Jan Westerhoff academy2

The Non-Existence of the Real World

Jan Westerhoff

Does the external world really exist? Professor Jan Westerhoff of Oxford University combines the analytic methods of contemporary Western philosophy with a deep knowledge of Eastern thought to propose that there is no external world.

  • Jan Westerhoff
    Jan Westerhoff

    Jan Westerhoff is Professor of Buddhist Philosophy in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford. 



About the Course


The standard belief about the external world is that it exists, and we know it exists. Yet there is a rich tradition, in both Western and Eastern philosophy, of arguing that neither objects or facts have any real, independent existence.

Is the coherence of reality an illusion? Is it plausible to imagine we see the world as it really is? If the world is merely a representation, what is being represented? Does the external world exist, not exist, or neither? Can any independent fact be true, or does it’s truth always depend on another fact? And if so, is it dependence all the way down, or all the way around? And if nothing can be ultimately true, what is the point of philosophy?

Professor Jan Westerhoff of Oxford University, author of Reality and Nåagåarjuna's Madhyamaka, combines the analytic methods of contemporary Western philosophy with a deep knowledge of Eastern thought to coherently and lucidly propose the radical idea that there is no external world and no truths to be found.

By the end of the course, you will have learned:

  • Why we don’t need the external world
  • Why reality might be incoherent
  • What irrealism is, and why it works
  • The difference between first order and second order foundationalism
  • Why it is impossible to talk about ‘everything’
  • Why philosophy is still useful if it cannot say anything true


As part of the course there are in-video quiz questions to consolidate your learning, suggested further readings to stimulate a deeper exploration of the topic, discussion boards to have your say, and an end-of-course assessment set by Jan Westerhoff.

IAI Academy courses are designed to be challenging but accessible to the interested student. No specialist knowledge is required.


About the Instructor

  • Jan Westerhoff

    Jan Westerhoff's research focuses on philosophical aspects of the religious traditions of ancient India. Much of his work concentrates on Buddhist thought (especially Madhyamaka) as preserved in Sanskrit and Tibetan sources. He also has a lively interest in Classical Indian philosophy (particularly Nyāya). His research on Buddhist philosophy covers both theoretical (metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of language) and normative aspects (ethics); he is also interested in the investigation of Buddhist meditative practice from the perspective of cognitive science and the philosophy of mind.

Course Syllabus

  • Part One: A World Beyond the Mind?
    Drawing on contemporary neuroscience, philosophy and cognitive science, Westerhoff presents his case that reality outside the mind doesn't exist.
  • Part Two: Seeing the World Differently
    Following his rejection of the external world, Westerhoff explores the impact on our understanding of truth and what this could mean for the future of philosophy.

Suggested Further Readings

Nelson Goodman: Ways of Worldmaking, Hackett, Indianapolis, 1978.

Patrick Grim: The Incomplete Universe. Totality, Knowledge, and Truth, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1991.

Donald D. Hoffman, Manish Singh, Chetan Prakash: “The interface theory of perception”, Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 22:6, 2015a, 1480-1506.

Thomas Metzinger: The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self, New York : Basic Books, 2010.

Francois Recanati: “Literalism and contextualism: some varieties”, in Contextualism in Philosophy, Gerhard Preyer, Georg Peter (eds), Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005, 171-196.

Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson, Eleanor Rosch: The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1991.