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A Theory of Moral Objectivity (section 2c)

By Robert M. Ellis, originally written as a Ph.D. thesis 'A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity' in 2001. This html version copyright 2008.

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2c Psychological basis and philosophical expression

i)                    Dogmatism and scepticism


I shall now turn away from the temporary diversion through which I tried to provide some provisional support for my psychological account of dualistic belief through the philosophy of science, and back to my main task  of explaining the philosophical implications of that psychological account. In this section I shall be concerned with the general features of the content of dualistic beliefs (i.e. dualistic philosophies) in relation to this psychological account. It is only in the next chapter that I will go onto the twofold division of dualistic moral philosophies into eternalist and nihilist tendencies: the features I shall discuss here are common to both of these tendencies. Some of these general features of dualism themselves consist in the reliance on a dichotomy: but this dichotomy is not necessarily to be identified with the eternalist/nihilist dichotomy.


From this point, for ease of reference, I shall refer to the psychological tendency to over-emphasise theorisation as dogmatism and the tendency to over-emphasise observation as scepticism. Although these are psychological tendencies, they obviously also have their philosophical correlates in the shape of epistemological beliefs which give a justification for those tendencies (which I shall refer to as Dogmatism and Scepticism respectively, using initial capitals to differentiate the philosophical position from the psychological one). For example, the Roman Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility provides an explicitly Dogmatic justification for other doctrines, which are also implicitly dogmatic because of the context and manner in which they are delivered, and which I would assume usually also reflect a psychological tendency to dogmatism within the Roman Catholic tradition. On the other hand, the equally dogmatic dismissal of religious statements as “strictly meaningless” by logical positivists such as A.J.Ayer made a Sceptical appeal to epistemological beliefs which provided a justification for a negative metaphysics. Ayer’s (epistemological) Scepticism supported his (psychological) scepticism in which an appeal to observation masked Dogmatic a priori assumptions[1].


There is no clear line of philosophical demarcation between Dogmatism and Scepticism, and they can thus both be ultimately described as types of Dogmatism: yet in particular cases they constantly oppose each other because they are supported by the psychological opposition between dogmatism and scepticism. Similarly, though, scepticism, although it may begin with a valuing of observation, sometimes becomes practically indistinguishable from dogmatism if considered in isolation from its opposition to it. Both as philosophical views and as psychological tendencies they can be defined only by their participation in dualism, and in this respect distinguished not from each other but from the middle point that I shall call sceptical agnosticism, where sceptical arguments are used as a way of recognising the contingency of views in general rather than merely to oppose dogmatic ones. More clarification of the nature of this distinction and of the type of unnecessary dualising it relies upon will be provided in chapter 6[2].  


There is thus no necessary relationship between the psychological tendencies to dogmatism and scepticism and either their respective behavioural manifestations or their philosophical justifications. To make a generalisation about the relationship between psychological tendencies as I have described them and philosophical views is not to talk about a fixed relationship, such as that between a metaphysical self and a doctrine. For to identify a person as having a psychological tendency towards dogmatism indicates merely that, preponderantly over a given period of time, a given collection of desires forming an ego often asserted itself against other forces in the psyche in a way that led to beliefs being formulated with a less than optimal consideration of the conditions involved. At other times, though, other desires may have dominated the ego. For example, a normally rigidly chaste priest may have found himself suddenly attracted by a certain woman and flirted with her for a short time, before returning to his more typical mode of behaviour. One could say that at that point he became momentarily less dogmatic, but the overall tendency of his life is still reflected in a Dogmatic philosophy in which he fervently believes. Although his psychological states change, a dominant psychological state has resulted in a dominant belief which we conventionally attribute to him so long as he preponderantly holds it, even if he has lapses of faith at other times. Thus to talk about his beliefs is to summarise and simplify a complex variety of belief processes over a given period of time, whereby it appears that Dogmatism might summarise dogmatism.


Given the incremental relationship between dogmatism and scepticism, a dogmatic Scepticism or a sceptical Dogmatism are not only possible, but actually widespread. So the only necessary relationship I want to assert is a very broad one: a relationship of mutual causality and conditional interdependence between psychological dualism (as opposed to non-dualism) and philosophical dualism (again as opposed to non-dualism). This is to say that a dualist belief must be necessarily conditioned by dualistic belief-processes, which must in turn have been necessarily conditioned by dualist beliefs, and that a non-dualist belief must be necessarily conditioned by non-dualistic belief processes, which must in turn have been necessarily conditioned by non-dualist beliefs. So dualist  and non-dualist beliefs can only be differentiated in relation to their whole context, as when they are explicitly formulated it is not the propositional content of the beliefs alone which differentiates them as dualist or non-dualist, but their effect within their context.


Of the relationship of mutual causality which I posit between psychological and philosophical aspects of dualism I shall be concentrating for the most part on the conditioning effects of philosophy upon psychology, as in chapters 3 and 4 I shall be taking philosophical views as my point of departure and tracing their relationship with psychological conditions, rather than attempting to trace psychological conditions independently. In other words, I shall be placing more emphasis on the psychological correlates of philosophies rather than the philosophical correlates of psychological states This does not mean, however, that I am able to isolate philosophical conditions completely from psychological ones so as to make linear causal claims, but rather that I am approaching a process of mutual causality from one particular direction from which they may be illuminated.


Hence my argument for the existence of this relationship of mutual causality will pursue the strategy of trying to show ways in which explicit dualist philosophies generally lead to the perpetuation of dualistic belief-processes, either by creating dogmatism or by creating scepticism through the philosophical difficulties intrinsic to those positions. This process will of course only be broadly descriptive of the conditioning effects of explicit dualist philosophies within the contexts which we most commonly experience, and thus will need to make some appeal to commonly accepted inductively-gained generalisations about causal processes in our experience. It will not especially matter if there is doubt as to whether it is dogmatism or scepticism that will result: only if it seems equally or more likely that dualist philosophies tend to create a balanced, non-dualist process of belief-formation will my argument be undermined. The perpetuation of dualism depends fundamentally on the use of Dogmatic and Sceptical positions as dichotomies. It is this dichotomising that I shall claim has a necessary relationship to its psychological correlate: without a change in our psychological tendencies we are unable to break down habitual polarisations in our thinking which reflect those by which the ego differentiates itself from the alienated parts of the psyche, yet when those habitual polarisations are enshrined in our beliefs we do not even have a coherent basis for action to change our psychological tendencies.


The assumptions which sustain the dualism between Dogmatism and Scepticism are that the two positions are mutually exclusive and that there are no credible intermediate alternatives. The two positions, however, are mutually reinforcing for two reasons. Firstly because each is asserted in a similarly dogmatic fashion which assumes that no relation of theory to experience is relevant: epistemological grounds will thus be provided for the rejection of any experience which appears to challenge the dogmatically-held belief[3]. Secondly, each presents itself as the only alternative to the other in a particular and limited application of the law of non-contradiction. For example, in the abortion debate, the law of non-contradiction is used to assert that either the foetus is a person or it isn’t. To ensure that the dichotomy is maintained, further justificatory positions are set up defining a person in a particular way, either in terms of its features or its temporal starting-point. Those who suggest that there may be some incrementality involved (in effect that the law of non-contradiction can be used more subtly) are rejected by both sides and branded either as baby-murderers or misogynists. This hence becomes a particularly obvious example of the unhelpful nature of dualistic thinking in which a set of Dogmatic metaphysical attitudes is opposed to an equally dogmatic (and Sceptical) rejection of those attitudes (which side is Dogmatic and which Sceptical being a perspectival matter).


Dogmatism must assert particular beliefs or types of belief together with a justification for thus asserting them, but it is impossible for Dogmatism to assert all beliefs without blatant self-contradiction, so the Dogmatist must thus also be a Sceptic about other beliefs. Scepticism, on the other hand, however laboriously it may deny any possible proposition, cannot deny the necessity of implicit beliefs as the basis for action: Sextus Empiricus, for example recommended acquiescence in appearances, without apparently realising the theory-dependence of any such acquiescence[4], whilst a more modern understanding of Scepticism tends to assume that implicit beliefs cannot be undermined, and thus that complete Scepticism is impossible[5].


The perpetuation of this dichotomy appears to depend upon the ease with which Scepticism is understood as a purely negative position. However, a proposition which is logically negative is also epistemically affirmative as it is providing positive information (which could be alternatively put in a positive form if the linguistic structures are available). If, for example, there is no noise in the house, there is, positively speaking, a quietness, just as a half-empty glass is also half-full. There seems no reason why we should not convey much useful (epistemically positive) information using logically negative statements in the place of habitual logically positive ones, and there are many words we use positively which clearly describe absences, such as chastity, poverty or death. The negativity of any statement is thus entirely contextual, and the distinction between Scepticism and Dogmatism, which depends on the distinction between affirmation and denial, equally so.

ii)                  The dualism/non-dualism distinction


It is in this way that a distinction can be made between the dichotomy between Dogmatism and Scepticism on the one hand and the more useful (though still entirely provisional) one between dualism and non-dualism on the other. The first kind of contrast is one which, drawing on a subjective interpretation of inevitably incomplete evidence, makes this evidence the basis for categorical affirmation or denial: the affirmation of one proposition (or set of propositions) and the denial of its complement. The second kind of contrast is that which, recognising both the limitations of the evidence and the need for provisional affirmation, separates judgements which take both of these into account in a balanced fashion from those which only take one into account.


Like the distinction between dogmatism and scepticism, though, that between dualism and non-dualism is only evident in particular cases. In general there are incremental degrees of non-dualism and thus of its complement, dualism, and to describe a justifiable application of the distinction in general terms requires a rather abstract formulation. This is based on the contrast between dualist and non-dualist attitudes to truth. For the dualist, whether or not he believes that truth exists or can be understood, truth consists in some type of representational relationship (see below); whereas for the non-dualist it consists in non-duality, an awareness of the extent of the unknown in which conceptual descriptions tail off. The contrast between dualism and non-dualism thus depends upon the extent to which philosophical (i.e. conceptual) formulations are taken to approximate to truth, in relation to the extent to which psychological states are taken to do so. Thus although the contrast between dualism and non-dualism is one of degree, there is still a point of clear delineation on each side of the peak of balanced judgements at which, for non-dualism, a psychological state comes closer to non-duality than any conceptualisation. This is a reversal of the pattern which dominates in dualistic thought, where it is believed that the strongest concepts expressing affirmation or denial come closer to truth than the psychological states on which they depend, due to the fact that such propositions (for example, scientific theories) are the outcome of corporate effort and pooled reflections.


This may be seen most clearly in a diagram:



Here the black line represents the highest approach to non-duality achieved non-conceptually by the mind at a range of given points along the spectrum between dogmatism and scepticism. The red line represents the highest approach achieved conceptually. The horizontal variable is the degree of dogmatism or scepticism involved in belief-formation, whilst the vertical variable is the degree of truth, where truth is understood as the degree of approach to non-duality. It is only from a given point approaching the mid-point of complete balance on either side that the black line runs higher than the red one.


It is at these points where the lines cross over that non-dualism differentiates itself from dualism sufficiently to provide grounds for a provisional definition of each within the overall framework of Dualism. The implication of the cross-over is that from this point we expect reality to outrun our conceptions because we already have a non-conceptual foreshadowing of ways in which it might. Thus a self-transcendence of  our current understanding is expected and awaited as the ego changes roles from delimiting and defending our world to expanding and objectifying it.


It is on this model of the distinction between dualism and non-dualism that I want to approach two other general philosophical aspects of dualism. If we expect concepts at their best to express the reality of the world more clearly than any other aspect of our experience, this suggests that concepts themselves are ascribed a privileged relationship with that reality not possessed by their absence. This means that dualist philosophies are either representationalist or expressivist, where representationalism is understood as the claim that language gains its meaning from the fact that it represents objects in the world. If this position is denied, the obvious alternative within a dualistic framework of thinking is expressivism, where meaning is derived only from ourselves. In the next subsection I shall argue that these opposed approaches to the philosophy of language form another false dichotomy which is already being challenged by the implications of some of the most influential recent work in this area.


Another general philosophical feature of dualism is the identification of the limitations of meaning with the limitations of conceptually-described experience. This again arises from the same impulse as the representationalist/expressivist dichotomy, where concepts approach more closely to reality than any other experience and hence define the limits of our world. This identification I shall call linguistic idealism. The representationalist/expressivist dichotomy amounts to a positive dualist claim about the extent of the meaningfulness of language in describing our experience, whereas linguistic idealism is a limitation whereby the meaningfulness of any discussion of realities that cannot be immediately reduced to experience is denied. The former may hence be seen as an affirmation of which the latter is a complementary denial. This understanding of linguistic idealism will be discussed further in subsection iii.


Before moving on to develop my discussion of these features of dualism, I should underline the point that the relationship being asserted here between dualism as it has first been understood in dogmatic/sceptical terms on the one hand and the representationalist/ expressivist dichotomy with linguistic idealism on the other is not yet a purely philosophical one. For dualism has been defined in terms of the relationship between philosophical and psychological, where the philosophical approach is taken to approach more nearly to reality. The dogmatic/sceptical and representationalist/expressivist dichotomies and idealism all follow from this relationship, and thus still involve appeal to the psychological grounds of belief-formation which are stipulated, within dualism, to lead to less objectivity than that conceptually encapsulated in the best conceptual constructions of science, the arts, or other areas where the thoughts of many are pooled in order to reach further towards objectivity[6].


My account of dualism is thus stipulative in that it involves a necessary relationship between psychological and philosophical which does not exist in any other respect. Initially this relationship needs to be specified in the abstract, without immediate reference to actual dualist philosophies, because such philosophies can only be accounted dualist insofar as they can be shown to generally have these features and to create further dogmatism and scepticism. It is quite possible for a given philosopher or school of philosophy which is largely dualist to be relatively non-dualist in some respects and on some issues, but impossible to begin the task of disentangling dualism from non-dualism within any particular approaches without first establishing the basis of the analysis. It is only following my analysis of particular dualist philosophies in chapters 3 and 4, however, that I expect anyone to give credence to my assertion that dualist philosophies can be distinguished from non-dualist on the grounds of their likely psychological effects.


This stipulated framework will provide a provisional guide to the meaning of the dualism/non-dualism distinction whenever I make it in the remaining chapters. However, it must also not be forgotten that this distinction only marks a particular conceptual line drawn on an incremental scale, and that this conceptual account depends ultimately on a pragmatic rather than a representational framework. The implications of this will be explored much more fully as an aspect of non-dualism in chapter 6, once the weakness of dualism has been more fully shown.


iii)                Representationalism and expressivism


As already outlined, I understand “representationalism” as the claim that language gains its meaning from the fact that it represents objects in the world. This means that for any given proposition there is a criterion for its correct use based on whether it is used to refer to a state of affairs which possesses essential features which that state of affairs, correctly-described, should have. This correct use is the ground of meaning, and thus representationalism implies a truth-correspondent theory of meaning. In its earliest form this amounts to metaphysical essentialism, including the claim that meaningful language must refer to intrinsic features of reality like the Platonic eidola, but it also includes the claim that meaningful language refers to a culturally or socially-constructed phenomenal reality, like one of Wittgenstein’s  forms of life which form the foundation of language games[7]. Representationalism appeals to a set of rules (whether or not these can be conceptually formulated[8]) defining the use of terms within the larger or smaller context within which they may be said to have meaning, together with the claim that these rules gain their authority from this more objective context rather than from the user themselves.


The opposed view, that of expressivism, I understand as denying that any such representation is possible, which involves denying that meaning can be generated by the relationship between language and either the noumenal or the phenomenal world. Expressivism is thus thrown back on the model of language as expressive of the self and that self’s examination and exploration of experience. The only alternative to representationalism is understood as a subjective one in which language is the result of a private labelling process. This labelling process only serves a communicative function because it is shared, but the labelling will vary slightly between individuals. In this account, the relationship between language and reality is still a fixed one, but the reality referred to is now seen as subjective rather than objective.


The distinction between representationalism and expressivism becomes unclear when expressivism is extended to groups who communicate within a given context: from one point of view this is subjective, gaining meaning from shared expression but limited to a given context, and from another objective, since the shared meaning which allows communication to occur lies beyond the individual. It is in this case that there is seen to be no determinate line between the opposed dualist attitudes and the similarities of both come to the fore. Whether we see it as expressive or representational, the meaningfulness of language is seen to depend on a fixed entity, whether this is the self or the world. The shifting of the debate about language to its social context merely throws this conflict into greater relief provided that the same assumptions are made. The perpetuation of dualism here thus depends on the confining of the debate to this dichotomy. As Richard Rorty writes “…if we stick to the picture of a language as a medium, something standing between the self and the non-human reality with which the self seeks to be in touch, we have made no progress”[9].


It is Wittgenstein who first made influential criticisms of both these strategies through making clear their interdependent relationship. At the beginning of the Philosophical Investigations he attacks representationalism by pointing out that there is no such thing as a pure ostensive definition independent of contextual assumptions: any representation thus cannot have a one-to-one relationship with a set of features of the world without reference to the complex and implicit rules which govern the use of those representations in communication[10]. Later, in the well-known “Private language argument” he attacks the expressivist assumption that language could gain its meaning from a purely introspective relationship between private sensations and terms. Just as ostensive definition of shared objects does not suffice to create meaning for the terms we use in shared experience, so when these “objects” consist in purely individual sensations the problem of a lack of contextual understanding of the use of the terms persists[11]. However, as I shall argue later, these Wittgensteinian arguments can only provide a preliminary indication of the weaknesses of representationalism and expressivism, since Wittgenstein’s pragmatism is itself enclosed by a representationalism which defines what is or is not meaningful language, leaving Wittgenstein’s philosophy within the realm of dualism[12]. Followed through to their logical conclusion, however, Wittgenstein’s arguments seem to imply the interdependence of expressive and representational elements in our sense of meaning, rather than a dependence on one of these and a rejection of the other[13].


Wittgenstein’s approach has been developed by Davidson and Rorty, who provide a more positive pragmatic account of meaning. In Rorty’s account of this approach, language develops in order to fulfil new purposes, meaning determined by purpose (as purpose is determined by meaning) rather than by its relationship with representation or expression[14].  What Rorty does not appear to adequately explain is the distinction between pragmatism and expressivism when both appear to see meaning as dependent on the connection between language and subjective desire. Using the account of the distinction between dualism and non-dualism I have already offered, I think light can be cast on this. Pragmatic or expressive purposes will only automatically be subjective ones if we adopt the assumption that the only level at which desire operates is that of the ego. The pragmatic solution to the question of meaning thus differs from expressivism because for the consistent pragmatist the purposes which meaning serves are the  desires of a psyche, and cannot simply be reduced to an egoistic framework. From the perspective of the ego, sometimes language will seem meaningful because of its representational relationship to a reality beyond ourselves, because of the relationship of such language to desires which exist in the psyche beyond the ego, whilst sometimes they will seem meaningful purely because of their relationship with the ego: but neither of these impressions will provide a complete explanation because of their reliance on dualism. In expressivism, however, one always has to understand the continuity of meaning  in language in terms of the expression of experiences of an individual which are absolutely continuous over time, merely adopting one aspect of the egoistic experience.


Further support is given to this approach by the work of George Lakoff in creating a theory of meaning based fundamentally on the body[15]. Lakoff describes his position as “experiential realism”, meaning that, although a physical reality is taken to exist beyond experience, meaning is not dependent on any attempt to construct an account of such a reality on the part of human beings: on the contrary, attempts to construct truth are dependent on a prior meaningfulness. This meaningfulness consists in a systematic relationship with our whole experience, most fundamentally with a preconceptual structure found in our bodily experience. Lakoff offers detailed empirical evidence for the existence of two kinds of preconceptual structure which shape our sense of meaning. These are firstly, basic-level categories, produced by the convergence of gestalt perceptions, our bodily movements and our ability to form mental images. Such basic-level categories may vary between individuals according to conditions (e.g. for a town-dweller “tree” may be a basic category, whereas for a country-dweller particular types of tree may be basic), though the conditions which give rise to their existence are the universal ones of the human body. These categories are (as Lakoff puts it) basic rather than primitive: they are fundamental to our experience but not unanalysable or atomic. The second type of preconceptual structure is a kinaesthetic image-schematic structure, consisting of various structures which constantly recur in our physical experience such as container, path, link, force, up/down, front/back etc.


These preconceptual structures are directly meaningful through the nature of the body and its mode of functioning in the environment. As I understand it, this implies that the most fundamental meanings are affective: we could not find any term meaningful in a cognitive sense unless it related in some way to our physical processes. This aspect of meaning cannot be readily reduced to either representationalism (seeing the body as an outward object) or expressivism (seeing the body as the self), but must encompass both.


Lakoff also accounts for the meaningfulness of more abstract terms as due to an indirect but systematic relationship with directly meaningful basic structures. This works through two types of process: (a) metaphorical projection from concrete to abstract (e.g. the contrast between the inside and outside of the body forms the basis of the container schema, which is then metaphorically projected into the ideas of being inside/outside a visual field, a group, a set etc.), and (b) projection from basic-level categories to subordinate and superordinate ones (e.g. if tree is a  basic-level category, elm tree is subordinate and plant is superordinate).


In this way Lakoff builds a theory of understanding on one of affective meaning. Truth is then seen in terms of understanding: we construct a conceptual scheme of what we take to be true out of experiences, structured in a language which is a projection of basic concepts made meaningful by analogy with their relationship to the physical. Truth is thus seen pragmatically: “We understand a statement as being true in a given situation if our understanding of the statement fits our understanding of the situation closely enough for our purposes”[16]. Lakoff stresses that he has not abandoned the idea of a truth external to human knowledge, but that he sees this as merely forming external parameters to the truths which we construct pragmatically.


Lakoff’s theory of meaning is thus pragmatic without depending on any fixed concept of the self that mediates and provides continuity: rather it is the body itself which provides this mediation and continuity, on which our sense of meaning is contingent. Our sense of meaning being related to external reality and to ourselves is thus explainable in terms of metaphorical projection: the body itself providing us with a basic schema for inwardness and outwardness which we project into the more abstract conceptions of self and world. The psychological tendencies towards dogmatism and scepticism, then, can be understood as over-solidifications of these metaphors, treating shifting sensations as permanent and absolute objects. Here dogmatism involves an attachment primarily to facts about the world, but with at least an implicit reliance also on the existence of the self, whilst scepticism about facts in the world nevertheless retains at least an implicit reliance on the metaphor of the self to provide continuity to sceptical beliefs. This process of projection is driven by the ego in order to provide a consistent conceptual framework which can be the basis of action to fulfil the desires which compose the ego, and it is indeed necessary for some degree of projection to occur for any action to take place. However, it is over-attachment to these projections, an inflexibility in the metaphorical process, that prevents the optimal point of balance being reached in our theorisation of experience.


Representationalism and expressivism thus amount to correlates in the philosophy of language to the psychological tendencies of dogmatism and scepticism. They provide an explicit defence of the attitudes to language assumed in Dogmatism and Scepticism, and, like Dogmatism and Scepticism, are often not clearly distinguishable from one another. But they can jointly be distinguished from non-dualist pragmatism by the comparative extent to which language is judged to be able to come close to objective reality. For a representationalist or an expressivist, just as for the Dogmatist or Sceptic, language has a  dependent relationship with reality (whether this reality is “outward” or “inward”) because it draws its meaningfulness from that supposed reality which it represents or expresses. It is thus judged better able to reflect that reality than any non-representational process. For a non-dualist pragmatist language is primarily a tool for conceptualising and systematising what we have first only grasped more obscurely through our more basic aesthetic and kinaesthetic processes – processes which are capable of providing us with a closer approach to the undifferentiated non-dual reality precisely because they are not under the power of the conceptual subject-object division. The meaningfulness of language thus arises from the purposes it can serve, purposes which arise most basically from our pre-linguistic bodily consciousness.


It is here that my approach to the philosophy of language must part company from that of a post-modern pragmatist like Richard Rorty who, despite the strength of his attack on representationalism and expressivism, remains tied to a dualism in which the pre-linguistic roots of meaning are ignored and truth is taken to be a property of sentences. As Rorty writes,

It is essential to my view that we have no prelinguistic consciousness to which language needs to be adequate, no deep sense of how things are which it is the duty of philosophers to spell out in language. What is described as such a consciousness is simply a disposition to use the language of our ancestors, to worship the corpses of their metaphors[17].   


Rorty here appears to falsely assume that if there were a pre-linguistic consciousness this would imply that language would have to be adequate to it, and that such a pre-linguistic consciousness is necessarily reducible to concepts. To do this merely strengthens the dualist tendency to oppose subject to object, opposing one kind of metaphor to another on the assumption that they are the only alternatives to each other. Rorty here shows himself not to be a pragmatist at all in any sense that allows for an understanding of language grounded on a sense of purpose, for he takes the sense of purpose to be found in no other place than language itself, and is thus unable to provide any explanation appealing to anything external to language. In this respect he also cuts out the possibility of any objective progress (and incidentally ignores a large sector of human experience). Without any idea of objective progress based on a psychological model in which not all mental processes are reducible to those of the ego, the purposes appealed to in Rorty’s understanding of language can be understood only as those of the ego, and his position becomes difficult to distinguish from expressivism where language gains its meaning from the fact that it expresses the desires of the self. The very term “pragmatism”, in other words, involves an appeal to a purpose which must be more than the expression of desires at the level of the ego. The distinction between “expression” and “purpose” which I want to make here relies ultimately on the assertion that the existence of a purpose implies a drive to its fulfilment, whilst the mere expression of a desire could be entirely impotent. To be potent, however, a purpose must be capable of achieving something relative to a value in some respect beyond itself.


The non-dualist pragmatist must, however, provisionally adopt assumptions about the nature of language which are similar to those of the representationalist and the expressivist, in order to be able to make heuristic progress. If heuristic progress is dependent on the temporary adoption of theories, with a balance of commitment to those theories and scepticism about them, as I argued in section b of this chapter, then the meaning of the provisionally accepted theory has to be understood representationally, and the intentions of the research programme have to be understood as the expression of the continuously existent selves of scientists. Without the adoption of such conventions there is no stable linguistic base within which the implications of new observations can be incorporated. At the same time, as I have already argued in relation to the theories themselves, the metaphors which provide the basis of these conventions must not be understood too fixedly or they begin to prevent optimal heuristic progress. From one point of view, over-attachment to a theory is merely the expression of a desire to succeed in investigation overriding observation, but from another, it is the expression of an over-literally representational understanding of the language out of which the theory is composed. Similarly, where there is an over-sceptical attitude towards theory, it could be seen as the expression of a desire to give due weight to direct experience and observation, but from the linguistic point of view as the expression of an over-literally expressivist understanding of the language of theory as merely the product of a subjective mind.


This pragmatic understanding of the language of theory seems to be at least implicitly understood by Kuhn, as illustrated in the following quotation:

The practice of normal science depends on the ability, acquired from exemplars, to group objects and situations into similarity sets which are primitive in the sense that the grouping is done without an answer to the question “Similar with respect to what?” One central aspect of any [scientific] revolution is, then, that some of the similarity relations change. Objects that were grouped in the same set before are grouped in different ones afterward and vice-versa.[18]


I don’t think the lack of answer to the question should be taken too literally here: a scientist probably constructs a working answer to that question even if it remains unformalised. Scientific revolutions would create no upset at all if there was no representational understanding of scientific theory. However, Kuhn seems to capture here the extent to which a successful scientist must work in ignorance of the exact sense in which her theory fits into any larger representational understanding, relying on the heuristic purpose of the enterprise of science rather than any idea of its language representing the truth. It can only be because some scientists work in this fashion that complete shifts of representational paradigm can occur.

iv)                Linguistic idealism


As already mentioned, linguistic idealism is complementary to the dualistic attitude to language I have just been exploring. Instead of the positive assertion that language gains its meaning from representation or expression, linguistic idealism consists in the view that language which does not directly represent or express, and thus appears not to be correlative to our experience, cannot be meaningful. The labelling of this view as a type of idealism is a piece of terminology I adopt from Nagel[19], who argues against Davidson’s formulation of it[20]. Nagel’s “realist” position here is one I shall broadly follow as I believe it can contribute to a non-dualist perspective[21].


Nagel’s formulation of the linguistic idealist position goes as follows:

…if we try to form the notion of something we could never conceive, or think about, or talk about, we find ourselves having to use ideas which imply that we could in principle think about it after all (even if we cannot do so now): because even the most general ideas of truth or existence we have carry that implication…. Realists are deluded, in other words, if they think they have the idea of a reality beyond the reach of any possible human thought except that one. If we examine carefully what they take to be that idea, we will discover that it is either the idea of something more fully within our reach, or no idea at all.[22]


Nagel rightly perceives this point of view to be erecting an impenetrable boundary at the edge of our conception, beyond which we cannot even refer, where a more incremental understanding is much more appropriate. Naturally those objects which lie within our conceivable experience can be referred to with much more specificity than those that lie beyond it, but the boundaries of those objects we can refer to in at least an attenuated manner extend infinitely. Nagel’s core argument appeals to the complement of any given object:


Every concept that we have contains potentially the idea of its own complement – the idea of what the concept doesn’t apply to. Unless it has been shown positively that there cannot be such things – that the idea involves some kind of contradiction…- we are entitled to assume that it makes sense even if we can say nothing more about the members of the class, and have never met one.[23]


I find this argument compelling, but it can only carry weight on a pragmatic understanding of meaning, not on a representationalist or expressivist one. A representationalist or expressivist account of meaning requires some criterion of the limits of the meaningful which shows those limits to be those of the representable or the expressible. Both the representable and the expressible are limited to specific positive conceptions. But we have no idea of the truth-conditions of things that lie beyond our conception: to ask under what circumstances all the states of affairs I cannot conceive would be the case would be nonsensical, because I need to be able to conceive them even to be able to state their truth-conditions in negative terms. Likewise with expressivism, a proposition about what I cannot conceive must be meaningless because it cannot, by definition, express my conception.


I therefore contend that only a non-dualist pragmatism could provide a theory of meaning adequate to support Nagel’s argument. Although non-dualism already presupposes realism, I would suggest that when approaching the argument from the point of view of realism alone, as Nagel does, non-dualism must follow in order to avoid inconsistency. This non-dualism is a position I have already defined in terms of the relationship between the philosophical and the psychological, so the implication appears to be that in order to make sense of the idea of discussing what we cannot conceive, we must have a conception of meaning, like the one I proposed in the previous section, which is not limited to the linguistic or the egoistic. The limits of what we can conceive are indeed the limits of language, and these limits can be identified with those of the ego, yet the ego does not provide us with the only possible perspective, as I have tried to establish earlier in this chapter. If meaning is understood as dependent upon desire and desires are understood impersonally, this allows us to understand our negative conceptions of what we do not conceive in the attenuated terms that the ego grasps the existence of the rest of the psyche: it lies beyond me in one sense, but to some extent within “my” grasp if I no longer identify that grasp entirely with what I conceive now.


The extent to which I can refer in language (though in very abstract terms) to what I do not yet conceive is a reflection of the permeability and incrementality of the boundaries of the ego. Without such permeability it appears that any heuristic process would be impossible, because we would have no conception of anything to be understood beyond our current conceptions. New theories would be impossible at a cultural level, for they would appear to be nonsense referring not even to possible experience, and at an individual level, learning would be impossible. On the other hand, what we discover and learn has to be fitted into a representational model. If we adopt the representational or expressive view of language on the provisional basis that I suggested is often necessary in the previous subsection, we can see language about the inconceivable as standing for experiences which are, at least, not reducible to language at our current level of conceptualisation, and which thus interpret the world from a standpoint beyond that of the ego. If we simply decide it is a representation for something we can conceive, we are falling into the trap which the linguistic idealist believes we must always fall into: the ego has appropriated and conceptualised what was originally supposedly beyond conception. If our representationalism is to be truly provisional, relying in fact on a non-dualist pragmatism when it arrives at areas of experience that cannot be represented, then it must constantly deny the premature conceptualisation of the inconceivable[24].


We are thus brought back to the level of the psychological and the importance of maintaining a specific value in the psychological realm. At a purely philosophical level it is unclear whether the linguistic idealist is correct in maintaining that language about the inconceivable will always be turned back into more conceptualisations. My arguments about the value of non-dualist pragmatism over representationalism and expressivism will carry no weight if it turns out that in fact our “provisional” representational  models are always conceived as permanent, that in fact there are no non-linguistic states of mind, that in fact no learning or discovery has taken place. The agreement of any given individual with my argument so far will be hollow if they cannot draw on some psychological experience of states of mind which are not reducible to language, of breaking through from one set of paradigms into another, or of  deliberately preventing the premature conceptualisation of some intuition which they believed might lead to much greater insight if allowed to bloom at another level of understanding. But to those who do not feel any affinity with such experiences (or the philosophical appeal to them), there is still a way forward. Much of the remainder of the book is concerned, directly or indirectly, with why a non-dualist approach is of value and can resolve problems in ethics, and what ethical implications it might have. In arguing this I shall be appealing further to the pragmatic value of the experiences I mentioned and to the need to cultivate them. The appeal, then, will ultimately be to an experimental approach to provide support for the psychological assumptions in this chapter.

[1] See 4.d.iii, where this case is more fully argued.

[2] See 6.a.iii & iv

[3] For example, I shall be commenting later on the epistemological similarities between the appeal to moral foundations and the coherentist appeal to scientific knowledge which can be used to attack those foundations, both of which involve the dismissal of areas of experience. See 4.a.i.

[4] See 4.b.i

[5] See Hookway (1990) p.32-4

[6] This idea of a cultural reaching-towards-objectivity which in some ways achieves greater objectivity than individuals can achieve alone, reaching its zenith in the objectivity of scientific theory,  is encapsulated in the scientific rationalism of Karl Popper’s “World Three”, between mind and body, which he saw as providing a basis for the objectivity of science. See Popper (1994) ch.2.

[7] See 4.e., where this point is argued in detail.

[8] Wittgenstein here supports the view that it is possible to have rules which are not conceptually formulated, because it is the use of a formula rather than its content alone that comprises a rule: see Wittgenstein (1967) §190.

[9] Rorty (1989) p.10

[10] Wittgenstein (1967) §1-38

[11] ibid. §243-381

[12] See 4.e.ii

[13] This view is developed further in 4.e.iii & 5.c.i

[14] Rorty (1989) p.10-13

[15] See Lakoff (1987)

[16] Lakoff (1987) p.294

[17] Rorty (1989) p.21

[18] Kuhn (1996) p.200

[19] Nagel (1986) VI. 1&2

[20] Davidson (1984).

[21] This does not imply that Nagel’s position as a whole is non-dualistic, though he does perhaps come close in a number of important respects.

[22] Nagel (1986) p.94-5

[23] ibid. p.97-8

[24] This is the implication of the prajnaparamita tradition of Mahayana Buddhism, specifically the formulation of the four levels of Shunyata or emptiness, which culminates in the emptiness of emptiness. The emptiness of emptiness implies the constant denial of all conceptual formulations of the inconceivable.


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A Theory of Moral Objectivity: quick links to other sections


1. introduction

2a. Psychology of belief

2b. Heuristic process

2c. Psychology & philosophy

3ab. Eternalism

3cd. Plato

3e. Stoicism

3f. Christianity

3g. Kant

3h. Hegel

3i. Marx

3j. Schopenhauer

3kl. Utilitarianism

4a. Nihilism

4b. Scepticism & Aristotle

4c. Hume

4d. Analytic Philosophy

4e. Wittgenstein

4f. Pragmatism

4g. Nietzsche

4hi. Existentialists

5. Integration

6. Philosophical Problems

7. Normativity

8. Middle Way Ethics

9. Conclusion

10. Appendix



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