A Proposed Vocabulary for Discussion

Posted on December 10, 2009 by


Our conference this past week went very well and many of the papers that were presented will appear in our journal early in 2010. Hopefully all of them. One of the strengths this year was the variety of scholars from different approaches who participated. More than last year. Partly for that reason, partly because of the very wide range of subjects the authors addressed, we continually had “translation problems” regarding the many terms different disciplines have developed in studying emergent systems.

At our last gathering this past week several of us spent considerable time trying to come up with a set of terms and their meanings that we could all agree on. Then everyone made suggestions. This blog entry presents what I will call Emergent Vocabulary 2.0. 1.0 and its iterations appeared at the conference. 2.0 will develop here, modified and improved by everyone’s comments. So I hope we get a bunch. As will be rapidly apparent, this suggested vocabulary is primarily oriented towards the social sciences while integrating them into a wider framework.  The boldface establishes the rough line of descent.



The first division is between Reductionist and Emergent phenomena. Reductionist phenomena is able to be fully encompassed in terms of physics. At a deep level there is nothing new in more complex phenomena. Emergent phenomena do not deny the laws of physics, but they cannot be reduced to them. Kauffman’s Reinventing the Sacred (2008) describes this distinction.


II. Emergent Phenomena

Emergent phenomena include at least

A. some chemistry

B. Embryological development

C. Complex Adaptive Systems


III. Complex Adaptive Systems

Are distinguished from simple adaptive systems in that they rely on both positive and negative feedback.

A. Ecosystems insofar as they can be encompassed by a steady state analysis.

B. Any other complex adaptive system where the concept of equilibrium, a tendency to approach a steady state, is central.

C. Transformative Complex Adaptive Systems

IV. Transformative Complex Adaptive Systems

Are characterized by not only adaptation to change, also making qualitative changes of their own in the process of adaptation that transforms not only the system’s response to its environment, it also changes the environment.

A. Biological

1. Evolution

2. Ecosystems that cannot be described as tending towards a steady state

B. Cultural

1. language

2. custom

3. instrumental knowledge

4. material production

5. the arts

6. religion

7. government

8. the internet

9. instrumental organizations

10. law


For Transformative Complex Adaptive Systems four kinds of differentiation seem essential.

1. Spontaneous Orders

Insofar as all participants have equality of status and follow common abstract procedural rules while open to cooperative endeavors with other members such that no goal can be said to exist for the system as a whole, we have a Spontaneous Order in Hayekian and Michael Polanyian terms. They first applied this term to the market and science which approximate these conditions. Only later did Hayek apply the term more expansively, to what seem better described as transformative complex adaptive systems.


2. Dynamic Analysis

The concept of a Spontaneous Order serves as a Weberian Ideal Type as described by Bendix, Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait 1960, (274-81). Paired with the ideal type of an instrumental organization, characterized by a specifiable goal, unequal status ranked on the basis of service to that goal and ease of replacing, and openness to cooperative endeavors justified by their utility in serving that goal, analysis of symbiotic and confictual relations between spontaneous orders and the instrumental organizations within them is facilitated. This can be used in more empirical studies of spontaneous orders and the organizations within them, such as corporations and markets or political parties and democracies or research organizations and science.

3. Transformation

Transformation occurs along a continuum from a relatively steady state to disruptive change. In science Thomas Kuhn’s “normal science” is working within and perfecting the current paradigm and “revolutionary science” transforms paradigms. This is contextual. A revolution within a field (for example, continental drift in geology) might not be revolutionary in science as a whole, whereas quantum mechanics came much closer to such a science wide revolution. The same patterns occurs between “Kirznerian” entrepreneurship as equilibrating and “Schumpeterian” entrepreneurship as disequilibrating, and in other such orders.

This transformative continuum can occur not only in spontaneous orders, it can happen in any transformative complex adaptive system.


4. Law

Law is at least that framework of enforceable rules that applies to transformative complex adaptive systems. Thus, all cultural complex adaptive systems are to some degree influenced by law that regulates them and enforces their rules. Law cannot be a pure spontaneous order because of its coercive character. I would in particular welcome more clarification here.


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