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Monisms

Alex Hubbard's picture

Dear David,

I encountered a distinction during my undergraduate degree within western philosophy between metaphysical monism and mystical monism which opened up some new considerations for me, hopefully they’re not so amateur as to be irrelevant here. Mystical monism is the definition I was most familiar with and it is understood by western philosophy to mean something like union with the divine. Metaphysical monism is used to mean a theory which asserts that reality is of one substance and I think that that can sometimes signify an underlying condition and sometimes not, depending on the theorist. My point about the second monism is just that it doesn’t seem to imply a lack of multiplicity, and despite a possible similarity between ‘underlying’ and ‘ultimate’ doesn’t necessarily demand a hierarchy of some sort.

At the time one of the thoughts that occurred to me related to the Buddhist view of reality as the non-duality of emptiness and form, which within Buddhism, also exists (as a definition of reality) alongside other seemingly ultimate descriptions such as ‘primordial purity’ or ‘clear light’, which I think are intended as descriptions which characterise everything. So, I wondered whether Buddhism falls under a metaphysical monism, in that it describes everything as primordially pure (i.e. has a single defining characteristic) for example, and also allows for multiplicity. According to the lecturer who had to suffer my questions on the matter (he is a Hegel expert), Hegel falls under this allocation i.e. his concept of Absolute Spirit is a metaphysical monism that has little to do with the glomming together of substance or an ultimate level of real reality that is distinguished from a less ultimate level (in its attainment, if you see what I mean?).

One last thing. You mentioned in your reply to another comment that feedback was welcome on the content of the blog generally, well, might I say, in relation to the stuff on the page ‘An improbable re-animation’ for example, too little too soon? Put it this way, I look forward to more,

all the very best,
Alex.

Two kinds of monism

Hi, Alex,

Thank you very much for your thoughtful comment. You are always welcome here…

I am strictly an amateur in philosophy myself, with less formal training than you have. I hope neither you nor anyone else feels intimidated by my half-baked attempts at scholarship.

Yes, the distinction between those two senses of “monism” is important, and interesting, and there’s something about it I don’t quite understand.

Generally, on this site, I will be talking about “monism” in the “mystical” sense. It’s about the unity of all things, especially the unity of one’s self with the Absolute (whatever that’s supposed to be).

The other sense arises in consideration of the mind-body problem. There, “dualism” refers to the theory that the mind and matter (including the body) are two different sorts of things, whereas “monism” is the theory that they are the same sort of thing.

That monism comes in three flavors. There’s “idealism”, which is the theory that only mental stuff exists; “materialism”, which is the theory that only matter exists; and “neutral monism”, which says that since mind and matter are the same thing, it doesn’t make sense to say that there’s only one or the other.

Now the interesting thing is that historically, in many different places and times, you usually find mystical monism and idealism together. They are not logically connected; that is, you could believe either one and reject the other. But there seems to be a connection at the level of emotional appeal.

Perhaps even more interestingly, there are two senses of “materialism”, the mind-body problem sense, and Madonna’s “I’m a material girl” sense. And these again typically co-occur, although they are logically unconnected.

On this site, I’ll mostly be talking about Madonna materialism, although probably the other will come up sometimes too. And I think I’ll probably write about the emotional connection between the two; but I don’t feel I understand it fully yet.

Within Buddhism, there are many philosophical schools, with varying positions on various senses of monism… For a long time, the dominant Mahayana philosophical school was Cittamatra, which translates as “mind-only”, and which seems to be quite close to Western philosophical idealism, i.e. matter is a mere projection of mind. Madhyamaka, which mostly supplanted Cittamatra, would seem to reject all positions with regard to the mind-body problem. But it is interpreted in diverse ways, and the problem doesn’t just go way—it is highly relevant to rebirth—so people working in the Madhyamaka tradition continue to say one thing or another.

Our own tradition is unusual in the frequency with which it rejects monism. (I have seen rejections of monism in other traditions, but only in passing.) I’m interpreting that as a rejection of the other sense of monism—”all is One,” denying separation and distinctions. I don’t know where or whether there is a developed Buddhist philosophical analysis around that.

An awful lot of Westerners think that Buddhism is monist in that sense. In fact, my engagement with monism was triggered by reading about this in David McMahan’s excellent Making of Buddhist Modernism. He argues that the “all is One” theme in modern Buddhism mostly comes from Schelling, not Buddhism. However, this is also found in the “Indra’s Net” section of the Flower Ornament Sutra. That’s a Mahayana sutra, and is explicitly rejected by Theravada. It was highly influential in Chinese Buddhism, however. It seems to have had much less influence on Tibetan Buddhism, although apparently the Tibetans regard it as canonical. It would be interesting to read an analysis of Indra’s Net from a Madhyamaka point of view.

I’m glad you like what I’ve written so far. I’ll write more as fast as I can!

(In the mean time, I’m neglecting Buddhism for Vampires, which I feel really badly about, but… at least I got brain-eating zombies into my most recent post!)

Cheers,

David

Nosology

It cannot be an accident, any more than it is an accident that our mental and our bodily powers are extinguished together at death, that thought and language arrive together, in Hegel, at the highest degree of corruption of which either is capable.

David Stove, What Is Wrong With Our Thoughts?

[[Stove is a sort of crusty conservative and so I don’t share his views all that much, but the linked essay is hilarious and might even be useful.]]

Funny and profound

Thank you very much indeed!

That piece is very, very, very funny; and also, I think, seriously insightful.

I love the fact that he picks on Hegel in particular. Maybe it’s shooting a fish in a barrel, but when the fish is packed full of high explosives, that’s big fun.

But his serious point is that criticizing German Idealism—or any other bad philosophy—is both too easy and impossible. The critiques boil down to “Look, that’s just totally silly”; or “the Emperor has no clothes.” Which, in the event, was entirely adequate; simply saying that was enough to extirpate it for several decades. (Why did no one do that earlier? I don’t know.)

But, as he points out, this critique, while devastating at the time, is in no way a serious philosophical argument. It doesn’t diagnose what is wrong. He calls for a “nosology of thought”, meaning a categorization of ways philosophy can go wrong. His list of obviously wrong, but undiagnosable, assertions about the number three is for me the funniest part of the whole thing…

Anyway, my project with this site is closely similar. I’m trying to categorize all the ways in which regular people mis-understand meaningness, along with suggestions for alternatives (which I hope are correct). That’s a nosology of thought, but applied to popular thought-soup rather than academic philosophy.

In my experience, the “look, that’s just totally silly” approach doesn’t help non-philosophers infected with pop monist eternalism.

So my approach is to try to understand the disease process at the molecular level. What is the receptor site for each virulent meme? Then in each case I hope to design an antagonist to block the receptor.

(Also, of course, I can make fun of philosophers’ haircuts.)

David

Bad ideas

Glad this was useful!

Since I started thinking about this a year and a half ago, after reading David McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism which covers some of the same material, I have come to see this as a pervasive problem. Once you know what to look for, this set of bad ideas is everywhere.

But hardly anyone seems to be pointing out that they are problematic. Many Buddhist teachers, for example, accept them without thinking about where they come from or whether they are actually compatible with Buddhism.

Hi, David, All my

Hi, David,

All my appreciation for your blogs, I will surely follow them.

Greetings from Hungary,

Máthé Veronika/roni

Logic traps

Interesting that you see monism as a denial of diversity rather than an embrace.

A monist view cannot be expressed ‘monistically’, as all language is dual by it’s very design - a means to COmmunicate. Thus people easily fall into the trap of using the limits of dualistic communication against any monist position. Shooting the messenger so to speak. Rational, yes, but as in rationing into parts. Thus, monism is erroneously seen as a separate part like all other thoughts (and in that way, is indeed made separate, by mind (the very error is seeks to point out). Nice little trap in this thinking business.

It is not a matter of one vs many. It it that many arise of one, and one appears as many, and so both. Neither having any meaning beyond our relative perspectives - aka Mind.

In essence, various expressions of monism will always fall short in message, as they point to an internal recognition of the fundamental, and so are not workable as an external teaching. Many ancient and modern texts attempt to address this in their teachings, but without personal insight, they are unlikely to shed any light.

Since you reference Buddhism, lets look at its first teaching. This error is akin to the desire to end suffering being rooted in its very cause. Most see the 4 Noble Truths as a prescription, and try to apply it to end suffering, rather than heeding the inherent warning that reveals its end without effort. Approach it as a Zen Koan, directly. Not as a doctrine to follow. Buddha was a slick one. Attachment to anything is separation from everything. Nothing sticks (impermanence), and if it does (attachment), cut it loose (‘liberation’).

Is it just your informal

Is it just your informal observation that the two senses of materialism “typically co-occur,” or do you have hard evidence for this? It hasn’t been my experience at all.

Two materialisms

Hi Eric, thanks for the comment!

It is shocking for me to discover that this post is four years old, and I haven’t followed it up properly. I had expected to write much more on the topic soon thereafter, but haven’t had a chance.

“Typically co-occur” was indeed an informal observation, without any systematic evidence. In fact, at four years’ remove, it’s somewhat difficult for me to even reconstruct what I was thinking when I wrote that. (In my defense, I did say I didn’t think I fully understood the connection!)

I think what I had in mind was the common pattern of rejecting religion, rejecting the immortal soul with it, accepting mind/body materialism, deciding that since heaven is a myth, one might as well just enjoy the material world as much as possible. This can lead to rejecting all goals beyond pragmatic utility for oneself and one’s immediate social circle. That is materialism in the sense of this book. I do know quite a lot of people who commonly adopt that stance.

Of course, one can be a mind/body materialist and also an altruist. One can be an altruist because one is a mind/body materialist, even!

I might guess that you are familiar with the LessWrong rationalist community? In which case, welcome, I’m glad you are here… LessWrong has a strongly altruistic stance, which is one of several things I admire about it.

On the other hand, LessWrong may tend to fall into the opposite error to materialism, namely mission (as I am using the word in this book). This page starts to explain that.

Two materialisms

Your guess is correct: the organizer for the Philadelphia LW meetup group offered these posts as a discussion prompt.

Which things seem to co-occur will strongly be affected by your social milieu. Being a politically active socialist, I may know a disproportionate number of people in whom metaphysical materialism and ethical altruism co-occur. Still, I’m skeptical of the claim that there’s an overall correlation one way or another – especially since the kind you suggested sounds so much like an old anti-atheist stereotype.

I’d also remind you that people’s accounts of the reasons for their own attitudes, even if sincerely believed, aren’t necessarily accurate; we aren’t “reliable narrators” of our own motivations. In particular, I think people are wont to ascribe intellectual sources for habits that are really emotional or innately dispositional in their origins.

Welcome Philadelphia LW

Which things seem to co-occur will strongly be affected by your social milieu.

Yes. Although it was an off-hand observation in a blog comment, I’d like to formally withdraw “typically co-occur” until/unless there’s some statistical evidence. It is one reasonably common pattern, but I have no idea how prevalent it is overall.

People’s accounts of the reasons for their own attitudes, even if sincerely believed, aren’t necessarily accurate; we aren’t “reliable narrators” of our own motivations. In particular, I think people are wont to ascribe intellectual sources for habits that are really emotional or innately dispositional in their origins.

Yes, I absolutely agree, and this point is one of the main themes of the book. This page discusses that somewhat, along with the relationship between Meaningness and the rationalist movement.

I’m not exactly sure how you meant for this point to apply here, though. Is it that some people who are merely self-centered use mind/body materialism as an excuse?

Monism versus Nondualism versus Idealism.

Western-style monism is the claim that there is only one entity, or kind of entity. Variations include Material monism, the idea that all is matter, and idealistic monism, the idea that all is mind, and neutral monism, the idea that all is neither matter nor mind. All three kinds are compatible with the idea that there are multiple, genuinely distinct, individual entities – multiple tokens, but all of the same type. Eastern-style nondualism is sometimes equated with monism, but there are differences. Nondualism is the idea that there are no fundamental distinctions in reality. Nondualism therefore at odds, with materialist and idealistic monism because both assume the validity of a fundamental distinction in order to “take sides”, to claim that one of two possible answers to a question is realised and the other not. (Neutral monism is closer to Nondualism). Nondualism is also incompatible with the fundamental distinctness of individuals„ since it rejects the validity of the whole-part distinction. It is therefore aligned with mystical monism, the belief that it is possible for an individual to conjoin with the Absolute in henosis, mystical union. (From the nondualistic point of view, this is seen as the shedding of illusions of seperateness, uncovering a pre-existing state). Since nondualism is incompatible with the fundamental distinctness of individuals, it must explain the fact that they are apparently different. This they do by , maintaining that the appearances are deceptive. This theory of illusion, or Maya, often accompanies the theory of Nondualism, or Advaita, in the Asian context. In the Western context, Nondualism is often linked to idealism. Given the preceding explanations, it would be a contradiction to say that the ultimate ultimate nondual reality is mental as opposed to material. The relevance of idealism to Nondualism is via the Maya theory. A unified nondual reality that appears to itself –there is nothing else for it to appear to – multiple and divided, must have intrinsic abilities for appearance and perception. But these abilities are not exclusive of any others. Nondual reality cannot exclude any possibilities, in the way that idealistic monism excludes materialism, and vice-versa. Idealism itself means different things in the Eastern and Western contexts. In the West, the emphasis is on mental content and process, in the east on pure consciousness and awareness. (Compare with kataphatic and apophatic mysticism). For instance, in Hegels Absolute Idealism, Geist propels the unfolding of history as it shifts from one unsatisfactory stance to another. In contrast, Nisargadatta Maharaj ‘s “That” stands aloof from both worldly existence and history. Pure consciousness is credited with the ability to reflect itself in a variety of ways, leading to the illusion of a complex world, in a way that can be illustrated with the analogy of a hall of mirrors, or “Indra’s Net”. Some Western philosophers hold to the Pure Consciousness version of idealism, and some of them use the invalid argument that because consciousness is epistemically primary, it is also ontologocally primary (eg Peter Zuban). The conclusion is a non-sequitur; it is also incompatible with Nondualism, which can only grant consciousness a penultimate reality.

Relevant distinctions

Hi Peter, thanks for pointing out some relevant distinctions! There are many others in this space; for example, Buddhism has several different concepts of nonduality, most or all of which are different from the Hindu Advaita one.

My goal in writing about this is to analyze problems in current popular stances toward meaningness, and to suggest ways of avoiding them.

So there’s two things I’m mainly not doing. First, I’m not writing a detailed intellectual history of these ideas. I think that historical work is hugely valuable; for example, I’m inspired by David L. McMahan’s work on the huge influence of German Romantic Idealism on modern Buddhism. However, I’m not a historian of philosophy or religion, and will leave most of that work to professionals.

The other thing I’m mainly not doing is carefully presenting and analyzing historical (or even current) ideas in their own terms. Again, I think that’s valuable work. However, my goals are pragmatic, not academic or intellectual.

I want to show how and why the general monist meme-complex is harmful and wrong, and how to avoid it. For that, the details of German vs Hindu vs Buddhist monism are probably not important.

That means that I will be writing in broad-brush terms, which may sometimes seem careless to scholars or advocates of particular philosophical systems. That’s an inevitable price to pay for addressing a broad audience.

Still, I want to write as accurately as possible, so when I make overly-broad generalizations, pointing out exceptions can be helpful.

Yes, my "unreliable narrators

Yes, my “unreliable narrators” point was partly about using philosophical materialism as an excuse. But it was also, inversely, in response to your saying some people are altruists because they’re materialists. They may believe that, but I’m dubious. It certainly can’t be the whole story, else all materialists would be altruists.

Precision

Yes, thank you, I agree with that, too!

[Note to self: remember to use precise language when answering blog comments from people who understand and appreciate precision :-) ]

Hi David

Hi David

There are current forms of monism/nondualism that are confused,and versions that are not. Some people are getting it wrong, others are not, it is not a given that all monism is uniformally wrong, so it does require analysis to identify genuine mistakes.
The danger in treating monism in broad brush strokes is that you are not going to give a fair hearing to the 10% that isn’t crap.

(I am not in fact selling monism as as opposed to pluralism: I think a number of approaches coalesce in their done-right forms. But that us going to be invisible if whatever has been placed in the bucket labelled monism stays there forever).

Not-confused monism

I do think that monism has some important, correct insights. It wouldn’t be as popular as it has been, over the past couple centuries, if that weren’t true.

I am skeptical that any current monist system is overall non-confused. However, I haven’t yet explained what I think is wrong with monism. (This page starts to set up some of the conceptual machinery, but there’s a lot more background to write before the actual critique. I don’t know when, or whether, I will ever get time to do that.) So we probably can’t discuss specific cases productively here.

In the meantime, over on my Wordpress blog, I’ve written several pieces you might find relevant, addressing monist ideas within Buddhism specifically. I ask “Are mystical experiences metaphysical evidence?,” and give reasons to think that they are not. Monism is typically (but not always) justified by reference to mystical experience, so this is relevant. “Epistemology and enlightenment,” particularly the section on Rationality, continues that theme.

In “Wholeness, connection, and meditation: Competing visions,” I suggest reasons that monism has become popular in 20th Century Buddhism, and why it doesn’t belong there.

I don’t know whether the points I make there are relevant to the system(s) you favor (which I imagine are more influenced by Hindu Advaita than Buddhism). I don’t know as much about Advaita as I should, and that’s something I’ll need to rectify before writing the main chapter on monism.

Sturgeons Law in Principle and Practice.

There’s no system that’s so unconfused that someone can’t get confused about it.

It may be that monism is misunderstood. Lots of things can be misunderstood.

It may be that monism doesn’t mix well with Tibetan Buddhism. Many mixtures don’t work. That would mean mixtures are bad.

“The stereotype of “spiritual” people (such as New Agers) is based in fact: monist practices make you scatter-brained. Monists are always following their latest “divine intuition” or “message from the universe,” hopping from one unrealistic path to another.”

Monist practices? I have heard of Vedic study and self inquiry..

“They rarely have enough stability to get anything done.Monism’s insistence on a unitary Higher Self makes it impossible to find workable compromises among conflicting motivations.

Which is something that would only happen if you confuse the Higher Self with the apparent, conventional self.. something monists are told not to do, on page 1

“If the great teachers and traditions of the world have agreed on anything, it is this: we are not who we think we are, and there is more to “what is” than meets the eye. “

(The Closely Examined Life, Self Inquiry as the Direct Path to Truth by, Carol Skolnick, page 1, line1)

Of course there may be monists who are so confused that they are not even on page 1.

There may be Tibetan Buddhists who’re confused that they think it means banging your head one gong all day. I don’t know. But I know they are not going to be used as argument against Tibetan Buddhism,

bad ideas?

Noah's picture

Hi,

I’m glad I recently discovered your blog. I’m a philosophically minded scientist (in training) with a recent interest in Eastern-flavored ideas, so it’s a good fit for me. However, you say “Many [of these ideas] are almost right, and perhaps none is entirely wrong.” Why then do you call them bad ideas? I’m assuming you don’t mean it too seriously, but surely the notion that ideas like this can be separated into “good” and “bad” ideas is badder than all those listed!

Bad ideas

Hi Noah, glad you like the blog; welcome!

Some ideas are unambiguously good or bad. “Sterilize your hands and equipment before doing surgery” is a good idea. “When the king dies, kill all his generals, wives, counselors, harem girls, slaves, and body guards, and bury them with him so they can serve him in the after-life” is a bad idea.

Most cases are not so clear cut. One could not categorize all ideas as “good” or “bad”; in fact the nebulosity of all categorizations is one of the main themes of the book.

“Bad ideas from dead Germans” is just a blog post, and it didn’t make any attempt to explain how or why those ideas are bad. Eventually, the monism section of the book will.

"transcending"

Pyrrha's picture

Hello David,

I was reading your blog while putting off writing an essay - and then I ran across this quotation while doing research for it:

“It is now about twenty years since the whole race of Germans began to ‘transcend.’ Should they ever wake up to this fact, they will look very odd to themselves.”

—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1826)

I figure you’ve got to pass on the things that make you laugh out loud.

-a pseudonymous millennial apprentice

Much of what you mentioned as

Ferguson 's picture

Much of what you mentioned as their core ideas does converge with or almost directly replicate the ancient eastern wisdom traditions though.

F.e. the “True Self” (even though this term is somewhat misleading): “What most people mistake as their selves is just an outer shell, the ego. It is created out of social conditioning and is divorced from our true essence.

The true self lies beneath the ego. It is normally hidden, but can be accessed through special means.”

Isn’t this what Sutrayana Buddhism and in fact all nondual schools teach? Only that the “true Self “/Buddha Nature isn’t hidden since it’s with you permanently, but one has forgotten to realise it.
The Hindu’s notion of Atman and Brahman being identical is basically the same as Anatman/No-Self being Buddha Nature.

Dead Germans and Buddha Nature

Many of the Dead Germans were openly, directly, explicitly influenced by Hinduism, so this is not a coincidence.

Going back at least 1500 years, Buddhists have been arguing about whether Buddha Nature (tathagatagarbha) is a True Self doctrine, and how to reconcile it with anatman. There are thousands of texts about this. I’ve read only a few, and found them generally unedifying, unfortunately.

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You are reading a metablog post, dated November 7, 2010.

The next metablog post is An improbable re-animation.

The previous metablog post was Pop spirituality: monism goes mainstream.

This page’s topics are Eternalism, History of ideas, Monism, and Romanticism.

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