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

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.



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.




Jerry Katz’s comprehensive site on nonduality.

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


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.

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.

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

Ranks the academic graduate programs in philosophy.

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

The authoritative Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy online. E-Texts

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

Episteme’s (see above) E-texts page.



Anonymous, (14th Cent.). The Cloud of Unknowing; and The Book of Privy Counseling. Johnston, William, Ed. New York: Image Books, 1996. Originally appeared in the 14th century.

Berkeley, George (1685-1753). Three Dialogues Betweeen Hylas and Philonous. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Originally published in 1713.

————. A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Originally published in 1710.

————. Siris: A Chain of Philosophical Relexions and Inquiries Concerning the Virtues of Tar-Water, and Divers Other Subjects. Dublin and London, 1744. Available online at, collected in Fraser, Alexander Campbell and George Berkeley, The Works of George Berkeley: Including His Posthumous Works; with Prefaces, Annotations, Appendices, and an Account of His Life, Vol. 3 (Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1901). See Siris, sections 266- 289, esp. 287.

Blanshard, Brand (1892-1987). The Nature of Thought. 2 Vols. New York: Humanities Press, 1969. Originally published in 1939.

Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus (480-524/6). The Consolation of Philosophy. New York: Penguin Books, 2000. Written before his beheading in prison.

Breazeale, Dan, “Johann Gottlieb Fichte”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2001 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

Churchland, Patricia S. Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind/Brain. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986

Churchland, Paul. M. “Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes,” Journal of Philosophy 78: 67-90, 1981.

Davies, Stevan L. The Gospel of Thomas: Annotated & Explained. Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2002. This collection of Jesus’ sayings is mystical and approaches nondualism. It was left out of the canonical Christian Bible, but is said to have been written around the same time as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It is one of the more significant texts in the Nag Hammadi Library. There is a “Gospel of Thomas” homepage here:

Dennett, Daniel. Consciousness Explained. Boston: Back Bay Books, 1992.

————-. The Intentional Stance. Cambridge, Mass.: Bradford Books, 1987.

Descartes, Rene (1596-1650). Discourse on Method and Related Writings (Penguin Classics). Clarke, Desmond, trans. London: Penguin Books, 2000. Originally published in 1637.

Dionysius, the Pseudo-Areopagite (BCE 500). Pseudo Dionysius: The Complete Works (Classics of Western Spirituality). Luibheid, Colm, and Rorem, Paul, eds. New York: Paulist Press, 1987.

O’Meara, Dominic J., and Roberts, Andy. Plotinus: An Introduction to the Enneads. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Plotinus lived 205-270 CE.

Eckhart, Meister Johannes (1260-1327/8). Davies, Oliver. Meister Eckhart: Selected Writings (Penguin Classics). New York: Penguin, 1995.

Eriugena, John Scottus (812-877). Eriugena: Periphyseon (The Division of Nature). Sheldon-Williams, I.-P. and O’Meara, J.J., trans. Montreal/Paris: Bellarmin, 1987. Written c.862- c.867.

Fichte, Johann Gottlieb (1762 – 1814). Science of Knowledge; with the First and Second Introductions. Heath, Peter and Lachs, John, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982. Originally published in 1794.

Kirk, G. S., and J. E. Raven, M. Schofield. The Presocratic Philosophers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983. For Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Leucippus, Democritus and other ancient Greek monists.

Gerson, Lloyd, “Plotinus”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2003 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

Goldsmith, Joel (1892-1964). Consciousness Is What I Am. New York: Harper Collins, 1976.

————. God, the Substance of All Form. Atlanta: Acropolis Books, 1998. Originally published in 1962.

————. The Mystical I. San Francisco: Harper, 1993. Reprint from 1971 edition.

Green, Arthur. A Guide to the Zohar. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press; 2004. A guide to the book originally attributed to Shimon Bar Yochai (fl. 135-170).

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1770-1831). The Phenomenology of Spirit. Miller, A.V., trans. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979. Originally published in 1807.

Honderich, Ted. How Free Are You: The Determinism Problem, New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Hume, David (1711-1776). An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Originally published in 1748.

————. A Treatise of Human Nature: Being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Originally published in 1739.

Kant, Immanuel (1724-1804). Critique of Pure Reason. Smith, Norman Kemp, trans. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Originally published in 1781.

Kaplan, Aryeh (1935-1983). Sepher Yetzirah; or The Book Of Creation. New York: Weiser Books, 1997. Translation and commentary of the ancient text, before 6th century BCE.

Lawrence, Brother (Nicholas Herman c.1605-1691). Practice of the Presence of God. Salvatore Sciurba, trans. Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1994. Originally published in 1692.

Locke, John (1632-1704). Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1994. Originally published in 1690.

Marinoff, Lou. Plato Not Prozac!: Applying Eternal Wisdom to Everyday Problems. New York: Harper Perennial, 2000.

Moran, Dermot, “John Scottus Eriugena”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2004 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

Nadler, Steven “Baruch Spinoza”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2005 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL =

Nagarjuna (Fl. 1st-3rd CE). Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. Garfield, Jay, trans. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Parfit, Derek. Reasons and Persons. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Philokalia: The Complete Text: Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Markarios of Corinth, Vols. 1-4. Palmer, G. H. E., Ware, Kallistos, trans. London: Faber & Faber, 1982. Written between the 4th and 15th centuries; compiled and published as a whole in 1782.

Place, U.T. “Is Consciousness a Brain Process?”, British Journal of Psychology, 47, 44-50, 1956.

Quine, W.V.O. “Two Dogmas of Empiricism.” The Philosophical Review 60 (1951): 20-43. Reprinted in Quine, W.V.O. From a Logical Point of View. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Robinson, James M. The Nag Hammadi Library in English. New York: Harper, 1990. Appeared in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE., and re- discovered in 1945 on a archeological dig.

Rorty, Richard (1931-). Objectivity, Relativism and Truth, Vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

————. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981.

————. “A World Without Substances or Essences.” Rorty, Ed. Philosophy and Social Hope. London: Penguin Books, 1999. Pp. 47- 71.

————. “Truth without Correspondence to Reality.” Rorty, Ed. Philosophy and Social Hope. London: Penguin Books, 1999. Pp. 23- 46.

Royce, Josiah (1855-1916). The Problem of Christianity. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2001. Originally published in 1913.

Ryle, Gilbert (1900-1976). The Concept of Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. Originally published in 1949.

Samuel, William. (1924-1996). A Guide to Awareness and Tranquility. Mountain Brook, AL: 1967.

Sellars, Wilfrid (1912-1989). Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996. Reprint of 1956 edition, with forward by Richard Rorty and explanatory notes by Robert Brandom, who has written widely on Sellars.

Skinner, Burrhus Frederic (1904-1990). Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1971.

————. “The Origins of Cognitive Thought,” American Psychologist 44:13-18, 1989. Online copy at htm.

————. About Behaviorism. New York: Vintage Books, 1976. Originally published in 1957. The most accessible introduction to his theories.

Spinoza, Baruch (1632-1677). Ethics. Parkinson, G. H. R., trans. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Originally published in 1677.

St. John of the Cross (1524-1591). Dark Night of the Soul. E. Allison Peers, trans. New York: Image Books, 1959. Originally appeared after his death, in 1619.

Stace, Walter Terence (1886-1967). “Refutation of Realism.” MIND, XLIII (April 1934), 145-155. Reprinted in Turbayne (1970).

————. The Theory of Knowledge and Existence. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1932.

Taylor, C.C.W. The Atomists: Leucippus and Democritus. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.

Taylor, Richard (1920-2003). Good and Evil: a New Direction. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1999. Originally published in 1970.

Theresa of Avila (1515-1582). The Interior Castle. E. Allison Peers, trans. New York: Image Books, 1972. Originally published c.1577.

————. The Way of Perfection. E. Allison Peers, trans. New York: Image Books, 1991. Written in the mid 1560’s.

Turbayne, Colin M. “Berkeley’s Two Concepts of Mind.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. XX, 85-92, (1959-60), and vol. XXII, 577-580 (1962). Reprinted in Turbayne, Colin M., Ed., Berkeley: Principles of Human Knowledge; Text and Critical Essays. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1970.

————. The Myth of Metaphor. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press 1970. Originally published in 1962.

van Gelder, Tim. “Monism, Dualism, Pluralism.” Mind and Language 13, 76-97, 1998. Online copy
at Broad summary of the academic philosophical writing on the mind/body problem in Western philosophy.

Waterfield, Robin, The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. For Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Leucippus, Democritus, and other ancient Greek monists.

Williams, Bernard. Problems of the Self Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1889-1951). Philosophical Investigations. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999. Originally published in 1953.


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