Morton's Perverse Holism - A Twelve-step program

A year ago I attended a lecture by Timothy Morton . I had not seriously read anything of Morton except a quite extravagant paper called “From modernity to the Anthropocene: ecology and art in the age of asymmetry”, which flamboyantly combined Hegel, art and ecology in a manner I do not recall. The lecture was equally flamboyant, and can perhaps best be described as a confused rant that simultaneously felt very genuine and personal. The lecture can be listened to integrally here . Some time after the lecture, I watched an interview of Morton with his publisher, in which in particular his conception of holism struck me as refreshing.

The most summary description of holism undoubtedly is the phrase: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” It concerns the emergence of a synergetic phenomenon that cannot be properly understood by only referring to its constituent parts. In other words, it concerns a phenomenon that is not reducible. In philosophy I often dealt with this idea in my studies of hermeneutical phenomenology, but in Artificial Intelligence it is equally relevant for understanding the emergence of intelligence from the complex interactions of smaller units (e.g. neurons) that are in themselves not intelligent. But although this fundamental idea is common to many different disciplines, this connection does not imply a simple consensus but instead a common question mark. So let us not assume the meaning of holism is self-evident: it implies a complete mereology, the metaphysics of the ongoing dialogue between wholes and parts.

In the following I quickly want to offer a twelve-step program of Morton’s “perverse” conception of holism from the interview and the lecture a year ago, as far as I can remember it.

  1. Ecological speech often has a theistic element: the idea that the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. This whole is then usually called “Nature”, preferably with a capital N.

  2. But does this theistic admiration of the whole not also imply that the parts are to some extent expendable? Take for example James Lovelocks idea of ‘Gaia’. Thinking of the whole as greater than its parts contributes some sort of “agency” to this whole, giving it relative independence from its constituent components. When seeing “the bigger picture” the extinction of species can be conceptualized as a mere shift in components; humans might go extinct, but Nature will survive and find some new balance. Perhaps the “agency” of the whole can in that sense be characterized as the act of balancing out. Insofar as this balancing is only visible from the perspective of the whole (which is non-attainable “from within”), it seems destructive and chaotic insofar as things like extinction are part of the job. In any case the whole is here somehow conceived as something grandiose. “Nature” is now given as an example, but according to Morton any entity would suffice, only the scale differs. Humans, cars, butterflies, name it, my laptop. The side-effect of this view is that parts are in principle considered to be expendable components, subjected to this grandiose whole. But is this the right meaning of: “the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts”?

  3. Morton’s dilemma: he does not want to simply consider entities as subjected to their whole (whatever that may be), but at the same time he definitely is a holist in the sense that he does not believe entities can be reduced to their parts. In other words, if he wants to keep calling himself a holist, what does his holism then precisely mean?

  4. The perverse twist: what if the whole is less than the sum of its parts?

  5. This is an intuitive truth for object-oriented ontology according to Morton. (Ontology for Morton refers to the study of how things exist, not the study of what exists. The latter Morton calls “object-policing.” This also resonates with the phrase “The how is the what” that Morton kept repeating during his public lecture in Nijmegen; a basic phenomenological insight that he cleverly adapted.) Morton’s object-oriented ontology says: if something exists, it exists in the same manner as everything else that exists. That is, all existing objects have a gap between how they are and how they appear. This gap irreducible and yet transcendental: appearance and being, despite the gap between them, inextricably go together,

  6. Morton takes his hand as an example of an object. The hand is one whole, but when considering each of the fingers, that are part of the hand, they are all also themselves considered as a whole, not simply as a part. This is where Morton makes his perverse inversion of holism. Conclusion: There is more “whole” in the sum of the parts than there is in the “whole” of the hand… 5x whole > 1x whole. The whole of the hand is less than the parts.

  7. This subversive conceptual reasoning that raises suspicion about the idea that the whole would be greater than the parts, has a political dimension for Morton insofar as a strong belief in the “greater good” of the whole can lead to justification of violence. Ontology, Morton likes to say, is political. And it should never justify subjection to a whole.

  8. The mantra of object oriented ontology is that everything is an object, and than everything exists in the same way. It is therefore incompatible with a more classical idea of holism, because that classical conception contributes to the whole a different way of being. In this classical sense, that the whole is more than its parts could also mean that ontologically speaking the parts exist to a lesser degree, that they are “lower” in being. Conversely, when Morton says that the whole is less than its parts, this “less” is not intended to imply an ontological difference in the way of being, but instead a quite radical egality: if everything exists fundamentally in the same manner, then the “more” in holism almost (or completely?) becomes a numerical notion: there are simply more parts than wholes.

  9. The latter insight is also why object-oriented ontology and ecological thought seem to be natural allies: both human and non-human beings, of whatever kind, exist in the same way. Nature in this sense is thus not something “other” than the sphere of human existence (the term “sphere” is already unfavorable for Morton’s thought because it seems to imply something that is closed off).

  10. We as humans exist inside various wholes of differing scales but are not subjected to them, e.g. the biosphere, or liberalism or capitalism, which manifests itself physically in various forms around the globe (they are all also objects, nothing more and nothing less). However, we should be careful with talking about increasingly bigger entities, such as the ecological crisis, in what Morton calls a “my god is bigger than yours competition”, again referring to the theistic element of holism that has as a side-effect that we feel overwhelmed by and subjected to the whole.

  11. Instead, Morton suggests, we should try to redirect our attention away from those big entities to smaller ones, because although they are physically big, they are ontologically smaller according to his perverse holism. When we walk in a forest, we encounter flora and fauna, trees, deer, fungi, but we never encounter “Nature”. Accordingly, Morton’s insights concerning holism should change how we can meaningfully practice things like nature preservation.

That’s my recap of Morton’s argumentation related to holism, condensed in a twelve-step program. At this point, I am mostly left with questions, which might be because I’ve never read any of Morton’s books. In any case, I deemed a twelve-step program appropriate for a philosopher that seemed to be in the middle of a drug-induced manic episode and frantically kept insisting he’s a bad philosopher (or not one at all).

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Alex on Tuesday, Mar 5, 2019:

Fun write up. Even ended up listening to 30min of the lecture. I’m not sure I see the confusion, but then I’m not a philosopher. Was also inspired to go over some actions I can take on global warming. Follow-up lecture: ? 😛

Edwin on Wednesday, Mar 6, 2019
In reply to Alex

Alan Watts is cool, I’ll try to listen to your suggested lecture when I have time. Glad to hear that it inspired you! I’m not sure to what extent Morton’s philosophy is a call to action though. The confusion pertains not so much to the content of what Morton said in the lecture, as to the question how hearing all this changes our attitude towards the ecological crisis and how we (should?) deal with it. Watch for example this review of the book he published in 2018, which describes his approach as a sort of ecological psychotherapy that does not aim to change our behavior directly. As a result, we are sort of left behind with the confusion “What to do?". And as the review also says, we do not even know we can trust the therapist…

Bronckel on Thursday, Mar 14, 2019:

Lovely post Edwin. Great stuff. I like how you are able to write about this nettlesome topic so to the point. There is an interesting link by the way between OOO and Cantor’s Theorem, in the work of Meillassoux, proving the superiority of parts over any ‘whole’ that ‘contains’ these parts.

Edwin on Thursday, Mar 14, 2019
In reply to Bronckel

Thank you very much, I would love to hear more about that connection! Will you write a blogpost about it? I have a weak spot for continental metaphysics that dares to dabble with math. At the same time of course, we always have to be suspicious of philosophers using some math theorem opportunistically for their own theories. But this inherent danger only makes it more exciting to me… :-)

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