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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Individuality and Subjectivity

Is there any concept of the difference between individuality and subjectivity in Indian philosophy?
That is, does the critique of the concept of a subject also embed a critique of any possible individuality? Are individuality and subjectivity well distinguished in Western philosophy in general? And in Western common sense?

I just stumbled in this statement by Birgit Kellner (in her contribution to Hans-Dieter Klein's Der Begriff der Seele in der Philosophiegeschichte, 2005):
[…] hier wird kein Unterschied gemacht zwischen personenbezogenen Termen wie Eigennamen , "Person" oder "Seele", und dem Personalpronomen "ich" –eine Differenzierung von Subjektivität und Individualität ist zumindest in diesem Bereich buddhistischer Philosophie nicht auszumachen (B. Kellner, Der Begriff der Seele in der buddhistischen Philosophie, p. 192).

Kellner discusses here Vasubandhu's critique of the ātman in his Abhidharmakośa (chapter pudgalapratiṣedha) but her point is perhaps more general. In fact, whenever the aham ("I") is considered as different from the ātman, this is rather out of different concerns, primarily because it is a theorised concept (a vikalpa), and not something which could be directly and intuitively grasped.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Subject, no subject and their consequences on one's happiness

Let me try an experiment in applied philosophy: is one's sense of being a subject enduring through time going to enhance one's future happiness or not? I'll sketch the two options in a rather extreme way:

1: Enduring Subject. I have an excellent memory and my memories play a major role in shaping my actual life. I am also a self-narrator: I regularly rehearse and revise my interpretation of my life. I am a great planner and knit up my life with long-term projects. In fact, I enjoy remembering, rethinking and understanding past events and I enjoy even more thinking about the future and trying to do my best in order to achieve what I would like to (the first part of this description has been adapted from Galen Strawson, 'The Self', pp.14-15). I can also add that I have somehow been trained to be one, insofar as my father writes/used to write a diary and likes/used to like to talk about his past life and to 'understand' it. My mother does/did it much less, but appreciates/appreciated it.
Nonetheless, I never thought of that as a particular ability, since it seems spontaneous to me to plan and remember. I also tend to think that this made possible many important decisions in my life —the ones I am now happy about. For instance, if I had not been a planner, if I had just jumped from one thing to the other (again, Strawson), I would not have decided to interrupt my South Asian studies in order to study Western Philosophy. I did it because my long term project was to study Indian philosophy and, hence, I knew I needed a better philosophical training.
People who do not remember, are likely –again, in my opinion– not to learn from their mistakes and, hence, to repeat them again and again. They might marry beautiful women because they are at first sight fascinated by beauty, only to then understand that they in fact would have preferred a caring one. Similarly, people who do not plan may not be able to finish their studies or to engage in whatever activity is not at every moment rewarding –and this category includes, in my opinion, most really significant jobs.

2. Momentary Subject. Other people, and G.Strawson claims to be one, "have a very poor personal memory. And it may not be simply poor. It may also be highly quiescent, and almost never intrude spontaneously into their current thought. […] They have no early ambition, no later sense of vocation […]. Some merely go from one thing to another". More in detail, Strawson avows that "Using 'Me*' to express this fundamental way in which I think of myself, […] I can accurately express my experience by saying that I do not think of Me* as being something in the future. It is also accurate fo shift the 'not', and say, more strongly, that what I think of as being in the future is not Me*". Assuming that such an extreme case is possible, this would lead to some unwanted consequences, such as the ones I listed above (but also teeth cavity: since one does not identify with the subject who will later experience pain, why should one care about cleaning one's teeth?). On the other hand, it might have its pros: since one does not think of oneself as existing in the future, one is not afraid of examinations, loss of one's job, loosing a beloved person, etc. Further, one does not regret past events, nor does one have to bother about planning one's future, especially if this involves painful decisions. More radically, a Buddhist might argue that one is many steps ahead in the path away from 'I' and 'mine'.

I know, the analysis is too crude, especially insofar as (in 1) it presupposes the existence of a self when it describes the possible shortcomings of position 2. To say the least, one might argue that it is senseless to try to learn from one's mistakes, since there is no special link between, e.g., 'my' mistakes when I was 13 and 'my' mistakes now. Instead, it might be better to investigate on 'common mistakes' of people in a certain age-group or social class, etc.

What do readers think? I'm curious to know about insights from the latter kind of experience.


Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Memory and an enduring self


The phenomenon of Memory seems to me perhaps the biggest obstacle to the theory that there is no enduring self. If there is no such one, how could one be aware of one's memories?
Kant's idea of the 'elastic ball' effect, suggests that a self at time t1 could cause to be a self at time t2 and so on, until one reaches one's present self, which has been caused by a chain of preceding 'selves' and which, only because of that, shares many characteristics with them. I sense that some Buddhist arguments about the self might be similar to this one.
Both sorts of argument can explain the fact that the 'subject' at t1234 can remember something which happened at the 'subject' at t678. But what they fail to explain, I am afraid, is how is the phenomenon of memory possible. In memory one is not just aware of a past event. One is aware of is as past. Hence, one is at the same time aware of oneself in the present moment, no matter how dimly, of the oneself one used to be, and of their identity. Memory, in short, is not just a repetition of a past experience. It adds to the repetition of this past experience the sense that it is past and that it is one's own. Eduard Marbach observed (in his contribution to Exploring the Self, 2000) that this makes memory different from hallucination or dream.
Śaiva authors (I am thinking especially at Utpaladeva's vivṛti on his Īśvarapratyabhijñākārikā + vṛtti) elaborated a lot on memory as evidence for an enduring self. However, as far as I know, they did not derive from that the logical consequence that memory is a distinct instrument of knowledge, since it does not just repeat the previous event, but adds to this repetition the knowledge that it is of a past event.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Agenthood and Independence

Following a previous discussion (see here), let me return to the topic of agenthood and how it is conceived by Mīmāṃsakas. I just came across a statement of Prabhākara's commentator, Śālikanātha, who writes that "agenthood is sovereignty" (kartṛtvam īśvaratvam, Ṛjuvimalā ad Bṛhatī 6.1.1.). A few pages before, he and Prabhākara discussed about "sovereignty" over an act as the fact of being the Master of that act (svāmin), just like one can be the Master of a village. Prabhākara further claimed that this amounts to have the right (adhikāra) over that act. This all seems to point to the fact that an agent is someone who is able/free to act. I guess some reader may think that "agent" may well not have its grammatical meaning here, but my point is exactly that Mīmāṃsakas interpreted kārakas according to their kāraka-status (karaṇa is that through which, karman is the object desired, kartṛ is the agent).

Monday, August 2, 2010

Are unconnected thoughts possible?

Some philosophers conclude that there is no persistent self out of the fact that our thoughts (in a loose sense of the term) follow each other without any necessary connection to the former ones. And, even if there is some connection, this can be due just to the previous thought and not to the fact that both belong to the same subject (cf Kant's "elastic ball" argument while discussing the Third Paralogism, KrV, A 363-4). For instance, Galen Strawson writes:


Consider the diachronic case first: imagine that a series of seff-conscious thoughts or 'I-thoughts' occurs in the same brain, one at a time, while none of them ever involves any awareness of any thought earlier … than itself. […]

Some may want to say that there is nevertheless a single thinker, simply because a single brain is the locus of all thoughts. But why should the fact of non-mental diachronic singlesess decisively overrule the natural judgement that there is no plausible candidate for a diachronically single mental self in this case? ('The Self' in Models of the Self, edited by Gallagher and Shear, 1999)


I remember an acquaintance of mine who, after a training in Vipassana meditation, could described her mind as "pauselessly transmitting stupid spots as a popular radio". However, I wonder whether there can be a similar series of unconnected thoughts. Are thoughts so 'subject-independent' (I'm sorry if this could seem to beg the question)? Is 'my' thought of /pleasure while eating a vanilla ice cream/ the same as yours, given the same sensorial feeling? Let us for instance assume that I am an Italian man, who has been eating ice creams all his life long and you a Japanese chap who never had the pleasure of a home-made ice cream. Isn't my emotion (or "thought") deeply mine since it is connected with my memories of happy days eating ice creams? Isn't yours different in a significant way?
In Pramāṇavāda terms, one might object that the basic thought is the same, whereas just the following vikalpas differ. This might be true. But isn't it the case that the vikalpas are unavoidably part of the flux of consciousness? Can there ever be a series of vikalpa-less "thoughts", which, hence, bear no specific link to their subject?
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