Jonathan Westphal Neutral Monism

Jonathan Westphal has been a student of Rudolf Steiner's Philosophy Of Freedom his whole life. This led him to develop ideas on neutral monism. (See correction in comment below) Below is an article and a review of his latest book.

Neutral Monism
Jonathan Westphal December 16, 2016 Consciousness / Jonathan Westphal: The Mind-Body Problem / metaphysics of mind

Neutral monism has a fascinating history, from Mach and Chancey Wright (b. 1830 in Northampton MA, where I happen to live) through William James, the American New Realists, including E.B. Holt and Ralph Barton Perry, many of them very much Harvard figures, Bertrand Russell, from 1919 to 1927, to Moritz Schlick and A.J. Ayer.

There is a slightly overlooked aspect to the view that fits in with the post-Hegelian preoccupations of the time. Here are a few lines from Chauncey Wright’s Philosophical Discussions:

Our own mind is not “first known as a phenomenon of the subject ego, or as an effect upon us of an hypothetical outward world, its first unattributed condition would be, by our view, one of neutrality between the two worlds.” Rather, “The distinction of subject and object becomes … a classification through observation and analysis, instead of the intuitive distinction it is supposed to be by most metaphysicians.”

The neutral monist wants us to start with neutral data, some of them having to do with the objects of sense, such as colors and sounds and so on. But also included by neutral monists such as Mach are times and pressures! This sounds odd, but it is really a testament to Mach’s powerful philosophical naiveté. The naive approach paid off well for him in science too, and he was sensitive to things that other researchers missed or did not notice. An example is Mach bands. Mach’s photography of the shock wave shows the same cheerful empirical spirit. Another fine example is the difference in appearance of shapes under rotation. An eighth rotation of a square makes the horizontal distance across the square narrower, so that what is a perceived is more of a diamond than a square.

What did this approach do for the mind-body problem? Take as an example a neutral item the color that I see, like the pale green (a very New England colour) of the door to my left. Is this color physical or psychological? It is hard to say. The natural thought is that the color is paint, so that what you buy at the paint shop are colours. On the other hand what color you see is determined by all sorts of things having to do with the psychology and physiology of the one who is looking at it. The answer of Mach and the other neutral monists was that pro tem a colour is neither physical nor psychological. Asking which it is is a bit like asking whether I am looking at the first, or second or third. An object becomes the first or second or third only by being put in some sort of order, and, according to the neutral monists, though the neutral data such as colours retain their neutral character come what may, in one series of things they can be regarded as physical (for example in connection with the action of light on the coloured surface) and in another they can be regarded as psychological (for example the saturation of colours is often different in the left and right eye).

So where does this get us? Russell, rather surprisingly, having said that physical and psychological items are distinguished “only by their causal laws” (this is in “On Propositions”) allows that unperceived material things obey only physical laws, images obey only psychological laws, and sensations obey or can obey both. So for Russell during this period sensations are the only genuinely neutral elements. His view then is a sort of sandwich, with the genuinely neutral elements only in the middle. Yet if thoughts do not obey physical laws and unperceived material things obey only physical laws, how is this a genuinely neutral monism?

I have tried to give an account in The Mind-Body Problem of the way in which the neutral monist deals with causal relations between mind and body. The neutral monists seem not to have been struck by this problem, contenting themselves with naturalistic dithyrambs about the oneness of things. But that does not tell you how a puncture in the stomach lining will give you the pain of the ulcer. What seems to me very significant is the overlap of two elements in the two different cases, here a searing. The pain is a searing one, but what the stomach acids do the lining of the stomach is searing too. Searing is something that can take a physical or psychological interpretation, and that is very interesting. The fiery aspect of searing can be seen physically on inspection of the ulcers. In connection with this sort of example I offer an account in the book of what causal relations must be for the neutral monist – I hope that readers will find it interesting.

I am also naturally very interested in the way in which images can turn into sensations. If we could get a grip on this, we would be able to understand the way in which a mental image could have an effect on the body. It is also very interesting that thoughts can become images, and the other way round, in hypnopompic and hypnogogic imagery at the borders of sleep.

A few words, as promised, about the difference between neutral monism and double aspect theories. Neutral monism has categorically physical things and categorically mental things in its ontology. If something is physical, and not psychological, it cannot be placed in a psychological series. With the double aspect theory, however, something can be viewed either as physical or as mental, either as extension or as consciousness, or whatever the “principle attributes” of matter and mind are. This difference between the two theories has an important corollary. With neutral monism there is psychophysical causation, as with interactionist dualism, but not so with with the dual aspect theory. True, we can look at a book under the aspect of economic position (it has a price of $15, say) or we can look at it under the aspect of subject matter (its subject is astronomy, say). But the economic object and the object of the subject matter do not interact. For they are the same thing, viewed under different and incompatible aspects. Double aspect theorists owe more to Spinoza, neutral monists to Leibniz and Hume.

To conclude, may I offer a big thank you to John Schwenkler and The Brains Blog for hosting a great discussion? I have had a lot of fun and learnt a lot. I hope that everyone has enjoyed it and benefited from it as much as I have. Cheers John!

Book Overview

Philosophers from Descartes to Kripke have struggled with the glittering prize of modern and contemporary philosophy: the mind-body problem. The brain is physical. If the mind is physical, we cannot see how. If we cannot see how the mind is physical, we cannot see how it can interact with the body. And if the mind is not physical, it cannot interact with the body. Or so it seems.

In this book the philosopher Jonathan Westphal examines the mind-body problem in detail, laying out the reasoning behind the solutions that have been offered in the past and presenting his own proposal. The sharp focus on the mind-body problem, a problem that is not about the self, or consciousness, or the soul, or anything other than the mind and the body, helps clarify both problem and solutions.

Westphal outlines the history of the mind-body problem, beginning with Descartes. He describes mind-body dualism, which claims that the mind and the body are two different and separate things, nonphysical and physical, and he also examines physicalist theories of mind; antimaterialism, which proposes limits to physicalism and introduces the idea of qualia; and scientific theories of consciousness.

Finally, Westphal examines the largely forgotten neutral monist theories of mind and body, held by Ernst Mach, William James, and Bertrand Russell, which attempt neither to extract mind from matter nor to dissolve matter into mind. Westphal proposes his own version of neutral monism. This version is unique among neutral monist theories in offering an account of mind-body interaction.

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          • Understanding  Steiner's ( or  anybody else's)  writings requires  thinking,   surely. And thinking  of the critical  kind as  RSt would have wanted.   No one  has been sending anyone on "a  wild goose  chase" in my opinion , but rather asking  legitimate   questions and posing worthwhile  matters to consider  in pursuit of  clarity  and  depth  of understanding. Let's  be appreciative of  and  interested  in each other's  thinking here, in order to approach more  fully a philosophical understan

            ding of  freedom.    

  • Tom writes, "Jonathan Westphal has been a student of Rudolf Steiner's Philosophy Of Freedom his whole life. This led him to develop ideas on neutral monism." This is not quite right. What led me towards neutral monism was in fact Steiner's other and earlier philosophical work on Goethe and science, as well as The Philosophy of Freedom. And in The Philosophy of Freedom it is not obvious where the neutral monism, specifically, comes in. I would say it is in the extraordinary moment when you realise that material images cannot be used to think about the mind-body problem without casting a completely distorting light on it, to borrow a phrase from Wittgenstein. It can be seen subsequently in the description of how thinking allocates percepts to different categories, including the mental and the physical. 

    • Tom, I am curious about how you know that I am a life-long student of PoF. These days I find I am thinking less about the actual text and more about the whole arc of the argument. I am still less interested in Part II than in Part I, though, except that I do have some ideas about freedom and the formulation of the concept of freedom in PoF, as I think there are actually three or four different formulations, none of them equivalent. 

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              • I find the idea that the non-physical, which thinking is, cannot be characterized in material ways in Chapter III of PoF. I also find neutral monism of a sort there, where thinking is described so that it precedes the formation of concepts and is prior to concepts like mental and physical. The neutral monism is something I see comfort for here too, in that there is a level of analysis if you like ("analysis" comes from luo, Gk. "to loosen"!) at before which things are lumped into mental, physical or whatever other categories are being used. 

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                  • The connection between PoF and neutral monism, if any, should be sought in those passages describing how thinking is not physical and the ramifications of this. There are also all those passages having to do with what happens before percepts are conceptualized, and how it comes about that they are. For neutral monism "mind" and "matter" are not ultimate metaphysical categories, but provisional epistemological ones. This too you can see in PoF, which is perhaps why there is no mention of the Seele-Koerper Problem.

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            • The term "neutral monism" is due to Sheffer, well after 1894.

    • By  "material images''  am I correct in understanding you to mean ideas  with a purely  material  reference   rather than ideas which are themselves  material ? And should this be obvious to me ?

      Alistair Munro

      • Right. By "material images" I mean images with a material content, rather than images, if there are such things, that are actually made out of matter, and are material images in this sense. Should this be obvious? I perhaps wasn't expressing myself completely clearly . . . 

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              • Reader : please don't pack up and go away. JW was just engaging you in the  activity  of "defining terms" which  you  requested in the  beginning - why  not stay the course? Best regards, Alistair Munro

    • Question :   I recently heard a  reference  in a  philosophical  discussion  about physicalism to  "Russellian monism"  and I was  wondering whether  that is similar to  or significantly different   from the "neutral monism" you espouse, Dr Westphal ?

      The discussion in question was  between Philip Goff and David Papineau  ( )

      Thanks  & best regards,

      Alistair Munro, Nelson, NZ

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