Panpsychism in the West (Skrbina)

Panpsychism as a concept, it may be proposed, has three essential characteristics: (1) Objects have experiences for themselves; that is, the mind-like quality is something internal to or inherent in the object. (2) There is a sense in which this experience is singular; to the extent that a structure of matter and energy that we call an object is one thing, this oneness is reflected in a kind of unitary mental experience. (3) An object is a particular configuration of mass/energy, and therefore any configuration or system of mass/energy should qualify in the same sense.6 Thus, a functional definition of panpsychism might be “All objects, or systems of objects, possess a singular inner experience of the world around them.” Such a definition is useful while avoiding some of the more contentious (and ambiguous) words that one finds in other definitions. (16)


Definitions of panpsychism are one source of confusion; synonyms are another. The philosophical literature contains a number of terms that are related to panpsychism. These terms, in no particular order, are ‘animism’, ‘hylozoism’, ‘panbiotism’, ‘pansensism’, ‘pantheism’, ‘panentheism’, and ‘panexperientialism’. (19)


[I]n 1982 the physicist Bohm posited that “in a way, nature is alive . . . all the way to the depths” (39).


2.1 Ancient Greece and the “Hylozoist” Tradition—The Pre-Socratics

In the context of the present discussion, pre-Christian-era Greece may be divided into three periods: that of the pre-Socratics, that of Plato and Aristotle, and that of the Hellenists. These groups of thinkers had unique and increasingly sophisticated perspectives on panpsychism. Pre-Socratic philosophy covered a range of roughly 200 years, from the emergence of Thales’ philosophy (circa 600 BCE) to the death of Socrates (399 BCE). There were a dozen or so major philosophers1 from the Greek world in these two centuries, and we traditionally group them into these roughly chronological subdivisions.


Milesians: Thales (625–545 BCE), Anaximander (610–540 BCE), Anaximenes (585–525 BCE)

Mystic: Pythagoras (570–495 BCE)

Eleatics: Parmenides (545–460 BCE), Zeno of Elea (505–450 BCE), Heraclitus (505–450 BCE)

Pluralists: Anaxagoras (500–428 BCE), Empedocles (495–435 BCE)

Atomists: Leucippus (485–425 BCE), Democritus (460–370 BCE)2


Perhaps with the exception of Anaximander and Zeno, all these men advanced ideas relevant to an inquiry into panpsychism. All were, to some degree, panpsychists.


What must be examined, though, is precisely what quality these ancient Greeks attributed to the basic substances of the world. The term ‘hylozoism’ indicates that this quality is life (zoe), but it is not such a straightforward matter. In fact, to call them hylozoist is misleading; none of them actually used the word ‘zoe’ to describe this mysterious quality of all matter.3 Thus, any reference to this notion of life or to the Greek conception of hylozoism must be qualified. As is elaborated below, the Greeks were more careful and precise in their attribution of a spiritual or mental quality to all matter, or to all substance.

The Milesians viewed the natural world as having three fundamental qualities:

(1) as a rational order, governed by a logos, a system of coherence and comprehensibility,

(2) as evolutionary, in the sense that things moved through the world and developed or changed over time, toward some kind of telos, or end, and

(3) as inherently animated.4


The rationality of their philosophy was manifest as materialist monism—they each sought to reduce the plurality of things to a single underlying substance or entity. This single underlying substance had certain characteristics, foremost of which was its capability of producing the movement, life, and soul that were apparent in the everyday world. If everything is one, and if that one yields spontaneity and life, then a reasonable conclusion is that everything possesses these qualities to some degree. For the Milesians this was the most compelling and intuitive alternative. If one were to disagree, one would assume the burden of proof to show, at least, (a) why some things have life and other do not and (b) how such a phenomenon as life might plausibly emerge over the course of time. Apparently no one in ancient Greece argued for such a position. Hylozoism was simply accepted as a brute condition of reality. As Guthrie pointed out (1962–1981, volume 1: 145), “the union of matter and spirit in a material substance . . . is [for the Milesians] an assumption that raises no doubts and calls for no argument or defense.”


Consider Thales, who was widely known for his panpsychist views. That he is also regarded as the first true Western philosopher demonstrates something of the degree to which panpsychism was an integral part of the early Western worldview. Thales is best known for his theory of water as the cosmic arche, the fundamental principle underlying all material things. But there are two significant fragments on Thales, and they give some idea of his panpsychist leanings. Both fragments are found in Aristotle’s De anima. First, we have the famous passage on the lodestone (magnet):


. . . Thales, according to what is related of him, seems to have regarded the soul as something endowed with the power of motion, if indeed he said that the lodestone has a soul because it moves iron. (405a19)


Here we have two distinct ideas: that the thing called ‘soul’ is defined as that which moves or produces motion, and that the lodestone itself has a soul because it can attract iron. In the original Greek, Aristotle (and presumably Thales) used the word ‘psyche’, commonly translated as soul. ‘Psyche’ has other meanings, though, including spirit, life, breath, and mind. The psyche was associated with the life energy of living things, with the divine animating spirit that produced motion in physical objects, and with the activity of the mind. At this early stage in philosophy there was not yet the distinction between “having a soul,” “being alive,” and “possessing a mind”; all these were treated more or less as equivalent.5 To the pre-Socratics, psyche was virtually as much mind-like as it was soul-like. In the first book of De anima Aristotle takes pains to note that most everyone before him, through and including Plato, did not clearly distinguish between soul and mind (nous). For example, we find the following passage on Democritus: “Soul and mind are, he says, one and the same thing.” (405a10) And Anaxagoras only “seems to distinguish between soul and mind, but in practice he treats them as a single substance” (405a13). From this perspective we can propose a more complete definition of ‘psyche’: the energy that animates and produces movement in all things, including the movement of thoughts and ideas.


Humans and animals possessed psyche, and in a monist universe anything else that demonstrated the qualities of “aliveness” (e.g. self-moving, or causing motion) possessed it too. The lodestone clearly showed that it had the power to move other metal objects, something that must have been a rather miraculous event to the ancients. And yet the lodestone was obviously in many ways just a rock like any other. That some rocks exhibited greater powers of psyche than others was comparable to the notion that humans were just animals of a certain type that exhibited distinctive noetic powers. Apparently Thales concluded that all things possessed psyche, to a greater or lesser degree. We see this clearly in the second major fragment: Certain thinkers say that soul is intermingled in the whole universe, and it is perhaps for that reason that Thales came to the opinion that all things are full of gods. (De anima, 411a7) Aristotle (again presumably following Thales) used the word theon, which is translated as gods. The power of psyche was seen as a god-like, divine power, or perhaps as the power of the gods themselves. There are two possible explanations of Thales’ choice of this word: (1) It may have been a throwback to the mythological and pantheistic tradition of Homer and Hesiod. (2) It may have been merely a linguistic convention; perhaps it made more sense to him to say that “things are full of gods (theon)” than that “things are full of souls (psychein).”6 And even from the use of ‘psyche’ in Aristotle’s sentence (“soul is intermingled . . .”) one can see that “gods” and “souls” were seen as roughly equivalent, or at least intimately linked.


Furthermore, an essential quality of a god is that it is a single being, a unitary presence, with a singular sense of identity and personality. Contrasted with a relatively amorphous, diffused power like psyche, one may conclude that Thales believed that all things possessed a singular sense of identity, which was simultaneously of a mind-like nature.


The essence of Thales’ argument for panpsychism is this: Material objects (humans, animals, wind, sea, magnets, heavenly bodies) have the power of motion, either of themselves or with respect to surrounding things. The material objects we know most intimately—our own bodies—possess an energy, called ‘psyche’, that accounts for our power. Under the assumption that the world is rational and that humans are not ontologically unique, a reasonable conclusion is that all things possess some degree of motive power7 and hence some degree of the god-like psyche. This argument makes the case for panpsychism by appealing to powers of a particular kind that are inherent in material objects, then relies on analogy with human experience. This Argument by Indwelling Powers is the first of several arguments for panpsychism that we find throughout history.



Like Thales, Anaximenes[i] argued for a monist worldview, but with an underlying principle of air (pneuma). The word ‘pneuma’ has an interesting array of meanings that are strikingly close to those of ‘psyche’: Besides air, it also can mean breath, soul, spirit, or mind. Whereas the primary meaning of ‘psyche’ is mind/soul, the primary meaning of ‘pneuma’ seems to be breath, as in “breath of life.” For Anaximenes, the breath of life was the living, animating principle of all things. This again was a logical conclusion. In every animal, breath equals life: no air, no life; no life, no breath. And air seems to be everywhere, as does motion, so it is not unreasonable to argue that pneuma is the underlying principle of the cosmos.


Anaximenes offered a different kind of argument for panpsychism than Thales. He saw in air a principle of continuity throughout all things. If this principle can be argued to account for our soul/mind, then a similar manifestation is likely present everywhere. Let us call this the Argument by Continuity. Panpsychism is a natural and logical position to hold in a monistic worldview; in fact, to be a monist and dispute the Continuity argument demands either an explanation of the unique emergence of mind (no small matter) or a denial of mind altogether. That the Continuity argument differs from the Indwelling Powers argument of Thales is clear: Thales makes no connection between panpsychism and his arche of water, nor does water account for the existence of soul; Anaximenes fundamentally links his arche of air to mind/psyche. Both arguments, however, appeal to an analogy with basic human experiences of our own minds and selves.


Anaximenes also makes a kind of appeal to the concept of indwelling power. Air, in the form of soul, has a cohesive power in the world. It holds things together, animates them, and maintains their existence as discrete objects enduring over time. “As our soul . . . being air, holds us together and controls us, so does [breath] and air enclose the whole world.” (Aetius I, 3, 4; in Kirk et al. 1983: 158–159)


[…] Chronologically, the next major philosopher after the Milesians was the enigmatic Pythagoras. No other philosopher had as much influence on Greek society in general. He lectured on mathematics, ethics, health, and metaphysics. Yet, like Socrates, he apparently wrote nothing. His closest followers formed a secretive cult, so we have few directs on him; most of what is known is indirect and anecdotal. Cicero (ca. 50 BCE) recounts that Pythagoras “held that mind was present and active throughout the whole universe, and that our minds were a part of it” (On the Nature of the Gods, I, 26–28). This “divine mind,” or “pure spirit,” was seen as “infused and imprisoned in the world” (ibid.). Other reports attribute to Pythagoras the view that everything is intelligent, but this is difficult to confirm with much certainty. It seems clear that he held to a mystic, pan-spiritual view of the universe, so it is likely that he held some variation of panpsychist philosophy.

[i] In Plato's Timaeus (55d) speaking about air, Plato mentions that "there is the most translucent kind which is called by the name of aether (αίθηρ)". Aristotle, who had beenPlato's student at the Akademia, disagreed with his former mentor and added aether to the system of the classical elements of Ionian philosophy as the "fifth element", He noted that the four terrestrial classical elements were subject to change and naturally moved linearly. Aether however, located in the celestial regions and heavenly bodies, moved circularly. In Aristotle's system of classical elements, aether had none of the qualities the terrestrial classical elements had. Aether was neither hot nor cold, neither wet nor dry. Aether did not follow Aristotelian physics either. Aether was also incapable of motion of quality or motion of quantity. Aether was only capable of local motion. Aether naturally moved in circles, and had no contrary, or unnatural, motion.[4] Aristotle also noted that crystalline spheres made of aether held the celestial bodies. The idea of crystalline spheres and natural circular motion of aether led to Aristotle's explanation of the observed orbits of stars and planets in perfectly circular motion in crystalline aether.

Medieval scholastic philosophers granted aether changes of density, in which the bodies of the planets were considered to be more dense than the medium which filled the rest of the universe.[5] Robert Fludd stated that the aether was of the character that it was "subtler than light". Fludd cites the 3rd-century view of Plotinus, concerning the aether as penetrative and non-material.[6]




tetractys                 Vesica pisces

The tetractys is one of the symbols in sacred geometry that is made very interesting by its complex layers of meaning.  It is a design that is very mathematical in structure and yet holds mystical significance among the Pythagoreans and the followers of the Kabbalah.

Basically, the tetractys is a triangle composed of ten points rising upward. 
The Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras once called the tetractys the symbol of the musical, arithmetic and geometric ratios upon which the universe is built.  For Pythagoras and his followers, each line of the tetractys holds these meanings:

         First row.  The first row is made of a single point.  This point is the divine dimension from which everything is created.  Because of the nature of this point, it is usually associated with the virtue of wisdom.

         Second row.  The second row is a line connecting two points and signifies the first dimension.  For the Pythagoreans, the second row represents “Neikos” or Strife.  Strife is the power of division and is often associated with the virtues of movement and impulse.  Movement and impulse, in turn, gives birth to courage and strength.

         Third row.  The third row is a line connecting three points.  It is a representation of the second dimension and of “Philotes” or Harmony.  Harmony is the marriage of physical beauty and mental balance.

         Fourth row.  The four points connected in the fourth row indicates the four elements of the ancient world: earth, air, fire and water.

Pythagoreans used to swear upon the tetractys in their hopes of attaining purity of mind and harnessing its power.


Relation to Kaballah…


1.    the first row represented zero-dimensions (a point)

2.    the second row represented one-dimension (a line of two points)

3.    the third row represented two-dimensions (a plane defined by a triangle of three points)

4.    the fourth row represented three-dimensions (a tetrahedron defined by four points)


A Treasurehouse of Lore




The music system of Pythagoras was based on the Tetraktys
The Quadrivium was first formulated and taught by Pythagoras as the Tetraktys around 500 BC…it arises out of the most revered of all subjects. Number. The first of these disciplines we call Arithmetic. The second is Geometry or the order of space as Number in Space. The third is Harmony which for Plato meant Number in Time. The fourth is Astronomy or Number in Space and Time.





Tetraktys in Seed of Life


Kabbalistic Tetragrammaton & Tetractys


Platonic Forms relation to elements…





Parmenides argued ingeniously that only Being is possible and therefore only Being exists. Furthermore, since change represents the coming into being of some thing or state that did not previously exist, and this is impossible (because “only Being exists”), change is impossible. Rather, what appears to be change is an illusion. This was a radical view; it contradicted the widely held belief that motion was a central characteristic of the world.


Also, since “thought” was acknowledged by Parmenides to be an undeniable aspect of reality, it followed that thought, or mind, must be an essential aspect of Being. The otherwise homogeneous and unchanging Being has this unique, positive property, which apparently is unlike any other conceivable property of existence (since no others are held in the same standing as “thought”). Parmenides concludes, then, not only that Being “has” thought but that Being is thought. There are two central fragments that explicitly make this claim, and both are subject to an unusually wide range of interpretations and translations. The first is fragment 3, transliterated from the Greek as “To gar auto noein estin te kai einai.” Among many translations, one finds the following:


For it is the same thing to think and to be. (Freeman 1948: 42)

For thought and being are the same thing. (Smith 1934: 15)

What is . . . is identical with the thought that recognizes it. (Lloyd 1959: 327)

For thinking and being is the same. (Cleve 1969: 528)

For the same things can be thought of and can be. (Barnes 1987: 132)


At issue, clearly, is the meaning of the idea that “thought is identical with being.” This concept potentially has a double implication: that all thoughts constitute being and that all things that can be said to think. The latter meaning has an implicit panpsychist interpretation. Yet it is not clear that things in themselves are “thinking things,” if for no other reason than that in Parmenides’ worldview there are not really distinct individual objects but only a monistic one Being. If all things, as a whole, think, then such a view would constitute a kind of pan-noetic ontology—something like a pantheism, or world-soul, but without personality, just pure thought. This is arguably not panpsychism, which, as defined in chapter 1, requires things individually to possess mind. Parmenides’ intentions on this point are vague.


The second fragment continues the same line of thinking, though with equally ambiguous results: “Tauton d’ esti noein te kai ounechen esti noema.” (fragment 8, line 34) Here we find no direct mention of ‘being’ (einai) but instead a focus on noein (thinking) and noema (thought or consciousness). The identification is made between thinking and the object of thought:


To think is the same as the thought that It Is. (Freeman 1948: 44)

Therefore thinking, and that by reason of which thought exists, are one and the same thing. (Smith 1934: 16–17)

Thinking and the object of thought are the same. (Cleve 1969: 537)

The same thing are thinking and a thought that it is. (Barnes 1987: 135)


Cleve is sensitive to the panpsychist implications in these two fragments. He observes that Being, though technically unextended and incorporeal, is yet permeated by thought: “. . . being itself . . . is inextensive incorporeal thinking that is present whole and undivided in each and every part of seeming space” (1969: 536). He adds that “the only being is consciousness, noema, that, however, must not be split into act of thinking and content of thinking” (ibid.: 537). Thus, it seems clear that thought permeates Being, that anything that exists must also be said to be identical with thought. Since the metaphysical status of distinct things is not clear, we cannot determine the degree to which Parmenides’ view is true panpsychism. Yet, in view of the “hylozoist” milieu into which he was born, one certainly cannot rule out a panpsychist interpretation. Parmenides’ notion that thought is identical to being anticipates the discussion in Sophist in which Plato puts forth a similar view: that (the Form of) Being possesses the qualities of “life, mind, and soul.” Plato, as we know, held Parmenides in high regard, and thus it is not surprising to find elements of his ontology.


In opposition to Parmenides’ static world of pure Being, Heraclitus conceived a worldview in which change and motion were the essential reality.In a fitting manner, fire became his arche. To the ancient Greeks fire was a form of pure energy, and it is interesting that Heraclitus developed an energeticist worldview 2,300 years before it became the fashion in physics.


Fire, like the pneuma of Anaximenes, was associated with life-energy. Significantly, Heraclitus referred to this fire not merely as pyr but as pyr aeizoonever-living fire. Consequently, this spiritual life-energy was seen as responsible for creating and sustaining everything. Diogenes Laertius reported in his Lives of the Philosophers (ca. third century CE) that Heraclitus held to the view that “all things are full of souls and spirits” (IX: 5–12). Again, ensoulment is universal and equated with motion and change.


More specifically, the pyr aeizoon possessed a kind of intelligence or cognitive ability. In the only directly relevant fragment, Heraclitus says that thinking is “common to all” (fragment 113; Barnes 1987: 109). Heraclitus evidently followed the logic of his predecessors in believing that in a monist cosmos intelligent spirit or life must exist in all things. Here we have a combination of the Indwelling Powers argument (in the energy of the pyr aeizoon) and the Continuity argument (pyr in all things).


[Empedocles,] more than any other pre-Socratic, made panpsychism central to his worldview. Guthrie states that “it was in fact fundamental to Empedocles’ whole system that there is no distinction between animate and inanimate, and everything has some degree of awareness and power of discrimination” (1962–1981, volume 2: 233). The mere fact that Empedocles chose Love and Strife as his two central forces indicates his belief that animate powers were at work in the cosmos.


Further evidence of Empedocles’ panpsychism is found primarily in three fragments.


Fragment 103, in transliterated Greek, reads “tede men oun ioteti tyches pephroneken apanta.”


Smith (1934: 31) translates this as “In this way, by the good favour of Tyche, all things have power of thought.” Barnes (1987: 178) translates it more literally: “Thus by the will of chance all things think.” This is an advance in philosophical reasoning; earlier philosophers’ references to gods, souls, or spirit are replaced by an ability, a power, in all things: the power to think. This power is granted by tyches, interpreted either as the god Tyche or (more likely) as simply the process of chance, or rather luck. Empedocles is saying, in effect, “By good fortune, all things are able to think.”


The second important passage is from Aristotle: “Empedocles [says that the soul] is composed of all the elements and that each of them actually is a soul.” (De anima 404b11) The two ideas here are (1) that souls (psychein) are material and composite and (2) that each element, in itself, is ensouled. Clearly, if each element is a soul, and if these elements constitute the whole world, then all things are souls or soul-like. Empedocles thus seems to use ‘psyche’ as a synonym of ‘mind’, but not as involved with the power of motion. Movement comes from the forces of Love and Strife, which, although animate, apparently are not psychein.9


Third, we have this striking fragment, recorded in Hippolytus’ Refutation of All Heresies (ca. 210 CE):


If thou shouldst plant these things in thy firm understanding and contemplate them with good will and unclouded attention, they will stand by thee for ever every one, and thou shalt gain many other things from them; . . . for know that all things have wisdom and a portion of thought. (fragment 110; Guthrie, volume 2, p. 230)


The final phrase—“panta gar isthi phronesin echein kai nomatos aisan”—is, as usual, subject to varying translations. For example: “For know that they all have thought and a share of mind.” (Barnes 1987: 163) “Do not forget, all things have mind and a share in cognition.” (Cleve 1969: 369) Freeman (1948: 64) translates phronesin as intelligence. In any case, we find here a poetic passage that is at once beautiful and insightful. Empedocles is indicating that a particular method of thinking, a way of approaching the world in a sympathetic fashion (“with good will”), will yield abundant fruit. He is clearly advocating a way of thinking about things with clarity and compassion,

centered on the idea that, like ourselves, “all things have wisdom.”

Panpsychism is seen as the path to true and lasting insight.


Empedocles thus relies on two variations of earlier arguments for panpsychism,  and introduces a new, third argument. First he employs the Indwelling Powers argument by claiming that everything has the power of thought. This of course is a different power than motion, but it is taken as equally real and equally demanding of explanation. Second, he uses the Continuity argument in a pluralistic fashion, appealing to inherent soul nature of the four elements that constitute all things. Third, and perhaps most fundamentally, mind is clearly an inherent part of his cosmic system, and as such it constitutes a kind of “first principle” (metaphysically speaking). Thus, we may designate this as the First Principles argument for panpsychism. Mind is not derivative or incidental, but central and primary. This was also the case for Anaxagoras, but because the status of his panpsychism is in doubt we may better attribute it directly to Empedocles.