All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated


MONISM is a term applied to a group of thinkers or to philosophical systems that emphasize the oneness or unity of reality. Thinkers ordinarily regarded as monists do not themselves use this label, and do not refer to an agreed-upon monistic model. Unlike philosophical systems such as Platonism or Daoism, however, examples of monism cannot be identified by means of an accepted source or criterion. Moreover, in contrast to philosophical schools of thought such as pragmatism or existentialism, monism lacks an identifiable point of origin and a historical framework. In this respect, monism is a conceptual label, like idealism, realism, or determinism. It might be more appropriate to use only the adjectival form: thus, rather than regard a philosophical system as an example of monism, we should understand that, in a variety of ways, philosophical and religious systems are more or less monistic. In view of the arguable character of monism, perhaps the most useful task of the present essay would be to establish one or more definite examples of a monistic system and to abstract from such examples the specific features that render them monistic.

Philosophies frequently regarded as monistic are found in both Asian and Western traditions and are rather evenly distributed among ancient, modern, and contemporary sustems. Many philosophical systems ordinarily regarded as monistic are influenced by mystical experience. Even though there are monistic systems that are not mystical, as well as mystical systems that are nonmonistic, there is a close affinity between monistic and mystical systems of thought. Most of the systems referred to in this article exhibit a mystical as much as a monistic emphasis. The decided influence of mysticism on monistic systems, as well as the considerable frequency with which mystical experience is expressed in a monistic system, would seem to be due to the unitive quality of the mystical experience itself. The great mystics, especially those of the Indian and Christian traditions, emphasize that their blissful experience of oneness with or in the divine renders all particulars insignificant, and in some cases, relatively unreal and illusory. This tendency of monistic thinking to favor unity and oneness at the expense of the particular has confined monism per se to a minority position in philosophy and religion, both Asian and Western. Even in India, ordinarily regarded as uniformly monistic in philosophic and religious outlook, the monistic system of Śakara (traditional dates 788820) is but one of several competing interpretations of the Hindu scriptures. Similarly, in the Western tradition, philosophical thinkers such as Plotinus (204270) and Spinoza (16321677), and others who espouse an unabashed monism, have proven unable to gain a dominant position in the tradition. Despite significant differences, Śakara, Plotinus, and Spinoza individually and collectively show the essential strength as well as the typical weaknesses of monism as a philosophical position.

Asian Traditions

Perhaps of all claimants to the label "monist," the paradigmatic system is that of the ninth-century mystic philosopher Śakara, who stands in the Indian tradition as the foremost interpreter of the ancient scriptures and the creator of an original philosophy of brahman, the Absolute, "one without a second." Śakara's advaita (nondual) system is one of several alternatives within Vendānta, the religious-philosophical tradition consisting in systematic exposition and speculation based on the Vedas (c. 800400 bce) and the Upaniads (c. 800400 bce), mystical and quasi-philosophical texts in the Sanskrit of the is (seers) of ancient India.

The dialectic between Śakara and his competitors, both Vedāntins and proponents of other Indian philosophical schools, has helped to establish Śakara's system as a model of monistic thinking. Because his sources are evident, because his arguments on behalf of an absolute oneness of reality are systematic, ingenious, and influential, and because his interpreters and opponents have shown his position to be committed to an unambiguous epistemological and metaphysical monism, Śakara serves, in Wittgenstein's terminology, as a "home base" for the "family resemblances" that monistic systems would seem to share. Whatever else monistic systems have in common, they all seem committed to a conception of reality that resembles Śakara's idea of brahman in its oneness and in its contrast to the unreal or less real particulars of the spatial and temporal world, all of which are, according to Śakara, ordinarily and erroneously experienced as separate from brahman.

Of the thirteen Upaniads that have survived and have been commented upon by sages such as Śakara, Rāmānuja, and Madhva, some tend toward theism, but most contain passages that have placed a definite monistic stamp on the Indian philosophical tradition. The Bhadārayaka and Chāndogya Upaniads offer some of the strongest texts for the monistic position:

Brahman indeed was this in the beginning. It knew itself only as "I am Brahman." Therefore it became all. Whoever among the gods became awakened to this, he, indeed, became that. Whoever knows thus, "I am Brahman," becomes this all. (Bhadārayaka Upaniad 1.4.10)

Verily, this whole world is Brahman, from which he comes forth, without which he will be dissolved and in which he breathes. (Chāndogya Upaniad 14.1.1)

According to Śakara, the concept of brahman in the Upaniads teaches that all particulars of the spatial or temporal worldall objects, thoughts, spirits, and gods (since gods are temporal, they are less than brahman )are real only with respect to, only by virtue of being one with, brahman. Particulars that appear real to the observer independent of brahman do so because of an all-pervasive ignorance (avidyā ). Although the universal self and God (in whatever form, by whatever name) is brahman, the ignorant perceiver, or believer, habitually regards these and lesser entities, or appearances, as independent realities.

Śakara follows the Upaniads in distinguishing two aspects of brahman, namely, nirgua (indeterminate) and sagua (determinate), and identifies Īśvara (God) as the personification of sagua brahman. In itself, (nirgua ) brahman is beyond qualitiesnot only beyond description, but beyond any specificity, including the temporal nature of God. Sagua brahman, which includes everything that is not brahman per sefrom the most ephemeral entity or musing to the most perfect concept of Godissues from brahman, has its reality by virtue of brahman, and in the end is gathered into brahman. Or rather, sagua brahman in all of its multiplicity is finallyor once againrealized as the one indivisible (nirgua ) brahman, which it never ceased to be even though it most assuredly appeared to be separate from (nirgua ) brahman. That is, sagua brahman appeared real as sagua (having qualities, particularized, pluralized) even while its true identity as nirgua brahman ("one without a second") was hidden not only from human consciousness but, presumably, even from higher beings and perhaps from God as well. Obviously, the terrible burden (or flaw) of a system that is so strongly on the side of oneness is to establish a degree of reality for particulars, which range from fleeting moments to God the creator of the universe.

The most effective alternative interpretation to Śakara was provided by the South Indian philosopher-saint Rāmānuja (c. 10171137), who argued that the level below brahman must also be counted as real. Rāmānuja's position is within Vedānta, but it is closer to traditional theism as developed in the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. Rāmānuja's criticism of Śakara's advaitist (nondual) conception of brahman, however, does not lead him to deny either the nirgua brahman or Śakara's contention that the reality of sagua brahman is entirely dependent on nirgua brahman. In this respect, Rāmānuja's position is closer to that of a theist who affirms, in addition to a God involved in the world, a conception of God or godhead that is beyond and ultimately unaffected by the temporal experiences of God and humanity.

The twentieth-century philosopher-statesman Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (18881975) tried to combine the merits of Śakara's absolute nondualism and Rāmānuja's qualified nondualism by attempting to reconcile, in a polar relationship, the two natures of brahman absolutely one and beyond, on the one side, and pluralistic and particular on the other. It must be admitted that Radhakrishnan's view is very close to that of Śakara except that he forcefully affirms the reality of the world. As he notes in his semiautiobiographical essay The Religion of the Spirit and the World's Need: Fragments of a Confession (1952), his intent is to "save the world and give it a real meaning"; it is brahman that gives the world its true meaning, but only if brahman is understood in a positive relation to the world.

Radhakrishnan's metaphysics shows the influence of both Plotinus's description of the One/Intellect (nous )/Soul/World and Whitehead's conception of the divine in process:

[The Taittirīya Upaniad ] affirms that Brahman on which all else depends, to which all existences aspire, Brahman which is sufficient to itself, aspiring to no other, without any need, is the source of all other beings, the intellectual principle, the perceiving mind, life and body. It is the principle which unifies the world of the physicist, the biologist, the psychologist, the logician, the moralist and the artist. (Radharkrishnan, 1953, p. 59)

We have (1) the Absolute, (2) God as a Creative power, (3) God immanent in this world. These are not to be regarded as separate entities. They are arranged in this order because there is a logical priority. The Absolute must be there with all its possibilities before the Divine Creativity can choose one. The divine choice must be there before there can be the Divine immanent in this world. This is a logical succession and not a temporal one. The world-spirit must be there before there can be the world. We thus get the four poises or statuses of reality, (1) the Absolute, Brahman, (2) the Creative Spirit, Īśvara, (3) the World-Spirit, Hiranyagarbha, and (4) the World. This is the way in which the Hindu thinkers interpret the integral nature of the Supreme Reality. (ibid., p. 65)

In his attempt to articulate the integral nature of the Supreme Reality, Radhakrishnan argues that brahman includes Īśvara, and Īśvara is the concrete manifestation of brahman: "There is nothing else than the Absolute which is the presupposition of all else. The central mystery is that of Being itself. We should not think that emphasis on Being overlooks the fact of Becoming" (intro. The Brahma Sutra, New York, 1960, p. 119). This fact of becoming is none other than sagua brahman or Isvra: "The Absolute is a living reality with a creative urge. When this aspect is stressed, the Absolute becomes a Personal God, Īśvara" (ibid., p. 126). Īśvara is not something other than or in addition to brahman; Īśvara is brahman itself: "The creative thought 'let me be many' belongs to Brahman. It is not simply imagined in him. The energy that manifests itself in Brahman is one with and different from Brahman" (ibid., p. 142).

Despite Radhakrishnan's determination to reconcile Śakara's conception of the brahman with the reality and value of the world, he nevertheless admits, with the Upaniads and Śakara, that the absolute oneness of (nirgua ) brahman is unaffected by God and creation:

So far as the Absolute is concerned, the creation of the world makes no difference to it. It cannot add anything to or take anything from the Absolute. All the sources of its being are found within itself. The world of change does not disturb the perfection of the Absolute. (Radhakrishnan, in Muirhead, 1958, p. 502)

It is possible to find in some of the Buddhist schools metaphysical and epistemological teachings that seem to be examples of monism, though if one keeps in mind the aim of all Buddhist teachingto attain enlightenment, nirvāa (eternal peace), or Buddhahoodsuch teachings will be seen to be only incidentally and superficially monistic. The concept of śūnya or śūnyatā as developed by Nāgārjuna (second or third century bce) offers a vivid example of the way in which Buddhist teaching can be, though perhaps should not be, interpreted monistically. Zen Buddhism (or, in Chinese, Chan Buddhism) offers a second, equally ambiguous example of apparent monism. In both cases, as in the Buddhist tradition generallyto the extent that any generalization can be made accurately for the full variety of Buddhist teachingsthe monism affirmed is intended primarily as a mere philosophical or conceptual stage on the way to an enlightenment experience concerning which no statements can be stable or adequate. According to Nāgārjuna, absolute reality can be positively experienced but only negatively expressed: "There is no death, no birth, no destruction, no persistence, no oneness, no manyness, no coming, no departing" (Madhya-makakārikā 1).

D. T. Suzuki (18701966), the prolific interpreter of Mahāyāna Buddhism and exponent of Zen Buddhism in the West, offers a more explicit account of the paradoxical character of the extent to which Zen mayand may notbe regarded as monistic:

We may say that Christianity is monotheistic, and the Vedānta [the dominant school of Indian philosophy, based on the Upaniads] pantheistic; but we cannot make a similar assertion about Zen. Zen is neither monotheistic nor pantheistic; Zen defies all such designations. Hence there is no object upon which to fix the thought. Zen is a wafting cloud in the sky. No screw fastens it, no string holds it; it moves as it lists. No amount of meditation will help Zen in one place. Meditation is not Zen. Neither pantheism nor monotheism provides Zen with its subjects of concentration. Zen wants to have one's mind free and unobstructed; even the idea of oneness or allness is a stumbling block and a strangling snare which threatens the original freedom of the spirit. (Suzuki, 1974, p. 40)

The Mādhyamika (Middle Way) of Nāgārjuna and Zen Buddhism share with monistic philosophies a systematic and highly effective assault on the apparent self-sufficiency and presumed reality of all particulars, but as expressions of Buddhist spiritual wisdom, they move beyond the monistic consequence of this assault to the silence of enlightenment.

In the Chinese tradition, particularly in the writings of Laozi (traditionally, sixth century bce?) and Zhuangzi (latter fourth to early third century bce), the illusive but uniquely formative concept of the Dao performs a function similar to the concept of śūnyatā in Mādhyamika Buddhism. According to the Dao de jing (The Way and Its Power ), the poetic-philosophical text attributed to Laozi but in actuality compiled by his followers in approximately the early fourth century bce, the Dao is the unity and the creative principle underlying all particulars. In contrast to an absolute monism such as defended by Śakara, the Daoism of Laozi and Zhuangzi does not threaten, and in fact celebrates, the reality and value of particulars. Space and time, persons and nature, life and death, and all shades of being and becoming arise in and return to the Dao. But the Dao is not a principle or concept to be thought; it is a mysterious, ineffable reality to be experiencedand to the extent experienced, expressed only indirectly and inadequately. The Dao cannot be grasped or defined, but it can be received and hinted at by artful, seemingly effortless, action. The Dao is above concepts, above either being or nonbeing, and yet it runs through all realities named by concepts. It is the One behind the manybut not the One that can be named, thought, or delineated. Like the butterfly, which ceases to be itself when caught and mounted, human attempts to catch the Dao can catch expressions of the Dao, but not the Dao itself.

Western Tradition

There are perhaps a dozen thinkers spread throughout the history of Western thought who would likely be included in any survey of monistic systems. Among the ancient Greeks, probable candidates include Parmenides for his enigmatic but highly influential definition of reality as One. If monism were to be regarded as a theory of one kind of reality (as distinct from the more usual conception of monism as defining reality as singular), Democritus would be included for his definition of reality as consisting in atoms. Plotinus, the Neoplatonic mystic of the third century, articulated a philosophy of the One that stands as an obvious model of monistic thinking in the history of Western philosophy. The Christian period is steadfastly theisticthat is, maintaining a real separation between creator and creationwith the notable exceptions of the ninth-century Irish theologian John Scottus Eriugena and the fourteenth-century Rhineland mystic Meister Eckhart.

In Judaic and Muslim thought, orthodox theism and its attendant resistance to monism proved effective except for Ibn ʿArabī, the thirteenth-century Spanish ūfī Muslim, who taught that God, or reality, is absolutely singular, and that the human soul is indistinguishable from God. It is important for anyone unfamiliar with Islamic thought to understand that the Muslim thinkers of the Middle Ages were using the same philosophical sourcesprimarily Plato and the Neoplatonistsas were medieval Jewish and Christian thinkers. Obviously, thinkers in each of these three religious and cultural traditions also drew fromand in turn influencedtheir respective religious traditions. In the case of Ibn ʿArabī, his Muslim experience took the form of mysticism known as ūfism. As R. C. Zaehner notes: "The introduction of Neoplatonic ideas into ūfism from philosophy was, of course, made much of by Ibn al ʿArabī who systematized them into something very like Śakara's version of the Vedānta" (Hindu and Muslim Mysticism, New York, 1969, p. 174). Although Ibn ʿArabī's system is generally regarded as heretical by orthodox Muslims, his writingsperhaps because of his vast erudition and manifest saintlinesswere influential on subsequent Muslim and Christian thinkers.

In the modern period the two most important monistic philosophers have been the seventeenth-century Sefardic Jew Barukh Spinoza, who defines reality as one substance, calling it either God or Nature, and the nineteenth-century German idealist G. W. F. Hegel, whose concept of the Absolute continues to hold its place in the modern West as the dominant monistic philosophical system. Within the present century there are at least four philosophers, all American or British, who have extended the Hegelian, or absolute idealist, variety of monistic philosophy: Josiah Royce and F. H. Bradley, who wrote at the turn of the century, and W. T. Stace and J. N. Findlay, both Hegel scholars and metaphysicians who wrote at midcentury.

Virtually all of these philosophers, religious thinkers, and mystics, as well as others who could be added to the list, can be understood as a variation or subset of one of the following five influential figures: Plotinus, Eriugena, Eckhart, Spinoza, and Hegel.

Plotinus (c. 205270), the last great thinker of antiquity, combined a profound knowledge of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics with an equally profound mystical experience of absolute oneness. Although Plotinus thought that he was faithfully interpreting the philosophy of Plato, he is rightly credited with founding a new school of philosophy, that is, Neoplatonism. Moreover, although Plotinus's writings, and therefore the tenets of Neoplatonism of which he was the first and greatest exponent, were neither influenced by Christian teachings nor read by medieval Christian theologians, nevertheless they exercised a significant influence on Christian thinking indirectly through Augustine (354430) and Dionysius the Areopagite (fl. c. 500). By the time Plotinus's Enneads were rediscovered by Marsilio Ficino, the fifteenth-century head of the Platonic Academy of Florence, Meister Eckhart (12601327?) had articulated a novel monistic system, fashioned equally by Neoplatonism and by his spiritual life and thought as a German Dominican monk. The Neoplatonicor Plotiniancast of Eckhart's mystical monism accounts for its distinctiveness and for his difficulties with defenders of orthodox Christian theism. A close look at Plotinus's idea of the One will show both its affinities and its ultimate incompatibility with Christian doctrine; not surprisingly, Eckhart's use of Neoplatonic monism led his writings to be censored as heretical.

Plotinus's concept of the One is comparable to, and in part derived from, the absolute One of Parmenides, the Good of Plato's Republic, Aristotle's First Cause, and the immanent God of the Stoics. In affirming the absoluteness and transcendence of the One, however, Plotinus is speaking from a compelling mystical experience of Unity. Throughout the Enneads, which Plotinus's student Porphyry arranged in six sets of nine treatises each (Gr., ennea, "nine"), all of his references to the One, particularly those in the final tractate (6.9), "On the Good, or the One," emphasize that the One cannot be described or characterized, but can only be pointed to as the ineffable source and goal of mystical experience. In terms comparable to the Upaniadic concept of brahman though with a greater affirmation of the value and beauty of the individual soul and the physical worldPlotinus conceives of the One as the absolute unity and harmony underlying all particularity and all polarities. The One is the source of the other two principles, or levels, of reality, both of which exist within the One and share completely in its divinity. But the One is not less absolute for their existence. Since the second and third principles, Mind or Intellect (nous ) and Soul, are also real (though not absolute in their own right), it is not easy, as Plotinus admits, to state in what the One, or the Unity, consists. Unity can be experienced, but not described. Plotinus tells us:

We are in search of unity; we are to come to know the principle of all, the Good and First; therefore we may not stand away from the realm of Firsts and lie prostrate among the lasts: we must strike for those Firsts, rising form things of sense which are the lasts. Cleared of all evil in our intention towards The Good, we must ascend to the Principle within ourselves; from many, we must become one; only so do we attain to knowledge of that which is Principle and Unity. The Unity, then, is not Intellectual-Principle but something higher still: Intellectual-Principle is still a being but that First is no being but precedent to all Being: it cannot be a being, for a being has what we may call the shape of its reality but The Unity is without shape, even shape Intellectual. (Enneads 6.9.3)

In this tractate, Plotinus continues with a series of negative definitions: the One is not merely the Good, nor merely Mind, nor Soul, but is the indivisible source and perfect goal of all of these limited realities. While all characterizations of the One must be negative, experience of the One cannot but be overwhelmingly positive. This experience is more than an intuition or a vision; it is "a unity apprehended":

The man formed by this mingling with the Supreme mustif he only remembercarry its image impressed upon him: he is become the Unity, nothing within him or without inducing any diversity; no movement now, no passion, no outlooking desire, once this ascent is achieved; reasoning is in abeyance and all Intellection and even, to dare the word, the very self: caught away, filled with God, he has in perfect stillness attained isolation; all the being calmed, he turns neither to this side nor to that, not even inwards to himself; utterly resting he has become very rest. (ibid., 6.9.11)

As this passage shows, it is difficult to separate the mystical from the philosophical assertions in Plotinus's philosophy, and in this respect, although he was not a Christian, Plotinus stands at the head of a line of Christian mystical philosopher-theologians for whom the concept of God, or the Absolute, is equally the object of mystical experience and philosophical reflection.

In his work On the Division of Nature, for example, the Irish theologian John Scottus Eriugena (810877) affirmed and extended several Plotinian tenets: the absolute ineffability of Goda concept expressed in Christian theological language almost identical to descriptions of the One of Plotinus; a dual process of emanation from, and return to, the One of lower stages of realitystages that also resemble those articulated in the Enneads. At the same time, Eriugena also used Christian ideas as developed by Dionysius the Areopagite and Gregory of Nyssa, both of whose works he translated from Greek to Latin. For Eriugena as for Plotinus, God or the One is not only beyond human thought, but equally beyond his own thought: God is incomprehensible even to himself because in his oneness he does not think at all. In fact, the reason for creation, which is accomplished through his ideas (nous in Plotinus's system, the divine attributes in Eriugena's), is to manifest the otherwise absolute and eternally hidden nature of God. Thus, the God of Eriugena is virtually identical to the One of Plotinus in that he (or it, in view of its absolute and transpersonal nature) is the source of being and knowledge but absolutely transcends both.

Meister Eckhart (12601327?) drew from Eriugena, and through him from Plotinus and early Neoplatonic Christian thinkers. He developed a concept of the Absolute, or God, that he called godhead, from the two points of view developed by Plotinus and Eriugena and comparable to the unqualified (nirgua ) and qualified (sagua ) dual conception of brahman in Advaita Vedānta. According to Eckhart, God is Being per se, or all that is, but is also inexplicably above and beyond Being, totally other and absolutely one. Existence or Being can be seen from two points of view, as the mysterious source of being and as being (or creation) itself, but ultimately there is only one existence. This affirmation of absolute unity of being, on the one hand, and on the other, the idea that all beings, including the human soul, are none other than God or Being from the perspective of creation, shows why Eckhart's teaching was regarded as too monist not to be at odds with orthodox Christianity. Eckhart's conception of the unity of God follows Eriugena's negative characterization of God and resembles Nāgārjuna's conception of the ultimate as śūnyatā, emptiness or nonbeing. Clearly, there is a point in the monist position at which the absolute fullness and the absolute emptiness of being appear to be indistinguishablethey are equally true and equally inadequate ways of expressing the absolute otherness of the One, the ultimate ineffable source of all particularity.

The same need to see the Absolute from two perspectivesas it is in itself and as it is from the perspective of creationrecurs in the metaphysical system of Barukh Spinoza (16321677), according to which the Absolute is referred to as Substance, God, or Nature. These three terms are declared to be perfectly synonymous, infinite, and absolutely necessary: "God, or substance, consisting of infinite attributes, of which each expresses eternal and infinite essentiality, necessarily exists" (Proposition 11). God (or Substance or Nature) manifests itself through an infinity of attributes, two of which, thought and extension (or ideas and bodies), are intelligible to man and constitutive of his experience. These two attributes, which are capable of infinite combinations, are related to each other (in contradistinction to Descartes's dualism of mind and body) through their common source in one divine Substance. Spinoza's solution to the Cartesian dualism, however, generates the same problem that attends all monistic systemsthe difficulty in establishing the reality of particulars, which Spinoza refers to as modes, within the one indivisible Substance. Although Spinoza may be thought to have generated his metaphysics from a religious or mystical impulse, his conception of the divine as impersonal and absolutely necessary was clearly not influenced (except perhaps negatively) by either Jewish or Christian theological orthodoxy.

In conceiving of the world as God's manifestation of himself within his inviolable unity, Spinoza is in general agreement with other absolute monists like Advaita Vedānta (of the Upaniads and Śakara), Plotinus, Eriugena, and Eckhart, but he is unique in attributing absolute determinism to the divine substance. On this point Spinoza is rigorously consistent even if his terminology gives the impression of inconsistency or paradox: he refers to the necessity of the divine Substance as both freedom and determinism because God is free to do what is required by his nature. God is free because of what he isor because of the necessity which is the essential character of his existence. Since only God must be, and must be what He is, only God is free. Further, all of God's attributes and modes are what they are necessarily as part of God's essence. Without violating its unity and necessity, one can conceive of God, or Nature in polar terms, as the creator, or natura naturans ("Nature naturing"), and as creation, natura naturata ("Nature natured"), which consists in the infinite combinations of attributes and modes of the one divine Substance, God, or Nature. Within this Substance, all things that exist do so, and do so in the way that they do, because they are not other than God, and God's nature is absolutely necessary.

In the conclusion of Ethics Spinoza asserts that this Substancewhich, it must be remembered, is the one and only reality regardless of how plural and diverse it appears to a human perspectivecan be known by the third or highest form of knowledge, the intellectual love of God. This love, which is knowledge of a particular in relation to its divine cause (or divine nature), is in effect a direct knowledge of God, or Nature, in its infinity, eternality, and necessity. In this discussion of the intellectual love of God, which occurs in part 5 of Ethics, "Of Human Freedom," Spinoza's monistic conception of Substance (God or Nature) reveals a reverence and a personal experiential depth that would appear to be mystical even if not religious in the usual sense. While the overall force of Ethics would seem to represent an atheistic monism that allows no room for the God of Western religion, the profoundly mystical love of divine necessity, which is the goal and perhaps the source of Spinoza's entire system, would seem to justify Novalis's often-quoted reference to him as "a God-intoxicated man." W. T. Stace holds to both of these interpretations and suggests that Spinoza "exhibited in himself the living paradox of being a God-intoxicated atheist" (Mysticism and Philosophy, p. 217).

In that his philosophy of the absolute Spirit is the result of philosophical reflection rather than the product of his own mystical experience, G. W. F. Hegel is closer to Spinoza than to Plotinus or Eckhart. Hegel would also seem to resemble Spinoza in that his philosophy of the Absolute is an expression, however partial and indirect, of the experience and understanding of absolute Unity for which the great mystics, of both Asia and the West, are the primary source. In explaining the relation between mysticism and philosophy in Hegel, Frederick Copleston wisely remarks that Hegel was not a mystic and did not look to mysticism to solve the problems of philosophy, but rather "he saw in mysticism the intuitive grasp of a truth which it was the business of philosophy to understand and exhibit in a systematic manner" (Religion and the One, p. 135).

While Hegel's conception of the Absolute combines elements of many predecessors, including Plotinus, Eriugena, Eckhart, and Spinoza, in his original synthesis he introduces novel conceptions so as to create a uniquely profound and modern monistic philosophy. In terms similar to the conception of God in Eriugena or Eckhart, Hegel conceives of the absolute Spirit as revealing itself through spatial and temporal creation. For Hegel, however, the Absolute is neither empty nor so totally transcendent as to be characterized as nonbeing. Rather, the absolute Spirit of Hegel more closely resembles Spinoza's conception of Substance in that it is intelligible to human consciousness. In fact, it is through human rationality that the Absolute has its being: the Absolute exists through its self-knowing, which is none other than its being known through speculative philosophy. In this respect, Hegel's conception of absolute Spirit may be said to exhibit a radical temporality characteristic of process philosophy and other modern philosophical systems influenced by the theory of evolution. Spirit itself evolves through human consciousness, without which it cannot be said to be intelligibleor real, which comes to the same, according to Hegel's identification of the rational and the real.

Is Hegel's system, then, monistic? In what does his principle of unity, or oneness, consist? Since Hegel's system precludes univocal summations, two responses may fittingly be offered: in that the absolute Idea is single, rational, and the sole reality, Hegel's system clearly resembles monistic systems such as those of Plotinus, Eriugena, Eckhart, and Spinoza; since, however, the absolute Idea cannot be thought to exist in its own right as a full or finished reality separable from the process of human consciousness by which it knows itself, there is a sense in which the One in question, the absolute Idea, is equally plural and temporal. Absolute Spirit is there in the beginning, and without it, there would be no beginningbut it is equally the case that it comes to be, or comes into being, by being thoughtas all human reflection is advancing, or making real, the actual content of the divine Idea. In Hegel's view, his Phenomenology of Spirit was itself a significant contribution toward the self-realization of absolute Spirit.

Delineating the relationship between these two perspectivesabsolute Spirit as the one source of all and as the temporal-spatial processrequired thousands of torturous pages by Hegel and continues to produce countless volumes of interpretation by his followers and critics. While it might be possible to solve the problem of the one and the many in contemporary terms without recourse to Hegel, most of the important work on this problem in the present century is demonstrably traceable to one or another interpretation of the Hegelian system. The most promising effort would seem to be that of J. N. Findlay, whose Gifford Lectures, The Discipline of the Cave and The Transcendence of the Cave, given from 1964 to 1966, represent a reformulation, by phenomenological and dialectical methods, of problems first set forth by Plotinus and Hegel.


A survey of monistic systems ranges from the uncompromising Advaita ("nondual") Vedānta of Śakara to those thinkers, such as Radhakrishnan and Hegel, who have attempted to affirm the unity or oneness of reality without jeopardizing the reality or value of the many. In this regard, Radhakrishnan's response to, and restatement of, Śakara's conception of brahman "so as to save the world and give it a real meaning" would seem to be a telling critique of the absolute monist position: the stronger the affirmation of oneness, the more difficult it is to affirm particulars in their own right. Within the context of absolute unity, all particulars are relegated to a quasi reality. If all is brahman or Being, or the Absolute, or the One by any other namethen sticks and stones, civilizations and planets, ideas and gods must all share, and perhaps lose, their distinctive reality within the all-inclusive (or all-consuming) reality of the One.

Given the extent to which a monistic system jeopardizes the reality of the ordinary world, it is perhaps not surprising that it typically has drawn its inspiration from, and in turn lends its formulations to, mystical experience. The three most formidable monistic systemsthose of Śakara, Plotinus, and Spinozaare all dependent on mystical awareness, however rational may be their respective processes of articulation. In view of the monistic tendency to devalue the full range of particulars, it is understandable that throughout the history of Western thought, monism has been countered not only by orthodox theologies (of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) but equally by dominant philosophies. In Asia, and particularly in India, monism may appear to have enjoyed greater success historically, but most Asian thought systemsfor example, Confucianism in China, theism and Yoga in India, and various forms of Buddhism throughout Asiahave not been monistic. Further, the remarkable influence of Advaita Vedānta in India may be due as much to its apparent mystical source and hermeneutical power as to its philosophical argumentation. The monist affirmation of the One (in whatever terminology) may well be truer than the myriad religious and philosophical positions that hold to the reality of the many, but while the vast majority of religious thinkers and philosophers fall short of mystical insight, it seems probable that in the future of philosophy and religion monism will continue to be a strongly opposed minority position.

See Also

Dualism; Images; Neoplatonism; Pantheism and Panentheism; Transcendence and Immanence.


The most useful survey of monistic philosophies is Frederick Copleston's Gifford Lectures, 1980, published as Religion and the One: Philosophies East and West (New York, 1982). Although it is less focused on monism, Karl Jaspers's brilliant interpretive study, The Great Philosophers, 2 vols. (New York, 19621966), treats virtually all of the philosophical contributors to the monist position. Volume 2 is especially recommended for its chapters on Laozi and Nāgārjuna, Heraclitus and Parmenides, Plotinus, Nicholas of Cusa and Spinoza. W. T. Stace's Mysticism and Philosophy (Philadelphia, 1960) is a study of the implications of mysticism for philosophy, particularly monistic philosophies. Nine articles on the philosophy of mysticism are collected in The Monist 59 (October 1976). Surveys on monism and pantheism are to be found in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York, 1967) and Encyclopaedia Britannica (Chicago, 1968).

There are several virtually indistinguishable editions of the Upaniads, one of which is The Principal Upaniads, edited and translated by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (New York, 1953). Radhakrishnan's metaphysics is most fully articulated in An Idealist View of Life, 2d ed. (London, 1957); see also his "Spirit in Man," in Contemporary Indian Philosophy, edited by J. J. Muirhead (London, 1958). For a contemporary exposition and defense of Śakara's nondualist system, see Eliot Deutsch's Advaita Vedānta: A Philosophical Reconstruction (Honolulu, 1969). For Nāgārjuna and early (or Indian) Mahāyāna Buddhism, see especially Emptiness: A Study in Religious Meaning (New York, 1967), by Frederick J. Streng, and Nagarjuna: A Translation of His Mūlamadhhya-makakārikā with an Introductory Essay, translated and edited by Kenneth K. Inada (Tokyo, 1970). D. T. Suzuki's Introduction to Zen Buddhism (New York, 1974) is one of the many introductions and surveys he has written that are relevant for the paradoxically monistic character of Zen Buddhism; Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings of D. T. Suzuki, edited by William Barrett (Garden City, N.Y., 1956), is particularly useful. There are numerous translations of Laozi's Dao de jing and of the writings of Zhuangzi, including Wing-tsit Chan's The Way of Lao Tzu (Indianapolis, 1963), Burton Watson's Chuang-tzu: Basic Writings (New York, 1964), and Raymond M. Smullyan's The Dao Is Silent (New York, 1977).

The best translation of Plotinus's Enneads remains Stephan MacKenna's The Enneads, 3d ed. (New York, 1957). Selections from John Scottus Eriugena's De divisione naturae are reprinted in Selections from Medieval Philosophers, edited by Richard McKeon, vol. 1 (New York, 1930); in Medieval Philosophy, edited by Herman Shapiro (New York, 1964); and in Medieval Philosophy, edited by John F. Wippel and Allan B. Wolter (New York, 1969). There are several English-language translations of Meister Eckhart: James M. Clark and John V. Skinner's Meister Eckhart: Selected Treatises and Sermons (London, 1958); Raymond B. Blakney's Meister Eckhart: A Modern Translation (New York, 1941); Matthew Fox's Breakthrough: Meister Eckhart's Creation Spirituality (New York, 1980), with introduction and commentary; and a brilliant philosophical interpretation, Reiner Schürmann's Meister Eckhart, Mystic and Philosopher (Bloomington, Ind., 1978). The most scholarly and substantial interpretation of Ibn ʿArabī is Henry Corbin's Creative Imagination in the ūfism of Ibn ʿArabī (Princeton, 1969).

Spinoza's metaphysics is fully articulated in one volume, Ethics, volume 2 of The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza, translated by R. H. M. Elwes (New York, 1951). For Hegel, the indispensableand famously difficultvolume is The Phenomenology of Mind. The translation by J. B. Baillie (1910; rev. ed., New York, 1949) has been superseded by a far more readable edition: Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by A. V. Miller, with foreword and textual analysis by J. N. Findlay (Oxford, 1977). There are three important restatements of the Hegelian Absolute: Josiah Royce's The World and the Individual, 2 vols. (New York, 19011902), the Gifford Lectures, 19001901; Francis H. Bradley's Appearance and Reality: A Metaphysical Essay (1893; 2d rev. ed., Oxford, 1930); and J. N. Findlay's Gifford Lectures, 19641966, published in two volumes: The Discipline of the Cave (London, 1966) and The Transcendence of the Cave (London, 1967). Findlay's neo-Hegelianism, or (in his term) Neo-neo-Platonism, is further developed in his Ascent to the Absolute: Metaphysical Papers and Lectures (London, 1970) and is given a precise summation in Douglas P. Lackey's "An Examination of Findlay's Neoplatonism," The Monist 59 (October 1976): 563573.

New Sources

Cooper, John W. Body, Soul and Life Everlasting. 1989; rpt. Grand Rapids, Mich., 2000.

Curd, Patricia. The Legacy of Parmenides: Eleatic Monism and Later Presocratic Thought. Princeton, 1997.

Gasman, Daniel. "Haeckel's Monism and the Birth of Fascist Ideology." Studies in Modern European History, vol. 33. New York, 1998.

Kirby, David K. Sun Rises in the Evening: Monism and Quietism in Western Culture. Metuchen, N.J., 1982.

Loy, David. Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy. 1988; rpt. Amherst, N.Y., 1999.

Satlow, Michael. "Jewish Knowing: Monism and Its Ramifications." Judaism 45 (Fall 1996): 483490.

van Gelder, T. J. "Monism, Dualism, Pluralism." Mind and Language 13 (1988): 7697.

Zoetmulder, P. J., and M. C. Ricklefs, eds. Pantheism and Monism in Javanese Suluk Literature: Islamic and Indian Mysticism in an Indonesian Setting. Franklin, Mich., 1995.

Robert A. McDermott (1987)

Revised Bibliography

views updated


Monism is the doctrine that there is only one principle in terms of which all reality is to be explained. Doctrines differ as to the nature and activity of this principle and its relations to the appearance and experience of multiplicity. Monists explain multiplicity or plurality in the world either as derivative from the one principle or as an illusion. Monism is found in philosophical, religious, and cosmological doctrines. The concept itself is ancient, though the first appearance of the term monism in Western philosophy is in Christian von Wolff's Logic (1728).

Religious Systems

Religious monism has two forms: atheism and pantheism. Both deny that there is a transcendent deity. Pantheism posits a deity that is immanent to the world and on which the world completely depends. Atheism states that there is no deity at all. Critics of pantheism sometimes conflate it with atheism, on the grounds that a true God must be transcendent.


Among the most ancient forms of pantheism is Brahmanism. Many of its main tenets were expressed in the Upanishads and systematized by the Vedanta-sutras. Its beginning is traced to the seventh-century thinker Gaudapada, who denied individuation and plurality. Appearances, as well as individual minds, are only temporary manifestations of the all-soul. Master Sankara (c. 700750, India), author of commentaries on the Brahma-sutra, on parts of the Upanishads, and on the Mandukya-karika, studied with a pupil of Gaudapada. For Sankara, only the Brahman is real, and plurality and difference are an illusion.


Gnosticism is the name given to various doctrines of salvation through knowledge. The first gnostic sects were pre-Christian. Scholars argue about Persian Mazdeism, Greek mysteries, Egyptian doctrines, or Babylonian astrology and religions as possible roots of Gnostic thought. Gnosticism came into contact with Judaism and early Christianity, borrowing some names and concepts, though refusing the main tenets. Ancient Gnosticism held that everything flows from one purely spiritual principle. The origins of matter were explained as a flaw in a long line of successive emanations from the one principle. While matter is impure, its existence is temporary: Gnostic eschatology states that ultimately the original unity and purity will be restored. Gnostic sects include the Syrian school and the Alexandrian school (early second century).


Only rarely do Judeo-Christian forms of mysticism accept monism. John Scotus Erigena (c. 810c. 877) in Ireland, Johannes Eckehart (Meister Eckehart; c. 1260?1327) in Germany, and Nicholas of Cusa (14011464) endorsed forms of pantheism. The same is true for Islamic Sufism, which appeared as a reaction to the overly worldly tendencies of Islam in the late seventh century c.e. While most Sufi authors stressed personal discipline, asceticism, and purity as necessary elements to prepare the soul to know and unite with a transcendent God (which hardly qualify them as monist), it is interesting to mention figures that stressed a metaphysical unity of all beings in God. In the thirteenth century, the Spanish-born Ibn al-'Arabi (11651240) created a theory of the "Unity of Being." According to this theory, all existence is one, a manifestation of the underlying divine reality. Sufi currents that stressed the unity of all reality were present also in Indian Muslim communities in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Mainstream Sufi authors reacted against monistic trends, stressing that a unity of vision (the mystical experience) did not correspond to a unity of reality.

Philosophical Systems

In philosophical systems, three forms of metaphysical monism can be identified: materialism, idealism, and neutral monism (in which the first principle is neither matter nor mind).

Neutral monists.

Parmenides (b. c. 515 b.c.e.) juxtaposes doxa (mere belief or nonbeing) and aletheia (truth or being). Being is one, unchangeable, and atemporal, and the experience of change and plurality is illusion. Parmenides's student, Zeno of Elea (c. 495c. 430 b.c.e.), argued against the reality of plurality and motion. Plotinus (205270 b.c.e.), the most famous and influential of the Neoplatonists, held that everything is an emanation from the One, flowing to lower and lower degrees of reality until matter is formed.

Another famous monist was Baruch Spinoza (16321677). In his Ethics (1677), Spinoza argues that there is at most and at least only one substance, God. His study of René Descartes (15961650) and the new science resulted in a metaphysical system where everything is a necessary manifestation (mode) of this single substance, which is conceived under the attributes of extension and thought.


Materialists deny the existence of any nonmaterial substance. Materialists are often, but not necessarily, atheists: some, such as the Stoics, or Thomas Hobbes (15881679), held that God is corporeal. Among the earliest forms of materialism was atomism. Leucippus (5th century b.c.e.) and Democritus (c. 460c. 370 b.c.e.) believed in an infinite number of indivisible bodies (atoms) moving in a void (nonbeing). Their movements, aggregations, and interactions explain every aspect of experience, including mental life. Epicurus (Greece, 341270 b.c.e.) developed an atomistic ethics, claiming that the pleasures of the mind and the deliverance from passions constitute human happiness. Lucretius's (c. 100 to 90c. 55 to 53 b.c.e.) poem De rerum natura (On the nature of things) had the most developed exposition of ancient atomism. Other atomist-like schools include the Indian school of Vaisesika, founded presumably by Kasyapa (c. 2nd3rd century c.e.), which posited an infinity of atoms, of which nine kinds are identified, which constitutes all reality. The Medieval Islamic group of Asharites known as the mutakallimun (8th12th century) held that God was the direct and continuous cause of all created beings (composed of atoms) and of the maintenance of each atom, from instant to instant. This doctrine of atomic time presaged Descartes and the Occasionalists, though without the commitment to a transcendent God.

Seventeenth-and eighteenth-century materialism arose with the scientific revolution's mechanical philosophy. Most natural philosophers were not materialist monists (because they believed in a transcendent God and in incorporeal souls), yet there are exceptions. Giordano Bruno (15481600), who was burned as a heretic, presented a pantheistic system in which the world and its soul are one. Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan (1651) developed a geometrical account of natural, human, and political science, where he argued that reality is only bodies in motion and these explain perception, our human ideas and volitions, and the body politic.

During the Enlightenment materialists like Julien Offroy de La Mettrie (17091751) and Baron Paul-Henri-Dietrich d'Holbach (17231789) wrote about the material and "mechanical" nature of man and rejected any immaterial God. Some Enlightenment philosophers (Denis Diderot, Holbach) were atheists, others opted for deism, or the belief that God acted exclusively through natural laws. The borders between deism, pantheism, or downright atheism were often quite blurred (as in Anthony Ashley Cooper, third earl of Shaftesbury, or Jean Le Rond d'Alembert).

The first half of the nineteenth century saw a strong idealistic and romantic reaction to materialism, yet materialism returned with a vengeance in the second half with the successes of the theory of evolution by natural selection and of Marxism. Karl Marx (18181883) focused on economics, yet, in reacting against Hegelian idealism, endorsed a metaphysical materialism and atheism. In Marx, ideas (intellectual contents) are determined and explained through the material, economic processes of production and ownership, upon which rise social and political superstructures.

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection: Or, The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859) by Charles Darwin (18091882) made it possible, in Richard Dawkins's words in The Blind Watchmaker, "to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist." Darwin was held by many to have produced a fully naturalistic and scientifically robust explanation of the nature of life. Darwinian evolution and natural selection were taken to be a serious challenge to explanations of the creation and development of life by a designing God. While many aspects of Darwin's own theory underwent major revisions with the discoveries of molecular biology and genetics, natural selection has lost nothing of its power as an explanatory tool in contemporary evolutionary biology and is used in many fields to explain structures and functions that are seemingly designed.


Idealism is metaphysical monism that rejects the existence of matter and founds the experience of matter on the mental. Ancient forms of idealism can be found in Buddhist schools.

The Yogacara (or Vijnanavada) school started around the fifth century c.e. in India. Its central doctrine is that only consciousness (vijnanamatra ) is real, that thought or mind is the ultimate reality. External things do not exist; nothing exists outside the mind. Ultimately, the purified, undifferentiated state of the mind without objects or thought processes is what constitutes "Buddhahood." Among the principal figures were the brothers Asanga and Vasubandhu.

The Zen, or Chan school was founded by the Indian monk Bodhidharma, who traveled to China around 520 c.e. (according to the tradition). Zen stresses the use of meditation to experience the unity and indistinctness of reality, which cannot be understood otherwise (any form of verbalization or conceptualization falls into the trap of dualism).

In the Western tradition, idealism was reprised by George Berkeley (16851753), bishop of Cloyne, who held that all we can know are the ideas in our minds. All objects of perception, including matter, are only ideas produced by God. German idealism started later with Johann Gottlieb Fichte's (17621814) transcendental idealism, which he saw as a development of Immanuel Kant's (17241804) ideas. For Fichte, God is the All, and particular objects result from reflection or self-consciousness through which the infinite unity is broken up. Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (17751854) held that there is a unity between ideal and real. Absolute idealism explains the process of division of consciousness and nature, and their return to unity.

The culmination of German idealism came with Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831), who believed that understanding Geist (Absolute Spirit) would overcome all (Kant's) contradictions in the realms of reason and science. Geist is the principle of reality that makes the universe intelligible as an eternal cyclical process whereby Geist comes to know itself, first through its own thinking, then through nature, and finally through finite spirits and their self-expression in history and their self-discovery in art, in religion, and in philosophy. Later in the century, Hegel's doctrines were developed by a group of English idealists, most notably Francis Bradley and John McTaggart Ellis.

In contemporary philosophy, monism is mostly materialism or physicalism. In psychology and philosophy of mind, it is held by many that the mental is reducible to the physical and may be explained in terms of physical laws. Eliminative materialism (Patricia and Paul Churchland) denies that the mental exists and claims that all "mental" talk will be ultimately eliminated as science progresses. Functionalism is a noneliminativist form of materialism claiming that descriptions of mental events and their intentional natures may be explained by systemic relations among the parts of the material brain (Hilary Putnam and William Lycan).

Anomalous monism (Donald Davidson and John Searle) holds that mental events are ultimately identical to brain states, but that there are no laws (hence anomalous ) that connect brain states to mental states.

See also Atheism ; Deism ; Gnosticism ; Historical and Dialectical Materialism ; Idealism ; Materialism in Eighteenth-Century European Thought ; Zen .


Bakar, Osman. The History and Philosophy of Islamic Science. Cambridge, U.K.: Islamic Texts Society, 1999.

Block, Ned, Güven Güzeldere, and Owen Flanagan, eds. The Nature of Consciousness: Philosophical Debates. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997.

Chittick, William C. The Self-Disclosure of God: Principles of Ibn al-'Arabi's Cosmology. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.

Churchland, Paul M. The Engine of Reason, the Seat of the Soul: A Philosophical Journey into the Brain. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996.

Dawkins, Richard. The Blind Watchmaker. New York: W.W. Norton, 1986.

Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.

Filoramo, Giovanni. A History of Gnosticism. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.

Lloyd, A. C. The Anatomy of Neoplatonism. Oxford: Clarendon, 1990.

Lusthaus, Dan. Buddhist Phenomenology: A Philosophical Investigation of Yogacara Buddhism and the Ch'eng Wei-shih Lun. London: Routledge Curzon, 2002.

Lycan, William, ed. Mind and Cognition: An Anthology. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1999.

Moran, Dermot. The Philosophy of John Scottus Eriugena: A Study of Idealism in the Middle Ages. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Phillips, Stephen H. Classical Indian Metaphysics: Refutations of Realism and the Emergence of "New Logic." La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1995.

Ruse, Michael. The Darwinian Revolution: Science Red in Tooth and Claw. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1999.

Searle, John. Minds, Brains, and Science. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Stern, Robert. Hegel, Kant, and the Structure of the Object. London: Routledge, 1990.

Wallis, Richard T., ed., and Jay Bregman, assoc. ed. Neoplatonism and Gnosticism. Albany: State University of New York, 1992.

Westphal, Kenneth R. Hegel's Epistemological Realism: A Study of the Aim and Method of Hegel's "Phenomenology of Spirit." Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1989.

Peter Machamer

Francesca di Poppa

views updated


A philosophical system or doctrine that reduces all of reality to some type of unity, or admits only one basic principle where other doctrines admit two (dualism) or more (pluralism). materialism, idealism, and pantheism are the major forms that monist philosophies assume. This article surveys the various kinds of monism and then offers a brief critique from the viewpoint of Catholic thought.

Kinds. Depending on the type of principle or underlying unity to which all entities are reduced, monism may be variously designated as substantive, or conceptual, or moral and aesthetic.

Substantive. In substantive monism, the underlying principle is substance, which is usually viewed as either matter or spirit. If everything is reducible to matter, as is affirmed in Marxism, spirit becomes nothing more than a modality of matter. A similar consequence results from the teaching of W. Ostwald (18531932), who spoke of energy as the sole subsistent reality. For J. M. Guyau (185488), it is life in a state of continual becoming that explains universal evolution and is itself the basis of everything real; in such vitalistic monism, spirit fares no better than in materialism, for both matter and spirit, in its view, are but an extract of life. The teaching of E. H. Haeckel is a classical example of materialistic monism. According to Haeckel, the universe is one to such an extent that there is no possibility of matter-spirit dualism: the universe was not created but evolves according to eternal laws and is identical with God; physical and chemical forces alone explain change; the soul is mortal;and so forth.

Among those varieties of monism in which substance is conceived as spirit, that of G. W. F. hegel exerts the greatest influence. For Hegel, the world is one and is in continual dialectical change under the direction of the idea, or logos, which constitutes all of ontological reality. British idealism, inspired by Hegel and developed especially by F. H. bradley, likewise teaches the radical unity of the universe and the existence of the absolute; for it, the multiplicity recognized by the senses, together with individuality and duration, is nothing more than appearance. Among earlier thinkers, G. bruno and B. spinoza may likewise be listed as monists who accented spirit as the unique type of substance.

Conceptual. The second kind of monism does not invoke a substantial principle of things, but rather the type of conception man can have of them. The accent is here placed on the unitary character of truth, on a unity of knowledge rather than on an ontological unity. Paul Carus (18521919), the American positivist who founded the Monist in 1890, thus maintained that all truths, of whatever kind and origin, must agree among themselves. For him, scientific knowledge and religious faith can be completely and harmoniously reconciled; on any subject, there can be but one truth, which is eternal and independent of all subjective feelings and aspirations.

Moral and Aesthetic. Various other forms of monism include the moral and the aesthetic. A moral monism would draw ethical consequences from a materialistic view of the universe. This is essentially the teaching of Haeckel, who regarded his system as a religion that imposed a mode of conduct in basic conflict with that of Christianity. In a more restricted sense, one may regard as monistic any doctrine that postulates a certain unity of explanation within a limited sphere of ideas or of facts. It is in this sense that one may speak of an aesthetic monism, meaning by this the elegance and appeal of any simplified accounting for a domain of human experience.

Critique. The difficulties involved in accepting monism as a complete explanation of reality are evidenced by repeated attempts to develop pluralism as a consistent philosophical position. Pluralism is radically opposed to monism, especially when monism is understood in a Hegelian sense. In Germany, the teaching of J. F. Herbart is generally regarded as pluralistic and as thus antithetical to the idealistic monism of F. W. J. von schelling. In France, C. B. Renouvier proposed a philosophy that is likewise spoken of as pluralistic. In the U.S., similarly, W. james advocated a type of pluralism, as did H. A. Myers (190655) in his Systematic Pluralism: A Study in Metaphysics (Ithaca 1961).

Some elements stressed in monism, however, are to be found in all schools of philosophy. Despite the endless variety and diversity to be found in the universe, one need not be committed to a doctrine of absolute disparity. Beings resemble one another; they possess common characteristics, and there are transcendental attributes that encompass the entire ontological order. The activities of the many species of natural things are regulated by laws, so much so that one may speak of a uniformity in nature and in its operation. Similarly, there are metaphysical principles that confer a unity and organization on observable facts and the ideas men use to explain them. From the social point of view, and particularly with recent improvements in methods of communication and transportation, the world is becoming more and more one. Along these lines, P. teilhard de chardin has accented the unity of order and direction to be found in the universe, echoing the earlier suggestion of P. Lecomte du Noüy. In the mid-20th century, therefore, few thinkers held for an absolute multiplicity in the universe, without any element of permanence or continuity.

Nevertheless, monism itself cannot make an absolute claim to validity. A primary indication of dualism is that provided by the distinction between the universe and its Creator. Reason postulates, with evidence, the existence of a God who is not identical with His work. Again, although the universe is one, it contains a plurality of things. These are distinguished from each other by their genus and species as well as by their individuality. This dog is not this cat or this horse, nor is it this other dog. The world is not a single substance, but is made up of subsisting realities that cannot be explained adequately in monistic terms. Despite its aesthetic appeal, monism is thus an oversimplified system that is unable to account for the totality of human experience.

See Also: potency and act; matter and form; essence and existence; pluralism, philosophical.

Bibliography: m. j. adler, ed., The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World, 2 v. (Chicago 1952) 2:282302. c. mazzantini, Enciclopedia filosofica, 4 v. (Venice-Rome 1957) 3:67880. o. habert, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 190350) 10.1:31534. w. brugger, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 7:55355. r. lorenz, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 4:1099102. r. eisler, Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe, 3 v. (4th ed. Berlin 192730) 2:17377.

[w. a. wallace]

views updated


Introduced into philosophy by Christian Wolff (1679-1754), the notion of monism refers to ontologies maintaining that all things lead back to mind or to matter. More generally, monism describes a system in which the totality of things is reducible to a single type of entity, be it substantial, logical, physical, or moral. Variations in usage and the competing expression "philosophy of the One" mean that the term should be used judiciously. People speak of the monisms of Parmenides (515 BCE), Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), and Wilhelm Ostwald (1853-1932); of the monism of psychophysical parallelism; and even of the monism of the bridge relation that characterizes dualism.

Freud, who deliberately kept away from philosophy, never used the noun monism and seldom used the adjective monist. Yet his dualistic theory of the instincts implicitly challenges the idea of instinctual monism. Freud's treatment of this issue began with his early notion of narcissism in "Psycho-Analytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia (Dementia Paranoides )" (1911c [1910]) and culminated in his positing the life and death instincts in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g). General discussion of these issues included polemics between Alfred Adler and Carl Gustav Jung, and numerous authors have addressed the topic after 1920. According to Freud, instinctual dualism underlies psychic conflicts and forms the foundation for the psychic structures that result from them.

Narcissism, and thus the libido's cathexis of the ego (the locus of the instincts of self-preservation, according to the first topography) threatened to lead to an instinctual monism and left Freud stymied: "These are problems which we are still quite helpless and incompetent to solve" (p. 74), he wrote in "Psycho-Analytic Notes on an Autobiographical Case of Paranoia (Dementia Paranoides )." Moreover, Freud introduced major, complex, irreducible constructs, such as the ego and narcissism, within a theory whose objects he had been at pains to reduce, in the manner of traditional science. This development posed unprecedented epistemological problems for trying to understand these theoretical entitles and brought with it another threat, structural monism. The opposition between object-libido and ego-libido and the idea that the instincts exert continual and constant pressure explained the dynamics of the newly described agencies of the psyche (Freud, 1915c). Freud described additional formsprimary and secondary narcissism, ideal ego and ego idealbut maintained, as he wrote in "On Narcissism," that "a unity comparable to the ego cannot exist in the individual from the start; the ego has to be developed ..., so there must be something added to auto-erotisma new psychical actionin order to bring about narcissism" (p. 77). Freud spent three years developing the theory presented in "On Narcissism: An Introduction" (1914c). Freud thus reduced the threat of monism by positing of the life and death instincts (1920g) and developing the second topography, set forth in The Ego and the Id (1923b).

Freud's delayed introduction of narcissism and the ego was in part responsible for Adler's and Jung's monist dissents. Later, Jacques Lacan's theories on the signifier (the phallus) would suggest another form of monism, a correlate of his static structuralism.

MichÈle Porte

See also: Destrudo; Dualism; Id; Object, change of/choice of; Oedipus complex; Psychosomatic limit/boundary.


Freud, Sigmund. (1911c [1910]). Psycho-analytic notes on an autobiographical account of a case of paranoia (dementia paranoides ). SE, 12: 1-82.

. (1914c). On narcissism: An introduction. SE, 14: 67-102.

. (1915c). Instincts and their vicissitudes. SE, 14: 109-140.

. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE,18:1-64.

. (1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66.

views updated


The term monism comes from the Greek word meaning alone or single. While the term was originally used by German mathematician and philosopher Christian Wolff (16791754) to refer to views asserting either that everything is mental (idealism) or everything is material (materialism), monism has wider applicability today, claiming that the various things or kinds of things encountered in the world are somehow reducible to, derivable from, or explicable in terms of one thing (substantival monism) or one kind of thing (attributive monism). The substantival and attributive views are logically independente.g., Baruch Spinoza (16321677) affirmed the first while holding a plurality of attributes; Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (16461716) held the second while countenancing a plurality of substances.

Monism must be distinguished from pluralism, which asserts that there are various things or kinds of things. Monism must also be distinguished from dualism, which claims that there are only two basic kinds of things. Often, however, the term monism is used imprecisely to refer to any fundamental dichotomy in a philosophical or religious system (e.g., good and evil, soul and body, male and female). Of particular interest in the science-theology conversation are the apparent dualisms of mind and body, and God and universe.

A primary motivation for monism is ontological simplicitya world in which there is one basic thing or kind of thing makes fewer ontological claims than one asserting the existence of many things or kinds. Explanation for the monist is homogeneous and coherent; it makes no appeal to entities of a different ontological type when framing its causal stories. Moreover, the assumption of monism (particularly of physicalist variety) has been enormously fruitful. On the other hand, pluralism is motivated by the apparent multiplicity of things and kinds, and the desire to avoid purchasing simplicity at the expense of real complexity. A further advantage of monism is that, unlike pluralism, it does not need to offer an account of a relation that supposedly conjoins fundamentally disparate kinds.

In addition to materialist (physicalist) and idealist monisms, there is also neutral monism and anomalous monism. The first claims that both mental and physical phenomena are manifestations of an underlying neutral stuff. Spinoza and Bertrand Russell (18721970) are associated with this position. The second, advanced by twentieth century philosopher Donald Davidson, holds that while every mental event is token identical to some physical event, mental properties can nonetheless not be reductively identified with physical properties. Because mental properties are individuated holistically according to criteria of coherence, rationality, and consistency which, as Davidson notes, "have no echo in physical theory" (p. 231). Although all particulars are physical (physicalist monism), the incommensurability between mental and physical properties requires a property dualism.

Both substance and property dualism are of interest in the science-theology discussion. For example, most would claim that substantival and attributive monism are both incompatible with the substance dualism of divine and worldly stuff (or creator and created stuff) that theism presupposes. Others have suggested that since God can be understood immanently, a dualism of divine and worldly properties is compatible with a monistic ontological physicalism. The question for the science-theology conversation is whether God-universe or mind-body property dualism coupled with physicalist monism has the resources to avoid reductive explanation, and thus successfully to ground an ontology of the mental and the divine.

See also Dualism; Materialism; Naturalism; Physicalism, Reductive and Nonreductive; Pluralism


davidson, donald. "mental events." in essays on actions & events. oxford: clarendon press, 1980.

drees, willem b. religion, science, and naturalism. cambridge, uk: cambridge university press, 1996.

spinoza, baruch. the collected works of spinoza. ed. and trans. edwin m, curley. princeton, n.j.: princeton university press, 1984.

van inwagen, peter. "individuality." in metaphysics. boulder, colo.: westview press, 1993.

dennis bielfeldt

views updated

monism (mō´nĬzəm) [Gr.,=belief in one], in metaphysics, term introduced in the 18th cent. by Christian von Wolff for any theory that explains all phenomena by one unifying principle or as manifestations of a single substance. Monistic theorists differ considerably in their choice of a basis of unification. It may be material, as with Ernst Haeckel, who took the substance, or energy, as the only reality. It may be spiritual, as with G. W. Hegel, to whom mind, or spirit, is the reality by which all is to be explained. Or, as in Spinoza, it may be a substance, or Deity, of which body and mind are attributes that are held in equipoise. The opposites of monism are dualism and pluralism.

views updated

monism In metaphysics, doctrine that reality consists of a single unifying substance, or that the mental and physical are indivisible. Spinoza saw this substance as God, while Hegel believed it was the Spirit. German philosopher Christian Wolf (1679–1734) coined the term monism. It contrasts with dualism. See also pluralism

views updated

monismchasm, spasm •enthusiasm • orgasm • sarcasm •ectoplasm • cytoplasm • iconoclasm •cataplasm • pleonasm • phantasm •besom • dirigisme •abysm, arrivisme, chrism, chrisom, ism, prism, schism •Shiism, theism •Maoism, Taoism •egoism • truism • Babism • cubism •sadism • nudism • Sufism • ageism •holism • cataclysm • monism • papism •verism • aneurysm • purism • Nazism •sexism • racism • paroxysm • autism •macrocosm • microcosm • bosom

views updated

Monism. The belief that only one substance exists, in contrast to pluralism. Monistic religions are therefore those which maintain that there is only one underlying substance (Lat., substantia, standing under) despite the multiplicity of appearances. Advaita Vedanata is thus monistic, in contrast to Dvaita.

views updated

monism Any philosophical theory which states that all being may ultimately be referred to a single category. In sociology, theories such as historical materialism are often described as monist, and the term is also applied more loosely to causal accounts which attach sole importance to a single explanatory factor.