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I am looking for an which adjective/adverb/phrase which refers to understanding all of the smaller components of something without understanding what they mean when put together. "We understand every letter, but don't understand the words."

For example, say we understand what it means when P -> Q and we understand what it means when Q -> R, but we don't necessarily understand what it means when P -> Q -> R (i.e. P -> Q and Q -> R at the same time).

The purpose, for those of you who know mathematics, is that I am writing a graph theory paper. Each edge corresponds to certain, well-understood behavior in an algebraic structure, but what happens when these behaviors happen at the same time has not been studied (until this paper, of course).

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Sounds like you are trying to reference emergent properties. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emergence – Josh May 9 '13 at 5:21
@Josh Perfect, this is exactly what I was looking for. – Alexander Gruber May 9 '13 at 5:44
up vote 6 down vote accepted

The common idiom for this is can't see the forest for the trees, especially to express the sentiment that somebody can't see the whole because of information overload from the details. While that might not fit well into the context, there is some potential for allusion to the term leaf node from tree and graph theory.

The loan word gestalt, meaning a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, might better fit the tone of a mathematical paper.

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Yes, but note "forest" is the more recent American version of British wood. – FumbleFingers May 8 '13 at 1:57
@FumbleFingers Thanks, I did not know that! – Bradd Szonye May 8 '13 at 2:00
Couldn't see the wood for the forest. – Edwin Ashworth May 8 '13 at 7:56
Note that a forest is also terminology for a graph whose connected components are trees... :) – Alexander Gruber May 8 '13 at 18:30
Awesome answer! It is correct in a general sense, has pleasing nuanced meaning in context of mathematics, but does not cause confusion because it is clever. – Ellie Kesselman May 20 '13 at 1:39

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