Nondualism in Western Philosophy: a Series of Pointers (11/11)

By Greg Goode

Photo by Shauna Kenworthy

This is a series of pointers to how the Western approach can assist with one’s self-inquiry. It is less a historical survey, and more a collection of Western views that might serve as tools for inquiry, along with suggestions on how these tools might be used. Every week we will publish one new article on this topic in a total of eleven articles.


And – The Winner Is
The stickiest duality of all is the distinction between knowledge and its object, which is the same gap that Kant formalized over two centuries ago. This distinction is basic to the claim that knowledge has a real, independently existent referent. According to this duality, our thoughts represent an independent world of physical and mental existents, which are truly present even when they are not perceived or cognized. This duality is perhaps the most entrenched of all. It seems as if every moment of our experience is structured according to this gap. Even questioning it can begin to make a person feel alone in the universe, exposed and vulnerable. This duality is often the last one to dissolve in the course of one’s nondual inquiry.

Examination of this duality makes a person feel as though the world is about to disappear, or that intellectual and perceptual blindness is about to hit. This can be scary and cause people to back away from the investigation. Experienced teachers of course take this fear as a favorable sign that the inquiry is reaching deeper than the word level, and have skillful and helpful ways of guiding the person through the process.

There are several fine shadings on this duality. Various writers attack it by interpreting it as the distinction between subject/object, thought/referent, or language/meaning, appearance/reality. Regardless of how it is clothed, there are several quite direct and helpful attacks on this duality.


Subject/Object – William Samuel and Joel Goldsmith write in a mystical way that everything is an outpouring of God. Samuel’s A Guide to Awareness and Tranquility, (Samuel, 1967) is a triumphant song of praise to God as one’s nature. Joel Goldsmith’s The Mystical I (Goldsmith,1993) and Consciousness Is What I Am (Goldsmith, 1976) proclaims that God is the only cause and the only subject. Everything else is an effect of God’s nature.

Thought/Referent – If you would like a nondualist account of the relation between a thought and its referent, you might consider Blanshard’s The Nature of Thought (Blanshard, 1939), particularly a chapter in Vol. I entitled “The Theory of the Idea,” which generously examines various theories and concludes that our ideas, when fully developed and fully coherent, just are that reality.

Language/Meaning – Wittgenstein performs a similar task in his influential Philosophical Investigations. Here he investigates the relationship between language and its object. Using aphorisms and often cryptic pronouncements, he argues against the picture theory of meaning (that language accurately captures reality). He states that this picture theory is a kind of bewitchment9. He argues that language is better understood by its use in particular contexts which he calls “language games.” Meaning lies in use, not in a separate metaphysical realm that language supposedly points to.

Appearance/Reality – Things seem so intransigently distant because we think that our thoughts are supposed to represent an independent reality that is not made of thoughts. One of the best philosophical antidotes to this dualism is W.T. Stace’s clear and engaging “Refutation of Realism” (Stace, 1934). Stace (1886-1967) was a mystic and a philosopher who combined Eastern with Western approaches. In his 1934 article he updates Berkeley by arguing that there is no such thing as an unexperienced object.


Then there are Richard Rorty’s well-written essays in his Objectivity, Relativism and Truth, Vol. 1 (Rorty, 1991), especially the Introduction and “Inquiry as recontextualisation: An anti-dualist account of interpretation.” Rorty calls himself an “antirepresentationalist.” He argues against both realism (the external existence of the world) and antirealism (there exists only a web of beliefs). Both sides of the debate are based on the unsupportable claim that our ideas represent things that are not ideas. This representational claim can never be proven, so there is no basis upon which to make the distinction between realism and antirealism. Hence the distinction is unnecessary.

A Note about Who is Right

Sooner or later most serious enquirers reach a point of doubt or exasperation. “Who is right?” This frustration parallels the one felt by aspirants in Eastern traditions. These aspirants observe that the advaitins say everything is consciousness, while the Buddhists say everything is empty. Faced with this diversity, the philosophical aspirant finds herself asking who is correct, or whether the teachings can be reconciled.

The question really hits home when one considers the goal of inquiry – the pacification of the sense of separateness. One begins to ask, How can this pacification arise when one’s teachings might be saying the wrong thing?? Teachings seem so different! No one wants to be led down the wrong road. So the aspirant comes to feel the need to adjudicate between teachings, or at least prove that they are all saying the same thing after all.

Skillful nondual inquiry confronts this very issue squarely. One comes to see how the goal of a picture of a real world beyond the picture makes no sense. The very notions of “accuracy” and “representation” themselves depend on a dualistic split between appearance and reality. In other words, any nondual inquiry that goes far enough will bring peace about this question.


__________________________

Notes


9. In fact, Wittgenstein himself had earlier propounded a sophisticated version of this very same theory in his equally influential Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922). His later work Philosophical Investigations (1953) is often regarded as a recanting of this view.


 

<< Back to Part 10/11

*****

Nondual Nacho Satsang

Excerpted from a recent conversation over a plate of nachos…

Q: So, can Western philosophy really help?

A: It has helped for many others. The teachings are scattered – not all forms of Western philosophy are therapeutic. That is, not all Western authors have liberational goals. But there are plenty who do, and their teachings succeed as advertised. And not all liberational Western philosophies are nondual.

Some are dualistic, such as Socrates’ approach, which often relied on a multiplicity of Platonic Forms. Other ancient Greek therapeutic approaches are those of Aristotle, the Epicureans, and the Stoics. In modern times, cognitive therapy, a form of psychotherapy, has strong philosophical components.

Q: That’s just it! It’s so all-over-the-place! How do I find direction?

A: Do an internet search “philosophy” and “practitioner” or “counselor” and ask whether the practitioners you encounter can help with nondual inquiry. Follow your heart, which will let you know which philosophical issues are relevant to your nondual inquiry, if any. Explore the bibliography and weblinks in this article.

Q: How do I keep all this from getting dry like a brainiac?

A: Again, follow your heart. Of course this stuff isn’t for everybody – no approach is. But if it has gotten under your skin, then the deeper your desire for clarity on issues like free will, knowledge/object, self/other, etc., the less dry you’ll find the philosophical approach. It’s quite similar to Advaitic jnana yoga and Buddhist analytic meditation. Some of those who do this inquiry find that it matters more than anything else, and it shows up as the breath of life itself. You can also combine this approach with yoga, meditation, exercise, loving-kindness, and devotion to a chosen figure or ideal.


Q: But that sounds like a lot of “doing.” I’ve heard that there’s nothing to do.

A: Hah! That itself is a great topic for inquiry. Is it really the case that there are bodies and a world, but no actions, no performers of actions? Why would certain kinds of things really exist, and other kinds of things really not exist? Is there really any difference between inquiry, and a bird singing on a tree branch? Is there really anything counterproductive about performing an action or participating in activities? This is a rich area to look into. And in a thorough nondual inquiry, this is one issue that always comes under scrutiny!

Q: Are there groups that do this?

A: As of yet there’s no widespread Western-style social context for this exact kind of inquiry. Nothing large, easy to find, and analogous to the satsang movement or Zen, Theravada or Tibetan Buddhism. Small, private gatherings do happen (for instance, I have an occasional “nondual dinner” on Thursdays in Manhattan, New York, and there are others in the country as well).

But the culture of Western philosophy is slowly starting to enlarge. The West is seeing a growth in cafes philos, diners pensants, and salon gatherings. These social structures are already in place, and Western philosophical self-inquiry is well suited to their dynamics. There’s no doubt that Western inquiry or combined East/West-style inquiry will grow, and take new shapes as it proceeds.

*****


Weblinks:

Nonduality

http://www.nonduality.com

Jerry Katz’s comprehensive site on nonduality.

http://heartofnow.com/files/links.html

The links page on my site. Includes books and writings I have found helpful.

Academic

http://www.APPA.edu

Official non-profit site of the American Philosophical Practitioners Association. Members can assist with study on the well known Western philosophers. Some members can assist with nondual inquiry.

http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/philinks.htm

Guide to Philosophy on the Internet, by Peter Suber at Earlham College. He stopped updating it in 2003, but many links there are still active.

http://www.Epistemelinks.com

General philosophy web portal. Lots of links to links, from e-texts to job listings!

http://www.philosophicalgourmet.com

Ranks the academic graduate programs in philosophy.

http://www.philosophypages.com

Garth Kemerling’s philosophy site. An easy first stop to look up a philosophical word, book or person.

http://plato.stanford.edu


The authoritative Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy online. E-Texts

http://www.questia.com

Online library. Charges a monthly fee, but you can find classic, old, obscure, and out of print books and articles here.

http://www.epistemelinks.com/Main/MainText.aspx

Episteme’s (see above) E-texts page.

*****

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