Academic journal article Emergence: Complexity and Organization

The Doctrine of Levels

Academic journal article Emergence: Complexity and Organization

The Doctrine of Levels

Article excerpt

George P. Conger (with an introduction by Jeffrey Goldstein)

Originally published as Conger, G.P. (1925). "The doctrine of levels," The Journal of Philosophy, 22(12): 309-321. Reprinted with kind permission.

From Crisp to Confounded: An Introduction to George Conger's "Doctrine of Levels" Metaphysical and Emergentist Levels

A professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota, George Conger was loosely associated with the movement known as Emergent Evolutionism, the protophase of emergence-based thought in philosophy, the sciences, and even theology existing roughly from 1915 to 1940 (see, Blitz, 1992; Stephan, 1999; Goldstein, Forthcoming; and various Classical Papers published in E:CO since 2004). Conger's paper on the idea of emergent levels, published in the prestigious Journal of Philosophy in 1925, was a careful and thought-provoking examination of the idea coming right at the intellectual zenith of proto-emergentism. Conger explicated what he found conceptually helpful in the notion of emergent level, but did not fail in takingon what he found conceptually troublesome about it as well. Conger's views on emergent levels are not only important for their insights into what Emergent Evolutionists in general held about levels, but also because of their display of striking prescience in foreseeing critical issues about levels that would arise later when the phenomena of emergence became a key construct within the sciences of complex systems. Conger's same prescience also provides perceptiveness into a central aspect of the notion of emergent level, a kind of paradox associated with the idea, a subject I'll return to in the conclusion.

Emergent Evolutionism held that the Darwinian theory of evolution needed to be supplemented by a series of saltations or jumps in novelty, the coming into being of a series of new emergent levels constituted by new emergent phenomena with new emergent properties. In the words of one of its chief proponents, the animal behaviorist and philosopher Conwy Lloyd Morgan (1923:15), "Each higher entity in the ascending series is an emergent 'complex' of many entities of lower grades, within which a new kind of relatedness gives integral unity...each higher com-plex takes on the role of a com-plex in virtue of its integral unity." Morgan emphasized the prefix "com-" because of its meaning of "together" in order to highlight how the emergent level was, in Morgan's words, supervenient upon whatever was coming together. An emergent level, accordingly, was a concept that called attention to the importance of considering the novel dynamics of a level operationally "higher" than that of the parts that were being newly related. As Conger understood it, each level was thought to be composed of structures sharing major attributes and interacting with one another. The beginning signs of the paradox of emergent level mentioned above can be gleaned in the simultaneous positing of a discontinuous crispness distinguishing one level from another and the need to attend to the entanglements and interactions of said levels in order to account for emergence.

The stratification of reality, nature or the cosmos into a hierarchy of levels, each representing a separate domain with unique entities, dynamics, and laws, is an ancient notion. Aristotle (cited in Lovejoy, 1936), for instance, proposed several different hierarchical schemes, one of the most influential being his vertical partitioning of the "powers of soul": the nutritive soul of plants; the animated soul of animals; and the rational soul of humans. Such layered cosmologies were typically tied closely with sequenced cosmogonies, e.g., the Neo-Platonic hierarchy of Plotinus (1991) which conceived the phenomenal world as a lower level in a series of "hypostases" emanating downward out of the highest, the One beyond Being Itself.

The idea of such metaphysical levels need not have had a religious basis as is shown in both modern philosophical, but non-theological, conceptions of metaphysical cosmic stratification such as those developed respectively by Nicolai Hartmann (see Werkmeister, 1990) and James Feibleman (1951) as well as the prevalent use of the construct of level found in various scientific theories. …

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