Nondualism in Western Philosophy: a Series of Pointers (7/11)

Photo by Kim Abel

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 Turn Towards Language…
The older monist-style idealism lost its steam early in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, partly due to the rise of science and mathematics. The popularity of science stimulated an effort in philosophy to emulate scientific styles and methods. Importance was given to observation, verification and language. New philosophical movements arose, such as “logical positivism,” “philosophical analysis” and “ordinary language philosophy.” These movements examine the relations among sentences, as well as between sentences and states of affairs in the world.

Philosophies that focus on language are not themselves trying to make a nondual or monistic metaphysical claim. Rather, they merely critique theclaims made by metaphysics about how the world is really is, in and of itself. They root out the metaphysical assumptions of other philosophies and argue that these assumptions are simply not needed to live life or to explain our experience.

One can attack a dualism with the weapons on hand, without leaving anything in its place. This is just what Royce, Wittgenstein, Quine, Sellars, and Colin Turbayne did7 – they gave the new focus on language a startlingly broad application. The result was to soften, blur or eradicate the old Cartesian and Kantian dualities that had occupied center stage for three hundred years.

Josiah Royce proposes a notion of the world consisting of signs interpreted by an infinity of minds. This is less dualistic than at first appears, since the minds themselves may also be interpreted as signs. Ludwig Wittgenstein turns away from the notion of language as having meanings that represent the world. For him, there is no independent entity called Meaning. Rather, the meaning of a word lies in its use. For Wittgenstein, conversation is a series of language games, where word choices are moves in the game.

W.V.O. Quine argues against the distinction between two kinds of sentences, sentences that are true in virtue of a logical relation between their terms (“No married men are bachelors”), and sentences that are true because they happen to represent facts in the world (“Some men are married.”). This dualism is Kant’s “analytic/synthetic distinction,” and refers to the difference between what we can know without worldly experience, and what we need experience to know. The stronger the grip of the analytic/synthetic distinction, the stronger will be the felt difference between what we supply to knowledge, and what the world supplies. In Eastern nondual terms, this is very similar to the distinction between Self and Other.

But Quine’s view is that the analytic/synthetic distinction does not stand. What really distinguishes the two kinds of sentences, he argues, is that we treat the former kind of sentence as hard to give up, and the latter kind as easy to give up. The difference is merely conventional, even though it is widely believed to be metaphysical. And with the linguistic analytic/synthetic distinction succumbing to Quine’s attack, the metaphysical distinction between Self and Other loses a prime means of support.

In Wilfrid Sellars’s attack against “The Myth of the Given,” he proposes that “all awareness is a linguistic affair.” He argues against the classical dualistic empiricism, in which there is supposedly something given to experience in a bare, raw, un-interpreted way, versus something known as the result of interpretation. This “given” is supposedly known non-conceptually, such as a red patch of color, and serves as a secure foundation for interpreted data, which is known conceptually. The conceptual knowledge would be something captured by the statement, “I see something red.” This is the classic empiricist account of something being perceptually given. Most people these days probably subscribe to a view very much like this.

Against this notion of a simple given like the red patch, Sellars argues that there is no such thing as raw and un-interpreted data. Sensing is not knowledge. When you’re driving on “auto-pilot mode,” you might actually be able to stop at a red light, even though you are not aware of having done so. Even a photoelectric cell can be constructed to respond differentially to red vs. green. Knowing, on the other hand, involves bringing something under classification.

Sellars response to the dualist empiricist is this:

If something is given, it’s not an object of knowledge. And if it’s an object of knowledge, it can’t be given.

For example, if seeing the red patch is knowledge or something of which we are aware, then we know that it is a red patch, or that it is something red. In this case it is not a given, but the result of some interpretation and enclosure within a web of concepts. On the other hand, if it is a raw given, it is not something known, but rather exists on the level of a sunburn, or the reaction of the iris to a change in lighting. So for Sellars, the “given” drops out. Knowing is always conceptual, always holistic, always devoid of a distinction between raw and interpreted. For something to be known is for it to exist in the “logical space of having and giving reasons.” Therefore, all knowledge is a matter of language.

Colin M. Turbayne suggests that we get away from the old dualistic “spectator” view of the world, and see the world as a language instead. According to the spectator view, the external world is the photographer’s model, which, thanks to mechanical rules, is conveyed to the theater of the mind. Turbayne proposes that we dispense with this mechanical, ocular metaphor and take up the linguistic metaphor instead.

Why? It is easier to account for oddities and changes in science if we interpret them with the linguistic metaphor as exceptions to grammatical rules or as linguistic evolution. Science can be very hard to explain (and embarrassing as well) with the mechanical metaphor, where we say afresh with every new innovation, “Now we really see the world accurately as it is.” Employment of the linguistic metaphor is an emphasis on language but it is not a monism or a true metaphysical claim. Turbayne is not saying that the world is a language. It is not a machine or giant theater either. He is saying that anything we say about the world is some kind of metaphor. So let’s choose an effective one, and not take any of them literally.

Experiencing the world in this way frees us from the alienating and anxiety- provoking dualisms (such as feeling cut off from the world) that we have inherited from the Cartesian mechanical world-view.



7. See Royce (2001), originally published in 1913; Quine (1980), originally published in 1951; Wittgenstein (1999), originally published in 1953; Sellars (1996), originally published in 1956; and Turbayne (1970), originally published in 1962.

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