The One and the Many and Materialism

Categories: PhilosophySociety

The problem of the one and the many and their relationship are one of the most debatable and permanent philosophical puzzles in the history of mankind. The puzzle arises when there shows up an object without clearly defined borders. Therefore, monists, argue that the world is a unity, consistent thing, and that all the multitude and dynamism are just an illusion. They represent the tangible world as the ideals. On the contrary, dualists are concerned about how intangible world (usually the Mind or the Ideal) can interact with the tangible many (the physical world).

The puzzle is a subject of metaphysics, as it focuses its vision on the whole, that is common to all real beings, and how their connectedness creates a whole, which is constituted with tangible and intangible elements such as science, possibilities, abstractions, mathematical and logical entities.[1]

The Historical Background

The question of the one and the many implies that the universe is a one thing. Therefore, there must exist one, unifying source behind everything which may be material, or it could be an idea such as number, or the highest ‘mind’ such as the Christian concept of God.

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At first, the dilemma was raised by Greek philosophers in 7th – 5th centuries BCE. This was the time when Greeks moved from mythology to philosophy. In this period of the mentioned time, several pre-Socratic philosophers presented their ideas concerning the universe. Thereafter, the ideas of Socrates and other philosophers prevailed – Pythagoras, for instance, who thought that the world consists of numbers.

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The numbers are many things that constitute the essence of reality. Thus all things are made of them (many).

Later, this idea influenced Plato’s way of thinking. Heraclitus was another pre-Socratic philosopher who mentioned the problem of the one and the many and elaborated a monist view that “all things are one and one-in-many”.[2] In general, these philosophers influenced Socrates’ ideas which thereafter led Plato and Aristotle to contribute to the creation of modern Western thought according to which the core of the thinking is that each and every element of the universe has the same source, a single unifying aspect.

An Overview of Realistic Approaches

There are a number of theories about the issue of the one and the many that support either of these positions along with different solutions that try to come up with a reasonable ground to deny the premises of one of the theories. Realism argues that universals – things that all properties have in common – are real, they exist and differ from the particulars that compiles them. There are different variations of realistic theories. The two main views are Platonic realism, which argues that universals are tangible entities and they exist apart from particulars, and Aristotelian realism, which on the other hand considers that universals are real entities, however, their existence is dependent on the particulars that compile them. The Plato’s theory, that was called as “the one over many” by Aristotle, had following premises: when two or more things can be said to be something, it is because of this universal, of some one thing, that they are properly called something and humans tend to have inclinations to set one certain form for each set of many things to which we give the same name.[3]

On the other hand, Aristotle’s theory of universals offers a solution for the dilemma. For Aristotle, universals were types, properties, that universals exist only where they are placed – only in things. For example, there would not be a notion of cat or catness without there being individual cats. Therefore, the notion of cat is a secondary universal, and the individual cat names are primal universals[4].

The Modern Perspective

As Jeff Lewis agues in the modern world, humans grew apart from each other and therefore from their “creator”. The main reason of such alienation is the increase in the size of population that transformed the agrarian civilization into modern urban civilization which requires division of labor, specialization, administration, militarization, and governance by leader groups. As a result, the industrial revolution is the main reason of power relations and the creation of hierarchies that controls and manages human desires and pleasures.[5] Thus, emotions turned into a central instrument for empowering social groups to encourage and organize them to fight for defense against each other, and to promote cohesion and prosperity inside their own communities. In this way, emotions created possibilities for political, economic, religious and legal powers to manipulate with societies.[6]

For instance, the distribution of violent complexities was based on the expansion of the Greek and Judeo-Christian cultures in which new forms of organizations were created to develop new forms of violence such as militarism and sovereignty. The Western civilization values were widespread with the emergence of the print media and knowledge systems that of hierarchical organizations in the complex social settlements. The rise of the political ideologies such as liberalism, humanism and individualism, the opposition of materialism to religion and spirituality contributed to the expansion of the new economic and industrial systems.[7]


All in all, the philosophical problem of the one and the many has been overviewed including its roots in ancient Greek philosophy. The opposing perspectives have also been discussed from the monist as well as the dualist point of view. A particular emphasis was placed on the realistic school of thought and its approach toward the issue, more specifically those of Plato and Aristotle. Finally, the role of industrial revolution along with the subsequent processes has been underlined for interpreting the named problem from the modern perspective. In spite of the worldwide trend of globalization that might be tempting one in favor of the monist approach, a rapid development is noticeable towards further specialization and diversification leaving a wide array of questions open to debate.

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 The One and the Many and Materialism. (2021, Oct 13). Retrieved from

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