Neutral monism

Neutral monism

Neutral monism, in philosophy, is the metaphysical view that the mental and the physical are two ways of organizing or describing the same elements, which are themselves "neutral," that is, neither physical nor 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 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 of the first views of the Neutral monism position about the mind-body relationship in philosophy can be attributed to C.D. Broad who in one of his early works known simply as Broad's famous list of 1925 (see chapter XIV of The Mind and Its Place in Nature)[1] stated the basis of what this theory was to become. Indeed no less than nine out of seventeen of his mind-body relationship theories are now classified as falling under the category of Neutral monism. There are considerably few self-proclaimed neutral monists, most of the philosophers who are seen to have this view were classified after their deaths. Some examples of this are Baruch Spinoza (1632-77), David Hume (1711-1776), Ernst Mach (1838-1916), Richard Avenarius (1843-96) and Joseph Petzoldt (1862-1929)

William James

William James propounded the notion in his essay "Does Consciousness Exist?" in 1904 (reprinted in Essays in Radical Empiricism in 1912).[2]

"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 constitute 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."

Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell 1921 later adopted a similar position to that of William James.[3] Russell quotes from James's essay "Does 'consciousness' exist?" as follows:

"My thesis is," [James] says, "That if we start with the supposition that there is only one primal stuff or material in the world, a stuff of which everything is composed, and if we call that stuff 'pure experience,' then knowing can easily be explained as a particular sort of relation towards one another into which portions of pure experience may enter. The relation itself is a part of pure experience; one of its 'terms' becomes the subject or bearer of the knowledge, the knower, the other becomes the object known (p. 4)".[4]

Russell summarizes this notion as follows:

"James's view is that the raw material out of which the world is built up is not of two sorts, one matter and the other mind, but that it is arranged in different patterns by its inter-relations, and that some arrangements may be called mental, while others may be called physical".[5]

Russell observes that "the same view of 'consciousness' is set forth in [James's] succeeding essay, "a World of Pure Experience" (ib., pp. 39-91)".[6] In addition to the role of James, Russell observes the role of two American Realists:

"the American realists . . . Professor R. B. Perry of Harvard and Mr. Edwin B. Holt . . . have derived a strong impulsion from James, but have more interest than he had in logic and mathematics and the abstract part of philosophy. They speak of "neutral" entities as the stuff out of which both mind and matter are constructed. Thus Holt says: '... perhaps the least dangerous name is neutral-stuff.'".[7]

Russell goes on to agree with James and in part with the "American realists":

"My own belief -- for which the reasons will appear in subsequent lectures -- is that James is right in rejecting consciousness as an entity, and that the American realists are partly right, though not wholly, in considering that both mind and matter are composed of a neutral-stuff which, in isolation is neither mental nor material".[8]

David Chalmers

David Chalmers[9] considers the consciousness of rocks as well as thermostats, although he eschews the notion that rocks are conscious:

"I do not think it is strictly accurate to say that rocks (for example) have experiences . . . although rocks may have experiences associated with them. ... Personally, I am much more confident of naturalistic dualism than I am of panpsychism. The latter issue seems to be very much open. But I hope to have said enough to show that we ought to take the possibility of some sort of panpsychism seriously: there seem to be no knockdown arguments against the view, and there are various positive reasons why one might embrace it." (Chalmers 1996:299)

In his 2002 Consciousness and its Place in Nature, Chalmers carefully considers neutral monism and panpsychism, variants of what he calls "Type-F Monism".[10] He admits that

"The type-F view is admittedly speculative and it can sound strange at first hearing. Many find it extremely counterintuitive to suppose that fundamental physical systems have phenomenal properties: e.g. that there is something it is like to be an electron".[10]

Other considerations

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 distinct mental and physical aspects or attributes that are two faces of the same underlying reality in the one substance.

Emergent materialism is another form of metaphysical monism that respects both mind and matter.

See also

References and notes

  1. ^ C.D. Broad, The Mind and Its Place in Nature, London: Kegan Paul, 1925,
  2. ^ William James, Essays in Radical Empiricism, New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1912.
  3. ^ Bertrand Russell, The Analysis of Mind, London, G. Allen & Unwin; New York, Macmillan, 1921.
  4. ^ r.e. "(p. 4)" see next footnotes about source of James's quote. The James quote appears at Russell 1921:10.
  5. ^ Russell 1921:10
  6. ^ Russell 1921:10. The ibid refers to footnote #5 on Russell 1921:9 with regards to the quotes from James derived from Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Method's," vol. i, 1904. Reprinted in "Essays in Radical Empiricism (Longmans, Green & Co., 1912), pp. 1-38.
  7. ^ Russell 1921:10-11
  8. ^ Russell 1921:11
  9. ^ 1996:293-301 "4. Is Experience Ubiquitous?" which includes subsections What is it like to be a thermostat?, Whither pansychism?, and Constraining the double-aspect principle
  10. ^ a b Chalmers 2002:264-267


  • "Monism". Columbia Encyclopedia. Columbia University Press. 2008. Retrieved 2008-09-23. 
  • Bertrand Russell (1921) The Analysis of Mind, republished 2005 by Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, NY, ISBN 0-486-44551-8 (pbk.)
  • Andrew Gluck (2007) Damasio's Error and Descartes' Truth: An Inquiry into Epistemology, Metaphysics, and Consciousness, University of Scranton Press, Scranton PA, ISBN 978-1-58966-127-1 ((pb)).
  • David Chalmers (1996) The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory, Oxford University Press, New York, ISBN 0-19-511789-1 (Pbk.)
  • David Chalmers ed. (2002) Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings, Oxford University Press, New York, ISBN 0-19-514581-X (pbk. : alk. paper).

External links

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