Seven Characteristics of Emanationism

Summary of a central Neoplatonic principle

Jascha Ephraim


The German eminatismus was coined by philosopher Emil Lask and popularized by his peer Max Weber in arguments against Hegelian idealism:

With respect to the phenomena of historical development of culture, [an] approach would obviously be possible: to attempt, basing oneself on the Hegelian theory of concepts, to surmount the “hiatus irrationalis” between concept and reality by forming “general” concepts — metaphysical realities in which individual things and events are comprehended and can be deduced as instances of realization [of these concepts]. The adoption of this “emanationist” view of the nature and validity of the “ultimate” concepts makes it logically permissible, on the one hand, to conceive the relationship of the concepts to reality as being strictly rational (that is to say, reality can be deduced as descending from the general concept) and, on the other hand, to comprehend this relationship as having at the same time a completely intuitable character (that is to say, reality in ascending towards the concepts, loses none of its intuitable content). In this case, the content and the scope of the concepts are not, quantitatively speaking, inversely proportional; on the contrary, they are congruent, as the “single case” is not only a specimen of the genus but also a part of the whole represented by the concept. The most “general” concept, from which everything could be deduced, would then at the same time be the richest in content.

Emanationism is present in some form within Greek philosophical systems, the esoteric traditions of Abrahamic religions, in Vedic traditions, and in East Asian philosophies. Using examples from Indian, Judaic, Islamic, and Greek philosophy, and from Weber’s initial application of the term to sociology and economics, I will identify seven essential characteristics of emanationism:

  1. The whole and its emanation is unconscious and unwilled.
  2. The whole and its emanation is eternal.
  3. The emanation of the whole is necessary.
  4. The whole is identical to the totality of its emanation.
  5. The whole is undiminished by its emanation.
  6. The emanation is structured hierarchically.
  7. The direction of emanation is reversible, allowing subjective reunion with the whole.

1. The Whole and its Emanation is Unconscious and Unwilled

Emanationism is often contrasted with the traditional Christian doctrine of creation. Creationism requires a preexisting actor to willfully initiate the unfolding of the objective world, and doesn’t address a dichotomy between objectivity and subjectivity. Emanationism, on the other hand, proposes that the unfolding of complexity and multiplicity is an automatic and unintentional process. Consciousness and will are themselves products of the unfolding; that which unfolds—which I am calling ‘the whole’—is prior to both, and prior to the distinction between subject and object.

This principle is reflected in the Vedic conception of creation as sacrifice, in which multiplicity is born from a fracturing of eternal unity, rather than a creative production of something out of nothing:

The doctrine of sacrifice is the central topic of the Brāhmaṇas, which are rightly called ‘the true source of Indian thought’. The God of sacrifice is also the creative principle of the world, Prajāpati. He creates for instance the sun by sacrificing. There is a close connection between the creative act in the Vedic sense and the act of sacrifice. Betty Heimann has dealt with this and summarizes her investigations as follows. She refers to myths of creation where the creator is also the material cause of the universe (e.g., the primordial puruṣa is sacrificed and his parts become the different realms of the world). … She says: ‘ … The Indian idea of creation starts from the unconscious and mechanical urge towards emanation, and develops only in the second place into the variant, in which the material cause is replaced by a conscious activity. The sacrifice is conceived in India as it were as a scientific process of transformation; (starting with the conscious “give and take”) it comes to denote (also) changes which are unconscious and more or less mechanical’.

In comparing the Indian and Neoplatonic variations of emanationism, P. K. Mukhopadhyaya determines that “They … agree that the notion of causation or emanation must remain an involuntary process, not needing any particular form of willing or action at any given time, either at the beginning, or at any subsequent stage of the process, on the part of the One.”

2. The Whole and its Emanation is Eternal

There is no prime mover, and no prime movement. Although the term ‘emanation’ itself implies directionality, it’s a directionality of structure (which will be described in section number 6) and not a temporal directionality from creation to annihilation/reunion, as it is in a traditional creationist framework:

For Vedāntic emanationism, the mythological polarities establishing the necessary tension for time are the evolutionary process of world formation, on the one hand, and the law of karman and cyclical rebirth, on the other. Here there is no sharp beginning or ending of time. … The world results not from a conscious act of will, which God works to perform in a limited time, but from the spontaneous freedom of God’s līlā or play. … Time is not understood fundamentally as movement. Time is understood fundamentally as condition. Time is not linear, progressive, taking its meaning from the tension between beginning and end. Time is either cyclical or spiral. For one predestined by his own karman to at least several rebirths, the existential issue is not that of finding enough time. Nor is the anticipation of the end of his personal time all absorbing.

… Time is the context in which the search for self-understanding and world understanding goes on. Time itself is not the bearer of human fulfillment. We are not saved by events in time. We are saved by the realization that time itself is part of the power of māyā. This realization ultimately frees us from time altogether.

3. The Emanation of the Whole is Necessary

The previous two points can be seen as consequences of the more general principle that the emanation of the many from the one is necessary: “Emanation is a necessary (natural) and eternal process, and is thus thought to imply the absence of will and design on the part of the ultimate source.”

4. The Whole is Identical to the Totality of its Emanation

Because the “process” of emanation is never initiated, it is viewed as an inherent property of the whole, simply another way of describing it (and therefore not actually a process at all). As in the Vedic metaphor of creation by sacrifice, the multiplicity of the world does not result in the presence of anything new, simply a reframing of the totality’s components.

Weber refers to this principle when commenting on an emanationist tendency in the social/economic theory of Karl Knies: “Just as Knies conceived the ‘unitary character’ of the actual totality as being a conceptual ‘consistency’, here the actual interconnections of humanity and its evolution in fact turn into a conceptual ‘identity’ of the individuals comprehended by it.” Weber here alludes to an interesting property of emanationist idealism: abstract associations are reified, so that one can extrapolate from the microcosm to the macrocosm. Just as the intersection of all human individuals—via conceptual and biological similarity—represents an ideal unity from which the particulars emanate, the intersection of all things represents the ideal unity from which all things emanate.

A particularly poetic and complex expression of this principle can be found in Kabbalah, involving the tradition’s idiosyncratic use of wordplay:

Though the term aẓilut has many meanings in Hebrew, the Jewish philosophers and kabbalists used it to describe different forms of emanation. The Hebrew term is understood as pointing to both the process of emanation and to the realm that is emanated. The major concept that is conveyed by this term is the prolongation of a spiritual entity into a hypostasis that does not separate itself essentially from its source. According to such a view, the Infinity, Ein-Sof, underwent a process of autogenesis that produced a realm of ten divine powers which, different as they are from each other, nevertheless constitute together the divine zone. In this mode of understanding the process of emanation is conceived of as remaining within God, offering a pseudo-etymology of aẓilut as if related to the Hebrew word eẓlo, “with him,” namely with God. Though articulated since the 13th century, this view has much earlier Jewish sources, as early as second century, according to which some angels are extensions of the divine glory and return to it after completing their mission. This view is known in Kabbalah as the doctrine of essence, which means that the divine emanated powers are identical with the divine essence.

5. The Whole is Undiminished by its Emanation

Again, in comparing the emanationism of the Indian and Neoplatonic traditions, Mukhopadhyaya finds that “They both agree that the Many has come from the One. The One must, however, yield the many without suffering any loss, remaining undiminished.” It makes sense that if the emanation is not actually a temporal process but rather the inherent structure of the totality, then there is no exchange or transmission of any substance taking place, and therefore no diminishing of the totality by its own inherent structure. “[I]t is compared to the efflux of light from a luminous body, or to water flowing from a spring.”

6. The Emanation is Structured Hierarchically

There is nevertheless some notion of a metric of perfection, reality, or nearness to the source, within the structure of the whole: “The ultimate source is undiminished, while the beings which are emanated are progressively less perfect as they are further removed from the first principle.” This is perhaps the most recognizable hallmark of Platonic Idealism, the precursor to Plotinus’ Neoplatonism: that abstract concepts, representing the intersection of its particular instantiations, are actually more real than those instantiations.

Although all emanationist traditions agree in this regard, the specific parsing of the hierarchy differs between cultures:

In the system of Plotinus, from the One comes by way of emanation the nous, which is variously rendered as Intelligence, Spirit, Mind and so on. From Intelligence emanates Psyche or Soul. These are said to correspond to the three realms of the ideas, the mathematicals and the sensibles which, according to Aristotle, Plato admitted.

In … the Sámkhaya school, the first cause or principle is called both Pradhána and Prakrti. The etymology of these two words tells us clearly that it is the source of everything other than itself and that it is the First and hence it comes from nothing else. So both the One of [Neoplatonism] and the Prakrti of [Sámkhaya] are eternal and uncaused. From Prakrti emanates all the rest. The total number of items which emanate from prakrti at least from the point of view of the general Sámkhya philosophical account is twenty three. These are Mahat (1), Ahamkára (1), Indriyás (5+5+1), Tanmátrás (5) plus Mahábhútas (5).

7. The Direction of Emanation is Reversible, Allowing Subjective Reunion with the Whole

While all of the points outlined so far have been clearly logically intertwined, this last aspect of emanationism is not so clearly implied by the rest, and seems tied to the tradition’s mystical roots: “Emanationism tends to be combined with an eschatology (or soteriology) that envisions the soul’s return to its ultimate source of being by epostrophē or ‘reversion’.”

Even Weber, coming from a decidedly non-mystical perspective, alludes to this component of emanationism that “construe[s] empirical reality as the emanation of ‘ideas’ from which the individual processes must necessarily be conceptually derivable; the highest of these ideas must manifest itself as intuitively perceivable in the complex total process.” The eternity and eminence of the whole in all things, including our own objective and subjective manifestations, suggests a direct line of access back to the totality; after all, it is only the totality in the first place which is doing the accessing, a primary insight of Advaita Vendanta. As Weber suggests, since the realm of abstract ideas is higher—or, rather, more encompassing—in the hierarchy of emanation, it acts as a mediating layer through which “the highest of these ideas must manifest itself as intuitively perceivable”.

One version of the structure of this process of emanation and reversion is detailed by John Turner in his exploration of its personification in Greek mythology:

This unfolding or emanation is characteristically presented as occurring in a three-stage process: First, an initial identity of the product with its source, a sort of potential existence; second, an indefinite procession or unfolding of the product from its source, and third, a contemplative visionary reversion of the product upon its source, in which the product becomes aware of its separate existence and thereby takes on its own distinctive form and definition. The later Neoplatonists such as Proclus, perhaps Porphyry, and the author of the anonymous Parmenides Commentary named these three stages Permanence, Procession and Reversion, and characterized the three successive modes of the product’s existence during this process by the terms Existence, Life and Intellect. Previously, Plotinus had applied a similar terminology, namely Being, Life and Mind, to describe the three principal aspects of the second of his three hypostases, Intellect.