The Limits of Reductionism in the Life Sciences

History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 33 (4):453-476 (2011)
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In the contemporary life sciences more and more researchers emphasize the “limits of reductionism” (e.g. Ahn et al. 2006a, 709; Mazzocchi 2008, 10) or they call for a move “beyond reductionism” (Gallagher/Appenzeller 1999, 79). However, it is far from clear what exactly they argue for and what the envisioned limits of reductionism are. In this paper I claim that the current discussions about reductionism in the life sciences, which focus on methodological and explanatory issues, leave the concepts of a reductive method and a reductive explanation too unspecified. In order to fill this gap and to clarify what the limits of reductionism are I identify three reductive methods that are crucial in the current practice of the life sciences: decomposition, focusing on internal factors, and studying parts in isolation. Furthermore, I argue that reductive explanations in the life sciences exhibit three characteristics: first, they refer only to factors at a lower level than the phenomenon at issue, second, they focus on internal factors and thus ignore or simplify the environment of a system, and, third, they cite only the parts of a system in isolation.

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Marie I. Kaiser
Bielefeld University


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