Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics

, Volume 31, Issue 5, pp 371–390 | Cite as

Explanatory pluralism in the medical sciences: Theory and practice

  • Leen De Vreese
  • Erik Weber
  • Jeroen Van Bouwel


Explanatory pluralism is the view that the best form and level of explanation depends on the kind of question one seeks to answer by the explanation, and that in order to answer all questions in the best way possible, we need more than one form and level of explanation. In the first part of this article, we argue that explanatory pluralism holds for the medical sciences, at least in theory. However, in the second part of the article we show that medical research and practice is actually not fully and truly explanatory pluralist yet. Although the literature demonstrates a slowly growing interest in non-reductive explanations in medicine, the dominant approach in medicine is still methodologically reductionist. This implies that non-reductive explanations often do not get the attention they deserve. We argue that the field of medicine could benefit greatly by reconsidering its reductive tendencies and becoming fully and truly explanatory pluralist. Nonetheless, trying to achieve the right balance in the search for and application of reductive and non-reductive explanations will in any case be a difficult exercise.


Explanatory pluralism Reductionism Holism Medical sciences Geneticization Biochemicalization 



Jeroen Van Bouwel is a post-doctoral fellow of the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO). We thank Jan De Winter, Bert Leuridan, and the anonymous referees for their comments on earlier versions of this article. The Research Foundation Flanders (FWO) supported the research for this article through research project G.0651.07.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Leen De Vreese
    • 1
  • Erik Weber
    • 1
  • Jeroen Van Bouwel
    • 1
  1. 1.Centre for Logic and Philosophy of ScienceGhent UniversityGhentBelgium

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