I’m very grateful to Bernat Font and Karsten Struhl for their insightful comments on an earlier draft of this article.
Over the last several years, I’ve had discussions with individuals who are otherwise supportive of a secular approach to the dharma but who worry that secular Buddhists seem to have little to say about the concept of not-self (anatta in the Pali language) and the related notion of emptiness. These individuals find secular Buddhism’s focus on the pragmatic and ethical dimensions of the Buddha’s teachings very appealing, and they have little interest in achieving some transcendent state of nirvana in which all suffering is obliterated. Yet, they think that Stephen Batchelor and other secular Buddhists dismiss or don’t adequately recognize the importance of not-self as the basis of a transformative life path.
In Buddhism not-self is one of the three fundamental marks or characteristics of existence, along with suffering (dukkha) and impermanence (anicca). For traditional Buddhists, experiential insight into these three marks is a necessary condition for achieving the ultimate goal of spiritual practice – nirvana, the complete cessation of suffering. For contemporary Buddhists who subscribe to what David McMahan terms Buddhist modernism,[i] nirvana as a transcendent state in which one is completely free of suffering forever may not be accessible. Yet, Buddhist modernists believe that the attempt to move toward a more mindful and compassionate mode of being in this life crucially depends on shifting from our default, delusory sense of self to understanding and experiencing ourselves as not-self to the extent that we can.
For traditional and modernistic Buddhists, this delusory sense of a self is the root cause of craving and thus of suffering in all its many dimensions. And it is a universal problem insofar as all human beings are understood to have a natural tendency to fall into this cognitive illusion and have a false view of the self. To end, or at least reduce, suffering we must then confront this harmful cognitive illusion. We need to recognize that the self does not exist as we think it does, that this notion of the self represents a fundamental misunderstanding of who we really are.
As part of a critical review of Jay Garfield’s 2022 book, Losing Ourselves: Learning to Live Without a Self,[ii] I offer a different perspective on not-self, one that shifts the discussion from an epistemological and ontological analysis to an ethically-informed exploration of the existential, psychological, and social causes of various forms of ‘selfing’.
My bottom line: Loosening the grip of the egoic self is vital both for individual transformation and as part of the creation of a society which facilitates the flourishing of all people. However, we need an approach which eschews epistemological and ontological dualisms, whether in Garfield’s naturalistic analysis of the issue or in terms of traditional Buddhist concepts. Instead, we should explore the specific causes and conditions which facilitate the worst forms of selfing and those which support a shift toward a less reactive, open, and compassionate way of being in the world.
Jay Garfield’s critique of the notion of the self in ‘Losing Ourselves’
Jay Garfield, an American philosopher who specializes in Buddhist studies, with a particular focus on Indian Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan Buddhism, subscribes to the view that the self, as commonly understood, is a false concept; it is, in fact, a fundamental cognitive illusion. In Losing Ourselves, he draws on both Western and Buddhist philosophers to support this position. While his arguments are based in large part on the writings of Mahayana Buddhists such as Candrakirti and Santideva, as well as the Tibetan Buddhist Tsongkhapa, he puts aside traditional notions like rebirth, karma and nirvana. Rather, he argues that Buddhist philosophical perspectives on the self, as well as Western philosophers like Hume and Heidegger, provide us with a true or correct understanding of ourselves and the world. He is thus offering a naturalistic or even secularized version of the traditional Buddhist critique of the notion of the self.
What does Garfield mean by the ‘self’? His reference points are the ancient Indian concept of atman, which the Buddha and his followers critiqued, as well as the notion of the soul in Christian theology. Both the Vedic atman and the Christian soul are, in his view, deeply problematic. While they differ in some respects, they share four conceptual ingredients:
- The self is conceived as existing prior to and independent of the world that we experience.
- We assume that the self constitutes a unity which is the basis for the unity of experience.
- This notion of the self presupposes a duality between a subject (i.e., the self) and the objects of our experience. In this subject-object duality we experience ourselves as subjects and everything else as objects.
- An essential element of the notion of self is that we have free will or agency, that we can act without being constrained by causes.[iii]
Taken together, these conceptual ingredients constitute ‘….the illusion that we stand outside of and against the world. We take ourselves pre-reflectively to be singularities: not participants in the world, but spectators of the world, and agents of actions directed on that world.’ (p.34)
In Losing Ourselves Garfield carefully and lucidly explores the reasons why this notion of the self is deeply problematic. I won’t rehearse his arguments here, but in terms of his particular definition of the self, he does an excellent job of showing how that notion does not adequately represent who we are as human beings and that it has harmful ethical consequences. For, in his view, this notion of the self presupposes a self-interested egoism. To the extent that the moral point of view requires us to have a disinterested perspective, this notion of the self thus points in the opposite direction; it leads us ‘to prefer our own interests to others, the interests of our family over those of our colleagues, theirs over other co-citizens, and so forth, and to prefer one hemisphere of associates to the other.’ (p. 119)
Persons, not selves
Garfield doesn’t critique the notion of the self to put forward the nihilistic claim that we don’t exist. Rather, he argues that the best way to understand who we are as living beings is to see ourselves as ‘persons’, as organisms who are embedded and embodied in the world, the product of the web of causes and conditions (which includes our own actions). While ‘the self is taken to be preexistent, primordial, unitary, and transcendent of the world of objects….the person is constructed; the person is dependent on the psychophysical and social network in which it is realized….’ (p. 42)
Garfield makes a persuasive case that our very sense of ourselves as distinct individuals develops in a social context – initially, in the relationship between the infant and their primary caretakers. That is, we come to see ourselves as separate beings only in and through our awareness of and our recognition by ‘second persons’. There is no primordial ‘I’ that exists prior to or as a foundation of this social interaction. In fact, according to Garfield, ‘the first person and the second person are co-emergent. We cannot understand our own self-consciousness without understanding its emergence through our consciousness of others.’ (p. 142)
Garfield also usefully points out that how we develop is a complex product of our biologically evolved structure and capacities, the psychological context, and social and cultural norms. These dimensions of our existence mutually interact with each other. Our psychological characteristics and social structures are bounded by our biological structures and capacities, yet the psychological and social dimensions constrain and affect our biological development. He thus rejects a reductionistic perspective which explains who we are as human beings as ultimately the product of physical and biological forces.
Is the notion of the self ‘hardwired’, a universal tendency?
Garfield offers a valid critique of a particular notion of the self, one in which we are seen as isolated, separate beings, and correctly emphasizes the ways in which human beings are essentially social beings.
However, there is a fundamental problem with his approach. Garfield states that human beings are naturally inclined to adopt the cognitive illusion of an isolated self and all that entails. In this respect, while his argument doesn’t depend on Buddhist soteriology or arguments for nirvana as an unconditioned release from suffering, he closely follows the traditional Buddhist view that the notion of the self is, like the tendency to crave, a universal characteristic of human beings. There is suffering because, as human beings, we naturally crave and have a false sense of the self.
But are we, in fact, ‘hardwired’ to have a false sense of the self? Garfield doesn’t provide a detailed argument for this position, as he does with his closely-argued critique of the notion of the self. He simply says that he suspects the cognitive illusion of the self ‘…is not cognitive, but is instead emotional, or even simply biological….that the universal or near universal drive to posit a self is instinctive, built into our nature as human beings.’ (p. 11) In short, he simply assumes that we naturally have this cognitive illusion.
Rather than being an essential characteristic of human beings, the notion of self which Garfield critiques is a contingent product of the complex interaction of biological, psychological, and social factors. As we develop into persons through infancy and beyond, we of course develop certain ways of experiencing and understanding ourselves; that is a universal process. But to the extent that there are universal features of our sense of selfhood, rooted in our biological structure, capacities, and tendencies, these components are more basic and less refined than the conceptual ingredients which Garfield identifies as composing the false view of the self. We might characterize these components as ‘primitive’ or ‘proto-self’ notions. Among the most important are the sense of being a distinct existent, of having an individuality; the sense of being the locus of experience both in the moment and throughout our lives; and the sense of acting on and impacting others and the world.
To the extent that our biology and the imperative of survival predisposes us to ‘selfing’ in this generic sense, the Buddhist view that suffering results from craving (for secular Buddhists, reactivity) remains a valid insight. As biological organisms, we do tend to identify most strongly with our own experiences, to ‘prefer’ our own perspective, and to be most concerned with our own situation. Given the ubiquity of change and our relative lack of control over the events in our life, this results in our experiencing suffering above and beyond the direct physical and emotional pains that occur as an inevitable part of life.
Yet, and this is the key point, we need to see selfing not as a dichotomous phenomenon (exists or doesn’t exist) but as a continuum of various forms of selfing based on the mutual interaction of biological, psychological, and social factors. This continuum ranges from forms of selfing in which we see ourselves as absolutely separate and independent ‘subjects’, as in notions of the soul or atman, to ‘looser,’ more flexible forms of selfing.
The proto-self notions thus do not inevitably entail an atman or soul, the particular notion of the self which Garfield analyzes. As noted, one of the four conceptual ingredients of the atman/soul/self is that we have free will or agency. Now, it’s true that as we develop into persons we experience and recognize ourselves as beings that can act on and impact the world (picture the baby in her highchair enjoying throwing food on the ground to the dismay/delight of her parents). But this sense of being able to effectuate change in the world does not entail or directly translate into the self-conception that one possesses free will, that one can act as a ‘subject’ unconstrained by any causes and conditions.
In fact, our sense of having an impact through our own actions varies quite considerably, depending on the complex constellation of biological, psychological and social factors which shape us. And we often find ourselves having different experiences and self-understandings of this dimension even in the course of a day. I may, at times, have the self-conception of myself as acting unconstrained by causes and conditions. However, I sometimes have quite the opposite self-conception. I feel myself then as a victim or prisoner of forces over which I have little or no control. When I suffer in this context, it is because I feel that I lack any capacity to change my situation.
Thus, rather than a universal characteristic of human beings, the notion of an atman/soul/ self is a philosophical or theological elaboration of a particular way in which proto-self notions are shaped by biological, psychological, and social factors. The key question is why and how this transmutation occurs. Why is it that many of us come to see ourselves as, among other things, isolated beings, as subjects who are separate from and opposed to objects in the world?
Society and notions of the self
Garfield’s own analysis of the development of persons actually provides us with a way of addressing these questions. For, as he points out, we become persons in a complex process in which biological structures and tendencies, psychological processes, and social forces mutually interact. It follows that particular combinations of these factors will shape our conceptions of how we see ourselves, of how we experience ourselves as human beings. This means that instead of just one, false notion of the self that is based on a cognitive illusion, there are a range of views of the self. There is a voluminous literature on precisely this topic, primarily located in the field of cultural psychology. One key theme is the contrast between cultures which have an individualistic notion of the self and those that foster a more collective orientation.
While the notion of a separate, isolated self emerged in ancient cultures, including in the ideas of atman and a soul, radical theorists have emphasized for quite some time that a particular version of this notion became more widespread with the emergence of capitalism. The reification of a person into a separate self, which Garfield sees as the product of a universal cognitive illusion, instead reflects, in the modern era, the development of a society and economy in which human beings are themselves reified; in a capitalist society, the social connections between human beings are obscured and we come to see ourselves as isolated beings competing for resources and power in the market. The social structures and processes which produce this conception are then given a philosophical elaboration in the form of theories of individualism which are consistent with and justify that same system.
This philosophical elaboration occurred very early on in the development of capitalism. C.B. Macpherson, the Canadian political philosopher and socialist, analyzed how a theory of ‘possessive individualism’ underlay the writings of Hobbes, Locke, and other 17th century philosophers. One of the key assumptions of this perspective is that ‘the individual is essentially the proprietor of his own person and capacities,’[iv] which is quite similar to the view of the self as a separate, isolated being which Garfield critiques.
The point here is that there are a range of notions of the self, based on different configurations of biological, psychological, and social factors. Garfield is thus mistaken in positing only two dichotomous alternatives in his book: the false notion of the self, based on a cognitive illusion, and the correct or true notion of human beings as persons.
The false dualism of self and not-self
Garfield is not concerned in Losing Ourselves with validating the traditional Buddhist notion that an understanding of not-self (in his terms, recognizing that we are ‘persons’) is a crucial component of full awakening and the attainment of nirvana, understood as the complete and permanent cessation of suffering. For traditional Buddhists, when we achieve experiential and conceptual insight of not-self, we gain access to the absolute truth and ‘ultimate’ reality. We also understand that, while the self is real or existent, it is a conventional or conceptual fabrication which is part of our ‘relative’ existence. Garfield does not engage in this debate; rather, he asserts that the notion of persons is both true – a correct representation of reality – and is essential for living ethically.
Yet, the dualism which Garfield posits between self and person is similar in form to the self and not-self dichotomy in traditional Buddhism; and shares the same basic problem. By positing a dichotomy between a false notion of the self and a true notion of a person (not-self), Garfield transforms the Buddha’s pragmatic and ethical insights about how a certain notion of the self leads to suffering to an epistemological and ontological issue, just as traditional Buddhists have done with the self and not-self dichotomy.
Stephen Batchelor rejects the dualistic approach to self and not-self because ‘ontologizing’ these notions obscures Gotama’s (the historical Buddha’s) primary purpose:
Gotama is interested in what people can do, not with what they are. The task he proposes entails distinguishing between what is to be accepted as the natural condition of life itself (the unfolding of experience) and what is to be let go of (reactivity)….The liberating insight he proposes is not the realization that there is no self but the realization that I am not the same as or reducible to any or all of the five bundles that constitute me…[v]
And as Thanissaro Bhikkhu has emphasized, the purpose of the Buddha’s teachings on anatta was to offer us a strategy for how to move away from a view of self that causes suffering. The Buddha was trying to show us how ‘to use perceptions of self and not-self as strategies leading to a happiness that’s reliable and true. In teaching not-self, he’s not trying to deprive us of our strategies for happiness; he’s actually trying to show us how to expand and refine them so that we can find a happiness better than any happiness we’ve ever known.’[vi] According to Thanissaro Bhikkhu, what the Buddha was not offering was a particular doctrine of what the self is or isn’t.
As a Theravāda Buddhist, Thanissaro Bhikkhu sees the Buddha’s pedagogical strategies as providing us the resources to let go of our attachments, clinging, and delusions to achieve a complete liberation from suffering. For him, the ultimate goal of not-self is thus nirvana. Secular Buddhists would instead see these strategies as enabling us to shift to a more flourishing life in this world.
If, as I have argued, we should view the issue of not-self from this pragmatic and ethical perspective, then our focus should be twofold: first, to understand how the mutual interaction of biological, psychological, and social factors leads to a variety of ways of how we see who we are, including as separate, self-interested beings; and second, to identify the skills and virtues needed to move us away from the egoic self toward a more open, compassionate, and relational mode of being. Loosening the grip of the egoic self is vital for both individual and social transformation, but we need an approach which eschews dualisms and instead explores the specific causes and conditions which impact how we view and relate to ourselves, others, and the world.
[i] David McMahan, The Making of Buddhist Modernism, 2008, Oxford University Press.
[ii] Jay Garfield, Losing Ourselves: Learning to Live Without a Self, 2022, Princeton University Press.
[iii] Karsten Struhl provides an even more detailed account and listing of the elements of this notion in his article ‘What Kind of Illusion is the Illusion of the Self,’ Comparative Philosophy, 11 (2), 2020, pp. 114-115.
[iv] C.B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, 1962, p. 263, Oxford University Press.
[v] Stephen Batchelor, After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age, 2015, pp. 200-201. Yale University Press.
[vi] Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Selves & Not-self: The Buddhist Teaching on Anatta, 2011, https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/selvesnotself.html