Initial thoughts on the debate on ātman: self and person
The key point to consider is that in the time of the interaction between the ideas found in the Upaniṣads and those articulated by the Buddha (and Mahāvīra) in their challenge to the brahmanical worldview of their time, a two-fold development in the understanding of ātman occurred. First, a strictly abstract and conceptually narrow understanding of it became widely accepted. Second, this understanding became the focus of a critical metaphysical disagreement between those whose gnoseology requires rejection of it and those for whom it is central.
The conception of the ātman that eventually comes to dominate combines two ideas: there is a principle of being which subsists in and somehow provides the condition for the embodied life of an individual (human or other); it is conscious, with an idiosyncratic, subjective access to the fact of its own existence. Together, this implies a persistent subject of undergoing (anubhava, loosely translated as ‘experience’). In many ways, the ātman concept resembles that of the psyche and the soul in older Western thought, by referring very generally to the essence of a human being (at the very least). But it is important to see what the ātman does not encompass – the reason why it is a very abstract and narrow concept. The ātman is not that by which the individual being is distinguished from another through some complex combination of qualities that allows each of them a distinct(ive), potentially nameable, narrative identity; in short, the ātman does not pertain to personhood. The eager seekers of the Upaniṣads who pester the sages about what and how they should know of ātman are not asking about precisely what it is that makes them Uṣata, Indra, Janaka or Gārgī respectively. And the elliptical answer that they receive, which formally identifies their ātman (whether it be one or many amongst them) with brahman, makes it clear that whatever the principle that identifies the essence of their being, it is not something which adverts to their substantive individuality as those particular human (or divine) beings. Instead, that essence is a principle of existence which renders possible the conditions of individually different beings, but is not itself individuated by psychological and somatic features. Presumably, this detaching of essence from personhood went hand in hand with the presupposition of a cycle of lives and rebirths: a distance was created between the person inquiring into reality and the existence they might have in other lives, as other persons. (see endnote i)
The Advaitins will later interpret the Upaniṣads to mean that one principle – of consciousness – is the essence of all individuated beings, meaning that ultimately, the question of a plurality of metaphysical selves is rendered moot. When, also much later, the Mīmāṃsakas, Naiyāyikas and Madhvas take there to be a plurality of ātmans, the separateness of these selves is not based on individually variable personal characteristics, but on the purely formal fact of their being infinitely many entities with the common feature of possessing the quality of consciousness. In short, the individuality of their ātman is a purely formal matter: there exist a plurality of selves and that fact alone points to their individual existence. But there is no descriptive individuality involved, such that each ātman has its own individuatable identity. This formal identity is only such as to allow for the specificity of each ātman by virtue of the matter of fact that it has separate existence and thus a seperate consciousness limited to itself; but there is no content to that distinction such that each ātman as such can be distinguished from another. All distinction, even in the yogic or suprasensory perception that some seers are supposed to have, across the lives of any one being, can only point to the karmic residue that determines the next birth – but that pertains to the individuatable actions of that ātman in a particular life, as either a person or another creature, and does not provide identity to the ātman as such. Once one looks at the content of each consciousness, then one is already talking about the particular individual (person or creature) that is the embodied ātman in that particular life.
Equally, when the Buddha carefully re-crafts questions put to him about life and its ends, so that his answers, whatever they say about transformation, are no longer about ātman, he is rejecting the centrality of a very specific yet highly abstract sense of self – a continuous, conscious and unique presence which provides the ground for all other aspects of life. He is concerned only to take particular persons – i.e., individuals with their own separate psychological and bodily features, with their own specific origins and social relationships – to a state of freedom from suffering. In the subsequent debates between the the brahmanical and Buddhist schools, there is no controversy about personhood; all agree that it is a narrative construction out of many features, from psychological states to social relationships, in which there is an identification of those many features as qualifying one individual. On all sides, it is agreed that each person is real in so far as s/he goes conventionally. (see endnote ii) The debate is over whether such an individual requires the occurrence of a unified, continuous conscious being (the ātman) or whether a series of states of consciousness bearing those features will suffice. So perhaps it is misleading, based on an anxiety over engaging with Western debates on personhood, to think that personhood is at issue in the Indian debates; it is all about whether an ātman is accepted or rejected.
The striking exception to this general Western view of the issue is in phenomenology, although this way of reading the material in Husserl and Heidegger, as involving a distinction between (i) a self which is not a person as such and (ii) the personal self, is not very common. Indeed, I am not aware of anyone else other than Dan Zahavi who has interpreted them this way, and to whose interpretation I am indebted. Husserl says that the phenomenology of every possible subject of experience has only a peculiar mineness (Meinheit), different from the proper individuality of the person whose origin is in social life. (see endnote ix) Again, although this is a notoriously difficult topic, there are elements in Heidegger’s concept of selfhood (Dasein) that appear to be getting at a core conception of the self in the phenomenological mineness of consciousness, when he distinguishes this from the everyday Dasien, which is an objectual form. For him, selfhood has these different modes, the first addressed by the question of ‘who’, which speaks of existence itself, and the other by ‘what’, which is that person who is present, or to hand, as the object of any investigation. (see endnote x) It would seem here that in both cases, the phenomenological core of being is a self that does not contain the constitutents of personal identity, the first-personal nature of awareness being the minimal structure of phenomenal consciousness. In this all the brahmanical systems barring Advaita, have a somewhat similar attitude to the ātman, which is signified by the ‘I’ (ahaṃ). Advaita’s treatment of the egological aspect of consciousness requires separate treatment. (see endnote xi)
At the same time, it must be emphasised that the Indians by no means lack richer and more extended conceptions of selfhood. For one thing, the range of discussions on dharma are concerned precisely with the psychological and social constraints and demands on ethical action. This pertains to the actual person (puṃsa) or embodied being (pudgala), the hu/man (puruṣa; manuṣya): the myriad beings of the Jātakas, or in the Sanskrit compositions, an Arjuna, Ekalavya, Karṇa or Draupadī, even a Rāma or Sītā, or Vālin and Sugrīva, who are confronted with the demands, possibilities and restrictions, the freedoms and constraints, of their dharmic context of birth, status, actions and desires. Intriguingly for comparativist purposes, these kinds of issues are articulated through narrative rather than analysis, in various literary genres, and thereby provide exemplification of recent Western arguments that selfhood, with its ethical and aesthetic concerns, is to be viewed primarily as and through narrative devices. (see endnote xii) Furthermore, even the gnoseological framework, which considers matters of conduct and ethics as penultimate in one way or another, nevertheless requires a thorough analysis of the layers of identity that we possess. Concrete issues, whether of reasoning, posession of knowledge, or activity turn to the ubiqituous Devadatta or the peculiarly twinned Maitra and Caitra – indicating a fundamental difference in order of analysis between the ātman and the particular person with whom we in fact engage. But we must always remember that the philosophers (in the narrow sense of those concerned to deploy the analysis of the pramāṇas – the epistemological instruments and their functions – for the defence of a particular conception of ultimate liberation (mokṣa/nirvāṇa))) problematize this extended sense of self, which is built out of a range of psychological, ethical, and sociological narratives – and which contains the materials of personhood; for the end that they all seek is some state in which this extended sense of self is understood as not the ultimate order of being.
I suggest that one direction in which the reading of the classical Indian material in contemporary context can go is to bring together the dharma literature in its various genres with the material normally thought of as ‘Indian philosophy’, which is essentially the pramāṇa-sāśtras, the texts that (howsoever formally and notionally) approach gnoseological questions about the highest good through an exploration of issues in language, reasoning, knowledge, consciousness, the structures of reality and so on. Only indirectly do we find in these latter materials (and perhaps more in the explicitly theological systems from the 10th c onwards) ideas about the relationship between the austere and more extended conceptions of self. The dharma materials, on the other hand, seldom engage with metaphysical questions. But it may be the task of the 21st c philosopher of the Indian materials to ask how accounts of selfhood can integrate these different basic approaches, and do so with profit in relation to contemporary discussions which themselves are only now finding new ways of looking back at Western cultural resources.
(i) The contrast is clear in Greek thought, where the possibility of rebirths is entertained only rarely. Having committed himself to it, Plotinus has to consider the unintelligible possibility that Socrates might be the reincarnation of Pythogoras, if he also accepts the general Greek idea (presupposed in modern Western philosophy) that the soul of Socrates is also the person of Socrates. But Plotinus, almost alone in his tradition, approaches the notion of an ātman, saying that each soul contains the principles of all the individuals as which it will incarnate; Sorabji, Richard. Self. Ancient and Modern Insights about Individuality, Life and Death. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006; p 122-3. Sorabji recognises that the Indian systems might handle this problem more efficiently. But I must add that the price that has to be paid is to de-link personal individuality from the soul – which is normal in India and baffling to the West.
(ii) I therefore agree with Duerlinger that the Buddhist Yogācārin Vasubandhu accepted the conventional reality of persons (for, after all, who disagreed with him?); but sought to explain such personhood through a collection of fundamental aggregates; Duerlinger, James. Indian Buddhist Theories of Persons: Vasubandhu’s ‘Refutation of the Theory of a Self’. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003; e.g., p 21. It is with this explanation for how persons occur that the brahminical schools would have disagreed, seeking instead to anchor it in their specific theory of ātman.
(iii) In essence, this goes back to Augustine’s Christian reading of Neo-Platonism. Cary, Philip. Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self. The Legacy of a Christian Platonist. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
(iv) Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. P. Nidditch (ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979; especially p 335ff.
(v) The centrality of personal identity to the argument for selfhood in Descartes is such that he does not consider the possibility that the self he is seeking to establish is not the person Descartes as such; everything in the Meditations is focussed on arguing for the existence and essentially mental or non-physical nature of the ‘I’ that is Descartes. See Cottingham, John, Robert Stoothoff and Dugald Murdoch (trans.) The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
(vi) Strawson, Peter. Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics. London: Methuen, 1977, pp 101-112.
(vii) Perhaps the most influential such work is Ricouer’s post-structuralist exploration; Ricoeur, Paul. From Oneself as Another, Kathleen Blamey (trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
(viii) A relatively early articulation of this contrast , in the 1930s was by George Mead. Mead, G.H. Mind, Self and Society. From the standpoint of a social behaviourist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962 [reprint]. Thanks to Dan Zahavi for leading me to this.
(ix) See especially, Husserl, Edmund. Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy — Second Book: Studies in the Phenomenology of Constitution, R. Rojcewicz and A. Schuwer (trans) Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1989.
(x) There is also the further, very tricky issue of Heidegger’s distinction between authentic and inauthentic modes of being the self, which has some resonance with the brahmanical search for the difference between true and erroneous selfhoods. Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time, John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (tras.). Oxford; Blackwell, 1962; especially, ‘Exposition of the Task of a Preparatory Analysis of Dasien’, pp 62-77.
(xi) Ram-Prasad, Chakravarthi. ‘The Self in Advaita: reflexivity, egology and some contemporary debates about the self in phenomenal consciousness’, in Thompson, Evan and Mark Siderits (eds). Self/No-self (forthcoming).
(xii) For an influential argument in support of the narrative constitution of the self, see Schechtman, Marya. The Constitution of Selves. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996.
Grasping at Ontological Straws: Overcoming Reductionism in the Advaita Vedanta - Neuroscience Dialogue
Abstract: Contemporary neuropsychology reveals that the parietal lobe contains neurons that are specifically attuned to the act of grasping and this act may be fundamental to the establishment of the phenomenal boundaries between subject and object. Furthermore, alterations to this process, such as the hypoactivation of this region during meditation or the hyperactivation associated with schizophrenia, may eliminate or confuse, respectively, the phenomenal boundaries between subject and object. Traversing disciplines, the Advaita Vedānta school of Hinduism traces some of its key terms for subject and object to the verbal root grah, to grasp. The subject is literally the grasper. Furthermore, the practice of asparśa yoga, the yoga of no-touch, is aimed at stopping, hypoactivating, the grasping process in order to transcend all subject–object boundaries. This paper will argue that while we have not uncovered an identity of thought, we have uncovered a confluence of ideas between these two disciplines. We will see that this confluence of ideas has not pitted the believer against the critic—not forced us into the great reductionism debate that has dominated so much of the interchange between religious studies and the sciences. This case study will illuminate some of the methodological ways around this reductionism battle and also the boundaries of both disciplines for the intellectual benefit of each.
The sense of ego-maker in classical Sāṃkhya and Yoga: Reconsideration of ahaṃkāra with reference to the mind-body problem
Abstract: The alternate formulation of the mind–body problem offered by Sāṃkhya and Yoga elucidates the issue from a different angle, and may in turn highlight the presuppositions underlying the contemporary western analysis, and reveal that some of the assumptions constitute the arbitrary choices about the way we conceptualize the phenomena, rather than inherent divisions supported by the phenomena themselves. While elucidating the sense of ego-maker in classical Sāṃkhya and Yoga philosophy I bear in mind several meanings of the word “sense”, or different levels of its understanding, namely: semantic, ontological and epistemic as well as axiological sense. Thus, my aim is, firstly, to specify the semantic sense of the term „ahaṃkāra‟, that is to explain its contents or denotation. Secondly, when focusing on the ontological context I will try to define the nature and reason, or purpose (arthavattava) of ahaṃkāra. Thirdly, I shall also discuss ego-maker in the epistemic terms by displaying its function of the particular means or determinant of all experience. And finally, when concentrating on the axiological level I am going to consider the significance or value of ahaṃkāra in the context of self-understanding and spiritual development.
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