Journal for General Philosophy of Science

, Volume 28, Issue 1, pp 83–117 | Cite as




The vitalism/reductionism debate in the life sciences shows that the idea of emergence as something principally unexplainable will often be falsified by the development of science. Nevertheless, the concept of emergence keeps reappearing in various sciences, and cannot easily be dispensed with in an evolutionary world-view. We argue that what is needed is an ontological non reductionist theory of levels of reality which includes a concept of emergence, and which can support an evolutionary account of the origin of levels. Classical explication of emergence as “the creation of new properties” is discussed critically, and specific distinctions between various kinds of emergence is introduced for the purpose of developing an ontology of levels, framed in a materialistic and evolutionary perspective. A concept of the relation between levels as being inclusive is suggested, permitting the “local” existence of different ontologies. We identify, as a working hypothesis, four primary levels and explicate their nonhomomorphic interlevel relations. Explainability of emergence in relation to determinism and predictability is considered. Recent research in self-organizing non-linear dynamical systems represents a revival of the scientific study of emergence, and we argue that these recent developments can be seen as a step toward a final “devitalisation” of emergence.

emergence levels explanation determinism ontology reduction materialism vitalism 


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© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1997

Authors and Affiliations

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    • 1
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  1. 1.Niels Bohr Institute, Psychological Laboratory & Dept. for Comparative LiteratureUniversity of CopenhagenCopenhagenDenmark

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