Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Controversies about the subject

Is there a lasting subject or are there just bundles of emotions/thoughts/feelings which we erroneously call "subject"? If the latter, WHO makes the erroneous superimposition of a subject (if not a subject)? Whence our feeling of "mineness"?

In fact, I agree with many Neuroscientist (and Buddhist authors) showing that the subject is not a primitive concept. It is, for instance, absent or very different in psychopathological patients and in young children. BUT I do not think that this means that there is no subject, nor that this can apply also to the feeling of mineness. I think that there is something primitive in the concept that something "refers to /me/" (however imprecise this /me/ can be), which may apply also to children and perhaps even to people disturbed by a psychopathology. Out of this sense of "mineness", one can gradually build the concept of an "I" (as agent and not just recipient). Later again come the philosophically structured concepts of psyché, or subject, or self, etc. The fact that no one/not everyone is aware of their complexity is no evidence, I think, of their non-existence (no one is aware of molecules or neurones either).

Within this framework of questions, I started reading Thomas Metzinger's Being No One and the volume Exploring the Self, edited by Dan Zahavi. Although the latter author does not mention the former, he is explicitly polemical with his theses. The former, on the other hand, is quite polemical with all theses which either do not take into account neuroscientific evidences or take these evidences as all we need, without building a theory around them. In short, Metzinger thinks that there is no "solid" subject apart from perceptions, feelings, etc. What we perceive as subject is a sort of virtual reality model, which Natural Evolution has found to be the best device to make a human organism work properly. Hence, we simulate with ourselves, at every second, a fictional ego. Unfortunately, Metzinger has no neural evidence for the latter claim.
Zahavi, on the other hand, favours a philosophical approach to psychological sciences (and, vice versa, the insertion of psychopathological reflections within philosophy). Neurosciences are not the ultimate judge of his theory and his much more interested in phenomonology of our feeling "one".
Who is right? At stake is not just our identity as subject, but also the humanistic vs. neuroscientific domain over investigation on the human psyche.


AC said...

My opinion on the subject (not being a neuroscientist, of course) is that the "being one" feeling revolves on the brain as being in one piece (meaning connected).

Take for example the split brain patients. I think each hemisphere has it's own "I". Unfortunately only one of them is able to speak.

elisa freschi said...

I am very sorry, but I am not sure I understand what you mean with "revolves on the brain as being in one piece (meaning connected)". Could you possibly explain?
As for the "one I for each emisphere" thesis, then do you think our common concept of being a unitary "I" is just a superimposition (or a virtual reality model)? Why is shizofrenia then a relatively uncommon disease?

AC said...

I mean that the brain has an unitary I feeling as long as the hemispheres are connected. When you separate them, each one has it's own "I feeling", but if you look from outside you will see two.

Regarding schizophrenia, I have not read enough to understand it and to have opinions.

Anonymous said...

Dear Elisa,
I think that this discussion requires a clarification of the locution “lasting subject”. What do you mean with “lasting”? Is it something that does not change, that is not affected by external conditions, isolated, that does not arise and does not cease? In this perspective, I think that this is firmly denied by Buddhism, and that it is actually difficult to fathom this kind of ‘entity’. On the other side, I am quite sceptical about neurosciences, if they state (as it seems to me, but I admit to know very little) that what cannot be scientifically proved (whatever that means) does not exist. For instance: can qualities like mindfulness, love, compassion, intuitive insights, be ascribed to functions of the brain? I would suggest that it is quite the opposite: maybe the brain is a function of love and wisdom, just like sexual and digestive organs are instruments of life.
In my opinion, however, Buddhism, rather that denying the self, ‘unfolds’ the self by confuting the existence of borders, limits, definitions. Compounds like appamāṇacitta/apramāṇacitta (infinite mind) are in strong contradiction with locutions like “a bundle of emotions-thoughts-feelings”. In other words, rather than concluding that the Buddhist anattā/anātman gives a final answer, I would suggest that it denies the answers that the ordinary (and not just ordinary) mind gives on reality, including the boundaries that define a self-subject, and opens up to a deeper, perhaps endless inquiry.

elisa freschi said...

AC, thanks for your comment. If it were like you say, though, would it ever matter –unless in the case of split brain patients? Do you think one can detect a double-I feeling even in normal people?

elisa freschi said...

Giuliano, thanks for this stimulating comment. However, I am not sure I agree with you.
1. I like very much your "platonic" interpretation of Buddhism (I'm echoing a comment you wrote some days ago) and I think it is fully legitimate to re-interpret a tradition again and again (else, it would no longer be a living tradition). BUT I am not sure this was the way the Pāli authors (and even less the Sanskrit authors of Indian Buddhism) understood it. They do not seem to interpret Buddhism as a challenge to "think beyond", but rather as a sure (=already established) path. The theme deserves a longer discussion, and I'll post again about it.
2. By "lasting" I do not mean a self untouched by anything else. The latter (quite akin to the Naiyāyika ātman) seems to me rather a postulation (which may end up being true), which needs on top an additional apparatus of psychological organs (buddhi, ahaṅkāra, manas…). I rather think at our common sense perception of an "I" and/or at the dynamic subject described in Mīmāṃsā and Pratyabhijñā.

Anonymous said...

Dear Elisa, I paste here from Orientalia, though I think that your answer here should be addressed in a slightly different way, but I am a bit lazy... anyway you were right, arguing is fun!
Dear Elisa,
I have to admit that I was a bit incautious in writing that “Buddhism does not deny self”. What I meant is that in Buddhism, as far as I can understand, there is no negation of anything that we may feel or experience, it is just that nothing, mental, physical or else, can be spotted and isolated from the context, because everything is in relation with everything and has the nature of arising and ceasing. If you say that there is a self that arises and ceases and that it is affected by impressions, well, that is not the self denied by Buddhism. But it is not even called ‘self’.
About the role of free investigation in Buddhism, I would say that it is crucial and, although there is an established path, such a path has to be realized and experienced individually. Mere adherence to the view of non-self does not lead to the final vimutti/vimukti. In the Pāli and Sanskrit texts, there are several expressions about “thinking beyond”, “walking beyond” and, maybe above all “knowing beyond”. For this reason, I don’t think to be either “platonic” or original, as I am just quoting “the Pāli and the Sankrit authors” that, from my naïve perspective, are in large part the Buddha himself.

elisa freschi said...

Well, the point seems to be:
You seem to think that there might be nothing limiting a "person" from "another", but that any "person"'s feeling, emotion, thought, etc., is part of a flux, just like anything else. Hence, one would have no real, ontological right to distinguish between "my" feelings/thoughts/emotions, etc. and "yours" (:-D)

This is not the only position in Buddhism, as far as I know. Yogācārins are far more open to the common-sense notion of an empirical subject and speak, in fact, of separate fluxes (vāsanāsantāna).

I will answer on Orientalia (
about the platonic understanding of Buddhism.

Anonymous said...

The idea of the flux is a conclusion that I don’t know if I would agree with. About distinctions… yes, I believe that in Buddhism they are just conventional, not to mention how ephemeral might barriers and conflicts be… if that were not so, how could you share your reflections or feelings with me? Communication-relation is indeed a good alternative translation for anattā/anātman… and it does not deny the empirical self, of course…
I guess that a lot of our debate is around finding a common language! ;)))
On this point: what are the most common definitions of ‘self’ in Mimaṃsa?

KoSa said...

Ha ha ha !

I think I disagree with all of you.

1. most Buddhist authors do recognize distinct personalities as *conventionally real*. As long as the personality is understood as an interdependent continuum, this is acceptable (not only to the Yogaacaara, but to most schools of Buddhism I know of).

2. Elisa - what do you mean that the subject 'is not a primitive concept' for Buddhist authors? Is it not *the* most primitive of all concepts (I am assuming you are using the term 'subject' as a synonym for 'self').

3. If by 'subject' on the other hand one means the agent of perception, most Buddhist authors consider that it does exist and it is constituted either by i. a moment of a specific sense faculty or ii. a moment of consciousness.
'Agent' is understood as 'the most prominent amongst various causal factors' (following Paa.nini) and hence for Buddhist authors there is usually no difficulty in speaking of a momentary dharma as being an 'agent' (= a prominent causal factor).

To take up a point hinted at by Giuliano, I am also extremely skeptical of neuroscience - while I have much more trust in Abhidharma analysis, since I consider it theoretically more sound. This is especially due to the particularly obscure sense of terms like 'matter' and so forth, which make up for the very conceptual vocabulary of modern science. On the other hand, the terminology of naama and ruupa is relational, hence more comprehensible.

To put it differently, scientists unwittingly rely of ultimates (unanalyzable, obscure factors) while trying to offer explanations which purport to be based on empirical observation. The extent to which the observation is framed within a very specific conceptual horizon should be clear by the fact that primary existents end up being highly theorized entities (hence implying much more indirection than the their purported observational basis should allow for).

I hope it's all clear.

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid that there is still a problem of communication. The main distinction is between conventional and ultimate subject/self, but I am not sure that there is an agreement on what they mean. Maybe it would be helpful to compare some definitions of self/agent in Mimamsa scriptures with Buddhist ones.

I am not even sure that it is a laughing matter, but, yes, a bit of humour helps... ;)

KoSa said...

That's an excellent point.

I have been probably rather unclear in my presentation, since what I wished to stress is that most Buddhist authors would distinguish between a 'self' and an 'agent' - they are entirely different concepts. 'Agent' is defined as a prominent causal factor (by svatantra.h kartaa, wherein svatantra.h=pradhaana.h), hence an agent in no way implies a 'self' (whether as a conventional 'person' or whether as an ultimate, non-contingent permanent identity).

Furthermore, 'subject' is a category that I do not understand well, and I am unsure as to whether it successfully reproduces any of the categories employed in Indian thought. I have reasons to think that it probably fits nowhere.

What I found funny is that I am in ample disagreement with most of the previous comments :P

elisa freschi said...

KoSa, thanks for your comment and for your disagreement. Hope you'll keep on finding faults in my posts;-)
As for your points:
1) what I meant with "the subject is not a primitive concept" for Buddhist authors (and many Neuroscientists) is that both categories confute our common-opinion about an enduring (=lasting at least until one's death) subject who is in various ways (either by causing it or by being affected by them) responsible of all our cognitions, actions and feelings.
2) such a subject is somehow a priori admitted by most non-Buddhist Indian schools of thought. Most of them (possibly not Mīmāṃsā), then struggled to separate changing qualities (guṇas) from a changeless substratum (ātman) and inserted therefore the three buddhi, ahaṅkāra and manas (+, in some cases, a citta).
3) Most Buddhist schools, on the other hand, confuted the idea of an enduring subject beyond qualities. Some of them (represented in this blog by Giuliano;-)) just saw no reason for admitting a subject of cognition, etc., apart from the fact of perceiving itself. Others (Yogācāra, etc.) instead admitted that the empirical self is an illusion, but that it has to be explained. Hence, they analysed it in its basic components (as you did here, they separated the "agent" part from the "knower" one).

KoSa said...

Dear Elisa,

thanks for the replies. I'll keep on doing my best ;p

1. the part I do not quite understand is the following: within a Buddhist framework, which concepts should be considered 'primitive' and which ones not?
And if within the same framework a 'self' is a non-primitive concept, how is it distinguished from more 'primitive concepts' and how is it related to them (and, what are they)?

3. actually, no, the agent and the knower are exactly the same from the perspective of most Buddhist schools: yet, neither of them constitutes a self. Knower=agent of cognition (either a moment of the cak.surindriya or a moment of cak.survij~naana depending on the school); none of them = a permanent self. All knowers must be agents (simple grammatical point) but none of them need to be selves (hence, those who uphold them to be selves have to *argue* for it).

While words like 'agent' or 'knower' may suggest a person in English such is definitely not the case in Sanskrit, where an agent only means the most prominent causal factor in the accomplishment of an action. For example in 'vidyaa dadaati vinayam' 'vidyaa' is the agent.
In 'devadatta.h odana.m pacati', 'devadatta.h' is the agent, but in 'agni.h odana.m pacati', 'agni.h' is the agent. Similarly, the Abhidharmakosha states ' pashyati' and then goes to explain why '' is the agent of visual cognition.

All Buddhist schools I know of offer explanations for the empirical self. Do you know of any who don't? I'd be quite interested to know of course.

elisa freschi said...

Dear KoSa,
please do not mix Grammar and Reality, unless you agree with Johannes Bronkhorst about the fact that Indians too could not distinguish between the two levels. Within Mimamsa, the kārakavyavasthā depends on what one wants to express, hence one can say "the fire cooks" instead of "Devadatta cooks", but this does not change the real state of affairs, which remains the same: the fire is not independent in the action of cooking, Devadatta is. Similarly, I would not agree that Pāṇini's description of the kartṛ is enough to argue that there is no common-sensical notion of a knower/agent in Indian thought.
As for 3), the identity of knower and agent is not at all obvious. Naiyāyikas and Advaita Vedāntins (against Mīmāṃsakas) argue that knowledge is NOT an action and that it is instead a quality of the self.
1) Well, I would propose something like "quality". Wouldn't you?
As for the last point, Giuliano seems to be suggesting that the empirical subject is just not a problem (see his comments on this post: and I guess Nāgārjuna can be read in this way.

KoSa said...

Dear Elisa,

unfortunately there are several points which I have doubts about.

1. Devadatta is not independent in respect to the action of cooking. Almost all grammatical commentaries explain how 'svantantra.h' in 'svatantra.h kartaa' cannot mean 'independent' because Devadatta depends on many other causal factors. They also explain that 'svatantra' is to be taken in the sense of 'pradhaana' and that, being a grammatical definition, it is concerned with sentential relations rather than things in the world. To put it differently, whatever *we wish to express as most prominent* takes up the kart.rkaaraka.

Accordingly, Buddhist authors explain that since the main point is here *prominence* it is fit to reserve the *kart.rkaaraka* for the most prominent causal factor.

No talk of 'independence' anywhere. That is *not* what the syntactical category *agent* expresses in Sanskrit sentences anywhere - according to *all* commentators (if you need references I will be happy to provide them).

As for Bronkhort's position, I differ since what he considers defects are in fact to my eyes virtues, since I believe that his understanding of the relationship between sentential structures and philosophy is not very convincing.

But let us leave Bronkhorst alone for the time being.

I don't understand your point about 1) and I ask again- can you give me examples of a 'primary concept' and a 'secondary concept' in Buddhism? Furthermore, which Sanskrit word do you have in mind when you use the English term 'concept'?

Thank you for your thoughtful replies.

As for Naagaarjuna, I would disagree that for Naagaarjuna the category aatmaa can be completely dispensed with, considering that he even states that Buddhas occasionally use it!

KoSa said...

Perhaps the following may bring the discussion some steps further:

what do you mean by the 'common-sense' idea of an agent?

Could you define it somehow?

I have no clue as to what you are referring to.

elisa freschi said...

Dear KoSa,
Devadatta is independent (sorry, I should have said that I was following the Mīmāṃsā interpretation of svatantraḥ kartā, see Rāmānujācārya, TR IV, §3.13.2) since it is up to him to initiate the action of cooking. The saucepan or the wood-logs, on the other hand, cannot initiate it. This is also what I would define as the common-sensical notion of an agent: someone who is able to initiate an action at his/her will.
1) You are right, I have been too loose in my English choice of terms. What I meant is: according to the Buddhist thinkers I am aware of (but, as you noticed already, I am no expert), ātman is a composite notion, hence a vikalpa, just like a "forest", which does not exist in itself (or just like Milinda's elephant). I would also argue that this is not the case for, say, tangible qualities such as roughness, which are not denied as such (although their lasting through time can be denied).
Nāgārjuna seems to me ultimately a 'deconstructionist', hence, he might well say that the Buddha *provisionally* accepts something.

KoSa said...

Dear Elisa,

thank you for the useful specifications. I do not have Rāmānujācārya's text with me - could you by any chance send the passage you are referring to?

To explain svatantra.h kartaa in terms of the agent's *volition* is rather interesting, but certainly does not work for the Buddhist. Those I know of, at least, follow the general grammarians tradition (hence, shared rather than siddhaanta-specific definitions) wherein an agent has nothing to do with intention.

This brings me to a second point. The idea of an agent as someone capable of deciding whether to act or not, which you describe as the Miimaamsaa position, is *not*, I would argue, a common sense position in an Indian context, unless we are specifically dealing with the agent of *karma*. However, agent can refer, more generally, to whichever we wish to consider *most prominent* within a causal assemblage, hence it is a fairly neuter term as far as what it's exact referent, and its features may be.

1) you are right in saying that 'aatmaa' is a vikalpa while 'roughness' (kakkha.ta) is not. However, the distinction is not then between primary concepts (roughness) and secondary concepts, but perhaps between primary existents (rougness) and mere concepts (aatmaa)?

Does this sound sensible at all?

elisa freschi said...

Dear KoSa,
yes, I already gave up the ambiguous use of "concept" in my previous comment. Let me only add that if we decide to call roughness (etc.) a "primary existent", we are embracing an insider perspective. This is fine, but only as long as we are aware of it. Others would argue that roughness is also a composite notion (made up through, e.g., several neuronal movements) or that ātman is a primary existent.
If you send me your private address (here or to my private address, check by "elisa freschi" tag here or on I'll be pleased to send you Rāmānujācārya's passage.

KoSa said...

Dear Elisa,

sure, roughness is a primary existent only for (most) Buddhist
Abhidharma, and the idea was not that others should accept the same as a starting point for the discussion. Rather, my interest was in pointing out that it would be strange to call aatmaa a 'secondary concept' in a Buddhist context, because then it is difficult to find more primary *concepts* on which that secondary concept may be based (this too is not necessarily true of all types of Buddhist philosophies, but it applies to a significant portion).

( - thanks!)

KoSa said...

Dear Elisa,

I just briefly looked at the section of the TR that you sent me and I am even further confused. It seems to disprove your position! Or, I must have grossly misunderstood.

In fact, in that section, R. states that a 'word' or an 'axe' can be considered 'agents': and that they have 'svaatantrya'. On the other hand, you had previously stated that R. reserves the designation 'svatantra' and 'kartaa' for someone who can *decide* whether to initiate or not a certain action (where does he say such a thing? I can't find that).

Indeed the example

shabdo'rtham abhidhatte

just like

parashu.h kaa.s.thaa.m chinatti

are cases where R. states that 'shabda' is kartaa and has svaatantrya, and the same is true for 'parashu'. Now, how can you uphold that for R. to be svatantra means that one has the faculty to decide whether to initiate an action or not, when he says that a
'word' can have svaatantrya and be called an 'agent', and that the same is true of an 'axe'?

Does this flatly contradicts your previous account of R.'s understanding of kartaa?

Or am I making some remarkable mistake in reading this passage?

KoSa said...

P.S.: just for clarity, this is your earlier comment, which I think has no correspondence in the text that you so kindly sent:

"Devadatta is independent (sorry, I should have said that I was following the Mīmāṃsā interpretation of svatantraḥ kartā, see Rāmānujācārya, TR IV, §3.13.2) since it is up to him to initiate the action of cooking. The saucepan or the wood-logs, on the other hand, cannot initiate it."

Where does Raamaanujaacaarya state anything of that sort?

In the following, he seems to be saying the exact opposite:

yadā tu vyāpāraṃ prati
5 svātantryavivakṣā tadā kartā śabdo ʼrtham abhidhatte. yadā tu sa eva
śabdo jñānena viṣayīkriyate, tadārthaprakāśalakṣaṇaphalabhāk chabdaḥ
karma “śabdaṃ jānāti”. na hi tadānīṃ jñānam abhidhāvyapadeśabhāk.
kiṃ tu jñānam ity evocyate. abhidhāśabdasya tatrāvyutpatteḥ. paraśuvat.
yathā udyamananipātanaṃ prati karmībhūtaḥ paraśuḥ. yadā ta
10 evodyamananipātane dvaidhībhāvalakṣaṇaphalāvacchinne, tābhyāṃ ca
paraśur vyāpyate, tadā anyārthapravṛttavyāpāravyāpyatvāt paraśuḥ karaṇam.
kriyāphalāśrayatvāt kāṣṭhaṃ tu karma. te codyamananipātane
tadānīṃ chidivyapadeśaṃ labhate. tatra tasya vyutpatteḥ. yadā tu tam eva
vyāpāraṃ prati svātantryavivakṣā, tadā kartā, paraśuḥ kāṣṭhaṃ chinattīti.

elisa freschi said...

Thanks for your close reading.

R. makes two points:
1. svatantrakartṛ is used to define the agent as independent (in his/her role within the action). NOT in the Grammatical sense.
2. the kārakas do not directly express reality, since their assemblage depends on what the speaker wishes to express.
Hence, a speaker may wish to highlight the role of the axe and express it, therefore, as a svatantrakartṛ –but this does not change its ontological status.

In short: the kārakas are no evidence about reality and the kartṛ can be defined as the independent agent. But I see your point, a whimsical attribution of the kāraka role to the axe (instead of its holder) ruins the picture. I guess this can be better understood if one remembers that Mīmāṃsakas conflate kārakas and vibhaktis. R. should have said that the axe appears in the 1st vibhakti because the speaker wants to express its relative independence while cutting (although we know that absolute independence can be said only in regard to the person holding it).

KoSa said...

Thank you Elisa,

But I am afraid this explanation does not quite convince me, for the following reasons:

1. the problem is both with ‘axe’ (parashu) and with ‘word’ (shabda). Both of them are called ‘kartaa’ by R. and it is specified that we wish to highlight the svaatantrya of the shabda. Of course, there is no question here of the shabda having the faculty of decision, and looking at the rest of the discussion, R. seems to stress that this different attributions are not, in fact, whimsical;

2. svatantra.h kartaa is a grammatical definition, referring to a kāraka and not to a vibhakti (to the expressed relation, which can be in fact expressed by many other suffixes than merely vibhakti-signs); you cannot argue that Pāṇini’s definitions regard vibhaktis (they don’t: svatantra.h kartā is a definition of a kāraka, while a vibhakti is a purely morphological item, which can be used to express that kāraka only under certain conditions);

3. most importantly, you had initially stated (see above) that Rāmānujācārya upholds (as you do) that the svātantrya of a kartā is the faculty of deciding whether or not to initiate an action. I am not aware of any Indian philosopher who states as much, and certainly the passage that you adduced implies precisely the opposite.

In brief, although your own idea of what an agent is includes by necessity the faculty of deciding whether to initiate an action or not, I do not see any reason to believe that R. (or any other classical Indian thinker) understood an agent in that manner. At least (sorry to repeat myself) I see no evidence of that in the section of the text that we have been discussing.

Hence I would be tempted to distinguish your own position (kartaa must have faculty of decision) from R.’s own (he seems to understand svatantra as pradhāna, just like all the grammatical commentators from Patañjali onwards, without any reference to actual ‘faculty of decision’).

All of this does not at all imply that your own idea of what an agent is wrong, however, I would not identify with R.’s own.

But perhaps you can show me some other text that contradicts all this?

elisa freschi said...

Thanks KoSa for your close comments. It is a pleasure to be forced to re-think one's views.
In order to give some order to this sub-thread, I replied to you in today's post. I'll just add here that Mīmāṃsakas are primarily concerned in understanding already formed sentences and in making sense of what may at first sight look out of place. In the case at hand, the UP contends that a prescription cannot be tantamount to a cognition, because of sentences such as "Devadatta knows a word". But they are no evidences, replies the author, just like "I lower the axe" is no evidence against the fact that the axe is the instrument for felling a tree.
Last, śabda is seen as independent in the process of signification, since this is considered from the point of view of the listener.
But you might be right, I might have been over-interpreting R. I'll think about it.

KoSa said...

Thank you Elisa.

I will be out of touch for about a week I think, hence I will also wait for possibly further comments from your side.

The precise role of kaarakas in philosophy is a central concern of my own research, and I believe it is an unfortunately under-studied field. I strongly believe that more sustained reflection on this topic could be profitable for the field at large.

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