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Greg Goode – Nondualism in Western Philosophy Pt.2

I am very happy to be able to bring you Part 2 of this post. 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.

In case you missed Part 1, with Greg’s permission, we are serializing an updated version of his book Nondualism in Western Philosophy (which is not available anywhere else on the web for free). Without further ado, here is Part 2.


Materialism is the view that reality consists solely of things having a location in space. Most materialists proceed reductively, arguing that things we take to be non-material are actually material things. We are mistaken, they say, to take things like minds, thoughts, and free will as non-material things.

One prominent kind of materialism is atomism, which holds that the one kind of thing that exists is tiny particles of matter. The earliest atomists are Leucippus (c. 450 BCE), his student Democritus (c. 460-360 BCE), and Lucretius (99-55 BCE). As a theory, atomism has two objectives. One, identify the world’s ultimate ingredient by explaining the complex in terms of the simple, and two, allow for change and diversity. Atomism holds that what truly exists are tiny, solid, indivisible particles too small to be seen with the naked eye. The atoms exist within a limitless field of empty space and are compressed together in various degrees of density. The interplay of atoms and space leaves room for the atoms to move and touch each other. The world, the person and the eye itself are all made of these atoms. The eye cannot see the atoms themselves, but can see their effects as they move, collide and combine.

In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), John Locke proposes an updated version of atomism called “corpuscularianism.” This is a claim that all matter is made of minute corpuscles which themselves have no observable properties or discernable causal relations to what we actually observe. Locke’s denial of observable properties to the corpuscles makes some sense – for if the corpuscles are too small to be seen, then how can they have observable properties? But this unobservability thesis gets Locke into trouble with George Berkeley (1685-1753), the most famous “idealist.” After Berkeley, philosophy took a turn towards the nonmaterial side, and corpuscularianism became more of an explanatory hypothesis than a metaphysical theory.

Modern philosophical materialism is not necessarily atomistic. It is largely an attempt to solve the puzzle as to why mental things such as thoughts and feelings seem so much different from physical things such as rocks and trees.

Psychologist B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) has been accused of materialism because of his denial of personal autonomy. In his shocking and popular Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), Skinner argues against the notions of a thinking, willing, choosing faculty in mankind. These notions lead to blame and punishment, which Skinner argues do not serve to improve society. Skinner suggests another way to understand human behavior and improve society. This is to think of behavior as completely determined by conditioning, which is made up of genetic background and life history. If we improve people’s physical and social environments, we will improve society. The arguments and emphasis are similar to the teachings of Ramesh Balsekar, Wayne Liquorman, Tony Parsons and others.

More recent philosophical materialisms are explicit attempts to account for mental phenomena in terms of physical phenomena. Psychologist U.T. Place asked, ‘Is Consciousness a Brain Process?’ in a 1956 article, and argued that mental states just are brain states. This is called the “identity theory.” But identity works both ways, and critics noted that mind/brain identity does not do what the materialist wants, which is to show how mental terms are empty and physical terms are not.

In other words, identity theorists wanted to favor the brain by saying, “the brain is what the mind is identical to; therefore the brain is basic and mental terms are empty.” But since identity is bilateral, it also allows the idealist to favor the mind by saying “the mind is what the brain is identical to; therefore the mind is basic and physical terms are empty.” This warranted inference from the materialists’ own premises did not sit well with the them, so they sought other theories that allowed them to eliminate mental terms.

The Myth of Jones: Eliminative Materialism

“Eliminative materialism” does intend to discard the mental model in favor of the physical. It argues that commonsense or “folk” psychology, which speaks of mental states, beliefs and feelings, is simply mistaken about our cognitive processes. Folk psychology’s most important terms simply do not refer to anything, according to eliminative materialism, whereas terms for brain states and brain functions have verifiable referents.

Eliminativists take advantage of the philosophical momentum provided by Gilbert Ryle (1900-1976) and Wilfrid Sellars (1912-1989). In The Concept of Mind (1949), Ryle comes down on the physical side of traditional Cartesian dualism. He examines mental concepts, attempting to show how they invariably appeal to the actions and interactions between physical bodies. What we are really talking about, he argues, is bodies, not minds. The notion that there is a “ghost in the machine” or a conscious inner controller directing our actions, Ryle calls a “category mistake.” To think that anger is truly a state of mind is just such a mistake, because the only real category is a body – a body which at the moment happens to flush, speak loudly, move quickly and unpredictably. These are observations about bodies, not minds.

The eliminativist view is an alternative to what could be called the spectator view of the mind. The spectator view is the one that most denizens of the modern industrial scientific world grow up with. It posits an inner spectator within the theater of the mind. This spectator regards all sensory input, feels feelings, thinks thoughts, contemplates alternatives, makes choices and utters speech. This spectator’s job is to accurately represent the outer world in thought, and communicate it accurately to others.

The spectator view is one of the main barriers to nondual understanding. According to this view, the spectator is metaphysically distinct from that which it observes (the world). Inner is cut off from outer, and most everyone, after acceding to the notion of the inner observer, proceeds to identify with it. Eliminative materialism accepts most of the observations that folk psychology accepts, but does away with the dualities between inner and outer, subject and object, and seer and seen.

Sam Blight Art

One of the most subtle and cogent presentations of eliminative materialism comes from Wilfred Sellars.

If bodies exist and minds do not, then how did the notion of mind arise in the first place? This is just what Wilfred Sellars tries to account for in his subtle and influential Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind (1956). Sellars tells a fascinating story called the “Myth of Jones.” Jones is one of our “Rylean ancestors.” Jones and his neighbors can do things and move and communicate, but they do not have or cannot recognize anything called experiences or “inner episodes.” When they talk about what they do, the language is phrased in terms of publicly observable characteristics. Sellars develops the myth by having Jones attribute the same physical states to his neighbors when they are silent and still as when they are talking and moving. To do this, Jones postulates inner states and thoughts and a controlling entity to his neighbors. After a while, talking in terms of states and inner controllers becomes comfortable and efficient, and voila! It’s as though the Ryleans had minds all along!

Early eliminativists might have gotten a boost from Ryle and Sellars, but the most recent weapon in the eliminativists’ arsenal is probably neuroscience. Paul and Patricia Churchland, in a series of publications including Paul’s paper “Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes” (1981) and Patricia’s book Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind/Brain (1986) develop the overall argument that neuroscience is a much more rigid and reliable guide than folk psychology. Further neuroscientific research, they say, will show us what we are really talking about when we use those unreliable folk psychological terms such as ‘beliefs’ and ‘emotions’. Some day, say the Churchlands, we will be able to eliminate such talk.

Daniel Dennett is a well-known prolific writer who could be seen as a “soft eliminative materialist.”

In Consciousness Explained (1991) he does not so much try to negate mental phenomena as argue that they do not depend on a unitary mind. He combines neuroscience with philosophy and psychology in an attack on the spectator theory of consciousness. The spectator theory is another Cartesian legacy – the spectator is a unified inner observer who is aware of ideas being projected in a sort of theater of the mind. Dennett tries to eliminate this unitary observer with a kind of functionalistic artificial intelligence view, in which mental states are the software for the hard wiring of the brain.

The Only Substance There Is: Nonmaterialism

This kind of monism holds that there is only Being, God, mind, ideas or consciousness. It includes the following philosophical varieties: idealism, pantheism (all is God), panentheism (God is the nature of all, but lies beyond as well), and neutral monism (the basic stuff is neither physical nor mental). The more idealistic or consciousness-based monisms are similar to the Eastern philosophies of Advaita Vedanta, Buddhist Dzogchen and Buddhist Yogachara.

Plotinus (205-270)

Plotinus’s monism is an early example of neutral monism. In his Enneads Plotinus embellished Plato’s notion of the One, or the Good. The One for Plotinus is self-caused, and causes the world as well. How does The One cause the world? Not by setting off a chain of chronological events, but by being what all things are at the simplest level. The One causes the world in the way the ocean causes waves. We can grasp the One not by observing properties of things, but by understanding what it is not. This is similar to the “neti-neti” (not this, not that) approach in Advaita Vedanta.

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677)

In his Ethics (1677), Spinoza sets out a number of propositions which lead to his conclusion that God is the only substance. The argument relies heavily upon Spinoza’s characterization of “substance” and “God.” A substance is defined as having its own characteristics, which define just what it is. A substance can also have what Spinoza calls “affections,” which are non-essential characteristics. God is defined as that substance which has infinite characteristics, one of which is existence. The propositions relevant to Spinoza’s monism can be summarized into the following philosophical argument. And for modern readers, the notion of “awareness” or “universe” may be substituted for Spinoza’s “God.” Similar arguments have been made in Eastern teachings.

1. Two substances cannot share any characteristics.

2. God is a substance with infinite characteristics which all express eternal and infinite essence. With such characteristics, God exists, and cannot not exist.

3. Therefore, God is the only substance.

Getting from (1) and (2) to (3) depends on Spinoza’s notion of characteristics. According to (1), no two substances can have even one characteristic in common. According to (2), God has all the characteristics there are, and God exists. There are no characteristics left over for any other substance to have. Therefore, (3), no other substance exists.

Thinking of a Teacup: Idealism

Idealism holds that what we normally think of as physical objects is actually a mental substance. There are points of overlap among idealism, pantheism and the neutral monism of Plotinus.

John Scottus Eriugena (812-877)

In the middle ages, Eriugena gave the neoplatonic monism of Plotinus an idealist twist. Using sources from the Neoplatonic and mystical traditions, as well as from Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Eriugena argued in The Division of Nature that God is beyond being and non-being. With the assistance of Ideas in God, all things emanate from God and return back to God.

George Berkeley (1685-1753)

Berkeley is not a monist, but the reductionist par excellence. He argues resolutely for the nonmaterialist side of Descartes’ dualism in Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous and A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. There are no physical objects, just minds and ideas. Berkeley’s conclusion is so un-intuitive, and his arguments so clever and impassioned, that he remains one of the most famous idealists in the Western tradition. His approach is very similar to the early and difficult stages of the teachings of the great Advaitin, Shri Atmananda Krishna Menon.

Berkeley attempts to refute a widely held view that we now call the “representationalist theory of perception” (RTP), which holds:

(1) Physical objects possess observable qualities, including color, shape, size, hardness, texture, fragrance, etc.

(2) If you mentally strip away all observable qualities from an object, what is left is physical substance as their support and substrate, and it is not observable.

(3) Physical objects exist whether or not they are observed; they exist outside the mind.

(4) These external physical objects are perceived by causing our ideas of them; they do this by impinging upon our senses and then being communicated to the mind.

(5) Our ideas represent external objects by being likenesses of them.

RTP sounds plausible to most people, perhaps even today. But Berkeley disagrees with (2)-(5) above. He argues that rocks, trees and houses exist, but that they are really combinations of ideas. His argument is simple.

(B1) It cannot be doubted that the mind perceives ideas; for a mind to perceive an idea is for that idea to exist in that mind.

(B2) Ideas can exist only in a mind (not outside); also the mind cannot contain anything other than ideas.

(B3) What is not an idea cannot be perceived by the mind because mind has access only to ideas and to nothing else.

(B4) Because it exists only in a mind, an idea cannot be a likeness of an external object. What is outside the mind is not available to be compared with what is in the mind. The comparison cannot be made.

Because of (B1) – (B4), Berkeley argues, external material objects cannot be said to exist, because they are impossible to perceive. This conclusion is the basis of Berkeley’s famous dictum “esse est percipi,” or “to be is to be perceived.”

Photo Nick Veasey

As an example, imagine the burning sensation we feel when our hand is in the fire. This sensation in us is not a likeness of a burning sensation within the fire itself. Therefore RTP’s statement (5) above is false. The other qualities of the fire – color, shape, sound, size, temperature, location – are analogous. They do not exist in the fire itself apart from the mind; they are ideas perceived by the mind. Since we cannot say that the fire, as an external object, is perceived at all, (4) above is false. Because (4) is false, (3) is also false, since nothing outside the mind can be perceived whatsoever. Because external physical objects are not perceived and hence cannot be said to exist, it is mere fantasy to talk about their makeup as composed of an external, unobservable material substance, with observable qualities that exist in the substance itself. So (2) is groundless. But Berkeley does accept (1), and interprets “physical” objects as ideas in combination.

This brings up the question, where do our ideas come from if not from external physical objects? For Berkeley, who was a bishop in good standing in the Church of England, there are only minds and ideas. So our ideas can come only from another mind – the mind of God. This also solves for Berkeley the problem of the continued existence of things. Does the pen on my desk actually go out of existence when I’m not thinking of it? No, says Berkeley, because God is thinking of the pen at all times, even when I am not.

Berkeley is not officially a monist because in the majority of his philosophical writings he accepts both minds and ideas. But there have been hints that he also had a private theory, according to which he applied similar arguments to the notion of mental substance (a thinking mind) as he applied to the notion of physical substance. There is also some indication that later in his life, Berkeley quietly adopted a pantheistic monism.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814)

After Descartes, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) became the most influential dualist. After the revolutionary influence of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781, 1787), no one, especially in Germany, could write philosophy without attempting to reconcile the gap that Kant seemed to have widened between knowledge and its object. Kant’s Critique argued that the object in itself is totally independent of our knowledge of it. This independence renders the object utterly unknowable. Many subsequent philosophers reacted to Kant’s subject/object gap by emphasizing the subject or knower-side of the gap, and building the world of objects from the knower. This subject-side emphasis became the keynote to German Idealism.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte made the first move. In his Science of Knowledge (1794), Fichte chooses to begin with the subject side because he sees the knowing subject (and not the inert, unknowable object) as the basis of moral freedom and autonomy.

Fichte’s argument is an early nondual tour de force. It seeks to reconcile free will with physical causation, as well as self with other. It is an attempt to explain the world and our experience by using no conceptual building blocks other than the “I.”

Specifically Fichte strives to reconcile two seemingly opposed everyday notions – the freedom of the self vs. the causal necessity which was generally believed in his time to be an intrinsic property of objects in the material world. That is, the will is supposedly free, but an apple necessarily falls from a tree. How can this be reconciled? He begins with the proposition that “the I posits itself.” He then maps the progress of the I’s development. The next movement is “the I posits itself as an I,” followed by “the I posits itself as self-positing.” This latter shows that the I is self-aware, which is the self-consciousness that all consciousness entails. The I is always immediately present to itself, prior to any sensory content. Because the I is unitary, and it exists through and as something that posits itself, the I is both a fact and an act. The I is not any kind of substance, rather its nature is that it self-posits. The I’s freedom is not absolute, rather, it discovers and senses a limitation. This limitation starts as a feeling, then a sensation, then an intuition, and then a concept. Thus is the entire world created from the I. Fichte’s I is not an absolute I like the Brahman or Self of Advaita Vedanta, but a finite, empirical self.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831)

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) built one of the grandest monistic systems in all of Western philosophy. In The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) he argues that nothing less than Absolute Spirit (God, consciousness) is the basis of all phenomena. The history of the world is actually the evolution of Spirit. As Spirit evolves toward self-definition and self-consciousness, the world becomes more sophisticated. Spirit moves in a dialectical way. Something is posited. This can be called the thesis. As the thesis undergoes self-development, it inevitably encounters its own limits. These limits also develop and help spawn the antithesis. As Spirit moves to resolve the tension between thesis and antithesis, it rises to a higher level and forms the synthesis, which encompasses and accounts for the two.

This tripartite dialectic can be seen from the human perspective as the evolution of consciousness. In an individual observer, subjective consciousness asserts itself, discovers its limitations, and discovers other people and their activities. By seeing that it is also instantiated in other locations, subjective consciousness realizes its universal characteristics. It therefore becomes objective consciousness. But this subjective/objective distinction is not static as in Kant’s philosophy. Hegel argues that it is actually a movement. The movement is the progress of absolute consciousness (God or Absolute Spirit) as it becomes more developed and self-aware.

The evolution of Absolute Spirit can also be seen, Hegel argues, in cultural progress. Art makes the first appearance on the world stage. It is likened to subjective consciousness. Religion follows. Because of its recognition of the objectified otherness and subjectivity of God, religion is analogous to objective consciousness. Philosophy makes its entrance later still; it encompasses both art and religion; it manifests as the self-conscious recognition of the Absolute’s development.

Philosophical monism of the idealist sort, similar to Hegel and Fichte’s, was taken up by English-speaking philosophers over the next century. British Idealists such as Thomas Hill Green (1836-1882), Francis Herbert Bradley (1846-1924), and the Americans Josiah Royce (1855-1916) and Brand Blanshard (1892-1987) argued during their careers that the Idea is metaphysically basic. The most recent idealist work from these writers is Blanshard’s The Nature of Thought (1939), in which he tackles the traditional problem of the relation between the idea and its object. His conclusion is clever and unique: it’s all a matter of degree. Blanshard argues that the object just is the idea, more fully realized.

*Stay tuned for [the last] Part Three in a future post.

Greg Goode has been a philosophical counselor since 1996 and has extensive experience with online consultation. As a philosophical counselor, Greg is nationally certified by the American Philosophical Practitioners Association, trained by Prof. Lou Marinoff, author of the well-known Plato Not Prozac! and by California State University, Fullerton’s J. Michael Russell —a true pioneer in the philosophical consultation movement.

Greg is a well-known innovator for having combined the ancient “direct-path” method of self-inquiry with modern electronic media. Nondual inquiry includes the powerful teachings of Advaita Vedanta and Mahayana Buddhism. Greg studied Advaita Vedanta through the Chinmaya Mission, Sri Atmananda, Jean Klein, and Francis Lucille. He studied the Mahayana teachings of Pure Land Buddhism through Jodo-Shinshu, and studied Chinese Middle-Way Buddhism through the lineage of the pre-eminent scholar of Chinese Buddhism, Master Yin-Shun of Taiwan, P.R.C., author of The Way to Buddhahood.

All text herein copyright Greg Goode, 2007. All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations in critical articles or reviews, no part of this monograph may be reproduced in any manner without prior permission from the author.


4 responses

  1. Very interesting and instructive article. Eastern and Western philosophies aren’t quite as far removed as is sometimes believed.

    Looking forward to the last part in this trilogy!

    June 14, 2011 at 3:44 am

  2. Pingback: Greg Goode – Nondualism in Western Philosophy Pt.3 « Non-Duality America

  3. penpal

    There’s a lot of misunderstanding regarding Fichte.

    In “Die Anweisung zum seligen Leben” he clearly states that the I is absolute, infinite, the I is God and creates and contains everything. But then, the I postis itself, just like in Advaita, the “I AM” thought.

    His philosophy is in fact 100% compatible with Advaita. FIchte was himself completely awakened to his real nature, it’s perfectly clear through his writings, and he also explicitly says so at least two times in “Die Anweisung…”. Thank you

    May 23, 2014 at 10:16 pm

  4. Tony

    Thank you Greg.
    Some of the gaps in understanding the philosophy of language and non duality may be filled by the work of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela in their tour de force “Autopoiesis and Cognition” . Also known as The Observer Cosmology, and The Biology of Cognition. A comprehensive compendium can be found at Randall Whitaker’s site https://www.google.co.nz/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=enola+gaia
    not easy going but well worth the effort.

    April 19, 2017 at 12:00 am

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