Escola de Redes

On a Morphology of Theories of Emergence

Acta Morphologica Generalis  AMG Vol.3 No.3 (2014)

© Swedish Morphological Society ISSN 2001-2241

by  Tom Ritchey

Swedish Morphological Society

Abstract: “Emergence” – the notion of novel, unpredictable and irreducible properties developing out of complex organisational entities – is itself a complex, multi-dimensional concept. To date there is no single, generally agreed upon “theory of emergence”, but instead a number of different approaches and perspectives. Neither is there a common conceptual or meta-theoretical framework by which to system- atically identify, exemplify and compare different “theories”. Building upon earlier work done by soci- ologist Kenneth Bailey, this article presents a method for creating such a framework, and outlines the conditions for a collaborative effort in order to carry out such a task. A brief historical and theoretical background is given both to the concept of “emergence” and to the non-quantified modelling method General Morphological Analysis (GMA).


Keywords: Emergence, general morphological analysis; theories of emergence, typology of emergence, modelling theory.


“...a perpetual and unrestricted progress of the universe as a whole must be recognized, such that it continually advances to a higher state of being.”

G. W. Leibniz, De rerum originatione radicali, 1697


“…the universe is a process for breeding novel phenomena and states of organization, which will forever renew itself as it evolves to states of ever higher complexity and organi- zation.” Lee Smolin, Time Reborn, 2013.


1. Introduction

The doctrine of emergence  states that new properties,  in the form of new types of behaviour,  new entities and even new forms of lawfulness, can “emerge” out of complex organisational systems; and that these properties  cannot  be predicted  from, nor reduced  to, the properties  of the components making up the system. This is expressed in the well-known (and well-worn) aphorism: “The whole is more than the sum of its parts”.

The general idea of emergence  is as old as rational  science itself. Its basic concept  was acknowl- edged by both Plato and Aristotle,  and it was one of the principles  of neo-Platonism,  both in its earlier  versions  (e.g. Plotinus)  and its later Renaissance  versions.  It lay at the foundations  of the German (“Eastern”) Enlightenment and was “naturalised” by the British in the 1920’s.

The latest round of scientific and philosophical  discussions  concerning emergence  came to life (or re-emerged,  as many  enjoy  putting  it) in the 1980’s  with developments  in the areas  of complex adaptive systems, computational  modelling,  theoretical  biology (anticipatory  systems), sociocyber- netics and theories of mind and consciousness.  Along with this came a new interest in the philosophical (and ontological) issues involved.

The current literature on emergence  theory is extensive and there is no need here to present more than a short summary  explanation  of the concept  itself. Except for the deplorable  state of Anglo- centric histories of the development of the concept of emergence *, interested readers can find excellent presentations  in two anthologies:  Clayton  & Davies  (2006) is a set of 14 articles  written  by contemporary researchers; and Bedau & Humphreys (2008) is a sourcebook of some 25 “historical” articles written between 1970 and early 2000. Besides covering the central scientific and philosophi- cal  issues  involved,  these  articles  give  a good  picture  of the diverse  views  concerning  what  the notion of emergence actually represents: from nothing more than a “new animist fantasy” to being a central issue for the next scientific revolution.

[* This deserves an article in itself. While Anglo-Saxon histories make it clear that there is no room for emergence in the mechanical, clock-work world of the British Enlightenment (essentially based on the Locke-Newton program), these histories are written as though G.W. Leibniz never existed, and as though the German Aufklärung (the “Eastern Enlightenment”) never took place. Not only did the German version of the Enlightenment accommodate emergence; it was essentially based upon the idea. Furthermore, there is seldom any mention of the fact that the purported British “founders” of emergence – J.S. Mills and G.H. Lewes – freely admit that they were directly influenced by the writings of the German emergentists Herder and Goethe. Indeed, what Anglo-Saxon science did with these classical German scholars fully justifies Janik & Toulmin’s (1996) statement: “… one of the gravest misfortunes that can affect a writer of great intellectual seriousness and strong ethical passions is to have his ideas ‘naturalized’ by the English” (p.19).]

Of course, the cliché “the whole is more than the sum of its parts” will not do; it tells us nothing about what is actually going on. A more in-depth definition of emergence is required. Several have been proposed. Generally, three interconnected  issues have been identified (see e.g. Kim, 1999; El- Hani & Pihlström, 2002):

1.   Property  emergence:  When  systems  of  objects  attain  an  appropriate  level  of organizational complexity, genuinely novel (unpredictable)  properties can appear at the level of the system as a whole.

2.   The irreducibility  of the emergence:  Emergent properties are not only unpredictable  from, but irreducible to, the lower-level constituents from which they emerge

3.   Downward  causation:  Emergent  properties,  as higher-level  entities,  manifest  genuinely  novel causal powers which affect their lower-level constituents in ways that could not be actualised at the level of the constituents themselves. This is also referred to as higher-level or global super- venience (see Paull & Sider, 1992 for a detailed discussion).

But this “definition” is just a starter. First of all, there are two general approaches to studying emer- gent phenomena: the synchronic and the diachronic.

The synchronic approach studies the emergent properties of a given system here and now. It does not concern itself with how these properties, or the system that embodies them, came into existence or evolved over time. For instance, the study of the already existent phenomenon of mind as an emer- gent property of the brain represents a synchronic approach. This was put forward, for example, by Sperry (1983).

The diachronic approach studies the development of emergent properties over time, i.e. as an evolu- tionary  process  (and  thus  is  called  evolutionary  emergence).   For  instance,  how  human  (self- reflexive)  consciousness  emerged in the development  of homo sapiens over the past million is an example of the diachronic approach. At this point in time, these two approaches are not (conceptu- ally) integrated.

Another  issue  is  the  question  of  just  how  much  emergence  is  actually  going  on.  For  instance, Morowitz  (2004) – in his aptly titled book The emergence  of everything  – sees it literally  every- where, from the large scale structure of the universe, to language and the concept of God.   At the other end of the spectrum is the Australian philosopher and consciousness  scientist David Chalmers (2006),   who  only  recognizes   one  “real”  or  genuine   case:  the  emergence   of  reflexive   self- consciousness  from the human  brain.  Similarly,  Vladimir  Vernadsky  (1986, 2007), the Ukrainian geo-biochemist  working in the 1920’s and 30’s, concentrated  on the “two great emergent  events”: the emergence  of the biosphere from the geosphere,  and the emergence  of the noösphere from the biosphere.

These different  attitudes  to what is, and what is not, to be considered  real or genuine  emergence brings us to perhaps the fundamental issue – the great divide – in modern emergence theory, i.e. the ontological status of emergence. 

The great divide is between what has come to be called “strong” vs. “weak” theories. Strong theories of emergence (a.k.a. ontological  emergence)  regard emergent properties and “downward  causality” (higher-level  supervenience)  as ontologically  real,  representing  genuinely  new  causal  agents  and processes. Sperry’s (1983) concept of consciousness  as a non-reducible property and a causal agent having downward influence over cerebral function is an example of strong emergence.

Weak emergence  (a.k.a. epistemological  emergence)  regards emergence  as a methodological  issue only, i.e. that all causality “really” only comes from below, i.e. from the physical substrate. Certain higher-level phenomena may be unexpected, but that is because we lack the requisite knowledge and scientific methods to rigorously account for these emergent phenomena. In principle, however, they are completely deducible from laws concerning the lower-level  (material) domain from which they have emerged.

One may ask if there is any practical issue involved in this theoretical  divide: if both sides of the argument are willing to accept the phenomena of emergence, what does it matter?

It matters immensely. Although there are certainly different shades of weak emergence, in both the early (1920’s) British Emergentists  (see e.g. Alexander,  1920; Morgan, 1923; Board, 1925; White- head, 1929) and contemporary texts (especially from the natural sciences), the essentials are clear: to the extent that such weak theories see emergence simply as a sign of our (i.e. science’s) ignorance concerning how to correctly apply reductionist methods to higher levels of organisation, then it is but an updated version of the traditional empiricist-reductionist program: you accept the phenomenon of emergence,  but essentially  deny its “reality”.  As Herbert  Simon (1996, p.171) points out, “... this weak form of emergence poses no problems for even the most ardent reductionist.”

Strong emergence, on the other hand, has profound consequences for science and the understanding of nature:

“Strong  emergence  has much  more  radical  consequences  than  weak  emergence.  If there are phenomena that are strongly emergent with respect to the domain of physics, then our conception of nature needs to be expanded to accommodate them. That is, if there are phenomena whose existence is not deducible from the facts about the exact distribution of particles and fields throughout space and time (along with the laws of physics), then this suggests that new fundamental laws of nature are needed to explain these phenomena. (Chalmers, 2006, p 245.)

“…if we are correct about macro-determination  or ‘emergent determination’  … [then] the result is a vastly transformed scientific view of human and non-human nature.” (Sperry, 1986, p 269, cited in McLaughlin, 2008.)

Despite this basic dichotomy, the one thing that most would agree upon is that the notion of emer- gence itself is a complex, multi-dimensional  concept; and that, to date, there is no single, generally agreed upon theory of emergence.  Instead  there are many variations  of such theories.  In addition, there  seems  to  be  no  common  meta-theoretical  framework  by  which  to  systematically  identify, exemplify and compare such different theories.

This article proposes a method for initiating the development of such a meta-theoretical  framework. It is built upon earlier work done by Kenneth Bailey, Professor of Sociology (retired) at the Univer- sity of California at Los Angeles (U.C.L.A.). Bailey’s work on the classification of theories of emer- gence was done in the area of social systems and sociocybernetic  theory. However, we feel that the concepts he treated in this area are expressed  at a level of abstraction  that make them relevant, as least as a starting point, to theories of emergence generally.

This article is divided up into the following sections:

Section 2 presents Bailey’s earlier typological analysis of emergence as concerns social systems. Section 3 gives a short background  to General  Morphological  Analysis (GMA), for those readers who are new to this area.

Section 4 presents an outline for the development  of a meta-theoretical  framework  for theories of emergence, in the form of a morphological inference model.

2. A Typology of Theories of Emergence 

In 2006, Kenneth Bailey, Professor of Sociology (now retired) at U.C.L.A. presented a paper at the International Sociological Association XVI World Congress in Durban titled: “A Typology of Emer- gence  in Social  Systems  and Sociocybernetic  Theory”  (Bailey,  2006).  There  he pointed  out that although there is a general consensus within social systems theory that emergence  is an important concept, there is a wide variety of descriptions  of this concept in the literature. These different de- scriptions (or perspectives)  derive from the fact that emergence is a multidimensional  concept, and that researchers differ in their approach to this concept in two ways: 1) what types of dimensions they use in order to define the problem space of the concept, and 2) how they position themselves with respect to the issues implicit in those dimensions.

Ken Bailey has been a leading figure in modern  typology  theory,  in a direct line from Lazarfeld (1937, 1951) and McKinney (1969). Thus it was natural for him to approach this problem from the standpoint of typology analysis:

“Perhaps  the best  way  to adequately  present  and  analyze  all  of the  dimensions  of emergence is through a typology. The purpose of this paper is to construct this typol- ogy. The typology will subsequently be used as a mechanism for recognizing and ana- lyzing the various types of emergence that exist in contemporary social systems theory and socio-cybernetics,  with the aim of ultimately  eliminating  much of the confusion that now surrounds the concept of emergence.” (Bailey, 2006. p. 2)

A typology  (the Greek  word typos originally  meant  a hollow  mould  or matrix)  is a very simple (usually non-quantified)  model based on the possible combinations  obtained between  a few (often two) variables, each containing a range of discrete values or states. A typology inter-relates a number of “simple”  (one dimensional)  concepts  in order to create  and explore  the more complex  (multi- dimensional) concepts which are compounded out of these simple concepts.

In order to produce a typology of emergence, Bailey substructed a number of already existing theo- retical frameworks for the notion of emergence. Substruction – advanced by Lazarfeld (1937) –   is the process of examining the attributes of an existing (multidimensional)  concept in order to identify and specify its underlying  (conceptual)  dimensions,  which can then be juxtaposed  in a typological field in order to find all of the other possible combinations of attributes.

Bailey carried out substructions  on works by Buckley (1998), Luhmann (1995), Miller (1978) and Mihata (1997), as well as his own work on emergence.  Out of these substructions,  twelve (binary) factors or parameters  were identified for the determination  of different  conceptions  of emergence. (Note:  I am using the term parameter  here not in its formal  mathematical  sense, but in its more general, systems science meaning: i.e. one of a number of factors that define a system and determine its behaviour, and which can be varied in an experiment, including a Gedankenexperiment.)

The 12 parameters are:

1. Linear vs. nonlinear


2. Static vs. dynamic


3. Evolutionary vs. Non-evolutionary


4. Ordered vs. Non-ordered


5. Simple vs. Complex


6. Non-hierarchal (two-levels) vs. Hierarchical (>2 levels)


7. Transformational vs. New variable emergence


8. Small vs. Large


9. Old (variable transformation) vs. New (variables emergence)


10. Bottom-up vs. Top-down


11. Aggregative vs. Divisive


12. Non-nested (autonomous) vs. nested (non-autonomous)


Twelve binary parameters  produce 212 = 4096 combinations  of attributes  which represent  possible (formal) frameworks for a theory of emergence. (This does not mean that all of these formal frame- works are logically or epistemologically possible.)

However, twelve variables (even if they are only binaries) are too much to treat in a normal (paper- based) typology.

“The  usual  procedure  would  be to form the 12-dimensional  typology  through  sub- struction, then to use various forms of reduction to reduce the number of types below

4096. However, given the large number of cells in the full typology, and the fact that the full 12-dimensional  typology cannot be presented  on a two-dimensional  sheet of paper, it behooves us to reduce the number of dimensions before proceeding to the re- duction of types”. (Bailey, 2006, p. 19.)

Bailey proceeds to reduce the number of parameters by searching for collinearity. Simply put, if two parameters, taken from two different research approaches, essentially express the same concept, then they can be fused into a single parameter.  Thus by a process of merging similar concepts,  Bailey reduces  the number  of dimensions  to four  (which  is pretty  much  the comfort-limit  for typology construction “on paper”).


1.   Non-hierarchal (2-level) vs. Hierarchical (>2 levels)

2.   Non-nested (autonomous) vs. Nested (non-autonomous)

3.   New variable emergence vs. Old variable transformation

4.   Bottom-up emergence vs. Top-down emergence


These four binary parameters create 2exp4 (=16) type-cells in the typological field (Figure 1). Since the parameters  defining  this field  were  substructed  from specific  concepts  of emergence  already  expressed by different researchers, it is a straight-forward  process to plug them back in to their appropriate positions along the four dimensions.

Here we see that Bailey has identified seven actual (i.e. currently employed) versions of emergence and  hypothesised  two  (possible)  new  versions.  In addition,  there  are seven  “Not  Yet  Identified” (NYI) versions. (What is not made explicit here is the question of whether all of these NYIs are, in fact, possible, or, if not, which are logically or epistemologically impossible.)

Figure 1. Bailey’s four dimensional  typology of emergence  reduced from 12 binary parameters (adapted from Bailey, 2006, p.27.)

Bailey  was compelled  to reduce the number  of dimensions  first, instead  of utilising  all of the 12 identified  (substructed)  dimensions  and then reducing the number of types through the systematic comparison and evaluation of their attributes. In this case, the pre-reduction was justified, but has a price-tag: unless you are absolutely certain that you have only removed (or merged) dimensions that are essentially  identical, then you may have discarded  possible versions of theories of emergence, which might have implications  for the whole notion of the concept. (I interpret Bailey’s text such, that he would have preferred  to type the whole 12 dimensional  complex,  had he had the practical methodological tools to do so.)

Computer-aided  morphological  analysis allows us to comfortably work with 12 binaries. It also has some additional benefits. First of all, it will allow us to (explicitly) make the distinction between 1) identified actual (i.e. currently employed) theories of emergence; 2) “Not Yet Indentified” possible theories of emergence; and, 3) (logically or epistemologically)  impossible theories of emergence.

Secondly,  GMA’s  Cross-Consistency   Assessment  (CCA)  systematically  identifies  duplicate  and even partially  overlapping  (non-orthogonal)  parameters,  thereby  allowing  for the reduction  of di- mensions  in  a methodical  and  transparent  manner,  after  such  parameters  have  been  given  their chance, so to speak. Also, with computer support it is possible to delete, merge or add new parame- ters at any time, without having to back-track and re-evaluate internal consistency.

Finally,  by  identifying  all  possible  (internally)  consistent  conditions  for  all  possible  theories  of emergence  (at  least  as these  are defined  among  the  attributes  of the dimensions  employed),  the morphological  field  can  be treated  as a (“what-if”)  inference  model.  This will allow  us to posit questions (initial inputs) and obtain answers (outputs) from the model. For instance: given a theory of emergence that is nested and top-down, what are the possible variations of this theory along the other dimensions, and which of these (if any) are logically or epistemologically impossible?

In Section 4, we will put forward a method for accomplishing this task in more detail. First, a short background to General Morphological  Analysis (GMA) is presented – for those who are not previ- ously acquainted with this method.


3. Background to General Morphology*

The term morphology derives from ancient Greek (morphê) which means shape or form. Morphol- ogy is "the study of form or pattern", i.e. the arrangement and connectivity of parts of an object, and how these conform to represent a whole or Gestalt. The "objects" in question can be physical (e.g. an organism  or  an  ecology),  social/organizational   (e.g.  an  institution  or  company),  or  mental  (e.g. linguistic forms or any system of ideas).

[* For a more detailed presentation, see the JORS article:” Problem Structuring with Computer-Aided Morphological Analysis” at:]

In Europe, morphological  methods were used as early as 1290s by the theologian-logician  Ramon Llull (1232-1315)  in his Ars magna ("The Ultimate  General  Art"). Gottfried  Leibniz (1646-1715) later developed it into a modern, grounded method in his Ars combinatoria. However, the first to use the term “morphology” as an explicitly defined scientific method would seem to be J.W. von Goethe (1749-1832),  especially in his "comparative  morphology"  in botany. Today, morphology  is associ- ated with a number of scientific disciplines where formal structure is a central issue, for instance, in anatomy, linguistics, geology and zoology.

In the late 1940’s, Fritz Zwicky, professor of astrophysics  at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) proposed a generalized form of morphology, which today goes under the name of General Morphological Analysis (GMA)

“Attention  has been called to the fact that the term morphology  has long been used in many fields of science to designate research on structural interrelations  – for instance in anatomy, geology, botany and biology. ... I have proposed to generalize and systematize the concept  of morphological  research  and include not only the study of the shapes of geometrical, geological, biological, and generally material structures, but also to study the more abstract structural  interrelations  among phenomena,  concepts, and ideas, whatever their character might be.” (Zwicky, 1969, p. 34)

Zwicky developed GMA as a method for structuring and investigating the total set of relationships contained  in multi-dimensional,  non-quantifiable,  problem  complexes.  He  applied  the method  to such diverse fields as the classification  of astrophysical  objects, the development  of jet and rocket propulsion systems, and the legal aspects of space travel and colonization.  He founded the Society for Morphological Research and championed the "morphological approach" from the 1940's until his death in 1974.

Morphological analysis was subsequently applied by a number of researchers in the USA and Europe in the fields of policy analysis and futures studies. In1995, advanced computer support for GMA was developed at the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI) in Stockholm. This has made it possible to  create  non-quantified  inference  models,  which  significantly  extends  GMA's  functionality  and areas of application. Since then, some 100 projects have been carried out using GMA, for structuring complex policy and planning  issues,  developing  scenario  and strategy laboratories,  and analyzing organizational and stakeholder structures.

[ For a list of projects see:]

Essentially, GMA is a method for identifying and investigating the total set of possible relationships contained in a given problem complex. This is accomplished by going through a number of iterative phases which represent  cycles of analysis and synthesis – the basic method for developing (scientific) models (Ritchey, 1991).

The method begins by identifying and defining the most important parameters of the problem complex to be investigated, and assigning each parameter a range of relevant values or conditions. This is done mainly in natural language, although abstract labels and scales can be utilized to specify the set of elements defining the discrete value range of a parameter.

A morphological  field is constructed  by setting the parameters against each other in order to create an n-dimensional  configuration  space (Figure 2). A particular  configuration  (the black cells in the matrix) within this space contains one ”value” from each of the parameters,  and thus marks out a particular state of, or possible formal solution to, the problem complex.

The point is, to examine all of the configurations in the field, in order to establish which of them are possible, viable, practical, interesting, etc., and which are not. In doing this, we mark out in the field a relevant  solution  space.  The  solution  space  of a Zwickian  morphological  field  consists  of the subset of all the possible configurations which satisfy some criteria. The primary criterion is that of internal consistency.

Figure 2: A 6-parameter  morphological  field. The darkened  cells define one of 4,800 possible (formal) configurations.

Obviously, in fields containing more than a handful of variables, it would be time-consuming – if not practically  impossible – to examine all of the configurations  involved. For instance, a 7-parameter field with 6 conditions under each parameter contains almost 280,000 possible configurations.

Thus the next step in the analysis-synthesis  process is to examine the internal relationships between the field parameters  and reduce  the field  by weeding  out configurations  which  contain  mutually contradictory  conditions. In this way, we create a preliminary outcome or solution space within the morphological field without having first to consider all of the configurations as such.

This “reduction” is achieved by a process of cross-consistency assessment (CCA). All of the parame- ter values in the morphological  field are compared with one another, pair-wise, in the manner of a cross-impact  matrix (Figure 3). As each pair of conditions  is examined,  a judgment  is made as to whether – or to what extent – the pair can coexist, i.e. represent a consistent relationship. Note that there is no reference here to direction or causality, but only to mutual consistency. Using this tech- nique, a typical morphological field can be reduced by to 90% or even 99%, depending on the problem structure.

Figure 3:   The Cross-Consistency  matrix for the morphological  field in Figure 1. The dark cells represent the 15 pair-wise relationships in the configuration given in Figure 1.

There  are  three  principal  types  of  inconsistencies  involved  in  the  cross-consistency  assessment: purely logical  contradictions  (i.e. contradictions  in terms);  empirical  constraints  (i.e. relationships judged  to  be  highly  improbable  or  implausible  on  practical,  empirical  grounds),  and  normative constraints (although these must be used with great care, and clearly designated as such).

This technique of using pair-wise consistency assessments, in order to weed out internally inconsis- tent configurations,  is made possible by the combinatorial  relationships  inherent  in morphological models, or in any discrete configuration  space. While the number of configurations  in such a space grows factorially with each new parameter, the number of pair-wise relationships between parame- ter conditions  grows only in proportion  to the triangular  number series – a quadratic  polynomial. Naturally, there are also practical limits reached with quadratic growth. The point is, that a morpho- logical  field  involving  as many  as 100,000  formal  configurations  can  require  no more  than  few hundred pair-wise assessments in order to create a solution space.

When this solution (or outcome) space is synthesized,  the resultant morphological  field function as an inference model, in which any parameter (or multiple parameters) can be selected as "input", and any others as "output". Thus, with dedicated computer support, the field can be turned into a labora- tory with which one can designate different initial conditions and examine alternative solutions.

GMA seeks to be integrative and to help discover new relationships or configurations. Importantly, it encourages the identification and investigation of boundary conditions, i.e. the limits and extremes of different parameters within the problem space. The method also has definite advantages for scientific communication  and – notably – for group work. As a process, the method demands that parameters, conditions and the issues underlying these be clearly defined. Poorly defined concepts become immediately evident when they are cross-referenced  and assessed for internal consistency. Like most methods dealing with complex social and organizational systems, GMA requires strong, experienced facilitation, an engaged group of subject specialists and a good deal of patience.

4. Outline for a Morphology of Theories of Emergence

The appropriate first step in realising Bailey’s full 12-dimensional  morphology would to reproduce his original 4-dimensional  study using morphological  procedures. Once this is done – whatever the results – we can go on to the full 12 dimensions.

First, let us take a look at what Bailey’s 4-dimensional typology looks like in morphological format (Figure  4). As explained  above,  while  the typological  format  embeds  the four  dimensions  in 2- dimensional  space  (as in Figure  1), the morphological  format  represents  dimension  in form of a table-like field: the dimensions are given in the headings at the top of the field, and their respective attributes listed below them.

The advantage of the typological format is that every “type” (i.e. every 4-attribute configuration) has a unique cell which visually shows its relation to all of the other cells, and which can contain ex- planatory text. Thus the typology’s basic structural information can be presented all-at-once in two dimensions”. This is not the case in a morphological model: a morphotype is designated by selecting one attribute from each of the dimensions of the morphological field. Thus in order to display differ- ent (morpho-) types, and compare them, the model needs to be user-interactive:  i.e. one needs to be able  to select  and  compare  different  type-configurations.  This  interactive  feature  cannot  be ade- quately represented  “on paper”. Only specific examples of type-configurations  can be displayed, as seen in Figure  4, where  we have selected  a configuration  corresponding  to the Buckley,  Mihata, Luhmann (BML) “Pattern Emergence” cell in Figure 1.

Figure 4. Bailey’s 4-dimensional  typology in GMA format with one configuration  selected,  repre- senting BML “Pattern Emergence” from Figure 1.

Figure 5 shows the six dyadic (pair-wise)  assessments  (the light blue cells) required  to define the “Pattern  Emergence”  configuration  in Figure  4. However,  in order  to replicate  Bailey’s  full 4-D typology in the form of a morphological inference model we must reverse engineer his whole typol- ogy. To do this we must carry out a consistency assessment on the total cross-consistency  matrix in Figure 5 (i.e. 24 attribute pairs), identifying all pairs which are deemed logically or epistemologically inconsistent.  Of the remaining pairs, we differentiate  between those already theoretically  acknowl- edged and those unacknowledged  (unused), but consistent.  Placed into proper GMA software, this will allow us to differentiate between configurations for currently formulated “theories”, new possi- ble theories, and internally inconsistent theories.

Figure  5. The Cross-Consistency  pairs (marked  in light  blue)  for the

BML “Pattern emergence” configuration in figure 4.

Moving from a typology of four binary parameters  to one of 12 binary parameters  entails moving from an outcome space of 2exp4 = 16 configurations to an outcome space of 2exp12 = 4096 configurations. It also involves moving from 24 to 264 cross-consistency  assessments. Why would we want to take on such a task if we believe that we can identify certain collinear variables at the outset?

Since one of our objectives is to examine and compare a number of acknowledged possible theories of emergence,  then systematically  identifying  and examining  possible  non-orthogonal  dimensions derived from different theories should be seen as legitimate part of the morphological approach – i.e. it should show up in the model. Indeed, one of the advantages of GMA is that it liberates us from enslavement to orthogonality.

Furthermore, we wish to include suspected collinear parameters because different areas of science – e.g. physical, biological,  social and cognitive  – are confronted  by emergence  in different  ways, at different levels of organisation and with seemingly different sets of laws. Since there is presently no general,  integrated  trans-disciplinary  theory of emergence  with an accepted  common  terminology and common modelling framework, we are wise to honour as many concepts as possible, and treat them in a single theoretical framework where they can be analysed and compared.

This does not mean that we are banned from merging parameters in different versions of emergence theory if we find them obviously expressing the exact same concepts. Also, there may be good rea- sons to add new dimensions,  which do not seem to be explicitly represented  in any present theory (see below).

In any event, there are advantages to using Bailey’s original 12 parameters as the starting point of a collaborative meta-modelling effort, so that we do not have to start from scratch. Figure 6 shows the initially  proposed  morphological   field  of  12  dimensions.  Figure  7  is  its  corresponding  cross- consistency matrix, made of 264 attribute pairs.

Figure 6. The morphological field for Bailey’s 12-D typology of emergence, generating 4096 possi- ble formal configurations.

Figure 7. The cross-consistency  matrix for Figure 6, with 264 pair-wise “assessments”  in 66 parameter blocks (the white and shaded 2x2s)

There are a number of issues that need to be addressed upon initiating a full morphology:

1.   Firstly, this work cries out for interdisciplinary  collaboration.  This is best done in a facilitated workshop setting where group interaction is a central feature of the proc- ess. This is because  we are not only structuring  a complex  problem,  but creating among the participants shared concepts and a common modelling framework. What is essentially a process of collective creativity is best facilitated in dialogue between participants.  For this reason, we have found it best to work with subject specialist groups of no more than 6–7 persons. And here there is a problematic trade-off: is it possible for seven persons to represent an adequate knowledge base in order to ac- complish the task?

2.   A re-evaluation of Bailey’s 12 parameters will be needed in order to re-establish and make explicit their meanings in different disciplinary contexts and in a way acceptable to a multi/trans-disciplinary group.

3.   As concerns the pre-reduction of dimensions: we can do this when clearly warranted, but this time without methodological  duress. We have just cause for a specific re- duction when two parameters  clearly represent or express identical attributes.  This often happens when complex concepts are substructed  from different disciplines or sub-disciplines,  in which different terms are used for one and the same attribute. In this  context,  one  of the important  outcomes  of developing  a common  modelling framework is the development of a common terminology which will allow for better communication between disciplines later on.

4.   In approaching  emergence  from a multi/trans-disciplinary perspective,  we may not only need to adjust the original parameters, but also expand them. An example is the explicit inclusion of the dimension of “weak” vs. “strong” emergence in the parame- ter list. Some have argued that this is not necessary, since it is claimed that any and all theories of emergence can be expressed in either way – i.e. that the weak/strong dimension lies totally outside of the problem. However, even a cursory look at Bai- ley’s 12 parameters  gives me the feeling that not all of the attributes  – or at least combinations of attributes – are equally compatible with both weak and strong theo- ries. The main point, however, is that this should be part of the modelling  experi- ment, i.e. by including this and other relevant variables we will be able to demon- strate their “status” in this context.

5.   It would be advantageous  to re-dimension  the form of the morphological  field. The use of many binary dimensions is not the optimal way to apply GMA, as it creates too shallow a morphological  field and makes it more difficult to visualise. Both for modelling technical reasons and, I think, for psychological reasons, it would be bet- ter to work with a   6 dimensional  model consisting  of 4 attributes  under each pa- rameter, than with a 12 dimensional model consisting of binary attributes. This is a purely methodological  and facilitation issue and does not affect the substance of the results obtained.


As in the case of Bailey’s paper, our task at this point is not to attempt find the “right” theory of emergence.  By proposing a full morphology based on Bailey’s 12 parameters,  we wish to create a framework  to systematically  identify,  exemplify  and compare  already  existing  theories  within the framework  of  all  possible  theories  of  emergence.  Hopefully  such  a  meta-theoretical  framework would help to better clarify different  theoretical  perspectives  and create among researcher  a better understand of their differing positions.

6. References and Further Reading


Ablowitz, R. (1939). “The Theory of Emergence”, in Philosophy of Science, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Jan., 1939), pp. 1-16. University of Chicago Press.

Alexander, S. (1920). Space, Time and Deity. New York, Dover publications.

Anderson, P.W. (1972), "More is Different: Broken Symmetry and the Nature of the Hierarchical Structure of Science", Science 177 (4047): 393–396.

Bailey, K. (2006). “A Typology of Emergence in social Science and Sociocybernetic Theory”. Presentation at the International Sociological Association XVI World Congress, Durban, South Africa, Research Committee 51, Sociocybernetics, July 29, 2006. [Available on-line at:

Bortoft, H. (1996). The Wholeness of Nature; Goethe’s Way of Science. Edinburgh: Floris Books. Bateson, W. (1896). Materials for the study of variation. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Bedau, M. (1997) “Weak Emergence”, Philosophical Perspectives, 11:375-99.

Bedau, M. &  Humphreys, P. (Eds.) (2008) Emergence: Contemporary Readings in Philosophy and Science, Bradford Books.

Barnard, F. M. (1969). Herder on Social and Political Culture, Cambridge University Press. Board, C. D. (1925). The Mind and it Place in Nature. Rutledge and Kegen Paul

Bunge, M.(2003). Emergence and Convergence: qualitative novelty and the unity of knowledge. University of Toronto Press

Chalmars, D. J. (2006). “Strong and Weak Emergence”, in Clayton & Davies (2006).

Clayton, P. (2006). “Conceptual Foundations of Emergence Theory”, in Clayton & Davis, (2006). Clayton P. & Davies, P (Eds.) (2006) The Re-Emergence of Emergence. The Emergentist Hypothesis from Science to Religion. Oxford University Press.

El-Hani, C. N. & Pereir, A. M. (2000), “Higher-level Descriptions: Why Should We Preserve Them?” in Andersen, Emmeche, Finnemann, and Christiansen (eds.) (2000). Downward Causation: Minds, Bodies and Matter (Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University Press), pp. 118–42.

El-Hani, C. N. and Pihlström, S. (2002) "Emergence Theories and Pragmatic Realism," Essays in Philosophy: Vol. 3: Iss. 2, Article 3.

Deacon, T. W. (2012) Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter. W.W. Norton & company.

Deavel, C.J. (2003). Unity and Primary Substance for Aristotle. Proceedings of the American Catho- lic Philosophical Association, Volume 77.

Goldstein, J (no date). ”Emergence as a Construct: History and Issues”. Emergence: Complexity and Organization 1 (1): 49–72.

Humphreys, Paul (2008) Synchronic and Diachronic Emergence, Department of Philosophy, Univer- sity of Virginia, Charlottesville.]

Janik A. & Toulmin, S (1973). Wittgenstein’s Vienna. Simon & Schuster, New York. Kauffman, S.A. (1993) The origins of order. Oxford University Press, Oxford. Kauffman, S.A. (1995) At Home in the Universe, Oxford Univ. Press, New York. Kim, J., (1999) “Making sense of emergence”, Philosophical Studies 95, 3-36.

Lazarsfeld, Paul F. (1937). “Some Remarks on the Typological Procedures in Social Research.” Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, VI, 119-139.

Lazarsfeld, Paul F. & Barton, Allen H. (1951). “Qualitative Measurement in the Social Sciences. Classification, Typologies, and Indices”. In Daniel Lerner & Harold D. Lasswell (Eds.), The Policy Sciences (pp.155-192). Stanford University Press.

Lewes, G. H. (1864) The Life of Goethe, Smith, Elder and Co.

Lewes, G. H. (1875). Problems of Life and Mind, Vol. 2, London. Kegen Paul, Tranch, Turbner, & Co.

McGhee, G.R (1999). Theoretical Morphology: the concept and its applications. Columbia Univer- sity Press, New York.

McKinney, John C. (1969). “Typification, Typologies, and Sociological Theory”. Social Forces, 48(1), 1-12.

Mihata, K. (1997). “The Persistence of ‘Emergence”. In Raymond Eve, Sara Horsfall, and Mary E. Lee (eds.), Chaos, Complexity, and Sociology. Thousand Oaks, CA; Sage.

Mill, J.S. (1930). A System of Logic Ratiocenative and Inductive. London, Longmans, Green, and Co.

Morgan, C.L. (1923) Emergent Evolution. London, Williams and Norgate.

Morowitz, H.J. (2004). The Emergence of Everything: How the World Became Complex. Oxford University,

Paull, R.C. & Sider, T (1992). “In Defence of Global Supervenience”, Philo. Phen. Res. 52: 833-54. Pepper, S. C. (1926). “Emergence”, Journal of Philosophy 23: 241-245.

Ritchey, T. (1991, rev. 1996). “Analysis and Synthesis - On Scientific Method based on a Study by Bernhard Riemann”. Systems Research 8(4), 21-41 (1991). (Available at:

Ritchey, T. (2002). "General Morphological Analysis - A general method for non-quantified model- ling". Adapted from a paper presented at the 16th Euro Conference on Operational Analysis, Brus- sels, July 1998. (Available at: Last accessed 2012-03-09.)

Ritchey, T. (2006) "Problem Structuring using Computer-Aided Morphological Analysis". Journal of the Operational Research Society, 57, 792–801. (Available at: gma.pdf.)

Ritchey, T. (2011). Wicked Problems/Social Messes: Decision support Modelling with Morphologi- cal Analysis. Springer, Berlin.

Ritchey, T. (2012). "Outline for a Morphology of Modelling Methods: Contribution to a General Theory of Modelling". Acta Morphologica Generalis, Vol. 1, No. 1). (Available at:

Rosenbrock, H. (1990). Machines with a Purpose. Oxford University Press.

Simon, H. (1996). The Sciences of the Artificial. Third edition. MIT Press, Cambridge. Sperry, R. W. (1983) Science and Moral Priority Columbia University Press.

Sperry, R. (1986) “Discussion: Macro- versus Micro-Determination.” Philosophy of Science 53, 265-270.

Thompson, D. W. (1917). On growth and form. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Vernadsky, V. I (1986). The Biosphere. Synergetic Press.

Vernadsky, V. I (2007), “Geochemistry and the Biosphere”. Santa Fe, NM: Synergetic Press.

Wellmon, C. (2010).”Goethe's  Morphology of Knowledge”, Goethe Yearbook, Volume 17, pp. 153-177. North American Goethe Society.

Whitehead, A. N. (1929). Process and Reality. An Essay in Cosmology. New York: Macmillan Company, 1929

Zwicky, F. (1969) Discovery, Invention, Research - Through the Morphological Approach, Toronto: The Macmillan Company.

Zwicky, F. & Wilson A. (eds.) (1967) New Methods of Thought and Procedure: Contributions to the Symposium on Methodologies, Berlin: Springer.



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The author: Tom Ritchey is a former Research Director for the Institution for Technology Foresight and Assessment  at the Swedish National Defence Research Agency in Stockholm.  He is a method- ologist and facilitator who works primarily with non-quantified  decision support modelling -- espe- cially with General  Morphological  Analysis  (GMA),  Bayesian  Networks  (BN) and Multi-Criteria Decision support. Since 1995 he has directed more than 100 projects involving computer aided GMA for Swedish government  agencies,  national and international  NGO:s and private companies.  He is the founder of the Swedish Morphological  Society and Director of Ritchey Consulting LLC, Stock- holm.

Acta Morphologica  Generalis  (AMG) is the online journal of the Swedish  Morphologica  Society. [See:] Works published by AMG are licensed under the Creative Commons  Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported  License,  and can be distributed  in unaltered form. View a copy of the license at:


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