Emergence in Chemistry

Substance and structure

Authored by: Robin Findlay Hendry

The Routledge Handbook of Emergence

Print publication date:  March  2019
Online publication date:  March  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138925083
eBook ISBN: 9781315675213
Adobe ISBN:


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Chemistry has a history in the emergence debate. Even before the term ‘emergence’ acquired its modern philosophical meaning, John Stuart Mill cited chemical compounds as the bearers of emergent properties that could not be predicted from those of their constituent elements. Mill’s successors in the philosophical tradition that Brian McLaughlin has called ‘British Emergentism’, including C.D. Broad, followed him (McLaughlin 1992). Chemistry is not now widely cited as a rich source of candidate examples of emergence. The debate has moved on in two ways. First, the emergence debate has moved beyond the epistemic criteria for emergence they applied, such as predictability. Second, many philosophers and scientists would no doubt agree with McLaughlin’s judgement that the advent of quantum mechanics in the 1920s, and the explanatory advances that came in its wake, rendered the British Emergentists’ central claims about chemistry ‘enormously implausible’ (McLaughlin 1992, 89).

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