Holism and reductionism represent two paradigms or worldviews within science and philosophy that provide fundamentally different accounts as how to best view, interpret and reason about a given phenomenon. Reductionism places an emphasis on the constituent parts of a system, while holism places an emphasis on the whole system. While reductionism breaks an entity down so as to reason about the entire system with reference to its elementary parts, holism tries to understand something in reference to the whole system or environment that it is a part of.
Reductionism is the practice of analyzing and describing a complex phenomenon in terms of elementary parts that exist on a simpler or more fundamental level. Reductionism attempts to create a unified description of the world through reducing it to a set of elementary components from which any phenomenon can be explained as a simple combination of these parts. The aim of reductionism is an explanation showing how the higher level features of a whole system arise from the elementary parts. Thus, the higher level features of a system can be largely ignored within the inquiry, allowing us to focus on the lower level parts that constitute it. Reductionism implies an assumption that all higher level phenomena can be understood as some combination of lower level phenomena.
For example, a reductionist approach to interpreting biological entities like cells might take such entities to be reducible to collections of physicochemical elements like atoms and molecules. It would then focus on understanding these particles and how they combine to give the high-level functions and behavior of the cell, instead of focusing on the features of the cell itself. Equally, a reductionist approach to cognition would attempt to reduce higher level cognitive phenomena such as awareness, emotions, and concepts to the basic physical building blocks of the brain: neurons and synapses. The theory of methodological individualism within the social sciences would be another example of a reductionist approach in that it requires that causal accounts of social phenomena be explicable through how they result from the motives and actions of individual agents. The common theme among different reductionist positions consists, above all, of their emphasizing that complex phenomena should be explained by statements about phenomena of a simpler nature.
Holism refers to any approach that emphasizes the whole, rather than the constituent parts of a system. Holistic accounts of the world look for how an entity forms part of some larger whole and is defined by its relations and functioning within that broader system. What all holistic approaches have in common includes the principle that the whole has priority over its parts and the assumption that properties of the whole cannot be explained by the properties of its parts—the idea of emergence. Within this paradigm, the ultimate sources of knowledge are seen to derive not from elementary component parts but, instead, from a reference to the system’s broader context. Given that something can only be properly understood within its context, to gain a fuller understanding of something requires gaining a greater understanding of the environment or context.
Holism posits that a system’s behavior and properties should be viewed as a whole, not as a collection of parts. This often includes the view that systems function as wholes and that their functioning cannot be fully understood solely in terms of their component parts. For example, social psychology looks at the behavior of individuals in a social context because group behavior like conformity cannot be fully understood by looking at the individual in isolation, but instead is best understood by looking at the individual in the context of a whole social group. Likewise, many phenomena, such as the wetness of water, only emerge when the two atoms of hydrogen and oxygen are combined to give water. Neither atom possesses such a characteristic in isolation and thus, we can only talk about the wetness of water when looking at the component parts as a whole.
When contrasted reductionism and holism lead to a number of fundamentally different perspectives on basic questions about causality, objectivity, structure, dynamics, etc. While holism puts forward a top-down view of causality and a dynamic process orientated view of the world that is subjective in nature, reductionism provides a more static, bottom-up and objective perspective.
Subjective and Objective
The reductionist approach typically adopts an objectivist stance. The central tenets of objectivism are that reality exists independently of consciousness and that human beings have direct contact with reality through sensory perception. In its general sense, Objectivism is the position that there is a single ‘real world’ in which human actors are embed. That these ‘real world’ properties and organization are transparent to our perceptual and cognition, and that it is our – or the scientist’s – task to ‘know’ this objective world through empirical inquiry, to achieve a one-to-one correspondence between our conceptual representation of the world and the actual objective world that exists. George Lakoff, in his book Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (1987), outlines the general premise of Objectivism as follows: the world is mappable onto set-theoretic constructs; the world consists of fixed entities and relations among them; logical relations exist ‘objectively’ among discerned entities; symbols represent reality, and cognition is equivalent to symbol processing.
Holistic approaches typically hold the idea that the individual – or the scientist – is not a passive observer of an external universe; that there is no ‘objective truth,’ but that the individual is in a reciprocal, participatory relationship with nature, and that the observer’s contribution to the process is valuable. Due to this recognition to the subjective demotion of the observer’s interpretation, holistic approaches are more inclined to begin by examining the subjective interpretations of the observer, recognizing the need for an effective paradigm before an effective evaluation or model can be formed. The recognition that the holistic approach gives to the subjective interpretation of the observer opens the door for the idea that there may be multiple valid, or at least valuable, explanations. Thus, while reductionism is inclined to search for the one right answer, holism tries to understand a phenomenon by gaining as many perspectives on it as possible and then synthesizing those perspectives into a more complete understanding.
Reductionism and holism reflect two different perspectives on the nature of causality. Reductionism strongly reflects a particular conception of causality. Reductionism leads to the idea of upward causation seeing higher level phenomena as being caused by lower level entities. Phenomena that can be explained fully in terms of relations between other more fundamental phenomena are called epiphenomena. Typically, there is an implication that the epiphenomenon exerts no causal effect on the fundamental phenomena that explain it. The epiphenomena are often said to be “nothing but” the outcome of the workings of the fundamental phenomena.
As a result, according to this view, causation at higher levels of existence, in particular, mental causation, is always in some sense a derivative or epiphenomena caused by lower level interactions. Reductionism then follows a strong organizational pattern of upward causation. Within the reductionist paradigm, upward causality appears the only real plausible “scientific” explanation for phenomena.
When the direction of causal influence extends from macro levels of organization down to micro levels of organization, this may be termed downward causation. Holistic accounts are primarily interested in the workings of how the function and structure of an entity are defined by the broader system or whole that it is a part of. As such, it places a strong emphasis on downward causation, how the whole macro level effects a downward cause on the formation of the parts. Downward causation can be understood as an inverse of the reductionist principle: the behavior, structure, and functionality of the elements in the system are determined by the behavior of the whole. Here, determination moves downward instead of upward.
One readily identifiable example of this would be the constraints and effect a society, as a whole, has on its individual members, thus exerting a downward effect. Down-causality can be seen within societies, where individuals create the culture, institutions and norms but then the intuitions feedback to constrain and enable the agents in the social system so that we get a continuous dynamic between the macro and the micro with causality flowing both ways.
A central aim of the reductionist approach is to reduce phenomena to their single lowest denominator and then define all higher level phenomena in terms of those elementary parts. Thus, reductionist approaches actively strive to reduce all accounts to a single dimension, defining all higher level phenomena as deriving from a single low-level dimension. As such reductionism can be said to be mono-dimensional in its structure. Because holistic accounts are grounded in the concept of emergence—whereby new and qualitatively different phenomena and patterns emerge as we put parts together—it places great emphasis on the multidimensionality to phenomena that exhibit any degree of complexity. A holistic approach suggests that there are different levels of explanation and that, at each level, there are emergent properties that cannot be reduced to those of a lower level. There are emergent properties that cannot be reduced to those of a lower level. For example, whereas a reductionist approach may try and understand a patient’s mental disorder as purely chemical imbalances in the brain prescribing drugs to affect this, a holistic approach would more likely look at different physiological, cognitive and sociocultural factors to deal with the condition at various levels.
Static & Dynamic
Holistic accounts are typically process-orientated in nature, whereas reductionist accounts are more focused on the static properties of elementary parts. Within a reductionist, scientific analysis variables in the environment are kept constant. This allows researchers to repeat experiments in exactly the same way and to detect stable behavior in the variables that are being observed, which in turn leads to predictable outcomes. A central part of the analytical approach is the use of the concept “ceteris paribus” meaning “other things equal.” Variables within the environment are artificially held constant to isolate and perceive the linear effect on a limited number of variables under observation. Thus, the use of reductionism within various domains often involves an attempt to be able to maintain variables within the environment constant so as to be able to control a given system through a limited number of variables.
One of the guiding rules of holism, in contrast, would be “panta rhei” meaning “everything flows.” The idea that everything changes as derived from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus’ observation that one cannot step into the same river twice. Whereas reductionism breaks a process down into static parts, the holistic paradigm is focused on maintaining whole processes and is fundamentally concerned with how things change through the processes that act on them.
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