Neutral monism

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Neutral monism is an umbrella term for a class of metaphysical theories in the philosophy of mind. These theories reject the dichotomy of mind and matter, believing the fundamental nature of reality to be neither mental nor physical; in other words it is "neutral".[1]

Relations to other theories[edit]

A diagram showing the relationship between neutral monism and three other philosophical theories.

Physicalists believe reality is fundamentally material, idealists believe reality is fundamentally mental, dualists believe reality consists of both fundamentally mental and fundamentally physical elements, and neutral monists believe reality consists of elements that are neither fundamentally physical nor mental.[2]


Neutral monism largely overlaps with dual-aspect theory. However, it shares little in common with other forms of monism, such as idealism and physicalism.[citation needed]


Neutral monism is similar to dualism in that both take reality to have both mental and physical properties irreducible to one another. Unlike dualism however, neutral monism does not take these properties to be fundamental or separate from one another from any meaningful sense.[3] Dualism takes the mind to supervene on matter, or - though this is less common - for matter to supervene on the mind. Neutral monism, in contrast, take both mind and matter to supervene on a neutral third substance. According to Baruch Spinoza, the mind and the body are dual aspects of Nature or God, which he identified as the third substance.[4]

While schematic differences and neutral monism are quite stark, contemporary conceptions of the theories overlap in certain key areas. For instance, Chalmers (1996) maintains that the difference between neutral monism and his preferred property dualism can, at times, be mostly semantic.[5]


Panpsychism is a class of theories that believe consciousness is ubiquitous. John Searle distinguished it from neutral monism as well as property dualism, which he identified as a form of dualism.[6] However, some neutral monist theories are panpsychist and some panpsychist theories are neutral monist. However, the two don't always overlap. For instance, Russellian monism is not panpsychism in response to the combination problem. Conversely, some versions of property dualism are panpsychist, but not neutral monistic.[citation needed]


Early 20th century[edit]

Neutral monism about the mind–body relationship is described by C. D. Broad in one of his earlier works, The Mind and Its Place in Nature. Broad's list of possible views about the mind-body problem, which became known simply as "Broad's famous list of 1925" (see chapter XIV of Broad's book)[7] states the basis of what this theory had been and was to become. Some examples of philosophers who are seen to have a neutral monist view are Baruch Spinoza, David Hume, Roberto Ardigò, Ernst Mach, Richard Avenarius, Kenneth Sayre, Joseph Petzoldt and Jonathan Westphal.[citation needed] There are few self-proclaimed neutral monists. Most who are regarded as of this view were classified as such after their deaths.

Earlier, William James had propounded the notion in his essay "Does Consciousness Exist?" in 1904 (reprinted in Essays in Radical Empiricism in 1912).[8] Whately Carington in his book Matter, Mind, and Meaning (1949) advocated a form of neutral monism. He held that mind and matter both consist of the same kind of components known as "cognita" or sense data.[9][10][11] Russian psychologist Boris Sidis also appears to have adhered to some form of neutral monism.[12] William James was one of the earliest philosophers to fully articulate a complete neutral monist view of the world. He did so largely in reaction to neo-Kantianism, which was prevalent at the time.[13]

Bertrand Russell is perhaps the best known advocate of neutral monism. Russell expressed interest in neutral monism early on his career, and officially endorsed the view from 1919 onward. He has hailed the ontology as the "supreme maxim in scientific philosophising". Russell's conception of neutral monism went through a number of iterations throughout his career.[13][3] Russell's personal brand of neutral can be referred to as Russell's neutral monism or Russellian monism. It is compatible with logical atomism, which was identified as Russel's earlier philosophy until he changed it into "neutral monism".[14] G.E Moore maintained that neutral monism such as Russell's philosophy is flawed due to a misinterpretation of facts (e.g. the concept of acquaintance).[15]


David Chalmers[16] has been known to express sympathy toward neutral monism. In The Conscious Mind (1996) he concludes that facts about consciousness are "further facts about our world" and that there ought to be more to reality than just the physical. He then goes on to engage with a Platonic rendition of neutral monism that holds information as fundamental. Though Chalmers believes neutral monism and panpsychism ought to be taken seriously, he considers the combination problem to be point of concern. He considers Russell's solution of "protophenominal properties" to be ad hoc, and thinks such speculation undercuts the parsimony that made neutral monism initially appealing.

According to Stephen Stich and Ted Warfield, neutral monism has not been a popular view in philosophy as it is difficult to develop or understand the nature of the neutral elements.[17] Nevertheless, a Machian version of the view has been defended by Jonathan Westphal in The Mind-Body Problem, 2016.[18]

Arguments in favour[edit]

Substance can have both extrinsic properties and intrinsic properties. Extrinsic properties are properties that are outwardly observable, such structures and form. Intrinsic properties are properties that are not outwardly observable and concern the intrinsic nature of a thing.[note 1] By its very nature physics deals with the extrinsic properties of matter (if they weren't intrinsic, then they couldn't be described mathematically). As a consequence, most of the positive claims in these fields are related to the extrinsic properties of reality. When it comes to describing the intrinsic nature of matter physics "is silent". However, just because the intrinsic properties of matter are unknown does not mean they don't exist.[note 2] There are arguments to be made that the intrinsic properties of matter must necessarily exist. As Chalmers puts it, a world of "pure causal flux" may be logically impossible, for there is "nothing for causation to relate."[5]

Consciousness plays an interesting role in this picture. It cannot be seen through extrinsic signatures (as is evidenced by the problem of other minds), but it surely exists. It would seem, then, that it fits the criteria for an intrinsic property of at least some matter (specifically gray matter). So if (1) consciousness is the only intrinsic property of matter there is evidence for, and (2) matter must necessarily have intrinsic properties. Neutral monists take these two premises and take it to inductively infer that all matter has intrinsic conscious properties.[13]

This also helps solve the mind-body problem. If conscious properties are the intrinsic part of matter that is doing the relating, then there is no need for mind and body to react. Physical causes are merely external realisations of mental causes, and the correlations between the brain and mind may demonstrate.

Arguments against[edit]

Critics of neutral monism cite the combination problem as its biggest challenge.[citation needed] Though Russell has proposed "protophenominal" properties as potential solutions to this problem, critics such as David Chalmers consider this to be ad hoc.[5] It is not clear what "protophenomenal" means, or how such an idea differs from standard physicalism.[19]

Annaka Harris, author of Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind has dismissed the combination problem. By her account, the combination problem ceases to be relevant once one understands that the sense of being a "self" experiencing the world is a mere illusion. Taking on a view reminiscent of platonic variations of neutral monism, she argues that consciousness may exist simultaneously within individual neurons and within their higher order structures. The mind may have no one consciousness system, but is rather a conglomeration of overlapping conscious systems continuously changing.[20][21] Chalmers considers a similar possibility in his exploration of platonic neutral monism However, he dismisses it for its "redundancy." So far, laws of nature have proven to be parsimonious and symmetrical. The notion of multiple overlapping conscious systems realised from the same information could be break from this routine, thus providing reason for skepticism.[5]


Radical empiricism[edit]

This form of neutral monism was formulated by William James. It was done mostly in response to his colleages dismissal of its rank "among first principles". Consciousness, in William James perspective, is the epistemic foundation upon which all other knowledge rests; if an ontology is incompatible with its existence, then it is the ontology that must be dismissed, not consciousness. William James considered "the perceived and the perceiver" to simply be two sides of the same coin.[13]

Russellian monism[edit]

Russellian monism most famously differs from other views of neutral monism in its proposed solution to the combination problem. Russell proposes the existence of "paraphenomenal" properties, that may give rise to consciousness when organised in a certain way.[19][13]


Not all Platonic theories are neutral monist, but some neutral monist theories are Platonic. Platonic versions of neutral monism have become more prevalent in recent decades.[13] Though these views vary in the details, they usually take a form similar to more common forms of radical Platonism such as the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis; the difference being that they do not see such theories as sufficient for consciousness. As Chalmers points out, information will play a crucial role in any adequate theory of consciousness as the correlations between brain states and mental states must be accounted for. So, platonic versions of neutral monism argue that information is realised both physically and phenomenologically.[5]

Some may also find Platonism appealing thanks to its parsimony: logical truths may necessarily exist, and the mental and physical are mere consequences of this necessary existence. These theories also have the advantage of having coherently defined the neutral variable, thus having overcome what's long been a major challenge for neutral monism.[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ If it helps, extrinsic properties can be thought of as "symptoms" and intrinsic properties can be thought of as a "disease". This analogy breaks down fairly quickly, however.
  2. ^ Though there some radical Platonists, such as Max Tegmark, who believe reality has no intrinsic properties. By Tegmark's account, the universe is made of math without anything to ground it.


  1. ^ Craig, Edward. (1998). Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Routledge. p. 816. ISBN 0415-07310-3
  2. ^ Stubenberg, Leopold (2018), Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), "Neutral Monism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2020-12-19
  3. ^ a b Irvine, Andrew David (2020), "Bertrand Russell", in Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2020 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2020-08-30
  4. ^ Vacariu, Gabriel (2015). Illusions of Human Thinking: On Concepts of Mind, Reality, and Universe in Psychology, Neuroscience, and Physics. Wiesbaden: Springer. p. 626. ISBN 978-3-658-10443-6.
  5. ^ a b c d e Chalmers, David John, 1966- (1996). The conscious mind : in search of a fundamental theory. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-510553-2. OCLC 33101543.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  6. ^ Lavazza, Andrea; Robinson, Howard (2014). Contemporary Dualism: A Defense. Oxon: Routledge. p. 226. ISBN 978-0-415-81882-7.
  7. ^ Broad, C. D (1925) The Mind and Its Place in Nature. London: Kegan Paul.
  8. ^ James, William. (1912). Essays in Radical Empiricism. New York: Longmans, Green, and Co.
  9. ^ Broad, C. D. (1950). Matter, Mind, and Meaning by W. Whately Carington. Philosophy. Vol. 25, No. 94. pp. 275–277.
  10. ^ Grenell, R. G. (1953). Matter, Mind and Meaning by Whately Carington. The Quarterly Review of Biology. Vol. 28, No. 4. pp. 404–405.
  11. ^ Oakeshott, Michael; O'Sullivan, Luke. (2007). The Concept of a Philosophical Jurisprudence: Essays and Reviews 1926–51. Imprint Academic. p. 286. ISBN 978-1845401801 "The doctrine that Mr Carington comes to favour is a form of Neutral Monism: the common constituents of mind and matter are sense-data or cognita. In themselves these cognita are neither mental nor material."
  12. ^ Sidis, Boris (1914). Foundations of Normal and Abnormal Psychology, retrieved 02/03/19.
  13. ^ a b c d e f g Stubenberg, Leopold (2018), "Neutral Monism", in Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2020-08-30
  14. ^ Russell, Bertrand (2009). An Outline of Philosophy. Oxon: Routledge. pp. xiii. ISBN 978-1-134-02748-4.
  15. ^ Oaklander, L. Nathan (2020-04-29). C. D. Broad's Philosophy of Time. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-317-67951-6.
  16. ^ Craig, Edward. (1998). Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Routledge. p. 816. ISBN 0415-07310-3
  17. ^ Stich, Stephen; Warfield, Ted. (2003). The Blackwell Guide to Philosophy of Mind. Blackwell Publishing. pp. 20-21. ISBN 0-631-21774-6
  18. ^ MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2016.
  19. ^ a b Alter, Torin; Pereboom, Derk (2019), "Russellian Monism", in Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2019 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2020-08-30
  20. ^ Harris, Annaka (2020-02-27). "Consciousness Isn't Self-Centered". Nautilus. Retrieved 2020-08-30.
  21. ^ "Annaka Harris | CONSCIOUS". Annaka Harris. 2019-01-31. Retrieved 2020-08-30.


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