9 Apr 2009

Conceptual Foundations of Emergence Theory, 2. The PreHistory of the Emergence Concept, Clayton

Philip Clayton

"Conceptual Foundations of Emergence Theory"

2. The PreHistory of the Emergence Concept

In the early 20th century there was an explosion of emergentist theories, following George Henry Lewes' developments in the area.

But we may trace a lineage of philosophical thinking leading up to current emergentist ideas.

Aristotle conducted biological research. The seed becomes a tree. The seed is fully a seed. It is potentially a tree. It will not become a cow. So we can say that in a sense, its being a tree is already there in the seed. It's more than a possibility. It's a potentiality. It is in the seed's end or telos to become a tree. This is entelechy: the "principle of growth within organisms that was responsible for the qualities or form that would later emerge." (5a) Our adult form emerges from our child form.

In the third century CE, Plontinus proposed the doctrine of emanation: "the entire hierarchy of being emerges out of the One through a process of emanation." (5c) This emergence is top-down. But it is also dynamic. And it allows for the emergence of new species.

There was a period of time after 1850 when emergentist theories were presenting difficulties for empiricist theories.

Hegel is the most important modern emergentist thinker. "In place of the notion of static being or substance Hegel offered a temporalized ontology, a philosophy of universal becoming." Being and nothing come into opposition. Their conflict is overcome by becoming. This triad is a first expression and development for emergence theory. "Always, in the universal flow of 'Spirit coming to itself', oppositions arise and are overcome by a new level of emergence." (6b)

Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit "represents an epic of emergence written on a grand scale. The variety of 'philosophies of process' that followed Hegel shared his commitment to the 'temporalization of ontology,' construing reality itself as fundamentally a process." (6c) For example, Whitehead presents a "rigorous metaphysical system of 'emergent evolution'" in Process and Reality.

To arrive at our current scientific emergentist theories, Hegel's philosophy of spirit needed to become less idealist and rationalistic. Feuerbach and Marx accomplished this by inverting Hegel's system so to make it fundamentally materialist.

Early sociologists such as Comte and Durkheim further contributed to the development of emergentist thought. They believed that "higher-order human ideas arose out of simpler antecedents." (7c)

Clayton, Philip. "Conceptual Foundations of Emergence Theory." in The Re-Emergence of Emergence: The Emergentist Hypothesis from Science to Religion. Ed. Philip Clayton and Paul Davies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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