Philosophy 99 - 6.1.1 Fundamentality: The One and the Many

A reasonable starting point in the philosophical pursuit of the “really real” is to consider just how many real things exist. Is the real one, or is it many? You are probably puzzled by the question. Every day, you see and experience a plurality of beings. Common sense suggests that if you were to take a moment to observe the many different and ostensibly non-related things in your presence right now, you would most likely support a pluralistic view (there are many real things). Yet the framing of the real as one (the view known as monism) is also compelling.


One of the earliest metaphysical positions taken was monism. At its simplest form, monism is the belief that the most discrete or fundamental reality (i.e., “the really real”) is singular. This idea was held by the so-called pre-Socratics, a disparate group of philosophers who lived somewhat near each other and were born prior to Socrates but whose metaphysical positions, even if monistic, were wildly different. For example, they had different views of what the one “really real” is (see Table 6.1).

Date Philosopher The One Is:
c. 624–547 BCE Thales of Miletus water
c. 610–546 BCE Anaximander of Miletus the unbounded
c. 586–526 BCE Anaximenes air
c. 535–475 BCE Heraclitus of Ephesus fire
c. 515–445 BCE Parmenides of Elea Being
Table 6.1 Pre-Socratic Monists

It is tempting to look at the list of monistic answers and dismiss the thought quickly. Water, for example, is not the “really real.” Yet, as we see below, philosophers such as Thales of Miletus made a consistent, rational argument for monism. In his case, he argued in support of water as the fundamental substance.

Thales of Miletus

Studying the philosophers who predate Socrates is challenging, as in many cases their primary works did not survive. But there are transcribed fragments and the characterization of other philosophers from which to gain insights. There are also historians to give glimpses of what these thinkers posited. In the case of Thales, Aristotle is a useful source. Aristotle noted, “Thales, the founder of this school of philosophy, says the permanent entity is water (which is why he also propounded that the earth floats on water)” (Metaphysics 983b20). Why would anyone draw this conclusion? Aristotle suggested that Thales’s belief reflected the observations that all things are nourished through water, that heat itself is generated through the absence or removal of water, and that all things require water to live. The observations inherent to the position itself are understandable. How long can a person live without water? What happens to plants during drought? Water is, indeed, essential for any being.

The intellectual assumptions supporting the position are intriguing. First, Thales is working from the assumption that all things that are must be conceived as having only a material principle. Given how these thinkers made sense of the world around them, assuming only material causes (e.g. fire, water, air, etc.) is understandable. A second assumption informing the position is the notion that being either is or it is not. For these thinkers, there is no becoming (for example, change or evolving) from one fundamental substance, such as water, to another, such as fire. There is no state somewhere in between being and not being. By extension, being (once it is) cannot be generated or destroyed. Thus, primary being (the most real of reals) must be and must not be capable of not being (Aristotle, Metaphysics 983b).

Thales’s account of water as the most real is internally consistent, meaning the argument uses the evidence presented in such a way as to avoid asserting contradictory and potentially competing claims. However, his approach itself prioritizes reason over the overwhelming empirical evidence. As a result, he draws a conclusion that denies the reality of change, motion, and plurality that is experienced so readily.


Pluralism asserts that fundamental reality consists of many types of being. The pluralists viewed the “really real” as “many,” but like the pre-Socratic monists, they did not hold a uniform view concerning how to define the many or basic realities (see Table 6.2).

Date Philosopher The Many Is:
c. 500–428 BCE Anaxagoras moving bits of matter
c. 494–434 BCE Empedocles fire, air, water, earth
c. 5th century BCE Leucippus atoms (indivisible eternal bits of matter)
c. 460–370 BCE Democritus atoms (indivisible eternal bits of matter)
Table 6.2 - Pre-Socratic Pluralists

One of the views that resonates with the contemporary reader is that of atomism. Note that the atomism alluded to here is different from what is referred to as atomic theory. The atom within the thinking of Leucippus and Democritus refers to atomos as meaning “uncuttable” or “that which cannot be divided.” The plurality we experience is the result of atoms in motion. These indivisible atoms have qualities such as shape, size, and motion that cause them to join and separate in configurations, which give rise to the objects we experience with our senses. In other words, the invisible world of atoms supports and causes the visible world of everyday objects, consisting of taste, color, odor, and sound. Atoms are the true being, and the visible objects are not!

Although it might appear that they have broken all philosophical ties with the monists, both the monists and pluralists agreed that true being was eternal. Anything real stayed as it was. Change happened to things that were not real. This assertion, however, leads to the unsatisfactory conclusion that neither the acorn nor the oak is real.

Atomism in Indian Philosophy

Indian atomism provides for foundational immutable substances while going further toward accounting for change and explaining the transformation of the acorn into the oak. One of the earliest of all atomic models was pioneered in the sixth centurty BCE by a philosopher named Acharya Kanad. According to legend, he was inspired by watching pilgrims scatter rice and grains at a temple. As he began to examine the rice, he realized that the grains, left alone, were without value. But once the grains were assembled into a meal, the collection of “anu” (atom) made a meal. So too were the beings we observe collections of indivisible particles.

Another tradition, the Nyāya-VaiśeṢika, proposed an atomic theory built upon two elements: 1) The presence of change within things or wholes, and 2) The doctrine of five elements (pañca mahābhūtas). Unlike the Greek atomist view explored earlier, this tradition held that atoms possessed sensible qualities like taste, odor, or color, causing those attributes to occur in the objects they compose. As noted by Chatterjee (2017), “An earth atom has odour, a water atom taste, a fire atom colour and an air atom has touch as specific attribute.”

The reasoning supporting the atomistic views described above is a priori. Using an appeal to reason (and not experience), it was asserted that all things were composed of parts, and therefore it was necessary to assert that all things were reducible to eternal, spherical, and indivisible building blocks. The potential of an infinite regress (anavasthā) suggested that parts could always be divided into smaller parts. However, reason dictated that there must be a logical starting point at which no smaller part could be admitted (Chatterjee, 2017).

Unlike the random bumping and grinding used by Democritus to explain how atoms combined to form wholes, the Nyāya-VaiśeṢika framework explained composition through the joining of similar atomic types to first form a dyad (dyaṇuka) and then a triad (tryaṇuka). Triads joined in varying permutations in order to build the objects, or “wholes,” we experience.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax