Integral Emergence is a term you might hear used to describe how multiple aspects of reality arise simultaneously. This idea is important to any understanding of Pragmatism; and it is also central to Ken Wilber's Integral Theory. In fact, Wilber credits Charles Sanders Peirce as an important inspiration for his own four quadrant model of integral emergence. One way to get a deep sense of the nature of what the term integral emergence is pointing toward is to compare it to another popular idea, that of co-evolution.
The concept of co-evolution has gained some popularity over the past few decades. The word refers to a situation where different things evolve together as part of one interconnected whole system. So as the plant life in a region evolves so too will the animal species in the same area. Today we often hear this word associated with the collective evolution of our species in a way that seemingly means that we as individuals will each take responsibility for our own growth and that together we will evolve into a new kind of humanity. This type of interdependent development of separate species or individuals is not the same as the type of emergence that the Pragmatists and especially Charles Sanders Peirce were envisioning when they created a philosophy based on a vision of evolution as a co-emergent process of creation.
To describe how I understand the co-emergence or integral emergence of Pragmatism I want to use a metaphor. Charles Sanders Peirce saw reality as emerging in the form of triadic relationships. I said in my last post that nothing exists independently and now I would add that Peirce believed that nothing exists except in triads. And through out his career as a thinker he came up with different ways to describe the essential triads of reality. As the originator of semiotics (the study of signs and symbols) he defined the basic triad as object-sign-interpretant. In his ontology he spoke about the triad of firstness-secondness- thirdness. The bottom line is that he believed that everything that exists does so, and must do so, as triadic relationships that are co-emergent.
Now for the metaphor, imagine a piece of blank white paper (or put one in front of you if you want.) Now draw or imagine a circle on the paper. What is the nature of the circle on the paper? A circle consists of three aspects. You can point to the “inside” of the circle. You can point to the “outside” of the circle. And you can point to the line or “boundary” that separates the inside of the circle from the outside. You cannot have a circle without these three elements. Can you image a circle without an inside? an outside? a boundary? Try to imagine it and you will find you can’t get your mind to go there – it is literally impossible to imagine, which Peirce would say means that it is impossible for it to exist. You could say that the circle must have been present in its potential form on the original blank white page, but it was certainly not there yet. And there was nothing about the page that lent itself to a circle any more than a square or a triangle or any other two-dimensional shape.
Now think back to when you were drawing the circle. As you drew the line that would eventually become the boundary it was already separating one side of the line from the other even before it became the closed loop of the circle. One of the sides of the line would eventually become the inside of the circle, the other side of the line would eventually become the outside of the circle. So as you were drawing the circle the inside, the outside and the boundary were all co-emergent from the start. This is how I believe Charles Sanders Peirce imagined everything emerging as triads. In our metaphor everything that could possibly emerge on the blank of paper must emerge as a relationship between an inside and an outside and the boundary that separates them.
The point that I am making is that the terms co-evolution and integral emergence are pointing toward something more profound than individual things developing together, they are expressing a vision of reality as a multi-dimensional emerging event. There is an absolute necessity for simultaneous growth not as two or more separate things that grow together, but rather as different aspects of one occurrence of growth. I believe that the circle metaphor helps convey this essential mutual unity. The circle is not built from an inside, an outside, and a boundary like a house is built from wood and nails. As you draw a circle you are automatically also drawing the inside of the circle and the outside of the circle simultaneously. These three aspects mutually define what a circle is and cannot be separated. That is why integral emergence may ultimately be a better descriptor than co-evolution because the prefix “co” implies multiplicity, where integration implies wholeness.
Integral emergence also has a more ‘whole-some’ sense about it, whereas “co”, seems to be more flatland and smaller in scale and scope. It is interesting how the language we use really does generate certain thoughts and perspectives, and then actually, it’s important to use the right language if we really want to convey something.
Jeff, Thank you for this post – it is so helpful and provocative and it is a beautiful and simple discernment between co-evolution and integral emergence. I have a very real sense of what you are talking about – and very much appreciate that you could put in such clear words, also using metaphor in the way that you do. I think I have been thinking that co-evolution and integral evolution were the same because I do see that properties of an object literally cannot be separated from the object itself. And so I was imagining co-evolution as sort of… Read more »
the metaphor of the circle or triad of co-emergence is different from , yet includes, the concept of polarity, that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and equilibrium is the fine line of balance between.
Or, ‘creation postulates a shadow to serve as a bound for the plenitude of a passive fructified principle to sustain and realise the power of the active generative principle’ – eliphas levi
Hey Jeff, I enjoyed this blog post. Yes, the term “integral emergence,” reminds me of the Buddhist principle of dependent co-arising, or more unified and to the point: interdependence. That mind and matter are not separate entities which cooperate, in a kind of subject-object dualities, but instead function as a coherent and unified Mind–is the wisdom behind the great masters and sages. Wei Wu Wei had described that, “all objects are Subject,” and in the same way all we see is what we are. This really hones in on how much imagination partakes in the creation of reality, be the… Read more »
Hello Shamansun, I just took a look at your blog and really like what you are doing. I will think of something I could contribute and propose it to you. Thanks also for your comments here and I also believe our age is one of transformation – or at least it will be if we make it so.
What strikes me is as the circle is being drawn the inside and out side are emerging simultaneously.so the act of drawing which is creating the separation is what makes the distinction between the inner an outer which gives definition to the circle.
Shamasun, I also looked at your blog and it looks wonderful. Count me as a New Enthusiast…! Jeff, I will be again the critics here, maybe because I am too much of a Platonician to be very happy with the triads. One of the illumination of my intellectual life, was when I understood what Plato meant by “the idea of the circle”. You can draw a circle, of course, but the “idea of a circle” is something completely different. It is kind of already there, belonging to the Absolute, for eternity. Think of what a circle means to you, go… Read more »
I was reading the site of Shamasun, which got me interested in Gebser again. It gives such an sense of what vertical evolution is. It is amazing to read about the early structures of consciousness: ‘earlier consciousness structures, such as those of tribal man or literate man of the high Bronze Age civilizations, do not just disappear, but sleep latently within the psyche as valid experiential modes unto themselves. Certain life experiences will activate and call forth these modalities, and once the consciousness structure has been activated, it actually changes the very physics of the experiences which the subject has.… Read more »
Liesbeth, this is really inspiring. I want to read Gebser again while reading this.
“only one reality seems to survive and be capable of succeeding and spanning the infinitesimal and the immense:”
Dear Jeff, I found a wonderful essay in Shamasun’s web page, about Rudolf Steiner. I feel the guy who wrote it really knows a lot and understand him. What I would love to do is to have a discussion between the pragmatists’s way of doing philosophy and the mid-europe way, including France and Germany, who are Platonicians, meaning that thought proceed form ideas to things and not the reverse [ for the pragmatists]. I think it is the dichotomy and difficulty I am facing with Wilber, who is for me emblematic of a way of thinking of the pragmatists. In… Read more »
Forgot the WEb link about the Steiner’s essay that I find so good;
From Steiner’s review… “Now it was at about this time that he began to compose his four mystery plays. He once insisted that if all his other writings and lectures were ever lost, his entire system could theoretically be reconstructed from the allegories contained in these mystery plays. However, the problem with the mystery plays is that they are humorless, bombastic and sanctimonious; exactly the things Nietzsche had accused of Wagner’s operas, only here those flaws are magnified. They are generally embarrassing reading and should be avoided at all costs.” Guys, it is precisely what I am reading at the… Read more »
The stark simplicity of the circle as an example of integral emergence shot off an understanding that was exceptionally immediate and profound. Thank you. I am excitedly contemplating the signifcance and consequence of this discovery with deep interest.
“Can you image a circle without an inside? an outside? a boundary? Try to imagine it and you will find you can’t get your mind to go there ” Jeff, I thought a lot about this, and I think we shall have a deep discussion about this issue which is utterly important. I am convinced that the idea of the circle exists prior to the ideas of its inside, outside, and boundary. As a re-form it definitely exists and human beings have access to it. It is true that I cannot “get my mind to go there” but if I… Read more »
Hello Catherine, I really enjoyed this post and it got me thinking a great deal about how to speak about the “Pragmatic Response” in philosophy. I think the way you characterize it here is mistaken. The Pragmatists were trying to find some middle way between rationalism on one side and empiricism on the other. So they did not see thought as arising from matter, they saw the two as coemergent aspects of one reality. I will think more about this so I can write about it clearly in historical context and I look forward to your thoughts about it.
One other thing Catherine. I agree with you that the idea of a circle exists prior to the ideas of inside, outside, and boundary. Still you can’t imagine a circle that doesn’t have an inside and outside and a boundary. Even that first intuitive circle that appears spontanioiusly in the mind has an inside and outside and a boundary, even before any ideas about these parts have arisien. I agree that this is an important discussion that I look forward to having with you and others here.
“Mind precedes matter in Steiner’s cosmogony, contrary to our current scientific way of thinking in which mind is an epiphenomenon of matter.”
here again we stumble on the same point …
“Still you can’t imagine a circle that doesn’t have an inside and outside and a boundary.” I am really not sure about it; it is my point. I am so happy that you bring the discussion because we are precisely on the target. Once the idea of the circle is “in me” then I can work with the circle and do all that I want. I don’t need to draw it in my head, to have the inside the outside and the boundary at all. I just work with the idea of the circle itself, with the pure concept of… Read more »
“So they did not see thought as arising from matter, they saw the two as coemergent aspects of one reality.” Jeff, let me first clarify what the platonicians say. The platonicians say that you don’t need at all to draw the circle to see the idea of the circle. Reciprocally even if you draw the circle, you don’t necessarily see the idea of it. You might or might not. You might draw all the day long and fail to see the idea of the circle emerge from the drawing. It is thus not enough to draw the circle to see… Read more »
This is very interesting. In philosophy there is idealsim and materialism. Both held that mind and matter were two seperate, free standing, parts of reality. Idealists saw ideas as the primary aspect of reality and matter emerging from that. Materialists saw matter as primary and all thought being a bi-product of some material interaction. The Pragmatists were motivated by a modernist’s love of science, progress and fear of absolutes on one hand and by an inclination toward mysticism and religion on the other. So on one hand the shared your fear that materialism would kill spirit and on the other… Read more »
Another way to put my point : you write “You could say that the circle must have been present in its potential form on the original blank white page, but it was certainly not there yet. And there was nothing about the page that lent itself to a circle any more than a square or a triangle or any other two-dimensional shape.”’ what the platonicians would say is that even after you draw a circle on the paper, you still dont’ have `the idea of the circle” on the paper. Teh circle is thus not on the paper. The idea… Read more »
I love the idea that teh idea of circle exists somewhere outside of the representation of it and it helps me understand Steiner better. The place that I get stuck is in trying to imagine where the ideas exist. It seems to me to lead to a deeply dualistic transendent realm outside of this world. I am trying to find a way to think about it that makes it seem less mystical.
Dear Jeff, the two messages seem to have crossed. It is indeed very interesting. I have a lot to say to this, although I am not very cultivated on this matter. One thing, you write “In philosophy there is idealism and materialism. Both held that mind and matter were two seperate, free standing, parts of reality. Idealists saw ideas as the primary aspect of reality and matter emerging from that.” For a platonician, at least for one like Steiner [ who if I understand well, is considered here as an idealist ] mind and matter are not independent at all.… Read more »
Dear Jeff, Again the messages seem to have crossed. “The place that I get stuck is in trying to imagine where the ideas exist. It seems to me to lead to a deeply dualistic transendent realm outside of this world. I am trying to find a way to think about it that makes it seem less mystical.” At the question “where the ideas exist”, Steven Jourdain used to answer “in the pure Imaginary [ dans l’Imaginaire Pur]”. An answer I used to love [ so Frenchy…] because at the beginning, I used to laugh at him and tell him back… Read more »
I have given this metaphor some contemplation and it keeps getting more and more fascinating. One discovery has been that it appears the metaphor as described by you Jeff is presented from a two dimensional perspective – the circle as form on a plane. If we take a three or four dimensional perspective of circle as it is being drawn and after it has been drawn an experience of the concepts of all three take on a greater and evolving in time depth and complexity, as does their relationship to each other and space itself until there is a point… Read more »