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Introduction | Types of Monism
Introduction Back to Top

Monism is the metaphysical and theological view that all is one, that there are no fundamental divisions, and that a unified set of laws underlie all of nature. The universe, at the deepest level of analysis, is then one thing or composed of one fundamental kind of stuff. It sets itself in contrast to Dualism, which holds that ultimately there are two kinds of substance, and from Pluralism, which holds that ultimately there are many kinds of substance.

It is based on the concept of the monad (derived from the Greek "monos" meaning "single" and "without division"). Various Pre-Socratic Philosophers described reality as being monistic, and devised a variety of explanations for the basis of this reality: Thales: Water; Anaximander: Apeiron (meaning "the undefined infinite"); Anaximenes: Air; Heraclitus: Fire; Parmenides: One (an unmoving perfect sphere, unchanging and undivided).

Monism is used in a variety of contexts, (within Metaphysics, Epistemology, Ethics, Philosophy of Mind, etc), but the underlying concept is always that of "oneness". Wherever Dualism distinguishes between body and soul, matter and spirit, object and subject, matter and force, Monism denies such a distinction or merges both in a higher unity.

The term "monism" itself is relatively recent, first used by the 18th Century German philosopher Christian von Wolff (1679 - 1754) to designate types of philosophical thought in which the attempt was made to eliminate the dichotomy of body and mind (see the section on Philosophy of Mind for more details).

Types of Monism Back to Top

Monism is sometimes split into three or more basic types:

  • Idealistic Monism: (also see the section on Idealism)
    This doctrine (also called Mentalistic Monism) holds that the mind is all that exists (i.e. the only existing substance is mental), and that the external world is either mental itself, or an illusion created by the mind. Thus, there is but one reality, immutable and eternal, which some (including the ancient Hindu philosophers) have termed God (Idealistic-Spiritual Monism), while others, such as the Pre-Socratic philosophers like Parmenides, were content to label as Being or "the One". This type of Idealistic Monism has recurred throughout history, from the Neoplatonists, to Gottfried Leibniz and George Berkeley, to the German Idealism of G. W. F. Hegel.
  • Materialistic Monism (also see the sections on Materialism and Physicalism):
    This doctrine holds that there is but one reality, matter, whether it be an agglomerate of atoms, a primitive, world-forming substance, or the so-called cosmic nebula out of which the world evolved. It holds that only the physical is real, and that the mental can be reduced to the physical. Members of this camp include Thomas Hobbes and Bertrand Russell, and it has been the dominant doctrine in the 20th Century.
    There are two main types:
    • Reductive Physicalism, which asserts that all mental states and properties will eventually be explained by scientific accounts of physiological processes and states, has been the most popular form during the 20th Century. There are three main types:
      • Behaviourism, which holds that mental states are just descriptions of observable behavior.
      • Type Identity Theory, which holds that specific mental states are identical to specific physical internal states of the brain.
      • Functionalism, which holds that mental states can be characterized in terms of non-mental functional properties.
    • Non-Reductive Physicalism, which argues that, although the brain is all there is to the mind, the predicates and vocabulary used in mental descriptions and explanations cannot be reduced to the language and lower-level explanations of physical science. Thus, mental states supervene (depend) on physical states, and there can be no change in the mental without some change in the physical, but they are not reducible to them.
      There are three main types:
      • Anomalous Monism, which states that mental events are identical with physical events, but that the mental is anomalous i.e. these mental events are perfectly real, and identical with (some) physical matter, but not regulated by strict physical laws. Therefore, all mental things are physical, but not all physical things are necessarily mental. This doctrine was first proposed by Donald Davidson in the 1970s.
      • Emergentism, which involves a layered view of nature, with the layers arranged in terms of increasing complexity, each corresponding to its own special science.
      • Eliminativism (or Eliminative Materialism), which holds that people's common-sense understanding of the mind ("folk psychology") is hopelessly flawed, and will eventually be replaced (eliminated) by an alternative, usually taken to be neuroscience.
  • Neutral Monism:
    This dual-aspect theory maintains that existence consists of one kind of primal substance (hence monism), which in itself is neither mental nor physical, but is capable of mental and physical aspects or attributes. Thus, there is some other, neutral substance (variously labeled as Substance, Nature or God), and that both matter and mind are properties of this other unknown substance. Such a position was adopted by Baruch Spinoza and also by Bertrand Russell for a time.
  • Reflexive Monism:
    This is a dual-aspect theory (in the tradition of Spinoza) which argues that the one basic stuff of which the universe is composed has the potential to manifest both physically and as conscious experience (such as human beings) which can then have a view of both the rest of the universe and themselves (hence "reflexive"). It is a contemporary take on a concept which has been present in human thought for millennia, such as in later Vedic writings like the "Upanishads" and some beliefs from ancient Egypt.

However, a different analysis is sometimes used:

  • Substantial Monism ("one thing"):
    This is the view that there is only one substance and that all diversity is ultimately unreal. This is essentially the view maintained by Spinoza.
  • Attributive Monism ("one category"):
    This is the view that there is one kind of thing but many different individual things in this category, and thus reality is ultimately composed of many things rather than one. Materialistic Monism and Idealistic Monism are therefore different forms of Attributive Monism.
  • Absolute Monism ("one being"):
    This is the view that there is holds that there is only one substance and only one being, as in the ancient Hindu philosophy of Advaita Vedanta.

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