DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N079-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 14, 2024, from

1. The nature of panpsychism

Through prejudice and misunderstanding, panpsychism is often thought a somewhat fanciful doctrine; thus commentators often try to save some admired master from association with it. Consequently, an uncontroversial list of panpsychists is problematic. Especially debated is the case of Spinoza, and there is some argument too over Whitehead, though certainly many process philosophers working in the Whitehead and Hartshorne tradition are panpsychists. Other thinkers either committed, or strongly inclined, to panpsychism include Gustav Fechner, R.H. Lotze, Friedrich Paulsen (d.1908) William James, Josiah Royce, C.H. Waddington (d.1975) and Charles HARTSHORNE. Leibniz, Schopenhauer and Bergson advanced positions akin to panpsychism.

Panpsychism is expressed somewhat variously in virtue of differing usages of such words as ‘consciousness’, ‘sentience’, ‘feeling’ and ‘experience’. Here we shall use the word ‘consciousness’ taken in a very broad sense. (Readers may mentally substitute ‘sentience’, if they prefer, provided they do not understand this purely behaviourally.) Any individual such that there is a truth as to what it is like to be it (in general or at some particular moment) is conscious, and its consciousness is what that truth concerns. I may have limited power to grasp what it is like to be you, but I cannot seriously doubt that there is something there to be right or wrong about, as sensible people think also true about animals (except perhaps the very simplest). But if I try to imagine what it is like to be this table here, everyone will agree that there is nothing there to be imagined.

The point is not that one’s conscious states must be like something, must have a character; that is true of everything. But things do divide, in common opinion, into those such that there is and those such that there is not something that it is like to be them (though this expression is only an idiomatic pointer to something it requires a certain sophisticated obtuseness to be unable to identify).

The paradigm panpsychist maintains that each of the ultimate units of the physical world (whether particles, events or even mutually influencing fields) out of which all other physical things are made, are conscious in this sense. Of course, they are not self conscious, or thoughtful, but each has some dumb feeling of its own existence and of its exchange of influence with other things. It does not follow, they will rightly insist, that every physical thing is conscious. Many things, such as sticks and stones, made of these ultimate units are not so. Thus while a stone will be composed of conscious units without itself being conscious, a waking human brain will both itself be conscious and be composed of what is conscious, perhaps at two levels (for example, the neurons in the brain may be individually conscious and also made up, like everything else, of ultimate physical units which are so). Hence panpsychism, as such, leaves open the question as to which individuals above the minimal scale are sentient and which not, though particular systems of panpsychism may have their own suggestions as to how this can be decided. (Some think an element of behavioural spontaneity is its chief external mark.)

Citing this article:
Sprigge, T.L.S.. The nature of panpsychism. Panpsychism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N079-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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