Nondualism in Western Philosophy: a Series of Pointers (6/11)

Photo by Ari Hazeghi

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.

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.

  1. (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.
  2. (B2)  Ideas can exist only in a mind (not outside); also the mind cannot contain anything other than ideas.
  3. (B3)  What is not an idea cannot be perceived by the mind because mind has access only to ideas and to nothing else.
  4. (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.”

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.5 There is also some indication that later in his life, Berkeley quietly adopted a pantheistic monism.6

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.



5 See for example Colin M. Turbayne’s Berkeley’s Two Concepts of Mind (1970).

6 See Berkeley’s Siris (1744), sections 266-289, esp. 287. This was his last work, officially about the health benefits of tar-water. The mystical pantheism Berkeley praises is slipped in towards the end, along with defenses against possible accusations of atheism.

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