how to think about the self (Buddhist and Kantian perspectives)

I. Buddhist arguments

A Buddhist argument for “no self” goes like this: Look inward–as hard as you want–for some unchanging “I” or “self.” You cannot find it. All you’ll find are physical sensations, feelings, perceptions, volitions, and consciousness, coming one after another, free from your control, and constantly changing. The Buddha himself says, “mind, intellect, consciousness, keeps up an incessant round by day and by night of perishing as one thing and springing up as another” (quoted in Mark Siderits, Buddhism as Philosophy, p. 41). This stream cannot be you if “you” means some durable, controlling thing. But since that is all that you can find within, there is no you.

The idea of a durable, independent, yet fragile self is evidently not “Western” or “modern,” because Buddhists have been working assiduously against it for more than two millennia. It seems to have been endemic in their various cultural contexts. Buddhagosa (a 5th-century thinker) implies that the sense of self arises automatically from having sensations.

When there is rupa [physical sensation], O monks, then through attachment to rupa, through engrossment in rupa, the persuasion arises, ‘This is mine; this am I; this is my self.’

When there is feeling … when there is perception … when there are volitions … when there is consciousness, O monks, then through attachment to consciousness, through engrossment in consciousness, the persuasion arises, ‘This is mine; this am I; this is my self.’

Buddhagosa, in Siderits, p. 37.

Even if this is a universal human phenomenon, it is still bad and worth trying to combat, according to Buddhists. We should not think, “This is mine; this am I; this is my self.’” That thought has two ethical drawbacks (where “ethical” is defined very broadly, to mean anything concerned with thinking and acting well and living a good life).

First, a theory of the self as real but fragile encourages selfishness and love or regard of self at the expense of compassion and altruism.

Second, this theory causes avoidable discomfort or even suffering. For me, a common example is nostalgia. I remember an earlier stage of life–say, being a young parent with a toddler in my arms. I experience a desire to be that person again, or to have that experience directly instead of as a memory. As a result, my memory is infused with loss. But this is a mistake. The memory is an experience, just like any other impression. I can have the memory now, which is a blessing. There is no “I” that could possibly possess the object of the experience more directly, transcending time. The past doesn’t exist; all experience is current. Recognizing that truth spares me loss.

The same is true of fears of death or great old-age. I can imagine those states, but there is no reason to tie them to my present state. I am not old or dying. The idea that those states attach to me is based on a false sense of the self.

A third example is a kind of envy. I see a person who is a young parent now, with a child in arms. I want to have that experience instead of just observing it. Envy is not very virtuous in any circumstance. In this case, it also reflects a metaphysical error. The young parent’s experience is real, and I can see it. But, as a logical matter, it cannot attach to me. I should be glad for the existence of the experience and drop the nonsensical idea that the experience should (or could) somehow be mine. The root of that mistake is a false view of self.

The crucial point is that a spiritual or ethical failing derives from a metaphysical error. Truly believing the metaphysical truth of no-self would prevent or cure the spiritual and ethical fault.

II. Kant’s defense of the self

Kant was aware of the argument that the self is not real, because we cannot find it when we introspect. All we find is a set of specific experiences. He got this from David Hume.

But Kant argued that experiences are logically structured. Consciousness is not like a big screen with lots of disconnected pixels that change color randomly. I perceive three-dimensional objects moving through space, interacting with each other, and having sounds, weight, and smell as well as shape. The fact that I perceive such things implies that I (= my self) must have categories like space, time, and causality. These categories are built into what Kant calls “reason,” which we might more comfortably call human cognition.

Kant calls his conclusion the “transcendental unity of apperception.” That phrase is certainly a mouthful, but we can break it down. “Apperception” means perception with an element of understanding and self-awareness. You apperceive something as a 3-D object moving toward you. That can be a true belief about the world. “Unity” refers to the fact that our apperceptions are coherent across time and space. And “transcendental,” in Kant’s specialized vocabulary, refers to something that is a necessary explanation of something that we know from direct experience.

Could a creature inhabit our universe and have different categories from ours? God might, or Michael on “The Good Place.” But to say that such a creature has different categories is basically empty, because we have no inkling of what that is like. For us, our categories are logical necessities. The best way to think about metaphysics is to begin by understanding what we must believe, and then believe that. We must believe in space, time, and the self, which is tantamount to saying that these things are real. That is a transcendental argument.

III. Should we try to shake the idea of the self?

One aspect of the question is empirical/psychological. Is it possible–by means of concerted introspection, philosophical argument, sudden enlightenment, practice, or some other means–to rid ourselves of the idea of the self as a durable, independent agent? I am not sure, but I am open to the possibility that this happens.

A different aspect of the question is metaphysical. By ridding ourselves of the idea of the self, are we coming closer to the truth? That is a central point of disagreement between some Buddhist thinkers and Kant. But maybe it’s not a gap between the Buddha and Kant, since it’s possible that the Buddha is only interested in the good life. (“Buddhism in both its classical and contemporary forms is first and foremost a theory of personal flourishing.” – Owen Flanagan, The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized, p. 122. MIT Press.)

That brings us to the third aspect of the question: Is it virtuous or ethical or otherwise a good idea to strive to rid ourselves of the idea of the self? Here I am inclined to a Middle Way.

On the one hand, Kant is right that the concept of the self is logically prior to many ordinary thoughts. At a minimum, it would be an arduous task to escape from this concept. That would take a lot of time and effort and probably involve a lot of wavering and backsliding. I am not convinced that it’s likely to accomplish the ethical goals of reducing selfishness and improving equanimity. There is a risk that it might promote narcissism (excessive interest in moulding one’s own cognition) or even avoidance of ethical responsibility. It is an empirical question how trying to attain non-self affects the character. Even if its net impact is positive, maybe there are better paths to virtue.

However, we should try to shake certain theories of the self that are not only false but also ethically problematic. It is wrong (both logically and ethically) to feel nostalgia, existential dread, or envy. These feelings are not only harmful but also reflect a mistaken theory of the self.

The mistake is not to believe in anything called a self. The mistake is to imagine that the self could time-travel or jump from one body to another. Reminding oneself of these mistakes might help to prevent or address certain spiritual ailments.

Kant tells us that time is a necessary aspect or component of cognition. But we don’t jump from an awareness of time to a possessive attitude toward time. We don’t think, “Time is mine; I want to hold it forever.” We do make that jump in the case of the self, and that’s our mistake. We move from relying on the concept of a self to loving the self possessively. This is something we could teach ourselves not to do.

IV. The relationship between ethics and metaphysics

An underlying issue here is how metaphysics should connect to ethics. Owen Flanagan writes (p. 116), “Buddhists claim a connection between understanding one’s own self, paradoxically as anatman—as no-self—and an ethic of compassion and lovingkindness. …. Diminishing the grip of the illusion of metaphysical egoism is causally connected to being good. What sort of connection is there—might there be?”

One answer is that we are obliged to believe whatever happens to be true. The truth is independent of our good,; and perhaps it is a virtue to recognize the truth whatever it may be.

Kant begins the section on the Transcendental Deduction with a legal analogy. He says that law professors distinguish “the question of right (quid juris) from the question of fact (quid facti).” They call a demonstration of right a “deduction.” In a similar way, we go around making lots of “empirical conceptions” without checking whether we have a right to them. Some of these are fine, but some are “usurped conceptions, such as fortune, fate.” Although these words are used by almost everyone, they “are occasionally challenged by the question, ‘quid juris?’” Kant wants to ask whether the concepts of space, time, causality, and self are used by right or are more like “fortune” and “fate”–unjustified ideas. (Critique of Pure Reason, trans J. M. D. Meiklejohn, A84=B116.) He concludes that they are in fact obligatory.

A Buddhist might respond that it’s actually a choice whether to remain wedded to standard conceptions of time and the self, or else to devote energy to trying to shake these conceptions. Kant says we “must” use these categories, and that is the basis for his claim that they are true or right. A Buddhist might challenge the ethical sense of that “must.” If it is possible–through concerted effort–not to think with the category of self, then Kant’s argument fails. It is then not necessary to use this category; and if it’s not necessary, it doesn’t have a transcendental basis for being true.

In the following passage, the Buddha moves from making a metaphysical claim (there is no self), to offering an existence-proof (a person can avoid believing in the self), to actually liberating his followers (they lose faith in the self and become free):

“the correct view in the light of the highest knowledge is as follows: “This is not mine; this am I not; this is not my self.”

“Perceiving this, O monks, the learned and noble disciple conceives an aversion for rupa, conceives an aversion for feeling, conceives an aversion for perception, conceives an aversion for volitions, conceives an aversion for consciousness.

“And in conceiving this aversion he becomes divested of passion, and by the absence of passion he becomes free, and when he is free he becomes aware that he is free; and he knows that rebirth is exhausted, that he has lived the holy life, that he has done what it behooved him to do, and that he is no more for this world.’”

Thus spoke The Blessed One, and the delighted band of five sramanas applauded the speech of The Blessed One. Now while this exposition was being delivered, the minds of the five sramanas became free from attachment and delivered from the depravities.

[Samyutta Nikaya III.66–68], in Siderits, pp. 38-9

This is a different way from Kant’s to put metaphysics together with ethics. But it depends on an existence-proof: actual examples of people who have become “free from attachment and delivered from the depravities.” The question is whether that happens.

See also: nostalgia for now; the grammar of the four Noble Truths; you have a right and a responsibility to attend to your own happiness; on philosophy as a way of life

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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