we remove a component from a car—its engine, for example, which is in itself a whole—we would completely change the constitution of the car. It would no longer be recognized as being a car, given that a car, thought in conventional terms, requires an engine as part of its established identity. In this respect, a whole can only be considered as being a whole, providing it is capable of being given a definitive classification. An entity that cannot be fully classified (a car without an engine, for example), can never be fully known and so cannot be considered to be whole in the terms discussed. A human being who does not fit the ideal form (Plato), or does not conform to the essential classification that constitutes a human being (Aristotle), cannot be considered to be definable as a human being. While they may resemble human beings, they need extended forms of classification in order to differentiate them from the essential form to which they are related (e.g., handicapped, schizophrenic, slow, hyperactive).
Given, then, that conventional thinking considers that a whole can only be understood in terms of it having a specific and definitive identity, that identity must imply a boundary of some sort, one that serves to distinguish one whole from another. A “normal” human being having two legs, for example, is distinguished from a human being who has only one leg. A classificatory boundary is established in order to differentiate the two. Another obvious example is a map. A map of Europe defines the boundaries that distinguish one country from another. The whole of Germany is identified as something distinct from the whole of Italy. Each country is, in turn, made up of identifiable areas that are also distinguished by towns and cities and so forth. The distinguishing areas or parts that together constitute the whole of Germany distinguish it from Italy, which forms another whole country made up of different parts. Moreover, other distinct parts help formulate the essential quality that constitutes Germany and make it distinct: language, architecture, gastronomy, and culture, to name but a few. Germany was, however, in the past, two distinct wholes: East Germany and West Germany. They were considered to be two separate entities then: two identifiable, enduring, and bounded countries each having different political and cultural identities. However, by redefining the boundaries in all respects, they have come together to form a new whole known as Germany. Change has occurred. The enduring properties of two formerly distinct and identifiable wholes have altered, and boundaries have been redefined. This puts into question the enduring properties of wholes as predicated in conventional thought. The boundaries defining two identifiable entities have become porous, enabling the formation of a novel entity, one having new identifiable characteristics.
Nevertheless, no matter what whole it is that we are dealing with as human beings, we continue to define wholes, or entities, as separate, identifiable wholes that can only ever be analyzed in terms of their parts. Thus we define wholes, ultimately, in terms of their essential properties. Our entire world is classified in this way especially as a result of scientific classification predicated on an Aristotelian system of classification. There are, thus, very clear scientific identities, and so boundaries, imposed on the concept of wholes that tend to externalize, objectify, and separate things into clearly identifiable, enduring, stable components ranging from atomic structure to the properties of the universe. This is how we human beings continue to make sense of the world.
Wholes can be technological, metaphysical, or naturally occurring entities. A car or a computer may be considered to be a technological whole, the complete works of Shakespeare as a metaphysical whole (presented in some actual form like a book or a play), while a tree or a human being may be considered as a natural whole. Whether technological, metaphysical, or natural conventional thinking requires that wholes are able to be reduced to their essential qualities. However, Deleuze (1988) and later Deleuze and Guattari (1987) offered an alternative way to consider the world by introducing and developing the concept of assemblages.