Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ()

Markus Eronen
University of Groningen
Daniel Stephen Brooks
Ruhr-Universität Bochum
Levels of organization are structures in nature, usually defined by part-whole relationships, with things at higher levels being composed of things at the next lower level. Typical levels of organization that one finds in the literature include the atomic, molecular, cellular, tissue, organ, organismal, group, population, community, ecosystem, landscape, and biosphere levels. References to levels of organization and related hierarchical depictions of nature are prominent in the life sciences and their philosophical study, and appear not only in introductory textbooks and lectures, but also in cutting-edge research articles and reviews. In philosophy, perennial debates such as reduction, emergence, mechanistic explanation, interdisciplinary relations, natural selection, and many other topics, also rely substantially on the notion. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the notion, levels of organization have received little explicit attention in biology or its philosophy. Usually they appear in the background as an implicit conceptual framework that is associated with vague intuitions. Attempts at providing general and broadly applicable definitions of levels of organization have not met wide acceptance. In recent years, several authors have put forward localized and minimalistic accounts of levels, and others have raised doubts about the usefulness of the notion as a whole. There are many kinds of ‘levels’ that one may find in philosophy, science, and everyday life—the term is notoriously ambiguous. Besides levels of organization, there are levels of abstraction, realization, being, analysis, processing, theory, science, complexity, and many others. In this article, the focus will be on levels of organization and debates associated with them, and other kinds of levels will only be discussed when they are relevant to this main topic.
Keywords Hierarchy  Levels of Organization
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