by Ralph Dumain

Dedicated in memoriam to Lisa Rogers
25 August 1961 - 15 September 1996


Emergence may be the key ontological topic of our time. The notion of emergent properties is not a new one, but there seems to be more technical work on the concept than ever before. This blog tracks my ongoing information-gathering and commentary on the philosophical, ideological, and social issues surrounding emergence, and constitutes one segment of a larger project. I make no pretense of contributing to the technical development of emergentist formulations. My focus is on the historical reconstruction and the philosophical and ideological role of emergentism in the social ecology of ideas.

Curiously, much of the literature on the subject—including encyclopedia articles—is spotty and heavily biased in citing its history.  In standard reference sources there is a focus on the British emergentists, and no mention at all of Hegel, Engels, or any Soviet work.  Part of this I think is due to the provincialism of Anglo-American philosophy.  Another failure of the literature is to make a clear distinction between the mystical idealist versions of emergentism and emergent materialism. 

While I believe in the fruitfulness of emergent materialism, I remain wary of speculative/idealist/mystical constructions of the concept. I will also make reference to the increasing focus on "cosmic evolution" (especially in the more sensationalist popularizations of cosmology) at the one end and cognitive science / artificial intelligence at the other end of the scientific spectrum, which relate directly or indirectly to emergentism. Emergentism in its materialist role may provide resolutions to certain dilemmas while in its mystifying role create new problems. Tracking emergentism and its constellation of issues is another way of tracking the philosophical dualisms that pervade our intellectual culture and the legitimate and mystifying ways in which scientists and philosophers attempt to transcend them.

In line with the issue of mystification is the notion of alienated consciousness and social existence of technical specialists, which may be manifested in their intellectual work, and/or in the face they present to the general public. The widest social perspective pertains to the role of scientists, philosophers, and other intellectuals in the social division of labor as well the role of the intellectual disciplines themselves. Emergence thus fits as a component into my larger work in progress on the place of science and scientific ideologies in the cultural system as a whole since the Scientific Revolution. One tie-in is a novel interpretation and application of Marx's early remarks on science. If there is any originality in this project, it is in the specific way I am attempting to relate all these elements.

This began as an edited compilation of a series of e-mails written for various discussion lists.  This will serve as raw material for a more coherent presentation at some point.  Identifying information of discussants other than myself has been almost entirely removed. Anyone wishing his/her name to be associated with quoted comments please inform me. This collective compilation begins with a big chunk of e-mails up to 25 February 2005.  Subsequent entries will be added individually, many also edited from various e-mails. (RD—27 Feb 2005)


17 June 2006 - 3 Feb 2007
(this page)

2 June 2005 -
14 August 2005

23 Feb 2005 -
3 June 2005

5 Nov 2004 -
25 Feb 2005

CONTACT Ralph Dumain with your feedback.
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16 March 2007

New Blog Format & Location

On February 21 I began constructing a true blog format using WordPress software. I'm just about ready for business. Click here for revamped blog.

3 February 2007

Emergence & Pragmatism

Pihlstrom, Sami; El-Hani, Charbel Niño. "Emergence Theories and Pragmatic Realism," Essays in Philosophy, vol. 3, no. 2, 2002.

Author's abstract:

The tradition of pragmatism has, especially since Dewey, been characterized by a commitment to non-reductive naturalism. The notion of emergence, popular in the early decades of the twentieth century and currently re-emerging as a central concept in metaphysics and the philosophy of mind, may be useful in explicating that commitment. The present paper discusses the issue of the reality of emergent properties, drawing particular attention to a pragmatic way of approaching this issue. The reality of emergents can be defended as a pragmatically-useful ontological commitment; hence, pragmatism can be employed as a tool in the debate over the structure and reality of emergence. This strategy of justifying ontological commitments is examined through historical and systematic discussions of the pragmatist tradition. It turns out, among other things, that while classical pragmatists did not specify any technical notion of emergence in the contemporary sense, their non-reductively naturalist views are relevant to the more recent emergence discussions—especially because they rejected the metaphysical realism typical of today’s ontologically-oriented emergence theories.

Essays in Philosophy is an interesting online journal freely available.

1 February 2007

The Explanatory Gap

Horgan, John. Rational Mysticism: Dispatches from the Border Between Science and Spirituality. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

My review of this book can be found in another blog entry, John Horgan's 'Rational Mysticism'. This passage suggests an emergence issue related to the mind-brain problem.

The attempts of scientists such as Austin, Blackmore, Persinger, and Newberg to understand mysticism in neurological terms evoke a philosophical concept called the explanatory gap. This term, coined by the philosopher Joseph Levine in 1983, refers to the disconnect between physiological theories of the mind and the subjective sensations those theories purport to explain. On the one hand, you have a model consisting of physical objects: neurotransmitters, receptors, synapses, dendrites, ganglia, amygdalas, posterior superior parietal lobes. On the other hand, you have what philosophers sometimes call qualia, the purely subjective perceptions, thoughts, emotions, and memories that make up a mind.

The fact is, neuroscientists cannot explain how the brain carries out the most elementary acts of cognition—for example, how I know the person lying beside me when I wake each morning is my wife. Some prominent scientists and philosophers have reluctantly predicted that the explanatory gap will never be closed. Even if neuroscientists crack the neural code, so that they can determine precisely which neural events are correlated with a given set of mental events, there may always be a strange incongruity between physiological and mental phenomena; something about the mind makes it peculiarly resistant to scientific reductionism. This philosophical position is called mysterianism. You don't have to be a mysterian to wonder whether the explanatory gap between neurological theories and mysticism will ever be closed. Neurotheologians face not an explanatory gap but a chasm.

Sometimes, however, science can yield practical benefits in the absence of intellectual understanding, Quantum mechanics provides a case in point. Quantum theory raises more questions than it resolves about reality. Electrons and protons can act like waves or particles, depending on how we observe them, and their behavior appears to be both random and deterministic. But most physicists are oblivious of these conundrums. To them, all that matters is that quantum mechanics works. It predicts the outcome of experiments with astonishing accuracy. Directly or indirectly, quantum physics has yielded such powerful technologies as transistors, lasers, and nuclear reactors.

In the same way, perhaps the research that Austin calls perennial psychophysiology can yield practical applications in lieu of intellectual insights. This, in fact, is Austin's goal. He hopes that his book win inspire more research on the neurophysiology of spirituality, which in turn will lead to improved mystical technologies. (137)

29 August 2006

Kincaid on Unity of Science

Kincaid, Harold. Individualism and the Unity of Science: Essays on Reduction, Explanation, and the Special Sciences. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1997.

In this original and important book, Harold Kincaid defends a view of the special sciences—all sciences outside physics—as autonomous and nonreducible. He argues that the biological and social sciences provide explanations that cannot be captured by explanations at the level of their constituent parts, and yet that this does not commit us to mysterious, nonphysical entitites like vital forces or group minds. A look at real scientific practice shows that the many different sciences can be unified in a way that leaves them each an autonomous explanatory role. This book will be of great interest to philosophers of science and social scientists.

20 August 2006

The New Materialism (1950)

In his essay "The New Materialism" (in A History of Philosophical Systems), Roy Wood Sellars fleshes out the perspective introduced thusly:

For quite understandable historical and cultural reasons, it so happened that materialism became a "suppressed alternative" in academic philosophy.

This is one direction American philosophy could have taken were it not for McCarthyism and the prevailing trend of pragmatism and later analytical philosophy. Following Philosophy for the Future: The Quest of Modern Materialism, this essay presents an outline of homegrown American materialism. It's a shame also that Sellars sometimes gets shortshrifted in the history of emergentism.

Note Sellars' counsel and his use of a phrase I use recurrently—'mystical holism':

It must, of course, be an empirically-minded and plastic materialism. It must avoid both traditional reductionism and mystical holism and work out its categories carefully.

4 July 2006

Rev. Hewlett Johnson's Soviet Apologetics

“Love Is the Fulfilling of the Law” by Hewlett Johnson, Dean of Canterbury

Why on earth would I include this? I quote from my editorial comment appended to this chapter of the Red Dean of Canterbury's 1940 apologetic for the USSR, The Soviet Power: The Socialist Sixth of the World:

I offer this piece of odious Stalinist propaganda as a duplicitous version of holism and emergent evolution. Note the reference to Joseph Needham. The famous Red Dean of Canterbury, a Christian fellow-traveller and pro-Soviet propagandist, writing under the menace of World War, effects a curious alchemical fusion of Christian moralism, communitarianism, dialectical materialism, and mystical holism. His interpretations of the meanings of 'materialism' and 'atheism' are sly distortions and misrepresentations. Under all of the feelgood moralism is an ideology of collectivism and self-sacrifice completely foreign to the thought of Marx. Even if the examples of religious freedom are factually correct and not fabricated, Stalin's real motives and calculations for not pushing religious workers and peasants too far are left out of account. This is not only an exemplary piece of Popular Front sophistry, it reveals the ideological logic by which middle class moralism becomes the unwitting accomplice of totalitarian barbarism.

In short, this piece reveals the ideological and political dimension of mystical holism and emergentism. It is different from the usual in the way it finesses a metaphysical perspective more akin to Bradley, Whitehead, or Teilhard de Chardin into accord with Soviet dialectical materialism. This ambiguous conflation is very instructive.

4 July 2006

Hegel's Philosophy of Nature

"Hegel's Conception of Nature" by S. Alexander.

I haven't checked to see whether this is the Samuel Alexander of Space, Time, and Deity fame, but it's a safe bet. Alexander belongs to the mystical/metaphysical tendency in the philosophical history of emergent evolution. Reading this article makes me physically ill. Alexander both criticizes and praises Hegel's philosophy of nature. From this description it seems archaic and retrograde. Alexander does not trouble to compare Hegel's naturphilosophie to Schelling's, but Goethe is brought in as a precedent. In my view these archaicisms are symptoms of German backwardness and belated development, in contradistinction to Britain and France.

On the other hand, William Maker's "aim is to defend the Philosophy of Nature by denying that it is metaphysically idealistic."

"The Very Idea of the Idea of Nature, Or Why Hegel is not an Idealist" by William Maker

This is a remarkable piece of sophistry. There are several components to this argument. Item: "Hegel originates the Philosophy of Nature with the notion of the radical nonidentity of thought and nature." (Note though, that Adorno fingers Hegel as positing the identity of identity and nonidentity.) Item: "The elimination of consciousness as a foundation for philosophy is also a rejection of metaphysical idealism because we can only make sense of any version of idealism in so far as we hold fast to the fixed and irreducible distinction between thought and object definitive of consciousness . . ." (How a professional philosopher would have the nerve to make such an assertion in public is truly astounding: it's so idiotic, it's thrilling!) Later on Maker claims: "What I shall now do is explain why this is a false dilemma, why acknowledging genuine otherness in the form of the radical givenness of nature is not incompatible with Hegel's methodological but non-metaphysical idealism." There is a lengthy and rather opaque discussion of otherness and externality. But what has any of this to do with actual scientific content, or the nature of scientific theorizing? It is all smoke and mirrors.

And then:

The empirical sciences cannot escape, but they can ignore) the problem of idealizing in so far as they do not attempt to substitute for philosophy, and in so far as their account of nature is supplemented by the proper philosophical one. Since they rest on unjustified assumptions-since they account neither for the necessity of their methods nor their objects, but take both as given-the empirical sciences can rest content with turning to the given and affording knowledge of nature as it appears, that is, as it is conditioned by the particular conceptual assumptions, the paradigms, they happen to operate with.

This is a fundamentally dishonest presumption, not to mention vaguely stated and unsubstantiated. And here is some more cheeky drivel:

Empirical thought, thought which attends to the given as given, must impose its ideal, conceptual form on the given, and thus, while it may recognize, it cannot attend adequately to, what it must ignore in imposing that ideal form: the general character-is tics of nature as not like thought at all. Empirical science cannot explain these general features of nature because they are incompatible with its idealistic method which involves the incorporation of the given into thought. But systematic philosophy of nature can and does conceptualize just these features, accounting for why nature appears as it does.

Hegel's systematic philosophy acknowledges its dependence on empirical knowledge, and thus is anti-aprioristic in character while serving as empirical science's necessary complement.

But what about the accusation of reading thought into nature?

For one thing, the determinations which emerge in the Philosophy of Nature emerge immanently, not by using the logic as some kind of form or model imposed on a given content.

Pure fantasy!

But what about spirit's appearance in the system? Is that not indicative of an emergent metaphysical idealism? No. As the overriding activity of systematic thought is the activity of determining self-determination in all its manifold guises, the system moves as a whole in the direction of fully determinate self-determination, in the direction of spirit and freedom. But this is not because we know already that this is what given reality truly is, but because philosophically cognizable truth is self-determination, and must be completely conceived as such. So we move as a whole in systematic Realphilosophie from nature to spirit not because there is some organic, spiritually evolutionary development in given nature-Hegel explicitly and properly rejects this form of metaphysical idealism - but just because nature is so unlike self-determining thought but is nonetheless being conceptualized in the system of self-determining thought. As called upon methodologically to completeness, the system must think the full range and nature of self-determination. It cannot stop at nature.


The rank dishonesty of this argument reminds me of other work of Maker I found objectionable. Such apologists for Hegel cannot be trusted. (Don't forget to add Errol E. Harris to the list.) Apologists for Hegel's naturphilosophie seem to be the most obscurantist of all:

GWFHegel.Org - Hegel's Science of Philosophy, Philosophy of Nature

The most intelligent of these essays is "Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature: Overcoming the Division Between Matter and Thought" by Alison Stone, but the explication of Hegel's underlying project only convinces me that it is untenable metaphysics predicated on the misbegotten notion of objective spirit. A whole different approach is required both to reveal the essential flawed presuppositions of this type of reasoning and well as to recapture whatever rational content it possesses in a demystified form.

19 June 2006

Laughlin Reinventing Physics

A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down by Robert B. Laughlin (Basic Books, February, 2006, 254 pages) addresses the problems of emergence and reductionism with some skepticism about the concentration on micro-phenomena. Note also the complaints of some of the amazon.com reviews.

19 June 2006

More on Cornforth: Bibliographical References

Expanding on the references and allusions in my previous entry:

Norman, Richard; Sayers, Sean. Hegel, Marx, and Dialectic: A Debate. Brighton, Sussex: Harvester Press; Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1980.

See my review: Dialectics Bout: Richard Norman vs. Sean Sayers.

Scanlan, James P. Marxism in the USSR: A Critical Survey of Current Soviet Thought. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Inter alia, Scanlan enumerates flaws in diamat.

@nti-dialectics: web site by 'Rosa Lichtenstein'.

'Rosa' is obsessed, strident, sectarian, and a little crazy, but does demonstrate the logical flaws and the harm caused by the transmission of a frozen version of fuzzy thinking down through the decades.

Aspects of Dialectical Materialism, by H. Levy, John Macmurray, Ralph Fox, R. Page Arnot, J. D. Bernal, E.F. Carrit. London: Watts & Co., 1934.

Bernal was not as obnoxious as I had thought I remembered. I must have been thinking of his contribution "Notes in Reply to Mr. Carriot's Paper." The gist of this group of contributors—including partisans of diamat, fellow travellers and doubting thomases—is that most agree on certain general principles formulated in the diamat view but differ over the logic and precise claims involved. The level of discussion, however, is too primitive. One can see diamat's general appeal, but also the failure to refine it. Notions of non-reductive materialism and concrete interconnections are commonly acceptable, but dialectical laws and contradictions are harder to swallow.

Popper, Karl R. "What is Dialectic?", Mind, 49 (N.S.) (196), 1940, 403-426.

I think this is reprinted in one of Popper's books. But I may be thinking of another work in which Popper complains about the self-insulation of Marxism from empirical disconfirmation.

See also Vienna Circle, Karl Popper, Frankfurt School, Marxism, McCarthyism & American Philosophy: Selected Bibliography.

By trilogy, I'm referring to Cornforth's exposition of Marxist philosophy in the 1950s: Vol 1: Materialism & the Dialectical Method, Vol 2: Historical Materialism, Vol 3: The Theory of Knowledge.

Returning to Cornforth's Science versus Idealism, a key moment in my deliberations emerged from his criticism of speculative idealist metaphysical conceptions of emergence, change, and development, in the philosophies of Herbert Spencer, Henri Bergson, George Bernard Shaw, C. Lloyd Morgan, Samuel Alexander, Alfred North Whitehead. Essentially, they are convicted of violating naturalistic norms of explanation. Diamat is then contrasted with this. At this juncture I noted an interesting discrepancy in the nebulously stated claim that diamat merely generalizes the results of scientific inquiry.

17 June 2006

Cornforth: Diamat vs. Emergent Evolution

Science versus Idealism: In Defence of Philosophy against Positivism and Pragmatism by Maurice Cornforth.

Chapter 13: Dialectical Materialism

See the section: Materialism versus Idealism in the Conception of Change and Development.

Normally I wouldn't waste my time on an exposition of diamat. However, this chapter is significant, for primarily two reasons:

(1) the application of historical materialism to the history of philosophy;

(2) a critique of the objective idealist strand of 'emergent evolution'—Spencer, Bergson, Shaw, Morgan, Alexander, Whitehead. Cornforth gives a different slant on this history from what you will find in the biased entries of reference sources like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and outlines what is wrong with metaphysical system-building of this sort.

From this point, it is instructive what he has to say in contrast about . . .

(3) dialectical materialism, its alleged abjuration of metaphysical system-building and relation to science.

To read this, you will have to be able to stomach Stalin, Zhdanov, and Mao. Good luck. But to the point, if you read this chapter, you perhaps need not plow through at least two books of Cornforth's trilogy. (His take on historical materialism—the third book—is likely to be objectionable for other reasons—the laws and stages-of-history conception.) It becomes clearer from reading this both the source of diamat's appeal and its slippery finessing of the lapses in its own logical structure.

The larger picture here is the underlying dynamic of the self-deception of the advocates of Soviet diamat outside the USSR. I'm working on a larger project analyzing the history of philosophical schools including diamat as a combination of logical and ideological (in the last instance social) causation.

I will defer an extensive analysis for another occasion. I just want to note that Cornforth's claim that diamat abjures metaphysical system-building, whereas diamat builds on the latest results of science and can even guide the development of science, is a red flag (no pun intended). Elsewhere Cornforth insists, correctly, that no empirical consequences can be deduced from any ontology. Yet he finesses the logical relationship between the categorial structure of diamat and the empirical realities upon which it is alleged to generalize. Here the logical ambiguity in the conception of dialectical laws (the conflation of logical law with empirical law) is the entry point for all the ideological flimflam of Stalinism.

Furthermore, while Cornforth's class analysis of the history of philosophy may be broadly correct (though it is micro-incorrect in failing to account for the subjective self-understanding of positivists and pragmatists), his reduction of the contrast between Marxism and bourgeois philosophy to "two camps" is Stalinist through and through. Not only is he wrong about the nature of the Stalinist camp, but he is wrong about the relationship of Marxist to non-Marxist philosophies. In practice, he treats Marxist philosophy as a system opposed to other systems, though he denies doing so. Like most philosophers influenced by diamat—in this period, especially—he was very good at exposing both the social roots and the idealist blinders of bourgeois philosophy—i.e., at exercising the negative, critical function of Marxist philosophy—but diamat as a constructive philosophy remained primitive, underdeveloped, stagnant, locked into formulas and authorities. This is the tragedy of the whole tradition.

Others have endlessly criticized the logical structure of diamat over the past century. One could toss off hundreds of names. The first that pop into my mind are Scanlan, Norman, and 'Rosa Lichtenstein'. There are some who have argued that bad logic works to the advantage of bad ideology—Popper, for example, and now 'Rosa'. However, there remains more to be said about this, even at this late date. It is especially relevant for recalibrating the relations among intellectual traditions, my larger project.

The plausibility of a world view ambiguously formulated, in combination with dogmatic authoritarianism, suckered the best minds. I learned this from some rather obscure sources, for example J.D. Bernal's shameful apologetics for diamat in the 1930s.


Emergence - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Emergent Properties
(Stanford Enc. of Phil.)

(Dict. of Phil. of Mind)

Physicalism, non-reductive
(Dict. of Phil. of Mind)


Emergent property

(Dict. of the History of Ideas)

R. Keith Sawyer Emergence page

On emergence, levels, complexity and causation
(Online publications by Claus Emmeche)


Marxism & Natural Science
(Marxists Internet Archive)

Psychology & Marxism
(Marxists Internet Archive)

Evald Ilyenkov Archive
(Marxists Internet Archive)

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