At one time in Savatthi, the venerable Radha seated himself and asked of the Blessed Lord Buddha: “Anatta, anatta I hear said, Venerable. What, pray tell, does Anatta mean?” “Just this, Radha, form is not the self (anatta), sensations are not the self (anatta), perceptions are not the self (anatta), assemblages are not the self (anatta), consciousness is not the self (anatta). Seeing thusly, this is the end of birth, the Brahman life has been fulfilled, what must be done has been done.”
- from the Pali Cannon (Samyutta Nikaya, Nikayas).
Listening to the interview with Owen Flanagan led to me to ponder if the no-self doctrine had produced something similar to the continental response to Hume's critique of traditional notions of the self: the subject (i.e. whatever it is that's experiencing, as opposed to a soul or something like that taken as an object).
Now, I need to give my biases, I considered myself a Buddhist for a large part of my twenties, and this included living in a Theravada monastery for about three months a decade ago. I moved away from Buddhism because I found it impossible to naturalize despite Stephen Batchelor's attempt at it for the past the decade of so. I had always taken the concept of Humean critique of the self and his claim that something necessarily be in relation to objects to be akin to Buddhist psychology of the no-self. Hume sets this to task with the quote: "...the imagination must by long custom acquire the same method of thinking, and run along the parts of space and time in conceiving its objects."
Yet the construction of the subject as an answer to a lack of self is not possible in Buddhism. This is not due to any theoretical reason within Buddhist psychology, but because the construction of the subject is something Buddhists would find problematic. Indeed, since the disunity of experience is seen as a fundamental insight, such attempts to construct a unity in reflection would largely be seen as delusive.
In Hegel, the subject is conceived as something far more in line with the Buddhist no-self doctrine. In The Phenomenology of Spirit,Hegel defines the subject not as a positive construction like the self, but a function which moves itself forward and thus is "the process of reflectively mediating itself with itself." (these quotes are from the Preface). Hegel notes that this a totality whose movement comes from a negativity, which derives from "...the bifurcation of the simple; it is the doubling which sets up opposition, and then again the negation of this indifferent diversity and of its anti-thesis." In order words, the subject is created by consciousness noticing that it is not the same as the object.
This would become a crucial concept within Adorno's Negative Dialectics as well: Identity as the Ur-form of ideology. What makes this interesting is that you can trace Adorno's inversion of the notion of subject through Hegel and Kant, not necessarily through "post-modernism" which is often said to resemble Buddhism. In other words, Adorno recognizes that our identity is constructed as a story of justification, not just in the self but also within capitalism (this element, however, is best discussed in relations to economics).
Apparently, even the subject seems hard to maintain in light Hume's insight: the construction of the subject against the object can only be as a story to make the such a notion cohere post-facto. The Buddhist monk just laughs and says I told you so. Yet the monk would also say that the object has no essence either, and so the division between object and subject was always a function of the need to articulate difference. This is pretty clear in the Milinda Panha, which states that forms are merely conventions to make articulating easier.
This is what makes Buddhist's doctrines of no-self different from Humean skepticism about the self: The Buddhist doesn't assume objects are a valid conceptual framework either for anything other than conventional language. If there is no object, there can be no subject.
-C. Derick Varn
[Editor's image credit: The picture is a "self portrait" from Julia Kay, check out her daily series of these.]