How to Think about the World

I hear, I hear, with joy I hear!
—But there’s a Tree, of many, one,
A single field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone.

Is the world a bunch of small bits, aggregated and built up into something complex? Or is it primarily a systematic whole, in which the parts exist? 

The question is abstract. It is difficult to know where to start (with a part of the issue or the whole?). It might not be worth starting at all. But versions of the question exist in every facet of life. For me, the deeper I push into any issue, the more I feel like this question is the only one that matters. Because, in some form or other, every question is this question. 

Consider two examples from American politics. 

There are debates about the meaning of individual instances of police brutality. Part of why the killing of George Floyd was so powerful was not that it was distinctive but that it was normal. Rather, the regularity of the violence is distinctive. But then the debate collapses under an inability to think about parts and wholes, individuals and systems, instances and structures. Under the surface of polarization is confusion about what the world is. 

Some are perplexed at protests because, according to them, the issue should instead be the details of the case. We should zoom into the fine, granular parts. If Floyd was on drugs, if he was resisting, or if the police felt threatened, the fury of protesters appears irrational and opportunistic. By contrast, if the true injustice is found in a system, like a culture of policing or criminal justice generally, protests inevitably expand. What appears focused on a singular case is, at bottom, about something larger. Systems by nature involve interconnection and relation. So a march against an instance of murder is actually an objection to a whole world in which racism, capitalism, technology, political polarization, and much else are interlocking and mutually supporting realities. One prosecution and conviction, far from being justice, presupposes the arms of injustice that were protested to begin with. And for any reform proposed by advocates of racial justice, to the extent that the reform is systematic (indeed a revolution!), it is seen as impractical and a threat to our way of life. To the extent that the reform is more granular, it is seen as ignoring the heart of the problem. 

Another, slightly more abstract example of the question is found at the core of the American self-conception. Talk of individualism makes assumptions about what the country and world is. The foundational bit is the individual human being. It is the locus of rights, responsibility, and action. Community shows up downstream, as we aggregate the individuals into families, neighborhoods, cities, and so on. E pluribus unum. On this view, problems should be considered at the granular, specific level. That is how to get to the truth of the matter. 

The contrasting collectivism has the opposite view of the world: the individual is unintelligible, invisible, illegible without a system that explains the connections and relations that make individuals what they are. 

The debate is not about how society should be arranged but is first descriptive: what ultimately is the world? An individualist is likely to say that socialism or communism (political arrangements that can emerge from collectivism) is unnatural. Saying it gets “human nature” wrong means, at bottom, that it gets nature wrong. When politics fights against nature, everyone loses. 

The collectivist might respond that it is individualism that distorts the world. If people were to shift their perspective slightly, they would notice that the drive to hold on to one’s status as an autonomous, independent individual requires fighting with nature. We all lose together. 


In my experience (and in the opinion of other thinkers in history), all debates at some level involve and are generated by these two apparently conflicting approaches. 

The top-down—the bottom-up. System-first—individual-first. Whole to part—part to whole. 

Knowing this, there are numerous ways to respond: 

  • Perhaps one is truly superior to the other. I might recognize the distinction as mutually exclusive and choose to be either an individualist or a holist, full stop. The two, after all, seem incompatible.
  • Perhaps they are better suited for different issues. I might be an individualist in one situation and a holist in another. The question then is which situation calls for which.
  • Perhaps each issue needs both. I might switch back and forth or start with one and end with the other. The question then is how to start. 

Which to choose? How to go about choosing? 

True to my claim that all questions are this question, my most recent string of articles can be read as an attempt to reason through it. For example, I proposed that the Coronavirus pandemic is a strong argument against individualism and for holism. My thought was that a pandemic teaches the extent to which health is a collective phenomenon. More recently, I considered the paradox of attempting to have a personal politics. Does becoming aware of yourself as an individual political actor involve noticing the lack of difference between yourself and others? Can you step outside of a community and system in order to understand it—a process that would involve conceiving of yourself as separate from the whole? 

The progression is from the thought that holism is superior to individualism (an emotional pull I still feel, because holism is underrepresented in many contexts) to the thought that something deeper is happening. 

I have come to suspect that the two approaches—individualism/holism, bottom-up/top-down, part/system—are one and the same. There is no genuine difference between them. 

When you are doing one, you find, on closer inspection, that you are doing the other. The more you attempt to understand an individual specific detail, the more you see that understanding it is identical to understanding the system. Likewise, to understand a system is to see it both as an individual and as instantiated in its parts. If you were to assign to me an individual object to explain, the result of my investigation, if it were complete, would also be an explanation of the systems of which the object is a part. In the end, no matter my method, I would have only one explanation. 

As you describe what individual-first thinking is, you eventually realize that you’ve been describing system-first thinking the whole time. And vice-versa. In other words, the attempt to draw a clean distinction between the two types of thinking would collapse when you attempted to explain what was distinctive about each one. You would always find yourself explaining the other too.   

This is different from claiming that issues involve an interchange of both individualistic and holistic thinking. It is instead the claim that, although I might take myself to be switching back and forth between them, achieving a fuller understanding of the issue necessarily involves the sameness of the two. I might initially notice that one enables the other, or one exists in the other, but eventually I will see that the two interpenetrate each other to such a degree that I surrender any notion of their distinction. 

There are two processes working in parallel. First, I attempt to understand something more deeply (an issue in politics, ethics, science, philosophy, art, relationships, etc.). We are all doing this all the time. It is thought in general. Second, in the attempt, I utilize different approaches, starting either with parts of the issue or with the issue as a part of a greater whole. As I understand more deeply, the two approaches become less distinct. It may appear that each approach is self-sufficient and independently reliable, like I could utilize only one to achieve my goal, but this is because each approach is also the other. I may attempt to set the system aside to focus on an individual part, but the moment I take a step forward, the system comes back in and makes the step possible—guiding it and providing a place for it to land. More intuitively, if I decide to focus only on the system, I am inert until I find an individual part to fix my thinking on. 

The parallel processes are not independent. As I hinted, the object of understanding and the method I use in seeking the understanding are isomorphic. They have the same structure or path. (They may also be the same!) If I achieve a full understanding of something, I also notice that my understanding includes seeing the object as simultaneously a part and a whole. Viewing it in only one way distorts it, not because the two ways are distinct, but because I think they are distinct. So I approach my understanding in a way that mirrors, or becomes, what the thing actually is. 

I am not giving an argument for a position. We do not begin by being convinced of the identity of individual-first and system-first thinking and later move to consider political, moral, or philosophical issues. The identity of the two approaches is manifest in a full understanding of more concrete issues. Confirmation is supplied by a type of experience. I am merely inviting. We set out first to do politics. Then we come to understand ourselves as the whole system. 

You cannot lose the forest for the trees. And you cannot lose the trees for the forest.

2 thoughts on “How to Think about the World”

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