, Volume 178, Issue 3, pp 397–427

Part-whole science


DOI: 10.1007/s11229-009-9647-0

Cite this article as:
Winther, R.G. Synthese (2011) 178: 397. doi:10.1007/s11229-009-9647-0


A scientific explanatory project, part-whole explanation, and a kind of science, part-whole science are premised on identifying, investigating, and using parts and wholes. In the biological sciences, mechanistic, structuralist, and historical explanations are part-whole explanations. Each expresses different norms, explananda, and aims. Each is associated with a distinct partitioning frame for abstracting kinds of parts. These three explanatory projects can be complemented in order to provide an integrative vision of the whole system, as is shown for a detailed case study: the tetrapod limb. My diagnosis of part-whole explanation in the biological sciences as well as in other domains exploring evolved, complex, and integrated systems (e.g., psychology and cognitive science) cross-cuts standard philosophical categories of explanation: causal explanation and explanation as unification. Part-whole explanation is itself one essential aspect of part-whole science.


MechanismsHistoryExplanationNatural kindsSystemsComplexityStylesEvolution

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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Philosophy DepartmentUniversity of California, Santa CruzSanta CruzUSA