British Emergentist Movement

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Brendan Graham Dempsey:

"Contrary to the assumption of the reductionists, Mill said, the whole is not just a sum of its parts. The behavior of life seemed to conform to principles that depended on the parts working holistically in concert, and thereby creating something truly novel.

Life and mind clearly presented problems for the reductionist view of science—problems future thinkers would attempt to resolve in this vein. In his 1874 book Problems of Life and Mind, the philosopher George Henry Lewes picked up Mill’s line of thought and extended it, coining a new term for the sort of phenomena Mill had put his finger on. He called them “emergents.”

“Every resultant,” Lewes said,

.. is either a sum or a difference of the co-operant forces; their sum, when their directions are the same—their difference, when their directions are contrary. Further, every resultant is clearly traceable in its components, because these are homogenous and commensurable. It is otherwise with emergents, when, instead of adding measurable motion to measurable motion, or things of one kind to other individuals of their kind, there is a co-operation of things of unlike kinds. The emergent is unlike its components insofar as these are incommensurable, and it cannot be reduced to their sum or their difference.

So began the “British Emergentist” movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which included Lewes, as well as figures like Samuel Alexander, C. D. Broad, and Conway Lloyd Morgan. Their radical idea: emergent wholes are more than the sum of their parts. With this crucial insight, the British Emergentists would lay the groundwork for future theories of emergence, such as are today a mainstay of complexity science.

Recognizing that, in the case of emergents, wholes are more than the sum of their parts, it was clear that certain properties only pertain at certain levels of existence."