Interpreting phenomena as sums of parts

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … both parts to assemble and assemblages of parts
  • Knowing is … acting on assembled truths
  • Learner is … an assembler
  • Learning is … putting together
  • Teaching is … breaking things down




Reductionism is a descriptive notion that can be applied to any discourse that embraces the premise that an object, agent, event, or any other type of phenomenon can be fully understood in terms of either simpler phenomena or as the sum of its parts. Significantly, most versions of Reductionism embrace tenets of both Empiricism (e.g., emphasizing evidence) and Rationalism (e.g., emphasizing logical coherence). Types of Reductionism include:
  • Methodological Reductionism – any approach to study that is oriented by an intention to provide explanations for phenomena in terms of smaller or simpler phenomena
  • Objectivism (Ayn Rand, 1940s) – a belief system founded on the assumptions that reality exists independently of one’s consciousness, one’s contact with that reality is mediated by one’s sense perceptions, objective knowledge can be derived from one’s sense perceptions through Inductive Reasoning (see Modes of Reasoning), and art can play a vital role in learning and teaching through physical representations that make specific aspects of reality more available to perception
  • Ontological Reductionism – any belief system in which the entirety of reality is seen to consist of different combination of a few specified parts or elements (such as, e.g., earth, fire, air, and water)
  • Theory Reductionism – an assertion that new, more expansive and/or powerful theories operate by reducing previous theories to simpler or more basic terms
  • Unity of Science – a perspective founded on the conviction that all sciences can be reduced to the laws of physics
Associated discourses include:
  • Atomism – an umbrella descriptor that can be applied to any perspective that regards its phenomenon of interest in terms of fundamental, indivisible parts. Most often, the term Atomism is used to refer to the ancient Greek suggestion (attributed to Democritus, c. 500 BCE), that all matter is made up of indivisible particles called “atoms.” Variations of Atomisminclude:
    • Logical Atomism (Bertrand Russell, early 1900s) – the perspective that the world is made up of logical and independent facts/atoms that cannot be further reduced
    • Social Atomism –­ the perspective that the individual human is the fundamental agent/atom of society – and, by implication, the proper focus of analysis to understand social, institutional, and cultural phenomena
  • Critical Perspective (Critical Intellectual Sensibility; Critical Mode; Critical Philosophical Orientation) (note: should not be confused with Critical Theory, under Critical Pedagogy) – the worldview associated with the rise of modern science, especially its aspects of Reductionism, Objectivity (see Epistemology), Evidentialism (see Empiricism), and Descartes’s Method of Doubt (see Rationalism). Associated discourses include:
    • Post-Critical Philosophy (Michael Polanyi, 1950s) – a science-based critique or the Critical Perspective, asserting it to be dehumanizing as it wrings knowledge of meaning, decontextualizes claims to truth, ignores subjective experience, and separates knower from known
  • Monism – an umbrella term that can be applied to any perspective that asserts a fundamental unity or oneness – for example, that all matter arises from a single sort of substance, that all reality is a single organic whole, or that all existence can be traced to a single source. Types include:
    • Idealistic Monism – the perspective that there is a single substance to reality, and that substance is mind (or spirit)
    • Natural Monism – the perspective that there is a single substance to reality, and that substance is material (see Materialisms)
    • Neutral Monism (William James, Bertrand Russell, 1910s) – the perspective that there is a single substance to reality that is neither physical (of the body) nor mental (of the mind). Examples of Neutral Monism include:
      • Radical Empiricism (William James, early 1900s) – the position that reality consists of pure experience
In terms of consequential constructs, Reductionism is perhaps most evident in perspectives that assume or assert mechanistic dynamics:
  • Mechanism (Mechanical Materialism; Universal Mechanism) – the perspective that all natural forms, including living entities, are machine-like – that is, wholes that can be reduced to the sums of their parts (Contrasts: Gestaltism; Complex Systems Research.)
  • Mechanistic Theory (Mechanical Concept of Mind; Mechanistic Approach; Mechanical-Man Concept) – the notion that human functioning, including consciousness and sociality, can be understood in terms of mechanical processes – that is, that physics is sufficient for making sense of human activity


The major (and condemning) commentaries on reductionism are associated with Emergent Complexity Discourses and Ecological Discourses, which flatly assert the underlying premise of Reductionism is false.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences


Status as a Theory of Learning

While usually applied specifically to discussions of knowledge (rather than learning), the assumptions of Reductionism and its subdiscourses are evident in virtually all Correspondence Discourses.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Reductionism is not a theory of teaching, but its core premise is pervasively present in modern schooling – and especially evident in Directive Pedagogies.

Status as a Scientific Theory

The notion that a phenomenon might be understood by reducing it to simpler phenomena was foundational to modern science, and so Reductionism is integral to both Empiricism and Rationalism. However, the realization that some phenomena transcend their parts has exposed Reductionism as an over-applied assumption rather than a defensible principle of scientific study. It is relevant and appropriate to many phenomena, but it is of limited relevance and use in the study of such complex phenomena as learning.


  • Atomism
  • Critical Perspective (Critical Intellectual Sensibility; Critical Mode; Critical Philosophical Orientation)
  • Idealistic Monism
  • Logical Atomism
  • Mechanism (Mechanical Materialism; Universal Mechanism)
  • Mechanistic Theory (Mechanical Concept of Mind; Mechanistic Approach; Mechanical-Man Concept)
  • Methodological Reductionism
  • Monism
  • Natural Monism
  • Neutral Monism
  • Objectivism
  • Ontological Reductionism
  • Post-Critical Philosophy
  • Radical Empiricism
  • Social Atomism
  • Theory Reductionism
  • Unity of Science

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Reductionism” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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