Precedents of Pan-x-ism

I’m no fan of panpsychism, but I’m not going to let that stop me from posting on it. I’d like to raise questions about theories of which panpsychism is but one instance. Call such theories “pan-x-isms”. My main question is whether there are any non-controversial examples in which a pan-x-ism turned out to be a good idea.

One of the main problems that any pan-x-ism runs into is to explain the apparent differences between x’s and non-x’s. Thales’s panhydrism invites the question of what’s the difference between water and the glass that contains it. Is glass merely slow water? Another is that once everything is alleged to be explainable in terms of x, you pretty much give up hope of explaining x.

But back to my main question. When has pan-x-ism been a good idea? Post-Aristotelian conceptions of space where there aren’t distinct spaces for distinct substances (“fire goes here”) I think are pretty clearly improved conceptions, but should they count as pan-x-isms?
Pancomputationalism gets kicked around now and again but it’s about as controversial as panpsychism.

When, if ever, has there been a pan-x-ism that obviously didn’t suck?

17 Responses to “Precedents of Pan-x-ism”

  1. Spinoza’s deterministic pantheism-of-sorts didn’t obviously suck. He offered a comprehensive philosophical vision, which had some flaws, but was overall breathtaking in its originality and genius.

  2. Pete Mandik says:

    Hi Gary,

    There’s a logical difference between “obviously didn’t suck” and “didn’t obviously suck”. I agree that Spinoza’s theory didn’t obviously suck. But note that I asked for something that obviously didn’t suck. And it’s not obvious that Spinoza’s theory doesn’t suck.

  3. Tanasije Gjorgoski says:

    The view that everything is made up from atoms seems accepted a lot. Maybe we can call it panatomism. Does it suck? Actually I think that it sucks in same way as all pan-x-isms. But I’m sure lot will disagree.

  4. Pete Mandik says:

    Hi Tanasije,

    Who’s atoms? Democritus’s? Bohr’s? I’d be surprised to find out that pan-Democritus’s-atom-ism is accepted a lot. And I don’t think pan-Bohr’s-atom-ism was ever accepted by anyone. What did you have in mind?

  5. Tanasije Gjorgoski says:

    Hi Pete,

    I had on mind general idea of atomism in mind. Not necessarily Bohr’s atoms, but the idea that there is few basic particles with combinations of which you can create everything else. They may come in different colors, or with different properties, but still it seems it would be pan-X-ism. Like pan-quark-ism, or pan-string-ism.
    Would you say that those views are somehow different?

  6. Eric Thomson says:

    pan-natural-ism? :o

  7. Anibal says:

    Is D. Chalmers´ partway idea between panpsychism and pancomputationalism viewing rocks as some sort of information processing stuff somehow distinct to the the information processing run in our heads, a good idea that didn´t suck?

  8. Pete Mandik says:

    Tanasije: I don’t think anyone who believed in quarks believed in pan-quark-ism. Instead they believed in quarks and some non-quarks AKA leptons. And pan-string-ism was pretty short lived, as far as I can tell, supplanted by a pan-membrane-ism wherein strings count among the branes. But now what we have on our hands is something that I wouldn’t think counts as either non-controversial or obviously non-sucky.

    Eric: It’s interesting to wonder how to formulate naturalism as an ontological thesis (like everything is natural) instead of a methodological thesis (hold only beliefs that may be justified using the methods of the natural sciences). What way is there of explaining what makes electrons “natural” and angels not that doesn’t advert to the methods we use to justify claims about electrons vs claims about angels?

    Anibal: The line of questioning I’m trying to develop is whether panpsychism is defensible on the grounds that there are instances of pan-x-ism predating it that were pretty clear cases of good ideas. Can any claim be made that pan-x-ism is, in general, a good strategy? Bringing up Chalmers doesn’t help. He doesn’t have a pan-x-ism that predates pansychism.

  9. Tanasije Gjorgoski says:

    Pete, why would you consider pan-membrane-ism as not obviously non-sucky?

    Or… what would be a condition for something to be obviously non-sucky?

  10. Pete Mandik says:


    It’s too early for anyone to have much confidence that it’s true yet. But we don’t have to wait to recognize that it’s so complicated that, regardless of whether it sucks or not, it’s suckage or lack thereof won’t be obvious.

  11. s1mplex says:

    What about pan-field-ism?

    Despite the generally accepted incompatibilities between general relativity and quantum field theory, or even in a stringy/brany scenario, I think it would be difficult to say that physical theories pre-supposing only field stuff obviously sucked.

    If we are to assume that the major forces (EM, Weak, Strong, Gravity) unify at high enough energies, I don’t think it obviously sucks to base a physical theory on the idea that all “stuff” is basically embedded in what is (or was) a single field.

    On the other hand, there are certainly some pan-loop-istic theories out there, but I’m not sure that they don’t obviously suck (I am not a physicist…)

  12. ali says:

    I really, really like this question, or rather, the complex of questions to which it’s apparently given rise here.

    First, I’ll toss out a few ancient pan-x’s that didn’t suck, since nearly everything the ancients did involved some sort of pan-something and some of them were pretty smart. Daoism and its pan-’way’-ism seems like a good enough one to me, though its paradoxical way of expressing itself may be a little too far from the kind of reasoning you’ll think ‘obviously’ doesn’t suck. Tanasjie I think had a good idea, with atomism: the ancients were obviously off with their specific conclusions, but something like a Lucretian clinamen as a pan-swerve-ism might be an interesting idea. Which of course implies Heraclitus, pan-flux-ism as an ontological position with an apparently limitless power of envelopment: like Daoism all ‘things’ as fictions, plucked a sort of eternally returning difference. But there’s lots of other possibilities way-back-when. Let’s think about now: given all the stuff that we now personally know about things, and what science teaches us about things and how we know them, how can we say that all things are expressions of some fundamental principle x that might let us espouse an ‘obviously correct’ pan-x-ism?

    In a more modern vein, I think Gary is right about Spinozism being on the right track. But we have to specify this concept in order to make it into a pan-x-ism that obviously doesn’t suck. (Here I am borrowing wholesale from a French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who loves Spinoza and develops his ideas into a modern ontology, but who will probably put you off so I won’t quote him.) Spinoza’s genius is the same genius expressed by a long line of philosophers who espoused something like ‘ontological univocity.’ We have to recognize that when religious philosophers (which at one point was about 100%) dealt with onto-theology, they were dealing with the study of the ‘being’ of God in relation to the ‘being’ of his works. Some such philosophers thought that ‘being’ meant two completely different or ‘equivocal’ things, that God truly was ‘not of this world,’ and His transcendence is so absolute that he ‘is not’ (cf. Meister Eckhart): not an easy position to hold, and one which led to negative theology and other heresies. So the Scholastics usually held to some kind of pseudo-Aristotelianism whereby the Being of God was ‘analogous’ to the Being of his works, comparable but inferior. Spinoza, however, like some others before him, proposes something radical: there’s NO difference between these two kinds of being at all. Deus sive natura, god or nature: both ‘are’ upon precisely the same plane. This sort of pantheism is just as tricky, and almost as heretical as equivocity.

    We might think that we’ve come a long way from this sort of onto-theology with our happy notions of scientific materialism. I’d agree, but we can still learn a lot from this debate. Secular materialism is just amplified Spinozism, a thesis of absolute ontological univocity. There is one and the same being, and that being *is* ‘material,’ even if things like quantum mechanics mess not only with our notions of how material behaves (uncertainty principle) but what ‘is’ itself means (virtual particles). Pete, you ask: “What way is there of explaining what makes electrons “natural” and angels not that doesn’t advert to the methods we use to justify claims about electrons vs claims about angels?” You’ve already got it in your hands when you say ‘ontological thesis.’ The only pan-x-ism that works is the ‘ontological thesis’ itself. I’d say this is borne out by the practice, if not the theory of scientific materialism, whose only enduring standard is simply non-transcendence, the idea that everything we need to explain the things that exist is right here, immanent to this material plane of being. Science beneath all its specific discoveries, affirms in general that being doesn’t need a transcendental principle to govern what happens and what is.

    So ontological pan-x-ism as affirmation of a single, univocal being ends up becoming a rather empty tautology, and maybe not what you were looking for when you asked the question. But ultimately that’s the only kind of answer the question can receive: when one asks, is there a pan-x-ism that’s obviously ‘correct,’ one asks ‘is there one principle by which we can account for all that is?’ The only ironclad response to this principle is basically Parmenidean (by way of Heidegger): the only such ‘pan’-principle is being itself, the fact that there can ‘be’ nothing that ‘is not,’ that there is nothing transcendent to being. Which is the essence of ‘materialism,’ beneath all of its debates about the substance, attributes, and modes of such material. I think that by looking for pan-something-ism (whether it’s fields, strings, atoms, computation, etc.) one will always run into trouble. Heidegger calls this making being into a category, treating ontology ontically, and all kinds of other shit. But what his babbling about ‘fundamental ontology’ really means is simply that pan-something-isms will always be troubled by the variable and uncertain properties of specific things. The only way to actually have a pan-x-ism that works (if we still want it, given the detours and circumlocutions we’ll have to go through for such an empty proposition) is to step back into the general and simply affirm that which all ‘things’ have in common: they *are,* and so our functional pan-x-ism is simply ontology, pan-is-ism. This certainly doesn’t live up to any kind of Popper falsifiability, but as soon as you ask for pan-anything-ism, you rule out that possibility. To formulate an ‘obviously correct’ pan-x-ism that said something specific and categorical about what goes on within being, you would need to appeal to some kind of transcendental knower or knowability of the transcendent (which is, incidentally, what nearly every classical philosopher does starting with Platonic ‘recollection’ up through Cartesianism and its ‘idea of Infinity.’) I shouldn’t expect any secular philosopher today would still want to do that, though.

    One last thing - S1mplex isn’t far from this at all, really, and you don’t need to be a physicist to see why. ‘Stuff’ is inevitably “embedded in what is (or was) a single field,” and that field is being. Nothing specific we learn about stuff can ever change that.

    Writing this little response has been really fun, and I’d love to hear some responses. What’s funny, is that I came across this site simply because I was struck with the intuition that the only philosophical ‘ism’ I would ever want to accept was “X-ism,” an ‘ism’ that didn’t specify itself in any determinate manner but left itself absolutely open to any possibility. I wanted to see if anyone had come up with the concept before… and Google pointed me here! What serendipity. Excellent blog, by the way.

  13. Pete: there are lots of people who subscribe to ontological naturalism (though it’s much harder to define than the methodological naturalism, I admit). In most cases, you call it simply physicalism.

    Isn’t physicalism obviously non-sucky? ;)

  14. Pete: many philosophers subscribe to the ontological flavor naturalism (which is harder to define than the methodological version, I admit). It’s called physicalism in most cases.

    So, isn’t physicalism obviously non-sucky? ;)

  15. Pete, there is something wrong with wordpress script you have - it gives a lot of errors when I use diacritical marks, please delete my second comment. I’ll try to suppress my drive to use proper characters when typing my name for the future ;)

  16. Josh Weisberg says:

    Hey Pete.

    I’m with Marcin here–isn’t physicalism a pan-x-ism that doesn’t obviously suck?

    As for giving up on explaining the bottom-most x, all systems bottom-out somewhere. Simplicity and scope seem like a big deal there–the bottom x is justified by it’s simplifying and explanatory power, and that’s that.

  17. Pete Mandik says:

    I think Ali raises interesting points, especially about the vacuity of an all encompassing x-ism based on being itself. However, I’m holding out for non-sucky pan-x-isms that won’t be as easy to arrive at as the one Ali describes. The pan-field-ism that s1mplex mentions is terrific but depends, as s1mplex points out, on assuming the unification of forces that remain to be unified. But yeah, Marcin and Josh, I of course love physicalism. It’s the one and only pan-x-ism so far that has the least amount of suckage But it’s successes aren’t the sort that the panpsychist can easily borrow.