Monism is the philosophical view that a variety of existing things can be explained in terms of a single reality or substance. The wide definition states that all existing things go back to a source which is distinct from them (e.g. in Neoplatonism everything is derived from The One). A commonly-used, restricted definition of monism asserts the presence of a unifying substance or essence.
One must distinguish "stuff monism" from "thing monism". According to stuff monism there is only one kind of stuff (e.g. matter or mind), although there may be many things made out of this stuff. According to thing-monism there exists strictly speaking only a single thing (e.g. the universe), which can only be artificially and arbitrarily divided into many things.
- 1 History
- 2 Definitions
- 3 Philosophical monism
4 Religious monism
- 4.1 Pantheism, panentheism and pandeism
- 4.2 Asian traditions
- 4.3 Abrahamic faiths
- 4.4 Bahá'í
- 4.5 Non-dualism
- 5 See also
- 6 Notes
- 7 References
- 8 Sources
- 9 External links
The term "monism" was introduced in the 18th century by Christian von Wolff in his work Logic (1728), to designate types of philosophical thought in which the attempt was made to eliminate the dichotomy of body and mind and explain all phenomena by one unifying principle, or as manifestations of a single substance.
The mind–body problem in philosophy examines the relationship between mind and matter, and in particular the relationship between consciousness and the brain. The problem was addressed by René Descartes in the 17th century, resulting in Cartesian dualism, and by pre-Aristotelian philosophers, in Avicennian philosophy, and in earlier Asian and more specifically Indian traditions.
It was later also applied to the theory of absolute identity set forth by Hegel and Schelling. Thereafter the term was more broadly used, for any theory postulating a unifying principle. The opponent thesis of dualism also was broadened, to include pluralism. According to Urmson, as a result of this extended use, the term is "systematically ambiguous".
According to Jonathan Schaffer, monism lost popularity due to the emergence of Analytic philosophy in the early twentieth century, which revolted against the neo-Hegelians. Carnap and Ayer, who were strong proponents of positivism, "ridiculed the whole question as incoherent mysticism".
The mind–body problem has reemerged in social psychology and related fields, with the interest in mind–body interaction and the rejection of Cartesian mind–body dualism in the identity thesis, a modern form of monism. Monism is also still relevant to the philosophy of mind, where various positions are defended.
There are two sorts of definitions for monism:
- The wide definition: a philosophy is monistic if it postulates unity of origin of all things; all existing things go back to a source which is distinct from them.
- The restricted definition: this requires not only unity of origin but also unity of substance and essence.
Three basic types of monism can be discerned:
- Substantial monism, "the view that the apparent plurality of substances is due to different states or appearances of a single substance"
- Attributive monism, "the view that whatever the number of substances, they are of a single ultimate kind"
- Partial monism, "within a given realm of being (however many there may be) there is only one substance"
Contrasting with monism are:
- Metaphysical dualism, which asserts that there are two ultimately irreconcilable substances or realities such as Good and Evil, for example, Manichaeism,
- Metaphysical pluralism, which asserts three or more fundamental substances or realities.
Although the term "monism" originated in Western philosophy to typify positions in the mind–body problem, it has also been used to typify religious traditions. In modern Hinduism, the term "absolute monism" is being used for Advaita Vedanta.
Types of monism
Monism in philosophy can be divided into three broad categories:
- Idealist, phenomenalism, or mentalistic monism which holds that only mind or spirit is real
- Neutral monism, which holds that one sort of thing fundamentally exists, to which both the mental and the physical can be reduced
- Material monism (also called Physicalism and materialism), which holds that only the physical is real, and that the mental or spiritual can be reduced to the physical
- Thales: Water.
- Anaximander: Apeiron (meaning 'the undefined infinite'). Reality is some, one thing, but we cannot know what.
- Anaximenes: Air.
- Heraclitus: Change, symbolized by fire (in that everything is in constant flux).
- Neopythagorians such as Apollonius of Tyana centered their cosmologies on the Monad or One.
- Stoics taught that there is only one substance, identified as God.
- Middle Platonism under such works as Numenius taught that the Universe emanating from the Monad or One.
- Neoplatonism is Monistic. Plotinus taught that there was an ineffable transcendent god, 'The One,' of which subsequent realities were emanations. From The One emanates the Divine Mind (Nous), the Cosmic Soul (Psyche), and the World (Cosmos).
Pantheism, panentheism and pandeism
Pantheism is the belief that everything composes an all-encompassing, immanent God, or that the universe (or nature) is identical with divinity. Pantheists thus do not believe in a personal or anthropomorphic god, but believe that interpretations of the term differ.
Pantheism was popularized in the modern era as both a theology and philosophy based on the work of the 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, whose Ethics was an answer to Descartes' famous dualist theory that the body and spirit are separate. Spinoza held that the two are the same, and this monism is a fundamental quality of his philosophy. He was described as a "God-intoxicated man," and used the word God to describe the unity of all substance. Although the term pantheism was not coined until after his death, Spinoza is regarded as its most celebrated advocate.
Following a long and still current tradition H.P. Owen (1971: 65) claimed that
Pantheists are ‘monists’...they believe that there is only one Being, and that all other forms of reality are either modes (or appearances) of it or identical with it.
Pantheism is closely related to monism, as pantheists too believe all of reality is one substance, called Universe, God or Nature. Panentheism, a slightly different concept (explained below), however is dualistic. Some of the most famous pantheists are the Stoics, Giordano Bruno and Spinoza.
Panentheism (from Greek πᾶν (pân) "all"; ἐν (en) "in"; and θεός (theós) "God"; "all-in-God") is a belief system which posits that the divine (be it a monotheistic God, polytheistic gods, or an eternal cosmic animating force), interpenetrates every part of nature, but is not one with nature. Panentheism differentiates itself from pantheism, which holds that the divine is synonymous with the universe.
In panentheism, there are two types of substance, "pan" the universe and God. The universe and the divine are not ontologically equivalent. God is viewed as the eternal animating force within the universe. In some forms of panentheism, the cosmos exists within God, who in turn "transcends", "pervades" or is "in" the cosmos.
While pantheism asserts that 'All is God', panentheism claims that God animates all of the universe, and also transcends the universe. In addition, some forms indicate that the universe is contained within God, like in the concept of Tzimtzum. Much Hindu thought is highly characterized by panentheism and pantheism. Hasidic Judaism merges the elite ideal of nullification to paradoxical transcendent Divine Panentheism, through intellectual articulation of inner dimensions of Kabbalah, with the populist emphasis on the panentheistic Divine immanence in everything and deeds of kindness.
Pandeism or pan-deism (from Ancient Greek: πᾶν pan “all” and Latin: deus meaning "god" in the sense of deism), is a term describing beliefs coherently incorporating or mixing logically reconcilable elements of pantheism (that "God", or a metaphysically equivalent creator deity, is identical to Nature) and deism (that the creator-god who designed the universe no longer exists in a status where it can be reached, and can instead be confirmed only by reason). It is therefore most particularly the belief that the creator of the universe actually became the universe, and so ceased to exist as a separate entity.
Through this synergy pandeism claims to answer primary objections to deism (why would God create and then not interact with the universe?) and to pantheism (how did the universe originate and what is its purpose?).
The central problem in Asian (religious) philosophy is not the body-mind problem, but the search for an unchanging Real or Absolute beyond the world of appearances and changing phenomena, and the search for liberation from dukkha and the liberation from the cycle of rebirth. In Hinduism, substance-ontology prevails, seeing Brahman as the unchanging real beyond the world of appearances. In Buddhism process ontology is prevalent, seeing reality as empty of an unchanging essence.
Characteristic for various Asian religions is the discernment of levels of truth, an emphasis on intuitive-experiential understanding of the Absolute such as jnana, bodhi and kensho, and an emphasis on the integration of these levels of truth and its understanding.
Puruṣārtha — chief aims of human life
- Dharma: the right way to life, the "duties and obligations of the individual toward himself and the society as well as those of the society toward the individual";
- Artha: the means to support and sustain one's life;
- Kāma: pleasure and enjoyment;
- Mokṣa: liberation, release.
According to Puligandla:
Any philosophy worthy of its title should not be a mere intellectual exercise but should have practical application in enabling man to live an enlightened life. A philosophy which makes no difference to the quality and style of our life is no philosophy, but an empty intellectual construction.
According to Sehgal, "the Vedas and the Upanishads preach and propagate neither pantheism nor polytheism but monotheism and monism". There are many Gods, but they represent different aspect of the same Reality. Monism and monotheism are found intertwined. In many passages ultimate Reality is represented as immanent, while in other passaged ultimate Reality is represented as transcendent. Monism sees Brahman as the ultimate Reality, while monotheism represents the personal form of Brahman.
Jeaneane D. Fowler too discerns a "metaphysical monotheism" in the Vedas. The Vedas contain sparse monism. The Nasadiya Sukta of the Rigveda speaks of the One being-non-being that 'breathed without breath'. The manifest cosmos cannot be equated with it, "for "That" is a limitless, indescribable, absolute principle that can exist independently of it - otherwise it cannot be the Source of it." It is the closest the Vedas come to monism, but Fowler argues that this cannot be called a "superpersonal monism", nor "the quintessence of monistic thought", because it is "more expressive of a panentheistic, totally transcendent entity that can become manifest by its own power. It exists in itself, unmanifest, but with the potential for all manifestations of the cosmos".
Vedanta is the inquiry into and systematisation of the Vedas and Upanishds, to harmonise the various and contrasting ideas which can be found in those texts. Within Vedanta, different schools exist:
- Advaita Vedanta, of which Adi Shankara is the best-known representative;
- Vishishtadvaita, attributive monism, is from the school of Ramanuja;
- Shuddhadvaita, in-essence monism, is the school of Vallabha;
- Dvaitadvaita, differential monism, is a school founded by Nimbarka;
- Dvaita, dualism, is a school founded by Madhvacharya is probably the only Vedantic System which is opposed to all types of monism. It believes that God is eternally different from souls and matter in both form and essence.
In Advaita Vedanta, Brahman is the eternal, unchanging, infinite, immanent, and transcendent reality which is the Divine Ground of all matter, energy, time, space, being, and everything beyond in this Universe. The nature of Brahman is described as transpersonal, personal and impersonal by different philosophical schools.
Advaita Vedanta gives an elaborate path to attain moksha. It entails more than self-inquiry or bare insight into one's real nature. Practice, especially Jnana Yoga, is needed to "destroy one’s tendencies (vAasanA-s)" before real insight can be attained.
Advaita took over from the Madhyamika the idea of levels of reality. Usually two levels are being mentioned, but Shankara uses sublation as the criterion to postulate an ontological hierarchy of three levels:
- Pāramārthika (paramartha, absolute), the absolute level, "which is absolutely real and into which both other reality levels can be resolved". This experience can't be sublated by any other experience.
- Vyāvahārika (vyavahara), or samvriti-saya (empirical or pragmatical), "our world of experience, the phenomenal world that we handle every day when we are awake". It is the level in which both jiva (living creatures or individual souls) and Iswara are true; here, the material world is also true.
- Prāthibhāsika (pratibhasika, apparent reality, unreality), "reality based on imagination alone". It is the level in which appearances are actually false, like the illusion of a snake over a rope, or a dream.
Vaishnavism is one of the major branches of Hinduism along with Shaivism, Smartism, and Shaktism. It is focused on the veneration of Vishnu. Vaishnavites, or the followers of the Supreme Lord Vishnu, lead a way of life promoting differentiated monotheism, which gives importance to Lord Vishnu and His ten incarnations.
All Vaishnava schools are panentheistic and view the universe as part of Krishna or Narayana, but see a plurality of souls and substances within Brahman. Monistic theism, which includes the concept of a personal god as a universal, omnipotent Supreme Being who is both immanent and transcendent, is prevalent within many other schools of Hinduism as well.
Tantra sees the Divine as both immanent and transcendent. The Divine can be found in the concrete world. Practices are aimed at transforming the passions, instead of transcending them.
The colonisation of India by the British had a major impact on Hindu society. In response, leading Hindu intellectuals started to study western culture and philosophy, integrating several western notions into Hinduism. This modernised Hinduism, at its turn, has gained popularity in the west.
A major role was played in the 19th century by Swami Vivekananda in the revival of Hinduism, and the spread of Advaita Vedanta to the west via the Ramakrishna Mission. His interpretation of Advaita Vedanta has been called "Neo-Vedanta".
Vivekananda emphasized samadhi as a means to attain liberation. Yet this emphasis is not to befound in the Upanishads nor with Shankara. For Shankara, meditation and Nirvikalpa Samadhi are means to gain knowledge of the already existing unity of Brahman and Atman, not the highest goal itself:
[Y]oga is a meditative exercise of withdrawal from the particular and identification with the universal, leading to contemplation of oneself as the most universal, namely, Consciousness. This approach is different from the classical Yoga of complete thought suppression.
Vivekenanda's modernisation has been criticized:
Without calling into question the right of any philosopher to interpret Advaita according to his own understanding of it, [...] the process of Westernization has obscured the core of this school of thought. The basic correlation of renunciation and Bliss has been lost sight of in the attempts to underscore the cognitive structure and the realistic structure which according to Samkaracarya should both belong to, and indeed constitute the realm of māyā.
Monism in Buddhism
According to the Pāli Canon, both pluralism (nānatta) and monism (ēkatta) are speculative views. A Theravada commentary notes that the former is similar to or associated with nihilism (ucchēdavāda), and the latter is similar to or associated with eternalism (sassatavada). See middle way.
In the Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhism, the ultimate nature of the world is described as Śūnyatā or "emptiness", which is inseparable from sensorial objects or anything else. That appears to be a monist position, but the Madhyamaka views - including variations like rangtong and shentong - will refrain from asserting any ultimately existent entity. They instead deconstruct any detailed or conceptual assertions about ultimate existence as resulting in absurd consequences. The Yogacara view, a minority school now only found among the Mahayana, also rejects monism.
Levels of truth
- The Two truths doctrine of the Madhyamaka
- The Three Natures of the Yogacara
- Essence-Function, or Absolute-relative in Chinese and Korean Buddhism
- The Trikaya-formule, consisting of
The Prajnaparamita-sutras and Madhyamaka emphasize the non-duality of form and emptiness: "form is emptiness, emptiness is form", as the heart sutra says. In Chinese Buddhism this was understood to mean that ultimate reality is not a transcendental realm, but equal to the daily world of relative reality. This idea fitted into the Chinese culture, which emphasized the mundane world and society. But this does not tell how the absolute is present in the relative world:
To deny the duality of samsara and nirvana, as the Perfection of Wisdom does, or to demonstrate logically the error of dichotomizing conceptualization, as Nagarjuna does, is not to address the question of the relationship between samsara and nirvana -or, in more philosophical terms, between phenomenal and ultimate reality [...] What, then, is the relationship between these two realms?
According to Chasidic Thought (particularly as propounded by the 18th century, early 19th century founder of Chabad, Shneur Zalman of Liadi), God is held to be immanent within creation for two interrelated reasons:
- A very strong Jewish belief is that "[t]he Divine life-force which brings [the universe] into existence must constantly be present... were this life-force to forsake [the universe] for even one brief moment, it would revert to a state of utter nothingness, as before the creation..." 
- Simultaneously, Judaism holds as axiomatic that God is an absolute unity, and that he is Perfectly Simple - thus if his sustaining power is within nature, then his essence is also within nature.
According to Maimonides, God is an incorporeal being that caused all other existence. In fact, God is defined as the necessary existent that caused all other existence. According to Maimonides, to admit corporeality to God is tantamount to admitting complexity to God, which is a contradiction to God as the First Cause and constitutes heresy. While Hasidic mystics considered the existence of the physical world a contradiction to God's simpleness, Maimonides saw no contradiction.[note 7]
Much of Christianity strongly maintains the Creator-creature distinction as fundamental. Many Christians maintain that God created the universe ex nihilo and not from His own substance, so that the creator is not to be confused with creation, but rather transcends it (metaphysical dualism) (cf. Genesis). It is, however, within Him, as Saint Paul says in Acts 17:28, "in him we live and move and are." Even the more immanent concepts and theologies are to be defined together with God's omnipotence, omnipresence and omniscience, due to God's desire for intimate contact with his own creation (cf. Acts 17:27). Another use of the term "monism" is in Christian anthropology to refer to the innate nature of humankind as being holistic, as usually opposed to bipartite and tripartite views.
Rejection of radical dualism
While some might say the Christian metaphysics are dualistic in that they describe the Creator's transcendence of creation, they reject radical dualism such as the idea that God is eternally struggling with other equal powers such as Satan (cf. Gospel of John 14:30). In On Free Choice of the Will, Augustine argued, in the context of the problem of evil, that evil is not the opposite of good, but rather merely the absence of good, something that does not have existence in itself. Likewise, C. S. Lewis described evil as a "parasite" in Mere Christianity, as he viewed evil as something that cannot exist without good to provide it with existence. Lewis went on to argue against dualism from the basis of moral absolutism, and rejected the dualistic notion that God and Satan are opposites, arguing instead that God has no equal, hence no opposite. Lewis rather viewed Satan as the opposite of Michael the archangel. Due to this, Lewis instead argued for a more limited type of dualism. Other theologians, such as Greg Boyd, have argued in more depth that the Biblical authors held a "limited dualism", meaning that God and Satan do engage in real battle, but only due to free will given by God, for the duration God allows.
In Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, while human beings are not ontologically identical with the Creator, they are nonetheless capable with uniting with his Divine Nature via theosis, and especially, through the devout reception of the Holy Eucharist. This is a supernatural union, over and above that natural union, of which St. John of the Cross says, "it must be known that God dwells and is present substantially in every soul, even in that of the greatest sinner in the world, and this union is natural." Julian of Norwich, while maintaining the orthodox duality of Creator and creature, nonetheless speaks of God as "the true Father and true Mother" of all natures; thus, he indwells them substantially and thus preserves them from annihilation, as without this sustaining indwelling everything would cease to exist.
Some Christian theologians are avowed monists, such as Paul Tillich. Since God is he "in whom we live and move and have our being" (Book of Acts 17.28), it follows that everything that has being partakes in God. Dualism with regard to God and creation also barred the possibility of a mystical union with God, as John Calvin rejected , according to Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Such a dualism also leads to the problematic position of positing God as a particular being the existence of which can be argued for or against, failing to recognize God as the ground and origin of being itself, as in Acts 17, or in Hashem, YHWH, meaning "He causes to come into being." Such a view was called by Tillich panentheism: God is in all things, neither identical to, nor totally separate from, all things.
According to Vincent J. Cornell, the Qur'an also provides a monist image of God by describing the reality as a unified whole, with God being a single concept that would describe or ascribe all existing things:
He is the First and the Last, the Outward and the Inward; He is the Knower of everything. (Sura 57:3)
Another verse in the Quran is:
To God belongs the East and the West, Wheresoever you look is the presence of Allah. (Sura 2:115)
Many followers of Sufism advocated monism. Most notably the 13th-century Persian poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi-Rumi (1207–73) in his didactic poem Masnavi espoused monism. Rumi says in the Masnavi,
In the shop for Unity (wahdat); anything that you see there except the One is an idol.
Although the Bahá'í teachings have a strong emphasis on social and ethical issues, there exist a number of foundational texts that have been described as mystical. Some of these include statements of a monist nature (e.g. the Seven Valleys and the Hidden Words). The differences between dualist and monist views are reconciled by the teaching that these opposing viewpoints are caused by differences in the observers themselves, not in that what is observed. This is not a 'higher truth/lower truth' position. God is unknowable. For man it is impossible to get any knowledge of God or the Absolute, because any knowledge that one has, is relative.
"Nondualism" is a modern, western New religious movement, with a reflexive-monist understanding of reality. It is typified by a syncretistic understanding of various religious traditions. According to nondualism, many forms of religion are based on an experiential or intuitive understanding of "the Real" Nondualism, a modern reinterpretation of these religions, prefers the term "nondualism", instead of monism, because this understanding is "nonconceptual", "not graspapable in an idea".[note 8][note 9]
With increasing awareness of these systems of thought, the western spiritual and philosophical climate has seen a growing understanding of monism. Moreover, the New Thought and New Age movements embraced many monistic concepts during the twentieth century and continue up to the present day.
- Dualism asserts that there are two ultimately irreconcilable substances or realities such as Good and Evil, for example, Manichaeism.
- Pluralism asserts three or more fundamental substances or realities.
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- For a discussion of the resultant paradox, see Tzimtzum.
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