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In philosophy, systems theory, science, and art, emergence is a process whereby larger entities, patterns, and regularities arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities that themselves do not exhibit such properties.


  • Daß aber eine als bloß quantitativ erscheinende Veränderung auch in eine qualitative umschlägt, auf diesen Zusammenhang sind schon die Alten aufmerksam gewesen, und haben die der Unkenntniß desselben entstehenden Kollisionen in populären Beispielen vorgestellt; unter den Namen des Kahlen, des Haufens sind hierher gehörige Elenchen bekannt.
    • The sudden conversion into a change of quality of a change which was apparently merely quantitative had already attracted the attention of the ancients who illustrated in popular examples the contradiction arising from ignorance of this fact; they are familiar under the names of ‘the bald’ and ‘the heap’.
    • Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Wissenschaft der Logik, Dritter Abschnitt. Das Maaß; Erstes Kapitel. Die specifische Quantität. [Science of Logic, Third Section. Measure; First Chapter. Specific Quantity] (1812-1816).
  • It is said that there are no sudden changes in nature, and the common view has it (meint) that when we speak of a growth or a destruction (Entstehen oder Vergehen), we always imagine a gradual growth (Hervorgehen) or disappearance (Verschwinden). Yet we have seen cases in which the alteration of existence (des Seins) involves not only a transition from one proportion to other, but also a transition, by a sudden leap, into a quantitatively, and, on the other hand, also qualitatively different thing (Anderswerden); an interruption of the gradual process (ein Abbrechen des Allmählichen), differing qualitatively from the preceding, the former, state.
  • Gesetz vom Umschlagen von Quantität in Qualität und umgekehrt. Dies können wir für unsern Zweck dahin ausdrücken, daß in der Natur, in einer für jeden Einzelfall genau feststehenden Weise, qualitative Änderungen nur stattfinden können durch quantitativen Zusatz oder quantitative Entziehung von Materie oder Bewegung (sog. Energie).
    • The law of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa. For our purpose, we could express this by saying that in nature, in a manner exactly fixed for each individual case, qualitative changes can only occur by the quantitative addition or subtraction of matter or motion (so-called energy).
    • Friedrich Engels, Dialektik der Natur [Dialectics of Nature], 1883.
  • The guilds of the middle ages therefore tried to prevent by force the transformation of the master of a trade into a capitalist, by limiting the number of labourers that could be employed by one master within a very small maximum. The possessor of money or commodities actually turns into a capitalist in such cases only where the minimum sum advanced for production greatly exceeds the maximum of the middle ages. Here, as in natural science, is shown the correctness of the law discovered by Hegel (in his “Logic”), that merely quantitative differences beyond a certain point pass into qualitative changes. The minimum of the sum of value that the individual possessor of money or commodities must command, in order to metamorphose himself into a capitalist, changes with the different stages of development of capitalist production, and is at given stages different in different spheres of production, according to their special and technical conditions.
    • Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Volume I, Chapter 11: Rate and Mass of Surplus-Value. (1867–1894)
  • The laws of chemistry and physiology (for example) owe their existence to a breach of the principle of composition of causes, but these heteropathic laws, as we might call them, are capable of composition with one another. The causes which by one combination had their laws altered may carry their new laws with them unaltered into further combinations. So we needn’t despair of eventually raising chemistry and physiology to the condition of deductive sciences; for though it’s impossible to deduce all chemical and physiological truths from the laws or properties of simple substances or elementary agents, perhaps they are deducible from laws that come into play when these elementary agents are brought together into some moderate number of not very complex combinations. The laws of life will never be deducible from the mere laws of the ingredients, but the prodigiously complex facts of life may all be deducible from comparatively simple laws of life—which do indeed depend on combinations, but comparatively simple ones.
  • Suivant un principe philosophique posé, depuis longtemps, par mon ouvrage fondamental, un système quelconque ne peut être formé que d'éléments semblable à lui et seulement moindres. Une société n'est donc pas plus décomposable en individus qu'une surface géométrique ne l'est en lignes ou une ligne en points. La moindre société, savoir la famille, quelquefois réduite à son couple fondamental, constitue donc le véritable élément sociologique. De là dérivent ensuite les groupes plus composés qui, sous les noms de classes et de cités, deviennent, pour le Grand-Être, les équivalents des tissus et des organes biologiques...
    • According to a philosophical principle laid down long ago by my foundational work, any system whatsoever can only be formed of elements similar to it and only smaller. A society is therefore no more decomposable into individuals than a geometric surface is into lines or a line into points. The smallest society, namely the family, sometimes reduced to its fundamental couple, thus constitutes the true sociological element. From this are then derived the more composite groups which, under the names of classes and cities, become, for the Great Being, the equivalents of biological tissues and organs...
    • Auguste Comte, Système de politique positive, vol. II, p. 181. (1853)
  • Thus, although each effect is the resultant of its components, the product of its factors, we cannot always trace the steps of the process, so as to see in the product the mode of operation of each factor. In this latter case, I propose to call the effect an emergent. It arises out of the combined agencies, but in a form which does not display the agents in action.
  • But it will be argued that since the sole elements of which society is composed are individuals, the primary origin of sociological phenomena cannot be other than psychological. Reasoning in this way, we can just as easily establish that biological phenomena are explained analytically by inorganic phenomena. It is indeed certain that in the living cell there are only molecules of crude matter. But they are in association, and it is this association which is the cause of the new phenomena which characterise life, even the germ of which it is impossible to find in a single one of these associated elements. This is because the whole does not equal the sum of its parts; it is something different, whose properties differ from those displayed by the parts from which it is formed... By virtue of this principle, society is not the mere sum of individuals, but the system formed by their association represents a specific reality which has its own characteristics... The group thinks, feels and acts entirely differently from the way its members would if they were isolated. If therefore we begin by studying these members separately, we will understand nothing about what is taking place in the group. In a word, there is between psychology and sociology the same break in continuity as there is between biology and the physical and chemical sciences. Consequently every time a social phenomenon is directly explained by a psychological phenomenon, we may rest assured that the explanation is false.
    • Émile Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method, Chapter 5: Rules for the Explanation of Social Facts, pp. 128-129. (1895), translated by W. D. Halls.
  • Let there be three successive levels of natural events, A, B, and C. Let there be in B a kind of relation which is not present in A; and in C a kind of relation, not yet present in B or in A. If then one lived and gained experience on the B-level, one could not predict the emergent characters of the C-level, because the relations, of which they are the expression, are not yet in being. Nor if one lived on the A-level could one predict the emergent character of b-events, because ex hypothesi there are no such events as yet in existence. (What, it is claimed, one cannot predict, then, is the emergent expression of some new kind of relatedness among pre-existent events. One could not foretell the emergent character of vital events from the fullest possible knowledge of physico-chemical events only, if life be an emergent chord and not merely due to the summation, however complex, of constituent a-notes. Such is the hypothesis accepted under emergent evolution.)
  • To be sure, the symbolic faculty was brought into existence by the natural processes of organic evolution. And we may reasonably believe that the focal point, if not the locus, of this faculty is in the brain, especially the forebrain. Man's brain is much larger than that of an ape, both absolutely and relatively... Now in many situations we know that quantitative changes give rise to qualitative differences. Water is transformed into steam by additional quantities of heat. Additional power and speed lift the taxiing airplane from the ground and transform terrestrial locomotion into flight. The difference between wood alcohol and grain alcohol is a qualitative expression of a quantitative difference in the proportions of carbon and hydrogen. Thus a marked growth in size of the brain in man may have brought forth a new kind of function.
    • Leslie Alvin White, The Science of Culture, Chapter 2: The Symbol: The Origin and Basis of Human Behavior, Section V. pp. 32-33. (1949)
  • Accordingly, the operations of a higher level cannot be accounted for by the laws governing its particulars forming the lower level. You cannot derive a vocabulary from phonetics; you cannot derive the grammar of a language from its vocabulary; a correct use of grammar does not account for good style; and a good style does not provide the content of a piece of prose. We may conclude then quite generally -- in confirmation of what I said when I identified the two terms of tacit knowing with two levels of reality -- that it is impossible to represent the organizing principles of a higher level by the laws governing its isolated particulars.
  • Systems almost always have the peculiarity that the characteristics of the whole cannot (not even in theory) be deduced from the most complete knowledge of' the components, taken separately or in other partial combinations. This appearance of new characteristics in wholes has been designated as emergence. Emergence has often been invoked in attempts to explain such difficult phenomena as life, mind, and consciousness. Actually, emergence is equally characteristic of inorganic systems. As far back as 1868, T. H. Huxley asserted that the peculiar properties of water, its "aquosity," could not be deduced from our understanding of the properties of hydrogen and oxygen. The person, however, who was more responsible than anyone else for the recognition of the importance of emergence was Lloyd Morgan (1894). There is no question, he said, "that at various grades of organization, material configurations display new and unexpected phenomena and that these include the most striking features of adaptive machinery."
    • Ernst Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance, (1982)
  • Each level of biological organization builds upon the previous level, and is more complex. Moving up the hierarchy, each level acquires new emergent properties that are determined by the interactions between the individual parts. When cells are broken down into bits of membrane and liquids, these parts themselves cannot carry out the business of living. For example, you can take apart a lump of coal, rearrange the pieces in any order, and still have a lump of coal with the same function as the original one. But, if you slice apart a living plant and rearrange the pieces, the plant is no longer functional as a complete plant, because it depends on the exact order of those pieces. In the living world, the whole is indeed more than the sum of its parts. The emergent properties created by the interactions between levels of biological organization are new, unique characteristics. These properties are governed by the laws of chemistry and physics.
    • Sylvia S. Mader, Biology (10th ed., 2010), Ch. 1. A View of Life
  • Every system that has existed emerged somehow, from somewhere, at some point. Complexity science emphasizes the study of how systems evolve through their disorganized parts into an organized whole.
    • L.K. Samuels, In Defense of Chaos: The Chaology of Politics, Economics and Human Action, Cobden Press (2013) p. 118.
  • If an emerging system is born complex, there is neither leeway to abandon it when it fails, nor the means to join another, successful one. Such a system would be caught in an immovable grip, congested at the top, and prevented, by a set of confusing but locked–in precepts, from changing.
    • L.K. Samuels , In Defense of Chaos: The Chaology of Politics, Economics and Human Action, Cobden Press (2013) p. 191.
  • These emergent properties are due to the arrangement and interactions of parts as complexity increases. For example, although photosynthesis occurs in an intact chloroplast, it will not take place in a disorganized test-tube mixture of chlorophyll and other chloroplast molecules. The coordinated processes of photosynthesis require a specific organization of these molecules in the chloroplast. Isolated components of living systems, serving as the objects of study in a reductionist approach to biology, lack a number of significant properties that emerge at higher levels of organization. Emergent properties are not unique to life. A box of bicycle parts won’t transport you anywhere, but if they are arranged in a certain way, you can pedal to your chosen destination. Compared with such nonliving examples, however, biological systems are far more complex, making the emergent properties of life especially challenging to study.
    • Jane B. Reece, Lisa A. Urry, et al. Campbell Biology (10th ed., 2014), Ch. 1. Evolution, the Themes of Biology, and Scientific Inquiry

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