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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Emergent Experience

The Experience of Emergence 

In the sciences the concept of emergence has recently become a central focus of interest. Originally developed by natural philosophers (Lewes, Broad) in the context of evolutionary theory, it connotes paradoxical ‘downward’ causation in an autopoietic system. So-called resultant effects derive traceably – ‘upwardly’ – from the interaction of the parts of the system, generate a quantitative difference, are by definition predictable. Autopoietic systems by contrast generate emergent effects which manifest themselves quasi-irrationally as something more than the sum of the traceable interaction of the system’s constituent parts. They generate a qualitative difference, are by definition unpredictable. As such, ‘downward’ causation is often claimed to ‘explain’ adaptation and evolution in both organic and social systems (Maturana and Luhmann): the reorganisation and restabilisation of a perturbed system under new terms. Examples are the spontaneous behaviour of flocks of birds and shoals of fish under threat; the saltationist evolution of species (Eldredge and Gould); perhaps also the emergence of consciousness from the brain. 

In the last ten years emergence has also, increasingly, been seen as an explicatory factor in the humanities and social sciences. Emergence has variously been suggested to provide a model for the becoming of the soul in post-Darwinian Christian theology; for explaining the unstable behaviour of stock markets; for describing bewildering epochal shifts in aesthetic style. This project offers a programme of interdisciplinary research which will explore the patterns of emergence in humanities and social sciences, and so, in a scholarly environment dominated by scientism and positivism, make a positive contribution to the two cultures debate. The experience of emergence – something to be explored phenomenologically and in communicative media – is argued to be a contact zone of indeterminacy between human and natural science epistemologies. 

This programme offers a series of lectures and workshops by internationally distinguished colleagues from Durham and abroad, addressing the extent to which the experience of emergence contributes to interdisciplinary expansion of cognitive horizons, inter alia 

  • technical evolution and the emergence of social change
  • aesthetic communication and agency in systems theory
  • the relations of cognitive psychology and literature
  • the emergent experience of wonder and wellbeing
  • the ontology of emergence
  • the emergence and after-effects of social crisis
  • the experience of risk and adventure as catalysing the emergence of new cognitive horizons. 

The project team will explore these issues with the support of IAS Fellow Professor Katherine Hayles (Duke University). The IAS is also supporting a programme of fortnightly inter-departmental seminars and a conference, which will culminate in the publication of an edited volume. 

For more information contact Professor Nicholas Saul ( 


Emerging Mathematics 

The history of mathematics is an example of the cumulative cultural evolution of human knowledge. Only after Babylonian scholars invented numerical notation and basic arithmetic in around 2000 BC could Greek and Arab scholars develop geometry and algebra, which then allowed Newton, Liebniz and other Europeans to invent calculus and mechanics. From an anthropological standpoint, it is interesting to model this cumulative cultural process, in order to explain the emergence of mathematical knowledge and link this to individual-level developmental processes, i.e. how individuals acquire mathematical knowledge from others during their lifetime. From a psychological viewpoint, Vygotsky (1896-1934) considered conscious thought as the progressive build-up of representations and processes as a result of interactions with the environment, given the basis of elementary biological ‘givens’. In terms of development, and linking to the anthropological view, an important question is how this innate ability interacts with different cultures, and whether this result in different ways of thinking mathematically. From a Vygotskian perspective, do the cultural tools (number systems, language, writing symbols) adopted by different cultures build upon the emergence of these elementary ‘givens’ or is mathematics socially constructed?

From a mathematical education perspective, the development of mathematical understanding can be viewed as the connecting together of internal representations of concepts, with more numerous and stronger (in terms of reasoning) connections denoting greater understanding. An implication of teaching for understanding is the introduction of a variety of external representations of mathematical concepts, in line with the Vygotskian view of the social construction of knowledge. 

This subtheme will convene a one day workshop which will examine the emergence of early mathematical concepts, looking at the interaction between the cultural and historical, the psychological, and the educational perspectives. It will involve researchers, educationalists, other interested stakeholders, and particularly teachers, where the different perspective on the development of early mathematical knowledge can be presented. How different disciplines can inform the development of mathematics in children can be examined, and inform teachers as to how best to help develop this knowledge. The workshop will include a presentation from Professor David Geary from the University of Missouri and IAS Fellows a world expert on the psychological development of mathematical knowledge in children, and whose research also examines this issue from evolutionary and neurobiological perspectives. The workshop will take place at Queen’s Campus, Durham University, on Monday 16 March 2015.
For more information please contact Dr John Adams ( The event is free to attend.