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  • Value and Conceptions of the Whole: The Views of Dewey, Nagel, and Gamwell
  • William J. Meyer (bio)

William James once suggested that the underlying difference between empiricists and rationalists is that empiricists explain wholes in terms of parts, while rationalists explain parts in relation to wholes.1 Whatever the merits of this description, it is fair to say that modern thought has predominantly followed the empiricist habit of emphasizing parts and particularity rather than wholes and totality. This essay explores the views of three philosophers who have challenged this dominant trend. In various ways, John Dewey, Thomas Nagel, and Franklin Gamwell have argued that the meaning and value of human life are only properly understood in relation to the whole of reality. To be sure, Dewey embraced the empiricist mantle. Nevertheless, whether it was due to his early neo-Hegelianism or to his persistent holistic conception of the world, he always resisted the reductionistic tendencies of modern empiricism. Likewise, Nagel and Gamwell appreciate the insights of empiricism while also rejecting its tendency to ignore, deny, or downplay the importance of the whole. But what do Dewey, Nagel, and Gamwell mean when they speak of the whole? This article sets forth and critically compares their respective answers. Specifically, I will examine what I will call Dewey’s imaginative whole, Nagel’s centerless whole, and Gamwell’s integrative whole. But before beginning this comparative analysis, let me set forth some conceptual terms and distinctions.

I. Conceptual Terms and Distinctions

In thinking about the nature of a whole, one is brought back to the perennial question of the relation of the one and the many. That is, when one speaks of the whole, is one referring to a sum total of the many, or is one referring to an integration of the many into one? In regard to the former, I will refer to the whole as an aggregate totality—the sum total of all parts of reality. [End Page 53] When one thinks of the whole in this sense, one is conceiving of reality as a vast collection of distinct parts without any necessary or internal relations among them. Alternatively, in regard to the latter, I will refer to the whole as cosmic integration—reality integrated into one. What I have in mind here is something akin to a metaphysical version of e pluribus unum: out of many, one. When speaking of the whole in this sense, one is implying that there are internal relations that integrate the many into one so that reality as a whole is genuinely a uni-verse. Thus, summarily stated, a whole in terms of aggregate totality is a collection of parts without any necessary interrelation among them, whereas a whole as cosmic integration requires an element of interrelation and harmonization. Indeed, an integrative whole requires an organizing center that makes it a singular rather than merely an aggregate. As Schubert Ogden observes, “An aggregate, or composite, is distinguished from a singular . . . because it lacks the unity of the singulars composing it.” That is, an aggregate lacks “the subjective unity of any of its members,” whereas a singular entails such unity. Aggregates, Ogden adds, “are subject to change, however, [they are] not subjects of change” precisely because they lack subjective unity.2 So my notion of cosmic integration implies the notion of a singular, whereas an aggregate lacks integrated unity.

At this initial juncture, some might ask whether I am speaking of the whole in terms of a judgment (as a mental concept) or as an object (as a characteristic of reality). Let me offer two preliminary responses. First, conceiving of an aggregate as a whole is an act of judgment, an act of thinking of the many as a collective one. For instance, if I say the house consists of many bricks, the oneness of the house is an aggregate, a sum total of many bricks. The individual bricks are not internally related to or affected by each other; thus, one can change them without affecting the rest of the house. For instance, if one cuts a house in half either to remodel it or to make it smaller, the remaining portion of the house...


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