In the January 22nd, 2010 Times Literary Supplement, the philosopher Peter Hacker considers Galen Strawson’s book Selves, which at 452 pages seems like a dense and weighty philosophical tome. In his review, Hacker traces the use of the word “self” from its early Middle English origins up to its (problematic, he says) use by John Locke in the famous Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). After this, Hacker writes:

“Self” rapidly sprouted definite and indefinite articles, and singular and plural forms. It was conceived to be the subject of experience, the possessor of experience and the core of the identity of the person. Indeed, it was supposedly the reference of the first-person pronoun “I”. It was the self, thus conceived, that Hume famously failed to find: “When I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other…. I can never catch myself at any time without a perception, and can never observe anything but a perception.”

Hume’s failure will be familiar to most Buddhists.

Hacker goes on to describe the definition of self from, Strawson, the author of Selves (note that Strawson is a materialist, that is, one who denies that nonphysical objects truly exist):

In Strawson’s view, the self is naturally conceived as having eight aspects: it is a subject of experience, a thing, single, persistent, mental, an agent, distinct from the human being as a whole, and has a personality. On analysis, however, four of these features are inessential, namely: persistence, agency, personality, and distinctness. For the notion of the self, he argues, essentially has only four core elements: subject, thing, mental, single and their complex product: a subject of experience-as-single-mental-thing, for which Strawson coins the acronym “sesmet”.

Hacker calls the following by Strawson too dismissive of major thinker Gilbert Ryle (I wish I had been allowed to dismiss Ryle so easily in my own college days; the man gave me pains):

If Ryle had spent a little more time on disciplined, unprejudiced introspection or had tried meditation… [he] might have found that it’s really not difficult… for the subject of experience to be aware in the present moment of itself-in-the-present-moment.

Hacker defends Ryle:

Ryle might have responded that the illusion of experiencing an inner subject of experience is indeed easy to generate—just empty your mind of all thought and repeat the first-person pronoun to yourself a hundred times with eyes shut. But that does not render it any the less illusory, or the idea of a “mental someone”, a “mental presence” and a “mental something that is conscious” any the less incoherent.

(Just empty your mind—easy!) In the end, Strawson the materialist defender of the self must find a physical self somewhere and comes up with this, in Hacker’s words:

[Selves] in fact consist of a synergy of neural activity which is either part of, or somehow identical with, the synergy that constitutes an experience as a whole. So the thin concept of a subject of experience is of a process-stuff in the brain.

A process-stuff. I think many Buddhists might agree with that definition, though a synergy of neural activity seems hard to observe or sit with, exactly… Every time I read something that examines an issue or idea that Buddhism also examines, I find myself somehow comparing the two and, if I agree with what I’m reading and wodnering if it “agrees” with Buddhist thought. (The Buddha actually said almost nothing at all about self and no-self.) I’m imagining myself plowing through the 452 pages of this book and every time Strawson says “There is a self,” saying “Wrong.” But why? How sad and dogmatic that would be and is a temptation strongly to be resisted. Pretty thin stuff, Mr. Hacker might say. There is a huge wealth of material out there about subjects with which Buddhism is fundamentally concerned. We have our own experience, but we shouldn’t stop us from examining the wisdom of others. Go read a Hindu book on atman, or read David Hume on perception. You’ll be richer for it. (Gilbert Ryle, though, who writes on the concept of the mind, a “category mistake” as I recall, to say that because the mind and an orange are both nouns, that they are both therefore comparable objects—honestly, I had a hard time with him. You might do better.) Recent Tricycle articles that have focused on the idea of self/no-self are Andrew Olendzki’s “Self as Verb,” and the discussion of Rodney Smith’s Stepping Out of Self-Delusion.

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