Notes towards a manuscript

I’m working on a text about emergence, power, cognition, motivation, the concept of revolution, and philosophy. The process of writing itself has proven fruitful for me, as grappling with how to think through specific problems and how to construe them has led to other thoughts and so on. I want to be better at charting that progress, at least to have some notes of how it unfolded, sign posts, etc.

Emergentism arose, as far as I know, amongst a motley crew of British philosophers in the 19th century to the 1920s, where it lost favor and wasn’t picked up until recently (largely because advances in the physical and biological sciences made their views newly plausible). John Stuart Mill is apparently one of the earliest exponents of the idea, and he captures the essence of it in his A System of Logic, in the short chapter (a few pages) On the Composition of Causes. In the course of only a few arguments he captures non-linear or disproportionate causality, the emergence of novel properties from unlikes, and differing laws based on differing levels of organization.

After high hopes for Badiou’s Manifesto for Philosophy (grounded when it descended into a series of metaphors more than arguments), I’ve been reminded about the strength of brevity, clarity, and trying to put arguments into readily graspable forms so that the content itself is the debate. Ironically it’s the analytical traditions that end up having a more open and egalitarian character than their continental radical brothers and sisters. Mill’s grasp of the problem in such raw form is admirable, and something I should aspire to; reducing the core of the ideas to simple statements of the arguments and issues.

One question that arose is whether in fact causality is the core of issues around emergence. Or specifically whether the problems and potentials raised by emergence applied to the social sciences are about causality. Causality surely plays a role, but in my own work there are epistemological and normative elements. Maybe the separation of those pieces will be fruitful for taking stock of the impact of emergence.

Yesterday I had the realization that I’ve partly been framing the question wrong, and that implicit within my account has been a critique of the traditional political framing of methods. Marxist orthodoxy appeals to a distinction between positivism and revolutionary methodology, with dialectics supposedly constituting a radical method for doing political work. There are actually problems at every step in the game. First there’s the question of usability, if one has a method is it actually usable by people trying to apply it? Emergence gives some reasons to doubt our predictive abilities as individuals acting at the level of our lives, and trying to jump from our experiences to large scale historical forces. Second, there are questions about the scope of a method. Emergence raises questions about the possibility of a method that seeks to apply across levels of organization and likewise as both a cognitive tool and one of the sciences. Third, what even is a method when we’re talking about radical political struggle. Some methods are obvious like the scientific method. It constitutes a series of activities that are ordered, combined with some basic theoretical assumptions about inferences. We could get more precise, but that’s some of the features. We should be skeptical about people trying to claim something similar about waging struggle. What would that even mean in a concrete way? The larger issue is that hand waving around methods frames a debate away from more fundamental problems. The real issues are how do we understand our world, how to analyze the course of historical events, how do we as individuals chose our course of action from the available resources we have at our disposal and based on our position. Emergence does provide some answers to these questions (or more properly provides some directions for inquiry that could begin to develop answers), and does so in a way that moves away from religiosity about methods.

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