As ecological consciousness grows more thinkers are putting forth holistic interpretations of the world which tackle the age-old problem of the one and the many that poses the two questions: how can a thing with many parts be one and how can there be many things of one kind? The classic formulation of it was given by Plato, to whom writers today still refer, dismissing his solution as it is commonly but incompletely understood. In this essay I present that philosopher’s brilliantly insightful approach to the riddle and use it to explain how we in fact see and know the one in the many.
The usual view of Plato’s position is taken from The Republic in which he presumes that the objects of human thinking exist in a realm of ideas separate from the material world. According to this view my thought of a triangle is not of this one drawn on the paper in front of me but of the eternal perfect triangle in that other realm. Going further, Plato ascribes the reality of all things to those ideas, reducing the familiar material plane to a shadowy reminder of it.
Delving into that intelligible world the later dialogue Parmenides particularly examines the “One,” which is both the idea and the reality of unity. The character Parmenides reasons that if unity is such a distinct entity, there must also be the indefinite “Others” which is every other kind of thing and quality in the universe massed together and combined in a manifold in which they are different but not distinct. This conception of the Others can be traced to the Greeks’ mythological notion of Chaos that existed before structure came into the world. Having introduced the One and the Others as separate the philosopher then brings them together in thought, causing all the Others to become unitary distinct things and qualities. Combining with each of the formerly indistinct other things and qualities, the One is multiplied in all these new units while itself remaining distinct as the One.
Plato is above all a logician chiefly focused on analyzing our concepts or ideas of things. Every one includes unity, for it is a unified concept or idea. Our idea of a triangle is such a one, and we think of the figure as a unitary object. Meanwhile it has parts – lines and angles which are identified in its definition. The ideas of these are also separate units, and we consider their objects to be discrete as well. So in thought and in Plato’s intelligible universe the triangle is not one but seven! For the combination of lines and angles is one; the three lines that compose it are each one as are its three angles. The marriage of the One and the Others spawns as units every different thing and quality and every combination of them in which their components, which remain manifold, are indivisibly united.
The triangle is composed of the parts I have identified, and they are related; for example one of the lines may be the hypotenuse of a right triangle. While in the world of ideas the individual lines and angles are distinct from the plain triangle, the hypotenuse intrinsically belongs to the right triangle. So unlike the simple combination of lines and angles that forms the basic figure, this specific kind has a two-dimensional component. In thought the hypotenuse is present in the foreground, so to speak, while the right triangle is in the background of a single indivisible idea. There is no separate idea of hypotenuse apart from that triangle, although one might think of it separately as a line.
One of the qualities included in the Others is existence, so from it, and contrary to the common interpretation of Plato’s work, come all distinct things in both the intelligible and material worlds. The problem that arises from this consequence is that while a combination of ideas or Forms might have material existence, the component parts in it discerned by thought remain in the intelligible world. A particular cat, which is a unitary combination of a multitude of qualities, is present before me, but its specific quality of “catness” that I behold is not in it but rather in the intelligible world.
Although Parmenides discloses this drawback in Plato’s system, it otherwise presents a superb model for understanding nature as both one and many, for our acts of perceiving and apprehending objects in thought function like the One combining with the Others. I look upon a prairie and have a single image of it in which certain defining features such as the level expanse of grass are prominent. The object of my attention is the prairie, the whole, so I see all of the particular things that compose it indistinctly. Now I focus my gaze on single bison that appeared in the previous image, this time seeing it distinctly as a single whole object while the prairie appears less distinct as its background. The image of the bison specifically is not cut out of the first image, nor is it a magnification of a part of it. Rather, it is a separate and different image that highlights certain defining features of the bison. In the first image the bison is an indivisible part of a certain whole, and in the second it forms a new whole. The first image is analogous to the bison as it might exist in an indefinite state within the Others, while the second image corresponds to what it would be distinct and unified in combination with the One.
This exercise can be repeated with the bison as a whole animal having parts. When I look at the whole certain defining features such as shape, colors and texture of fur stand out. Now I look specifically at the tail, and this image highlights its defining features – the long thin shape and tuft at the end. Like the hypotenuse of the right triangle, this image is of the tail of the bison, as the animal’s body or at least some rear portion of it appears less distinctly in the background of the single image in which the tail appears distinctly in the foreground.
In addition to the visual image of an object I also have an intuition of it. Intuition is the immediate apprehension of the function of a thing and is distinct from sense perception. It takes place concurrently with such perception, but one can focus their attention specifically on either an intuition or sense perception, shifting the other into the background of one’s awareness.
Intuition proceeds in the same way as focused sensory perception: I’m aware of the animal as a living whole with manifold functions. Those of walking, breathing, perceiving and all the rest cannot be separated, although I can focus my attention specifically on its walking, eating or other single activity in a two-dimensional intuition of that function of the animal. I can also separately intuit parts of it and different aspects such as those by which it is classified as a mammal, bison, female or mature.
Along with the kinds of wholes and parts I have named, I can see and intuit collective wholes and parts, for example a bison herd or a single member of it. Likewise I can experience an ecosystem in perception and intuition or organic parts of it separately. In this last kind of act I experience the part specifically as a part, for the other option exists of experiencing it as a distinct whole.
Seeing the one in the many is thus a two-part process: first one sees or intuits the whole, then sees or intuits different parts as parts of the whole. In these last images or intuitions the parts appear distinctly in the foreground while the whole appears less distinctly in the background of single unitary intuitions or images. As I indicated above, neither the parts nor the whole appear quite the same in the successive views of them.
We understand nature to be an indivisible whole composed of innumerable things that have multiple identities as they function as whole entities and as parts of so many other nested and intersecting whole structures. This makes each a functional manifold in a total universe in which no thing is absolutely separate or distinct but only relatively so. Our acts of seeing and intuiting carve the indivisible world into so many different objects, but this is not random because our consciousness is an indivisible functional part of the whole as well. By nature it delineates bodies and their relations, identifying natural kinds which are the essential characters shared by many things that are yet individualized in nonessential respects. Properly seeing and comprehending the world requires that we understand how our consciousness operates: it does not begin with separate building blocks then construct whole objects but rather begins with whole beings then discerns the parts that belong to them.
Teaser photo credit: Plato in his academy, drawing after a painting by Swedish painter Carl Johan Wahlbom. By After Carl Wahlbom – http://runeberg.org/famijour/1879/0077.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=122598