DOI: 10.5176/0000-0001_1.1.10

Authors: Trond Gansmo Jakobsen


Reductionism and holism are two of the most resistant traditions in the formulation of a possible philosophical and theoretical position in the life sciences. Reductionism comes in different forms. Historically it has been expressed in mechanistic terms conforming to physicalist explanations and causal laws. Using natural kind language, reductionists regard biological entities and kinds as potentially necessary and sufficient categorical properties for membership much in the same way as the chemical elements in the Periodic Table. Holists, on the other hand, argue that biological kinds represent “novel” properties, i.e., properties that are not reducible to the “mere sum of parts”. Biological kinds cannot submit to natural kinds owing to their plural complexity and vagueness. Traditionally, holist approaches have had a bad reputation and have not been particularly welcomed in the scientific establishment. Nowadays, they are allied to the science of complexity. There still are two “antagonist” positions, however. My purpose in this paper is to argue for a possible reconciliation. By arguing that biological kinds are not natural kinds but functional kinds, I challenge the view of reductionism and holism as two diametrically opposed positions in the life sciences.

Keywords: reductionism, holism, natural kinds, scientific essentialism, causal powers, dispositions, biological kinds, functional kinds, functional realism

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