A Brief Taxonomy of Panpsychism and Related Theories

The term panpsychism stems from the ancient Greek words πᾶν (pan – all or everything) and ψυχή (psukhe – mind or soul, from ‘I breathe’), so the literal definition of the theory would be: everything has a mind or a soul. Nowadays, the most common definition of panpsychism is the following: consciousness or mentality is a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of reality. However, that can be interpreted in many ways. To make things clearer, I will now briefly explain the various kinds of panpsychism.

Constitutive panpsychism is probably the most common form of the theory nowadays. This is the claim that higher-level consciousness, such as that of humans and animals, is constituted by consciousness found at lower levels of reality. Usually, the claim is specifically that it is found at the lowest, fundamental level of reality. In fact, I have yet to see a philosopher arguing for the view that higher-level consciousness is made up of consciousness at the ‘medium’ rather than the lowest level of reality.

Emergentist panpsychism is the view that human and animal consciousness is not constituted by consciousness featuring at the fundamental level. Rather, complex consciousness is caused by fundamental-level consciousness, meaning that human and animal consciousness emerges or comes about as a result of the causal interactions and relations found at the lowest level. On this view, human and animal consciousness is also fundamental since it is not made up of lower-level consciousness. It may be the result of lower-level relations, but it exists independently, as its own phenomenon.

Russellian panpsychism, inspired by the writings of Bertrand Russell, is the theory that the intrinsic nature of matter is consciousness. Proponents of this view make the following claim: physical science only tells us about the structure of the world, about how matter interacts in space and time but remains silent on what the deep inner nature of matter is; on what matter is in and of itself. Since the only intrinsic nature we know of is consciousness then, at least provisionally, the deep nature of matter must be of the same or similar kind. It is odd to imagine that the world is a merely structural phenomenon, so the Russellian panpsychist argues that structural features must be based in consciousness – the concrete, intrinsic nature of matter.

Panprotopsychism is the view that not consciousness but something close to it, that can give rise to it, is found at the fundamental level of reality. This form of proto-consciousness, whatever it is, is defined as having the ability to produce consciousness at higher levels. While we do not have a clear picture of what proto-conscious properties are, the most popular form of the theory today is panqualityism. Proponents of panqualityism argue that experienceable qualities are the proto-conscious properties that we need in order to account for higher-level consciousness. Such qualities are not subjects or minds in themselves, even though they can be experienced by subjects. They are experienceable but not necessarily experienced. The panqualityist claims that when those qualities are parts of a relevant structure, like the human brain, awareness of them emerges in virtue of that structure. There are many more versions of panprotopsychism, but panqualityism is probably the most commonly discussed.

Micropsychism can mean two different things. On the one hand, it is an umbrella term for all theories that claim that consciousness is a feature of the lowest level of reality. Under this definition, panpsychism is a form of micropsychism. On the other hand, it is the specific view that some but not all fundamental simples feature consciousness. Under this definition, panpsychism is not a form of micropsychism but a completely different claim. That is, the difference lies in attributing consciousness to all rather than some fundamental simples.

Cosmopsychism is also the theory that consciousness is a ubiquitous feature of fundamental reality, just like panpsychism. The difference is that ‘fundamental reality’ means something completely different for the cosmopsychist. According to them, the cosmos as a whole, conceived of as a unified object, is fundamental. That is, they give priority to the whole rather than to its parts, so that the parts of the cosmos are merely derived from or modifications of it as a whole. Rather than attributing consciousness to the smallest, basic level of reality, the cosmopsychist attributes it to the cosmos, arguing that human and animal consciousness is a less fundamental, derivative part of it as a whole. Recently, this theory has been gaining traction.

Panpsychism and many of the views mentioned have a long history in both philosophy and spirituality, dating back to ancient times. Recently, however, there has been a revival of interest in such ‘holistic’ theories of consciousness, mostly within contemporary analytic philosophy of mind. On this blog, I will try to approach these and other views from a broader perspective, talking about the many implications that their acceptance could have for individuals, societies, religion, science, etc.

I hope that this post serves as a good introduction to the blog and I welcome anyone interested in these topics to read on!



David Chalmers – Panpsychism and Panprotopsychism.

Derk Pereboom – Consciousness and the Prospects of Physicalism.

Philip Goff, William Seager and Sean Allen-Hermanson – Panpsychism.

Sam Coleman – Mental Chemistry: Combination for Panpsychists.

Yujin Nagasawa and Khai Wager – Panpsychism and Priority Cosmopsychism.

8 thoughts on “A Brief Taxonomy of Panpsychism and Related Theories

  1. Great post, Nino! It was very interesting and informative for someone who doesn’t really know much about these theories. You presented us with some clear and well organized facts and really intrguing thesis. Looking forward to learn more about panpsychism 🙂

    1. Thank you very much, I really appreciate the feedback! I’m glad to hear that you found the article accessible and interesting 🙂

  2. Hello, nice summaries. My only suggestion would be to include an everyday example in every miniarticle to make it all more understandable and visualisable.

    1. Thank you for commenting! I fully agree with you, I’ll certainly aim to do that in future posts, but I should’ve done that a bit more in this post as well. Admittedly, it’s not that easy since these theories are quite abstract – I’ll try my best! 🙂

  3. Great article Nino! I never explored panpsychism in such detail before, thank you. From my understanding, the one that’s most likely true is the panqualityism you talked about. I bet that is what connects the dots between mind and matter, how they correspond and how they are really but one and the same thing, because if quantity has essential mental qualities, then the hard problem of consciousness as well as the mind-body problem can finally be resolved. That would mean that nature contains in and as itself both the abstract qualities of the psyche alongside physical quantities. I cannot get how consciousness can just simply emerge from a corporal mass (physicalism); or matter from something as abstract and non-concrete as the qualia we experience via consciousness (idealism). It makes perfect sense to me that mental and material properties are intertwined as one, but with two sides. So objects like rocks exist already with subjective qualities like their hardness and the potential for them to be perceived consciously as such. A rock therefore has this mental feature of being experienceable as hard regardless of whether there is a conscious entity experiencing it or not. In other words, consciousness can emerge from something unconscious, because the quality aspects of all materials need only to become aware of themselves through a complex combination of stuff in the brain to give rise to the awareness of said mental qualities – which were already there to begin with. Although getting to the bottom of exactly how consciousness emerges is probably the biologist’s burden. Enough for me the explanation, let them just give us the description and this theory will turn into fact.

    1. Hey Stephen, thank you very much for your comment! It’s interesting that you find panqualityism to be the most promising theory. Lots of people seem to think so, as it is commonly discussed nowadays, at least in our (panpsychist) circles. Qualitative structuralism, which I would call a version of panqualityism, would probably be very interesting to you. They claim that experienceable-but-not-necessarily-experienced qualities are the only truly existing things; that they are the bearers of all relations; and that what science describes as physical is merely an abstract description of relations between qualities. For more information, check out Sam Coleman’s manuscript Fred’s Red: https://www.academia.edu/36975179/Freds_Red.

  4. This is unusually well written. I’ve been aware of panpsychism (as a psychologist, not a philosopher) for a number of years but had not even heard of some of these varieties.

    are you by any chance willing to say which one or ones you lean toward?

  5. Hey Don, thank you for your comment and kind words! I definitely lean towards constitutive forms of panpsychism, paired with relations that enable microsubjects to combine (e.g. Philip Goff’s phenomenal bonding or William Seager’s combinatorial infusion). I have yet to find out which of them actually works! A sort of ‘one-layer’ or ‘mono-level’ panpsychism that attracts me is the claim that complex (aggregative) subjects do not exist and that only microsubjects exist. That avoids the combination problem by getting rid of one level of explanation. ‘Complex’ subjects are thus really only microsubjects that are complex phenomenally rather than via aggregation because they contain more phenomenal content than other microsubjects. For instance, microsubjects A and B could ‘route’ their phenomenal contents to microsubject C which then becomes more complex simply by gaining their phenomenal content. I am very much interested in exploring whether this model could work. Recently, I’ve also been getting more and more sympathetic to cosmopsychism (a la Yujin Nagasawa, Philip Goff and Itay Shani).

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