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Critical Question for Buddhism

June 12, 2009

I’ve never understood how it is that, as some forms of Buddhism suggest, using language to distinguish between “self” and “other” somehow creates desire or leads to selfishness. As one commenter on a previous post put it:

We desire because we see ourselves as limited, needy, cut off from everything else. We live in a self-other dichotomy, in other words.

I really want to understand this idea, for two reasons: first, I don’t want to misrepresent Buddhism when I teach it, and, second, if there is some substance to the idea I’d love to incorporate it in my own ways of thinking.

But the idea simply doesn’t make sense to me. Here’s two comments about it.

  1. Identifying or labeling something is somehow facilitates desire? How so? That seems like saying that I get hungry because I’ve called something food, which is certainly a non sequitur, right?
  2. The thought that you have a self is supposed to contribute to your selfishness? How so? I’m fairly certain that Mother Theresa, as a devout Catholic, was 100% certain that she had a soul, but that didn’t appear to make her selfish.

Any ideas about how I could make sense of this claim?

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46 Comments leave one →
  1. June 12, 2009 3:36 pm

    “as some forms of Buddhism suggest, using language to distinguish between “self” and “other” somehow creates desire or leads to selfishness.”

    What ‘some forms’ are you talking about here?

    Merely labeling something doesn’t create desire, though labeling through language is a step in separation from the object, in that it is an intellectualization, rather than an experience of the object.

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    June 12, 2009 3:51 pm

    I can’t remember a text that says this off the top of my head, and I’m not in my office so I can’t look up a quote, but I would say that I’ve heard various Mahayana or Zen types of thinkers say things like this. For instance, the Buddhist commenter I quoted specifically said that we have desires BECAUSE we utilize a self-other dichotomy.

    What you’re suggesting—I won’t hold you responsible for unnamed Buddhists—if I understand you right, is two things: that self-other thinking is merely a condition of possibility of desire, but not sufficient in and of itself? In addition, with labeling there is an objectification, rather than a (direct?) experience of an object?

    With respect to the first, I think that we have desire for “things” that we cannot or have not yet named. I had sexual desires before I had any real language to talk about those desires or what it was I was desiring. I think we pretty regularly desire things we cannot explicitly identify. I might want something from my spouse (maybe some sort of implicit recognition or approval or something like that?), which she isn’t giving me, which she doesn’t know I want, in part because I can’t tell her because I don’t even know what it is. So, I’m not convinced that labeling is even a condition of possibility of desire—I think we can have desires WITHOUT ever having labeled the objects of our desires.

    Second, naming or labeling something is often a condition of possibility of experiencing something, rather than that which prevents us from experiencing that something. I can’t experience my “wife” as a “wife” without a series of social conventions that permit certain types of monogamous spousal roles. Without the social convention there would be no “wife.” So the naming of someone as my wife is a condition of possibility of me experiencing her, rather than something that interferes with my experience of her.

    Also, consider something like a proton or a neutron or an electron: naming and theorizing such things is a condition of possibility of experiencing them. You’ll never see or hear an electron.

  3. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    June 12, 2009 4:38 pm

    Hmmm. A possibly related point: what is the difference between an experience I’m not currently having but which is mine, and one that is someone else’s?

    As in – it feels natural and obviously sensible to us that some course of action that will bring us a small short-term benefit (or one that’s bringing us benefits as we speak, but which we think we should stop) but a major long-term cost should be resisted. And resisting it isn’t so much a convention or rule or something remotely outside us, it’s just us trying to avoid being short-sighted. We’re not feeling that cost, but we decide that it’s ‘relevant’.

    What about when we’re considering some course of action that brings me a small benefit but someone else a major cost? Sometimes, it’s true, we still feel that it should be resisted, that it’s important to consider the effect on others.

    But that impulse is generally weaker, and its less reliable. It’s possible for someone to resolve to not care about any effects on anyone else (as far as possible), while still considering themselves ‘rational’ and smart (whereas someone who decided to not bother about long-term costs would be obviously ‘making a mistake’).

    So what’s the difference? Selfhood, surely. The content of ‘self-other dichotomy’ is this distinction between some experience I’m not having which is ‘mine’ and one which isn’t. So it makes sense to see that dichotomy, not so much as a highly cognitive matter of ‘naming’ but more a sort of basic interpretation of the world, as playing a key role in whatever gap there is between how easily and naturally we correct imprudent decisions and how easily and naturally we correct selfish ones.

    This is complicated by the fact that selfhood seems, looked at in this way, to be, well, real. It seems that there really is a difference between my future experiences and other people’s – I will experience them.

    But then, if believe, as many buddhists seem to, that selfhood is an illusion, you’ll think that this apparently basic fact is also an illusion. That is, to make it relevant to selfishness, you have to make it much more challenging.

    To evaluate the plausibility of the no-self claim though, as a final note, it might be useful to replace ‘my own future experiences’ with ‘my own unconscious experiences’. We clearly have some sorts of experience that we are in some sense(s) not aware of having (like when we notice something, then forget about it, then notice it again, but it was there in front of our eyes being processed the whole time). How do they compare to my future, self-conscious experiences, and to the experiences of others? This is an area where I think common-sense gets rather confused so it seems logical for Buddhists to push hardest here.

  4. June 12, 2009 4:48 pm

    You need to sit more and think less.

  5. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    June 12, 2009 4:55 pm

    Alderson, this is an extremely interesting comment, but I can’t tell if you’re pushing me or pushing the Buddhists.

    Here’s what I think I understood: for there to be selfishness there has to be a future “me.”

    But I’m not sure what you’re making of this. I could see it in two different ways:

    1. Against me: thoughts of one’s future self are the condition of possibility of (selfishly) working for one’s own long-term interests.
    2. Against Buddhism: if there’s no self then “self-interested” behavior in support of my future self isn’t really selfish, because that future me is not really me. (since there is no “me”).

  6. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    June 12, 2009 5:05 pm

    dougrogers: I don’t know if you’re talking to me or to Alderson with your “sit more talk less” comment, but here are some thoughts, some of which may not apply to you:

    1. I have difficulty explaining Buddhism to my students, and they ask me questions like this. I think it does a disservice to Buddhism for me to say “I don’t know; I’ve asked those questions myself but I’ve never gotten an answer that makes sense.” Students are left thinking: “what a bunch of nonsense.”

    2. Many Buddhists argue that Buddhism is a philosophy. Claims like “sit more, think less” belie that. (Although that might not bother you …)

  7. June 12, 2009 5:33 pm

    1) Both of you seem to be bound in words and subtle discriminations. I don’t know how many or what of the Tripitaka you’ve read or referenced – or even spoken with a real Buddhist teacher. But you’re clearly trying to explain intellectually what you haven’t experienced. It seems.

    It does no disservice to Buddhism to say “I don’t know.” It shows you understand. It does a disservice to say, “I don’t know”, it seems, to you who feels obliged somehow to know the answers.

    2) No True Scotsman would draw a distinction like that.

  8. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    June 12, 2009 6:19 pm

    dougrogers: I understand your first point (at least I think I do), but not the second. Can you elaborate?

    As concerns the first: I mean no offense, but you do understand why that is hard for me to take seriously, right? As a scholar of religion I’m surrounded on all sides by people who tell me that they’ve had experiences that I can’t understand without having them myself. Why would I credit your claims and not the claims of others—especially when your claims conflict with the claims of others?

  9. June 12, 2009 7:31 pm

    I cannot tutor you in the experience. I suggest that you seek the answer to your question from a real Buddhist teacher.

    Your approach to the whole thing seems intellectual and dialectical. Sitting by oneself, under the guidance of an sound instructor will help you answer the questions.

    I _don’t_ insist that you must experience it to know. You _can_ have the answer given to you. That is what you as a scholar of religion would need. Someone can do that. Someone more familiar with the sutras and reading materials could do that.

    Many people approach Buddhism from a purely intellectual tact. Many approach it as religious magic. Many approach it as a psychology. Many approach it as a philosophy.

    Have you seen the TED video of Jill Bolte Taylor? She had an experience she could not verbalize. You don’t have to have a stroke, shutting down the language facility in your brain to understand her experience, as she recounts it.

    I don’t say you can’t understand my experience without having them yourself. Those who claim such a thing to you are simply inarticulate.

    The essential tool, for me, is sitting. The essential tool for many who approach Buddhism is sitting. It doesn’t have to be – for Jill Bolte Taylor

    You can get an answer that is words and is intellect – that you can pass on to your students – but it won’t be your answer. Unless you sit and think less.

    Then it can be your answer.

    As it stands right now, the first posit in your post is heresay, is unreliable, and is, uhm, somewhat wrong.

  10. June 12, 2009 7:39 pm

    “For instance, the Buddhist commenter I quoted specifically said that we have desires BECAUSE we utilize a self-other dichotomy.”

    I don’t think that directly follows, as “A” follows”B”, but more along the line of “A” indicating that other letters of the alphabet will follow.

    “I think that we have desire for “things” that we cannot or have not yet named.”

    Yep. This shouldn’t pose a problem as it seems a pretty reasonable answer to the question of Naming causing Desire.

    “naming or labeling something is often a condition of possibility of experiencing something, rather than that which prevents us from experiencing that something.”

    Naming doesn’t prevent the experiencing. Naming follows from the experiencing. The thing is not the label.

    Electrons can be measured without seeing or hearing them.

  11. June 12, 2009 7:45 pm

    “To evaluate the plausibility of the no-self claim though, as a final note, it might be useful to replace ‘my own future experiences’ with ‘my own unconscious experiences’.”

    Remember that the Buddhist ‘no-self’ (Emptiness) has a specific meaning, that of Anatta: non-eternal, not soul – no little self, consciousness, or personality homunculus seperate from our experience in the present moment.

  12. June 12, 2009 7:51 pm

    “Here’s what I think I understood: for there to be selfishness there has to be a future “me.”

    Sounds like your ready to take the leap from the flagpole.

    …. if there’s no self then “self-interested” behavior in support of my future self isn’t really selfish, because that future me is not really me. (since there is no “me”).”

    Once again, pursue the understanding of Anatta, non-self, emptiness as Buddha meant it, not as it is misunderstood.

    Yes, abandoning self interest is the part of the Bodhisattva ideal.

  13. June 12, 2009 8:05 pm

    “I’ve asked those questions myself but I’ve never gotten an answer that makes sense.” Students are left thinking: “what a bunch of nonsense.””

    Further to this: Yes they think it’s nonsense, because it is nonsense.

    Language points to the discrimination between self and other. The actual discriminating act occurs before the language labels it.

    ( You can learn this by sitting and not thinking :-) )

    How does this generate Desire? Language doesn’t directly. The act of making “other” can lead there.

    Recognizing thirst doesn’t lead to desire. Thinking that “this is thirst” does.

    Do you feel thirst before you label it “thirst” ?

    To what degree does that ‘sense’ that this is a feeling, that this is a perception (of that feeling), that this is a mental formation of ‘thirst’, that it then becomes the foremost consciousness, and is labelled with a word lead to desire? Where does that happen?

    I would say it happens when we make ‘thirst’ a word.

    Does language lead to desire?

  14. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    June 13, 2009 2:33 am

    “pursue the understanding of Anatta, non-self, emptiness as Buddha meant it, not as it is misunderstood.”
    Why didn’t I think of this before!

    Anyway, Missives, as to your question, in unapologetically philosophical terms, I think I meant it more in your sense 1., not sense 2. – even if without a self, the definition of ‘selfishness’ would probably no longer apply to anything, there’d still be those behaviours we call selfish and they would be a certain type of ‘myopia’, unreasonably fixing on only a limited range of considerations.

    Selfishness might be compared to, I dunno, over-intellectualism, in the sense of neglecting sides of life other than the intellectual for no good reason. And in both cases, an established, socially approved, way of interpreting facts and the world might make that myopia much more common and much harder to recognise – e.g. if you have a word for non-intellectual activities that’s drawn from words for physical excretory functions, so as to entrench a dissmissive view of their functions. The pattern of words wouldn’t create the myopia but it might entrench and reflect it, as certain habits of speech might entrench and reflect a wordlview amenable to selfishness.

  15. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    June 13, 2009 2:35 am

    I should say, I have no idea what relationship this really has to what school of Buddhism, but it’s in the same area.

  16. June 13, 2009 6:17 am

    How you use language conditions how you think and conceptualize, and vice versa. This is not just some loopy Buddhist idea. There is much academic work in the field of cognitive linguistics that shows how language and cognition mutually influence each other.

    However, by fixating on the language issue you are missing the larger point. You write, “Identifying or labeling something is somehow facilitates desire?” It’s not the identifying and labeling that’s the real issue; that’s a side issue. The doctrine of anatta or anatman is central and foundational to Buddhism, and if you don’t have at least a vague idea of what that is, you will misinterpret everything else about Buddhism.

    Very simply, the doctrine of anatta says that there is no permanent, integral “self” within an individual existence. What we think of as “I” is a kind of illusion created by the Five Skandhas, and it is an illusion re-created moment to moment. Your “self” is just a series of thought-moments. That we mistakenly believe the “self” is a permanent, intrinsic entity is the foundational ignorance that gives rise to desire and hate.

    Conversely, you can define enlightenment (bodhi) and wisdom (prajna) as the realization that the self is an illusion.

    You’re teaching Buddhism, and you don’t know this? I’m stunned. You don’t have to believe any of this, of course, but it’s an absolute certainty that you are imparting a lot of misunderstanding in your classes if you don’t have at least a conceptual grasp of anatta and how it relates to the Four Noble Truths.

    Before you teach another class, there’s a little book called “What the Buddha Taught” by a Theravada scholar named Walpola Rahula that’s been in print for a long time and is the best one-volume explanation of basic Buddhist teaching common to most schools, Theravada and Mahayana. I recommend it highly.

  17. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    June 13, 2009 12:30 pm

    Barbara, yes, I know about the doctrine of anatta, and I know about Rahula’s book—I’ve taught it several times before. (Why is it that every devout Buddhist I’ve ever met is condescending?)

    In any case, you say: “That we mistakenly believe the “self” is a permanent, intrinsic entity is the foundational ignorance that gives rise to desire and hate.”

    This is what I’ve been talking about all along! See my post: although I wasn’t using the language of permanence, I was asking about how it is that thinking of ourselves as having a (permanently) separate self from others leads to desire or hate or selfishness or whatever. This is the claim that I am seeking an explanation for. I don’t understand this at all.

    Also, like I said in my post: I’m pretty sure that Mother Theresa thought she had a permanent self, but that didn’t seem to give rise to a lot of destructive desire or hate. So what sense can I make of this claim?

  18. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    June 13, 2009 12:34 pm

    Doug, you seem to be suggesting that there are things and experiences and that we put labels or names on those things after the fact. That’s simply not true in all cases. As I mentioned with the example of my wife: I couldn’t experience her as my wife without a system of naming and social practices that produces stable monogamous relationships. It’s not that she’s my wife and then I slap the label on—having the label is a condition of possibility of her being my wife. This idea is called social constructionism: the language we use to order the world actually CREATES that world (in some cases, not all).

  19. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    June 13, 2009 12:40 pm

    Doug, you said: “Recognizing thirst doesn’t lead to desire. Thinking that “this is thirst” does.”

    This makes no sense to me! A cat doesn’t have the ability to think “this is thirst.” If what you say is true—that there’s no thirst without thinking of thirst—then my cat would never get thirsty. But she does!

  20. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    June 13, 2009 12:52 pm

    Alderson, if I understand you right, you’re saying that thinking of having a long-term, permanent self gives rise to reflections on one’s long-term interests, which you may work to protect. If you didn’t have an understanding of a long-term, permanent self, you could make no such plans.

    There’s a sense to this, but I’m not sure I agree. First, it only accounts for the production of long-term interests—certainly babies, for instance, don’t think of themselves as having permanent selves, but they sure as hell have short-term desires (to eat, to be cuddled, etc.). So what you’re suggesting could possibly account for long-term desires, but not short term ones.

    But I’m not sure it even accounts for long-term desires either. Intellectually speaking, I agree with the doctrine of anatta, with Hume (who said that there doesn’t seem to be a “Self” when he looks for it), with Derrida (who suggests that all identities are constituted interstitially), and others: I don’t have a permanent self.

    However, I do have a relatively stable subjectivity. There’s no unchanging soul inside of me, but I do have subjectivity with relatively continuity over time. I can fully agree that there is no permanent self and still think that I do have some relatively stable subjectivity—and that relatively stable subjectivity is clearly NOT fictional (although the permanent self is).

  21. June 13, 2009 3:25 pm

    “the language we use to order the world actually CREATES that world (in some cases, not all).”

    “you seem to be suggesting that there are things and experiences and that we put labels or names on those things after the fact. That’s simply not true in all cases.”

    You seem to want it both ways.

    Body experiences the world before Mind labels it. Yes it is almost instantaneous, but our mind isn’t encountering the world without body as intermediation. So there are experiences before mind knows them.

    So you do experience the phenomenon ‘wife’ before the mind labelling or recognizing ‘wife’ occurs. It is a stored experience, so in a way is indistinguishable by habit from a fresh experience of ‘wife’.

    “A cat doesn’t have the ability to think “this is thirst.” If what you say is true—that there’s no thirst without thinking of thirst—then my cat would never get thirsty.”

    Absurd. Of course your cat gets thirsty.

    cat-body experiences ‘thirst’… cat-physiology walks to water bowl… cat-mind drinks water from bowl.

    We have to, it seems, define what you mean by desire.

    As to that Mother Teresa thing, thats a pretty big assumption on your part that you know what she is thinking.

    “I’m pretty sure that Mother Theresa thought ”

    Well, perhaps you could define exactly what you’re pretty sure desire means, so we can pretend to talk about the same thing without being told after the fact that you know what we buddhists are talking about, or that we are condescending.

    cat-mind doesn’t choose between the pink bowl and the toilet. Thats Desire.

  22. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    June 13, 2009 4:20 pm

    Doug: About social constructionism and how language creates the objects we experience: I can “experience” my wife’s “body”, in a sense, but I can’t experience her as a “wife” without language and social practices. One cannot be a “king” unless one lives in a society in which kingship is a socially recognized social identity. There are no kings in America today, so I couldn’t experience one. Similarly, I could experience my wife before we got married, but I COULD NOT experience her as a wife until she was identified as such by myself, by her, and by the community in which we live. In these sorts of cases, identification precedes experience.

    About the cat: OF COURSE the cat gets thirsty–but without some sort of language it cannot identify itself as having a permanent self. If your claim is that the (false) identification of a permanent self or the identification “this is thirst” is a condition of possibility of thirst to happen, then the cat couldn’t get thirsty, because the cat doesn’t have language and can’t “identify” anything like this.

    I’m not saying that cats don’t get thirsty, I’m saying that something OTHER THAN the identification of one’s self and the objects of one’s thirst causes thirst. If, as Barbara claimed, the mistaken belief in an atman is the fundamental source of desire then my cat couldn’t have desires, because it can’t have a belief in an atman.

    About Mother Teresa: you’re being difficult here—Jews, Christians, Muslims, and many other religious traditions posit that there is a soul. Do you really believe that no one who has ever believed in a permanent soul has been selfless?

  23. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    June 13, 2009 4:42 pm

    Oh yea, and by “desire” I just mean it in the colloquial sense. I have desires for food, for companionship, sexual desires, I desire to succeed at my job, I desire to be a good musician, I desire not to be too hot or too cold, I desire people to like me, I desire other people’s respect, and so on. Some of these desires are more basic and bodily—the desire for food or sex or the desire to defecate—but most of them are social. In addition, even the ones that are bodily are socialized—I desire certain kinds of food, certain kinds of sex, I only defecate in certain ways, all of which are ordered by the culture, time, and place in which I was born and raised.

  24. June 13, 2009 7:07 pm

    “About social constructionism and how language creates the objects we experience:”

    Does the object exist before we experience it?certainly, the object exists before we name it.

    Does the world go away because we can’t experience it? or name it?

    Language, and a name for a thing, comes loaded with cultural baggage. Is it possible to experience ‘thirst’ without naming it? It exists before we can name it, before it has a name or a cultural or societal context.

    “There are no kings in America today, so I couldn’t experience one.”

    You could go to a country where there’s a king. But you don’t seem open to a change in state.

    “without some sort of language [the cat] cannot identify itself as having a permanent self.”

    Joshu’s Mu.

    “something OTHER THAN the identification of one’s self and the objects of one’s thirst causes thirst.”

    Yes…. as I said; “To what degree does that ‘sense’ that this is a feeling, that this is a perception (of that feeling), that this is a mental formation of ‘thirst’, that it then becomes the foremost consciousness, and is labelled with a word lead to desire? Where does that happen?”

    “something OTHER THAN the identification of one’s self and the objects of one’s thirst causes thirst.”

    I don’t want to be called condescending for pointing out something you might – as a religious scholar and teacher of buddhism – know, but…

    “Buddhists describe the person as composed of five skandhas (”aggregates”):

    1.  The body (rupa), including the sense organs.
    2.  Sensations and feelings (vedana), coming out of contact between sense organs and objects.
    3.  Perceptions and ideas (samjña), especially manifest in our ability to recognize things and ideas.
    4.  Mental acts (samskara), especially will power and attention.
    5.  Basic consciousness (vijñana).
    The last four are called naman, name, meaning the psyche. Namarupa (name-form) is therefore the Buddhist term for the person, mental and physical, which is nevertheless anatman, without soul or essence.
    Buddhism also differentiates among six “fields” (ayatana) for the five skandhas:  sight, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and mind, as well as the objects of these six senses.”

    Desire comes from Form. Thirst comes from Form – the body; Rupa.

    Your inquiry is pointing towards asking and understanding Dependant Origination.

    “I’m fairly certain that Mother Theresa, as a devout Catholic, was 100% certain that she had a soul,”

    About Mother Teresa: It seems a Genetic Fallacy on your part.

    “Do you really believe that no one who has ever believed in a permanent soul has been selfless?”

    Belief or not in a soul has nothing to with the fact that we have a body, a form, Rupa, and that is where the desires arise.

  25. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    June 13, 2009 7:26 pm

    “First, it only accounts for the production of long-term interests—certainly babies, for instance, don’t think of themselves as having permanent selves, but they sure as hell have short-term desires”
    Sure, and just as the baby can’t have any desires beyond its immediate ones (and can’t consciously suppress one desire on behalf of another), it can’t recognise someone else’s desire as such, and so can be neither selfish nor altruistic.

    As you point out, this doesn’t touch the issue of where desire itself comes from; I’m not trying to touch that, just a related possible point. I wish you luck persuading some of these buddhists to address the fuller issue.

  26. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    June 13, 2009 7:36 pm

    “There’s no unchanging soul inside of me, but I do have subjectivity with relatively continuity over time.”
    Well, that poses as many questions as it answers. What we can perhaps say least controversially is:

    1) ‘there is some relationship that can obtain between experiences which we call being continuous with each other’;
    2) ‘an expectation-experience directed on another experience is well-founded if and only if the aforementioned relationship holds between those two experiences’
    3) ‘if the occurrences of this relationship between all experiences were mapped out in a diagram, they would show numerous discrete ‘clusters’ such that within each cluster, each experience is continuous with all and only the other experiences in that cluster’.

    We can then observe sociologically/historically that people often imagine these ‘clusters’ as substances ‘in which’ the experiences are maintained or ‘of which’ they are states. This is referred to be nouns like ‘soul’, ‘mind’, ‘self’, and others, and there’s really no agreed-upon definition of how these terms differ. Some people then try to draw further conclusions from this categorisation of the matter (e.g. about the possibility of disembodied existence).

    Now what you seem to be saying is that you accept claims 1-3 but reject the image or terminology of a substantial self (which is how I understand Hume, though I can’t comment on Derrida). This is anti-self in a weak sense.

    The stronger sense of anti-self (and I won’t try to interpret anatta) would be to challenge point 3. You can’t really challenge point 1, since it’s just about the most basic datum of experience. And point 2 is basically just cashing out an explicit definition for 1 in practical terms.

    But 3 can be challenged, because there’s a gaping hole where any good epistemology of what all those continuity relationships would look like if mapped out. How do we become aware of those relationships? There’s another relationship between experiences, an epistemic one, that we might call self-consciousness, though that term is a bit fuzzy, and we usually rely on self-consciousness to tell us about the extent of the continuity relation.

    But that won’t work as soon as we admit that self-consciousness doesn’t automatically accompany continuity: as soon as we grant any kind of ‘unconscious thoughts’ of whatever sort. I think there’s good reasons for doing that. But once we do that, we have no real epistemology of coninuity.

    So we have nothing better to offer if someone comes along and says ‘the continuity relationship is complete in its extent: all experiences are continuous with all others, though self-knowledge/self-consciousness is very variable and sometimes is so completely absent as to lead some thoughts to judge their own non-continuity with others’.

  27. June 13, 2009 10:26 pm

    Doesn’t the Maha nidana sutra answer this question?

  28. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    June 14, 2009 11:16 am

    Doug, let me set aside the social constructionism issue—I don’t think we can agree on that without me going on at length about it, and I don’t really want to.

    Let me try to start over. You pointed out this belief in a self, desire, ignorance, etc., all arise from dependent origination. Right. I’m with you there. Although I think the 12 step version of paticca samuppada doesn’t make sense—it strikes me as archaic—I fully agree with the anti-essentialist idea contained therein: everything comes from something else.

    However, Barbara said this: “That we mistakenly believe the “self” is a permanent, intrinsic entity is the foundational ignorance that gives rise to desire and hate.”

    Barbara puts the belief in the self as an essential turning point in the rise of desire. Similarly, Mark Siderits, in his commentary on Buddhist thought, suggests that according to the classic Theravada view, “Without belief in a separate self, existential suffering would no longer arise.”

    So, according to both Mark and Barbara, desire (and suffering that results from desire) doesn’t just have dependent origination, but they ADDITIONALLY claim that the belief in a self is a key point in the origin of desire.

    In sum, I COMPLETELY AGREE with you when you say that desire has a dependent origination. What I don’t understand is the claim that belief in a self is fundamental to this.

    I think cats have desires, I have desires, you have desires. I think that these desires have dependent origination—we have to have bodies, brains, thoughts of some sort, etc.

    But it seems to me that there can be desires WITHOUT a belief in a self. I think the cat’s desires (or a baby’s desires) are produced WITHOUT a belief in a self. I don’t think a cat or a baby has the intellectual capacity to have such a belief, yet they still have desires.

    So, we agree that subjects have desires, that those desires are produced through dependent origination, but I’m trying to understand how it is that a belief in a self is a fundamental part of that.

  29. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    June 14, 2009 11:35 am

    Alderson, I had difficulty following your post; perhaps you’re using terminology in a technical way that I’m not familiar with (expectation-experience, for instance)?

    What I do understand seems to suggest this: you’re suggesting that any claim of continuity of subjectivity will result from stringing together self-consciousness of contiguous experiences? Hmm, I’m not sure that I’m thinking of subjectivity this way.

    I’ve not thought this out entirely, but I tend to think of subjectivity as less about self-consciousness (although that’s necessary) and more in terms of something like social psychology: I think what makes a person a subject is being recognized by others in a social matrix.

    I am a subject because I’m identified as (and, coordinately, self-identify as) a son, a husband, an academic, a student, a professor, or whatever. What I’m calling subjectivity is inherently social. Certainly experiences tie into this: I wouldn’t be the subject I am today without having been identified as a “Christian” throughout most of my youth. The experiences that resulted from that identification—and the coordinate participation in a Christian community—shaped me and socialized me in a way that have an inertia beyond my control. As much as I hate homophobia, I have a bit of homophobia socialized into me that I can’t get out (maybe someday I will).

    When I think of continuity of subjectivity through time I’m thinking of something like that inertia. However, some inertia is totally gone: there are some identities and experiences which no longer have any real effect on me. In those cases, I am simply NO LONGER that subject. So while there is continuity, there are also pretty serious breaks.

    When I’m 80 I WILL NOT BE the same subject I was when I was 10, although there may be some slight continuity there: I’ll probably still identify as my father’s son, for instance, although the significance of that will have dramatically altered—the continuity may be extremely minimal.

    The biggest source of the continuity of subjectivity has to be bodily, in my opinion. Even though my body is not the same as it was when I was 10, the US state IDENTIFIES it as being the same body. Note, that sense of continuity of more a product of the recognition or identification of others than it is a “real” continuity.

    This rambling comment doesn’t really directly respond to what you were saying, and it’s probably not entirely coherent. Sorry!

  30. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    June 14, 2009 1:01 pm

    “I tend to think of subjectivity…in terms of something like social psychology: I think what makes a person a subject is being recognized by others in a social matrix.”

    Ohhh….ok total misreading on my part then.

    So I guess the thing is…you say ‘I don’t have a self but I have stable subjectivity’. But you’re presupposing something, which I was calling ‘subjectivity’ or a certain sort of ‘selfhood’. I mean, you say your current identity is part of a stable sequence because of how it relates to your religious upbringing. Now, my upbringing wasn’t religious. If we construct a sequence out of ‘my’ upbringing and ‘your’ current identity, it won’t be stable at all – it will be somewhat chaotic. But why consider that fact less significant than that ‘your’ identity is stable?

    That is, speaking of resemblances between ‘your’ experiences at different times presupposes that its all and only those experiences which we are considering and judging the continuity of, that we have ‘in view’. Why should we look at all and only those experiences? Because they’re ‘your’ experiences. It’s this sort of basic notion that I’m suggesting is rather questionable, and where it’s possible to 1) regard us as deluding ourselves somehow about it, and 2) see this delusion as involved with our selfishness.

  31. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    June 14, 2009 1:04 pm

    Oh, and the talk of ‘expectation-experiences’ was me trying, badly, to express the idea that “it’s appropriate for someone to expect future experiences only if they are yours” (I don’t look forward to other people’s pleasures, though I may be glad for them), but without using the idiom of ‘someone’ and experiences which are ‘theirs’, since that would beg the question.

  32. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    June 14, 2009 2:20 pm

    Alderson: first, what you offered was not a “misreading” so much as a stab at something I hadn’t defined at all, so give yourself more credite.

    Second, re: expectation-experience—that makes sense.

    With respect to the rest: I think we’re getting somewhere! Thanks for sticking with the conversation.

    Let’s take your example: what if we strung together your upbringing and my present set of experiences and identities. First, I think we’d have to say that there is less continuity because my present subjectivity is a product of my primary socialization. However, as I noted before, I HAVE completely broken away from a few elements of my primary socialization, so in that sense stringing together those elements of my previous subjectivity with my current self would be no less broken than stringing together your previous subjectivity and my current subjectivity. So, I quite literally agree that some of “my” former self might as well NOT BE considered “me.” The only continuity with that subjectivity is that “my” body and “his” body have some sort of continuity. As far as I know, “you” and “I” (we’ll have to put all of these in scare quotes now!) don’t share any bodily continuity.

    I wonder how different our positions are, if you agree to this?

    One interesting difference is that you used the word “resemblances.” I wouldn’t necessarily say that “my” current subjectivity resembles the subjectivity that bore my name when “I” was 5 years old, but there is continuity between him and me because his subjectivity informs mine, even if they it doesn’t resemble mine.

    One could take this all the way and try to say that any subjects that share an experience therefore have overlapping subjectivities. I would say yes and no.

    No: the subject that I was at 5 may have shared experiences with my brother, but we experienced them differently because we were in different bodies.

    Yes: I AM my wife, to some extent. There was a point, several years into our marriage, when she was turned down for a job offer, and I did not merely sympathize with her, but I personally felt as if I myself had been turned down for the job. I think there is something literally true about saying that we are in some ways one subject, rather than two.

    So, back to your last point: in what sense are “my” previous subjectivities actually “mine” and not someone else’s? This is a huge issue and you’re right to push me on it!

    1. They’re “mine” in some sense because of the bodily continuity.
    2. They’re literally NOT “mine” in some senses—especially when there is no longer any continuity between him and me.
    3. Sometimes “my” subjectivity is literally also someone else’s—like I said with my wife.

    Hmm. Another ramble. There seem to be many points of agreement. I’m not sure where we disagree at this point.

    In any case, thanks for continuing with the discussion; you’ve really helped me think through more precisely some of these issues.

  33. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    June 14, 2009 2:55 pm

    Hmmm. Part of me wonders if some of your claims are more counter-intuitive and strange than you make out. You’ve basically got two notions in play, bodily continuity and ‘subjective continuity’. So, taking the latter first…

    I mean, suppose you learn somehow that in the future, you will change your identity in a very substantial way, with a major ‘break’, maybe even some amnesia, and perhaps become a sufi barbeque designer. So that future person is ‘him’, not ‘you’.

    Now, it seems like what you’ve said suggests that you shouldn’t ‘anticipate’ designing barbeques, and that you would be wrong to say “in the future I will be a sufi’.

    Perhaps you learn that eventually a barbeque will go wrong and you will be hideously burnt. Then you will find yourself in hospital, with no skin that’s not from a graft. you look like an alien. People stare at you in the street, nobody gets close to you, you become depressed and die of sadness.

    Now, when you, an assistant professor of religious studies, learn this fact about the future, is it appropriate for you to be terrified, to think “Oh no! I will go through terrible pain and die miserable!”? By the sort of analysis you’re offering here, it would seem you shouldn’t – rather, you should simply feel ‘pity’ for that poor sufi. But it seems intuitive to me that you /would/ feel ‘fear’, that you would ‘anticipate’ these events with horror – and most people would say that you are right to, and if you didn’t you would have misunderstood the situation.

    On the other hand, what about the epiphany moment in your future when you cease to be a sceptically-minded professor and become a devout barbeque-designer (with whatever details qualify it as ‘discontinuous’ in the way you’re talking about)? If you’re consistent, then this future guy is not you. Where, then, are you? You’re nowhere – you’ve ceased to exist. So should you regard this moment of radical discontinuous life-change with /mortal terror/? That seems to be the implication of your position.

    Interestingly, I think people often /do/ act like this: they see the loss of their identity (which can happen sometimes from outside themselves, if the family or social milieu that defined them collapses) as the loss of themselves, as death (and often become viciously defensive). But I think there’s a strong tendency also in most people to see this as ‘irrational’, and to think that there’s more wisdom in being willing to accept a change and be confident that ‘you yourself’ will survive.

    So for these sorts of reasons I think your position is either very radical, with some strange consequences, or there’s a lot resting on bodily continuity.

  34. June 14, 2009 6:15 pm

    “So, we agree that subjects have desires, that those desires are produced through dependent origination, but I’m trying to understand how it is that a belief in a self is a fundamental part of that.”

    It’s difficult to parse without knowing from where and why this idea originates. Maybe its a point of view, or a badly translated concept, or something heard in error? I can’t say what the original speaker meant, because the sutra would seem to say otherwise.

    Maybe the word ‘belief’ is the misunderstood part of it.

  35. June 14, 2009 6:55 pm

    “Doug, let me set aside the social constructionism issue”

    This the kind of stuff you mean?

    http://www.mindhacks.com/blog/2009/06/language_as_a_lookin.html

  36. June 14, 2009 7:07 pm

    So that piece points out something interesting in the way that aboriginal tribes describes position and relationship in more absolute (non-personal) terms than in relative (relative) terms.

    Yeah, so it changes the way they perceive the world. But it doesn’t change that we are all standing on the same dirt. The object is there whether we label it or not.

    I think this is the problem with the word ‘belief’ in your proposition. It implies there is something that is doing the believing, a self that ‘believes in self”… Leave it out of the proposition. Does it clear up anything?

  37. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    June 15, 2009 1:01 pm

    Alderson, I think you’ve read me right. Your example of the Sufi bbq’er is right on: if my body gets amnesia and turns out to be that, there won’t be any continuity of subjectivity, in which case it won’t be me any longer. The moment of amnesia would be the moment of my death, so I think I would have existential anxiety about that.

    You push this idea with this statement: “But it seems intuitive to me that you /would/ feel ‘fear’, that you would ‘anticipate’ these events [the bbq’er burning to death] with horror – and most people would say that you are right to, and if you didn’t you would have misunderstood the situation.”

    I suppose my only response to this is that they’ve misunderstood the situation. I don’t think I would personally identify with that amnesiac with my body who burned to death—and I don’t think it really makes sense to.

    However, I DID say that I didn’t believe in a permanent self. Perhaps this is the logical conclusion of such a view?

    You go on to say: “But I think there’s a strong tendency also in most people to see this as ‘irrational’, and to think that there’s more wisdom in being willing to accept a change and be confident that ‘you yourself’ will survive.” Yea, I think THAT’S irrational. There ISN’T a “you yourself” that survives!

    To go back to the starting point: I think that I can hold this view—the view that there isn’t a permanent self, only a relatively continuous one—and still be a selfish bastard. So the way in which some Buddhists link the idea of a permanent self and one’s desires and selfishness seems, to me, to be a mistake—I think these (selfhood vs. desire) are separate and only tangentially related issues.

  38. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    June 15, 2009 1:25 pm

    Hi Doug,

    I completely agree with what that article suggestions, but it is only part of the way to the social constructionist point. Yes, language shapes the way we see the world, but the moon would be there independently of whether we orient ourselves to it through one spatial metaphor or another.

    However, social constructionism goes one step further: while the moon has an existence independently of how we name or view it, human social relations do not have an existence independently of us. Take something as simple as a dollar bill. It’s “worth” is not just there in the thing—it’s worth is the result of long standing social conventions, language, naming, etc. The dollar does not have a “worth” which pre-exists the social convention—the social convention CREATES its worth. So, the dollar bill is totally unlike the moon, which obviously does pre-exist our having named it.

    Social constructionists say that this looping effect between social conventions and naming has a circular relation on human beings—I can’t be an “Assistant Professor” until some community identifies me as such. My body pre-existed my appointment, but I became someone else when I was named as an Assistant Professor. That naming, that appointment, created me as I am today.

    Another example is a knight: one isn’t a knight until one is identified as such by a king or queen. The label is not applied to something that pre-exists the labelling—the thing becomes what it is (a knight) THROUGH the act of naming.

  39. June 15, 2009 4:11 pm

    So, I think of this labeling…. it’s so much a trap into thinking.Mahakasyapa got the flower without it.

  40. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    June 16, 2009 4:07 am

    Hmm, fair enough, it seems an odd view to me but then most views seem odd to someone. On the issue of selfishness, I suppose the suggested link would have to be re-worded (to the point almost of triviality): that to be narrowly concerned with your (self) is only possible if you believe in a (self) – but where (self) is expanded so that in your case, you can be ‘selfish’ in the sense of narrowly concerned only with you, your wife, whoever is sufficiently ‘continuous’ with you, and not others, because that’s what you define as ‘yourself’. (obviously with a qualification about your emotional reactions being in tune with your considered judgements).

    An alternative view, possibly with more connection to Buddhism, might say that the most proper definition of ‘self’ is one that encompasses all sentient life, and so the rational way to be ‘selfish’ would be to care about all sentient life. This would then play out in practice as ‘altruism’ against ‘selflessness’, and that definition of ‘self’ would play out as ‘there is no self’.

    So I guess your view is third-camping the ‘no-self’ view and the common-sense view, with a variant definition of what counts as ‘self’ (in a weak sense, sorry for blurring the words).

  41. haytham permalink
    June 16, 2009 8:25 am

    i’m not sure if this comment answers missive’s main question, but i had something to say about mother theresa.

    the fact that she was a devout catholic implies that she believed in paradise/hell, a system of rewards and punishment. and in that case, it would be hard to tell if the deeds she did were out of “selflessness” or a selfish act that secures her a place in paradise.

  42. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    June 16, 2009 8:53 am

    Alderson: Well, I think I’ve run out of energy; I don’t think I have any more comments left in me. Thanks for sticking with me!

  43. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    June 16, 2009 9:05 am

    Hi haytham; thanks for joining the conversation!

    What you suggest about Mother Theresa is certainly possible. However, I don’t think it is a stretch to suggest that there have been some people throughout the history of humanity who have acted extremely selflessly out of compassion AND who believed in a soul. Even if I’m wrong about Theresa herself—you and others are right to suggest that we can’t pin down her motives—I can’t be wrong about every such example, can I?

  44. June 16, 2009 3:45 pm

    This is what I’ve been talking about all along! See my post: although I wasn’t using the language of permanence, I was asking about how it is that thinking of ourselves as having a (permanently) separate self from others leads to desire or hate or selfishness or whatever. This is the claim that I am seeking an explanation for. I don’t understand this at all.

    Sorry; to me the connection is obvious. But I’ve been practicing a lot of years now.

    Buddhist scriptures written in Pali and Sanskrit distinguish several different kinds of desire and their causes, and unfortunately the English language doesn’t distinguish these different desires, so they all get translated “desire.” A lot gets lost in translation.

    I have a brief article on Buddhist teachings about desire that might be useful.

    http://buddhism.about.com/od/basicbuddhistteachings/a/greed.htm

    See also an article about attachment:

    http://buddhism.about.com/od/basicbuddhistteachings/a/attachment.htm

  45. June 16, 2009 5:22 pm

    Hey , Barbara.. Good stuff :-)

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