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Aggregativity: Reductive Heuristics for Finding Emergence

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 April 2022

William C. Wimsatt*
University of Chicago
Department of Philosophy, 1050 E. 59th Street, The University of Chicago, Chicago, IL., 60637. E-mail:


Most philosophical accounts of emergence are incompatible with reduction. Most scientists regard a system property as emergent relative to properties of the system's parts if it depends upon their mode of organization—a view consistent with reduction. Emergence can be analyzed as a failure of aggregativity—a state in which “the whole is nothing more than the sum of its parts.” Aggregativity requires four conditions, giving tools for analyzing modes of organization. Differently met for different decompositions of the system, and in different degrees, these conditions provide powerful evaluation criteria for choosing decompositions, and heuristics for detecting biases of vulgar reductionisms. This analysis of emergence is compatible with reduction.

Symposium: Emergence and Supervenience: Alternatives to Unity by Reduction
Copyright © Philosophy of Science Association 1997

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Parts of this will appear also in my paper for Richard Levins (Wimsatt 1997) and collection of essays on reductionism and the analysis of complex systems (Wimsatt 1998). I want to thank three unidentified referees and especially Lindley Darden for extensive and helpful clarificatory comments.


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