The blight of reductionism

Reductionism is an approach to building descriptions of systems, such as places or cities, out of the descriptions of the subsystems that a system is composed of, such as architecture, spatial planning and social issues. But in doing so, I would argue, it ignores the relationships between the subsystems. The reductionist perspective thinks about parts in isolation. Many argue this approach is not practical, citing the notion of strong emergence, that there is more to a system than the specification of parts and their relationships.

The power of reductionism is that it can appear self-evident when we look, for example, at simpler things like mathematical formulae. The sum of two and two is four in all but the most totalitarian circumstances! However, there is a danger of simplification if we extrapolate this attractive simplicity to complex 'living organisms' like cities.

Emergence is a useful concept because it can describe the flux, flow and evolution of things like places. It asks what parts of a system like a city do together that they would not do by themselves. Collective behaviour, for instance, could not be described as anything but collective. Clearly, a wave of panic, spontaneous applause or the rise of fascism is not comprehended by looking only at individuals. Emergence is about understanding how collective properties, issues or questions arise from the properties of parts, such as a house, a shop or an office.

In this view, when we think about what 'emerges', we are moving between different vantage points. We see the trees and the forest simultaneously. We see the way the trees and the forest are related to each other. To see in both these ways we have to be able to see details and ignore details. The trick is to know which of the many details we see in the trees are important to know when considering the forest. Conventionally, people consider either the trees or the forest. When one can shift back and forth between seeing the trees and the forest, one also sees which aspects of the trees are relevant to the description of the forest. An urban example would be to see the house and street or the street and city simultaneously.

A useful example is a door key. A key has a particular structure. But describing its structure is not enough to tell someone that it can open a door. We have to know the structure of both the key and the lock, and we have to know that doors exist.

A final crucial point: when we look at things in isolation, we seek truth. In assessing things like places, however, the notion of approximation or 'partial-truth' is more appropriate, indeed is essential for the study of complex systems.24

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment