Reduction and Reductionism

It is common for one aspect to be elevated above others and thereby have the others 'reduced' to it in some way. Often a word ending in 'ism' is evidence for a reduction - we often use the word 'reductionism' to indicate a reduction taken too far. Many are now aware of the dangers of such reductions and especially reductionisms.

But we want to understand, not just condemn or ignore. There are several types of reduction, most of which usually result in some harm or other:

Methodological reduction(ism)

Often, this type is OK, as long as not combined with the others. It is merely the breaking down of a thing into component parts or processes, and can be useful to more clearly understanding it. But too often it goes further, into ontological reduction, to imply, if not say, that the whole is nothing more than the sum of the parts.

Ontological reduction(ism)

According to Roy Clouser, this is called 'eliminative reductionism' because it eliminates all other aspects.

This type of reduction claims that one aspect has no independent status from another, in that its laws are merely outworkings of the other. For instance, laws of the life sciences can be reduced to merely those of physics and chemistry, and those of physics can be reduced to those of mathematics.

Such reductionisms do not deny the usefulness of speaking in terms of laws of the later aspect, but see that doing this is merely a convenience. Rather like using an abbreviation for long word, ontological reduction allows us to use concepts and themes from the later aspect as short-hand for the complex workings of the earlier, but it has no real foundation.

Genetic reduction(ism)

This type is perhaps part of ontological reduction. It claims that the laws of an aspect have been generated from those of another (and are therefore ontologically part of it). The idea of 'emergent property' is in danger of genetic reduction.

A common example is that the laws of society came about merely and purely because of a biological evolutionary process - with the frequent implication that any laws or norms that are post-biological are artificial and to be discarded, and that sex and gluttony reign supreme!

Epistemological reduction(ism)

This type of reduction emphasizes what we know of various aspects, and its prime example is rationalism. This argues that since we need reason to find out the truth about things, whether atoms, sex or music, then, in a way, atoms, sex and music do not exist themselves but are merely the mental constructions we impose on an unordered flow of experiences.

Teleological reduction(ism)

This type of reduction says that only the given aspect is important. No others need be considered. e.g. the 'bottom line', "Money is the Measure of all things". e.g. fundamentalist religion. e.g. "Blood is thicker than water."

This one is particularly dangerous, and subject to fashions. It leads to gross evil even if the participants are upright, honest, well-meaning people.

Idolatrous reduction(ism)

This is a combination of the others, often taken more to extremes, and is probably the worst. It is a characteristic of idols that we treat them as of ultimate worth, we sacrifice other things to them and they do not deliver what they promise (Gouzewaard, 1987, Idols of Our Time).

Idolatrous reduction(ism) occurs when we apply an almost religious devotion to our target aspect.


This is part of The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Questions or comments are very welcome.

Compiled by Andrew Basden. You may use this material subject to conditions.

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Created: 18 May 2013 Last updated: