Picking a fight with a saying: ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’

Used when something turns out to be really impressive, it’s supposed to be a positive thing to say. I get it, and that the intention behind it is good, but there are three nagging aspects of this saying that really rub me up the wrong way.

It’s a silly and particularly pedantic hill on which to plant my flag, but I’m going for it. My issues with the saying “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” are to do with:

1. Physics

Literally nothing can be more than the sum of its parts. That’s not how the universe works. Maybe this ‘fact’ is part of the impact that people impart to the saying, suggesting that the end result is so impressive, compared to what can be seen, that it’s metaphysical. Or even magical! For that view to work though, it’s more a case that you’re missing a lot of the…

2. Details

The parts. There are many. There always are. And by the end it’s easy to forget, or even to miss just how many details and facets there are in making up the whole.

In a way, this is a bit like magic, because not knowing the method behind a trick is why it seems so impressive.

When we witness an unbelievable trick, or see art that we could never create ourselves, or read something that conjures more images in our minds than there are words on the page, we’re impressed. And that’s great. But these wonders are the product of thousands of decisions, trials, and errors. An effective kaleidoscope of parts.

This is not to say that things aren’t impressive once you know how they’re done. In fact, quite the opposite. I think that by properly understanding the details, and realising how much has really gone into that thing that seems impossible, is about showing proper…

3. Respect

This is my main gripe with suggesting that a whole seems greater than the sum of its parts. It lacks respect for the hidden effort. All those details were the work of talent and tenacity.

It suggests that the things you don’t see, are insignificant, compared with the end result. Yes, the intent is to respect the end result, but by saying this saying, we ignore and disrespect the hidden effort. The actual magic.

Too much focus on a throwaway compliment?

Perhaps. Though to be clear, I am being partly facetious. It’s a compliment after all, and like most sayings, is said without much analytical thought.

Still, I do stand by the ideas that we should show more respect for effort, and that recognising detail is an important part of appreciation.

Try these yourself – like meditations – next time you think or say the saying.

Pause, and realise properly how impressed you are.