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Synergy, parts, wholes

Synergy is a term that is sometimes used by laymen that could use some more clarification.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines synergy as:

The interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects: ‘the synergy between artist and record company’

Origin: Mid 19th century: from Greek sunergos ‘working together’, from sun- ‘together’ + ergon ‘work’.

A common understanding is that synergy means that “a whole that is more than the sum of its parts”.  Since I’ve said that “Systems thinking is a perspective on parts, wholes, and their relations”, a richer appreciation may come through working through a selective history on parts and wholes.  Let’s step through:

  • 1. Wholes as composites differentiating from mechanical addition (Smuts 1926)
  • 2. Gestalt psychology “different from” and “something else than” (Koffka 1935)
  • 3. Levels as “hierarchization” or “progressive organization (or individualization)” (von Bertalanffy 1932-1949 via Drack 2009)
  • 4. Normative model of work group synergy (Hackman 1987)
  • 5. Logical type in hierarchy theory (Allen 2008)

A challenge in appreciating a whole is: what is meant by more than?  In addition, is there a possibility for a whole to be less than the sum of its parts?  The formalization of systems theory (in the modern sense) didn’t really rise until the 1950s, so rather than going back to ancient Greek philosophers, let’s start in the 20th century.

1. Wholes as composites differentiating from mechanical addition (Smuts 1926)

Holism was coined as a term in the 1920s.  Jan Smuts was an amateur botanist, better known as a statesman, soldier and prime minister (1919-1924, 1939-1948) of South Africa.  The Encyclopedia Britannica writes:

Until he went to school at the age of 12, Smuts lived the life of a South African farm boy, taking his share in the work of the farm, learning from nature, and developing a life-long love of the land. Many years later, when asked by an American botanist why he, a general, should be an authority on grasses, Smuts replied, “But my dear lady, I am only a general in my spare time.”

Smuts’ career in politics and passion for botany shows up in appreciating a whole as more than mechanism.  In the 1926 book Holism and Evolution, he wrote:

The whole is not a mere mechanical system. It consists indeed of parts, but it is more than the sum of its parts, which a purely mechanical system necessarily is. The essence of a mechanical system is the absence of all inwardness, of all inner tendencies and relations and activities of the system or its parts. [….]

A whole, which is more than the sum of its parts, has something internal, some inwardness of structure and function, some specific inner relations, some internality of character or nature, which constitutes that more. And it is for us in this inquiry to try to elucidate what that more is. The point to grasp at this stage is that, while the mechanical theory assumes only external action as alone capable of mathematical treatment, and banishes all inner action, relation or function, the theory of the whole, on the contrary, is based on the assumption that in addition to external action between bodies, there is also an additional interior element or action of bodies which are wholes, and that this element or action is of a specific ascertainable character.  [Smuts 1926, pp. 103-104, editorial paragraphing and emphasis added]

Wholes are therefore composites which have an internal structure, function or character which clearly differentiates them from mere mechanical additions or constructions, such as science assumes on the mechanical hypothesis.  And this internal element which transforms a mere mechanical addition or sum into a whole shows a progressive development in Nature. Wholes are dynamic, organic, evolutionary, creative.  The mere idea of creativeness should be enough to negative the purely mechanical conception of the universe.

It is very important to recognise that the whole is not something additional to the parts: it is the parts in a definite structural arrangement and with mutual activities that constitute the whole. The structure and the activities differ in character according to the stage of development of the whole; but the whole is just this specific structure of parts with their appropriate activities and functions. Thus water as a chemical compound is, as we have seen, a whole in a limited sense, an incipient whole, differing qualitatively from its uncompounded elements Hydrogen and Oxygen in a mere state of mixture; it is a new specific structure with new physical and chemical properties. The whole as a biological organism is an immensely more complex structure with vastly more complex activities and functions than a mere chemical compound. But it must not be conceived as something over and above its parts in their structural synthesis, including the unique activities, and functions which accompany this synthesis. It is the very essence of the concept of the whole that the parts are together in a unique specific combination, in a specific internal relatedness, in a creative synthesis which differentiates it from all other forms of combination or togetherness. The combination of the elements into this structure is in a sense creative, that is to say, creative of new structure and new properties and functions. These properties and functions have themselves a creative or holistic character, as we shall see in the sequel.  At the start the fact of structure is all-important in wholes, but as we ascend the scale of wholes, we see structure becoming secondary to function, we see function becoming the dominant feature of the whole, we see it as a correlation of all the activities of the structure and effecting new syntheses which are more and more of a creative character.  [Smuts 1926, pp 104-105, emphasis added]

Smuts’ larger work on holism brings up ideas of creative activity, progress and development of wholes, so evolution and time are also involved.  Let’s skip forward a decade into another field.

2. Gestalt psychology “different from” and “something else than” (Koffka 1935)

Gestalt, says wiktionary, is a German word that doesn’t have quite the same sense in English.  Gestalt psychology focuses on innate mental laws leading to principles of perception.  A core idea, attributed to Kurt Koffka, was that a whole could be perceived as a shape or form, with parts as secondary.  One of Koffka’s associate, Grace Heider, commented on the much misquoted phrase from her memory at a meeting circa 1932.

I also remember [Kurt Koffa] making a fine distinction when a questioner asked him whether Gestalt psychology wasn’t mostly a matter of saying that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts:  “No, what we mean is that the whole is different from the sum of its parts.”  [Heider 1977, editorial emphasis added]

Synergy is a term that is sometimes used by laymen that could use some more clarification.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines synergy as:

The interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects: ‘the synergy between artist and record company’

Origin: Mid 19th century: from Greek sunergos ‘working together’, from sun- ‘together’ + ergon ‘work’.

A common understanding is that synergy means that “a whole that is more than the sum of its parts”.  Since I’ve said that “Systems thinking is a perspective on parts, wholes, and their relations”, a richer appreciation may come through working through a selective history on parts and wholes.  Let’s step through:

  • 1. Wholes as composites differentiating from mechanical addition (Smuts 1926)
  • 2. Gestalt psychology “different from” and “something else than” (Koffka 1935)
  • 3. Levels as “hierarchization” or “progressive organization (or individualization)” (von Bertalanffy 1932-1949 via Drack 2009)
  • 4. Normative model of work group synergy (Hackman 1987)
  • 5. Logical type in hierarchy theory (Allen 2008)

A challenge in appreciating a whole is: what is meant by more than?  In addition, is there a possibility for a whole to be less than the sum of its parts?  The formalization of systems theory (in the modern sense) didn’t really rise until the 1950s, so rather than going back to ancient Greek philosophers, let’s start in the 20th century.

1. Wholes as composites differentiating from mechanical addition (Smuts 1926)

Holism was coined as a term in the 1920s.  Jan Smuts was an amateur botanist, better known as a statesman, soldier and prime minister (1919-1924, 1939-1948) of South Africa.  The Encyclopedia Britannica writes:

Until he went to school at the age of 12, Smuts lived the life of a South African farm boy, taking his share in the work of the farm, learning from nature, and developing a life-long love of the land. Many years later, when asked by an American botanist why he, a general, should be an authority on grasses, Smuts replied, “But my dear lady, I am only a general in my spare time.”

Smuts’ career in politics and passion for botany shows up in appreciating a whole as more than mechanism.  In the 1926 book Holism and Evolution, he wrote:

The whole is not a mere mechanical system. It consists indeed of parts, but it is more than the sum of its parts, which a purely mechanical system necessarily is. The essence of a mechanical system is the absence of all inwardness, of all inner tendencies and relations and activities of the system or its parts. [….]

A whole, which is more than the sum of its parts, has something internal, some inwardness of structure and function, some specific inner relations, some internality of character or nature, which constitutes that more. And it is for us in this inquiry to try to elucidate what that more is. The point to grasp at this stage is that, while the mechanical theory assumes only external action as alone capable of mathematical treatment, and banishes all inner action, relation or function, the theory of the whole, on the contrary, is based on the assumption that in addition to external action between bodies, there is also an additional interior element or action of bodies which are wholes, and that this element or action is of a specific ascertainable character.  [Smuts 1926, pp. 103-104, editorial paragraphing and emphasis added]

Wholes are therefore composites which have an internal structure, function or character which clearly differentiates them from mere mechanical additions or constructions, such as science assumes on the mechanical hypothesis.  And this internal element which transforms a mere mechanical addition or sum into a whole shows a progressive development in Nature. Wholes are dynamic, organic, evolutionary, creative.  The mere idea of creativeness should be enough to negative the purely mechanical conception of the universe.

It is very important to recognise that the whole is not something additional to the parts: it is the parts in a definite structural arrangement and with mutual activities that constitute the whole. The structure and the activities differ in character according to the stage of development of the whole; but the whole is just this specific structure of parts with their appropriate activities and functions. Thus water as a chemical compound is, as we have seen, a whole in a limited sense, an incipient whole, differing qualitatively from its uncompounded elements Hydrogen and Oxygen in a mere state of mixture; it is a new specific structure with new physical and chemical properties. The whole as a biological organism is an immensely more complex structure with vastly more complex activities and functions than a mere chemical compound. But it must not be conceived as something over and above its parts in their structural synthesis, including the unique activities, and functions which accompany this synthesis. It is the very essence of the concept of the whole that the parts are together in a unique specific combination, in a specific internal relatedness, in a creative synthesis which differentiates it from all other forms of combination or togetherness. The combination of the elements into this structure is in a sense creative, that is to say, creative of new structure and new properties and functions. These properties and functions have themselves a creative or holistic character, as we shall see in the sequel.  At the start the fact of structure is all-important in wholes, but as we ascend the scale of wholes, we see structure becoming secondary to function, we see function becoming the dominant feature of the whole, we see it as a correlation of all the activities of the structure and effecting new syntheses which are more and more of a creative character.  [Smuts 1926, pp 104-105, emphasis added]

Smuts’ larger work on holism brings up ideas of creative activity, progress and development of wholes, so evolution and time are also involved.  Let’s skip forward a decade into another field.

2. Gestalt psychology “different from” and “something else than” (Koffka 1935)

Gestalt, says wiktionary, is a German word that doesn’t have quite the same sense in English.  Gestalt psychology focuses on innate mental laws leading to principles of perception.  A core idea, attributed to Kurt Koffka, was that a whole could be perceived as a shape or form, with parts as secondary.  One of Koffka’s associate, Grace Heider, commented on the much misquoted phrase from her memory at a meeting circa 1932.

I also remember [Kurt Koffa] making a fine distinction when a questioner asked him whether Gestalt psychology wasn’t mostly a matter of saying that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts:  “No, what we mean is that the whole is different from the sum of its parts.”  [Heider 1977, editorial emphasis added]

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