Friday, February 12, 2021

Non-Duality and the Problems of Western Idealism – Part 2: Berkeley and Kant

In my previous post I discussed Eastern non-dual spirituality and how it focuses on the Enlightenment experience of non-dual consciousness as the way to Liberation. I explained in particular how the key to non-dual consciousness lies in recognizing that one’s individual person is part of the object side of experience (together with the ‘outside’ world) and that therefore the individual person cannot be the true subject of experience this true subject being rather non-individual consciousness free from the subject-object duality of individual and outside world. The immediate intuition of this non-dual, non-individual consciousness is what the Enlightenment experience in Eastern spirituality is all about. In this post I will turn to the topic of Western Idealism. Despite all the similarities with Eastern spirituality concerning the fundamental status of consciousness, the Enlightenment experience of the non-individual nature of non-dual consciousness is conspicuously lacking in Idealist philosophers from the West. The theoretical lesson to be learned from the Enlightenment experience is therefore also lacking in Western forms of Idealism. Although Western Idealists acknowledge the fundamental status of consciousness, they keep falling back mostly as a matter of habit into the familiar model of individual consciousness with its subject-object duality of individual and outside world. Hence, the question of the “external reality” outside of consciousness kept reasserting itself for Western Idealist thinkers, simply because of their unfamiliarity with anything like the Eastern Enlightenment experience of non-individual consciousness. In this post I will show how this problem emerged for the first Idealist thinkers in the West, namely Berkeley and especially Kant, who exerted the most influence on later Idealism. In a later post I will do the same for Kant’s successor in German Idealism, Fichte.  

The turn to subjective consciousness in early modern philosophy
To understand why Western Idealism never really broke free from the paradigm of individual, subjective consciousness, we have to take into account the history of Idealism in Western philosophy. We must see how it emerged from the epistemological turn to subjective consciousness in the 17th century. With this “New Way of Ideas” (as John Locke called it), philosophers started to focus on individual consciousness as the epistemological foundation of all knowledge, including knowledge about the “external world” outside the individual. This is, however, quite a complex story which we cannot fully narrate here; that would take us too far afield (for the full story, see here and here). In the following, therefore, I will give a short summary of the epistemological turn to subjective consciousness in early modern philosophy and how this gave rise to Idealism in Berkeley and Kant.

The turn to subjective consciousness taking place with thinkers such as Descartes, Locke, Berkeley and Hume was occasioned by two main cultural forces: (1) the generally felt desire for certain knowledge and the Cartesian solution of the self-evidence of subjective self-consciousness (“cogito ergo sum”), and (2) the rise of atomism in physical science and the subsequent realization that sensible qualities such as color, sound and smell cannot be objective properties of ‘external’ physical objects but must be merely subjective phenomena in individual consciousness.

These two developments conspired to lock the individual knower up inside the confines of his subjective consciousness, cutting him off from the outside world. Descartes’s cogito argument seemed to show that certainty can only be found within consciousness, whereas the other development the scientific insight that sensible qualities are not objective properties led to the idea that we never experience anything outside of our own consciousness anyway. The general picture that thus arose was of the knowing subject as ‘imprisoned’ inside his “circle of consciousness”, with physical objects impinging on it from the outside, causing subjective perceptions within the circle. As the Cartesian philosopher Antoine Arnauld summarized the situation: “We have no knowledge of what is outside us except by mediation of the ideas within us.” (Arnauld 1964 [1662]: 31)

The Way of Ideas and the problem of skepticism
Although the epistemological turn to subjective consciousness in 17th century philosophy was motivated by the desire for certain and scientific knowledge, the irony of the situation was that it produced a radical skepticism that seemed to undermine science (a skepticism that became rampant with Hume’s attack on causality). For if certainty pertains only to what is inside consciousness, how then can we know what is outside, the external reality? If all we know with certainty are the contents of consciousness, how then can we know whether these contents correspond to external objects? After all, as the problem was frequently put, we cannot step outside our consciousness in order to inspect its correspondence, or lack thereof, with the outside world. Thus, the very medium that should give us cognitive access to external reality namely, sensory experience became a “veil-of-perception” hiding reality. As Barry Stroud put the problem in his classic work on skepticism, summarizing the upshot of the New Way of Ideas: “We are restricted to the passing show on the veil of perception, with no possibility of extending our knowledge to the world beyond. We are confined to appearances we can never know to match or deviate from the imperceptible reality that is forever denied to us.” (Stroud 1984: 33-4)

Berkeley and Kant: Idealism as solution to skepticism
It was in response to this skeptical threat that modern Idealism emerged in Berkeley and Kant. As both of them pointed out, the skepticism invited by the epistemological turn to subjective consciousness was premised on the assumption of a reality external to consciousness; simply strike that assumption, they argued, and the threat of skepticism vanishes. If reality is ‘just’ a product of the mind, then surely its knowability can pose no problem? Berkeley and Kant, then, attempted to solve the problem of skepticism by cutting the Gordian knot: there is no “external world” outside of consciousness, the only world to be known is the phenomenal world appearing in consciousness.

Thus Berkeley saw himself as restoring common sense when he expounded this Idealist principle that “to be is to be perceived” (“esse is percipi”). In his view, the Way of Ideas had violated common sense by seeing the object of sense experience as something radically different from the sensible qualities appearing in experience: “Upon the common principles of philosophers, we are not assured of the existence of things from their being perceived. And we are taught to distinguish their real nature from that which falls under our sense. Hence arises Scepticism and Paradoxes.” (Berkeley 1969 [1713]: 3) His principle that “to be is to be perceived” allowed him to say that the object of sense experience simply is the bundle of sensible qualities experienced, and nothing beyond that. Thus he could restore the common-sense belief that when we eat a cherry, and see its redness, taste its sweetness, etc., we are perceiving the cherry itself, not just its appearance as distinct from the real thing: “I see this cherry, I feel it, I taste it […]: it is therefore real. Take away the sensations of softness, moisture, redness, tartness, and you take away the cherry.” (Berkeley 1969 [1713]: 117)

In a similar manner Kant dealt with Hume’s skeptical attack on causality. Hume had undermined the notion of causality which is so crucial for physical science by pointing out that we only experience the sense impressions caused by external objects, not those objects themselves. Thus, we only observe the regular connections between the sense impressions, but this gives us no certainty about the nature or even the existence of causal relations between the external objects. As Hume said: “Thus not only our reason fails us in the discovery of the ultimate connection of causes and effects, but even after experience has informed us of their constant conjunction, ‘tis impossible for us to satisfy ourselves by our reason, why we should extend that experience beyond those particular instances, which have fallen under our observation.” (Hume 2003 [1739-40]: 66)

Kant was deeply disturbed by Hume’s attack on causality. His respect for the physical science developed by Copernicus, Galileo and Newton was so great that he simply could not stomach Hume’s dismissal of causal laws. Where Hume went wrong, according to Kant, was in his assumption that causality, if it exists at all, must be a feature of external reality, in other words, that causal connections must be connections between real objects, independent of our consciousness. But, as Kant argued, such external objects are “nothing to us”. Objects become something for us, i.e. they become accessible to us as experienceable and knowable objects, only if they conform to our forms of cognition, and causality is one such form. Raw sensations do not yet give us experiences of objects. The sensations have to be ordered by our forms of sensory intuition (space and time) and our forms of conceptual understanding (the categories, prime among which is causality); only then do we experience a single, ordered, integrated reality consisting of interconnected objects. Hence Kant’s Idealism: the world to be known by us is not an “external world” outside of consciousness, but a construction within consciousness, an ordering of sensory material by means of cognitive forms such as time, space and causality.

Kant’s Transcendental Idealism
I will say a bit more about Kant’s Idealism, because it was much more than Berkeley’s a crucial influence on subsequent Idealistic thinking, and also because the persistence of the paradigm of individual consciousness becomes especially clear in Kant. The first thing to note here is that Kant’s Idealism extends only to the forms of empirical reality, not to the sensory material structured by these forms. This is why Kant calls his philosophy “transcendental Idealism”, the term “transcendental” being his technical term for what pertains to the a priori forms of cognition: “I call all cognition transcendental that is occupied not so much with objects but rather with our a priori concepts of objects in general.” (CPR, A12) In extension, Kant speaks of the “transcendental subject” as the subject who applies the a priori forms of cognition to the sensory material.

Ultimately, the necessity of the sensory objects to conform to our forms of cognition has to do with the fundamental role Kant accords to self-consciousness in experience and knowledge. According to Kant, a process or state in my consciousness counts as an experience or belief only if I can be aware of it as my experience or my belief, thus only if it belongs to the unity of my consciousness a consciousness that forms a unity precisely because it is mine, i.e. because all episodes and states in it are related to me as their underlying subject. For a mental episode or state to be mine, then, I must as it were be able to prefix it with the qualifier “I think…”. By prefixing “I think…” (or “I see…”, “I hear….” etc.) to a mental content, I indicate that the content belongs to the unity of my consciousness. As Kant puts it:

“The I think must be able to accompany all my representations; for otherwise something would be represented in me that could not be thought at all, which is as much to say that the representation would either be impossible or else at least would be nothing for me… The thought that these representations […] all together belong to me means, accordingly, the same as that I unite them in a self-consciousness […].” (CPR: B132, B134)

According to Kant, the ultimate function of the forms of space and time and the categories of the understanding is to effectuate this unity of self-consciousness (a unity that Kant therefore calls “transcendental”, since it underlies the application of the a priori forms of cognition). Only by placing all my mental episodes and states within a unified spatiotemporal network of causal relations can I recognize those episodes and states as mine, as belonging to my (self-)consciousness. The resulting integrated unity of empirical reality, then, is for Kant only a reflection or projection of the transcendental unity of self-consciousness unto the unorganized manifold of raw impressions. The unity of the object, and thereby the object as such (because there is no object without unity), is really a manifestation of the unity of the subject’s self-consciousness.

The paradigm of individual consciousness in Berkeley and Kant
To repeat: Berkeley and Kant attempted to solve the problem of skepticism posed by the epistemological turn to consciousness by simply striking the assumption of a world outside of consciousness; hence their Idealism. This is, however, only one side of their story, for the jettisoned assumption of a reality outside of consciousness came right back through the back door of their systems, in the form of God for Berkeley and the thing-in-itself for Kant. Here we begin to see how Western Idealism never really broke free from the paradigm of individual consciousness and how this paradigm kept dictating the theoretical problems that Idealist thinkers were supposed to solve.

Even if Berkeley and Kant argued that “objective reality” reality as the object of sensory experience and rational knowledge exists only as a phenomenon within consciousness, they still felt they had to posit a cause for that phenomenon outside of consciousness: God for Berkeley, the thing-in-itself for Kant. Why? Well, so they reasoned, sensory objects do exist only within our consciousness, but we nevertheless have no awareness of having produced them; their appearance within consciousness is independent of our will, in contrast to those mental states that we can freely create ourselves (such as thoughts and fantasies). Thus, although sensory objects exist only within consciousness, they must nevertheless have a cause outside of our consciousness.

In this vein, Berkeley admits that humans have perceptions “whereof they themselves [are] not the authors, as not being excited from within, nor depending on the operations of their will” perceptions, then, that have an external cause. But since, according to Berkely, all being is being perceived, the being of that cause must be relative to a perceiving consciousness outside of us, another mind that installs those involuntary perceptions within our minds and for Berkely this can only be the mind of God, “the supreme spirit which excites those ideas in our minds” (Berkeley 1995 [1710]: 44-45). 

Kant reasoned much in the same way, though he ended up by invoking an unknowable “thing-in-itself” rather than God as the cause of the sensory material appearing in consciousness. Kant agreed with Berkeley that although Idealism avoids skepticism by placing “objective reality” within consciousness, it still needs to explain the external origin of the sensory material out of which “objective reality” is created. As said, according to Kant, the sensory material becomes an experienceable and knowable object for us only when it is ordered by our a priori forms of cognition (space, time, causality). With respect to those forms, then, we are active, “spontaneous” as Kant put it, meaning that we freely impose the forms on the sensory material. But with respect to the sensory material itself, we are passive, “receptive”, meaning that the sensory material arises in consciousness because we are “affected” from the outside. Here Kant agreed with Berkeley that human beings experience sensations “whereof they themselves [are] not the authors, as not being excited from within, nor depending on the operations of their will” (Berkeley 1995 [1710]: 44). Hence the well-known dichotomies drawn by Kant between spontaneity and receptivity, a priori and a posteriori, cognitieve form and sensory material, etc. It is to account for the alleged passive, receptive side to our consciousness that Kant felt necessitated to invoke something outside of consciousness, the thing-in-itself, as the cause of the sensory material appearing within consciousness. It was only in line with his Idealism when he then declared this thing-in-itself to be completely unknowable to us, given that the only reality we can know according to Kant is the phenomenal reality constructed in consciousness.

Kant on “inner” and “outer sense”
As I said above, it is here that we start to see how Western Idealism never really broke free from the standpoint of individual consciousness, thereby creating insoluble problems for itself. The point is that the sensory passivity of consciousness holds only for individual consciousness, i.e. for the individual subject who stands over against his object, the external world. Thus, the sensory passivity of consciousness still presupposes the subject-object duality. But hasn’t this duality been overcome once consciousness is recognized as the condition for the appearance of both subject and object, in the sense of the individual and his world? And doesn’t it then follow that this consciousness, that precedes the appearance of subject-object duality, is itself free from subject-object duality and is thus “non-dual”, as Eastern spirituality says? But if this is so, if consciousness is prior to the subject-object duality, why then attribute receptivity to consciousness when the very idea of receptivity clearly presupposes this duality? The lingering attachment of Western Idealists to the idea that there is a receptive side to consciousness is a clear category mistake, a confusion of the transcendental consciousness with the individual consciousness (which is better called the “individual mind”) which is just one of the appearances within transcendental consciousness.

It seems to me that this category mistake emerges clearly in Kant when he introduces the distinction between “inner” and “outer sense” into his Transcendental Idealism. This distinction is really Kant’s acknowledgment that the subject-object duality is merely an appearance within transcendental consciousness. For Kant, “inner sense” designates the psychological self-experience of the individual person, the sensing of individual mental states such as thoughts and feelings. It is through inner sense that the individual mind (“Gemüth”) “intuits itself or its inner state” (CPR, A23/B37). Correlatively, “outer sense” is for Kant the sense through which the individual mind senses the outside world; with the outer sense “we represent to ourselves objects as outside us” (CPR, A22/B37). Now, the crucial move on Kant’s part here is his recognition that transcendental consciousness is prior to both inner and outer sense: not only the objects appearing in the outer sense but also the objects appearing in the inner sense are just phenomena constructed by consciousness. Thus, Kant stresses emphatically that the psychological self-experience of inner sense is certainly not to be confused with the transcendental self-consciousness underlying all experience, the unity of the “I think” that unifies all what appears in consciousness (CPR, B153).

Kant’s category mistake: the receptivity of the transcendental subject
It follows that the transcendental subject, the I that holds together all phenomena in the unity of its self-consciousness, is not the individual self whose mind is experienced through inner sense and whose sensory affection by an external world is experienced through outer sense. But if this is so, why then does Kant attribute this sensory affection this “receptivity” to the transcendental subject? Clearly, Kant commits a category mistake here. The only evidence we have for the existence of receptivity comes from the phenomenal realm, from the dichotomy of inner and outer sense, thus from the experience of the individual person as limited and affected by his external world. So by attributing receptivity to the transcendental subject, Kant is confusing the phenomenal and the transcendental: he is attributing a phenomenal property (receptivity) to the transcendental precondition of all phenomenality, the transcendental subject.

In his own terminology, Kant is guilty here of an “amphiboly”, which is his term for the mistake he detected in his empiricist and rationalist predecessors, namely the confusion of the a priori and a posteriori. According to Kant, rationalist philosophers tended to mistake a posteriori givens with a priori products of the mind; here Kant targeted above all Leibniz with his extreme claim that all concepts are “innate”. Conversely, empiricist philosophers tended to make the opposite mistake of seeing the a priori as a sensory given; here Kant targeted philosophers like Locke who saw all concepts, including a priori concepts such as causality, as deriving wholly from sensory experience.

For Kant, seeing the truth in epistemology hinged on avoiding such “amphibolies”, thus on distinguishing clearly between a priori and a posteriori and on assigning each its proper role in cognition. In this way, Kant aimed to steer a middle course between empiricism and rationalism by recognizing both the spontaneous and the receptive side of consciousness. But isn’t it clear now that Kant’s own middle course is itself predicated on an amphiboly, and indeed a rationalist amphiboly, such that an a posteriori given (the receptivity of cognition) is mistaken for an a priori insight in the nature of transcendental consciousness? This is what Kant’s account of the distinction between inner and outer sense makes clear, namely that the duality of subject and external object and thus the sensory affection of the former by the latter is a phenomenon appearing in transcendental consciousness and therefore not a property of this consciousness which pre-conditions all phenomenality.

In this sense, Kant’s recognition of the phenomenal nature of the inner sense / outer sense duality should have clearly shown to him the non-dual nature of transcendental consciousness itself. That is, it should have made it perfectly clear to him that the transcendental subject, whose self-consciousness unifies all phenomena, is a non-dual subject, i.e. a subject without an external object (“one without a second” in the language of the Upanishads). The fact that Kant didn’t see this, that he continued to attribute amphibologically the phenomenal property of receptivity to the pre-phenomenal transcendental subject, testifies to the strong hold that the paradigm of individual consciousness exerted on Idealist philosophers in the West.                      
-Arnauld, A. (1964 [1662]), The Art of Thinking. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.
-Berkeley, G. (1995 [1710]), A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.
-Berkeley, G. (1969 [1713]), Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous. Chicago: Open Court.
-Hume, D. (2003 [1739-40]), A Treatise of Human Nature. Mineola: Dover Publications.
-Kant, I (1998 [1781-87]), Critique of Pure Reason. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
-Stroud, B. (1984), The Significance of Philosophical Scepticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Non-Duality and the Problems of Western Idealism – Part 1: Non-Dual Spirituality

In my previous post on the “Ultimate Insight” I argued that the central aim of virtually all Eastern spirituality – namely, the Enlightenment experience of non-dual consciousness – is not just supremely practical (the liberation from suffering) but also supremely theoretical: it is the experience that ultimately grounds the worldview of Absolute Idealism. The central tenet of the latter is that reality-as-a-whole consists of a single, all-encompassing Absolute Consciousness. The Enlightenment experience, as it figures in much of Eastern spirituality notably Advaita Vedanta, certain traditions within Mahayana Buddhism, the Classical Yoga of Patanjali, and Shaivite Tantra is basically the experience of this all-encompassing Consciousness. It is the experience that frees one from the suffering inherent in finite human existence and at the same time grounds the insight into Consciousness as the ultimate nature of reality. In this post I want to focus on the theoretical aspect of the Enlightenment experience, in particular on the way this typically Eastern experience enables us to solve certain theoretical difficulties in Western forms of Idealism. For the idea that reality consists of a single all-encompassing Consciousness is not just of Eastern provenance, it also plays an important if controversial role in Western philosophy, where it came to prominence at the end of the 18th and much of the 19th century in German and Anglo-American Idealism. There is, however, an important difference between Western and Eastern forms of Idealism, and that basically is the difference between theory and practice. Whereas the Western forms are primarily theoretical, aimed at a purely intellectual understanding of reality as Consciousness, the point of virtually all Eastern spirituality is primarily practical, aimed at a radical existential transformation of human life through the lived experience of Enlightenment. This transformative experience of Enlightenment, i.e. the experience of the all-encompassing Consciousness as the essence of one’s being, is virtually lacking in Western Idealism. Hence the terminological distinction I draw between Western philosophy and Eastern spirituality. But, as said above, the Enlightenment experience is not just practical, it has a highly theoretical value as well, being the experience that ultimately grounds the Idealist worldview. This theoretical lesson, that is to be learned from the Enlightenment experience, is lacking in Western forms of Idealism. As I hope to show in this post, it is this lack that accounts for several unsolved problems within Western Idealism, problems that have made it vulnerable for sceptical counter-attack (hence the controversial status of Idealism in Western philosophy). It is here, therefore, that Eastern spirituality with its practical focus on Enlightenment can come to the aid of Idealist theory in Western philosophy. In this post, I will discuss how non-dual consciousness is viewed in Eastern spirituality (Part 1). In my next two posts, I will discuss how the Eastern view of non-dual consciousness helps us to see exactly where Western Idealist thinkers went wrong, namely in their habitual view of consciousness as individual and thus as tied to the subject-object duality of individual and world. In Part 2 I will do this for Berkeley and especially Kant, who exerted the most influence on later Western Idealists. In Part 3 I will do this for Kant’s successor Fichte, who represents the transition from Kant’s Transcendental Idealism, which still reckoned with a “thing-in-itself” outside of consciousness, to Absolute Idealism where the assumption of any reality outside of consciousness is rejected. I will show that despite Fichte’s rejection of the Kantian thing-in-itself and his consequent espousal of the unlimited nature of “Absolute Consciousness”, he kept falling back in the habitual assumption that consciousness is individual and thus tied to subject-object duality and that this accounts for the often noted paradoxes in his thinking that prevented him from ever finishing his philosophy into a completed whole.

The non-individual nature of non-dual consciousness
So what is the theoretical lesson that Western Idealism can learn from the Enlightenment experience? Basically, it is the non-individual nature of non-dual Consciousness. Non-duality, of course, is central to Eastern spirituality, where it indicates the insight that there is no real opposition between the conscious individual (the “subject”) and the surrounding world of which he/she is conscious (the “object”). Non-duality signifies the experience of cosmic unity, the integral wholeness of reality, a whole that includes the individual subject and his object. Non-duality, then, means that there is no true opposition no duality between subject and object.

More properly speaking, non-duality signifies the realization that consciousness is never individual to begin with. It is the realization that the true subject of consciousness is not the individual, not the person who, in everyday experience, appears to be the one who senses the world, who thinks about and acts on the world. For that is exactly the point: this individual person, that we normally take ourselves to be, is itself an appearance within experience that is to say: the person is really one of the many objects appearing within consciousness and, therefore, not the true subject of consciousness. Normally, in the “dualistic mode” so to speak, we think: “It is me, this person of flesh and blood, who experiences this world existing outside of me…” What we then forget, however, is that ‘we’ experience not just the world but also ourselves (our individual selves) as intrinsic parts of that world. Thus, we, as these individual persons, belong to the object of experience, i.e. we are not its true subject.

Here is an example to illustrate this point. Suppose I have to go to the dentist for a root canal treatment. Then ‘I’ experience not just the ‘objective’ situation in the dental office (the clinically white walls, the fake smile of the receptionist, the chair in which I lie down, the sound of the drill, the dentist going to work in my mouth), there is also an emphatically ‘subjective’ side to my experience, since ‘I’ also experience myself in that situation. ‘I’ feel myself lying in that chair with my mouth wide open, my body cramped, my fingers gripping the seat, my heart beating, thoughts rushing through my head (“I hope this anesthesia works”)... Of course, this is not an everyday experience (thank God!), but in its poignancy it does bring out something that is really always the case, even if we don’t notice it, namely: we ourselves are always part of the situation ‘we’ are experiencing.

Thus, we as these individual persons belong to the object of experience; we are not its true subject (hence the scare quotes I put around ‘I’ and ‘we’). The Enlightenment experience in Eastern spirituality is essentially this (self-)realization of the non-dual consciousness in which the duality of subject and object appears. It is the realization: I, as the conscious observer of the world, am NOT this individual person with whom I normally identify, because this individual is itself also experienced: the individual is an integral part of the world observed by me. Hence, I as observer am non-individual consciousness. The duality of me and world, of subject and object, is a duality perceived by me, and so I as observer precede this duality, in short, I am non-dual consciousness... All the non-dual traditions within Eastern spirituality (Advaita Vedanta, Buddhism, Classical Yoga, and Shaivite Tantra) are basically just variations on this theme. There are, of course, differences between them, but in my estimation these are really just superficial differences in detail, emphasis, terminology and practical approach. The fundamental underlying insight, the impersonal nature of non-dual consciousness, is shared by them all, as I hope to show in the following.

Non-dual consciousness in Dzogchen and Zen Buddhism

Coming from the Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dutch teacher Jan Geurtz puts the point as follows: “Do you see that our complete reality consists not just of a subjective and an objective component, but that there is a third factor, namely, the capacity to observe this duality? This third factor is itself not an observable form or entity… [I]t is within this limitless and formless awareness that the illusion appears of an interior world and an external world separated from it.” (Geurtz 2013: 44-45) In Zen Buddhism, too, this realization of the impersonal consciousness prior to subject-object duality is the central aim of meditative practice, where this formless consciousness is indicated by such typical Zen phrases as “the original face before birth”, “the common person of no rank” and “the original person”. Influenced by the Zen experience of Enlightenment (“satori”), the Japanese philosopher Kitarō Nishida writes in his classic work
An Inquiry into the Good: “Over time I came to realize that it is not that experience exists because there is an individual, but that an individual exists because there is experience. I thus arrived at the idea that experience is more fundamental than individual differences, and in this way I was able to avoid solipsism… The individual’s experience is simply a small, distinctive sphere of limited experience within true experience.” (Nishida 1990 [1922]: xxx, 19.)

With his statement that the Zen experience of Enlightenment enabled him to “avoid solipsism”, Nisihida indicates the insight that consciousness is not ‘locked up’ inside the individual’s head or brain: “it is not that consciousness is within the body, but that the body is within consciousness”. (Idem: 43.) If consciousness resided in the brain, it would indeed be cut off from the world outside one’s skull, which would invite the solipsistic conclusion that all I can know is the phenomenal world appearing in my subjective consciousness, but not the real, objective world outside of it. The Zen realization that  consciousness is radically different, that it is rather the non-dual openness in which both individual and world appear, thus takes away the threat of solipsism. Nishida, of course, does not deny that brain activity is closely connected to individual mind activity, but for him this only means that one group of phenomena appearing in consciousness (mental processes) correlates with another such group (neural processes): “To say that phenomena of consciousness accompany stimulation to nerve centers means that one sort of phenomena of consciousness necessarily occurs together with another.” (Ibidem.) This already gives a glimpse of how Western Idealism can benefit from Eastern spirituality.

Non-dual liberation in Shaivite Tantra and Advaita Vedanta
As said above, the primary point of the Enlightenment experience in Eastern spirituality is not theoretical but rather the practical achievement of liberation from suffering. How does this work? How does the realization of the non-individual nature of consciousness lead to liberation? Here the basic point is that through this realization one ceases to be just a finite individual standing over against an outside world independent of one’s will. It is, after all, this perceived independence of the world that creates suffering, because this independence means that the individual must struggle to maintain and assert itself in a world that is a best indifferent and at worst hostile to its desires. Thus suffering ceases when one realizes one’s true nature as non-individual, non-dual consciousness. One can no longer be touched by the vicissitudes of the individual, because on the most fundamental level one no longer is that individual: one has realized one’s essence as the impersonal consciousness in which the individual and its world appear.

The medieval Kashmiri Tantra master Kshemaraja, in his classic work The Recognition Sutras, gives an inkling of this liberatory potential of realizing (“recognizing”) the non-dual nature of consciousness when he writes: “People who are constrained every moment by the bonds of identification with body, life, pleasure, pain, and so on, do not recognize what is right here their own Divine Awareness, thick with the joy of perfect wholeness. But one who, through this teaching, sees the universe all around him as nothing more than a mass of foam on the surface of the nectarean ocean of Awareness he alone is said to be Shiva made fully manifest.” (Kshemara in Wallis 2017: 451) The theme of seeing the entire universe as an appearance within non-dual consciousness can also be found in the modern Advaita master Nisargadatta, who adds the idea that liberation comes specifically from seeing one’s individual personality as an integral part of this phenomenal universe:

“Don’t look at the world as something outside of yourself. See the person you imagine yourself to be as part of the world really a dream-world which you perceive as an appearance in your consciousness, and look at the whole show from the outside… Once you realize that there is nothing in this world that you can or need call your own, you will look at it from the outside, as you look at a play on the stage or a movie on the screen, admiring and enjoying perhaps suffering, but deep down, quite unmoved.” (Nisargadatta quoted in Balsekar 1982: 8)

Phenomenal non-duality in Classical Yoga
The point stressed by Nisargadatta, that one must view one’s individual person as an integral part of the universe appearing in consciousness, is also central to Patanjali’s Classical Yoga as expounded in his Yoga Sutra. Like all of Eastern non-dual spirituality, the goal of Classical Yoga is to realize through meditation one’s true nature as the impersonal consciousness (the Purusha) to which both the individual person and his/her world appears. Normally, in the dualistic mode, we identify with the individual person standing over against the world. The point of Patanjali’s Yoga is to see that both individual and world belong to Prakriti, the Sanskrit term for material nature. So not just the individual’s physical body but also his/her mental states, such as feelings and thoughts, are to be seen as part of material nature.

For Classical Yoga, mental states are no less material than physical things, such as bodies, trees and stones the only difference being that the materiality of the latter is “gross” whereas the materiality of mental states is more “subtle”. For Patanjali, the point of seeing that one’s individual nature is an integral part of material nature as a whole (the physical universe) is that one realizes one’s true nature as Purusha, the non-individual consciousness to which Prakriti appears. By seeing this integral unity of material nature as a whole this “phenomenal nonduality” as Chip Hartranft calls it in his translation of and commentary on the Yoga Sutra (2003: 82) one takes up a standpoint outside that whole, one observes it from the outside and thus realizes one’s Purusha nature.

The regress-of-observation argument for non-dual consciousness
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is also important here because it gives an important theoretical argument for the existence of non-dual consciousness. Such an argument is precisely what is needed to convince the sceptical Westerner who is wary of Eastern stories of blissful and seemingly mystical Enlightenment experiences. A sceptical Westerner might object as follows to the idea of non-dual consciousness: You say that I as this individual cannot be the true subject of consciousness, because I as this individual am itself experienced, I am one of the objects appearing in consciousness. But why can’t I be both? Why can’t I be the subject of consciousness AND an object appearing within consciousness? Why can’t an experienced object, such as this person of flesh and blood that I am, be at the same the subject of that experience? Isn’t this how we normally experience ourselves?

For the practitioner of Eastern spirituality, this objection is essentially overcome by the practical realization of the Enlightenment experience, where the non-dual nature of consciousness is directly ‘seen’ or ‘felt’. It is the utterly compelling nature of the Enlightenment experience, with the serene joy (“ananda”) that goes along with the liberation from suffering, that eliminates all doubt and thus ‘refutes’ this objection through direct experience. But of course, for the sceptic this is insufficient, because it is precisely his sceptical attitude that prevents him from experiencing Enlightenment. It is important, therefore, to be able to meet the sceptical objector on his own turf, that is, to refute his theoretical objection by an equally theoretical counter-argument. This argument has emerged most clearly though also in an extremely truncated form in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. Here is what Patanjali has to say about the possibility of the individual’s mind being its own observer: "If the mind were perceived by itself instead of by consciousness, the chain of such perceptions would regress infinitely, exploding memory." (4.21)

What Patanjali points to is the fact that an infinite regress of self-observations would ensue if the observer were itself also an observable entity (like the mind). For then the observer in observing itself would also observe this self-observation, and also this observation of self-observation, and also this observation of the earlier observation of self-observation, and so on without end. Hence Patanjali’s conclusion that “the chain of such perceptions would regress infinitely, exploding memory”. This, in a very truncated form (which is typical of the Yoga Sutra), is Patanjali’s theoretical counter-argument to the sceptic’s objection. It basically explains why the ultimate observer of the realm of material nature cannot itself be part of that realm. But because Patanjali’s argument is so truncated, it may need a bit more elaboration in order to be fully convincing.

Here we can turn to the aforementioned Dzogchen teacher Jan Geurtz who (quite independently of Patanjali, as Geurtz has communicated to me) has stumbled upon the same argument. With exceptional clarity, Geurtz develops the argument as follows: “As soon as an observing entity perceives itself, a loop is created. This happens, for example, when a camera is aimed at its own screen, when two mirrors are directly opposite to each other, or when a microphone comes too close to its own speaker… With such an observation loop we see the image disappear in an infinite series. If that fundamental reality in us which perceives were an entity, a “thing”, then we would have to observe an infinite series of them, a succession of “little selves” one perceiving the other. That, however, is not the case. Hence, that which perceives cannot itself be an observable entity.” (Geurtz 2013: p.244, n.23)

This, then, is the theoretical argument for the non-dual nature of consciousness: the ultimate observer of the subject-object duality (the individual person and his/her world) cannot be the individual subject, because since this subject is part of the observed object of experience such self-observation would produce an infinite regress of self-observations, thus “exploding memory”. The ultimate observing consciousness, then, is non-dual, a “third factor” that encompasses both individual subject and his/her object. This non-dual consciousness cannot itself be anything observable, thus it is essentially indeterminate and limitless. It bears repeating, however, that for Eastern non-dual spirituality this theoretical argument is not enough: it is only a stepping stone to a more experiential appreciation of the non-dual nature of consciousness. To remain at the level of theoretical argumentation would be to remain at the dualistic level of conceptual thought. So, to fully appreciate the non-dual nature of consciousness, we must not just think about it but experience it directly. Only in this way will the liberatory power of non-dual consciousness become fully apparent.

How Eastern spirituality can help Western Idealism
We are now in a position to see how the Enlightenment experience of non-dual consciousness in the various traditions of Eastern spirituality can help to solve certain outstanding problems in Western forms of Idealism. As I hope to show my following posts, these problems have a common root, namely, the persistent prejudice that consciousness is subjective or individual and thus necessarily limited by an “external world”. Even when Western philosophy progressed to the idea of a single, all-encompassing Universal or Absolute Consciousness as it did in Absolute Idealism , the old paradigm of subjective consciousness limited by external objects kept creeping in through the back door and thus kept creating problems that were deemed insoluble.

Two main problems stand out in this respect. Namely, (1) the problem of the external world: If reality is a single consciousness, then why does there nevertheless appear to be an external world outside of consciousness? And (2) the problem of the epistemological status of the idea that there is an Absolute Consciousness: If we can only know reality as it appears in consciousness, as Idealism says, how then can we postulate the existence of an Absolute Consciousness of which we as individuals have no experience? It was because of Western Idealism’s inability to answer these questions questions which were often raised by Idealist thinkers themselves that Idealism lost much of its appeal in Western philosophy around 1900 and gave way to philosophies such as logical positivism and existentialist phenomenology. But these theoretical problems are still premised on the merely subjective, individual nature of consciousness. Thus they are rendered moot by the theoretical argument for and (especially) the Enlightenment experience of the non-dual nature of consciousness in Eastern spirituality. 

-Balsekar, Ramesh (1982), Pointers from Nisargadatta Maharaj. Bombay, Chetana.
-Geurtz, Jan (2013), Verslaafd aan denken: De weg naar verlichting en levensgeluk. Amsterdam, Ambo/Anthos.
-Hartranft, Chip (2003), The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali: A New Translation with Commentary. Boulder, Shambhala.
-Kshemaraja, Rajanaka (2017), The Recognition Sutras. Translated and with commentary by Christopher Wallis. Boulder, Mattamayura Press.
-Nishida, Kitarō (1990 [1922]), An Inquiry into the Good. New Haven and London, Yale University Press.