Essay 51: “The Whole:” a Quick Second Look

We started this book with a quote from Wittgenstein “Light dawns gradually over the whole” and argued that the meaning of the “whole” is and will be elusive forever.

That is as it should be:

Think of the final pages of John Dewey’s classic book, The Quest for Certainty.  You’ll sense how Dewey oscillates between the “pin-down-ability” of the “whole” and its eternal slipperiness:

“Diversification of discoveries and the opening up of new points of view and new methods are inherent in the progress of knowledge.  This fact defeats the idea of any complete synthesis of knowledge upon an intellectual basis.  The sheer increase of specialized knowledge will never work the miracle of producing an intellectual whole.  The astronomer, biologist, chemist, may attain systematic wholes, at least for a time, within his whole field.

“Man has never had such a varied body of knowledge in his possession before, and probably never before has he been so uncertain and so perplexed as to what his knowledge means, what it points to in action and in consequences.”

(Dewey, The Quest for Certainty, Capricorn Books, 1960, pages 312/313)

Wholeness, Dewey senses, like the white whale in Moby-Dick, “won’t sit for a portrait.”   That is why the student should take an eternally “non-rigid” answer to these questions which are “arguments without end” and that’s fine.