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A New Look at Levels of OrganizationDespite its pervasiveness, the concept of ‘levels of organization’ has received little attention in its own right. Here I will present key ideas to the effect that contrary to recent claims of its uselessness, the 'levels' concept can be revealed as a uniquely effective and flexible conceptual tool tailored to perform a wide host of scientific tasks. This approach posits a fragmentary concept that balances a striking variation in conceptual content between instances of usage with a remarkably conserved and sufficiently unifying significance attributed to it across these instances. Key to this 'fragmentary account' will be a reconstruction of 'levels’ that situates the concept within an interest-relative matrix of active usage within scientific practice. To this end I posit here two important components that comprise my fragmentary account: content fragments, which replace meaning and reference as more fine-grained carriers of the term's expressed content, and the epistemic goal (sensu Brigandt 2010) motivating the term's usage, which delegates tasks whose execution fill these fragments in a given instance. Together, these show the concept of levels to be minimally but sufficiently coherent and unified. This heuristic, usage-based treatment of levels does not diminish the concept's general importance to science, but rather allows for its use in, and usefulness for, scientific practice to be better contextualized to particular tasks encompassing varying breadths of activity. Far from any reified “layer-cake” image, 'levels' as depicted in actual scientific usage arguably represents nature itself as a toolbox, from which scientists are free to select the parts with which to construct their solutions to the problems they engage in their investigations.
Konrad Lorenz Institute