Nondualism in Western Philosophy: a Series of Pointers (2/11)

By Greg Goode

Photo by Kevin Pepper


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.

How Nondualism is Done in the West
Proving the nondual nature of reality is not an overall goal for Western philosophy. A few philosophers have created nondual metaphysical theories; and others have argued against metaphysics altogether. But most philosophers who dissolve or dismiss dualities are not nondualists. The dualities left in the dust by these writers are merely casualties of their other work. In fact, the cleverest and most persuasive arguments tend to come from the works focused on narrow and specific issues, and don’t discuss all of reality at once. These arguments can be very helpful in the course of one’s nondual inquiry. As the old-time news editors used to say, “We can use it!”

We will examine some of the best known arguments that can be helpful in nondual inquiry, even if a given argument is not used by its author in to establish nondualism. Sometimes it is most effective to proceed piecemeal. Most of the well-known Western arguments take one (or more) of the following broad strategies.

A. Monist philosophies. Monist philosophies argue that the universe is truly made from only one kind of thing. An example would be that the entire universe is only God or consciousness. These kinds of views are the ones most similar to Eastern nondualism. Most monist arguments proceed by building systems, not so much by employing clever logic and dialectics.

Some of the most famous Western philosophies are the great monisms, which claim one kind of thing as the basis or true nature of everything else. In some monist philosophies, the one kind of thing is numerically single. Ancient examples of this single-style monism include the theory of Parmenides (b. 510 BCE), in which everything is “the One,” i.e., one unchanging substance discernible only through reasoning, and the more lively view of Heraclitus (540-475 BCE), in which “All is flux.” Hegel is a grand modern example with his system of absolute consciousness.

Other monist philosophies are not as “nondual.” That is, their one true kind of existent is numerically multiple. The one kind of thing is found in many identical parts or different places. Such ideas are found among the ancient atomists like Leucippus (c. 450 BCE), who argued that the world is made out of many identical particles. This notion is remarkably close to various modern scientific theories, which have proposed various kinds of elementary particles as the ultimate constituents of the world.

B. Reductive philosophies. Reductive philosophies hold that the universe is made of fewer kinds of things than we think. Their goal is not to end up at nondualism, but rather to show that certain kinds of things that we take for granted do not exist and can be reduced to other things. A reductive philosophy might argue, for example, that the world is not really made up of external objects, ideas and minds, but can be accounted for by ideas and minds only. Other reductionists are materialists.

Since reductive philosophies do not try to rid the world of all dualisms at once, they can focus more attention on particular issues. Reductive arguments tend to be dialectically clever and precise. They end up doing more damage to a duality such as “mental vs. physical” than the gentle suggestions of a soft- focus monism. Democritus, Berkeley, Locke and more recently, Paul and Patricia Churchland provide strong examples of reductionism.

C. Anti-metaphysical philosophies. Anti-metaphysical philosophies argue against any kind of metaphysical basis whatsoever. The classic anti- metaphysician was Sextus Empricus (160-210 CE), the Ancient Greek Pyrrhonian skeptic with one of the most radical, deconstructive arguments in the entire Western tradition – that we can reach a state of mental calm and peace if we suspend judgment on all claims, issues and conclusions, and follow impressions, inclinations and conventions as they arise. Even belief is not necessary; it leads to agitation.

Anti-metaphysical philosophy is also called “anti-essentialism” or “anti-foundationalism” and became a trend in the 20th century. Its most famous advocates are John Dewey, Ludwig Wittgenstein, W.V.O. Quine, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Donald Davidson, Nelson Goodman and Richard Rorty. They argue in a variety of ways that we just don’t need metaphysics anymore, along with its nest of dualisms.

Anti-metaphysical philosophers argue that it makes no sense to claim what something really is. They argue equally against monist and reductionist claims that certain things are metaphysically basic. Anti-metaphysics challenges anything’s claim as basic, fundamental, as constituting the ground of anything else. Instead of discussing what we think the universe really is, anti- metaphysical philosophies suggest we come up with new ways of thinking, speaking and experiencing. This, they say, is the route to greater happiness and social harmony.

Anti-metaphysics can be of great assistance in one’s nondual inquiry. If one loses conviction in the truth or accuracy of metaphysical pronouncements about the world, the body and the mind, one is thereby freed from several sticky attachments. As free, we will not experience ourselves or the world in terms of the dualisms of mind/matter, good/evil, self/other, subjective/objective, appearance/reality, fact/value, free will/determinism, and so forth.

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