Reconstituting Phenomena

Part of the European Studies in Philosophy of Science book series (ESPS, volume 1)


In the face of causal complexity, scientists reconstitute phenomena in order to arrive at a more simplified and partial picture that ignores most of the “bigger picture.” This paper will distinguish between two modes of reconstituting phenomena: one moving down to a level of greater decomposition (toward organizational parts of the original phenomenon), and one moving up to a level of greater abstraction (toward different differences regarding the phenomenon). The first aim of the paper is to illustrate that phenomena are moving targets, i.e., they are not fixed once and for all, but are adapted, if necessary, on the basis of the preferred perspective adopted for pragmatic reasons. The second aim is to analyze in detail the moving-up mode of reconstituting phenomena. This includes an exposition of the kind of pragmatic-pluralistic picture resulting from it.


Reconstituting phenomena Causal complexity Abstraction Disciplinary perspectives Pluralism Nature-nurture 



I want to thank the Center for Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh and Martin Carrier for their great support during the time this paper was written. I also want to thank Bill Bechtel, Uljana Feest, Lisa Gannett, Peter Godfrey-Smith, Jens Harbecke, Evelyn Fox Keller, Helen Longino, Sandra Mitchell, Ken Schaffner and one of the two anonymous referees for interesting and helpful feedback. I want to particularly thank Alexander Reutlinger for the many inspiring discussions related to the topics of this paper.


  1. Bechtel, W., & Richardson, R. C. (1993/2000). Discovering complexity: Decomposition and localization as strategies in scientific research. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Bogen, J., & Woodward, J. (1988). Saving the phenomena. The Philosophical Review, 97, 303–352.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Cartwright, N. (1983). How the laws of physics lie. Oxford: Clarendon.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Caspi, A., McClay, J., Moffitt, T. E., Mill, J., Martin, J., Craig, I. W., et al. (2002). Role of genotype in the cycle of violence in maltreated children. Science, 297, 851–854.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Feest, U. (2011). What exactly is stabilized when phenomena are stabilized? Synthese, 182, 57–71.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Fukuyama, F. (2002). Our posthuman future. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.Google Scholar
  7. Gannett, L. (1999). What’s in a cause?: The pragmatic dimensions of genetic explanations. Biology and Philosophy, 14, 349–373.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Goldstein, D. B. (2009). Common genetic variation and human traits. New England Journal of Medicine, 360, 1696–1968.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Gottesman, I. I., & Gould, T. D. (2003). The endophenotype concept in psychiatry: Etymology and strategic intentions. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 160, 636–645.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Keller, E. F. (2010). The mirage of a space between nature and nurture. Durham: Duke University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Kitcher, P. (2001). Battling the undead: How and (how not) to resist genetic determinism. In R. Singh, C. Krimbas, D. Paul, & J. Beatty (Eds.), Thinking about evolution: Historical, philosophical and political perspectives (Vol. 2, pp. 396–414). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Kourany, J. (forthcoming February 21). Should some knowledge be forbidden? The case of cognitive differences research [Draft]. Presented at the Fishbein Workshop in the History of the Human Sciences, Chicago.Google Scholar
  13. Kroeber, A. L. (1952). The nature of culture. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  14. Kronfeldner, M. (2009). If there is nothing beyond the organic… : Heredity and culture at the boundaries of anthropology in the work of Alfred L. Kroeber. NTM – Journal of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, 17, 107–133.Google Scholar
  15. Longino, H. E. (2013). Studying human behavior : How scientists investigate aggression and sexuality. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Mill, J. S. (1858). A system of logic, ratiocinative and inductive. New York: Harper & Bros.Google Scholar
  17. Mitchell, S. D. (2003). Biological complexity and integrative pluralism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Schwartz, S. (1998). The role of values in the nature/nurture debate about psychiatric disorders. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 33, 356–362.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Sober, E. (1994). Apportioning causal responsibility. In From a biological point of view: Essays in evolutionary philosophy (pp. 184–200). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Tabery, J. (2009). Difference mechanisms: Explaining variation with mechanisms. Biology and Philosophy, 24, 645–664.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Tabery, J., Preda, A., & Longino, H. (2014). Pluralism, social action and the causal space of human behavior. Metascience, 23, 443–459.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Visscher, P. M. (2008). Sizing up human height variation. Nature Genetics, 40, 489–490.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Walsh, D. M. (2013). The negotiated organism: Inheritance, development, and the method of difference. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 112, 295–305.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Woodward, J. (2003). Making things happen: A theory of causal explanation. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyCentral European UniversityBudapestHungary

Personalised recommendations