concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2009

Dualism and duality

In earlier writings about Middle Way philosophy found on this website, especially A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity, I frequently define Middle Way philosophy as 'non-dualist'. This is accurate, but also easily misunderstood. There are many competing senses of the terms 'duality' and 'dualism' (against which the terms non-duality and non-dualism are defined), not only in Buddhism but also in relation to the Hindu advaita tradition and in relation to Descartes' dualism. Because of the limitations of their understanding of dualism, in my view many theories of non-dualism fail to avoid the pitfalls of metaphysical thinking. It is therefore important to clarify the sense in which Middle Way philosophy needs to define 'dualism' to claim to be non-dualist.

Let us begin by disposing of the terms 'duality' and 'non-duality'. Because these terms do not generally refer to human states of belief but to claimed states of reality, they are morally and practically useless. We do not know, and cannot even investigate, whether the universe is dual or non-dual in any sense, whether that sense is one of minds and physical objects or of subjects and objects. We do not know in any ultimate sense whether the world as we construct it in our minds is illusory, or whether the separate objects we think we encounter in the world have any reality separate from each other. No amount of dogmatic assertion, metaphysical speculation, or scientific investigation could ever possibly give us any further guidance on these points. The assertion that the Buddha knew about ultimate non-duality, or that God consists in ultimate non-duality, could only ever be accepted on dogmatic faith, which means that we have no particular reason to accept that believing such assertions would be of any use to us in getting to grips with conditions in practice.

If dualism, though, refers not to the ultimate state of reality but to our state of belief in relation to our experience, there is also a sense in which dualism is unavoidable. This is the sense for which in A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity I have used the capitalised term Dualism. This is the sense in which we assume subject to be different from object, and objects to be distinct from each other, as a necessary part of our experience. Kant identified this type of Dualism as part of the conceptual scheme required to have experience as we understand it. This does not prove that experience cannot occur in other ways unknown to us, but appears to be true of experience as we understand it, without recourse to dogma in the straining attempt to get beyond the limitations of that experience. This Dualism is also the Dualism of Aristotelian logic, in which a equals a and does not equal not a. We tend to understand the world in terms of distinct objects. We do not have to try to leap beyond that human state of Dualism (and engage in the apparently inevitable self-deception of that attempt) in order to understand the basis of objectivity.

However, the realisation to be found in the Buddhist tradition and elsewhere that the rigidity with which we divide up the world is the basic source of illusion does not have to be discarded. Our tendency to dogmatism does not have to be confused with the conceptual basis of our experience, and the development of objectivity can be distinguished from a leap to a supposed God's-eye-view. If we understand the very recognition that truth does not consist in dogmatic absolutes as the basis of objectivity, we can distinguish Dualism in this unavoidable sense from dualism, without the capital letter, as a term for a rigidifying attitude.

Thus the term 'dualism' in Middle Way philosophy does not refer to a metaphysical truth or even to a conceptual scheme, but to an attitude which takes truth to be metaphysical, and beliefs to tell us in words how things really are or are not. This attitude divides the world needlessly into false dichotomies - real and unreal, holy and unholy, true and false - when closer examination would allow us to see a more complex picture, and thus gain a better understanding of conditions before we act in relation to them.  We all often fall into false dichotomies in our heedlessness, and no doubt the philosophy on this website is no exception - but if you are satisfied with these dichotomies and see them as the source of truth and value, then you are a dualist. The avoidance of dualism, then, is a key feature of moral objectivity, because dualism prevents us from addressing conditions.

In this sense dualism can be seen as a psychological state as well as a philosophical state. To want to reject another view on the basis of prejudice, rather than evidence, you need to habitually understand it as outside those things you identify with, and the aspects of yourself associated with it must be rejected. In this sense a dualist is in a state of psychological conflict which I have also described as doubt. The extent of this psychological conflict, like the extent of dualism itself, is a matter of degree, and may apply to groups as well as to individuals who hold dualistic beliefs. Nevertheless, some degree of such psychological conflict, with the rejection and suppression of contrary interpretation or evidence, must be present whenever a dualist belief is held.

The avoidance of dualism, i.e. non-dualism, is not and cannot be another metaphysical belief. Non-dualism is an attitude of seeking to overcome dualism by avoiding the various ways in which it restricts our understanding of conditions. More positively, this means cultivating a critical scrutiny of theories, an awareness of the limitations of one's understanding, and a positivity which will discourage a rigidifying of our views of others. Non-dualism, then, consists in a development of integrated psychological states as well as the philosophical development of more helpful beliefs. It does not consist in beliefs about non-duality, which would, contradictorily enough, be dualist beliefs in the terms I have used.


Related discussion

The psychological nature of belief, including the nature of dualistic belief processes (scroll down to iv), from thesis

The dualism/non-dualism distinction, from thesis (scroll down to ii) 

The psychological basis of the Middle Way, from thesis

The philosophy of the Middle Way, from thesis

The Middle Way as a resolution of philosophical problems

The limitations of Nagarjuna

The inevitability of dualism (concept page)


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