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Monism is the philosophical position which affirms the indivisible unity of being. In its modern expression, it supports the uniqueness of the substance that makes up the universe. The fundamental unity of the cosmos or the universe makes matter and spirit inseparable there. Monism is therefore opposed to dualistic conceptions, which distinguish the material or physical world and the psychic or spiritual world, and it is also opposed to pluralist philosophical conceptions for which each being has a particular nature.

On the level of knowledge, monism forbids dissociating the natural sciences and those of the mind. The whole of science is then represented as a united edifice. It also establishes a close relationship between philosophy and science.

Subjective self-portrait of the monist physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach(Subjective self-portrait of the monist physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach, supposed to illustrate the unity of “me” and the world.)

Origin and history of the concept

Christian Wolff(Christian Wolff)

The term “monism” was coined by Christian Wolff in 1734 in his Psychologia rationalis from the Greek μόνος (“monos”), which means “alone” or “unique”. He introduces it into his classification of the great currents of philosophical thought to distinguish the theories according to which reality must be reduced to a single principle or a single substance, from “dualistic” theories for which the soul and the body are two different substances. He considers monism as one of the forms of “dogmatism”, opposed to “skepticism”, and subdivides it into “materialist monism” and “idealist monism”.

The qualifier “monist” is used extensively in the second half of the 19th century by English and German evolutionary scholars, such as Herbert Spencer and Ernst Haeckel, to characterize the new philosophy charged with accounting for a world whose representation came from be turned upside down by recent achievements in the natural sciences. Haeckel, in particular, entitled his publication of 1892: Monism (Das Monismus), and in 1906 he founded the “German Monist League” (Deutsche Monistenbund) in Munich, supported in 1912 by an international congress. In this context, monism refers to a continuist philosophy of Being, based on the idea of ​​a continuity and a fundamental unity of organic nature with inorganic nature, and on the abolition of traditionally established borders between plant and animal, or between animal and human.

Greek philosophy

Parmenides, detail from The School of Athens by Raphael(Parmenides, by Raphael.)

It is with Parmenides at the beginning of the 5th century BC that the search for a single principle seems to take on a monistic ontological meaning. Being designates in him that in which all particular beings participate without exception. Since in itself nothing can divide it, increase it or decrease it, it is unique, without beginning or end. What is not (imaginary entities, the past or the future, the multiple or the divisible) is located outside intelligence, in the order of “opinion” (doxa).

In the 4th century BC. AD, Aristotle criticizes the separate character of the Ideas or essences of the Platonic system. He strives to bring back the plurality of meanings of being to “substance” (ousia), and to order the same principle – that of the unity which structures matter – all kinds of being. that exist in nature. The first principle of movement (first motionless motor), which tends to actualize what is potentially in substance, turns out to be the unique substance which is “pure act” or “pure intellection”. This principle also constitutes the ultimate end of the world which gradually moves the totality of natural existences.

Between the 4th century and the 3rd century BC is constituted with Epicurus the first materialist school of monism in Greece. Contrary to any teleological conception of nature, Epicureanism claims to account for the existence and properties of all bodies by the combination of atoms according to uniquely physical principles, our knowledge of reality being it- even derived from sensation, by contact between feeling and felt. This materialist monism is based on the exclusively immanent character of causality which governs natural and human phenomena.

At the same time, with Zeno of Kition, another school of monistic thought appeared, Stoicism, sometimes identified with a form of materialism. The Stoics consider that the parts of their doctrine form an organic whole and that none of them is preferable to another, or more fundamental than another. Comparing their system to a living being (logic to bones and tendons, ethics to flesh, physics to soul), or to an egg (the shell to logic, white to ethics, yellow to physics), the Stoics nevertheless suggest that physics is at the heart of the whole.


Spinoza(Portrait of Spinoza.)

The philosopher Spinoza is generally credited with the first modern development of monism. He identifies nature with a single substance producing all that can exist. The unique Substance of the world is with him an absolute principle, both ontological and gnoseological. It is the cause of itself and the production of all things, constituting the essence of things and causing their existence. Its own causality is immanent, in no case supernatural or transcendent, and it is non-transitive, since in it the causes (“natural” nature) and the effects (“naturalized” nature) unite.

By identifying the notions of Substance, God and Nature, Spinoza establishes a strict determinism, which excludes all the oppositions present in classical metaphysics inherited from Antiquity: formal cause and efficient cause, form and matter, spirit and body. , etc. The question of the interaction between soul and body, which had emerged in Cartesian philosophy, also ceases to be relevant. Spinozist monism, even more than Cartesianism, seeks to constitute itself as an absolute rationalism by refusing to grant any particular being a separate existence and essence (as was the case with God or the soul in Descartes) . It is based on the substantial unity of being.

With Spinoza, it is no longer possible to conceive of “extension” and “thought” (the two substances according to Descartes) separately from the unique Substance of the world, nor extension and thought separately from one of the other, as two separate substances. These are only two attributes, among an infinity of others, of the same reality, so that the (psychological) order of ideas and the (physical) order of things have a relation which is not only a relation of correspondence (psychophysical parallelism) but of identity (psychophysical identity). The parallelism between the bodily chains and those of the thought means that the body and the spirit are one and the same, conceived under two different attributes: what we consider as “decree” of the will, therefore of the spirit, is in an identical way the determination of the bodily (or cerebral) reality of this spirit.

Naturphilosophie, Hegelianism

The German philosophies of nature at the start of the 19th century (Naturphilosophie) partly take up the themes of Spinozist monism in a spirit however very different from that of Spinoza, since they are part of a form of idealism which establishes the primacy of spiritual over material. Although they differ from each other, there are several common characteristics that are also present in Hegel’s idealism:

  • a critique of Cartesian dualism;
  • the refusal to assimilate natural reality to a blind mechanism;
  • the holistic view of nature;
  • the affirmation of the dynamism and vitality of nature in a totalizing orientation.

According to Friedrich Schelling’s Naturphilosophie, everything is included within the eternal substance which is the Absolute. This Absolute merges with all the forces of nature, both productive and reactive. But the problem of the “unity of opposites” leads Schelling to conceive of another philosophy which he calls “philosophy of identity”, and which starts from the idea that “All that is, is in itself One”. He established there a principle of absolute identity which founds the unity of opposites. This absolute identity can be interpreted as a “point of indifference” with regard to which all opposites are realized in an indifferent way. It is a kind of prerequisite, designated metaphorically under the term “abyss” (Ungrund), and which is indifferent to contradictions. There is therefore nothing in it which prevents the diversified and differentiated production of the world. Everything, in its diversity, is thus essentially “One”.

If we can characterize Hegelian idealism as monist, it is in so far as it gives itself a single fundamental principle, of a spiritual character, and that it integrates the processual unity of nature in the form of a dialectic of the mind. With Hegel, it is the Idea which, in order to be realized, mediates itself by giving itself a material and objective content, thereby conferring intelligible content on nature.

Includes texts from Wikipedia with license CC BY-SA 3.0, translated and adapted by Nicolae Sfetcu

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