The study of human intelligence was once dominated by symbolic approaches … [which] takes as its starting point the idea that human and artificial minds should be viewed as symbol processing machines … The idea of emergence in cognitive science is the contrasting idea that there are more basic or elementary processes that are really the fundamental ones, and that physical symbol systems … are sometimes useful approximate characterizations which, however, have difficulties in capturing in full the context-sensitive, flexible, graded, and adaptive nature of human cognitive abilities.
[V]arious constructs in cognitive science, cognitive development, and cognitive neuroscience might best be seen, not as fundamental entities that serve as the basis of explanation, but as the emergent consequences of simpler, more general, or more basic processes. It seems fair to say that over the last 30 years or so, the tendency to see such entities as emergents has certainly increased. However, this does not mean that we now understand these emergent phenomena … I think the greater challenge will be to extend emergentist approaches so that they address more fully the achievements of human intelligence[.]
Emergence in Cognitive Science | James L. McClelland