The term monism (from the Greek: μόνος monos or "one")—first used by the eighteenth-century German philosopher Christian Wolff to designate philosophical positions asserting either that everything is mental (idealism) or that everything is material (materialism), in order to eliminate the dichotomy of mind and body—has more general applicability today, maintaining that all of reality is ultimately one and indivisible. Two types of monism are usually understood to exist: "substantival" and "attributive" monism. Substantival monism, which is represented by religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism in the East and philosophers such as Baruch Spinoza in the West, holds that the entirety of reality is reducible to only one substance, and that any diversity of reality means just a plurality of aspects or modes of this one substance. By contrast, attributive monism maintains that there is only one category of being, within which there are many different individual things or substances. Attributive monism is further subdivided into three types: idealism, materialism (or physicalism), and neutral monism, and they have shown alternative positions for the discussion of the mind-body problem.
The quest for oneness has been an important, universal drive and impulse throughout human history, culture, and religious and philosophical thought. Here lies the attractiveness of monism, which subsumes all diversity and heterogeneity into one larger holistic category without internal divisions, although its overemphasis on oneness has also prevented it from being accepted especially in the mainstream culture and religion in the West.
Monism is of two types: "substantival" and "attributive" monism. Substantival monism, adhered to by people such as Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), is the belief in "one thing," which holds that the entirety of reality is reducible to one substance, and that any diversity of reality consists merely in different modes or aspects of this one substance. By contrast, attributive monism, represented by philosophers such as Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), is the belief in "one category," which holds that there is only one kind of thing, while there are many different individual things or substances within this category. These two types of monism are also referred to as "absolute" and "category" monism, respectively. Substantival monism is foundational to Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Attributive monism, although it is fundamentally monistic, looks a little more pluralistic than substantival monism, which is much opposed to pluralism.
Attributive monism has been further subdivided into three types in the modern and contemporary periods: idealism (or phenomenalism), materialism (or physicalism), and neutral monism. The first two are better known than the last one. Idealism believes, as in case of thinkers such as Leibniz and George Berkeley (1685-1753), that the one category of being, in which all real individual things or substances are found, is mental, while materialism holds, as in case of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), that this category is physical. These two are the ones referred to as types of monism by Christian Wolff (1679-1754). Both of them in their own ways opposed the dualistic belief of René Descartes (1596-1650) that mental and material categories separately exist. Neutral monism, later developed by people such as William James (1842-1910) as a midpoint between materialism and idealism, holds that the one category of being, in which all real individual things or substances are found, is neither mental nor material but neutral. The three types of attributive monism have offered their respective positions to the debate in the philosophy of mind.
The concept of monism is often confounded with pantheism, the religious and philosophical view that everything within the universe is of an all-encompassing immanent God, or that the universe and God are even equivalent. Indeed, pantheism resembles monism, in so far as it reduces the physical universe to a singular principle. "Pantheists are 'monists'," therefore, as H. P. Owen puts it as a well established interpretation. However, pantheism and monism are to be distinguished from each other, for while pantheists insist that the essence that underlies the universe is exclusively divine, some monistic explanations are able to reduce all particulars to a principle that is not divine, as in the case of materialism. Thus, while pantheists are monists, not all monists are pantheists.
A closer examination shows, however, that not all pantheists are monists, either. Some pantheists may actually be pluralists, if they believe that God produces polychotomous emanations, which implicitly acknowledges that there are many kinds of things within the material world. Another form of pantheism, which is not monistic but pluralistic, would be the belief that the divine is only one of the many separate elements in the universe from the beginning, but that the divine becomes totally immanent in the other elements by animating them.
Numerous pre-Socratic philosophers described reality as monistic, in that they believed all things sprang from a single, primordial source. Some philosophers thought this substance was a natural principle, such as Thales (ca. 624 B.C.E.–ca. 546 B.C.E.)(who believed it to be water) and Anaximenes (who claimed it was air). For Heraclitus, the principle was fire, which he saw as representative of the general principle that everything is in constant flux. For Pythagoras, the monistic principle was based in the numerical relationship between mathematics and geometrical structure of the universe. Others hinted at even more abstract principles of oneness. For Leucippus of Miletus and his disciple, Democritus of Abdera, all of reality was based on atomic structure or lack thereof. Anaximander labeled his conception of the monistic principle as Apeiron (meaning "the unknown"), referring to the singular essence from which all reality is derived. This one thing, Anaximander contended, could never be known. Perhaps the most influential of these conceptions was that of Parmenides, who identified the idea of the "One." This "One" characterized the totality of reality: a perfect, unmoving sphere, which is unchanging, and wholly undivided. Parmenides was perhaps closer to substantival monism, while other pre-Socratics were attributive monists, leaning toward materialism.
These abstract conceptualizations of oneness would reemerge in the metaphysical structures of Plato and his contemporaries, although they were hardly monists. The Stoics, however, proclaimed that the universe proceeds from the evolution of an essential element in all things which they referred to as a "germ of reason." The germ of reason represented spirit and matter in absolute union, and all worldly particulars were derived from this entity and would return to it upon their destruction. Neoplatonists, particularly Plotinus, expounded upon this idea of oneness in a crypto-mystical context. Like Parmenides, Plotinus taught that there was a single, absolute unity that underlies all earthly forms and polarities, which he referred to as "The One." According to Plotinus, all realities such as the Divine Mind (Nous), the Cosmic Soul (Psyche), and the World (Cosmos) were merely various degrees of emanations from this One. Plotinus claimed that, while this One cannot be described, it can be experienced; thus, encountering the One became the ultimate goal of mystical endeavor, a trend that can be seen in numerous religio-mystical systems.
As was noted above, monism is of two types: substantival and attributive monism. Attributive monism has been further classified by modern writers into three types: idealism (or phenomenalism), materialism (or physicalism), and neutral monism.
Idealism (or phenomenalism) holds that only mind is real and that all particular forms are merely perceptions within the mind (ideas). Gottfried Leibniz reduced all material particulars in the whole world to one mental category, which is the category of "monads," indivisible, conscious units. George Berkeley, the so-called "father of idealism," claimed that perceptions are the only entities knowable with certainty. From here, he concluded that there can be no reality beyond what one perceives, thus affirming that nothing exists independent of the mind. The most noteworthy of the later proponents of this line of thought was Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1870-1931), who postulated that the divine mind reveals itself through spatial or temporal creation, specifically by making itself intelligible through human consciousness. This entity progresses in its existence through coming to know itself, a process that is aided through human intellectual development. Therefore, it follows that the absolute spirit is only available to human consciousness through rationality.
Materialism (or physicalism) asserts that everything, including mental activity, can be reduced to physical substrates. Thomas Hobbes was the first modern spokesperson for this theory, developing it in direct counterpoint to Descartes' popular dualism. Hobbes held that all entities, both living and non-living, consist of only one type of substance: physical matter. Hobbes considered the Cartesian notion of an incorporeal substance that exists separate from the physical to be incoherent, at best. In Hobbes' estimation, persons are not an admixture of spirit and corporeality, but rather corporeal beings alone. Thought and sensation, he claimed, are not activities of the spirit but rather the effect of external stimuli upon the sense organs.
Materialism has been far more common than idealism, and its variations building upon the work of Hobbes have been developed in the contemporary philosophy of mind. Functionalism, like materialism, holds that the mental can ultimately be reduced to the physical, but also asserts that all critical aspects of the mind are also reducible to some substrate-neutral "functional" level. Consequently, an entity does not necessarily need to be made out of neurons to have mental states. This is a popular stance in cognitive science and theories of artificial intelligence. Eliminativism, meanwhile, holds that talk of the mental is simply a fiction of folk psychology and will eventually be proved as unscientific and will be completely discarded. Just as we no longer follow the ancient Greeks who said that all matter is composed of earth, air, water, and fire, people of the future will no longer speak of "beliefs," "desires," and other mental states. A subcategory of eliminativism is radical behaviorism, a view made famous by psychologist B. F. Skinner. Another example of physicalism is anomalous monism, a position proposed by Donald Davidson in the 1970s, which holds that there is only physical matter, but, like neutral monism (see below), that all mental objects and events are perfectly real and are identical with some kind of physical matter. Here, physicalism retains a certain priority, as all mental things are considered physical but not all physical things are mental. Regardless, Davidson's view of monism was widely considered an advance over previous identity theories of mind and body because it did not suggest that one must be able to provide an actual method for describing any particular kind of mental entity in purely physical terms.
In between idealism and materialism exists neutral monism, which holds that the one category of being, of which all existence consists of, is in itself neither solely mental nor solely physical but capable of mental and physical aspects. It has been espoused by Austrian-Czech physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach (1838-1916), American pragmatist William James, and others. According to Mach, the experience of perception is both physical and psychological, depending upon the direction of investigation. According to James, mind and body are the names of two discernible functions within a more fundamental stuff called "pure experience," which is "the immediate flux of life which furnishes the material to our later reflection with its conceptual categories… a that which is not yet any definite what." More contemporary theories that follow this line of thought include reflexive monism, developed by Max Velmans in 2000, which attempts to resolve the difficulties associated with both dualist and reductionist agendas concerning consciousness, by viewing physical phenomena-as-perceived as being part of the contents of consciousness.
Spinoza's monism may look like neutral monism, because it considers reality as a whole to be one absolute substance, which can be perceived in two ways: either as God or as nature. In other words, this one absolute substance is neither spirit nor matter but possesses attributes of both. But, Spinoza's is not exactly neutral monism for two reasons: first, because it is substantival monism and not attributive monism; and second, because it does not reduce the two distinct yet inseparable aspects of mentality and materiality to each other, whereas neutral monism sees the neutral stuff as mental or physical, depending upon the direction of investigation. Hence, Spinoza's monism should be called a "dual aspect" theory or "dual-aspect" monism rather than neutral monism.
To the untrained interpreter, early Vedic Hinduism may appear to be polytheistic or henotheistic due to the sheer number of gods mentioned within the text. There is, however, a more monistic sentiment present. For example, the Rig Veda attests that "To what is One, sages give many a title," which suggests that early Hindus had some awareness of a unified reality underlying the worldly and cosmic multiplicity. Other parts of the Vedas also provide numerous suggestions as to what this monistic essence actually is, such as hiranya-garbha (the golden germ), Agni (the Vedic deity who represents fire, seen to be present within all things), purusha (the cosmic being) and the idea of Brahmaspiti (sacred utterance), which evolved into the central concept of Brahman (monistic Oneness) in the Upanishads and became the universally accepted monistic principle for the Hindu tradition. Brahman is considered to be the sum total of all that ever is, was, or ever will be, including the human soul, or Atman. Even the individual personal gods that have become so identifiable in both ancient and modern Hinduism are considered to be manifestations of this decidedly monistic concept.
Nevertheless, the first clearly explicated, absolute monistic system that developed in Hinduism was that of Shankara (c. 700-750 C.E.), an eighth-century Hindu mystic and philosopher. Shankara established the advaita (nondualist) system of Vedanta that had a significant impact on Hindu thought. Shankara declared that everything in the universe except for Brahman is essentially an illusion. This view of Brahman as the ontological ground of being resembles a variation of pantheistic thought that is often called acosmic pantheism (the belief that the absolute God makes up the totality of reality, with the universe representing something of a superimposed illusion). Therefore, all the particulars of the spatial and temporal world are only functions of Brahman, appearing only because of human ignorance to the fact they are all functions of the one Brahman.
Ramanuja (1017-1137), the famous philosopher saint of Vaishnava Hinduism, argued in favor of a qualified monism (visistadvaita), adding that souls, matter, and Isvara must also be counted as real but fully dependant on Brahman. His system affirmed the existence of a personal God in contrast to Shankara's impersonal view of Brahman.
Caitanya (1485-1533), another mystic saint of India, taught a form of monotheistic devotion to Krishna that also suggested a blending of monistic theism. For Caitanya, Krishna is the sole supreme entity in the universe, and all other conceptions of god are manifestations of Him, including the ineffable Brahman.
The concept of a personal omnipotent Supreme Being who is immanent is prevalent in modern Hinduism. Even the more overtly polytheistic sects of contemporary Hinduism, such as the Smarta school, are monistic or non-dualistic, conceiving of the various deities as heuristic devices by which to understand and connect with the one indescribable Brahman from which all is derived.
Nagarjuna, the Buddhist sage of the second or third century B.C.E., developed the concept of sunyata, which could possibly be taken as an expression of monism. Sunyata refers to a state of emptiness that an individual inherits upon attaining enlightenment. Specifically, this emptiness refers to the realization that all beings and natural phenomena, living or dead, are without any svabhava, or "self-nature." Thus, all particulars are without any underlying essence and are essentially empty of being. Therefore, Nagarjuna describes enlightenment as a stage in which reality can only be expressed by what it is not and what it does not contain. Since the entire universe is characterized by this emptiness, sunyata could be considered a variation of acosmic monism. Similarly, Zen Buddhism also stresses the fundamental emptiness of all things, although it (as a school) is far more concerned with praxis than with cosmological speculation. Both traditions possess monistic elements, though it is unlikely that either would use this terminology.
The concept of the Dao can be one of the best examples of a truly monistic belief. For Laozi, author of the Dao De Jing, the Dao is both the ground (the "mother") of all things and the principle of universal flux underlying all worldly transformations. All things are particular iterations of the Dao, from which they originate, and to which they later return. Also, it actively determines the correct functioning of the cosmos, as all action is patterned upon its transformations. However, the Dao can never be fully understood or defined since it transcends conceptualizations. It can only be subtly pursued by humans through effortless action (wu wei), a mode of being where individuals act in a natural, effortless way (thus mimicking the action of Dao in the world). The pervasive presence of the Dao in everything marks it as one of the most distinct examples of religious monism.
The Hebrew Bible attests that God is eternal (existing outside of time), and that God is immanent with, and simultaneously separate (transcendent) from, all created things. As such, this would overtly deny monism, as the omnipotence of God would allow him to be dualistically separate from any property. So, even when a monistic type of anthropology, which many scholars have found in the Hebrew Bible, seems to hold that soul and body are essentially tied together in the complete human person, and that if these elements are ever separated, the human being would cease to exist (a marked contrast to the dualistic Greek tradition), it does not deny the fundamental Jewish understanding of God as the transcendent and omnipotent creator.
But, the Jewish mystic sect known as Kabbalah describes God in terms that could be described as monistic. God, although he is the creator of spirit and matter, is constituted in neither substance for Kabbalists. In order to remedy the theological difficulties such an assertion creates, Kabbalists have come to acknowledge two aspects of God: God which is infinite and unknowable (Ein Sof), and God which is revealed as creator and sustainer of the universe and humanity. These two aspects of God complement each other through progressive emanation, as in the Plotinian conception of the One. Moses ben Jacob Cordovero (1522-1570), a Kabbalist theologian, suggested that all things are linked to God through these emanations, making all of existence part of God. Similarly, Schneur Zalman (1745-1812) held that God is all that really exists, and that from God's perspective, all particulars are completely undifferentiated. Such perspectives suggest that Kabbalah espouses a form of monism.
The distinct separation that is seen to exist between human beings and God in Islamic theology has led to staunch resistance among Muslims toward anything even implicitly monistic. However, several glaring exceptions have emerged from the tradition of Sufism (Islamic mysticism). Mansur Al-Hallaj (857-922) suggested a kind of monism in stating that the goal of mysticism was union with divine oneness. After a lifetime of mystical experiences, Al-Hallaj went so far as to claim that he had become divine himself, and was promptly executed by mainstream Muslims in Baghdad. Monism was developed more systematically in the writings of Spanish Sufi mystic Ibn Al-Arabi (1165-1240). After his mystical experiences, Al-Arabi preached that God is absolutely singular, and is identical to the entire span of reality, and that nothing exists other than God. According to Al-Arabi, the desire within this totality (also referred to as "Celestial Man") to know and become conscious leads to the creation of divine names such as Allah and later to a human incarnation in the person of Muhammad. Thus, the absolute oneness exists even above God and his prophet. The goal for human beings, Al-Arabi prescribed, was to reconnect with the absolute unity from which the universe was spawned. While Muslim authorities promptly discarded Al-Arabi’s teachings, they have nonetheless had a significant effect on subsequent Islamic mysticism.
Christianity has a long tradition of subscribing to a dualistic worldview, which acknowledges a rift between God and the world, and between the spiritual and the physical, as can be seen in the majority of influential Christian thinkers such as Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, and John Calvin. Thus, the monism of Valentinianism, a Gnostic doctrine most prevalent in the first century C.E., was naturally deemed to be heretical. Unlike many dualistic Gnostic traditions, Valentinianism had a fundamental monism at its core. The Valentinian God was more akin to an indescribable Neoplatonist monad than to the typical Christian conception of a transcendent yet personal entity. Valentinian sources regularly proclaim God to be fundamental to all things and consider the human perception of the material universe to be a misperception of God's fundamental, superior oneness. In many ways, Valentinianism was the prototype for Western idealistic monism.
The Christian tradition, however, has thinkers such as Irish theologian Johannes Scottus Eriugena (810-877) and German mystic Meister Eckhart (1260-c.1327), who did propound some monistic elements in their writings. Eriugena upheld the Plotinian idea of one ineffable God from which lower levels of reality originate, and to which they eventually return. He described God as incomprehensible not only to human cognition, but also to God’s own comprehension. Hence, Eriugena came to the conclusion that God's impetus for the creation of the cosmos was to manifest his own nature, which would have remained hidden had God not done so. These ideas influenced Meister Eckhart, who elaborated this concept of the One Absolute God, which he termed "Godhead." This God subsumes all physical being, while remaining completely transcendent. All of God's creation, therefore, is completely unified, and all beings, including humans, are identical with God. Thus, Eckhart's theology can be considered monistic, which is the primary reason that it has largely been discredited by mainstream Christianity.
As Christianity has progressed into contemporary times and become subject to philosophical critiques, difficulties with traditional Christian dualism have been identified. Some have implicated the God-world dualism in a similar separation between religious and secular life, which suggests that certain aspects of life are not related to God and Christian spirituality. Ministers and pastors have made claims that dualism, putting cerebralism on a pedestal, promotes quietistic intellectual endeavor over the life of the ordinary Christian. Meanwhile, it has also been felt that dualism actually undermines Christian orthopraxis. Thus, liberation theologians, for example, have accused dualism of sinking Christianity within an individualistic paradigm that has placed primacy upon the spiritual and denied the importance of the material and social world, detracting from pursuits in social justice.
As a result, Christian theologians have been more and more willing to accept monistic worldviews in recent times. These scholars present not only a nondualistic Christian anthropology of soul and body that is rooted within the Hebrew Bible, but also a monistic sentiment that is found in passages such as Colossians 1.16-17, where Saint Paul writes: "For by him all things were created…. And he is before all things and in him all things consist." This passage seems to imply that Christ is the single substance to which the entirety of the universe can be reduced.
Despite the challenges posed by Valentinianism, Scottus Eriugena, Eckhart, liberation theology, and reformist theology, however, these monistic themes are still a very marginal component of the overall Christian tradition.
The problem of evil is typically a theistic problem, when it asks about the apparent contradiction between the existence of evil in the world and the God of classical theism who is transcendent, omnipotent, and perfectly good. Monism, which reduces the whole of reality to one substance or one category, does not usually believe in such a God. Therefore, the problem of evil is not a problem for monists. They have their own ways of explaining evil. Although those ways are quite diverse, they all more or less commonly believe that evil will no longer be evil, if looked at from an all-inclusive perspective of monism.
Substantival monists such as Baruch Spinoza and many Hindus and Buddhists, who equate the universe with the divine in terms of one substance, reject the theistic notion of God. So, the problem of evil is not pertinent to them. For them, evil is merely an "illusion," which results from a lack of adequate knowledge of the all-inclusive Unity.
Among attributive monists, there are materialists, who reject the theistic notion of God, by reducing the whole of reality to the one category of matter. For them too, therefore, there is no problem of evil. There is really no evil in the materialist world. So-called natural evil is simply a natural phenomenon. For example, the eruption of a volcano is just a firework. Even what is called moral evil, which involves human beings, can be reduced to heaps of matter, although the heaps of matter in this case would be a bit more complex than in case of nonhuman phenomena.
At the other edge of the spectrum of attributive monism is idealism, which reduces the whole of reality to one mental category. For idealists such as Gottfried Leibniz, that basic, mental category is the category of conscious monads. Evil in the world can be explained within that mental category God arranged. For Leibniz, therefore, although God may be a God of omnipotence and perfect goodness, evil does not contradict such a God. The problem of evil can be evaded, by saying that evil exists for the best because God created this world of phenomena as "the best of all possible worlds." A world with no evil would not be as good as this world with evil. What we perceive to be evil in this world can even create greater good which we may be able to see only from God's viewpoint. Subject idealist George Berkeley goes even further, by saying that because there is no reality beyond the human mind's perceptions caused by God the infinite Mind, there is no evil reality, either. For Berkeley, although matter is the source of evil, nevertheless as long as matter has no reality, evil has no reality, either. So, even the appearance of evil experienced from a smaller, material perspective, may turn out to be good, when looked at from a larger, spiritual perspective: "we shall be forced to acknowledge that those particular things which, considered in themselves, appear to be evil, have the nature of good, when considered as linked with the whole system of beings." The absolute idealism of Hegel does not see God as a personal God any longer, but it encourages us to see evil in the world from the divine viewpoint of the end of history, holding that evil is the motive force of dialectical development towards that end.
Even Jewish and Christian believers with a monistic tendency are inclined to hold that evil is no longer evil in the state of harmony between God and creation. Hence, according to Meister Eckhart, "Everything praises God. Darkness, privations, defects, and evil praise and bless God."
To some extent, monism is currently in vogue in philosophy and theology, as it is more and more commonly being seen as a philosophical ideal. In modernity, monism has drawn much of its appeal from criticisms of dualism, which has been implicated in the development of intellectualism, religious elitism, social injustices, and difficulties in the mind-body problem and the problem of evil. Monism has provided a unique means of addressing such problems and difficulties. Perhaps this contemporary popularity represents the sentiment that seems to have pervaded a variety of mystical traditions, such as those of Shankara, Meister Eckhart, the Jewish Kabbalah, and Ibn Al-Arabi, all of which describe the ultimate experience of divinity in terms of monistic union. In the philosophy of mind, none of the three types of attributive monism, of course, has been able to satisfactorily solve the mind-body problem yet; but, still efforts are continuously been made today to address that problem. A new, moderate kind of dual-aspect monism, which is different from the dual-aspect monism of Spinoza's strong, substantival monism, has been called for by people such as British scientist-theologian John Polkinghorne, who is not a monist nor a pantheist but rather a panentheist.
Monism is still a rather difficult alternative for people to choose especially in the West, because its emphasis on oneness seems to easily compromise various levels of distinction such as that between God and the world, between the spiritual and the physical, and between the myriad things encountered in the physical world. But, it can at least help us to explore a way to go beyond various difficulties incurred by traditional dualistic and pluralistic modes of thought and practice.
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