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Dialectical monism is an ontological position which holds that reality is ultimately a unified whole, distinguishing itself from monism by asserting that this whole necessarily expresses itself in dualistic terms. For the dialectical monist, the essential unity is that of complementary polarities which, while opposed in the realm of experience and perception, are co-substantial in a transcendent sense. In simpler terms, the view can be summarized thus: "All in two, two in one, one in All."


To establish its premises, dialectical monism posits a Universal Dialectic, which is seen as the fundamental principle of existence. The concept is similar to that of the Taiji or 'Supreme Ultimate' in Taoism. Accordingly, advocates assert that Taoism as well as some forms of Buddhism (most notably Zen or Chan) are based on an approach consistent with (or identical to) dialectical monism.

Ideas relating to progress or "teleological evolution" are important concepts in some modern interpretations of dialectical monism, although historically, this element has not always been present. It is important to note that this teleological tendency is significantly different from that found in other views, because it is a naturalistic progression rather than a result of design or consciousness.

Adherents maintain that the nature of dialectical synthesis dictates that the flow of change will tend toward a "spiral-shaped progression" rather than a perpetual non-progressive (repetitive) circling of history. For these dialectical monists, this explains the fact of physical self-organization in Nature, as well as the observed tendency for human societies to achieve gradual "progress" over time.


Dialectical monism has been mentioned in Western literature, although infrequently. Sartre used the term on at least one occasion (in an essay relating to Marxism) [1], although it is not clear that his interpretation was identical to that now advocated by modern adherents. For the most part, previous references to dialectical monism in Western traditions are considered to have limited significance.

Although the specific term has never been used outside the West, advocates maintain that dialectical monism has a much greater presence in Eastern traditions. A wide number of Taoist sources are cited, especially those which relate to the Taiji or yin-yang concepts. In addition, several Buddhist works are seen as containing strong elements of dialectical monism.

Buddhist influences

The Heart Sutra provides a notable expression of dialectical monism:

"Form is emptiness; emptiness also is form. Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness."

However, it is sometimes held that the Buddhist elements of dialectical monism are more accurately characterized as non-dualistic since they deny any fundamental sort of creative principle or "one thing," such as that posited by dialectical monism. See the Buddhist philosophy of emptiness.

Nagarjuna, principal developer of the emptiness doctrine in Buddhism, had a perspective consistent with a broad dialectical monism:

"By and large, Kaccayana, this world is supported by a polarity, that of existence and non-existence. But when one sees the origination of the world as it actually is with right discernment, 'non-existence' with reference to the world does not occur to one. When one sees the cessation of the world as it actually is with right discernment, 'existence' with reference to the world does not occur to one."

For Nagarjuna, the single essential substance of the world was "non-substance," or emptiness.

Pre-Socratic Western influences

Heraclitus is a notable early exception to the Eastern monopoly on dialectical monism:

"By cosmic rule, as day yields night, so winter summer, war peace, plenty famine. All things change. Fire penetrates the lump of myrrh, until the joining bodies die and rise again in smoke called incense." (fragment 36)

"Men do not know how that which is drawn in different directions harmonises with itself. The harmonious structure of the world depends upon opposite tension like that of the bow and the lyre."

Parallels in Aztec philosophy

In its article on Aztec philosophy, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy [2] describes Aztec (Nahua) metaphysics as a form of dialectical monism:

Although essentially processive and devoid of any permanent order, the ceaseless becoming of the cosmos is nevertheless characterized by an overarching balance, rhythm, and regularity: one provided by and constituted by teotl... Dialectical polar monism holds that: (1) the cosmos and its contents are substantively and formally identical with teotl; and (2) teotl presents itself primarily as the ceaseless, cyclical oscillation of polar yet complementary opposites.

Teotl's process presents itself in multiple aspects, preeminent among which is duality. This duality takes the form of the endless opposition of contrary yet mutually interdependent and mutually complementary polarities which divide, alternately dominate, and explain the diversity, movement, and momentary arrangement of the universe. These include: being and not-being, order and disorder, life and death, light and darkness, masculine and feminine, dry and wet, hot and cold, and active and passive. Life and death, for example, are mutually arising, interdependent, and complementary aspects of one and the same process.

Dao De Jing references

Chapter 42 of the Dao De Jing (from wikisource edition online) outlines a number-based cosmology which may be consistent with dialectical monism:

"The Tao produced One; One produced Two; Two produced Three; Three produced All things. All things leave behind them the Obscurity (out of which they have come), and go forward to embrace the Brightness (into which they have emerged), while they are harmonised by the Breath of Vacancy."

"What men dislike is to be orphans, to have little virtue, to be as carriages without naves; and yet these are the designations which kings and princes use for themselves. So it is that some things are increased by being diminished, and others are diminished by being increased."

Several other chapters (including Chapter 1) make reference to concepts consistent with dialectical monism. The theme of yin and yang unified in Taiji is found throughout the Dao De Jing.

Modern interpretation

Dialectical monism refers to a worldview or ontology based in a framework of neutral monism, which attempts to synthesize Eastern mysticism with Western dialectics. In simpler terms, the basic idea is to outline a point of view which recognizes that all is one, but this oneness can only be experienced in terms of duality and creative opposition. Adherents maintain that by understanding this viewpoint and its implications, one learns that "ultimate reality" and "everyday reality" are one and the same, and that existence itself is not only a pragmatic experience, but a deeply spiritual one as well. In this sense, its aim is similar to that of Zen.

See also

External links

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