Dialectical Monism

By Naturyl


"Dialectical monism" is a synthesis of Eastern and Western metaphysical concepts. Like other ontological systems, it attempts to describe the world at a fundamental level. It is based on the idea that duality and unity are identical - unity always appears as duality, and duality is always reducible to unity.

The Heart Sutra, an important Buddhist text, offers a perspective which summarizes the view:

...Form Does not Differ From the Void, And the Void Does Not Differ From Form. Form is Void and Void is Form...

Varieties of Monism

In the parlance of philosophy, dialectical monism (hereafter referred to as "DM") is a neutral monism. In this sense, it is somewhat different from the two prevailing monisms of philosophical history - materialism and idealism. Materialism attempts to reduce all phenomena to matter and its properties, while idealism tends to view phenomena as some sort of mental constructs. Neutral monism, on the other hand, reduces phenomena to something else, a basic substrate thought to be more fundamental than either mind or matter, and giving rise to both. Neutral monism has taken a variety of forms and has been subject to a number of interpretations since its advent, but here we will talk about only those which are consistent with dialectical monism.

Problems With Other Monisms

When considering the need for something like dialectical monism, we must first briefly establish why the materialistic and idealistic monisms are unsatisfactory. For this purpose, a thorough study of the two is recommended, although such a task is well beyond the scope of this essay. At the risk of oversimplifying, we will only say here that the most critical flaw of traditional materialism is the incontrovertible fact that matter is not fundamental even in physical reality. Energy is prerequisite to matter, just as the "quantum field" or vacuum-potentiality is prerequisite to energy. Ultimately, matter reduces to a sort of "special nothingness," so a consistent materialism is not the common-sense position it is often imagined to be. The critical flaw can be summarized in the understanding that a modern (scientific) materialism fails to establish matter as fundamental.

It is generally agreed that idealism, on the other hand, suffers from even more grevious problems, none of which we will be able to give adequate treatment here. However, we might touch upon the most serious problems by asking "If all things reduce to mental constructs, what is the nature of the consciousness which gives rise to them?" All attempts to define "mind" meaningfully at this level of abstraction end in the appearance of another nebulous sort of "nothingness" not much different from the ultimate void of materialism, or else they require that we posit a "supreme being" of a conscious sort - i.e. "God." For reasons which should be clear to casual students of philosophy, both outcomes are commonly seen as unsatisfactory. For many emerging thinkers as well as a certain number of historical philosophers, neither materalism nor idealism will suffice.

Neutral Monism - A Middle Way

So what, then, are the advantages of a neutral monism? First and foremost among them must be the fact that such a view accords with reality as we observe it. Matter is not fundamental and reduces to still more diffuse states of being. Nor can mind be reasonably seen as fundamental, for if it were so, we would expect our reality to behave quite differently. If "mind" were the basis of existence, we would have to assume that a presumably unlimited consciousness inexplicably behaves precisely as if unthinking matter were the cause of its own arising. This "cosmic trick" would be an extraordinary assumption for which there is no extraordinary evidence. In truth, common materialism is a somewhat more attractive position than is traditional idealism, for it is in much greater accord with what we observe. Its primary flaw is that it does not dig deep enough. Materialism is a 19th century understanding of reality which ignores the fact that modern physics dissolves matter and even energy into a formless vacuum which is indistinguishable from nothingness, except that it has the potential to bring matter/energy into existence uncaused and unbidden. This quantum truth, although strange and surprising (at least to Westerners), demands consideration.


A neutral monism based on our modern understanding of reality must take into account the fact that the "potential-filled nothingness" described not only by Eastern philosophy but also by quantum mechanics is the bedrock of the world and is prerequisite to both matter and mind. Interestingly, we find that Buddhism has an ancient term for just such a concept - Sunyata - meaning "pregnant void." Please note that in recent years, it has been common to establish various connections between quantum mechanics and Eastern philosophy, and although we have continued that trend here, we are well aware of the excesses and distortions that have occured in past efforts of this nature. As far as we are able, we will be careful not to to overstretch analogies or suggest conclusions which are not in evidence. Although dialectical monism is a philosophical rather than a scientific position, is based on a deep respect for the methodological rigor of modern science. Being partially inspired by interpretations of modern physics, it stands to reason that if dialectical monism is not compatible with scientific knowledge, it is without lasting value. With that cautionary note in mind, let us proceed to elaborate the core argument.

In an earlier essay entitled Existential/Dialectical Principles, the author wrote:

"An infinite whole cannot possess finite qualities in and of itself. It may contain or encompass finite aspects within itself, but when taken as a totality, no finite qualities can be assigned to it. As a result, the only form which existence can take (in the ultimate sense) is the form of pure potential. Potential, unrealized, is infinite by nature - it is all possibilities with no defined outcomes. This unlimited potential, by necessity, brings about the constant change in form and structure we observe around us. This occurs due to the fact that the infinite must produce finite manifestations (such as our universe and its myriad forms), for if it were not so, there would be no true potential. Potential must be capable of actualizing, or it is not potential at all. If the ultimate sense of existence does not consist of pure potential, it consists of nothing at all, which constitutes non-existence, a violation of the second existential principle [establishing that non-existence cannot, by definition, exist]. Therefore, existence in the ultimate sense is not physical (for 'potential' is the opposite of 'actual'), but physicality must necessarily flow from it. This can be somewhat difficult to understand at first glance, but with due contemplation, the meaning becomes clear. The nature of existence is, by necessity, such that the infinite will always produce finite (physical) manifestations which are subject to the overriding principle of physicality, which can best be described as 'constant change.' This principle is most fundamental because if the finite (physical) were not subject to change, it would posess a quality of infinity and could no longer be called finite at all."

In the following paragraphs, we will explore the implications of these ideas.

The Creative Principle

Here we see why it should be that this Sunyata or "potential-filled nothingness" should bring forth anything at all. If it did not, it would not be pure potentiality but actual non-existence, which cannot exist (by definition). If this seems circular or trivial at first glance, consider the idea that we cannot call a state of undifferentiated potentiality "being," for nothing yet exists, and yet we cannot call it "non-being," for existence flows from it. We can only call it "becoming." Additionally, we can see the basis of dialectical monism outlined in full in the selected excerpt, which is interesting in light of the fact that that the author wrote the Existential/Dialectical Principles many months before independently conceiving of the terms "dialectical monism" and "universal dialectic." This may be taken as evidence that thought which is focused along similar lines will tend to proceed in a logical, sequential manner to arrive at certain eventual conclusions, which we will discuss in greater depth below.

In the quoted selection and its explanation above, it is suggested that the infinite must bring forth the finite, and in that sense is the finite. The absolute must bring forth the relative, and in that sense is the relative. In Eastern terms, the Tao must bring forth the Taiji (the union of yin and yang or "Universal Dialectic"), and in that sense the Tao is the Taiji. Readers who are sympathetic to this view may feel a certain sense of relief at this point, for a substantial measure of reality has been restored to the phenomenal world. The world of form we see around us is not maya (illusion), it is not a dream, it is not something to be escaped in favor of a "more real reality," and it is not a thing to be despised or rejected for religious or philosophical reasons. Nor is it, as the physical reductionists might maintain, nothing more than a collection of independent particles bumping about. Instead, it is the Infinite in the only form the Infinite can logically take. It is the Absolute expressed absolutely. It is "Nature Naturing," or, if you prefer, "Tao Taoing." The ultimate is not different from the mundane; they are a single reality seen from either perspective.

Reality Is What It Is

At first glance, one might worry that dialectical monism is yet another attempt to establish a metaphysical "Ultimate Reality" of the sort which somehow transcends the realm of everyday experience. Upon closer examination, however, it should become clear that dialectical monism actually establishes the opposite position. There is no "Ultimate Reality" that is not everyday reality, or (if one prefers), there is no everyday reality that is not "Ultimate Reality." The distinction is meaningless within the context of dialectical monism. There is One Reality, One Nature; we lose sight of this only because the monistic nature of reality can be perceived only in dualistic terms. Dialectical monism is a perspective which restores simplicity to ontology. In the spirit of Nagarjuna and his ruthless negative dialectic, it is a metaphysical system which does away with metaphysical systems.

"Universal Dialectic"

Universal Dialectic

The concept of Universal Dialectic is an important element in our formulation of dialectical monism. It is formally defined as follows:

"The infinite, essential, and fundamental principle of evolutionary and/or progressive creation/change which actualizes all potential states of being through the self-organizing integration of complementary polarities. The process of Becoming, or existence."

In simpler terms, the Universal Dialectic is a term for the creative principle of existence. In this view, reality is neither "being" or "non-being" alone, but a process of Becoming which synthesizes both concepts. So, Universal Dialectic is a description of "how existence becomes." In this sense, it is simply an observation of how Nature works in the broadest sense. It is not a static, conceptual "Ultimate Reality" - rather, it is a description of the world's dynamic process.

Historical Roots

The concept of a Universal Dialectic is very old, although this particular terminology has not been widely used. The ancient Taoists called it Taiji, which translates to "Supreme Ultimate." It can be convincingly argued that philosophical Taoism is in fact a simple form of dialectical monism, ontologically speaking. All of the essential elements are present in the Taoist conception of yin and yang and the idea of Taiji. In addition, some forms of Buddhism, including the Mahayana and Zen traditions, appear to incorporate elements of dialectical monism, as indicated by our earlier excerpt from the Heart Sutra and by considerably more evidence available to the inquisitive researcher.

The Process of Nature

Universal Dialectic is a simple concept. It holds that because unity is expressed as duality, there is contradiction in nature, and that this contradiction produces complementary opposites which interact with each other, creating various new syntheses as a result of the interaction. One notable departure from most tradition Eastern thought (and an affirmation of Western influences) is seen in the idea that this process of creation is progressive, or "spiral shaped." This helps to explain why we seem to percieve a teleology (a direction of advancement or progression, or seemingly goal-directed behavior) in nature, even though there is no evidence of any conscious intent guiding the process. This concept of "naturalistic teleology" readily lends itself to contemporary progressive views, for it restores a satisfying sense of direction to history without reintroducing the various superstitious, faith-based elements long associated with such efforts. It also serves to remedy a chief objection to traditional Eastern views - that they offer only a vision of a cyclic, non-progressive universe with no concept analogous to evolution.

There is unity in all opposition or duality, due to the fact that all opposing polarities are ultimately united in the Universal Dialectic. The term itself gives evidence of what it is intended to mean - in all things there is a dialectic (a pairing of opposites), but this dialectic is itself universal (singular and infinite in scope). Again, we find that the essential theme is "unity in duality, duality in unity."


In light of the Universal Dialectic concept, we see that the problem of reconciling duality (expressed in dualism and pluralism) with oneness (expressed in monism) can be meaningfully resolved within the context of dialectical monism. The majority of metaphysical systems throughout history have found themselves forced to affirm the reality of one frame of reference at the expense of considering the other illusionary or ill-conceived. Some traditional ontologies (those of Indian and Oriental origin in particular) favor oneness, considering unity to be the "real reality," and duality to be illusory. Others consider the common-sense world of duality to be the only reality and reject any talk of unity or oneness as a case of overly-enthusiastic metaphysical abstraction. Dialectical monism shows that both positions settle for a half-truth. The solution offered is the recognition that unity is experienced as duality. There is no unity which does not manifest as duality, and there is no duality which does not reduce to unity. "Ultimate Reality" in the metaphysical sense is not different from "everday reality" in the pragmatic sense, and perhaps this is why the Zen master and the sage are said to spend their days "chopping wood and carrying water."

Additional Reading:

Encyclopedia Article on Dialectical Monism

Copyright 2003-2007 Naturyl.