Life as an Emergent Phenomenon: From an Alternative to Vitalism to an Alternative to Reductionism

  • Christophe Malaterre
Part of the History, Philosophy and Theory of the Life Sciences book series (HPTL, volume 2)


In this contribution, I investigate the changes of focus in the philosophical concept of emergence in the nineteenth and twentieth century period, especially in connection with the problem of characterizing life and its origins. Since its early philosophical formulation in the nineteenth century, “emergence” has been applied to vital phenomena, but also to chemical compounds and mental states. In each case, the whole is said to be more than the sum of its parts: a higher level of organization appears to exhibit properties that are claimed to be non-deducible, non-predictable or unexplainable on the basis of the properties of its lower level components. In the early twentieth century, the concept of emergence was strongly stimulated by the wish to formulate a philosophical alternative to both vitalism and mechanism. The concept experienced a golden age that proved to be short lived as it encountered several scientific and philosophical setbacks in the mid-twentieth century. The concept somehow re-emerged in the late twentieth century, especially as it became a central topic in philosophy of mind, and as it also received the unexpected support of the science of complex systems. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, benefiting from a growing awareness of the complexity of biological phenomena, the concept of emergence re-emerges as a way of characterizing life and its origin, not so much as an alternative to vitalism, but as an alternative to reductive explanations of life. Its relevance remains a debated topic.


Emergence Mechanism Origins of life Reductive explanation Vitalism 



An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2006 HOPOS conference in Paris, and I thank the audience for valuable insights. I also thank Charles Wolfe and Sebastian Normandin for their editorial contribution.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Département de philosophieUniversité du Québec à MontréalMontréalCanada

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