• J. W. Barlament

Panpsychism: The Hidden Perennial Tradition?

Before Deleuze, Foucault, and Wittgenstein. Before Nietzsche, Hegel, and Kant. Before Berkeley, Hume, and Descartes. Before Aristotle, Plato, and even Socrates himself, there were, by one name or another, the panpsychists. From Greece to India, from Persia to China, and from aboriginal Australia to 20th century America, the understanding of existence as an intertwined and, in some sense, living network of entities has perservered through unpopularity and oppression aplenty, entering the modern day as more of a force than it’s been in centuries. It reaches every corner of the Earth in one form or another. Its tendrils seem to stretch tens of thousands of years into our history. This just may be a prehistoric - a primordial - the perennial - philosophy which made its way to modernity. But, to really get a grasp on the intricacies of an idea possibly older than history itself, we’re going to have to turn back the clock.

Now, keeping with the historical tradition, we’ll start our story in ancient Greece, where before the school of Socrates conquered the world, the creatively named Pre-Socratics were laying the philosophical foundations of Classical Greece. Thales of Miletus (624-548 BC) - said by Aristotle to be the first of all philosophers - who taught that matter was water, every bit of it animated by daimons. Anaximenes of Miletus (586-526 BC) - considered an original revolutionary of scientific thought - who taught that all matter was ultimately made of air, likened to the divine breath of life, animating man and placing life in everything. And yet, despite the dominance of the Milesian school in this era, it is Heraclitus, the weeping philosopher of Epheseus, who holds the keys to unlocking the secrets of the perennial tradition. He may be best remembered today for his declaration that "no man can stand in the same river twice, for it will be a new river, and he will be a new man." This, one can claim, is an archaic form of process philosophy; a sort of partner system to panpsychism. Equally as important, though, is his insistence that what he terms "fire" is the immortal, ultimate, and omnipresent substance that impels and pervades all existence.

Now, Heraclitus’ conception of fire may not have been a literal one. Epheseus was, in Heraclitus’ time, an Ionic city of the Persian Empire of the Zoroastrian faith. And, to the Zoroastrians, “fire” was a term not unlike Thales’ water or Anaximenes’ air, where the “invisible fire” of atar serves as the omnipresent form of the chief deity, the god of light Ahura Mazda. Thus, when Heraclitus states that everything is made of fire, he is really telling us that all is enlightened with a divine presence that creates and animates existence. This position strikes as similar to Thales’, in particular, and it can technically be classified as hylozoism, or all matter being alive or infused with divine spirit, rather than being merely conscious. The distinction between this and panpsychism is a shaky one, though, and many thinkers could be classified as either, making them two spins on a single tradition that’s taken innumerable forms in Western history. And it is this that comprises the earliest form of what would come to be espoused by the likes of Plotinus, Paracelsus, Giordano Bruno, Baruch Spinoza, William James, and even Bertrand Russell, impacting Western philosophy to an almost unfathomable degree.

"Heraclitus" by Johannes Mereelse

This tradition isn’t limited to the West, either, for we see it most prevalently all across the traditional systems of Eurasia. In India, both Hinduism and Buddhism contain concepts draped in panpsychist tendencies. In Hinduism, we see the concept of the Ṛta - the cosmic order that creates all other universal orders and impels the action of all existence - striking a familiar chord with the fire of Heraclitus and Zoroaster. In Buddhism, likewise, we see the pratyitya-samutpada, the idea that all is interdependent and no event or entity can exist separate from the rest of existence. And, with Buddhism's denial of a separate Self, but acceptance of a doctrine of a soul, it follows that our souls are merely interdependent parts of the same sort of strikingly panpsychist World Soul so often referenced by the Neoplatonists.

And even outside of India, with its historical links to western Indo-European ideas, we see such ideas flourishing. In China, most famously, there lies the idea of Dao, or the creative force that builds and guides everything, seemingly living or not, most often likened to water (like a certain Milesian mentioned above). This Dao contains the interdependent principles of Yin and Yang, not one over the other, but each in the ebbing and flowing quantities in which the Dao dictates they come. And so it comes together - an intertwined universe of elements ultimately made of and guided by a kind of creative inner power.

Nor is this even limited to the Old World. Repeatedly now I've made the claim that this may be the primordial philosophy, but only because it's been found in six continents, including one practically unknown to the rest of the world for 50,000 years. A quotation comes to mind; of Australia's Ambelin Kwaymullina: "Imagine a pattern. This pattern is stable, but not fixed. Think of it in as many dimensions as you like – but it has more than three … The individual threads are every shape of life. Some – like human, kangaroo, paperbark – are known to western science as ‘alive’; others, like rock, would be called ‘non-living’. But rock is there, just the same. Human is there too, though it is neither the most or the least important thread – it is one among many; equal with the others ... The whole is more than its parts, and the whole is in all its parts. This is the pattern that the ancestors made. It is life, creation spirit, and it exists in country.”

Ambelin Kwaymullina

While all this may prove the historicity of panpsychism, it does not at all prove its continued existence in the general discourse of philosophy. Now, in general, this may best be explained as being the result of the total dominance of materialism in the past couple hundred years. The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have largely led to a rejection of panpsychism and all its related ideas as hokey superstitions of a bygone era. Because of this, little scholarship on the subject was done throughout the 19th century, and as the 20th century came and went, only one man emerged as a major figure of the panpsychist tradition. This man - a lone addendum to a story seeming at the time to be at its end - was Alfred North Whitehead; professor; philosopher; mathematician; metaphysician.

Whitehead's was a philosophy of the most notorious difficulty. The man himself, however, summed it up rather succinctly; his was a system of "one", "many", and "creativity". This immediately mirrors three historical panpsychist positions, and still, the devil is in the details. Whitehead posited the existence of what he deemed "experiential entities", comprising and impelling all reality - almost analogous to the strings of string theory, or even the Dao of China. The recurrence of such historical lookalikes to this, as well as Whitehead's idea that nothing in existence is static - giving this system's name process philosophy - point strongly toward Whitehead (and his process philosopher successors and his student Bertrand Russell, to an extent) being placed among the panpsychist tree.

And so we see, omniscient on the globe and treading through time, an idea now hardly given a footnote in literature or a mention in lectures. My decision here to end the winding road in Whitehead was not a meaningless one, though, for it is in Whitehead and the carriers-on of his thought that panpsychism has started to see its revival. Surprising scientific discoveries have blown physicalist materialism's philosophical lock right off. Panpsychist debates are raging like modernity's never seen before. A new school is emerging right as you read this. Thus, this primordial philosophy may not have met its match after all, and the story of panpsychism may just now be reaching its climax.

Alfred North Whitehead