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.]
David Buchanan says
I’m not sure if I follow, exactly, but the issue of no-self seems to loom large. As Todd Lekan explains it, “Near the end of Varieties of Religious Experience, James analyzes experience into subjective and objective parts which together comprise what he calls a “full fact.” He says that experience consists in “a conscious field plus its object as felt or thought plus an attitude towards the object, plus the sense of a self to whom the attitude belongs…” James’s “full facts” have a “bi-directional” intentional structure; they are simultaneously directed at self and world. This does not mean that every experience involves reflective awareness of self and world. Prior to analysis, the “sense of self” and the “attitude towards an object” are rolled together.” The idea here, as James puts it elsewhere, it that subject and object, inner and outer, are not primary ontological realities but rather conceptual categories into which we sort experience – later, upon reflection, when we employ the thought categories inherited from the culture. The idea is that we impose these distinctions upon experience, which is itself not so divided or even divided at all.
The Swiss psychologist Theodore Flournoy wrote: “…while most philosophers conceive … [a] primordial state, the origin of all psychic life, as a purely subjective state from which subsequent evolution draws forth (no one knows how) the idea of a non-self and the representation of an exterior world, for James, on the contrary, these primordial facts, these pure experiences are entirely objective, simple phenomena of ‘sciousness’ and not of ‘consciousness.’ This means that he holds that the distinction between self and non-self, implied in the word ‘consciousness,’ from which we are in a normal state unable to free ourselves, is not primary, but results from a conceptual sorting and classifying of the primitive experiences.” (From the Wiki page on James’s “Sciousness”.)
Bruce Adam says
Am I right in thinking that Douglas Hofstadter’s ” I Am A Strange Loop ” would sit well with the Buddhist view.?
Yes, I have thought similar things.
@CDV, you might be interested in the work of Tim Morton a practicing tibetan buddhist and one of the founding figures in ObjectOrientedOntology (OOO) one the branches of Speculative Philo who is writing a book on how he thinks the two are interrelated:
“Fear of Nothing: Heidegger’s Buddhism.”
I spent time with Tim’s OOO section on his site, and must have come across these guys before (including DeLanda) on some past dmf links.
It all seems to be foremost a backlash against the epistemic indulgence of phil from Kant to Derrida with excessive anthropocentrism in bucketsful.
What spooks me a bit w/ OOO guys is they appear to want to fix what has gone real BAD in philo by replacing the bad with a reformulation of many classical natural philosophies from Aristotle to Spinoza, and then add pop-science (e.g., our consciousness makes a photon change behavior; fMRI signals allow thought reading; topology is the source of all potentials in the universe, etc.)
It’s sorta like the OOO group of folks see the silliness of granting ubiquitous causal powers to human intelligence, read some Wordsworth and Deleuze, and fell in love with with the things-in-themselves.
Next they took dusty phil books from the library that have been unused for a century, left the humanities building, but rather than going to the cyclotron or chem labs, they hit the pop-science media sources to get their Newton, Boyle, and Crick on.
Nevertheless, I am still sympathetic to their cause. Seeing the harm of setting anthropocentrism above all other reality – the bifurcation of nature – is a great development.
It certainly applies to this blog on self/no-self (see the Griffin on Whitehead PEL blog)
I don’t know enuff physics to comment on how TMo uses those theories but his work in the life sciences is quite good and no where near the kind of new-agey Caprof/Wilber non-sense that often gets peddled as philo of science. His theories of causality are beyond me but the work on hyper-objects is great.
you might be more comfortable with his fellow OOer Ian Bogost’s work or that of Levi Bryant.
I actually like to ecology without nature on my personal blog, I didn’t know he was a practicing buddhist though.
yep he’s pretty hardcore and without apologies, you also might want to check out Gendlin and co. for some works on the edges of the implicit:
in his usual generous way TMo is streaming his OOO seminar:
DeLanda is far more serious about dissing anthropocenytrism than what I am seeing in TMo’s ‘cast.
we are probably drifting into the realm of threadjacking but one last related addition: