The Inadequacy of Husserlian Formal Mereology for the Regional Ontology of Chemical Wholes

Part of the Contributions to Phenomenology book series (CTPH, volume 105)


In his book, History as a Science and the System of the Sciences, Thomas Seebohm articulates the view that history can serve to mediate between the sciences of explanation and the sciences of interpretation, that is, between the natural sciences and the human sciences. Among other things, Seebohm analyzes history from a phenomenological perspective to reveal the material foundations of the historical human sciences in the lifeworld. As a preliminary to his analyses, Seebohm examines the formal and material presuppositions of phenomenological epistemology, as well as the emergence of the human sciences and the traditional distinctions and divisions that are made between the natural and the human sciences.

As part of this examination, Seebohm devotes a section to discussing Husserl’s formal mereology because he understands that a reflective analysis of the foundations of the historical sciences requires a reflective analysis of the objects of the historical sciences, that is, of concrete organic wholes (i.e., social groups) and of their parts. Seebohm concludes that Husserl’s mereological ontology needs to be altered with regard to the historical sciences because the relations between organic wholes and their parts are not summative relations. Seebohm’s conclusion is relevant for the issue of the reducibility of organic wholes such as social groups to their parts and for the issue of the reducibility of the historical sciences to the lower-order sciences, that is, to the sciences concerned with lower-order ontologies.

In this paper, I propose to extend Seebohm’s conclusion to the ontology of chemical wholes as object of quantum chemistry and to argue that Husserl’s formal mereology is descriptively inadequate for this regional ontology as well. This may seem surprising at first, since the objects studied by quantum chemists are not organic wholes. However, my discussion of atoms and molecules as they are understood in quantum chemistry will show that Husserl’s classical summative and extensional mereology does not accurately capture the relations between chemical wholes and their parts. This conclusion is relevant for the question of the reducibility of chemical wholes to their parts and of the reducibility of chemistry to physics, issues that have been of central importance within the philosophy of chemistry for the past several decades.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Florida Atlantic UniversityBoca RatonUSA

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