My question is how reductionism and emergentism/holistic related/same as to top-down bottom-up approach ? Please give me reference if possible
Certainly, here's a table with 10 examples from various fields, showcasing both top-down and bottom-up approaches for both reductionism and emergentism:

Concept Field Top-Down Example Bottom-Up Example
Reductionism Sociology Top-Down: Start with societal norms and policies and analyze their impact on individual behaviors and interactions within a community. Bottom-Up: Begin with the study of individual behavior and interactions among community members, then deduce societal norms and policies that emerge from these interactions.
Reductionism Geology Top-Down: Examine global geological phenomena, such as plate tectonics, and understand how they influence the formation of specific rock formations or geological features. Bottom-Up: Analyze the properties and behaviors of individual minerals and study how their interactions contribute to the formation of rocks and geological structures.
Reductionism Economics Top-Down: Investigate macroeconomic models and government policies to determine their effects on individual consumer behavior and market dynamics. Bottom-Up: Start with individual consumer preferences and behaviors, examining how they collectively shape market dynamics and macroeconomic trends.
Reductionism Literature Top-Down: Begin with literary theories and overarching themes in a novel and explore how these themes influence the characterization and actions of individual characters. Bottom-Up: Analyze the actions, dialogues, and traits of individual characters within a novel, then deduce the overarching themes and literary theories that emerge from their interactions.
Reductionism Environmental Science Top-Down: Study global climate patterns and understand how they impact local ecosystems and species. Bottom-Up: Investigate the behaviors, adaptations, and interactions of individual species within a local ecosystem and deduce their collective impact on global climate patterns.
Emergentism Psychology Top-Down: Explore higher-level cognitive processes, such as decision-making or problem-solving, and analyze how they emerge from the interactions of various lower-level mental functions. Bottom-Up: Begin with the analysis of individual neurons, synapses, and neural networks, examining how their interactions give rise to higher-level cognitive processes.
Emergentism Urban Planning Top-Down: Start with the design and planning of a city's infrastructure and analyze how these urban structures shape the social interactions and cultural dynamics within the city. Bottom-Up: Study the daily activities, behaviors, and interactions of individual residents within a city and deduce how these contribute to the design and planning of urban infrastructure.
Emergentism Ecology Top-Down: Examine entire ecosystems and their emergent properties, such as ecological stability, and work backward to understand how these properties result from species interactions and environmental factors. Bottom-Up: Analyze the behaviors, feeding relationships, and population dynamics of individual species within an ecosystem and explore how their interactions give rise to ecosystem-level properties.
Emergentism Economics Top-Down: Study the emergent properties of complex financial systems, such as market crashes, and analyze how they result from the interactions of various financial instruments and market participants. Bottom-Up: Examine the behaviors of individual investors, traders, and financial instruments within markets and deduce how these interactions collectively lead to emergent financial system behaviors.
Emergentism Artificial Intelligence Top-Down: Explore the emergent behaviors of autonomous AI systems, such as self-driving cars, and analyze how they arise from the interactions of sensors, algorithms, and environmental data. Bottom-Up: Begin with the analysis of individual sensors, algorithms, and data inputs, examining how their interactions give rise to the emergent behavior of autonomous AI systems.

These examples demonstrate how reductionism and emergentism can be applied in various fields, using either top-down or bottom-up approaches to understand complex systems and phenomena.


3 Answers 3


Your question has 2 parts: The first refers to Ontology (reductionism-holism) and the second refers to a part of Epistemology, the Methodic (analytical, or top-down approach and synthetic or bottom-up approach). You will note that I do not include emergentism because it is independent of holism. So, the relation is this: (Reductionism, Analytic) <-> (Holism, Synthetic). Emergentism, which is an ontological thesis, remains outside this dilemma although, definitely, it is the thesis supported by modern science: Reality consists of the following levels that have emerged from the levels that preceded it in time: Physical->Chemical->Biological->Social->Technological. The philosopher Mario Bunge concisely but accurately exposes these issues in his PHILOSOPHICAL DICTIONARY (Prometheus Books).

  • Could you explain in details
    – quanity
    Jul 9, 2023 at 4:35
  • Ontology vs epistemology doesn't translate as reductionism vs emergentism, because both ontology and epistemology can be reductionist or emergentist.
    – quanity
    Jul 9, 2023 at 5:09
  • Our ontology determines our epistemology. The antithesis of reductionism is holism and, roughly speaking, one can say that the respective epistemologies are: For reductionism, analysis and for holism, synthesis. Emergentist uses both, depending on the issue being dealt with, and is therefore syncretic. In the best style of the natural sciences, we have, finally, a scientific philosophy in the way it approaches its subjects of study. Jul 18, 2023 at 4:47

Reductionism and emergence could both be viewed as bottom-up explanations.

Reductionism seeks to explain complex objects, such as an internal combustion engine, in terms of small interacting parts, such as atoms. The function of the larger object is "built up" from the functions of each of the small interacting parts, and in this way we could call it bottom-up.

Emergence, likewise, seeks to explain complex behaviors of a system, such as a sound wave, as a result of the system's small interacting parts. Again, the small interacting parts come first and the complex behavior is "built up" out of them, so this can be called bottom-up.

There is a different concept that some philosophers have called "strong emergence" in which top-level entities in a system somehow exert independent causal influence over lower-level entities. This does not, if you ask me, actually happen, but if it did it would be a top-down process.

Holism is a top-down view of a system, because it emphasizes high-level properties of the system over low-level ones.

  • 1
    Emergentism rejects reductionism, and olds that even though some of the properties of the whole cannot be deduced from its properties of the parts and their interaction, that some of the organisational principles at the higher level organisation cannot be reduced organisational principles at a lower level
    – quanity
    Jul 9, 2023 at 4:49
  • @quanity You're referring to "strong emergence" which I mentioned. The more common sense of "emergence" is reductionist (also called "weak emergence").
    – causative
    Jul 9, 2023 at 4:55
  • For example consciousness (atoms don't have consciousness but humans do have) is strong emergence
    – quanity
    Jul 9, 2023 at 5:01
  • @quanity You're entitled to your opinion. What kind of emergence would you say sound waves or snowflakes fall under?
    – causative
    Jul 9, 2023 at 5:52
  • @quanity Consciousness is not an emergent property arising from lower level physics. Consciousness is not physics at all. Consciousness does have a causal effect on brain cell activity, but that is not emergence as consciousness has no physical properties at all. Jul 12, 2023 at 4:36

Reductionism means efficient causation is the only kind of causation that exists. Emergentism means efficient causation might not be the only kind of causation that exists. Some things (e.g. all living things) appear to be purposes because all of the efficient causality exists for the sake of the production of some whole.

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