David Brooks
New York Times Columnist

What is Emergent Thinking?

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If we took a much more supple view of how the world actually works, we wouldn’t spend all our time trying to break everything apart to study the details.

David Brooks

David Brooks is a New York Times columnist who writes on politics and culture. Prior to joining The Times in 2003, Brooks wrote for the Washington Times, the Wall Street Journal and The Weekly Standard.

Brooks’s books include Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (2000), in which Brooks combined the words bohemian and bourgeois to coin the term ‘Bobo’ in order to describe today’s corporate upper class, the descendants of the yuppies. Brooks argues this marriage between bohemian and bourgeois represents a fusion of the liberal idealism of the 1960s with the self-interest of the 1980s.

Four years later Brooks published On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense (2004). The thesis of this book connects the material drives of the American middle class with its focus on the future. Brooks’s new book is called The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, published in March 2011. The Social Animal deals primarily with what drive individuals' behavior and decision making and how we form our emotions and character.


David Brooks: Carl Popper, the great philosopher said, “All problems are either clouds or clocks.”  A clock is a… to understand a clock, you can take it apart, it’s individual pieces and you study the pieces and then you can understand how a clock works.  A cloud, you can’t take apart a cloud.  A cloud is a dynamic system.  A cloud you can only study as a whole.

So an emergent system is something you only can study as a whole.  So for example, a cloud is an emergent system, but your brain is an emergent system.  When you think of an idea like apple, it’s not in any one neuron in the brain; it’s in the interplay of many different neurons.  A culture is an emergent system.  There’s no one person who exemplifies American culture, but the interaction of all of us Americans creates this thing called American culture.  And once
that thing exists, then it has an influence on the rest of us, it shapes our behavior.

So we’re surrounded by these patterns of interaction, these emergent systems.  And so a corporate culture is an emergent system, team spirit is an emergent system, poverty is an emergent system.  So what are the things that contribute to poverty? Well some
of it is just sheer lack of money, but some of it is certain habits, some of it is racism, there’s a whole bunch of fake things that factor in.  And so one of the problems that we have as a culture is we take clouds and we pretend they’re clocks.  We take problems that are emergent and we pretend we can solve them through deductive reasoning, but just picking them apart.  And we always want to find the one thing that will lead to that, so we always want to find “X” leads to “Z”. The problem with an emergent system, you don’t have those kinds of straight causal relationships.  Everything, it’s all about the interplay.  It’s all about the dance.

And so when you talk about a corporate culture or a marketplace or anything, it’s about the complex interplay of all these different things.  And if we thought about emergent systems, we just have a much more supple view of how the world actually works.  We wouldn’t spend all our time trying to break everything apart and studying it by studying the details.