How can you be yourself if there is no self?

This post, which is cross-posted on Love of All Wisdom, follows seven posts of mine on that blog that articulate what I take to be a key, often implicit, ideal) underlying much modern Western popular practice. Following Georg Simmel, I thought “qualitative individualism” seemed the best name to describe this ideal. I did not cross-post those posts here on the IPB because they were confined to the Western philosophical tradition – although, as the first post noted, those Western ideals, while recognized as Western, are now a part of modern Indian culture and even law. Interested readers may view the previous posts on LoAW. Now, though, I turn to the implications of qualitative individualism in comparison with Buddhism, so their relevance to Indian philosophy becomes much more direct and I take it up here.

The rise of qualitative individualism in the West coincides relatively closely with Western interest in Buddhism. Nietzsche and Emerson, two of the most influential qualitative individualist thinkers, both had an interest in Buddhism stronger than was usual for philosophers of their time. And the greatest flowering of Western interest in Buddhism occured in the 1960s, the same time when qualitative individualism itself became fully mainstream.

Qualitative individualism can be put in many ways, but one of its most characteristic injunctions is “be yourself”. The injunction is often phrased further in terms of one’s true self. Such ideas are of central importance to the LGBT movement. A recent news profile asking Boston University students about the meaning of being transgender finds many of them echoing a common refrain: “discovering your truest self”, “finding one’s true identity”, “being their true selves”, “being truly, completely, unapologetically me”.

None of this seems like a great fit, on the face of it at least, with a tradition that has proclaimed for 2000 years that there is no self.

The philosophical difficulties are pretty profound here. I’ll admit that the non-self teaching (anattā/anātman) has never been my favourite part of Buddhism, and thinking through qualitative individualism has helped me figure out why. I am a grandchild of the ’60s – my mother was born in 1949 and came of age in that decade, and I grew up infused with its ideals, believing in finding oneself and following one’s own path. Now, though, I have become a Buddhistas, I think, has she. And to take that Buddhism seriously requires taking non-self seriously.

It is important to point out here that for the first millennium of Buddhism there not only were Buddhists who acknowledged something like a self, but by some accounts they were among the most prevalent schools. These Buddhists are now most commonly known by the name Pudgalavāda, “way of the person”, a name given to them by their opponents – they typically called themselves Vātsipūtrīya or Sāmmitīya. The problem with the Pudgalavāda is that they have been extinct for millennia. One could call oneself a Pudgalavādin today, but this would be much like adhering to an Arian Christianity that rejects the divinity of Jesus – one is not outside the tradition exactly, but one has in some sense rejected the entire continuous living tradition. It is worth at least looking for an approach more in harmony with the Buddhism that still exists.

In that respect there are at least a few commonalities between traditional Buddhism and qualitative individualism as I see them. One can see these commonalities in what they both (explicitly or implicitly) reject – the Christian soul and its successor the Cartesian I. Against a Christian or Cartesian conception, Buddhists and qualitative individualists can agree that what we call self is divisible: the unity that it has is narrative, a story we tell. Because it is narrative, it is mutable, at least until the point of death – we do not have a fixed and unchanging essence, and that mutability is what allows us to escape our bad habits and therefore suffering. And, perhaps both most controversially and most importantly, as I understand both traditions the self is not autonomous. This is the point where I part with existentialism and its Augustinian emphasis on choices, will and responsibility. I think these concepts tend to mislead us, make us think too much in terms of decisions rather than dispositions. Rather, as I think Nietzsche and the Pali Buddhist texts would agree, we are the product of what has come before us; to the extent we can understand ourselves to be free, it is because we are able to free ourselves of the bad influences that plague us for most of our lives, bad influences that are not only social.

If Buddhism and qualitative individualism can be harmonized, I think that that harmonizing would do well to start from these commonalities. But problems remain. Buddhist texts go much further than merely denying that there is an indivisible, immutable or autonomous self. The suttas tell us that nothing physical or mental can be regarded as self at all. They do also seem to speak of individual people in a way treated as unproblematic, but from at least the time of the Milindapañhā, Buddhist texts have told us that this is a merely conventional way of speaking, not the ultimate truth or reality – at that highest, truest (paramattha) level of reality, selves are not real. And this is treated as important because belief in an ultimate self, a true self, is viewed as a key source of our craving and therefore our suffering: when there’s a self, we want more for it. If we are to get out of suffering, we need to divide the apparently true self into its component pieces, in order to be able to separate the good pieces leading to nirvana from the bad pieces that continue to entrap us – a separation that the abhidhamma texts theorize and meditators can observe in practice.

So is qualitative individualism then a trap that will merely serve to mire us in suffering? I think many wise Buddhists throughout the ages would have said so without hesitation. But I don’t think I agree with them. At a minimum, I think there is more to life than the removal of suffering, and to say even that much is to make room for extra-Buddhist elements in a Buddhist worldview, as many Buddhists have done throughout history. Qualitative individualism is among the elements I find it most important to bring in. But none of that solves the puzzles discussed above; it merely articulates what is at stake in bringing them up.

About Amod Lele

Amod Lele is Lecturer in Philosophy, Educational Technologist in Information Services & Technology, and Visiting Researcher in the Study of Asia at Boston University. He administers the technical side of the Indian Philosophy Blog, as well as running his own cross-cultural philosophy blog, Love of All Wisdom. He holds a PhD with a South Asia focus from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. You can find out more about him than you ever wanted to know at his ePortfolio.

14 thoughts on “How can you be yourself if there is no self?

  1. ātmā hy ātmano nātho ko hi nātho paro syāt |
    ātmanaive sudāntena nāthaṃ labhate durlabham ||
    (Dharmapādāt)

  2. If Augustine can be mentioned, Sri Aurobindo deserves a glance too. The fact is, there are many unresolved issues in ancient Indian philosophy which Sri Aurobindo has attempted to reconcile and redefine. Further, he takes the ontological conundrums beyond any particular religion so that they are in consonance with science. So, any true philosophical quest in modern times can’t really be satisfied without consulting The Life Divine.

  3. If the rationalists, particularly Descartes, hold the view that the self is autonomous because the cogito as a point of consciousness, is immutable and fixed, the libertarians derive individual autonomy from their position about reality being in constant flux. Is the individual autonomous because reality is change, or because there is an unchanging core of the individual?
    How would Buddhism come to the aid of the debate between compatibilism and incompatilism (of individual autonomy and determinism), that would be an interesting idea to pursue.

  4. I have wondered if it were possible for buddhism (or whichever sramana traditions antedated it) to posit a theory of no-self without literacy of some type. It is interesting that the onset of literacy in India and the spread of buddhism are roughly coeval, give or take a century. The narrativization implicit in reading someone else’s thoughts could provide the impetus for the extreme position of positing a narrativized self on a substrate of unconscious matter. Given, its focus on the psychology of the practitioner, the notion of no-self seems to be driven by the same impulse as the notions of emptiness and the larger buddhist epistemology. The idea perhaps is to tear down all blind, preconceived concepts accepted uncritically. In the vacuum so created, perhaps we can come to terms (and peace) with our qualitative individuality?

  5. Thank you for the thought-provoking post. I subscribe to the Buddhist doctrine of anatman, understood in the Parfitian sense as the lack of numerical identity of self over time. I also accept “qualitative individualism” as you describe it. There are deep truths about myself, perhaps different from those about others. These truths will not be readily apparent in my occurrent beliefs and desires, but in the underlying psychological dispositions (samskara-s) that define who I am. To strip myself of these dispositions would be to lose a possibly unique and subjective standpoint from which something can be valuable (for I am ultimately a subjectivist about the source of values, though I accept certain objective constraints as well), and the world will be slightly poorer for it. To strip everyone of these dispositions would be terrible, all the meaningful variety in the world will disappear. Thus I refuse to subscribe to any doctrine that would recommend it.

    Another reason I am not a Buddhist is because Buddhist doctrines do not seem compatible with the idea of the “separateness of persons” (i.e., as found in the Rawlsian/Nozickian criticism of utilitarianism), understood not in the metaphysical sense, but in the normative sense. In the normative sense, I think that separateness of persons is grounded in the dignity of each person that commands respect, not just from others but from oneself as well. I suggest that we would be hard-pressed to find a possible source of personal dignity in Buddhist doctrines. In the Jataka tales the bodhisattvas disfigure and sacrifice themselves too readily for the sake of mitigating suffering in others. And though I admire the 8th chapter of Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara because it anticipates the parity argument discussed by Parfit, Nozick, and so on, there is nothing in the chapter that supports the separateness of persons.

    • Boram,
      I would think the Buddhist conception of karma assumes the separateness of persons in a morally and psychologically normative sense. And at least in later forms of Buddhism, the notion of buddha nature or buddha disposition (which has aspects reminiscent of guna doctrine in earlier Indic philosophies) would likewise serve this function (metaphysically as well). I also and relatedly think these concepts can be used to support a notion of human dignity, much like various religious and secular worldviews have found ideas from within their respective philosophical and intellectual traditions to support the concept of human dignity as it is found in fundamental international legal instruments such as human rights conventions (first of all: Universal Declaration of Human Rights) as well as many municipal or domestic democratic constitutions around the globe (in the territory here of Rawls’s brilliant idea of an ‘overlapping consensus,’ although not necessarily confined to the Liberal ideal of justice …).

      • I suspect that the popular Buddhist conception of karma does assume the separateness of persons in a significant respect – but that fact has always been a problem for the tradition. The Pudgalavādins’ main philosophical point was that non-self didn’t allow for a meaningful concept of karma.

        • Many Buddhists believe that merit can be transferred from one person to another. I don’t know how this is supposed to work, but it seems to mean that one person can accrue good karma and transfer it to someone else. If so, then karmic inheritance cuts across the self-other boundary, and cannot be used to characterize the self/other distinction either descriptively or normatively. (In any case, I think belief in karmic inheritance both from earlier to later lives and from one individual to another is rather superstitious and unscientific.)

          But I agree with what Patrick says about Buddha nature and the possibility of using it as a basis for human dignity in an “overlapping consensus” involving different traditions.

          • Amod, For now I will only note that the Pudgalavādin view was atypical (as often happens, differing philosophical views within the same tradition will fill out the available ‘logical’ space) and thus the exception to the rule, so I don’t find it dispositive.

            Boram, What many Buddhists believe, alas, is not always in keeping with Buddhist doctrine, in any case, I think the argument could be made that even with transfer of merit, we have the requisite distinction for individual karma in the first instance. As for samsara and karma, I am withholding judgment, in other words, believing it may be true, and thus not “superstitious” even if it is not, given materialist, physicalist, or naturalist presuppositions and assumptions, “scientific.” I don’t find science to be the final or determinative standard for assessing such topics, given that there’s much science cannot explain, like consciousness, human nature, the nature of values, etc. So the metaphysical doctrine inherited from Indic philosophy can countenance if not provide the requisite moral and psychological support for “separateness of persons.”

            I’ll leave it at that from my end but you’re of course welcome to respond.

    • Boram, these are interesting thoughts. How do you think qualitative individualism or the separateness of persons are compatible with Parfit’s theory of the self’s non-identity? It seems to me that Parfit’s approach undermines both of these.

      • Amod, thanks for your reply!

        Given our genes, cultural upbringing, the way our brains work, and the laws of nature obtaining in our universe, individual psychologies are constituted in different ways, and these psychological dispositions in normal circumstances are not transmitted from one human brain to another. I think these facts are compatible with Parfit’s theory, and provide some of the basis for qualitative individualism.

        As for separateness of persons, I think of it normatively as the inviolable sanctity of an individual person. Building on a Parfitian theory of psychological continuity, John Perry provides an account of the special concern that we have for our future selves, above and beyond the concern that we have for others around us. I suggest that something like Perry’s account can be used with some modifications. Let’s say the selves that are “P-related” to my present self are psychologically continuous with me now. Roughly, we are capable of forming normatively binding commitments (such as resolutions and promises), and it is our P-related selves that feel the binding force of these commitments, and are the best placed to fulfill those commitments. I suggest that the normative significance of such commitments (whatever inviolability/sanctity they have) are transferred to their P-related bearers. Obviously this is just a rough sketch that I hope to develop into something more substantial.

  6. While this topic is far too complicated for me to attempt to address in this forum, I do think Buddhist no-self doctrine and so-called qualitative individualism can be reconciled, both philosophically and practically. For a taste of how this might occur or at least how one might begin to think of how this might be possible, I recommend considering, provided one has not, the approach found in J. David Velleman’s Self to Self: Selected Essays (Cambridge University Press, 2006). There he writes of “a reflexive guise under which parts [capacities, powers, etc.] of a person are presented to his own mind.” From a psychoanalytic perspective, this opens up the possibility of there being (a façon de parler in a non-trivial sense) multiple “selves,” including “sub-personal” selves as found in Freudian psychology. The analyst endeavors to bring to the analysand’s awareness, as prior modes of (self-) presentation, heretofore unintegrated or fragmented selves in the hope that these can be properly integrated into the analysand’s autobiographical memory in a “responsible” manner. Velleman appears to argue that the reflexive guise has to do with first-person knowledge of one’s mind in the sense of who she is, a first-person awareness that is in part constitutive of identity and in part about those powers unique to human beings or persons (human animals), those capacities that contribute to a sense of who that person is, or a person’s conception of herself “that constitutes the axis on which he can potentially be centered, or the anchor by which he can potentially be grounded” (this is a further topic of one of the essays). It is at once (simultaneously) subjective and objective, and thus, after Anscombe, it is a “special” kind of knowledge insofar as it is “without observation” (or perception, including so-called ‘inner’ perception), having to do with those forms of intentionality and self-awareness that structure “practical reasoning.” Thus, Velleman selects four contexts (not an exhaustive list) in which this reflexive guise reveals parts or facets of ourselves that constitute the aforementioned self-conception(s): (i) the context of autobiographical memory and anticipation, (ii) the context of autonomous action in which regard ourselves as self-governed or “self-ruled” (a modified Kantian construal thereof), (iii) the context of moral reflection, and (iv) the context of the moral emotions. The notion of reflexive guise is historically tied to uses of the term “self” (these are cited and discussed in Hacker’s first book in the series on human nature in the chapter on ‘the self and the body’), as well as inspired by Locke’s description of a person’s consciousness of his past as making him “self to himself” across spans of time. Please keep in mind that my snippets of the arguments don’t do them justice, so one should read his essays (more than a few of which are connected to each other) in their entirety, as I can (and will!) only give the barest “taste” of them.

    • Thanks for this, Patrick. My past encounters with Velleman’s work have led me to peg him as a Kantian, and for me Kant (along with Locke) is a paradigm example of the opposite kind of individualism, quantitative rather than qualitative). For Kant and Locke, as I understand them, what is ethically most significant about human beings are those characteristics we all share, not our differences – the right way for one person to act in a given context is broadly the right way for any other person to act in the same context. Does Velleman depart from the Kantian and Lockean conception in this book?

  7. Amod,

    I’m not at all drawn to the putative merits of this distinction between “quantitative” and “qualitative” individualism if only because I don’t understand Kantian autonomy, human dignity, and practical rationality associated with the individual person in the manner you have sketched it. I’m of the belief that there is nothing in Kant that precludes individuals from being recognized … and treated as different or discrete individuals, not merely or largely as “interchangeable” atoms. This sounds appallingly crude or uncharitable from my vantage point (my understanding of Kant’s ethics is beholden largely to three individuals: Onora O’Neill, Allen Wood, and Thomas E. Hill, Jr.). One thing we might bear in mind here is the following from O’Neill:

    “Rules can be indispensable and yet indeterminate; they can be indeterminate yet action-guiding. Agents can use rules to shape action, because rules do not function as mechanisms and in spite of the fact that they provide no algorithms for action. In using rules we shape our [individually discrete] lives, we make [individually discrete] judgments—both about the [unique] situations we face and about the lines of action we will pursue. [….] Rules are not the enemy but the matrix of [individual] judgment.”

    Consider too this (found in another text) from O’Neill:
    “ … Kant interprets the moral failure of not treating others as ‘ends’ as an alternative basis for an account of the virtues. To treat other who are specifically human in their finitude—hence vulnerable and needy—as ‘ends’ [in themselves, as it were] requires that we support one another’s (fragile) capacities to act, to adopt maxims and to pursue their particular ends. Hence it requires at least some support for other’s projects and purposes [there is clearly an assumption of qualitative individual difference here]. Kant holds that this will require at least a limited beneficence. [….] Imperfect obligations cannot prescribe universal performance: we can neither help all in need, nor develop all possible talents.”

    And: O’Neill clarifies how Kantian ethics is “far from being empty or formalistic,” nor does it lead to “rigidly insensitive rules.” Rather, it is able to “take account of differences between cases.” How so? “ … [U]niversal principles need not mandate uniform treatment; indeed, they may mandate differentiated treatment. Principles such as ‘taxation should be proportionate to ability to pay’ or ‘the punishment must fit the crime’ are universal in scope but demand differentiated treatment. Even principles that do not specifically mandate differentiated treatment will be indeterminate, so leave room for differentiated application.”

    Other illustrations (based on his concept of dignity, among other things) of how Kant’s conception of persons is not amenable to the distinction drawn between quantitative and qualitative individualism, or at least is not representative of the former can likewise be found in the works of Wood and Hill (you’ll have to take my word for it, as I can’t now provide the evidence of same).

    As for whether or not Velleman is a Kantian or Lockean or both, I find the question unavailing: he is certainly influenced by both philosophers, but his specific views with regard to the “reflexive guise” strike me a uniquely his, a creative if not profound contribution to the literature (perhaps there are only a few of us who think so!).

    Once more, this will be my final contribution on this matter here but I welcome a reply and am happy to leave the last word with you.

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