Where animism tends to view the life as taking the form of discrete spirits, and panpsychism tends to refer to strictly philosophical views like that of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), 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.

However, some have since claimed that ‘hylozoism’ should properly be used only where body and soul are explicitly distinguished, the distinction then being rejected as invalid.

J Glucker, ‘Who Invented “Hylozoism”?’, Ionian Philosophy, K J Boudoouris, ed. (1989)

Ancient hylozoism

Hylozoism refers largely to views such as those of the earliest Greek philosophers (6th and 5th centuries BC), who 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 essentiality for life in animals. The theory holds that matter is unified with life or spiritual activity.[2] Thales, Anaximenes, and Heraclitus all taught that there is a form of life in all material objects.[3] It was Thales who maintained that all things are full of gods (daimon).[2] Note that these philosophies did not necessarily hold that material objects had separate life or identity, only that they had life, either as part of an overriding entity or as living but insensible entities.

Hylozoism is distinguished from the concept of hylopsychism or possessing a mind. In practice, however, 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.


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 (a directed effort, a striving or tendency; a nisus).[4]

Later the primitive hylozoism reappeared in modified forms. Some scholars[who?] 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.

Hylozoism is also associated with animism, which tends to view life as taking the form of discrete spirits, and panpsychism, identified with the philosophical views thinkers such as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. The theory is also related to the Stoics, who believed that a world soul was the vital force of the universe.

In the 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, wherein 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—materialism and hylozoism.

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 of Lampsacus 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.[5]

Spinoza’s idealism also tends toward hylozoism. In order to hold a balance even between matter and mind, Spinoza combined materialistic with pantheistic hylozoism, by demoting both to mere attributes of the one infinite substance. Although specifically rejecting identity in inorganic matter, he, like the Cambridge Platonists, sees a life force within, as well as beyond, all matter.

Contemporary hylozoism

Immanuel Kant presented 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 Herbert Spencer, Hermann Lotze, and Ernst Haeckel – was often called upon as a protest against a mechanistic worldview.[6]

In the 19th century, Haeckel developed a materialist form of hylozoism, specially against Rudolf Virchow’s and Hermann von 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 nonliving 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.[7][8]

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.

The French Pythagorean and Rosicrucian alchemist, Francois Jollivet-Castelot (1874-1937), established a hylozoic esoteric school which combined the insight of spagyrics, chemistry, physics, transmutations and metaphysics. He published many books, one of which was called “L’Hylozoïsme, l’alchimie, les chimistes unitaires” (1896). In his view there was no difference between spirit and matter except for the degree of frequency and other vibrational conditions.

The Mormon theologian Orson Pratt taught a form of hylozoism.

Alice A. Bailey wrote a book called The Consciousness of the Atom.[9]

Influenced by Alice A. Bailey, Charles Webster Leadbeater, and their predecessor Madame Blavatsky, Henry T. Laurency produced voluminous writings describing a hylozoic philosophy.[10]

Influenced by George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, the English philosopher and mathematician John Godolphin Bennett, in his four-volume work The Dramatic Universe and his book Energies, developed a six-dimensional framework in which matter-energy takes on 12 levels of hylozoic quality.

The English cybernetician Stafford Beer adopted a hylozoism position, arguing that it could be defended scientifically and expending much effort on Biological computing in consequence.[11] This is described as Beer’s “spiritually-charged awe at the activity and powers of nature in relation to our inability to grasp them representationally”.[12] Beer claimed that “Nature does not need to make any detours; it does not just exceed our computational abilities, in effect it surpasses them in unimaginable ways. In a poem on the Irish Sea, Beer talks about nature as exceeding our capacities in way that we can only wonder at, ‘shocked’ and ‘dumbfounded.’”[13] In partnership with his friend Gordon Pask, who was experimenting with various chemical and bio-chemical devices, he explored the possibility for intelligence to be developed in very simple network-complex systems. In one possibly unique experiment led by Pask, they found that such a structure would ‘grow’ a sensing organization in response to the stimuli of different audio inputs in about half a day.[14]

Ken Wilber embraces hylozoism to explain subjective experience and provides terms describing the ladder of subjective experience experienced by entities from atoms up to Human beings in the upper left quadrant of his Integral philosophy chart.[15]

Physicist Thomas Brophy, in The Mechanism Demands a Mysticism, embraces hylozoism as the basis of a framework for re-integrating modern physical science with perennial spiritual philosophy. Brophy coins two additional words to stand with hylozoism as the three possible ontological stances consistent with modern physics. Thus: hylostatism (universe is deterministic, thus “static” in a four-dimensional sense); hylostochastism (universe contains a fundamentally random or stochastic component); hylozoism (universe contains a fundamentally alive aspect).

Architect Christopher Alexander has put forth a theory of the living universe, where life is viewed as a pervasive patterning that extends to what is normally considered non-living things, notably buildings. He wrote a four-volume work called The Nature of Order which explicates this theory in detail.

Philosopher and ecologist David Abram articulates and elaborates a form of hylozoism grounded in the phenomenology of sensory experience. In his books Becoming Animal and The Spell of the Sensuous, Abram suggests that matter is never entirely passive in our direct experience, holding rather that material things actively “solicit our attention” or “call our focus,” coaxing the perceiving body into an ongoing participation with those things. In the absence of intervening technologies, sensory experience is inherently animistic, disclosing a material field that is animate and self-organizing from the get-go. Drawing upon contemporary cognitive and natural science as well as the perspectival worldviews of diverse indigenous, oral cultures, Abram proposes a richly pluralist and story-based cosmology, in which matter is alive through and through. Such an ontology is in close accord, he suggests, with our spontaneous perceptual experience; it calls us back to our senses and to the primacy of the sensuous terrain, enjoining a more respectful and ethical relation to the more-than-human community of animals, plants, soils, mountains, waters and weather-patterns that materially sustains us.[16]

Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory, in the sociology of science, treats non-living things as active agents and thus bears some metaphorical resemblance to hylozoism.[17]

There are sources that note a negative connotation for hylozoism in modern literature, citing that it is used to describe a vague disparagement of aspects of Greek philosophy.

One thought on “Hylozoism

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