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Self, No Self?Review - Self, No Self?
Perspectives from Analytical, Phenomenological, and Indian Traditions
by Mark Siderits, Evan Thompson, and Dan Zahavi (Editors)
Oxford University Press, 2011
Review by Emily Esch, Ph.D.
Jul 3rd 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 27)

Buddhism is famous for denying the existence of the self.  In this captivating collection of essays, we learn that this deceptively simple idea is the basis for a rich exploration of the nature of consciousness and the nature of the self.  The editors did a wonderful job of collecting essays that represent a diverse range of perspectives.  Two aspects of this collection are especially noteworthy. First, the authors are obviously familiar with one another's work and frequently refer to other essays in the volume.  This feature makes the reader feel part of an ongoing conversation.  Second, all the authors are well versed in at least two of the traditions and the comparisons between various traditions feel organic rather than forced.

Here are just three examples of the broad range of topics covered in the collection.  Jonardon Ganeri combines 4th century CE Buddhist philosophers' explanation of what underlies the use of the first person with arguments in the analytic tradition about how the pronoun 'I' refers to explain why first person reports are immune to the error of misidentification (the idea that when I think to myself that "my legs are crossed" I can't go wrong about whose legs I'm referring to).  Wolfgang Fasching relies on the phenomenological tradition to defend the Advaita Vedanta (a Hindu school) claim that there exists an abiding experiencing consciousness that is distinct from other types of mental states against Buddhist objections, claiming Advaita Vedanta better captures the nature of the first person experience.  And Matthew MacKenzie argues that a Buddhist inspired enactivist conception of the self, a conception of the self grounded in the relationship between the organism and her environment, finds middle ground between views that the self is a fiction and views that the self is an independent, substantial entity.

Two of issues receive more attention than others in this volume.  The first is whether we should understand consciousness as necessarily reflexive, and what, precisely this would mean.  In the analytic tradition, reflexivity is sometimes called the self-intimating character of consciousness.  Philosophers often point out that experiential states are distinct from other mental states because they have a particular phenomenal character, that is, there is something it is like to be in them.  So, for example, "what it is like" to experience biting into a crisp apple differs from "what it is like" to eat a banana. Many philosophers think that it makes no sense to think about what an experience is like without thinking about what the experience is like for someone.  In other words, conscious experiential states require a subject.  One way to make sense of this idea is through the reflexivity thesis: the structure of conscious experience includes an awareness of itself.  The reflexivity thesis should be distinguished from the idea that all conscious states must be the object of another mental state.  The latter process involves a relationship between two mental states.  The reflexivity thesis, on the other hand, is a claim about the internal structure of individual mental states.  The reflexivity thesis has been debated in the Indian tradition for centuries, where it is characterized by the metaphor of illumination.  The self-illuminists believe that conscious states are like lights; they illuminate both themselves and the objects around them.  The other-illuminists deny the coherence of this position (they point out, for example, that a knife cannot cut itself) and argue that the conscious states are illuminated by being the target of another mental state.

The other focus in this volume is how we should best understand the nature of the self, given the famous Buddhist denial that there is such a thing. There are many possibilities, ranging from the kind of minimal self (espoused by Dan Zahavi) to more robust characterizations, like the narrative concept of self (discussed by Joel Krueger) or the personal ownership view (discussed by Miri Albahari).  On a minimal self view, the self is seen merely as the subject of the experiences, understood not as an independent entity, but as the subjectivity of the experience itself.  The narrative or personal ownership conceptions are arguably closer to our ordinary understanding of the self as an independent agent who directs actions, makes decisions, and fulfills goals.

The Indian tradition of philosophizing about the self lies at the center of the book and in this tradition the concept of self and the nature of consciousness are inseparable.  I'd highly recommend the collection to scholars interested in consciousness and the nature of the self.  As someone trained in the analytic tradition with scant knowledge of the Indian traditions, I thought the authors were admirably clear in their expositions of the Indian philosophers and views.  The volume is suitable for graduate or very advanced undergraduate students.  For the general reader who is willing to put in some serious intellectual effort, the volume would provide an interesting introduction to contemporary discussions about the nature of the self.  (For the general reader, I'd advise skipping the introduction, which I found a bit perfunctory, until you've read some of the essays.)


© 2012 Emily Esch


Emily Esch, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Philosophy, College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University


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