Foundations of Science

, Volume 20, Issue 4, pp 429–446 | Cite as

Ontological Emergence: How is That Possible? Towards a New Relational Ontology

  • Gil C. Santos


In this article I address the issue of the ontological conditions of possibility for a naturalistic notion of emergence, trying to determine its fundamental differences from the atomist, vitalist, preformationist and potentialist alternatives. I will argue that a naturalistic notion of ontological emergence can only succeed if we explicitly refuse the atomistic fundamental ontological postulate that asserts that every entity is endowed with a set of absolutely intrinsic properties, being qualitatively immutable through its extrinsic relations. Furthermore, it will be shown that, ironically enough, this metaphysical assumption is implicitly shared by all the above mentioned alternatives to Emergentism. The current article concludes that the notion of organization by itself is not enough, and that ontological emergence can only be justified by assuming a relational ontological perspective that, in opposition both to atomism and holism, defends that the existence-conditions, the identity and the causal behavior of any emergent systemic property can only be conceived, and explained, as constructed by and through specific networks of qualitatively transformative relational processes that occur between the system’s components and between the system and its environment. Additionally, I try to explain how one can make sense of the idea that an emergent phenomenon is both dependent on, and autonomous from, its emergence base.


Emergence Relational ontology Atomism Holism Micro-reductionism Qualitative change 



I thank the anonymous reviewers for their careful reading of my manuscript and their insightful and constructive comments and suggestions.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculdade de Ciências da Universidade de LisboaCentro de Filosofia das Ciências da Universidade de Lisboa (CFCUL)LisbonPortugal

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