Hylozoism (Greek hyle, matter + zoe, life) is the philosophical doctrine that all matter possess life, or that all life is inseparable from matter. The English term “hylozoism” was introduced by Ralph Cudworth in 1678. Hylozoism is logically distinct both from early forms of animism, which personifies nature, and from panpsychism, which attributes some form of consciousness or sensation to all matter. Some of the ancient Greek philosophers perceived a form of life in all material objects. Thales taught that water was the primary substance and that all things were “full of gods;” Anaximenes of Miletus saw air as the universal animating principle; and Heraclitus taught that it as fire. The Stoics believed that a "world soul" informed all things in the world.
Neo-Pythagoreans and especially the Neo-Platonic school of Alexandria, accepted the Stoic concept of the world-soul, but gave priority to the soul as a spiritual principle emanating from God. The universe was perceived as a single organism, and life was imparted to all material beings from the one original source, God, with matter in the position farthest from God, and least perfect. This pantheistic concept of hylozoism was absorbed into medieval Jewish and Arabian philosophy, and reappeared in Christian countries during the Renaissance in the thought of nature philosophers such as Paracelsus, Cardanus, and Giordano Bruno. In the nineteenth century, developments in the biological sciences stimulated a new examination of the nature of life, which resulted in the development of scientific hylozoism. Ernst Heinrich Haeckel developed a materialist form of hylozoism which erased the distinction between living and non-living things, maintaining that they are, essentially, the same, and stipulating that they behave by a single set of laws.
Although there is a logical distinction between possessing soul (panpsychism) and possessing life (hylozoism), in practice this division is difficult to maintain, because the ancient hylozoists regarded aspects of the material universe and plant world not only as possessing life, but also as being more or less conscious. Whereas animism tends to view life as taking the form of discrete spirits, and panpsychism tends to refer to strictly philosophical views like that of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz or Baruch Spinoza, hylozoism refers largely to views such as those of the earliest Greek philosophers (sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E.). Certain of these treated the magnet as alive because of its attractive powers (Thales), or air as "divine" (Anaximenes), perhaps because of its apparently spontaneous power of movement, or because of its role as essential for life in animals. Later this primitive hylozoism reappeared in modified forms. Some scholars have since claimed that hylozoism should properly be used only where body and soul are explicitly distinguished, the distinction then being rejected as invalid. Nevertheless, hylozoism remains logically distinct both from early forms of animism, which personify nature, and from panpsychism, which attributes some form of consciousness or sensation to all matter.
Some of the ancient Greek philosophers taught a form of hylozoism when they conceived of elemental matter as being in some sense animate, if not actually conscious and cognitive (tending to willful action). They perceived a form of life in all material objects. Thales taught that water was the primary substance and that all things were “full of gods;” Anaximenes saw air as the universal animating principle; and Heraclitus taught that it as fire. The Stoics believed that a world soul informed all things in the world.
A possible source for the Greek hylozoists was the Iranian philosopher Zarathushtra, founder of the religion of Zoroastrianism and an early proponent of pantheism, though the religion he founded later diversified to also include a variety of dualisms. It is also possible that the Greek concepts of hylozoism were a natural consequence of the human tendency to interpret other existences in terms of human experiences and feelings.
These ancient philosophies did not necessarily hold that material objects had separate life or identity, but only that they had life, either as part of an overriding entity or as living but insensible entities. Strato of Lampsacus, the second successor of Aristotle, espoused a kind of materialistic hylozoism. Though Strato repudiated the mechanicism of the Atomists, he reduced all reality to physical matter, and explained life as movement, a property of matter. The Stoics taught that material bodies are made up of two principles, a passive principle, matter, and an active principle, form; but that form itself was corporeal, composed of pneuma (vapor) or pyr technikon (creative fire, or God).
Neo-Pythagoreans and especially the Neo-Platonic school of Alexandria, accepted the Stoic concept of the world-soul, but gave priority to the soul as a spiritual principle emanating from God, and placed matter in the position farthest from God, and least perfect. The universe was perceived as a single organism, and life was imparted to all material beings from the one original source, God. This pantheistic concept of hylozoism was absorbed into medieval Jewish and Arabian philosophy, and reappeared in Christian countries during the Renaissance in the thought of nature philosophers such as Paracelsus, Cardanus, and Giordano Bruno.
During the Renaissance, Bernardino Telesio, Paracelsus, Cardanus, and Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) revived the concept of hylozoism. Giordano Bruno held that God is the source, cause, medium, and end of all things, and therefore all things are participatory in the ongoing Godhead. Bruno's ideas were rejected by the Roman Catholic Church; he was excommunicated by several Protestant groups, and eventually burned at the stake as a heretic by the Inquisition. Telesio, through an empirical analysis of sensual data, came to believe that a living force was what informed all matter and that each separate thing develops in and for itself in accordance with its own nature. Since consciousness exists, and could not have been developed out of nothing, he concluded that matter also must have been from the first endowed with consciousness.
The word “hylozoism” was coined in the seventeenth century by Ralph Cudworth (the Younger, 1617-1688), a Cambridge Platonist, who with Henry More reconciled Platonic idealism with Christian doctrines of deific generation and came to see the divine life force as the informing principle in the world. They saw God's generative impulse as giving life to all things that exist, and characterized it as a “plastic nature,” an unconscious, incorporeal substance that controls and organizes matter (somewhat like a plant soul in vegetation) and thus produces natural events as a divine instrument of change. Cudworth, the most systematic metaphysician of the Cambridge Platonist tradition, critiqued what he took to be the two principal forms of atheism, materialism and “hylozoism.” Cudworth singled out Thomas Hobbes not only as a defender of the hylozoic atheism "which attributes life to matter," but also as one who defended "hylopathian atheism, which attributes all to matter." Cudworth attempted to show that Hobbes had revived the doctrines of Protagoras and was therefore subject to the criticisms which Plato had deployed against Protagoras in the Theaetetus. He also launched an attack on the hylozoism of Strato. Cudworth had received reports from friends in the Netherlands of the views which Spinoza was circulating in manuscript, and remarked in his Preface that he would have ignored hylozoism had he not been aware that a new version of it would shortly be published.
Spinoza's idealism also tends toward hylozoism. Seeking a balance between matter and mind, Spinoza combined materialistic with pantheistic hylozoism, reducing both matter and mind to mere attributes of one infinite substance. Although he specifically rejected identity in inorganic matter, he, like the Cambridge Platonists, perceived a life force within, as well as beyond, all matter.
Leibniz, resolving matter into spirit, looked on bodies as aggregates of simple, unextended substances, or monads, endowed with elementary perception and will. On the contrary, a group of French writers in the eighteenth century, including Diderot, Cabanis, and Robinet, adhered to a dynamico-materialistic view of the world which recalls that of Strato.
Denis Diderot, Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis, and J.B. Robinet, eighteenth century Encyclopaedists, espoused a dynamic, materialistic view of nature (not unlike that of Strato), which treated life as an attribute of matter, and which was later adapted by nineteenth century evolutionist philosophers. Immanuel Kant developed cogent arguments against hylozoism in the third chapter of his Metaphysische Anfangsgründe der Naturwissenschaften (First Metaphysical Principles of Natural Science, 1786) and also in his famous, Kritik der reinen Vernunft (Critique of Pure Reason, 1783).
In the nineteenth century, developments in the biological sciences stimulated a new examination of the nature of life, which resulted in the development of scientific hylozoism. In reaction to a purely mechanistic view of the world, Spencer, Lotze, and Haeckel developed the concept of a unifying life force which animated all of nature.
Ernst Heinrich Haeckel developed a materialist form of hylozoism, specially against Virchow's and Helmholtz's mechanical views of humans and nature. In his Die Welträtsel of 1899 (The Riddle of the Universe 1901), Haeckel upheld a unity of organic and inorganic nature and derived all actions of both types of matter from natural causes and laws. His form of hylozoism erased the distinction between living and non-living things, maintaining that they are, essentially, the same, and stipulating that they behave by a single set of laws.
Martin Buber (1878–1965), too, took an approach that is quasi-hylozoic. By maintaining that the essence of things is identifiable and separate, although not preexisting, he was able to see a soul within each thing.
The Argentine-German neurobiological tradition uses the term hylozoic hiatus to refer to all of the parts of nature which can only behave lawfully or nomically. These parts of nature are described as “extramental,” or lying outside of and amid “minds,” which are the aspects of nature deemed capable of behaving semoviently (in a way that inaugurates new causal series). In this contemporary neurobiological tradition, hylozoism is restricted to the portions of nature behaving nomically inside the minds, namely the minds' sensory reactions (Christfried Jakob's "sensory intonations") to the stimuli coming from the “hylozoic hiatus” or “extramental” realm.
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