Interactivist Summer Institute

July 22 - 26, 2003


Emergent Persons

Jack Martin
Simon Fraser University


Recent psychological theorizing about the emergence of persons makes a number of ontological claims that are not always explicit. A critical consideration of such claims reveals both considerable convergence and some points of disagreement across different psychological theories of emergent personhood. What is clear is that all such theories resist the reduction of persons to biophysical or sociocultural properties, conditions, and processes. In various ways, they each call for a nonreductionistic recognition of the sociocultural constitution of important aspects of personhood, without denying the necessity of biophysical requirements of personhood. Because standard emergentist positions in physical science and the philosophy of physical science mostly ignore the sociocultural level of reality, psychological theorizing about the emergence of persons requires an alternative ontological framework. It is proposed that an ontology of levels of reality that includes the physical, chemical, biological, sociocultural, and personal/psychological is appropriate for understanding how persons are both substantively and relationally emergent within the biophysical, sociocultural world. With such an ontological framework in place, it is possible to understand human activity in the world as the primary vehicle for both the phylogenetic evolution and ontogenetic development of persons.

Emergent Persons

Contemporary psychology is concerned with the description and explanation of behavior, particularly the behavior of biological human beings resident in human societies and cultures. In the social sciences and humanities, such entities are most often understood as persons. Since Locke’s (1995) famous essay concerning human understanding initiated the modern history of the topic, persons have been understood in mostly psychological terms. Indeed, most modern theories descendent from Locke’s treat personhood as consisting of psychological continuity. The central idea is often expressed in terms of the notion of “person stage,” defined as a momentary slice of time in the history of a person (e.g., Parfit, 1984). A series of person stages is psychologically continuous if the psychological states of later members of the series develop, in certain characteristic ways, from those of earlier members of the series. Such psychological continuity has been postulated to hold not only across Locke’s preferred candidate of memory, but also across other human capabilities such as agency, reason, intentionality, self-consciousness, reflection, and so forth.

Given the widespread dependence of personhood on various criteria of psychological continuity, it is rather remarkable that so little of the literature of disciplinary psychology has been devoted to the topic of “persons.” Although there exists a large corpus of psychological writings on self, identity, consciousness, and more recently on agency, persons have received relatively short shrift in the psychological canon. And yet, as already indicated, psychology is about the behavior of persons. It is persons who exhibit self, agency, consciousness, and personal identity. Nonetheless, conceptions of personhood have seldom been formulated explicitly by psychologists.

Philosophers themselves continue to disagree about the various psychological criteria that have been proposed for personhood, and whether or not personhood can be reduced to some sort of physical continuity (perhaps the identity of a human brain). Many have criticized Lockean and neo-Lockean conceptions of the person as fatally flawed because in such conceptions personal identity is treated almost solely as an intrapersonal concept, and one which seems to presuppose exactly the kind of psychological continuity it claims as a criterion. In proposed correction, Strawson (1959) claimed that persons are bearers of both physical and psychological properties, and constitute a type of basic particular of the human world. For Strawson, concepts like identity, singularity, and uniqueness require the embodiment of a human being as a thing amongst other things in a physical and social world arrayed in time and space. Others have added historical, cultural, and moral requirements to the criteria of psychological continuity and embodiment. For example, Taylor (1989) considers persons to be unique embodied beings, rich in capabilities of various kinds, with distinctive histories, who may be called to moral account as responsible actors. And, Harré (1998) defines persons as social and psychological, embodied beings with a sense of place amongst similar others, and a sense of their own history and beliefs about at least some of their attributes.

Such extensions to psychological continuity as a central criterion for personhood make the prospects of achieving a viable reduction of personhood to entirely physical, material phenomena highly implausible. They introduce significant elements of rationality, normativity, intentionality, and perspectivity to the psychological make-up of persons, and add historical, moral, and sociocultural dimensions that elude capture in purely physical terms. Yet, on another front, as cultural anthropologists and sociologists have entered the fray, a very different form of reductionism has surfaced, with social constructionists and some postmodernists insisting on the sociocultural origins of persons, and mostly ignoring their biophysical requirements (e.g., Gergen, 1991). During the last twenty years, while much mainstream disciplinary psychology has been increasingly “biologized,” much of the rest of social science, including a considerable amount of work in theoretical psychology, has moved toward an increasingly strong “culturalism.” In reaction against the competing claims of biological physicalists and historical socioculturalists, some psychologists have begun to seek a new approach to personhood that assumes that persons are emergent from the embeddedness and activity of biological human organisms within the natural world, and within historical, sociocultural traditions and contexts.

Like Taylor (1989) and Harré (1998), these theorists tend to embrace conceptions of personhood that acknowledge both the biophysical, embodied and socioculturally constituted nature of personhood. For example, Martin, Sugarman, and Thompson (2003) recently have defined persons as embodied beings with social and personal identity, self-understanding, and agency. As a composite of such aspects, persons are clearly more than their bodies, self-understandings, identities, and actions in the world. More precisely they are a complex combination of all of these aspects. For emergentist theorists in psychology, during ontogenesis, persons emerge developmentally from the placement at birth of biologically evolved human infants in historically established sociocultural contexts within a physical world.

The purpose of this article is to examine basic claims of psychological emergentism with respect to personhood, and to propose an ontology of persons appropriate to these claims. As such, this article represents a departure from the practice in disciplinary psychology of avoiding explicitly metaphysical theorizing with respect to persons and their aspects. Having said this, the work pursued here also should assist psychologists in conceptualizing a personhood that is simultaneously conducive to social scientific theory and inquiry, and to professional psychological intervention. This is a view of persons as both producers and products of the biophysical and sociocultural world they inhabit.

Examples and Claims of Recent Emergentist Theorizing in Psychology

American pragmatist philosophers in the early part of the twentieth century viewed the emergence of both body and mind within the broad sweep of biological and social evolution. For example, George Herbert Mead (1934) understood the human physiological capacity for developing intelligence, reflective consciousness, and other attributes of persons as in part the product of biological evolution. However, he also insisted that such capacity for personhood “must proceed in terms of social situations wherein it gets its expression and import; and hence it itself is a product of social evolution, the process of social experience and behavior” (p. 226).

More recently, a number of social-cognitive, developmental, and theoretical psychologists have articulated versions of emergence with respect to personhood in a variety of ways that converge around a number of shared assumptions and claims, but which also differ in important ways. For purposes of understanding these claims and the ideas they contain, the emergentist perspectives of Bandura (1997, 2001), Brandtstädter and Lerner (1999), Bickhard (1992, 1999), and Martin, Sugarman, and Thompson (2003, Martin & Sugarman, 1999) provide a good representation of both converging and competing claims. Before turning to a more formal elucidation of these claims, a few brief paraphrases and quotations from these various theorists are helpful in acquiring a general sense of contemporary emergentist thinking in the psychology of persons.

Bandura (2001, p. 4) states that “social cognitive theory subscribes to a model of emergent interactive agency.” Following the neurophysiologist Roger Sperry (1993), Bandura understands mental events as brain activities, but claims that such physicality does not imply reductionism – “emergent brain activities … are not ontologically reducible” (p. 4). Further, Bandura claims that mental processes as emergent properties generated by brain processes, differ in novel respects from those elements that feature in their creation, and that they are capable of exerting downward and same-level causation that is in no sense reducible to the causal activity of the organism’s component parts. “Cognitive agents regulate their actions by cognitive downward causation as well as undergo upward activation by sensory stimulation. People can designedly conceive unique events and different novel courses of action and choose to execute one of them” (pp. 4-5). The irreducibility of agency and other phenomena of psychological personhood to neurophysiology results from the previously stated claim that “people are both producers and products of social systems” (Bandura, 1997, p. 6), and that such systems are external to the organism and have no counterpart in neurobiological theory. Nonetheless, “social structures … do not arise by immaculate conception; they are created by human activity. Social structures, in turn, impose constraints and provide resources for personal development and everyday functioning. But neither structural constraints nor enabling resources foreordain what individuals become and do in given situations” (p. 6).

A second example of recent emergentist theorizing in psychology is Brandtstädter and Lerner’s (1999) theory of intentional self-development. The core idea of intentional self-development is “the proposition that individuals are both the products and active producers of their ontogeny and personal development over the life span” (p. ix). “Through action, and through experiencing the effects and limitations of goal-related activities, we construe representations … of ourselves and of the physical, social, and symbolic environments in which we are situated. These … guide and motivate activities through which we shape the further course of personal development” (p. ix). Despite the strong cognitivism evident in this passage, Brandtstädter and Lerner envision a developmentally powerful relationship between developing person and social context in ontogenesis. “From early transactions with the environment, and by initiation into social networks of knowledge and practice, children form the primordial representations of self and personal development from which the processes of intentional self-development evolve” (p. xi). They continuously emphasize what they regard as “the great openness and plasticity” that characterize both human ontogenesis and phylogenesis. For example, in ontogenesis, “biology does not impose rigid constraints on development, but rather establishes norms of reaction that involve a range of developmental outcomes over a range of environmental conditions. … Epigenetic environmental influences, however, are structured and temporarily organized through interactions of the developing individual with his or her environment” (p. xiv). By implication, “in this view, traditional splits between ‘nature’ and ‘culture,’ as well as attempts to establish a causal priority between these categories are rendered obsolete” (p. xv).

Bickhard’s (1999) theory of interactivism is a third example of contemporary emergentist theorizing in the psychology of persons. In many ways, Bickhard’s work follows the general pragmatist approach taken by Mead (1934), especially with respect to emphasizing the naturalness of the functional relations he assumes between persons and their environments. “Interactive representation … emerges with complete naturalism out of certain sorts of functional organizations” (Bickhard, 1999, p. 450). Bickhard assumes an interactive system capable of indicating for itself possibilities of various interactions with the environment as a prelude to selecting which interaction to initiate. What is represented is not objects, things, or entities in the world, but possibilities for acting. Such “functions” are always emerging, and differentiate the environment in ways that open up interactive possibilities. With respect to persons and their societies, Bickhard understands both as constantly emergent and co-constitutive. The sociocultural environment is constitutive of personhood “in two senses: constructive and interactive. Constructively, learning to engage in the simpler social interactions of childhood provides the scaffolded resources for the eventual construction of the adult social person. Interactively, the person is being social insofar as he or she is interacting with or within those social realities. … Personhood, in being a socially constituted constructive emergent, is itself a social and historical ontology” (Bickhard, 1992, p. 86).

A fourth and final example of emergentist theorizing with respect to psychological personhood can be found in the work of Martin et al. (2003). These hermeneutically-inclined theorists define the person as “an embodied, biological human individual who through existing and acting in the physical and sociocultural world comes to possess an understanding of her particular being in the world (a conceptual self) that enables her to act as a self-reflective agent with a unique set of commitments and concerns (a personal identity)” (p. 128). “On this view, the self, agency, and personal identity of a person require the in-the-world activity of a biological human equipped with rudimentary capacities to orient to, and remember (in a primitive, prelinguistic sense) some of what is encountered in the physical, sociocultural world. The sociocultural placement of such a biological infant gives her an initial social identity, and her early, biologically-given, orienting movements assist her to acquire a preconceptual sense of self” (p. 128). Over time, much in the manner of appropriation suggested by Vygotsky (1986), “immersion in linguistic, sociocultural practices moves the child from a preconceptual sense of self, and an unreflective agency associated with prelinguistic and early linguistic, practical activity, to a more conceptual understanding of self and world that enables a more self-reflective agency, at least some of the time” (p. 129). For Martin et al., “the psychological person is a biological individual who becomes capable of understanding some of what the life-world (in its history, culture, and social relations and practices) and her being in it consists” (p. 130). Moreover, “given the inevitably unique history of individual experience within a life-world, and the capacity for self as reflective, interpretive understanding of experience in that world, psychological persons are underdetermined by their constitutive sociocultural origins and biological requirements” (p. 142).

Shared and Disputed Claims

The foregoing theories of emergent personhood appear to hold three basic, and quite general claims in common.

1. Persons emerge from immersion in biophysical and sociocultural reality.
2. Once emergent, persons are irreducible back to their biophysical and sociocultural origins.
3. Persons are both determined and determining. They exert influence on their biophysical and sociocultural environments, even while they are determined by them.

However, with respect to how the foregoing, general emergentist claims are developed further, there are a few disagreements.

1. Brandtstädter and Learner (1999) obviously subscribe to what has become in cognitive psychology, the standard encoding view of representation by which developing persons represent the world to themselves. Bickhard (1999) argues directly against such “encodingism,” claiming that if our only access to the world is through our representations of it, we have no way of explaining how our knowledge of the world comes about, or how our knowledge of the world can be corrected and improved. In short, we are locked into our encoded views of the world without any way of checking them, and without any understanding of how we come to possess them. Bickhard’s functional representations, on the other hand, are understood as possibilities for acting in the world, which arise from direct experience in the world, and which can be checked against the worldly consequences of activity.

2. Bickhard (1999) and Martin et al. (2003) clearly understand the sociocultural context to go well beyond the immediate social situation to encompass a host of historically established traditions and conventions concerning assumptions, understandings, and practices of personhood. Moreover, they view this historical, sociocultural background as constitutive of much of the implicit understanding of existence and self of which personhood consists. The more conventional social-cognitive and developmental theorizing of Bandura (1997) and Brandtstädter and Lerner (1999) mostly focuses more exclusively on the immediate social, interpersonal contexts and interactions within which the actions and practices of personhood are learned.

3. Bandura (1997), Brandtstädter and Lerner (1999), and Martin et al. (2003), at least in ontogenesis, seem to understand the biophysical and sociocultural as somewhat different determinants and sources of personhood. Although persons require both for their development, the natural laws and principles governing the biophysical world need to be supplemented by additional principles and relations at the sociocultural level that are not natural in the same sense, but are (at least partially) the result of a distinctive sociocultural evolution. On the other hand, Bickhard (1992, 1999), while holding a strong form of social constitutivism (see the preceding point) often talks about the “complete naturalism” of the functional relations he posits as a basis for actions in both the physical and sociocultural world. In this, he appears to continue a classic line of pragmatist thought that includes Mead (1934) and Dewey (1925), both of whom emphasized the critical roles of human society and culture for the formation of persons, but whose pervasive naturalism also caused them to see sociocultural evolution as a seamless part of a single, overall progressive and natural order.

An Emergent Ontology of Persons

Given the foregoing similarities and differences, the task of articulating an explicit ontology of emergent persons capable of housing the various forms of emergentist theorizing in the contemporary psychology of persons is formidable. Nonetheless, an attempt to frame such an ontology can make more readily apparent some of the arguments and positions that seem to be assumed, but may not always be stated explicitly or elaborated sufficiently in those texts that make up this relatively recent area of psychological theorizing.

Reductionism versus Emergence

All theoretical formulations of emergentism in the philosophy of science have been in opposition to reductionistic proposals of various kinds. An ontological reduction maintains that phenomena of interest are nothing other than more fundamental phenomena. Strong ontological reductions that would eliminate, replace, or identify phenomena at more complex levels of systems with phenomena at simpler levels are theoretically controversial even in physical science (cf. Primas, 1998). Nonetheless, certain well-known examples, such as the reduction of certain properties in the theory of heat (such as temperature) to properties in the kinetic-molecular theory of matter (such as mean kinetic energy) are generally accepted as capturing the basic idea. A small number of such reductions have been specified in precise detail, and demonstrated under certain assumptions and conditions. In contrast, the much proposed reduction of psychological (e.g., mind or mental events or processes) to biophysical (brain matter) phenomena, while available in numerous and varied forms, is entirely speculative (cf. Kukla, 2001). Moreover, there are reasonable arguments against such a reduction. The most common (cf. Greenwood, 1991; Martin & Sugarman, 2002; Taylor, 1995) is that human actions are meaningful and value-laden, and meaning (the conventional sense of an expression or signal) and values (the significance of things and events for persons) require a sociocultural, linguistic context of rules and practices. Since meanings, values, and the sociocultural rules and practices on which they depend are not composed of physical properties under any physical descriptions, the proposed reduction of psychological phenomena like human actions to nothing more than physical properties fails. Of course, such arguments in no way deny the absolute necessity of evolved and functioning biophysical bodies and brains with respect to the ontogenetic development of personhood. However, such a necessary and enabling requirement is not a sufficient basis for reducing persons to the biophysical alone. The rejection of this reduction is shared by all the theories of emergent personhood considered above.

In general, reductionistic proposals in both the philosophy of science and the philosophy of mind have fared rather poorly in recent years, a state of affairs that has prompted many theoreticians to turn to theories of emergence as possible alternatives. [See O’Connor and Wong (2002) and Van Gulick (2001) for more on this point, and for more detailed discussions of various kinds of emergence.] In general, emergence is more or less the converse of reduction. The general idea is that emergent phenomena arise out of more fundamental phenomena, and yet are novel or irreducible with respect to them. Since George Henry Lewes (1875) first used the term in a philosophical sense, a variety of theories and conceptions of emergence have been advanced. It is especially important to distinguish between ontological emergence (of direct relevance here) and epistemological emergence. Ontological emergence is noted when properties or entities exist at complex levels of systems when they are absent at simpler levels. Epistemological emergence is posited when laws of more complex levels in a system are not deducible by way of any bridge laws from the laws of simpler levels. It is generally assumed that emergent properties must not contradict fundamental laws at a basic level of description, even though such properties are not and can not be uniquely determined or derived from the basic level in the absence of further conditions (cf. Atmanspacher & Kronz, 1999).

It seems reasonable to assume that all the psychological theories of emergent personhood considered here share the foregoing conception of ontological emergence and the further assumption that emergent persons, while capable of influencing their biophysical and sociocultural contexts, cannot override fundamental biophysical laws. Support for this conclusion is taken from the fact that those most frequently cited by the authors of these various psychological theories (e.g., Sperry, 1993) hold views of this kind. There are, however, three important assumptions made by emergentist theorists in the area of psychological personhood that do not fit easily into the foregoing, more or less standard account of main-stream emergentist theorizing in the physical sciences. In different ways, all three of these additional assumptions seem to arise from important differences between physical phenomena per se, and the more socioculturally influenced or constituted phenomena of psychological personhood.

Additional Assumptions Concerning the Emergence of Psychological Persons

In some of the psychological perspectives examined earlier, obviously psychological aspects of personhood such as Martin et al.’s (2003) conceptions of self-understanding and reflective agency and Bickhard’s (1999) interactive representations, are not substantive in the manner of physical phenomena. Instead, they are theorized primarily as relations of meaning that connect words, world, experience, beliefs, and actions. As such, these psychological, relational entities (to borrow a term used by Fay, 1996 to differentiate such entities from substantive, physical entities) do not fit easily into traditional distinctions between entities, properties, interactions, and relations as employed in emergentist theorizing in physical science and in much analytic philosophy. Indeed, standard emergentist theorizing frequently omits such predominately sociocultural-psychological relations altogether, and considers only physics, chemistry, biology, and psychology (see O’Connor and Wong, 2002 for more on this point). With respect to psychological personhood, such omission seems a to leave out crucially important aspects of our human experience, almost as if one were attempting to explain the behavior of baseball players without any reference to the rules, regulations, practices, and traditions of baseball.

The only consideration of relations of meaning that occurs in emergentist theorizing in physical science concerns relations between scientific concepts, propositions, models, and theories. When such consideration occurs, it is treated not in the context of ontological emergence, but in the context of epistemological emergence. Such epistemological emergence might, for example, be posited when the principles of one theory cannot be explained or derived from any of the principles or features of relevant theories at a simpler level (Van Gulick, 2001). However, in psychological theories of personhood, meaningful relations are frequently understood as at least partially constitutive of social-psychological phenomena such as social practices and self conceptions. Such practices and conceptions are treated as ontological both in the sense of their posited existence, and in the sense of the deterministic influences they can exert (e.g., Bandura’s, 1997 claims concerning reciprocal determinism among personal beliefs such as judgements of self-efficacy, actions, and environments). Again, almost all conceptions of ontological emergence in physical science and analytic philosophy are silent with respect to the possibility of meaning-saturated, relational entities treated as real and influential ontological entities, as they are in emergentist theorizing about personhood.

There are two additional assumptions evident in psychological perspectives on emergent personhood that are difficult to locate in extant emergentist theorizing in physical science. Related directly to the status of relational social psychological entities is the assumption that emergent personhood requires sociocultural-psychological, relational forms of emergence in combination with biophysical-psychological, substantive forms of emergence. For example, Martin et al. (2003) talk about the emergence of personhood (together with its key aspects of self-understanding, reflective agency, and identity) from constitutive sociocultural origins and biological requirements. However, the presumed dynamic interactions across such forms of emergence are not specified in any detail. Somewhat more specifically, Bandura (1997) suggests that “through their intentional acts, people shape the functional structure of their neurobiological systems” (p. 5). Such comments appear to reflect emergentist views about social psychological, biological interactions in ontogenesis similar to those presented by Edelman (1987). However, as Elman et al. (1996) remind us, in comparison with emergentist theorizing in physical science where, “the mathematical/physical properties that generate the emergent novelty are well understood … In the case of human development … we still do no not understand the biological/psychological principles involved” (p. 113).

Finally, a third assumption of much emergentist theorizing in the psychology of persons that constitutes a challenge to existing models of emergentism in natural science concerns the holistic nature of psychological personhood. For many purposes, it makes little sense to talk about self-efficacy, intentional self influence, self-understanding, or personal identity as properties or aspects of personhood in the absence of persons per se. Such “parts” cannot exist on their own in the way that atoms can exist and/or be thought about separately from molecules. Whereas ontological emergence in physical science focuses on properties and powers that can be isolated from their social and psychological contexts, the phenomena of personhood require those contexts for their very existence.

In summary, the assumptions of relational entities, dual biophysical-psychological and sociocultural-psychological emergence, and emergent holism that typify much emergentist theorizing in the area of personhood present serious challenges to existing conceptions of emergence as these have been developed in analytic philosophy of physical science

Levels of Reality

With respect to framing an ontology of emergent personhood, the major gap in most contemporary emergentist theorizing is the failure to include or consider the sociocultural level of reality as a constitutive source of the phenomena of personhood. As O’Connor and Wong (2002) have noted, the sociocultural level of reality only rarely is added to the standard emergentist ontological framework of levels of reality that consists of the physical, chemical, biological, and psychological. However, when the sociocultural is considered in relation to these other levels of reality, it is possible to envision an ontological framework that might better serve the theoretical aspirations of emergentist theorists in the psychology of personhood.

Phylogenesis. In his seminal emergentist theorizing, Mead (1934) outlined a kind of dual emergence during phylogenesis. For Mead, human physiological requirements for mind, intelligence, and reflective consciousness were products of biological evolution; whereas the actual functioning of mind, intelligence, and reflective consciousness required a process of historical, social evolution focussed on the collective activity of groups of human individuals with respect to the production of sociocultural organizations, practices, and tools. More recently, Donald (2001), although certainly not the first to do so, has developed Mead’s basic idea further. Donald’s emergentism with respect to consciousness and mind is placed firmly at the intersection of biological and social evolution. He argues that the evolution of the human brain, especially with respect to its significantly greater size, represents no fundamental redesign of the basic modules of the primate brain. Instead, this relatively straightforward expansion of an existing primate brain design involving seemingly minor phylogenetic variation on the apes allowed humans to develop in close symbiosis with their cultural activities and accomplishments. Donald argues that the anatomical regions of the primate brain that expanded most noticeably were those associated with consciousness and executive functioning, affording a super-plasticity in overall brain functioning. This super-plasticity developed in interaction with the activities of human beings in sociocultural contexts that evolved historically in ways that made escalating demands on exactly this kind of brain capability. In short, such a brain allowed human natural selection and evolution to become tethered to culture. “Our remarkable evolutionary drive was presumably sustained by the many advantages of having a collective mentality, and our brains went through a series of modifications that gave them this strong cultural orientation” (p. 259). “The human brain is the only brain in the biosphere whose potential cannot be realized on its own” (p. 324).

On Donald’s (2001) neo-Meadean account, human persons emerge phylogenetically from dynamic, ongoing interactions over long periods of time between biologically evolving human beings and their sociocultural contexts, wherein lie embedded “layer upon layer of tacit or implicit knowledge in a cultural network” (p. 324). “Fate has given us this hybrid nature, by which we are joined to communities of our own invention” (p. 326). With such a general understanding in mind, an appropriate ontology of personhood in phylogenesis would seem to consist of a psychological/personal level of reality nested at the intersection of jointly evolving and interacting biological and sociocultural levels of reality, all housed within the physical and chemical world.

In such an ontological framework, it also is possible to hold that different processes of emergence may operate at different levels of the overall system. For example, Emmeche, Køppe, and Stjernfelt (1997, 2000) have proposed that “the processes involved in the first-time emergence of the biological level [from the physical/chemical] differ not only materially but also in a formal ontological way from the processes that constitute the psychological and the sociological level: for the latter two, involving the emergence of self-consciousness and institutions, these level-constituting processes are interwoven and depend on both intersubjectivity and language, while for the biological level, they depend upon specific conditions at one single level, the physical one (leading to the evolution of first cells)” (p. 15). However, as Donald (2001) claims, once both biological and sociocultural levels of reality are emergent, their dynamic interplay is the site of those emergent processes most critical to the formation and evolution of persons. Moreover, it is important to recognize that it is individual and collective human activity within the biophysical and sociocultural world that forces this dynamic interplay. What this seemingly obvious, but nonetheless profound, observation makes clear is that the locus of the evolution of persons is human activity in the biophysical and sociocultural world. It is not in the evolving brain or in historically developing culture except as these are linked through human activity.

Ontogenesis. In ontogenesis, the ontological framework assumed by the psychological theories of emergent personhood considered here need not be concerned with the first time emergence of the human biological and cultural requirements and constituents of persons. For in ontogenesis, human infants are born as members of a biologically evolved species of homo sapiens into existing societies and cultures with historically established traditions, practices, and world-views. Given this state of affairs, it is obvious that ontogeny cannot recapitulate phylogeny in any strict sense. Nonetheless, in terms of levels of reality and their assumed interactions and relations, there are some similarities across phylogenetic evolutionary patterns and ontogenetic developmental scenarios. Perhaps the most important is human activity in the world as the site of the emergence of personhood in both cases.

In ontogenesis, persons are developmentally emergent (both temporally and ontologically) from the practical activity of biological human beings in the physical and sociocultural world (cf. Archer, 2000; Martin et al., 2003). Given such worldly activity, psychological personhood emerges both substantively and relationally. Infants actively explore their surroundings, observing and touching themselves, others, and things, and being observed and touched by others. Such prelinguistic, practical activity bestows a primitive, preconceptual sense of self (Merleau-Ponty, 1962). Caregivers and others interact with developing infants in ways that provide relational practices, forms, and means of personhood and identity extant within particular societies and cultures. Psychological development proceeds as these appropriated sociocultural linguistic and relational practices are employed as bases for private language, and eventually for thought and reflection (Vygotsky, 1986). This ongoing sociocultural, relational constitution of the psychological tools and understandings required for personhood is accompanied by enabling, and more substantive processes of biophysical maturation and adaptation.

Over time, the individual’s activity in the world is transformed from one of prereflection to one in which reflective, intentional agency emerges and fosters a self-understanding and personal identity linked to one’s particular existence and personal history of activity. Such psychological continuity imbues an individual life with meaning and significance. Open to the life-world, the psychological person emerges as an embodied being with deliberative agency, self-understanding, and personal identity defined by commitments and concerns associated with her particular existence and activity in the world (Martin et al., 2003). Such an emergentist scenario in ontogenesis seems generally consistent with the shared claims and additional assumptions noted above. With respect to those claims that are somewhat disputed, the functional, historical approaches of Bickhard (1992, 1999) and Martin et al. (2003), minus the pervasive naturalism of Bickhard’s position, are perhaps most thoroughly integrated into this scenario. However, there is little here that should be objectionable to either Bandura (1997, 2001) or Brandtstädter and Learner (1999).

The ontology of personhood in ontogenesis may be understood in terms of a psychological/personal level of reality nested at the intersection of dynamically interacting biological and sociocultural levels of reality within the physical and chemical world. It is human activity in the biophysical and sociocultural world that creates the dynamic sites at and through which personhood emerges. Personal development in ontogenesis is not to be found in biologically developing and maturing human beings alone, nor is it located in their sociocultural settings and relations. Rather, it lies in the linkage of biophysical beings with their sociocultural settings, routines, and conventions through activity.

Concluding Comment

Recent psychological theorizing about the emergence of persons makes a number of ontological claims that are not always explicit. An examination and elaboration of such claims reveals both significant convergence and some points of disagreement across different psychological theories of emergent personhood. All such theories resist the reduction of persons to biophysical or sociocultural conditions and processes. However, they also make assumptions that render standard emergentist accounts in physical science and the philosophy of physical science somewhat incomplete as viable accounts of the ontological emergence of psychological persons. The key to understanding these emergentist proposals lies in the recognition of the sociocultural level of reality as nonreductionistically constitutive of important aspects of personhood, without denying the necessity of comparatively more substantive biophysical requirements of personhood. It is human activity in the biophysical and sociocultural world that enables both the substantive and relational emergence of persons within this worldly context, in both phylogenesis and ontogenesis. However, the theoretically dual nature of such emergence should not lead to the positing of strongly dualistic conceptions of persons. Rather, persons are simultaneously biophysical and sociocultural creations who because of the meaningfulness, significance, and agency that attend human activity in the world are irreducible to their biophysical and sociocultural origins. Such irreducibility does not make psychological science or practice impossible, but does suggest that psychologists must not ignore the agency of persons active in sociocultural contexts of meaning and significance that cannot be reduced to enabling physical, chemical, and biological levels of reality.


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Author’s Note

Correspondence concerning this article should be sent to Jack Martin, Burnaby Mountain Endowed Professor, Faculty of Education, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC, Canada, V5A 1S6 ( Support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Institut für Grenzgebiete der Psychologie und Psychohygiene (Freiburg, Germany) during the writing of this article, and helpful comments by Harald Atmanspacher and Robert Bishop on an earlier draft are gratefully acknowledged.


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