AskDefine | Define hylozoism

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From ὕλη (hulē) "matter" + ζωή (zōē) "life"


  1. A philosophical doctrine espousing that all or some material things possess life, or that all life is inseparable from matter.

Extensive Definition

Hylozoism is the philosophical conjecture that all or some material things possess life, or that all life is inseparable from matter. The English term was introduced by Ralph Cudworth in 1678.

Distinction from similar theories

Although there is a distinction between possessing soul (panpsychism) and possessing life (hylozoism), in practice this division is difficult to maintain, because the ancient hylozoists not only regarded the spirits of the material universe and plant world as alive, but also as more or less conscious. Whereas animism tends to view life as taking the form of discrete spirits, and panpsychism tends to refer to strictly philosophical views like that of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, hylozoism refers largely to views such as those of the earliest Greek philosophers (6th and 5th centuries BC). Certain of these treated the magnet as alive because of its attractive powers (Thales), or air as divine (Anaximenes), perhaps because of its apparently spontaneous power of movement, or because of its role as essential for life in animals. Later this primitive hylozoism reappeared in modified forms. Some scholars have since claimed that the term hylozoism should properly be used only where body and soul are explicitly distinguished, the distinction then being rejected as invalid. Nevertheless, hylozoism remains logically distinct both from early forms of animism, which personify nature, and from panpsychism, which attributes some form of consciousness or sensation to all matter.

Ancient hylozoism

Some of the ancient Greek philosophers taught a version of hylozoism, as they, however vaguely, conceived the elemental matter as being in some sense animate if not actually conscious and conative. Thales, Anaximenes, and Heraclitus all taught that there is a form of life in all material objects, and the Stoics believed that a world soul was the vital force of the universe. A possible source for the Greek hylozoists was the Persian philosopher Zarathushtra, founder of the religion of Zoroastrianism and an early proponent of pantheism, even if his religion later diversified to also include a variety of dualisms. It is important to note that these philosophies did not necessarily hold that material objects had separate life or identity, necessarily, but only that they had life, either as part of an overriding entity or as living but insensible entities.

Hylozoism in Renaissance and early Modernity

In the Renaissance, Bernardino Telesio, Paracelsus, Cardanus, and Giordano Bruno revived the doctrine of hylozoism. The latter, for example, held a form of Christian pantheism. God is the source, cause, medium, and end of all things, and therefore all things are participatory in the ongoing Godhead. Bruno's ideas were so radical that he was entirely rejected by the Roman Catholic Church as well as excommunicated from a few Protestant groups, and he was eventually burned at the stake for various heresies. Telesio, on the other hand, began from an Aristotelian basis and, through radical empiricism, came to believe that a living force was what informed all matter. Instead of the intellectual universals of Aristotle, he believed that life generated form.
In England, some of the Cambridge Platonists approached hylozoism as well. Both Henry More and Ralph Cudworth (the Younger, 1617-1688), through their reconciliation of Platonic idealism with Christian doctrines of deific generation, came to see the divine lifeforce as the informing principle in the world. Thus, like Bruno, but not nearly to the extreme, they saw God's generative impulse as giving life to all things that exist. Accordingly Cudworth, the most systematic metaphysician of the Cambridge Platonist tradition, fought hylozoism. His work is primarily a critique of what he took to be the two principal forms of atheism. i.e. materialism and hylozoism. The hylozoist whom Cudworth had especially in mind is Thomas Hobbes.
Cudworth singled out Hobbes not only as a defender of the hylozoic atheism "which attributes life to matter", but also as one going beyond it and defending "hylopathian atheism, which attributes all to matter." Cudworth attempted to show that Hobbes had revived the doctrines of Protagoras and was therefore subject to the criticisms which Plato had deployed against Protagoras in the Theaetetus. On the side of hylozoism, Strato was the official target. However, Cudworth's Dutch friends had reported to him the views which Spinoza was circulating in manuscript. Cudworth remarks in his Preface that he would have ignored hylozoism had he not been aware that a new version of it would shortly be published.
Spinoza's idealism also tends toward hylozoism. In order to hold a balance even between matter and mind, Spinoza in fact combined materialistic with pantheistic hylozoism, by reducing both to the rank of mere attributes of the one infinite substance. Although he specifically rejects identity in inorganic matter, he, like the Cambridge Platonists, sees a life force or living force within, as well as beyond, all matter.

Contemporary hylozoism

Immanuel Kant developed cogent arguments against hylozoism in the third chapter of his Metaphysische Anfangsgründe der Naturwissenschaften ("First Metaphysical Principles of Natural Science," 1786) and also in his famous Kritik der reinen Vernunft ("Critique of Pure Reason," 1783). Yet, in our times, scientific hylozoism – whether modified, or keeping the trend to make all beings conform to some uniform pattern, to which the concept was adhered in modernity by Spencer, Lotze, and Haeckel – was often called upon as a protest against a mechanicistic view of the world.
In the 19th century, Ernst Heinrich Haeckel developed a materialist form of hylozoism, specially against Virchow's and Helmholtz's mechanical views of humans and nature. In his Die Welträtsel of 1899 (The Riddle of the Universe 1901), Haeckel upheld a unity of organic and inorganic nature and derived all actions of both types of matter from natural causes and laws. Thus, his form of hylozoism reverses the usual course by maintaining that living and non-living things are, essentially, the same and by erasing the distinction between the two and stipulating that they behave by a single set of laws.
In contrast, the Argentine-German neurobiological tradition terms hylozoic hiatus all of the parts of nature which can only behave lawfully or nomically and, upon such a feature, are described as lying outside of minds and amid them – i.e., extramentally. Thereby the hylozoic hiatus becomes contraposed to minds deemed able of behaving semoviently, i.e. able of inaugurating new causal series (semovience). Hylozoism in this contemporary neurobiological tradition is thus restricted to the portions of nature behaving nomically inside the minds, namely the minds' sensory reactions (Christfried Jakob's "sensory intonations") whereby minds react to the stimuli coming from the hylozoic hiatus or extramental realm.
Martin Buber, too, takes an approach that is quasi-hylozoic. By maintaining that the essence of things is identifiable and separate, although not pre-existing, he can see a soul within each thing.

Popular culture

  • The monster "Hylozoist" (sometimes spelled "Heirozoist") in the MMORPG Ragnarok Online is a plush rabbit doll with its mouth sewn shut, possessed by the spirit of a child. Although hylozoism has nothing to do with possession, it is clear that the name was derived from this ancient philosophy.

See also


hylozoism in German: Hylozoismus
hylozoism in Modern Greek (1453-): Υλοζωϊσμός
hylozoism in Spanish: Hilozoísmo (filosofía)
hylozoism in Esperanto: Hilozoismo
hylozoism in Italian: Ilozoismo
hylozoism in Russian: Гилозоизм
hylozoism in Slovak: Hylozoizmus
hylozoism in Finnish: Hylozoismi
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