The concept of reductionism has become an integral part of our daily lives. "The terms 'analytic' and 'reductionist' refer to a particular mental attitude or manner of thinking that has dominated the modern period"(I) and has replaced the synthetic and hierarchical pattern of thought. "This transformation occurs in virtually every domain...including, theology, philosophy, literature, politics, economics, and art, but its typical seminal form is to be found in the sciences, the natural sciences"(IV). Before focusing on the effect of reductionism in the areas of art and science, it is important to first understand the difference between the synthetic and hierarchical pattern of thought and analytic and reductionist pattern.
The synthetic and hierarchical pattern of thought consolidates and integrates. Instead of reducing the explanation to a lower, more specific level, the whole belongs to a 'higher' level of being and meaning than the 'lower' level parts which it includes" (IV). This higher level includes and accounts for the existance of the lower level, therefore emphasizing mutual dependence. The parts, which cannot exist without the whole, are defined in terms of what lies above them rather than in terms of the elements from which they are constructed. This concept can be seen in the early stages of biology, for example, when emphasis was put on arranging species in a static system of taxonomy, and also in chemistry with Mendeleev's establishment of the periodic table.
The hierarchical approach is readily appearant in artwork from the Middle Ages and Renaissance period. Pierre Rosenberg wrote, "While this hierarchy of content is not understood today, it had a profound significance during an epoch in which painting sought to...have a profound meaning, elevate the spirit, present a moral lesson or serve as an example".(I) For example, this Rembrandt painting, Belshazzar's Feast, shows the "hierarchical pictorial organization that implicitly supports the content"(I) used in premodernist paintings. (Click on image to view the painting more clearly). Our attention is drawn to certain areas of the painting more than others, for the emphasis centers on the bright spot whereas the humans who are all gazing there as well are less important and, therefore, secondary in focus. In premodernist paintings such as this one, the degree of hierarchization can be made evident by dividing the painting into a grid of squares and using a scale to number each square based on its importance within the painting. As will be shown, this technique is very different from the concept of reductionism in which each part of the painting has equal significance.
(Other good examples of this hierarchical approach include Fabriano's Madonna and Child, with Saints Lawrence and Julian and Scheffer's Saint Thomas Preaching during a Storm
Instead of defining elements in terms of a 'higher' level, this pattern of thought reduces the phenomenon to a more basic level. Processes, elements, problems, etc. are looked at and analyzed in terms of the 'lower' levels and parts from which they are constructed.
This concept "assumes that understanding a given phenomenom requires first, the discovery of a new, more fundamental level of reality that lies beneath or behind the familiar level of understanding, and second, that this new basic level can be analyzed or broken down into subsystems, elements, relationships, processes, and so on, which account for and explain the observations at the familiar level" (I).
Descartes:"Method consists entirely in the order and arrangement of those things upon which the power of the mind is to be concentrated in order to discover some truth. And we will follow this method exactly if we reduce complex and obscure propositions step by step to simpler ones and then try to advance by the same gradual process from the intuitive understanding of the very simplest knowledge of all the rest" (IV).
PARTS vs. WHOLE: Reductionism "finds the ultimate meaning of the 'object' not in its inherent qualities but in the parts which compose it and in the lateral relations of those parts"(IV). The whole is equal to the sum of its parts, the significance being that if the whole is the same as the combination of its parts, there is no whole. Only the parts exist. Therefore, one should study the lower level elemental parts as the meaning of the whole instead of regarding the whole as the meaning of its parts. Put simply, "reductionism collapses (or reduces) the higher level of meaning and being into the lower level of elemental parts; when this collapse occurs what is left is not the whole but its parts" (IV).
STRUCTURE: Some arguments, however, do not put as much emphasis on the individual significance of the parts.
Whyte's Defintions(Source: II)
- Atomism: the reduction of complex data to finite numbers of fixed unit factors.
- Form: the vague sense of overall shape of line, surface, or volume, or more precisely the ordering of parts which determines these shapes.
- Structure: form seen inside, as a definite arrangement, static or changing, of localizable parts, such as a pattern of points.
For example, Jacob Bronowski writes, "Structure is both a logical and an architectural conception: the recognition of an order among individual pieces in which the peices are illuminated by their total arrangement. In the Renaissance vision, the pieces still had functions in themselves; they were not mere featureless units. In the vision of our age...the units are atoms, which are as indistinguishable as the bricks in a building. The pieces have lost (or almost lost) their own meaning, and the structural or logical pattern is in complete command...We study in crystals not what they are made of, but how they are put together; our study is directed by the fundamental fact of geometry" (III). This paragraph does not contradict the concept that the parts create the meaning of the whole because it is saying that the whole is defined by the way in which the parts are arranged. As with modern art which tries to give each part of a painting equal significance, the parts of a structure are weighted equally, and it is, therefore, their arrangement that is important. Although, Bronowski is not as emphatic about the elimination of the whole's significance, he uses the concept of atomism to explain the whole in terms of the relationships between its parts, which in itself is what reductionism is all about.
For more on structure and form click here.
To see how the concept of Reductionism affects SCIENCE and MODERN ART!
To learn more about the concept of Reductionism in other fields, refer to the article "On Reductionism" by Gerald L. Smith which analyzes the elements of 'rational analysis' set out in Descartes' Rules for the Direction of the Mind(1625-28) and explores how reductionism is a part of every domain in life.
Article: Jennifer King
May 25, 1996.