Tarde Again

Puss in Boots. The definitive micro/macro tale.

Back to Gabriel Tarde.

Tarde took (at least) two beliefs we tend to have and turned them inside out and upside down. The first was one I've written about here before - click here if you're interested - about scale. We think there are such things as small things and big things. We talk about the 'micro' and the 'macro' level. Generally we think big, macro things are made up of aggregates of small, micro things, like building a Lego block tower. But we take it a bit further than that, because we treat the macro and micro as distinct things - 'the whole is greater than the sum of its parts'.

We think the whole is greater than the sum of its parts because we don't understand wholes, and we don't understand parts. There seems to be more to a government than just all of the different voters added up in some way (why people often talk about 'the government' as if it were some thing floating above us). Our 'minds' seem to be able to do things which you can't explain by adding up all the different atoms, organs and bones we're made up of.

Tarde realised, through his experience as a judge and statistician, that this was all wrong. He saw that wholes are not the 'sum' of parts at all. Wholes are parts as well. They're parts that have taken on the role of representing (or more accurately - re-presenting - see here and here) other parts, but they remain parts just like everything else. They're not 'bigger' than parts, again they're just parts like everything else. Scale is an illusion. When a government represents its people, at no point does anything jump in scale from the individual to some 'whole' that is 'the government'. A prime minister and political party are all just individuals, but individuals that have taken a handful of the many million of characteristics of people and offered to act for people in those areas.

For example a government takes care of defence and education and health care. Each one of us has an interest in each of these things. And we are generally happy to delegate responsibility for those functions to 'the government'. But nowhere does the government suddenly become some 'macro' actor that is somehow bigger than individuals - the prime minister and ministers and the bureaucracies which administer such things are all individuals too. They're strung together in networks which make them appear to be bigger than individuals, to be sure, but every single point on that network remains individual - a part.

The whole is not greater than the sum of the parts because there is no summing going on at all. The metaphor is wrong. The 'macro' thing takes on its power by individuals/parts adding their support to the part that has taken on the role of re-presenting individuals, in a specific area. So if a political party says "we will do X and Y in education", and a majority of individuals decide they want them to do that, then that political party will be given power to do that. But the party will always still be a collection of individuals, and that power is only ever given provisionally by everybody else. The party can be out on its ear at the next election. The government does not 'have' power - power isn't something you can handle or hold. It is always from the 'bottom up', but that's another metaphor that's wrong, because there is no bottom, and no top. The bottom and top are just parts - everything always is. Individuals always decide the fate of wider collective things - it's their individual choices which either grant or don't grant the 'wholes' the appearance of power and effectiveness. And collective things are just parts, made up of other parts strung together in networks, each point of which is completely individual i.e. another part.

So the whole is always less than the parts. Much less. It's takes some tiny sample of characteristics of individuals and acts in those areas. But it's also, again, just another part, so there are no wholes and no parts anyway. There are just parts - some with millions of characteristics (you and me), and some with maybe a few hundred at most, which take on the role of acting for all other individuals in some specific areas only.

This is not at all to support the lunatic rabid 'individualists' in politcs and elsewhere who think everything is the individual. They amazingly deny that individuals even delegate this small subset of things to other parts to act for them. To them anything that's not obviously an individual is some evil, artificial force floating above us and imposing its will. Government for them is nearly always an evil thing, restricting individual liberty. But similarly, those who think the individual is a fiction, and 'society' is the real thing, make the same mistake in the opposite direction. One group of loons assume only small things are real, the other group assumes only big things are real. But there are no small things, and no big things. Scale is an effect, not a property. Einstein said the same thing in science - without specifying the instrument you're measuring something with, it makes no sense to say anything about space or time. Something is only 'big'relative to something else, measured with some instrument.

This is a central theme of Puss in Boots. Puss in only a few small steps dissolves the illusion that the difference between his master being a poor peasant and a prince is some enormous, essential chasm.

Read your kids fairy tales, they're much wiser than the 'educational' rubbish that's on offer these days.

Next time I'll get onto what Tarde had to say about numbers.


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