No, Aristotle Didn’t Write “A Whole is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts”

(…but he said something that could kind of be misconstrued that way.)

From the website T.E. Wealth:

“First coined by the philosopher Aristotle, this phrase aptly defines the modern concept of synergy. For anyone who has played team sports, it echoes the T.E.A.M. acronym—together, everyone achieves more. At T.E. Investment Counsel, it embodies how we take our investment process to the next level, bringing unparalleled value to our clients.”

Goodreads also attributes this to Aristotle so does quote fancy. A simple google search will show that there is an alarming uptick in the casual assertion that Aristotle said this. He didn’t. He said something kind of like this…

This line was clearly listed as a attribution and not a correct quotation on quoteland. The quotation is not attributed to Aristotle when it shows up in connection with Gestalt psychology. Indeed, a search of google books of the 20th century shows this proverbial saying as a generally unattributed axiom. The earliest example I can find so far is an essay by Patterson Dubois in the Pennsylvania School Journal, vol. 39. This essay certainly seems partly informed by some of the categorization in Aristotelian Metaphysics.

As some have noted online and as Seán Stickle informed us (@seanstickle), the closest passage from Aristotle which comes close to the apocryphal quotation is this:

Aristotle, Metaphysics 8.6 [=1045a]

“Concerning the challenge we just faced about how to describe things in numbers and definitions, What is the reason for a unity/oneness? For however many things have a plurality of parts and are not merely a complete aggregate but instead some kind of a whole beyond its parts, there is some cause of it since even in bodies, for some the fact that the there is contact is the cause of a unity/oneness while for others there is viscosity or some other characteristic of this sort. But a definition [which is an] explanation is one [thing] not because it is bound-together, like the Iliad, but because it is a definition of a single thing

Περὶ δὲ τῆς ἀπορίας τῆς εἰρημένης περί τετοὺς ὁρισμοὺς καὶ περὶ τοὺς ἀριθμούς, τί αἴτιον τοῦ ἓν εἶναι; πάντων γὰρ ὅσα πλείω μέρη ἔχει καὶ μή ἐστιν οἷον σωρὸς τὸ πᾶν ἀλλ᾿ ἔστι τι τὸ ὅλον παρὰ τὰ μόρια, ἔστι τι αἴτιον, ἐπεὶ καὶ ἐν τοῖς σώμασι τοῖς μὲν ἁφὴ αἰτία τοῦ ἓν εἶναι, τοῖς δὲ γλισχρότης ἤ τι πάθος ἕτερον τοιοῦτον. ὁ δ᾿ ὁρισμὸς λόγος ἐστὶν εἷς οὐ συνδέσμῳ καθάπερ ἡ Ἰλιάς, ἀλλὰ τῷ ἑνὸς εἶναι.

If anyone can find a better passage, please leave it in the comments.

One twitter correspondent who may be Aristotle the living demigod suggested a separate text for the sense (Topica 6.13)

Also, maybe Aquinas

(I love twitter for this stuff)

There’s always Hesiod too (Works and Days 37-41)

“For we have already divided up our inheritence, but you
made off with much more as you kowtowed to bribe-taking
kings, the men who long judge this kind of case.
The fools, they do not know how much half is greater than the whole
Nor how much wealth is in mallow and asphodel.”

ἤδη μὲν γὰρ κλῆρον ἐδασσάμεθ’, ἄλλα τε πολλὰ
ἁρπάζων ἐφόρεις μέγα κυδαίνων βασιλῆας
δωροφάγους, οἳ τήνδε δίκην ἐθέλουσι δικάσσαι.
νήπιοι, οὐδὲ ἴσασιν ὅσῳ πλέον ἥμισυ παντὸς
οὐδ’ ὅσον ἐν μαλάχῃ τε καὶ ἀσφοδέλῳ μέγ’ ὄνειαρ.

Image result for medieval manuscript mathematical axiom
From here.

17 thoughts on “No, Aristotle Didn’t Write “A Whole is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts”

  1. Ah….so….I think that it is very much still being attributed to Aristotle. It is quite readily being banded around in Social Work MA…hmmmn.

  2. Oddly enough, whereas both Google and Systran failed to translate ἔστι τι τὸ ὅλον παρὰ τὰ μόρια or produced gibberish, Bing/Microsoft’s online translator came up wth What’s the whole thing about the molecules?” Care to explain your translation?

  3. If it is true that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, then it is also true that the sum of its parts is greater than the whole. In both cases we have a whole and then some.

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