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Neutral monism, in philosophy, is the metaphysical view that the mental and the physical are two ways of organizing or describing the very same elements, which are themselves "neutral," that is, neither physical or mental. This view denies that the mental and the physical are two fundamentally different things. Rather, neutral monism claims the universe consists of only one kind of stuff, in the form of neutral elements that are in themselves neither mental nor physical. These neutral elements are like sensory experiences: they might have the properties of color and shape, just as we experience those properties. But these shaped and colored elements do not exist in a mind (considered as a substantial entity, whether dualistically or physicalistically); they exist on their own.
Some subset of these elements form individual minds: the subset of just the experiences that you have for the day, which are accordingly just so many neutral elements that follow upon one another, is your mind as it exists for that day. If instead you described the elements that would constistute the sensory experience of rock by the path, then those elements constitute that rock. They do so even if no one observes the rock. The neutral elements exist, and our minds are constituted by some subset of them, and that subset can also be seen to constitute a set of empirical observations of the objects in the world. All of this, however, is just a matter of grouping the neutral elements in one way or another, according to a physical or a psychological (mental) perspective.
This position is credited to Ernst Mach and William James. James propounded it in his essay "Does Consciousness Exist?" in 1904 (reprinted in Essays in Radical Empiricism in 1912). Bertrand Russell later adopted this position.
In strict parlance, neutral monism should be distinguished from dual-aspect monism, which holds that all existence consists of one kind (hence monism) of primal substance, which in itself is neither mental nor physical, but is capable of mental and physical aspects or attributes that are two faces of the same underlying reality in the one substance. Dual-aspect monism was introduced by the famous 17th century Dutch philosopher Benedict de Spinoza.
Emergent materialism is a materialist form of metaphysical monism that respects both mind and matter. Yet another position is the "anomalous monism" of the American philosopher Donald Davidson ("anomalous" here meaning "not-law-governed" rather than "strange"), which makes the physical ontologically primary and so is opposed to neutral monism and dual-aspect monism, and which holds that the mind cannot be studied scientifically, in opposition to emergent materialism as usually formulated.
Notes and citations
- William James, Essays in Radical Empiricism, New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1912.
- Bertrand Russell, The Analysis of Mind, London, G. Allen & Unwin; New York, Macmillan, 1921.
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