Nondualism in Western Philosophy: a Series of Pointers (8/11)

Photo by David Hemmings


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 Away from Metaphysics

Beginning in the early twentieth century, Western philosophy began to sprout reactions against the metaphysical urge. Philosophers such as John Dewey, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Nelson Goodman and Donald Davidson have criticized metaphysical claims that there is a way the world truly is. These writers have inspired anti-metaphysical movements such as pragmatism, existentialism, hermeneutics, deconstructionism and postmodernism.

The individual philosophers and movements lie beyond the scope of this chapter, but many of them are summarized quite nicely by Richard Rorty in a recent article. Rorty, who has referred to himself as an “antidualist” or an “anti-essentialist” or a “pragmatist” or a “nonrepresentationalist,” has written tirelessly against metaphysics ever since his well known book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Rorty, 1981). In his recent article “A World without Substances” (Rorty, 1999), he summarizes the various philosophies that have turned away from making metaphysical claims. He sees most anti- metaphysical philosophies as trying to shake off the traditional dualisms such as essence/accident, substance/property, appearance/reality and subject/object. There are certain other commonalities as well. Anti-metaphysical views do not hold that there is a way that things really are. Instead, they hold that

  • No description of things is intrinsically privileged over others. Its “betterness” depends upon the purpose at hand.
  • Things do not consist of essences but of relations to other things.
  • We never know a thing-in-itself. We never know anything in a description-neutral way; we only know true sentences about it.
  • “Objective truth” does not mean “in touch with reality,” but instead means “in consensus with other inquirers.”
  • The old, invidious distinction between appearance vs. reality has given way to the new, pragmatic distinction between less useful descriptions vs. more useful descriptions.The anti-metaphysical approach is somewhat like Nagarjuna’s teaching, in which phenomenality is likened to Indra’s net of jewels. In Indra’s net, no jewel is primary or basic, and there is no basic substratum or essence holding everything together. Rather, each jewel reflects only the reflections of all the other jewels. Anti-metaphysics can be seen as nondualistic, not by claiming that “reality is One,” but by not falling into dualistic claims. Instead of advocating a new replacement for the essences that have been dropped, anti- metaphysics says, “Let’s change the subject.”

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