Emergence and epiphenomena

Östen Dahl oesten at ling.su.se
Wed Mar 1 09:52:37 UTC 2006

In my previous posting, I said:

> The term "emergence", by the way, is arguably even more ambiguously used
> linguists and others. I discuss the two terms "emergence" and
> "epiphenomena" in my book "The growth and maintenance of linguistic
> complexity", Benjamins 2004.

Rob Freeman says:

>Can you outline the main issues for us? I would like to hear what you have
>say about "emergence" (especially in the epiphenomenal sense of "having no 
>direct causes" rather than the evolutionary sense of gradual change!!)

Actually, the gist of the argument can be found by digging into the FUNKNET
archive. On July 30, 1999, I had a posting with the title “What is emergence
3), with quite a few comments from other people, which can be read on the
Linguist List website. I quote the concluding part of my own posting (which,
as can be seen, hooks onto the original definition of “emergence” quoted by
Steve Long):

“In the older tradition, 
 "emergence" stands for new and
interesting higher-order structures that are not reducible to the
lower-order ones. MacWhinney and Hopper, on the contrary, seem to use the
same term precisely for the opposite: seemingly complex systems  that are in
fact derivable from -- "epiphenomenal by-products" of -- other simpler
systems. One may ask how such a radical shift in meaning may have occurred.

It seems that we can find the seed of the conflict in the original notion of
emergence. On one hand, the target has new and interesting properties that
cannot be described in terms of the source, on the other, there is
presumably some kind of causal chain that leads from the source to the
target. The essence of the notion of a self-organizing system seems to be
precisely the fact that unexpected things happen as it were by themselves.
Depending on whether one is more fascinated by the novel or the predictable
component in this process, one may come to see different and seemingly
contradictory aspects of "emergence" as criterial. Hopefully, we will
eventually be able to see both sides of the phenomena at the same time.
Steve Long writes:

>Perhaps Dennett has made the same unappreciated observations about
>inconsistencies with regard to such terms as "cognition" or "language" or
>He certainly has a lot of opportunity to do a lot more pointing out that
>someone might care about.

It seems to me that Dennett has in fact made quite a few observations about
troublesome concepts of this kind (after all, that’s what he’s paid for,
being a philosophy professor), but to say that they have been
“unappreciated” would certainly be rather misleading.

We have to live with ambiguous terms, but the trouble starts when people
think they mean the same thing, although they don’t, or when terms are used
as convenient labels to sweep things away. In my book, I point out that
although “emergence” was originally used in an anti-reductionist spirit,
later uses in linguistics of “emergence” and “epiphenomenon” reveal a
reductionist attitude. I conclude with the following which I think is
essentially in the same spirit as Suzanne Kemmer’s comments: “There seems to
be a reductionist hiding in all of us, although many tend to claim
otherwise. It may well be that the readiness of the “other side” to define
away the notions that we ourselves find useful should make us wary of
reductionist tactics.”

- Östen

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