Parts and Wholes Again (As Always)

I’m going to include an unusually long quotation in this post, from scientist and philosopher Abner Shimony.

“…collective behavior in macro physical systems and in biological cells can often be explained in great detail in terms of the properties and interactions of the parts…An ontology in which individual human beings have a fundamental mode of existence, while societies, institutions, cultures, etc. have only a derivative existence [emphasis added] should suffice for the social sciences. The reasonableness of this claim is reinforced by reflecting on the actual and potential richness of the psychological states of individual human beings: an entire culture, with its language, literature, rituals, etc. can be internalized within one human psyche. That human beings are biologically social animals does not imply that the society has a more fundamental ontological status than individual human beings, or even an independent status. DNA is a ‘social molecule,’ functioning as a template for the construction of RNA, which in turn guides the construction of the proteins needed in the life of the cell; but the social nature of DNA does not endow the cell with a holistic ontological status. At least, there is no need to do so for the purposes of understanding causal sequences in the cell. The more precisely causal sequences are understood in the social sciences, I believe, the more clearly will the ontological primacy of individual human beings be evident.”

As an admirer of Adorno I can’t help but admit that thoughts like these would make him roll over in his grave, at least to the extent that they justify atomized American life, which the social sciences do, especially when they bear down on immediate experience – what Shimony calls particular “causal sequences.” But Shimony is not a positivist. Take Adorno’s formula “only the whole is true, but the whole is false” as the true critical attitude, and Shimony makes the cut. This will be one of the themes of my book, that a lot of contemporary art mistakenly takes social abstractions for realities, or just cynically plays by that assumption as a way of smoothing its path through the world.

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