Five types of change in philosophy

In any discussion of emergence, it is often difficult to separate this concept from its semantic cousins who all live in the same philosophical neighbourhood. Sure, they’re related, but they don’t really talk much. There’ll be a polite nod, and maybe a few minutes of chit-chat about how Uncle Dynamis is these days, but they don’t have a huge amount to say to each other beyond that. Conversation will slow, headphones will pop in, and each will return to their own little world.

Change is central to philosophy either for reasons of counting it as the defining principle (as Heraclitus does), or for reasons of escaping it and its counter-intuitive implications (Parmenides, Plato, Hegel, whoever else). Slowly the notion became intelligible beyond this, in science at least, and reentered philosophy from this direction. As such, it remains couched in these terms. Change can be accounted for (and note that it requires such a theoretical apologia, as though it is that bad side of the family who we are not comfortable with, but whom we can’t deny!) in the following ways, as that which:

  1. develops – there are minor alterations, but the situation remains fundamentally the same
  2. is in process – this is ongoing, it is flux
  3. transforms into something else
  4. evolves
  5. emerges

Of these, we may point out that (4) evolution is something that takes place over a long period of time in the natural world (though it has been convincingly applied to examples of artificial life). It is, however, regularly misapplied to other fields, for example in Colin Gamble‘s attempts to explain Hayek‘s notion of spontaneous order, he conflates it with evolution. We must be very careful here. (4) is time-dependent, whereas that which (5) emerges involves countless other issues beyond the passing of time, which may be summed up by a passing between different levels. (3) Transformation reminds me of the underpants gnomes in South Park. Here, we have the following business model : (i) collect underpants, (ii) ……… , (iii) Profit!. (ii) here is where transformation lies. It tells us that there has been change, but no more. We need to know what changed, into what, by what mechanism. Transformation as a term in the vocabulary of change is little more than an expression of embarrassment.

I have difficulty of thinking of philosopher or philosophical works that have made a genuine effort at coming to terms with change, as most are concerned with pinning things down in a system of propositions, an approach which change as a concept would seem to repudiate on the structural level. Exceptions are to be found in the Negative Dialectics of Adorno, Whitehead’s Process and Reality, parts of Deleuze (though he is problematic), Kierkegaard, and to a very limited extent Nietzsche. They may have dealt with a number of the above, but rarely was there a concerted to account for the very different types of change we might delineate.

Nietzsche I include because he gave us some suggestive analyses of metaphysics as a matrix of power which of its own necessity seeks to valorize a static mode, but beyond this I do not find him to be of much use on this topic. Adorno and Kierkegaard are concerned with change, and how to effect a parabasis of thought which when cut from anchors would go forth into the world and deal with each thing as it is encountered. They account for change in their very styles, although Adorno has an a priori analysis of capital and power firmly in mind, just as Kierkegaard has his own theological concerns. Both these philosophers in their formal, contentual concerns leave the analysis of change somewhat implicit however. Whitehead and Deleuze probably come closest, then, and Whitehead especially (limitations of Deleuze’s approach I have touched on previously).

In the realm of phenomenology, I might give some mention to Heidegger too, whose use of the concept of time is a welcome antidote to the static excesses of ontology, but again the focus lays elsewhere, namely with ascertaining the truth of being as a quasi-foundation or origin. Of the other great “Being” works of philosophy, Badiou finds event where the element of change would be required, but it is the event as a kind of singularity, and again it requires significant supplementation to be rehabilitated as an analysis of change (which would probably be anathema to Badiou’s crypto-neo-(neo-)Pythagoreanism at any rate…). Earlier than this Sartre finds nothingness as a result of a lack of change in his analysis, which is the overdetermination of being (all talk of ‘freedom’ is just so much protesting). Levinas completes the effort in phenomenology in many ways by basically ignoring the question. If I wanted to give my view of this whole strand of thought a self-satisfied name, I might then call it Being and Change: Otherwise than time, event, and nothingness.

Now, the social implications of change are important, and may go some way to account for how marginal it has been for philosophy. Previously God/god stood as the guarantor of our existential debt. As William James noted, “‘God’ was the great solvent of all absurdities.” This option is no longer open to us, and so the absurdity must be confronted. This absurd is simply a matter of change and identity. If x changes over time, is it x¹, then x², x³ etc. according to its position in a time series? Or does it change utterly, from x into y? Of people, we say that Catherine aged 10 is the same person as Catherine aged 27 and so on. These are totally different examples, and to compare them is nonsensical. This could then simply be a matter of predication, but nevertheless the naming has a metaphysical background, one which philosophy badly needs to catch up with. Socially change is accounted for as a non-issue.

We deal with change in our every day lives which shows us to be engaged and committed Heracliteans in terms of how the world functions. The (2) flux holds no fear for us. That said, we consider that no things remain the same (1). This ‘working model’ of change is what interests me. But consider, if we look to think of “being and change”, then (2) is change, and (1) and (3) are being. This further leaves (4) and (5) in a curious position. So, where do we begin our effort to account for change?

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