Gary Gutting (G.G.), a philosophy professor at Notre Dame, has been publishing a series of interviews on religion in the New York Times “blog” The Stone, which features the writing of “contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless.” Recently he interviewed Jay L. Garfield (J.G.) on the subject of Buddhism (Garfield is a philosopher, currently at Yale-NUS College in Singapore). What follows is the concluding question and answer in this fairly long and quite interesting interview.
G.G.: Won’t the fundamental denial of a self be hard to maintain in the face of the modern emphasis on individuality?
J.G.: I don’t think so. For one thing, note that the view that there is no substantial self has a history in the West as well, in the thought of Hume, and of Nietzsche. For another, note that many contemporary cognitive scientists and philosophers have either rejected the view that there is such a self, or have defended some variety of a minimalist conception of the self. So the doctrine isn’t as secure in the non-Buddhist world as one might think. Read more
I went looking for interesting reading material on the Buddhist concept of no-self and found one that sounded promising: Self, No Self?: Perspectives from Analytical, Phenomenological, and Indian Traditions. When I started reading it, however, my first impression was that the subject matter was over my head. Within the first few pages I was looking up the definitions of soteriological and diachronic (a word I’ve repeatedly looked up (diachronically), maybe now for the last time). A book that assumes I’m familiar with the distinction between thetic and non-thetic awareness – interesting as that may be – suggests I should be more philosophically informed before proceeding.
My interest was piqued, however, by a suggestion in the introductory chapter that the narrative self (the self as the author and central character in one’s life-story) might be – in effect – a cop out. And that it is precisely the no-self philosophical view that allows us to see this. In fact, it appears that the no-self view occupies the rational high ground when it comes to conceptions of the self. Or so the editors of this collection of essays (Mark Siderits, Evan Thompson, and Dan Zahavi) would argue. So I decided to take it more slowly, try a little harder, and give the introductory chapter another read through.
No self vs the narrative self
I had recently read Kenneth Gergen’s An Invitation to Social Construction, which included a discussion of the narrative self. Gergen advocates using a social construction approach to practical life problems, including its use by practitioners of narrative therapy. Narrative therapists, he writes, should help people “escape the imprisoning grasp of the dominant discourses of the culture, to create an ‘insurrection’ against injurious but prevailing assumptions.” Read more
In a blog on the self, I would not want to neglect the philosophical and cultural position that there is no such thing as the self — the Buddhist doctrine of anatman or no-self. In this post I relate the story of my initial encounter with Buddhism.
In the early 1980s I worked for a magazine publisher in New York City. I was the assistant to the Vice President, which meant next to nothing. Since this particular VP didn’t want anyone to learn how to do her job, I was kept busy with routine, uninteresting tasks.
One day on a lunch break, I was browsing in a midtown bookstore (I worked at Sixth Avenue and 50th). I don’t know how I found my way to this particular book — it was one of those it-fell-off-the-shelf-into-my-lap experiences. The title, Skillful Means, meant nothing to me at the time, so there was no reason to select it. The author was a Tibetan lama called Tarthang Tulku (pictured above at Dharma Publishing). The book was about being mindful while doing one’s work, and it turned out to be exactly what I needed at the time. Read more
Psychology is a relatively recent discipline (late 19th century). With a few notable exceptions (William James, neo-Freudians, humanists), psychologists largely ignored the self until the late 20th century. Only with the decline of behaviorism and psychoanalysis did the self emerge as a topic worthy of consideration.
Philosophy, on the other hand, has a long history of examining the self. In the East we have the Upanishads, the Tao te Ching, and the teachings of Gautama Buddha. In the West, we have Plato, followed by pre-Enlightenment religious philosophers who were concerned with the sinful qualities of the self (egotism, pride, selfishness). During the Enlightenment, various philosophers — Descartes, Locke, Hume, Leibnitz, Berkeley, Kant — weighed in on the subject. Ever since that time, philosophers have continually disagreed on the nature of the self.
Philosophers refer to “the problem of the self.” This “problem” includes such questions as: Is there a self? Can we know it? What is the nature of self-awareness? How does the self relate to the mind and the body? What (if anything) does the self have to do with the brain? Read more