The Emergence of 'Emergence' in the Work of F.A. Hayek: An Historical Analysis

56 Pages Posted: 10 Jun 2014 Last revised: 27 Jul 2015

Date Written: July 26, 2015


This paper identifies the sources on which Friedrich Hayek drew in order to develop his understanding of the notion of emergence. It is widely acknowledged that the notion of emergence plays a significant role in Hayek’s analyses of both the mind and the market. On Hayek’s account, the key capacities of the human mind — such as its capacity to enable people to perceive the world around them and to form plans about how to act — are emergent properties of the structured array of neurons found in the human brain. Analogously, Hayek’s analysis of the market portrays the coordinative powers of the price mechanism as an emergent property of the social system that is formed when people’s (inter)actions are governed by a set of norms that includes both the formal rules of property, tort and contract law, and also informal norms of honesty and promise-keeping. However, while several scholars have identified the importance of the notion of ‘emergence’ in Hayek’s thought, none have explored systematically and in detail the sources from which he acquired his knowledge of that concept. This paper remedies that omission by examining the history of Hayek’s use of the concept of emergence and identifying the sources through which notions of ‘emergence’ and ‘emergent properties’ entered his thinking. It is argued that the three main sources of influence are as follows: the ideas of the German psychologist Wilhelm Wundt; the work of members of the gestalt school of psychology; and the writings of the organicist biologists Joseph Woodger and Ludwig von Bertalanffy. The significance of the paper’s findings for those interested in the development of Hayek’s economics is also discussed.

Keywords: Hayek, emergence, emergent properties, theoretical psychology, ontology, organisation, system theory

JEL Classification: A12, BOO, B19, B29, B31, B40

Suggested Citation

Lewis, Paul Andrew, The Emergence of 'Emergence' in the Work of F.A. Hayek: An Historical Analysis (July 26, 2015). Available at SSRN: or

Paul Andrew Lewis (Contact Author)

King's College London ( email )

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London, WC2R 2LS
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