Nondualism in Western Philosophy: a Series of Pointers (5/11)

Photo by Kaitlyn May


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.

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.

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