The conflict between Buddhism and qualitative individualism is a major difficulty for my own philosophy. In addressing that conflict, there is one approach that has repeatedly stuck out at me. I don’t think it actually solves the problem, but it may be a step towards a solution.
That step is to build on the similarities between the Buddhist conventional/ultimate distinction and Wilfrid Sellars’s distinction between the manifest and the scientific image. Both of these dichotomies are focused on the human person or self: at the conventional (sammuti/vohāra) or manifest level, selves and their differences are real and important, and stories can be told; at the ultimate (paramattha) or scientific level, selves disappear, reduced to smaller particles that form a more fundamental level of explanation.
We may note here a key way that Sellars departs from at least Buddhaghosa’s Buddhism. He agrees with Buddhaghosa’s view that the ultimate/scientific level is an important respect truer than the conventional/manifest. But the further difference is very important: for Sellars, the manifest image is necessary for ethics (and probably aesthetics and politics.) It is at the manifest level that ethical or normative claims make sense; the scientific image is normatively inert. Cells may be more complex than atoms, but they’re not better; they just are. Natural science has not found ways in which concepts of good and bad help us to explain anything. Once upon a time, when God was the best available scientific explanation for biological diversity, they might have. But that is no longer remotely the case. So, for Sellars, we need the manifest image, with its less scientific approach, in order to be able to speak about good and bad.
I suspect that Sellars is right about this. I am coming to believe that we do indeed need to posit both a conventional essentialist level of reality and an ultimate reductionist one – and that that ultimate level of reality is normatively inert. All value, all goodness and badness – ethical, aesthetic, soteriological – exist at the conventional level. Buddhaghosa would not agree with me on that point: for him the dhammas, the ultimate simples to which reality is reducible, are intrinsically laden with the qualities of kusala and akusala, good and bad. Yet I think Śāntideva and his Madhyamaka fellows probably would agree with me, and with Sellars. Their conception of the ultimate is very different – it is non-conceptual, anabhilāpya, beyond words – but that also makes it beyond value. Śāntideva says at Bodhicaryāvatāra IX.11 that puṇya and pāpa, goodness and badness, arise only in one who has illusions. In that respect Śāntideva turns out closer to the Pudgalavādins, who argued that ideas of good and bad karma could make no sense without the concept of a person. (Students encountering Buddhism often ask, “if there’s no self, what gets reincarnated?” It is a good question, and one that also applies to a naturalized karma without rebirth.)
Sellars’s scientific reality, then, is somewhere between Buddhaghosa’s and Śāntideva’s conceptions of ultimate truth: like Buddhaghosa’s it is describable in reductionist terms, but like Śāntideva’s it is not a source of normativity. Goodness and badness are part of the manifest, conventional, level, the level where stories can be told. And it is at that conventional level where the qualitative individualist concept of a true self – like any Aristotelian essence – can exist.
When we put non-self in Sellarsian terms in this way, I think a couple things may follow. It allows room for our preexisting reasons for action, which I think are essential starting points for us to have any reasons for action at all. I don’t accept Śāntideva’s famous argument that we should act selflessly because there is no self, because – as Stephen Harris pointed out – without the existence of beings it is no longer clear why we should do anything at all, including prevent suffering (“no one disputes that” is not a sufficient answer). Rather, ethical action needs to start from our preexisting reasons at the conventional level – as in some sense it already does in Buddhist societies. And that conventional level may well have room for qualitative individualism.
The thorny question that perplexes any such approach, of course, is the first question that Hegel would ask: what is the relation between these two levels of reality? That is not an easy question to answer, for Buddhaghosa or for Sellars or even for Śāntideva. Hegel would take that question as a fatal weakness in all of their systems, such that both levels must be fully incorporated into something higher. I am not sure that I agree with him, but am also not sure I have a way to answer that criticism. It is likely the next question I need to wrestle with.
All of this is why I have found it so important to disagree at such length with Maria Heim’s and Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad’s non-ontological reading of Buddhaghosa. I do wish they were right that Buddhaghosa sees the ultimate truth as no better than the conventional; it would be much easier for me to agree with him if they were so. I just find that Buddhaghosa’s writings do not support that interpretation. On the other hand, I find it of central importance for a Buddhist philosopher to realize that Buddhaghosa is indeed talking about how things actually are, not merely giving a guide to what one might encounter in meditation practice – and I find plenty in Buddhaghosa’s writings to support the claim that he is doing just that.
A relevant final note to all of this: I am aware that Jay Garfield recently came out with an edited volume on Sellars and Buddhist philosophy. As of the time of my writing this post I have not yet read it, but I am excited to do so. Several articles in the book look directly relevant to everything I’ve said here, and I am confident that my mature position on this topic will be shaped by it. But I thought it would be well worth posting this first because I came to my own Sellarsian understanding of Buddhism entirely without that book or its contributors, and I think it is helpful to show the world what an independently arrived Sellarsian Buddhism might look like – especially if my position then changes as a result of having read it.