Articles - Alan > Uniting Monism and Pluralism


Uniting Monism and Pluralism

In her New Thought article, "What is a Metaphysician?" (Autumn 2008), Deb Whitehouse distinguished (1) the popular meaning of metaphysics as a way that people directly use their minds to bring about various practical goals from (2) the traditional meaning as the branch of philosophy dedicated to the discovery of what anything (physical or nonphysical, nonliving or living) is like in order to be at all. Here are two terms that can contribute additional clarity to our comprehension of traditional metaphysics: monism and pluralism, each of which has both qualitative (what kind) and quantitative (how many) forms. Monism means one-ism; pluralism, more-than-one-ism.

When we refer to metaphysical idealism and materialism, we are concerned with what quality everything most basically has. If we say that everything is essentially material (matter, with mind a mere squeaking of the machinery called the brain), we are qualitative monists of a materialistic sort. If we say that all is mind or consciousness or experience, we are qualitative monists of an idealistic sort. When it comes to considering how many units of whatever is real, if we are materialists, we almost automatically become quantitative pluralists, assuming that it makes no sense to believe that there is only one great hunk of material stuff.

In the ancient world, there were qualitative pluralists. Empedocles maintained that there are four "roots" (or elements): earth, water, air, and fire, which are moved by love and strife, with the varying combinations of them explaining all that exists. Anaxagoras held that there are innumerable qualitatively differing "seeds," observable things being mixtures of them, with at least a little of each kind in all things. The seeds were said to be moved by nous (reason). In the modern world, the only qualitative metaphysical pluralism is Descartes' dualism, which claims that spatially unextended thought and spatially extended matter are equally real, with neither reducible to the other.

If we are to be idealists (maintaining that all is essentially mind or consciousness or experience), we have more thinking to do beyond deciding that all is in the nature of idea or mind, since it is not obvious how many minds there are. Most people, if asked (after maybe momentarily thinking how strange the questioner must be to put that question), probably would answer that there are many minds. But if the person asked were a New Thoughter, the response might well be that there is only one mind--quite likely capitalized and explained as being God. That is what I was taught when I entered New Thought about half a century ago.

It may be that the first serious challenge to this God-only view that I encountered was Horatio W. Dresser's objection that ethics is meaningless without at least two genuinely existing beings to be in ethical--or unethical--relationship. If there were only one mind, how could there be other minds (persons) to be either ethical or unethical? For years I stuck to the position that there is only one that somehow appears or individuates as many. Eventually I came to believe that persons (not all of whom are human beings—consider God, angels, dolphins, possibly extraterrestrials) in relationships constitute something even more impressive and worthwhile than one mind. It is significant that the full name of process philosophy, to which I'll turn shortly, is process-relational philosophy. In relationships, by means of what process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called prehension (the feeling of the feelings of others), one unit of experience is included within another. This is something that cannot be pictured, but may well be referred to by the notion of mingling minds associated with Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, often called the "father of New Thought."

It is also significant that of the several types of metaphysical idealism, all but one of them hold that there are many minds, with almost invariably the chief mind considered to be God. The one exception to belief in many minds is absolutism, in religious language, pantheism. Absolutism has had some great upholders, including Vedantists, and--in the West--Spinoza, Hegel, various British Hegelians, and Josiah Royce. Some American Hegel followers (the St. Louis Hegelians) may have influenced a few early New Thoughters, but it is likely that testimony of the great mystics played a much more important role in forming New Thought absolutism. Probably absolutism/pantheism is the single most popular metaphysical view held in New Thought.

But is New Thought forever stuck with absolutism for its philosophical foundation? Not at all! If one were counting philosophical noses, it would be easy to enumerate some pretty prominent proboscises of philosophical advocates of qualitatively monistic but quantitatively pluralistic idealism: Plato, Leibniz, Berkeley, all the personalists-- including Ernest Holmes's friend, Ralph T. Flewelling-- and arguably Alfred North Whitehead. I say arguably because although Whitehead has been classified as an idealist, of the panpsychistic (claiming a great many units of mind or psyche) type, many of Whitehead's followers are reluctant to be classified among idealists such as Bishop Berkeley, who said that to be is to be perceived; hence these Whiteheadians prefer to be called panexperientalists, believing that all is experience.

After I rejected quantitative monism, I concluded that New Thought would be much better off with a philosophical foundation of Whiteheadian process thinking: qualitative idealistic monism combined with quantitative pluralism. Deb Whitehouse and I introduced Process New Thought in our New Thought: A Practical American Spirituality in 1995, with a revised edition in 2003.

Traditional New Thought emphasizes substance, which literally means "that which stands under." One might say that substance really is in process, becoming, rather than essentially changeless being that endures self-identically throughout many changes. Process thinkers believe that it makes greater sense to say that becoming is basic, and that combinations of units of becoming constitute everything, even God, who grows in experience, although not in perfection.

So now New Thought has a new alternative explanation for all the wondrous accomplishments that we are privileged to participate in, both in daily living and in our most profound reflection on what reality is all about.