The Laziness of Reductionist Analyses

In his review of David Luke‘s translation of Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger and Other Stories W. H. Auden wrote,

Polar opposites as in appearance they look, the two literary doctrines of Naturalism and Art-for-Art’s-Sake, as propounded by Zola and Mallarmé, are really both expressions of the same megalomania. The aesthete is, at least, frank about this. He says: “Art is the only true religion. Life has no value except as material for a beautiful artistic structure. The artist is the only authentic human being: all the rest, rich and poor alike, are canaille.”

The naturalist is more disingenuous. Officially, he says: “Down with all art that prettifies life. Let us describe human life and nature as they really are.” But his picture of life “as it really is” is a picture of human beings as animals, enslaved to necessity, who can only manifest behavior and are incapable of personal choice or deeds. But if human beings are really as the naturalist describes them, then they cannot be loved or admired. Who can be? Only the naturalist himself for his accurate clinical observations. Like all kinds of behaviorists, he does not apply his dogmas to himself. He does not say: “My books are examples of behavior, conditioned by blind reflexes.” The hidden link between the naturalist and the aesthete is revealed by the total absence in both of any sense of humor. [links added]

An absence of a ‘sense of humor’ it seems, is almost endemic to all reductive, ‘X is nothing-but or merely Y’ style analyses (as in the example of the naturalist above, who suggests that books are nothing but examples of conditioned behavior). They are also depressingly narrow-minded and lacking in imagination.

Wittgenstein once pointed out–in his critique of psychoanalysis–that a facile reduction of this sort was misguided for the most elementary of reasons: when it was over, you simply weren’t talking about the same thing any more. Boil a man down to flesh, blood and bones to show us that that was all he was, and what you’d have left was a bag of just that. You wouldn’t have a man any more.

All too often, reductionist analyses fail to answer the most basic questions about their enterprise: Why is one necessary? How would it be accomplished? What explanatory power or insight do we gain with the new language of description that is now afforded by these ‘nothing-but’ locutions that you provide us? What would we lose in its place? A reduction for reduction’s sake seems extremely unappealing.

This is not to discount the explanatory power that some reductionist analyses have afforded us, especially within the sciences. But even there, occasionally, as the misguided efforts to reduce biological explanations to exclusively physical and chemical ones shows, the seductive allure of the catch-all, explain-all impulse dies hard. That same urge fuels the intemperate extension of the reductive net to catch all manner of fish, be it literature, psychology, or the social sciences.

Auden is right: the reductionist is megalomaniacal and a bore. He fails to see that what makes inquiry interesting is the creation of meaning in rich and diverse forms; he’d rather channel that fundamental impulse into some narrowly circumscribed channel. And Auden is right too, about the lack of a sense of humor. The universe is laughing at you behind your back anyway; why not join in and crack a joke or two yourself?

5 comments on “The Laziness of Reductionist Analyses

  1. “It has always seemed strange to me that holism and reductionism should elicit such strong passions among scholars. They are, after all, only the philosophical methods characterizing different kinds of scientific progress. The reductionists tend to be contemptuous of all holists, for they feel they alone have the key to the universe. Holists know they have a broad perspective, a large insight, whereby they can see all the riches missed by the single-minded reductionist. In principle it would appear so easy to be both at once, but human nature is such that it enjoys taking positions on philosophical or political dichotomies, ignoring totally the possibility that some of these dichotomies are not genuine antitheses of the either-or category, but are complementary. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is the holist who sees and understands the dimensions of the problem and it is the reductionist who in the long run will produce the most satisfying type of explanation. The one cannot do without the other.

    “Often in a particular field at a particular stage in its development it is impossible to do anything other than examine the problems holistically. Furthermore a holistic approach has, in many cases, produced significant progress. It is probably true that it is a necessary stage without which the reductionist progress could not be made. Initially, it is the only way of describing the problems and grouping the facts. Were this not done the chaos would be complete. However, despite the strengths of a holistic approach, one should not fear reductionism as an evil. When it comes to a field, it should be greeted with caution, but also with pleasure. The caution is needed because there is a degree of oversimplification where the exceptions may accumulate to such an extent that clearly they no longer prove the rule, but prove the need for a more refined theoretical insight. The more traditional holism keeps the perspective in the field, even when reductionism is rushing forward at a dizzy pace.”

    John Tyler Bonner

    • Samir Chopra says:


      Thanks for that great quote. As I note in my comment, I don’t doubt the utility or quality of some reductionist analyses – great explanations are sometime forthcoming as a result of them. But as Bonner notes, the reductionist will frequently be carried away by these and become a little ambitious (and arrogant). It is that attitude that I think is the primary target of my ire here.

  2. […] My contribution to this ‘debate’ is going to be a good old-fashioned rehashing, from an older post on the laziness of reductionist analyses: […]

  3. […] The bit about the lack of imagination is crucial; it is reductionism’s greatest sin. It lazily insists on returning all conversations to the same terminus. Again, intellectuals are not the only ones to stand indicted of this failing, but their sin is […]

  4. […] chatter? He might think so, but what Tyson is actually engaged in is displaying the perils of facile reductionism and the scientism it invariably accompanies and embellishes; anything can be redescribed in […]

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