Reductionism for Dummies


  • To call a judgment “reductionist” carries a negative connotation, implying omission or oversimplification.
  • Every judgment is technically reductionist, for it must reduce attention to a single element of experience, separate its critical from its inessential components, correctly identify their relationship, and find the proper language to communicate what has been learned.
  • The empirical philosophers revealed the uncertainty of each effort at reduction.
  • Romantic philosophers condemned the “murder by dissection” that reason requires.
  • Empirical science demonstrated the inadequacies of naïve analysis, otherwise called “common sense.”
  • Postmodern criticism frequently attacks judgments as reductionist, but it almost never defines what is lacking, a necessary subterfuge since its warrant cannot privilege any judgment as objectively superior.

 Formally, a reductionist argument is one that assumes a phenomenon can be explained by examining the relation of its parts to find causal connections that make sense of the phenomenon. Nothing odd in that. Another name for that approach is analysis. So how did the term reductionism get so covered in dirt that merely leveling the charge against an argument is assumed by many contemporary academics to be sufficient to discredit it? Therein lies a definitional tale of two zeitgeists.

Anyone educated before the 1970’s would have to detect tone to know whether the use of “reductionism” in appraising an explanation was descriptive or pejorative. Any explanation, hypothesis, or theory that examined the components of a thing in order to understand it better might be judged to be reductionist, whether those things were material, intellectual, emotional, or spiritual. Of course, some things lend themselves to that effort better than others. So while a watchmaker might nonjudgmentally be called reductionist in his efforts to examine the mechanism of a defective watch, the Enlightenment’s metaphor of the Watchmaker who passively examines the universe’s mechanical gyrations might be more open to criticism because the explanation perhaps lacks possession of the necessary objects of analysis, viz both God and the universe. In the latter case, the reductionist charge would be an accusation as well as a description of method.

But in this modern sense, at least in regard to any attempt at explanation as opposed to purely physical manipulation, the analyst faces issues Francis Bacon famously dissected in his Novum Organum. First, she must disentangle the object of her study from its nesting place in all of reality without doing damage to its integrity, to reduce it from the rest so to speak, and this prior to even holding it as an object of study. Second, she must take that object apart along its natural fault lines, to reduce it to its constituents, so as to make sense of it. Third, she must then correctly identify the relationship among these parts, to reduce the number of possible kinds of connections, so as to explain rather than merely describe. To the modern mind as opposed to the postmodern, these relationships are inherent and constitutive though not in the same way as the parts themselves.  They delineate proper functioning or relation of the thing in reality, ontic conceptualizations rather than ontological entities, which means we take them from the analysis rather than from observation. Finally, she must use language to communicate what she has discovered, effectively to reduce misunderstanding or ambiguity, which adds further distortive opportunities to the effort to explain what she thinks she has discovered. At each of these four stages of analysis, she might blunder into reductionism. To the modern mind, the error involves an incorrect correspondence between the thing and the analysis seeking to understand it. It should be plain that any analytic attempt adds the rational operation of the mind to the objective reality of the thing under investigation, so “reduction” is hardly an accurate characterization in any case.

This traditional method so central to the scientific enterprise and to critical thinking in general was gradually shredded by its own methodology. The Romantics called foul on what might be called the act of severance, championing the organic nature of reality, treasuring context over particularity and aesthetics over analysis (see “The Act of Severance”). The empiricist philosophers challenged the proposition that relationships are real in anything like the same sense as the things they connect. Causal connections, for instance, exist in the mind rather than nature. This modernist critique eventually came to the conclusion that we have no access to knowledge of things-as-they-are but only to things-as-we-perceive (see “Modernism and Its Discontents). Gradually and almost imperceptibly, modernism began to view any effort to vouchsafe reality itself as reductionist in a negative rather than a necessary sense and all such efforts as distortions of a hypothetical correspondence between reality and our understanding of it. Rigorous empirical examinations were excluded from this criticism initially, but even these came under suspicion in the barrage of doubt that attended World War I and its aftermath (see “The Limits of Empirical Science.”). Distortive reductionism became a convenient and standard charge as postmodern thought grew formalized in academic environments in the last third of the last century (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents“).

Our own era has embraced all of these objections and added its own, primarily relating to the impossibility of disinterested analysis and the limits of language to define any kind of correspondence without prejudice. With access to so many points of objection, it would be a rare act of analysis that could escape the charge of reductionism today. It is both a tribute to the centrality of analysis to human thought and a sad commentary on our era’s quality of thinking that the charge is only selectively leveled in contemporary life rather than fired at any theoretical or explanatory effort. Attempts to tar scientific paradigms, theories, laws, and hypotheses with the reductionist brush have largely failed to stick, presumably because of science’s spectacular record of technological success, though it confounds me as to why science should be exempt from the charge that postmodernists level at every kind of analysis. Except, of course, their own. The postmodernist critique is every bit as analytic as any of the “grand narratives” it condemns. It embraces the same ontological confidence and dispassionate stance despite its own relentless attacks on objectivity. For all of its admirable criticisms of language’s discursive limitations, postmodernism talks the talk of the psychoanalyst as often as of the storyteller. It seems that our propensity for explanatory dissection is less a product of extant power relationships than of our natural mode of thinking (see The Tyranny of Rationality).

None of this is to attempt to defend reductionism indiscriminately. It is hard, sometimes impossibly hard, to establish even a tentatively correct correspondence between the human mind and the reality it seeks to know, and in such efforts we may well fall prey to reductionist errors of evidence or reasoning.

But it is, I think, fair to say that calling an argument or theory reductionist in itself is hardly an insult or refutation. I suggest responding to that charge with a simple question. Ask your critic what it is that she knows that renders your analysis false, for her charging you with incorrect reduction implies that she knows what your reductionism has improperly removed. Have her supply that.

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