There are several questions that I have been asking lately wrapped up in this post. First, what exactly is meant by dualism? Second, are modern systems of thought, which frequently reject the label of “dualism” actually non-dualistic? Third, what is the underlying assumption(s) of “classical dualism” that is being rejected by more modern thinkers?
It seems to me that dualism has traditionally been associated with two major thinkers in the history of philosophy: Plato and Descartes. In Plato’s case the dualism entailed is much more elaborate, describing a whole alternative realm of existence in which the eternal and unchanging forms dwell. However, what unites both Plato and Descartes is a dualistic conception of humans: we are both physical and “spiritual” beings made up of both a body and a soul. I think it is this inherent notion of “spirituality” associated with dualism which caused it lose its pride of place in the modern world, though this is certainly not the only criticism leveled against dualism. There are also concerns about hierarchical power structures being embedded in the dualistic metaphysical picture, concerns about “gnostic” tendencies to devalue physical existence or the physical world, critiques of the completely un-empirical nature of dualistic metaphysics, and concerns about the embedded assumption that the “truest” reality must be eternal and unchanging in its existence.
Until very recently I was on board with most of these critiques of dualism. But then a thought occurred to me. Isn’t the divide between “perceiver” and “perceived” or between “subject” and “object” in philosophy since Kant a kind of dualism? On one level, since we are positing two concepts, I guess there is a dualism in our language. But on a deeper level, is there actually some sort of “dualism” occurring here?
I haven’t completely thought this through yet, but my intuition is to say yes. That is to say, there is a divide between myself as a perceiving subject and the objects of my perception. And whatever we might think of the relationship between my perceptions of those objects and my being as a perceiving subject, I still perceive those objects as “not me.”
So this hasn’t been parsed out particularly cleanly, nor have its implications been particularly thought through, but here is the idea that I have been toying with lately: So long as any sort of “rational” process (whether conscious or not) is involved in the mediation between the external world and our perception of it, a dualistic conception of our relation to the world will emerge. Further, my intuition is to say that it is from this perceptual divide that the questions of metaphysics arise.