Parts and Wholes: From Matter to Method

This section explores the ways in which books were partitioned, through paratextual matter (such as preface, table of contents and index) and diagrammatic schemes that visually represented the organization of textual material. These tools suggested an order among parts and helped readers navigate the book and orient themselves in relation to it. At the same time, they offered an abstract of the book, and even a model for processing information. "Analysis," a dividing of a whole into parts, is at once a form of cognition and of textual organization. Schematic diagrams like the Ramist tables shown in theDiagram section are paradigmatic of this intersection, but paratextual matter more familiar to a modern reader is arguably no less theoretical in orientation. Even a simple index, for example, by breaking a book into what it takes to be its most significant parts, constitutes an interpretation of the whole. And a table of contents can be both a guide to use and a theorization of the contents.

Dividing a book into parts is always a form of thinking. This is clearly exemplified in the early modern tradition of commonplacing, a method of making books one's own by breaking them down into, and digesting, their most significant (i.e. usable) parts. The process of thinking in and through parts, so integral to commmonplacing, is related to forms of cognition and textual organization that relied on the isolated and particular case. By making the single case representative, textual discourses such as law, theology and history could identify general theoretical principles and even imply a system of knowledge underlying the case. Case thinking gives priority to the particular as epistemological ground. In doing so, it demands to an unusual degree the reader's participation in the methodical constitution of general knowledge. Books organized as collections of cases offer a material record of the complexities involved in thinking from particular to general as from part to whole.