In philosophy and mathematical logic, mereology (from the Greek μέρος, root: μερε(σ)-, "part" and the suffix -logy "study, discussion, science") is the study of parts and the wholes they form. Whereas set theory is founded on the membership relation between a set and its elements, mereology emphasizes the meronomic relation between entities, which—from a set-theoretic perspective—is closer to the concept of inclusion between sets.

Mereology has been explored in various ways as applications of predicate logic to formal ontology, in each of which mereology is an important part. Each of these fields provides their own axiomatic definition of mereology. A common element of such axiomatizations is the assumption, shared with inclusion, that the part-whole relation orders its universe, meaning that everything is a part of itself (reflexivity), that a part of a part of a whole is itself a part of that whole (transitivity), and that two distinct entities cannot each be a part of the other (antisymmetry), thus forming a poset. A variant of this axiomatization denies that anything is ever part of itself (irreflexivity) while accepting transitivity, from which antisymmetry follows automatically.

Although mereology is an application of mathematical logic, what could be argued to be a sort of "proto-geometry", it has been wholly developed by logicians, ontologists, linguists, engineers, and computer scientists, especially those working in artificial intelligence.

"Mereology" can also refer to formal work in General Systems Theory on system decomposition and parts, wholes and boundaries (by, e.g., Mihajlo D. Mesarovic (1970), Gabriel Kron (1963), or Maurice Jessel (see Bowden (1989, 1998)). A hierarchical version of Gabriel Kron's Network Tearing was published by Keith Bowden (1991), reflecting David Lewis's ideas on Gunk. Such ideas appear in theoretical computer science and physics, often in combination with Sheaf, Topos, or Category Theory. See also the work of Steve Vickers on (parts of) specifications in Computer Science, Joseph Goguen on physical systems, and Tom Etter (1996, 1998) on Link Theory and Quantum mechanics.

In computer science, the class concept of object-oriented programming lends a mereological aspect to programming not found in either imperative programs or declarative programs. Method inheritance enriches this application of mereology by providing for passing procedural information down the part-whole relation, thereby making method inheritance a naturally arising aspect of mereology.


Informal part-whole reasoning was consciously invoked in metaphysics and ontology from Plato (in particular, in the second half of the Parmenides) and Aristotle onwards, and more or less unwittingly in 19th-century mathematics until the triumph of set theory around 1910. Ivor Grattan-Guinness (2001) sheds much light on part-whole reasoning during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and reviews how Cantor and Peano devised set theory. In seventh century India, parts and wholes were studied extensively by Dharmakirti (see [1]). In Europe, however, it appears that the first to reason consciously and at length about parts and wholes was Edmund Husserl, in 1901, in the second volume of Logical Investigations - Third Investigation: «On the Theory of Wholes and Parts» (Husserl 1970 is the English translation). However, the word "mereology" is absent from his writings, and he employed no symbolism even though his doctorate was in mathematics.

Stanisław Leśniewski coined "mereology" in 1927, from the Greek word μέρος (méros, "part"), to refer to a formal theory of part-whole he devised in a series of highly technical papers published between 1916 and 1931, and translated in Leśniewski (1992). Leśniewski's student Alfred Tarski, in his Appendix E to Woodger (1937) and the paper translated as Tarski (1984), greatly simplified Leśniewski's formalism. Other students (and students of students) of Lesniewski elaborated this "Polish mereology" over the course of the 20th century. For a good selection of the literature on Polish mereology, see Srzednicki and Rickey (1984). For a survey of Polish mereology, see Simons (1987). Since 1980 or so, however, research on Polish mereology has been almost entirely historical in nature.

A.N. Whitehead planned a fourth volume of Principia Mathematica, on geometry, but never wrote it. His 1914 correspondence with Bertrand Russell reveals that his intended approach to geometry can be seen, with the benefit of hindsight, as mereological in essence. This work culminated in Whitehead (1916) and the mereological systems of Whitehead (1919, 1920).

In 1930, Henry Leonard completed a Harvard Ph.D. dissertation in philosophy, setting out a formal theory of the part-whole relation. This evolved into the "calculus of individuals" of Goodman and Leonard (1940). Goodman revised and elaborated this calculus in the three editions of Goodman (1951). The calculus of individuals is the starting point for the post-1970 revival of mereology among logicians, ontologists, and computer scientists, a revival well-surveyed in Simons (1987) and Casati and Varzi (1999).

Axioms and primitive notions

It is possible to formulate a "naive mereology" analogous to naive set theory. Doing so gives rise to paradoxes analogous to Russell's paradox. Let there be an object O such that every object that is not a proper part of itself is a proper part of O. Is O a proper part of itself? No, because no object is a proper part of itself; and yes, because it meets the specified requirement for inclusion as a proper part of O. (Every object is, of course, an improper part of itself. Another, though differently structured, paradox can be made using improper part instead of proper part; and another using improper or proper part.) Hence, mereology requires an axiomatic formulation.

A mereological "system" is a first-order theory (with identity) whose universe of discourse consists of wholes and their respective parts, collectively called objects. Mereology is a collection of nested and non-nested axiomatic systems, not unlike the case with modal logic.

The treatment, terminology, and hierarchical organization below follow Casati and Varzi (1999: Ch. 3) closely. For a more recent treatment, correcting certain misconceptions, see Hovda (2008). Lower-case letters denote variables ranging over objects. Following each symbolic axiom or definition is the number of the corresponding formula in Casati and Varzi, written in bold.

A mereological system requires at least one primitive binary relation (dyadic predicate). The most conventional choice for such a relation is parthood (also called "inclusion"), "x is a part of y", written Pxy. Nearly all systems require that parthood partially order the universe. The following defined relations, required for the axioms below, follow immediately from parthood alone:

An object lacking proper parts is an atom. The mereological universe consists of all objects we wish to think about, and all of their proper parts:
The parts of z, the "overlap" or "product" of x and y, are precisely those objects that are parts of both x and y.

Overlap and Underlap are reflexive, symmetric, and intransitive.

Systems vary in what relations they take as primitive and as defined. For example, in extensional mereologies (defined below), parthood can be defined from Overlap as follows:


The axioms are:

M1, Reflexive: An object is a part of itself.
M2, Antisymmetric: If Pxy and Pyx both hold, then x and y are the same object.
M3, Transitive: If Pxy and Pyz, then Pxz.
Top is a theorem if M8 holds.
If Oxy does not hold, x and y have no parts in common, and the product of x and y is undefined.
M8 is also called "General Sum Principle", "Unrestricted Mereological Composition", or "Universalism". M8 corresponds to the principle of unrestricted comprehension of naive set theory, which gives rise to Russell's paradox. There is no mereological counterpart to this paradox simply because parthood, unlike set membership, is reflexive.

Various systems

Simons (1987), Casati and Varzi (1999) and Hovda (2008) describe many mereological systems whose axioms are taken from the above list. We adopt the boldface nomenclature of Casati and Varzi. The best-known such system is the one called classical extensional mereology, hereinafter abbreviated CEM (other abbreviations are explained below). In CEM, P.1 through P.8' hold as axioms or are theorems. M9, Top, and Bottom are optional.

The systems in the table below are partially ordered by inclusion, in the sense that, if all the theorems of system A are also theorems of system B, but the converse is not necessarily true, then B includes A. The resulting Hasse diagram is similar to that in Fig. 2, and Fig. 3.2 in Casati and Varzi (1999: 48).

LabelNameSystemIncluded Axioms
M1-M3Parthood is a partial orderMM1–M3
M4Weak SupplementationMMM, M4
M5Strong SupplementationEMM, M5
M5'Atomistic Supplementation
M6General Sum Principle (Sum)
M7ProductCEMEM, M6–M7
M8Unrestricted FusionGMM, M8
M8'Unique FusionGEMEM, M8'
M9AtomicityAGEMM2, M8, M9
AGEMM, M5', M8

There are two equivalent ways of asserting that the universe is partially ordered: Assume either M1–M3, or that Proper Parthood is transitive and asymmetric, hence a strict partial order. Either axiomatization results in the system M. M2 rules out closed loops formed using Parthood, so that the part relation is well-founded. Sets are well-founded if the axiom of Regularity is assumed. The literature contains occasional philosophical and common-sense objections to the transitivity of Parthood.

M4 and M5 are two ways of asserting supplementation, the mereological analog of set complementation, with M5 being stronger because M4 is derivable from M5. M and M4 yield minimal mereology, MM. MM, reformulated in terms of Proper Part, is Simons's (1987) preferred minimal system.

In any system in which M5 or M5' are assumed or can be derived, then it can be proved that two objects having the same proper parts are identical. This property is known as Extensionality, a term borrowed from set theory, for which extensionality is the defining axiom. Mereological systems in which Extensionality holds are termed extensional, a fact denoted by including the letter E in their symbolic names.

M6 asserts that any two underlapping objects have a unique sum; M7 asserts that any two overlapping objects have a unique product. If the universe is finite or if Top is assumed, then the universe is closed under sum. Universal closure of Product and of supplementation relative to W requires Bottom. W and N are, evidently, the mereological analog of the universal and empty sets, and Sum and Product are, likewise, the analogs of set-theoretical union and intersection. If M6 and M7 are either assumed or derivable, the result is a mereology with closure.

Because Sum and Product are binary operations, M6 and M7 admit the sum and product of only a finite number of objects. The fusion axiom, M8, enables taking the sum of infinitely many objects. The same holds for Product, when defined. At this point, mereology often invokes set theory, but any recourse to set theory is eliminable by replacing a formula with a quantified variable ranging over a universe of sets by a schematic formula with one free variable. The formula comes out true (is satisfied) whenever the name of an object that would be a member of the set (if it existed) replaces the free variable. Hence any axiom with sets can be replaced by an axiom schema with monadic atomic subformulae. M8 and M8' are schemas of just this sort. The syntax of a first-order theory can describe only a denumerable number of sets; hence, only denumerably many sets may be eliminated in this fashion, but this limitation is not binding for the sort of mathematics contemplated here.

If M8 holds, then W exists for infinite universes. Hence, Top need be assumed only if the universe is infinite and M8 does not hold. It is interesting to note that Top (postulating W) is not controversial, but Bottom (postulating N) is. Leśniewski rejected Bottom, and most mereological systems follow his example (an exception is the work of Richard Milton Martin). Hence, while the universe is closed under sum, the product of objects that do not overlap is typically undefined. A system with W but not N is isomorphic to:

Postulating N renders all possible products definable, but also transforms classical extensional mereology into a set-free model of Boolean algebra.

If sets are admitted, M8 asserts the existence of the fusion of all members of any nonempty set. Any mereological system in which M8 holds is called general, and its name includes G. In any general mereology, M6 and M7 are provable. Adding M8 to an extensional mereology results in general extensional mereology, abbreviated GEM; moreover, the extensionality renders the fusion unique. On the converse, however, if the fusion asserted by M8 is assumed unique, so that M8' replaces M8, then - as Tarski (1929) had shown - M3 and M8' suffice to axiomatize GEM, a remarkably economical result. Simons (1987: 38–41) lists a number of GEM theorems.

M2 and a finite universe necessarily imply Atomicity, namely that everything either is an atom or includes atoms among its proper parts. If the universe is infinite, Atomicity requires M9. Adding M9 to any mereological system, X results in the atomistic variant thereof, denoted AX. Atomicity permits economies, for instance, assuming that M5' implies Atomicity and extensionality, and yields an alternative axiomatization of AGEM.

Set theory

Stanisław Leśniewski rejected set theory, a stance that has come to be known as nominalism. For a long time, nearly all philosophers and mathematicians avoided mereology, seeing it as tantamount to a rejection of set theory. Goodman too was a nominalist, and his fellow nominalist Richard Milton Martin employed a version of the calculus of individuals throughout his career, starting in 1941.

Much early work on mereology was motivated by a suspicion that set theory was ontologically suspect, and that Occam's Razor requires that one minimise the number of posits in one's theory of the world and of mathematics. Mereology replaces talk of "sets" of objects with talk of "sums" of objects, objects being no more than the various things that make up wholes.

Many logicians and philosophers reject these motivations, on such grounds as:

For a survey of attempts to found mathematics without using set theory, see Burgess and Rosen (1997).

In the 1970s, thanks in part to Eberle (1970), it gradually came to be understood that one can employ mereology regardless of one's ontological stance regarding sets. This understanding is called the "ontological innocence" of mereology. This innocence stems from mereology being formalizable in either of two equivalent ways:

Once it became clear that mereology is not tantamount to a denial of set theory, mereology became largely accepted as a useful tool for formal ontology and metaphysics.

In set theory, singletons are "atoms" that have no (non-empty) proper parts; many consider set theory useless or incoherent (not "well-founded") if sets cannot be built up from unit sets. The calculus of individuals was thought to require that an object either have no proper parts, in which case it is an "atom", or be the mereological sum of atoms. Eberle (1970) showed how to construct a calculus of individuals lacking "atoms", i.e., one where every object has a "proper part" (defined below) so that the universe is infinite.

There are analogies between the axioms of mereology and those of standard Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory (ZF), if Parthood is taken as analogous to subset in set theory. On the relation of mereology and ZF, also see Bunt (1985). One of the very few contemporary set theorist to discuss mereology is Potter (2004).

Lewis (1991) went further, showing informally that mereology, augmented by a few ontological assumptions and plural quantification, and some novel reasoning about singletons, yields a system in which a given individual can be both a member and a subset of another individual. In the resulting system, the axioms of ZFC (and of Peano arithmetic) are theorems.

Forrest (2002) revises Lewis's analysis by first formulating a generalization of CEM, called "Heyting mereology", whose sole nonlogical primitive is Proper Part, assumed transitive and antireflexive. There exists a "fictitious" null individual that is a proper part of every individual. Two schemas assert that every lattice join exists (lattices are complete) and that meet distributes over join. On this Heyting mereology, Forrest erects a theory of pseudosets, adequate for all purposes to which sets have been put.


Husserl never claimed that mathematics could or should be grounded in part-whole rather than set theory. Lesniewski consciously derived his mereology as an alternative to set theory as a foundation of mathematics, but did not work out the details. Goodman and Quine (1947) tried to develop the natural and real numbers using the calculus of individuals, but were mostly unsuccessful; Quine did not reprint that article in his Selected Logic Papers. In a series of chapters in the books he published in the last decade of his life, Richard Milton Martin set out to do what Goodman and Quine had abandoned 30 years prior. A recurring problem with attempts to ground mathematics in mereology is how to build up the theory of relations while abstaining from set-theoretic definitions of the ordered pair. Martin argued that Eberle's (1970) theory of relational individuals solved this problem.

To date, the only persons well trained in mathematics to write on mereology have been Alfred Tarski and Rolf Eberle. Eberle (1970) clarified the relation between mereology and Boolean algebra, and mereology and set theory. He is one of the very few contributors to mereology to prove sound and complete each system he describes.

Topological notions of boundaries and connection can be married to mereology, resulting in mereotopology; see Casati and Varzi (1999: chpts. 4,5). Whitehead's 1929 Process and Reality contains a good deal of informal mereotopology.

Mereology and natural language

Bunt (1985), a study of the semantics of natural language, shows how mereology can help understand such phenomena as the mass–count distinction and verb aspect. But Nicolas (2008) argues that a different logical framework, called plural logic, should be used for that purpose. Also, natural language often employs "part of" in ambiguous ways (Simons 1987 discusses this at length). Hence, it is unclear how, if at all, one can translate certain natural language expressions into mereological predicates. Steering clear of such difficulties may require limiting the interpretation of mereology to mathematics and natural science. Casati and Varzi (1999), for example, limit the scope of mereology to physical objects.

Mereology and Metaphysics

In Metaphysics there are many troubling questions pertaining to parts and wholes. One question that is addressed by philosophers is which is more fundamental: parts, wholes, or neither?[2][3][4][5][6][7][8][9][10][11] Another pressing question is called the Special Composition Question (SCQ): For any Xs, when is it the case that there is a Y such that the Xs compose Y?[12][13][14][15][16][17][18] This question has caused philosophers to run in three different directions: nihilism, universal composition (UC), or a moderate view (restricted composition). The first two views are considered extreme since the first denies composition, and the second allows any and all non-spatially overlapping objects to compose another object. The moderate view encompasses several theories that try to make sense of SCQ without saying 'no' to composition or 'yes' to unrestricted composition.

7.1 Fundamentality

There are philosophers who are concerned with the question of fundamentality. That is, which is more ontologically fundamental the parts or their wholes. There are several responses to this question, though one of the default assumptions is that the parts are more fundamental. That is, the whole is grounded in its parts. This is the mainstream view. Another view, explored by Shaffer (2010) is monism, where the parts are grounded in the whole. Shaffer does not just mean that, say, the parts that make up my body are grounded in my body. Rather, Shaffer argues that the whole cosmos is more fundamental and everything else is a part of the cosmos. Then, there is the identity theory which claims that there is no hierarchy or fundamentality to parts and wholes. Instead wholes are just (or equivalent to) their parts. You can also have a two-object view which says that the wholes are not equal to the parts—they are numerically distinct from one another. Each of these theories has benefits and costs associated with them.[2][3][4][5]

7.2 Special Composition Question (SCQ)

Philosophers want to know when some, Xs, composes something Y. One response to this question is called Nihilism. Nihilism states that there are no mereological complex objects (read: composite objects); there are only simples. Nihilists' do not entirely reject composition because they do think that simples compose themselves, but this is a different point. More formally Nihilists would say: Necessarily, for any non-overlapping Xs, there is an object composed of the Xs if and only if there is only one of the Xs.[14][18][19] This theory, though well explored, has its own set of problems. Some of which include, but are not limited to: experiences and common sense, incompatible with atomless gunk, and it is unsupported by space-time physics.[14][18]

Another prominent response is called Universal Composition (UC). UC says that so long as the Xs do not spatially overlap, the Xs can compose a complex object. Universal Compositionalists are also considered those who support unrestricted composition. More formally: Necessarily, for any non-overlapping Xs, there is a Y such that Y is composed of the Xs. For example, your left thumb, the top half of my right shoe, and a quark in the center of our galaxy can compose a complex object according to Universal Composition. Likewise, this theory also has some issues, most of them dealing with our experiences that these randomly chosen parts make up a complex whole and there are far too many objects posited in our ontology.

A third way to answer this question is less favored and left mainly unexplored—at least with respect to the other two responses. These are the restricted composition views. A potential problem with restricted composition as an answer to the Special Composition Question is that there is not just one theory to examine. Many thinkers have posited several possible restricted composition views. Though there are several views, they all share a common idea: that there is a restriction on what counts as a complex object: that is at least some of the time Xs come together to compose a complex Y. Some of these theories include:

(a) Contact View—where the Xs compose a complex Y if and only if the Xs are in contact;

(b) Fastenation—the Xs compose a complex Y if and only if the Xs are fastened;

(c) Cohesion—the Xs compose a complex Y if and only if the Xs cohere (cannot be pulled apart or moved in relation to each other without breaking);

(d) Fusion—the Xs compose a complex Y if and only if the Xs are fused (fusion is when the Xs are joined together such that there is no boundary);

(e) VIPA: van Inwagen Proposed Answer—Xs compose a complex Y if and only if either the activities of the Xs constitute a life or there is only one of the Xs;[19] and

(f) Brutal Composition—"It's just the way things are." There is no true, nontrivial, and finitely long answer.[20]

This is not an exhaustive list as many more hypothesis continue to be explored. However, a common problem with these theories is that they are vague. It remains unclear what "fastened" or "life" mean, for example. But there are many other issues within the restricted composition responses—though many of them are subject to which theory you are discussing.[14]

Important surveys

The books by Simons (2000) and Casati and Varzi (1999) differ in their strengths:

Simons devotes considerable effort to elucidating historical notations. The notation of Casati and Varzi is often used. Both books include excellent bibliographies. To these works should be added Hovda (2008), which presents the latest state of the art on the axiomatization of mereology.

See also


  1. Dunne, John D., 2004. Foundations of Dharmakirti's Philosophy. Wisdom Publications.
  2. 1 2 Healey, Richard; Uffink, Jos (2013). "Part and Whole in Physics: An Introduction". Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B. 44.1: 20–21.
  3. 1 2 Healey, Richard (2013). "Physical Composition". Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B. 44.1: 48–62.
  4. 1 2 Kadanoff, Leo (2013). "Relating Theories Via Renormalization". Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B. 44.1: 22–39.
  5. 1 2 Ghirardi, GianCarlo (2013). "The Parts and the Whole: Collapse Theories and Systems with Identical Constituents". Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B. 44.1: 40–47.
  6. Shaffer, Jonathan (2010). "Monism: The Priority of the Whole". Philosophical Review. 119.1: 31–76.
  7. Cameron, Ross (2014). "Parts Generate the Whole but they are not Identical to it". Oxford University Press.
  8. Loss, Roberto (2016). "Parts Ground the Whole and are Identical to it". Australasian Journal of Philosophy. 94.3.
  9. Cotnoir, Aaron (2014). "Composition as Identity: Framing the Debate". Oxford University Press.
  10. Sider, Ted (2015). "Nothing Over and Above". Grazer Philosophische Studien. 91: 191–216.
  11. Wallace, Megan (2011). "Composition as Identity: Pt. I & II". Philosophy Compass. 6.11: 804–827.
  12. Ney, Alyssa (2014). Metaphysics: An Introduction. Routledge.
  13. Sider, Ted (2008). "The Moon and Sixpence: A Defense of Mereological Universalism". Contemporary Debates in Metaphysics. Blackwell Publishing. Unknown parameter |chapter author= ignored (help)
  14. 1 2 3 4 Sider, Ted (2008). "Restricted Composition". Contemporary Debates in Metaphysics. Blackwell Publishing. pp. 341–363. Unknown parameter |chapter author= ignored (help)
  15. McDaniel, Kris (2010). "Parts and Wholes". Philosophy Compass. 5.5: 412–425.
  16. Korman, Daniel; Carmichael, Chad (2016). "Composition (Draft: 9/29/15)". Oxford Handbooks Online.
  17. Varzi, Achille. "Mereology".
  18. 1 2 3 Sider, Ted (2013). "Against Parthood". Oxford Studies in Metaphysics. 8: 237–293.
  19. 1 2 van Inwagen, Peter (1990). Material Beings. Cornell University Press.
  20. Markosian, Ned (1998). "Brutal Composition". Philosophical Studies. 92: 211–249.
  21. Cf. Peter Simons, "Whitehead and Mereology", in Guillaume Durand et Michel Weber (éditeurs), Les principes de la connaissance naturelle d’Alfred North Whitehead — Alfred North Whitehead’s Principles of Natural Knowledge, Frankfurt / Paris / Lancaster, ontos verlag, 2007. See also the relevant entries of Michel Weber and Will Desmond, (eds.), Handbook of Whiteheadian Process Thought, Frankfurt / Lancaster, ontos verlag, Process Thought X1 & X2, 2008.

External links

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