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Monism is the metaphysical and theological view that all is of one essential essence, principle, substance or energy.

Monism is to be distinguished from dualism, which holds that ultimately there are two kinds of substance, and from pluralism, which holds that ultimately there are many kinds of substance.

Monism is often seen in relation to pantheism, panentheism, and an immanent God. The concepts of absolutism, the monad, and the "Universal substrate" are closely related as well.

Theological growth and breadth

Hinduism (including Vedanta and Yoga), Taoism, Buddhism, Pantheism, Zen, and similar systems of thought explore the mystical and spiritual elements of a monistic philosophy. With increasing awareness of these systems of thought, western spiritual and philosophical climate has seen a growing understanding of monism. Moreover, the New Thought Movement has embraced many monistic concepts for over 100 years.

Philosophical monism

Monism is often seen as partitioned into three basic types:

  1. Substantial Monism, (One thing) which holds that there is one substance.
  2. Attributive Monism, (One category) which holds that while there is only one kind of thing, there are many different individual things or beings in this category.
  3. Absolute Monism, which holds that there is only one substance and only one being. Absolute Monism, therefore can only be of the idealistic type. (see below)

Monism is further defined according to four kinds:

  1. Idealism or phenomenalism, which holds that only mind is real.
  2. Physicalism or materialism, which holds that only the physical is real, and may further hold that the mental can be reduced to the physical.
  3. Dual-aspect monism, which holds that the mental and the physical are aspects of a single underlying substance.
  4. Neutral monism, which holds that the mental and the physical are constructions out of neutral elements that are in themselves neither mental nor physical.

Certain other positions are hard to pigeonhole into the above categories, including:

  1. Functionalism, like materialism, holds that the mental is always instantiated by the physical, but also holds that the mind itself exists at a substrate-neutral "functional" level. Thus, something need not be made out of neurons to have mental states. This is a popular stance in cognitive science and artificial intelligence.
  2. Eliminativism, which holds that talk of the mental will eventually be proved as unscientific and completely discarded. Just as we no longer follow the ancient Greeks in saying that all matter is composed of earth, air, water, and fire, people of the future will no longer speak of "beliefs", "desires", and other mental states. A subcategory of eliminativism is radical behaviourism, a view held by B. F. Skinner.
  3. anomalous monism, a position proposed by Donald Davidson in the 1970s as a way to resolve the mind-body problem. By the above definitions, it is a form of physicalism, but with some affinity to dual-aspect monism. Davidson holds that there is only physical matter, but that all mental objects and events are perfectly real and are identical with (some) physical matter. But physicalism retains a certain priority, inasmuch as (1) All mental things are physical, but not all physical things are mental, and (2) (As John Haugeland puts it) Once you take away all the atoms, there's nothing left. This monism was widely considered an advance over previous identity theories of mind and body, because it does not entail that one must be able to provide an actual method for redescribing any particular kind of mental entity in purely physical terms. Indeed there may be no such method. This is a case of nonreductive physicalism, or perhaps emergent physicalism/materialism.
  4. Reflexive monism, a position developed by Max Velmans in 2000, as a method of resolving the difficulties associated with both dualist and reductionist agendas concerning consciousness, by viewing physical phenomena-as-perceived as being part of the contents of consciousness.

Monism, Pantheism, and Panentheism

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."

Although, like Spinoza, some pantheists may also be monists, and monism may even be essential to some versions of pantheism (like Spinoza's), not all pantheists are monists. Some are polytheists and some are pluralists; they believe, that there are many things and kinds of things and many different kinds of value. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Not all Monists are Pantheists. Exclusive Monists believe that the universe, the God of the Pantheist, simply does not exist. In addition, monists can be Deists, Theists or panentheists; believing in a monotheistic God that is omnipotent and all-pervading, and both transcendent and immanent. There are monist deists and panentheists in Hinduism (particularly in Advaita and Vishistadvaita respectively), Judaism (especially in Kabballa), and in Christianity (especially among Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglicans).

Monism in religion


Hinduism is monistic, as far back as the Rig Veda, in which hymnists speak of one being-non-being that 'breathed without breath,' and which singular force self-projected into the cosmic existence. Nevertheless, the first system in Hinduism that clearly, unequivocably explicated absolute monism was that of Advaita (or nondualist) Vedanta (see Advaita Vedanta) as expounded by Adi Shankaracharya. It is part of the six Hindu systems of philosophy, based on the Upanishads, and posits that the ultimate monad is a formless, ineffable Divine Ground called Brahman. Such monistic thought also extends to other Hindu systems like Yoga and non-dualist Tantra.

Another type of monism, qualified monism, from the school of Ramanuja or Vishishtadvaita, admits that the universe is part of God, or Narayana, a type of either pantheism or panentheism, but sees a plurality of souls and substances within this supreme Being. This type of monism, monistic theism, which includes the concept of a personal God as a universal, omnipotent Supreme Being who is both Immanent and Transcendent, is prevalent in Hinduism. (Monistic theism is not to be confused with absolute monotheism where God is viewed as transcendent only. In absolute monotheism, the notion of Immanence divinity (essence of God) present in all things is absent.)


Christianity, being monotheistic, can be said to combine both Monistic and Dualistic assumptions, akin to Vishishtadvaita Vedanta in Hinduism, ultimately concluding that there is one transcendent, immanent, all-pervading, omnipotent, ineffable God.

Some Christians inveigh against the 'dangers of monism', asserting that in order to resolve all things to a single substrate, one dissolves God in the process. Much Christian thought has insisted that while the universe is dependent on God for its existence, it is also of a separate substance from God. Some contend that this means that monism is false, while others argue that there is a distinction between Ultimate Essence, and the differentiated essences (substances), so that the "single substrate" essentially is God. Theological arguments can be made for this within Christianity, for example employing the Christian doctrine of "divine simplicity" (though a monistic interpretation of that doctrine would not be considered orthodox by the Roman Catholic Church).


Valentinianism is commonly viewed as being a Gnostic heresy, most prevalent in the first centuries. While Gnostic traditions are typically regarded as dualistic, "a standard element in the interpretation of Valentinianism and similar forms of Gnosticism is the recognition that they are fundamentally monistic" (Schoedel, William, "Gnostic Monism and the Gospel of Truth" in Bentley Layton (ed.) The Rediscovery of Gnosticism, Vol.1: The School of Valentinus, E.J. Brill, Leiden.).

Valentinian sources regularly proclaim God (which is more akin to an indescribable Neoplatonist monad than the typical Orthodox Christian conception of a transcendent entity nevertheless possessed of a recognisable persona) to be fundamental to all things, and that our perception of a material universe is simply a misperception of this same fundamental, "superior" one-ness. Inasmuch as materiality is occasionally described by the Valentinians as being exterior to the monad, this description is intended in an epistemological sense, as depicting a state of being that is ignorant of the true nature of the universe. The depiction of differing states of knowledge or awareness in spatial terms is typical of Gnostic metaphor, especially within the Valentinian tradition.


It is a primary, axiomatic belief of religious Jewish thought that God is an absolute unity; see Negative theology, Divine simplicity. God is considered eternal (existing outside of time) which is not to be confused with everlasting (existing at every time), and relatedly, the view that God is immanent with, and simultaneously separate (transcendent) from, all created things is consistent with Torah; see Tzimtzum.


Ayyavazhi, a religion originating in 19th century India, asserts the concept of Ekam where 'all is one', a concept close to Nirguna Brahman in Hinduism. It accepts almost all different gods in Hinduism, with them unified into Ayya Vaikundar, who is the Ekam.


Historically, monism has been promoted in spiritual terms on several occasions, notably by Ernst Haeckel. To the dismay of some modern observers, Haeckel's various ideas often had components of social darwinism and scientific racism.

Paul Carus called himself "an atheist who loves God", and advocated "henism", which is often seen as monist or pantheist in nature.

Ancient philosophers

The following pre-Socratic philosophers described reality as being monistic:

  • Thales: Water.
  • Anaximander: Apeiron (meaning 'the unknown'). Reality is some, one thing, but we cannot know what.
  • Anaximanes: Air.
  • Pythagoras: Number. Math entirely describes the world, to the extent that its logical model is the world.
  • Heraclitus: Fire (in that everything is in constant flux).
  • Parmenides: One. Reality is an unmoving perfect sphere, unchanging, undivided.
  • Leucippus of Miletus and his disciple Democritus of Abdera: Atoms and void (i.e. atoms and lack of atoms).
  • Empedocles: Earth, Air, Fire, Water: Four Elements - no longer monism.

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).

See also

External links

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