Monday, October 22, 2007

Missing the thickets for the forest

Focus too much on the trees and you can miss the forest. But focus too much on the forest and you can miss the thickets.

If the trees are individual parts or details and the forest is the whole, then thickets are intermediate structures. They are patterns or structures within the whole.

Entities such as car engines, ant hills, brains, languages, ecosystems and economies can not be understood simply by understanding each of their parts in stand-alone terms.

There is a natural tendancy to think that if an entity isn't X, then it must be the opposite of X. If the entities aren't the parts, they must be the wholes. We can end up seeing them as unalloyed, indivisible wholes. Some people practically relish their 'essential wholeness'.

But I think this goes too far. All of those entities have substructures and patterns within the whole, and we understand how they work and their nature by understanding these substructures and patterns, or thickets.

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