1734: Reductionism

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"I've noticed you physics people can be a little on the reductionist side." "That's ridiculous. Name ONE reductionist word I've ever said."
Title text: "I've noticed you physics people can be a little on the reductionist side." "That's ridiculous. Name ONE reductionist word I've ever said."


Reductionism is an approach that seeks to understand the world by breaking problems into simpler pieces. This approach can disregard emergent properties which appear only from the individual parts working together.

In this comic Randall shows the first part of a dictionary entry on the word Reductionism. In a real dictionary like Dictionary.com an entry with similar build up looks like this:

1. The theory that every complex phenomenon, especially in biology or psychology, can be explained by analyzing the simplest, most basic physical mechanisms that are in operation during the phenomenon.
2. The practice of simplifying a complex idea, issue, condition, or the like, especially to the point of minimizing, obscuring, or distorting it.

In the comic the n refers to noun and the "1." indicate that this is the first of more than one entries about the word.

The meta joke is that Randall is attempting to define the word reductionism by taking the reductionist approach to its extreme. He thus breaks the word into its 12 individual letters explaining the origin of each individual letter, acting as if the word was nothing more than the "sum" of all its letters. In doing so he entirely fails to explain the actual meaning of the word. (Maybe a reader could guess the meaning based on how the entry is written… or maybe the whole dictionary is written like this, making it practically useless.)

The entire entry number 1. could in principle have 12 phrases one for each of the letters R, E, D, U, C, T, I, O, N, I, S and M, but here only the first two for R and E are included, the third (D) only just starts when the entry is cut off at the bottom of the panel. It could be argued that the two I's could share one explanation, but as a reductionist you might not even notice that the I had already been explained.

As it happens, every letter of the Latin alphabet (the writing system used by the English language and many other languages) is ultimately derived from Egyptian hieroglyphics, not just "R". But maybe the same sentence is used for all the consonants as the only word in the explanation for "D" is "is"; the same that starts the explanation for "R".

The second letter that is explained is "E", a vowel. In modern English spelling, the letter "E" is used – alone or in combination – to represent a number of different vowel sounds (compare "gene", "bed", "crepe"). In the word "reductionism", the "E" can be pronounced as /ɪ/ ("rih"ductionism), /iː/ ("ree"ductionism) or /ə/ ("ruh"ductionism), depending on dialect and emphasis, but the comic is talking about the sound used to pronounce the letter itself, /iː/ ("long E"). It explains that this vowel sound was normally represented with the letter "I" until the 1500's. This is a reference to the Great Vowel Shift, a change in the pronunciation of many English vowels around that time. Before then, a word like "see" was pronounced /seː/ (approximately "seh", with no diphthong), while a word like "bite" was pronounced /biːt/ ("beet"). So in modern English pronunciation, the "long E" sound is the same as what the "long I" spelling used to represent.

In the title text, two people are speaking. The first speaker has noticed that "physics people can be a little on the reductionist side". (Randall would consider himself a physicist). The presumed physicist then says that it is a ridiculous notion. He challenges the other to "Name ONE reductionist word I've ever said." But by claiming he is not a reductionist by focusing on the individual words (which, even/especially in the case of "reductionist", are never used solely by reductionists) he is asking for an impossible comparison to be made, when proof of reductionism is clearly an emergent property of a fuller sentences, if not whole discourses. By insisting on focusing only upon individual words in this manner the speaker likely proves themself a reductionist, in the very act of trying to refute this accusation.

Reductionism has previously appeared deep down in 1416: Pixels.


[The comic represents an entry in a dictionary for a word. Unlike normal comics not only capital letters are used, and thus here the capitalization of the comic is also used in the transcript. The entry is cut off through the bottom of the fourth line by the bottom of the panel, but the last line is still readable.]
REDUCTIONISMn. 1. "R" is a letter with
origins in the Egyptian hieroglyphics. "E"
stands for a vowel sound normally
represented by "I" until the 1500's. "D" is


  • This comic was posted as normally on a Friday, but it was also posted the day after the previous comic 1733: Solar Spectrum.
    • This marks the first time on xkcd where, in a week where only three comics where released, there was a release on both Thursday and Friday.
      • The only other times there has been released comics on both Thursday and Friday has been in the series weeks where a five comic series has been released on five consecutive days from Monday to Friday.
    • The reason that the previous comic's release day was postponed from the scheduled Wednesday release to a Thursday release was because Randall noticed the extreme popularity of the previous comic from Monday: 1732: Earth Temperature Timeline.
      • Randall even explained this in the header text, see this trivia item in the popular comics explanation.

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Just like defining recursion by: "recursion n: see recursion" :-) --JakubNarebski (talk) 15:05, 16 September 2016 (UTC)

"D" is a development from an Egyptian hieroglyph symbolizing a door. "U" is Capncanuck (talk)

"U" is what?! 03:48, 17 September 2016 (UTC)
"U" is a dummy variable; "i" is an imaginary number. 11:30, 17 September 2016 (UTC)

I feel like part of the meta-joke is the fact that the box cuts off the definition, literally reducing it. 20:04, 16 September 2016 (UTC)

Yes, reductionism reducted, reductionised, and reduced... 00:40, 17 September 2016 (UTC)

Would the letter 'I' in reductIonIsm be described twice? - Sebastian -- 10:36, 17 September 2016 (UTC)

Well, this is probably the first time I've been on here and the Wednesday comic is up on Thursday, but the Friday comic is still on schedule. Weird. --JayRulesXKCD (talk) 15:11, 16 September 2016 (UTC)

It was also the first time Randall delayed a comic to keep another comic on the front page. So since it was a planned delay of the previous comic this one was not supposed to be delayed. That would have been weird ;-) --Kynde (talk) 16:07, 16 September 2016 (UTC)

What amazed me in all this is that, every themes or words found on xkcd I've noticed that Reductionism adds to 174 in reverse ordinal and 143 in Jewish ordinal gematria little resemblance to 1743 -- Know More