The philosophical value of a no-self perspective

self-no-selfI 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.”

I was surprised, then, to read (in Self, No Self?) a critique of the narrative self that was itself based on a social constructionist insight. (emphasis added in the following quotations from Self-No Self)

[T]he narrativity approach reflects commitment to a certain set of values and a certain social structure. The idea is that we learn to see our lives as narratives because this turns out to be an efficient way to promote such goals as rational autonomy and harmonious social interaction. Seen in this light, the notion of the self as author and central character of a narrative begins to look like it might be no more than a useful fiction, something we take to exist only because its posit is required in order to make coherent a certain way of life.

Not only does this strike me as a valid point. This critique is possible precisely because the authors are not already committed to the existence of a self. If you hold a philosophical position that does not allow you to doubt the existence of the self, then you are less likely to ask a very important and fundamental question: What social/cultural purpose does the assumption of the self’s existence serve?

Seeking one’s self: Who am I?

The basic idea of the narrative self is that, since we are agents who act over time, we need some sort of schematic for our lives that will tell us how to respond to events as they happen. Viewing our lives as a narrative allows us to come up with long-term plans, to prioritize and subordinate goals, and to avoid inaction when presented with an opportunity. To find my true self – to discover and understand “who am I?” – requires that I identify the core values and commitments that determine my life’s narrative. (At least this is what I understand Charles Taylor to be saying.) But of course such a project assumes from the start that there is such a thing as the self.

The relevant assumption [by narrative self theorists] … is that our practice of construing our lives as self-authored narratives requires the existence of a self that might serve as author and the bearer of other properties. Why not simply acquiesce in that practice and put our philosophical tools to work trying to clarify the characterization question [who am I]? If we are to do metaphysics at all, why not just do descriptive metaphysics, metaphysics that disallows significant revisions in our conception of ourselves and our place in the cosmos?

In other words, if we grant the assumption that there is a narrative self, then the no-self viewpoint can simply be dismissed as failing to pursue the most important question about the self: Who am I? Understandably, no-self philosophers disagree.

Did Western philosophy give up too soon?

So, narrative self philosophers assert that there must be a self because the narrative of our life requires one. The reply to this assertion by no-self philosophers appears to strike at a weak spot.

On this construal [that the question worth pursuing is “Who am I?”], the narrativity approach reflects a deep-seated disillusionment with the classical philosophical project. It sees the search for the self understood as an entity as hopelessly confused: given the failure of that search to reach any agreed-upon solution, we should instead think of the self as an ongoing process of self-constitution.

That is, since Western philosophy has failed to agree on what the self is, let’s just think of it as the author of and main character in our ongoing narrative. (This failure to agree is something I discussed in an earlier post on Eric Olson’s There Is No Problem of the Self (PDF).)

And this leads the Self, No Self? authors to another point I enjoyed – what I referred to above as occupying the rational high ground:

In choosing to carry out the debate as a purely metaphysical one, in not acquiescing in the pure narrativity approach, the Indian philosophers expressed the hope that philosophical rationality might enable us to settle the dispute on objective grounds. Perhaps one can justifiably dismiss such hope as naïve. But even so it is still important that one be aware that one is doing so, and on precisely what grounds.

Touché, Western philosophy — the epitome of rationality. You gave up too soon! Before you decide there is no problem of the self simply because you can’t agree on what the self is, you should return to the question of whether there really is such a thing as the self.

Related posts:
Philosophers ask: What do we mean by self

Image source: Better World Books


Mark Siderits, Evan Thompson and Dan Zahavi (editors) Self, No Self?: Perspectives from Analytical, Phenomenological, and Indian Traditions

Kenneth Gergen, An Invitation to Social Construction

Charles Taylor, The Person, in Michael Carrithers, Steven Collins and Steven Lukes (editors), The Category of the Person: Anthropology, Philosophy, History

Eric T Olson, There is No Problem of the Self (PDF), Journal of Consciousness Studies 5: 645-57, 1998


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