The Relationship of Dialectics and Emergentism
Christian Fuchs

For Descartes, reason was the only possible source of cognition. He propagated the dissection of complex phenomena and problems into smaller parts which can be clearly solved. Applying this methodology, the whole problem is solved by reducing it to smaller problems and solving these ones. Reductionism was an expression of a mechanistic world-view that concentrated on linear causality and linear forecasting of future developments. This culminated in the idea of the LaPlacean Demon: Future states of the world could be fully forecast, if the initial states of all molecules in the Universe were known. The theory of self-organisation introduces ideas such as complexity, order out of chaos, in-determinism, deterministic chaos, circular causality and the reduced applicability of forecasts radically negate a mechanistic world-view.

In Reductionism, the parts are a sufficient condition for the whole and the whole results from the parts. In Holism, the parts are independent from the whole. Both conceptions can’t cope with the emergence of new qualities of the whole from the parts. Emergentism, a notion put forward by the theory of self-organisation, introduces the idea that the whole is more than the sum of its parts: The parts are a necessary condition for the whole, but not a sufficient one. New qualities can be seen as emerging from interactions of the parts. What has been said for the relationship of the whole and its parts in Reductionism, Holism and Emergentism, also applies to the new and the old. For Emergentism this means that new qualities can be seen as emerging from old ones.

Some approaches on the notion of emergence in natural and social sciences will be discussed:

The first scientists speaking of emergence were the psychologists Conway Lloyd Morgan and Samuell Alexander in the 1920ies. Their Philosophy of Emergence concentrated on consciousness as a phenomenon that suddenly emerged in evolution and that can’t be reduced to the organic structure of living organisms. For Morgan and Alexander Emergentism seemed somehow mystically, they introduced spiritual forces (known as "Nisus") as the driving forces of emergence (see [Morgan1923], [Alexander1920]). Such forces lack an understanding of the dialectical relationship of quality and quantity and the whole and its parts. The emergence of order can’t be explained metaphysically because new qualities of the whole are solely constituted by interactions of its parts. As we will see, such an understanding can help to develop a viewpoint that deals with the close relationship of Emergentism and Dialectics.

For Karl Popper, emergence is denoting "that during the course of evolution new things and events occur that have unexpected and really unforeseeable qualities" (translated from German to English, [EcclesPopper1977], p. 31ff).

Emergent Evolution deals with emergent qualities of systems that occur at an evolutionary transition from one organisational level to another. One important question in bringing together a Theory of Evolutionary Systems and Emergentism is: Which emergent qualities distinguish autopoietic from dissipative systems? Which ones social from autopoietic systems? Charles Popper provided one example for Emergent Evolution ([EcclesPopper1977]): Based on hydrogen and helium, he denotes some evolutionary steps of emergence:

emergence of elements, liquids and crystals

emergence of living organisms

emergence of feelings and consciousness

emergence of language, myths, art, science and theories

Another example is Emergent Materialism of M. Bunge who propagates that the CNS is a system with properties that emerged in the course of evolution (see [Bunge1984])

In Cognitive Science, Emergentism was introduced in the 70ies as an alternative to Cognitivism (for an overview see e.g. [Varela1990]) which sees the brain as a machine and propagates mathematical logics for connecting neurones (which can be in one of two possible states). Important representatives of this mainstream of Cognitive Science are Herbert Simon, Noam Chomsky, Marvin Minsky and John McCarthy. They see cognition as calculating with symbolic representations. These symbols must be stored physically in the brain, the semantic level is made up by representations of the world from the outside. The metaphor of the brain as a computer is put forward. In the 1970ies aspects of self-organisation were introduced to Cognitive Science stressing that no central rule-based logical unit exists in the human brain.

Varela criticises in [Varela1990] that Cognitivism can only deal with sequential rules and stresses that parallel cognitive processes exist. Acting in daily life demands processes that are much faster than computational strategies in our brain would allow. Connectionism has put forward the idea of the brain working as a Neural Network with emergent cognitive processes as emergent qualities that can’t be reduced to the activities of single neurones. If the brain is seen as a cooperative system, it can be argued that connected neurons work in such a way that all activities of the brain are functions of the activities of all parts. Subsystems of the brain such as Thalamus or Hippocampus cooperate in this way and each subsystem is made up as a complex Neural Network. Each neurone is involved in the constitution of many different emerging patterns. Seen as a single cell it hardly has any influence. It is only relevant in cooperating with other neurones. Cognition can be seen as the emergence of global states in a Neural Network that is made up of simpler parts and it functions per rules that change the connectivity between neurones and organise the functionality of single neurones.

In Computer Science the notion of emergence has been put forward by Emergent Computation ([Forrest1991a], [Forrest1991b]) which according to Stephanie Forrest is constituted by the following qualities (see [Forrest1991b], p.2):

1. A collection of agents exists, each one follows explicit instructions

2. The agents interact according to instructions. Global patterns are formed at the macroscopic level, i.e. epiphenomena

3. The epiphenomena are interpreted as computations

Examples for Emergent Computations can be found in Neuronal Networks and models and applications of Artificial Life (such as Genetic Algorithms, Cellular Automata, the Boolean Networks introduced by Stuart Kauffman or the Game of Life). According to [Langton1989] Artificial Life (AL) is "the study of man-made systems that exhibit behaviors characteristic of natural living systems". Chris Langton sees the aim of AL as searching for artificial systems that exhibit life-like, non-predictable emergent behaviours which are constituted by interactions of mechanistic components. Emergent behaviour is the central concept of AL. The emergent behaviours exhibited by the Cellular Automata constructed by Langton emerge at phase transitions. He argues that these technically simulated transitions not only resemble those in biological organisms, but actually are the same ones and claims that he has created life. The question arises whether life really can be created in a technical/virtual environment or if it is a phenomenon that can only occur as an emergent step in real evolution.

In Sociology, Emile Durkheim was the first one to consider the notion of emergence. He speaks of social facts that are special forms of acting, thinking and feelings that exist apart from individual consciousness (see [Durkheim1984], p. 106). Social facts are collective phenomena that can’t be constituted by a single individual. They can only be explained as emerging from social interactions of actors. Examples for social facts are collective aims, views, values, feelings, standards, customs, traditions and duties. They are emergent qualities of social systems.

In Cybernetics and the theory of self-organisation one can speak of emergence if "a new quality that can’t be derived from the qualities of the components, but which is made up solely by the interaction of the components, [appears] on a macroscopic level per microscopic interactions" (translated from German to English, [KrohnKüppers1992], p. 389). One example for the emergence of order from noise in self-organising systems are the Bénard convection-cells: In a special liquid a macroscopic pattern emerges suddenly from reciprocal actions of liquid-particles when a threshold in temperature-difference is passed. A small fluctuation (a single particle leaves its layer) is intensified, the particles leave their stationary positions and start moving, the system is driven far apart its thermal equilibrium. The particles order themselves, different concentric patterns emerge. One of these enslaves the others, it orders the system and its form determines the macroscopic pattern. Such processes of emergence characterise self-organisation in dissipative/synergetic systems as the spontaneous appearance of orde on a macroscopic level.

The basic ideas of Dialectics as introduced by G.F. Hegel is the existence of contradictions as laws of movement and development in the world. The basic questions in Dialectics are: What moves the world? How does the world move? Where does this movement take us?

According to Dialectics, a notion in the form of a thesis is negated in the form of an antithesis. thesis and antithesis contradict each other, but they also require each other. The negation of the negation denotes the emergence of a synthesis from thesis and antithesis. Hegel characterises this by the German word Aufhebung (sublation is a similiar term in English) which has three different meanings: eliminating/invalidating/dissolving/breaking up something (1), keeping or preserving something (2) and lifting something up (3). Aufhebung also characterises the change from quantity to quality, qualitative leaps exist in Dialectics.

Marx’s and Engels’ elaboration of Dialectics was the Dialectical Materialism which conceives contradictions in the capitalist economy: contrasts between the rich and the poor; owners and non-owners of goods, real estates, means of production and capital; forces of productivity and relations of production and between labour-force and capital are analysed. For Marx and Engels the economic relations are the material basis of society, culture, religion, ideologies are seen as social superstructures which can only exist on an economic-material basis. According to Engels, the basic question of philosophy is the relationship of thinking and being (see [MEW] 21, p. 274). Dialectical Materialism propagates that being (Sein) determines consciousness (Bewußtsein).

Marx used the dialectical methodology of Hegel for analysing capitalism. In doing so he based his analysis on commodities, exchange and use-values. He wanted to find out which laws and driving forces steer social actions and relationships, how labour, science and technology as forces of productivity develop socio-economic contradictions .

Emergentism and Dialectics are closely related: Emergence shows dialectical aspects because old system qualities are preserved (2) in the form of new ones and the system is lifted to a new level/state (3) by the emergence of new qualities. We can’t say that new system qualities eliminate old ones (1), but a whole/a system at a macroscopic level must not necessarily have properties/qualities of microscopic parts. We can hence say that microscopic qualities are eliminated (1) at a macroscopic level, if microscopic properties can’t be found at the macroscopic level which characterises the whole. Emergence means a qualitative leap, a spontaneous overturn of qualities which depends on control parameters which reach a critical threshold in the self-organising system.

On the other hand Dialectics put forward aspects of Emergentism because it deals with the overturn of qualities. A synthesis emerges from a thesis and an antithesis, it features new qualities.

An example about a barley-corn provided by Friedrich Engels in the "Anti-Dühring" illustrates the relation of Dialectics and Emergentism:
"Let us take a grain of barley. Billions of such grains of barley are milled, boiled and brewed and then consumed. But if such a grain of barley meets with conditions which are normal for it, if it falls on suitable soil, then under the influence of heat and moisture it undergoes a specific change, it germinates; the grain as such ceases to exist, it is negated, and in its place appears the plant which has arisen from it, the negation of the grain. But what is the normal life-process of this plant? It grows, flowers, is fertilised and finally once more produces grains of barley, and as soon as these have ripened the stalk dies, is in its turn negated. As a result of this negation of the negation we have once again the original grain of barley, but not as a single unit, but ten-, twenty- or thirtyfold" (Engels, Anti-Dühring, MEW 20, p. 126).
Here Engels describes a negation of a negation as well as qualitative change.This overturn means the emergence of many barley-corns as new qualities from the old dying stalk.


[Alexander1920] Alexander, Samuell; Space, Time and Deity; London, 1920

[Bunge1984] Bunge, Mario Das Leib-Seele-Problem. Ein psychobiologischer Versuch. Tübingen. Mohr. 1984

[Durkheim1984] Durkheim, Emile, Die Regeln der soziologischen Methode, Frankfurt/Main, 1984

[EcclesPopper1977] Eccles, John C./Popper, Karl R.; Das Ich und sein Gehirn, Piper, München, 6. Auflage 1997

[Forrest1991a] Forrest, Stephanie, Emergent Computation, Elsevier Science Publishers B.V., 1991

[Forrest1991b] Forrest, Stephanie, Emergent Computation: Self-Organizing, Collective and Cooperative Phenomena in Natural and Artificial Computing Networks, in: [Forrest1991a], S. 1-11

[KrohnKüppers1992] Krohn, Wolfgang/Küppers, Günther, Emergenz: Die Entstehung von Ordnung, Organisation und Bedeutung, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, 1992

[Langton1989] Langton, Chris (Hrsg.), Artificial Life, Addison-Wesley, 1989

[MEW] Marx, Karl/Engels, Friedrich, Werke, Berlin, 1972 (in German)

[Morgan1923] Morgan, C.L., Emergent Evolution, New York, 1923

[Varela1990] Varela, Francisco J.; Kognitionswissenschaft, Kognitionstechnik, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt/Main, 1990