Lecture Zero: Theme 0.2

0.2 A spectrum of possibilities


The soteriological problem of mastery is essential to the very possibility of carving up the phenomenon of selfhood, in the same way the problem of relating tones with one another is essential to any form of music, no matter how that problem is actually solved. It is possible to outline different and even conflicting ways of theoretically articulating and conceptualizing selfhood, but it is to not possible to experience selfhood (much less theorize about it) without facing the issue of mastery over uncertainty. Why? Because this issue is what defines the essential reason why the self is identified as a phenomenon in the first place, and then taken up as something in need of theoretical articulation in order to better face its inherent problematicity. Wherever there is self, there is a soteriology at play and an attempt at mastering a perceived form of uncertainty. The self is what is constructed by playing the soteriological game of mastering uncertainty.

Any further theoretical debate about the relational or non-relational nature of the self is best understood as a way of articulating possible solutions to how ensuring mastery or solving the soteriological problem. But if we seriously take this soteriological problem as the pivot around which all theorizing about the self turns, then the relational and non-relation approaches mentioned so far define just two poles of a much denser and richer spectrum that includes a whole continuous series of possibilities, which specify various ways of developing self-mastery. Think about this theoretical spectrum as a piano keyboard. In listening to the actual performance of a pianist (say, of Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata), one will hear all and only sounds that can be traced back to one or another of the keys of the keyboard, even if that performance will not necessarily make all of them heard. Some keys might remain silent, and yet they are still part of the keyboard. Other keys might become particularly present at some time, and yet they remain fully embedded in the whole keyboard spectrum, which is broader, more encompassing, and within which no particular key has any privileged right.

For now, we can begin to fix the two extreme poles of this spectrum. On the one hand, we have a fully relational account of selfhood, which can be taken to the point of completely reducing and dissolving the self in its conditioning conditions and grounds. From this point of view, the self is nothing but an epiphenomenon of physical and biological (or perhaps even social) processes. Call this the ‘immanent’ pole of the spectrum. On the other hand, a completely non-relational account can lead one to envisage the self as a disembodied entity, somehow independent from all becoming, perhaps in touch with some sort of eternal reality or being. This independency from relationality entails that the true nature of this Self should be such that it can be conceived apart from any other phenomenon or event. This true metaphysical Self can be so divorced from bodily and empirical components that it would be difficult to characterize it as anything individual and distinct. Call this the ‘transcendent’ pole of the spectrum. Notice how at both extreme poles, the self as we ordinarily conceive of it somehow disappears or is radically reconceptualized.

Between these two extremes, a variety of different intermediate positions is also possible. We can expect that various cultures in different times have actualized some of these positions (there is no need to assume that all theoretical options have been exhausted by historical instantiations), and hence constructed the self differently. Historical differences in the way in which the self is conceptualized and interpreted are thus a consequence of different strategies used to address the problem of self-mastery. The specific way in which self-mastery is understood and instantiated, thus, is indexed to specific historical conditions, even if the problem of self-mastery in general can be spelled out in trans-historical terms, as has been the case so far.

Moreover, since the self tends to dissolve the more one reaches towards both extreme poles, it is possible to expect some looping within this spectrum. The more one moves towards transcendence, the more rarefied and attenuated the self becomes, hence one might about the extent to which this increasingly more metaphysical and ineffable entity could genuinely provide an answer to uncertainty. This might urge us to explore the other side of the spectrum. But the more immanent the self becomes, the more apparent the utter contingency and uncertainty of the ground is, up to the point that the self does nothing but simply reaffirm this departing problem. Perhaps it is time then to move again towards the transcendent pole, and the cycle can go on. This movement is not necessarily dialectical, in the sense that there is no inner law that guarantees an advancement or some form of progress or intellectual gain over time. Continuous looping does not necessarily lead somewhere else from where one began.

Investigating the self as a spectrum of possible ways of constructing it, provides a middle-path between the use of theoretical models and constructions, and the need to do justice to how all phenomena are always indexed to (in the case of human phenomena at least) historical and cultural contexts. The result is a theoretical topography that can then be used as a map or a model to order, structure, interpret, and further explore historically determined realities. Without some theoretical effort (which always entails both generalization and conceptualization) language would be reduced to a list of proper names, absolutely particular and idiosyncratic, communication would be impossible, interpretation would shrink to a dull witnessing, and there could be no philosophy at all. Yet, the danger nestled in any theoretical effort is that of forcing its own order upon the materials it explores, by dismissing what does not fit, or reshaping what is deviant. Perhaps this risk cannot be entirely avoided, and yet a risk by itself is not a sufficient reason to dismiss a whole enterprise. We can take it as a challenge and let the unfolding of the whole discussion be judged accordingly.[1]

Conceiving of our theoretical effort (the idea of mapping a spectrum of possible ways of constructing the self) as necessarily embedded in historical materials, leads us to reject the possibility of an a priori, and ahistorical theory of what the self is. This theory would be either meaningless, because it would deal with a self that can be found nowhere in human history on earth, or it would be affected by a problematic blind-spot, the fact that the theory itself is developed and indexed to a specific historical context, while ignoring how this context actually affects or shape the theory. But if the need for historicity is acknowledged, then building a spectrum of possible ways of constructing the self permits situating one’s own standpoint amidst different historical theories and approaches to the problem of the self. In turn, this allows for comparison and assessment of how they fare with respect to the issue of uncertainty that all these theories aim to address. In principle, it might also be possible to falsify this approach (or isolate exceptions to it) by showing that in a given context, there is some theory or conception of the self at work, and yet this theory or conception has absolutely nothing to do with mastering uncertainty.

In proposing this comparison, though, we need to balance two further considerations. On the one hand, we need to preserve a certain axiological charity with respect to the various historical views that will be discussed. The idea of a spectrum of possibilities reveals how certain ways of constructing the self are indexed to particular contexts, in which uncertainty can manifest and be better handled in one way rather than in another. There is no need to assume that uncertainty will manifest and be addressed in exactly the same way across all time, places, and cultures. What we do assume is that in all cultures in which the self is constructed, something that can be meaningfully understood as ‘uncertainty’ is recognized and addressed. Again, this assumption can be falsified, or exceptions can be found, but for the moment we shall take it as our departing working hypothesis.

In this perspective, it is likely that in a given context only a certain segment of the whole spectrum would appear viable, or even intelligible. If we take seriously the idea that conditions shape how we experience and understand reality, then we should also conclude that, at any given point, we might not have access to the full spectrum of possible interpretations, because some of these interpretations are blocked, hindered, or hidden by the local conditions at work. Insofar as a certain way of mastering uncertainty in a given context is seemingly successful or receives any other form of normative support, it can become paradigmatic for its context, its presence can be taken for granted, and it can even prevent the emergence of other alternative forms. However, as we are going to see, in many cases it is also possible to uncover how the emergence of a certain model of selfhood progressively led, in its unfolding, to the opening up of new possibilities.

Axiological charity means an awareness of the fact that the success or potential problems that can be imputed or associated with a specific way of constructing the self need to be understood primarily from the point of view of the concrete conditions that give rise to it. Evaluation cannot be made from nowhere. But this also entails that axiological charity (the attitude of openness and willingness to understand the values of another) cannot be equated with axiological neutrality (the judgment that all values are equally valuable or else incommensurable among each other). Precisely because we have to operate from somewhere, we cannot be entirely neutral, we cannot completely disavow our own current situatedness. The best that can be done, in this respect, is to make this situatedness explicit from the beginning and thus remain committed to a twofold oath: trying to judge particular views from an insider point of view, for as much as this is possible, and remaining aware of how our own situated position steer our way of questioning, investigating and constructing various views.

The standpoint to which the following discussion is indexed is based on two fundamental components. First, a twenty-first century standpoint about the historical trajectory of Western culture up to now, including how it has been shaped by multiple and repeated encounters with other cultures around the globe. Second, a specific way in which certain core elements of the ancient Buddhist tradition (the emphasis on the uncertainty of phenomena, the problems associated with most forms of selfhood and mastery, and the ideal of universal friendliness as a way out) align with some Western sensitivities, as if they were able to unlock long-avoided attitudes. These two components resonate in the enharmonic texture of the theme we started from.

For those who might be surprised by this combination, it might be helpful to remember that it would be a gross historical fallacy to regard Western culture as something that developed alone in its own niche. The history of the West is the history of its symbiotic relations (often based on war, conquest, domination, exploitation, but not necessarily nor always so) with the rest of the world, including the Asian continent and its cultures (to which the same idea of non-isolation should apply). In this global perspective, Buddhist ideas were spread widely for two and half millennia throughout the whole of Asia and they have never been too far out of reach for Westerners, although they might not have been acknowledged.[2] But it is obvious that since the nineteenth century at least, European and North-American audiences had access and were openly exposed to Buddhist ideas and materials.[3] Moreover, since the early twentieth century, and increasingly so for the last sixty years, Westerners even moved to Buddhist countries and took ordination there as Buddhist monks, devoting part of their time to popularizing not only ideas, but also Buddhist practices and ways of life in the West.[4] These few remarks should be sufficient to prevent any naïve sense of some exotic juxtaposition when Buddhism and Western culture are associated. In all historical likelihood, they are old acquaintances.

Making the standpoint of this exploration explicit is a way of formulating a number of questions that we shall address in the following series of lectures. Can the interaction between these two components lead to a distinctive way of understanding selfhood? Where can this understanding be located in the broader spectrum of possible ways of constructing the self? Is this understanding feasible in our current situation? What potential does it have for improving our future?

Addressing these questions will take up the rest of this series. In order to preliminary set the stage for the ensuing discussion, though, we shall now take a closer look at three Western philosophers who explored how the problem of the self emerged at different points in Western culture: Pierre Hadot (1922-2010), Michel Foucault (1926-1984), and Charles Taylor (born 1931). Their discussions will help us to further framing our departing theme, fleshing out some details of what we presented as a relational account, better understanding why this account emerged as the currently most widespread, and perhaps appreciate why the Buddhist overtones of our departing theme are in fact not that foreign to Western views.

  1. The method developed here is analogous to the one adopted by Gananath Obeysekere, Imagining Karma (2002). In his methodological postscript, Obeysekere tries to strike a balance between, on the one hand, the idea of ‘structures’ (Lévi-Strauss) and ‘ideal types’ (Weber), and, on the other hand, that of ‘family resemblances’ (Wittgenstein). He rejects the idea that structures are somehow strongly embedded in phenomena, as a sort of essentialist and immutable core that transcends historicity, but he also points out the difficulties inherent in trying to operationalize the idea of ‘family resemblances’ and study them in a systematic way. His goal is to study structures as artificial devices constructed by the researcher in order to uncover structural patterns that are immanent in the phenomena and empirical data. He explains (2002, 353): ‘resemblances exist because they are the demonstrably expectable consequences of a common form or structure (family); but that common form or structure would not have been known to us but for already available empirical information on family resemblances. Hence the logic is deliberately circular, with the one illuminating the other on the model of the hermeneutical circle. The notion of structure formulated above has emancipatory implications for ethnography, if not for the other human sciences, freeing it from the stultifying preoccupation with cultural differences, emphasis on the uniqueness of each culture, placing cultures in glass cases as it were, museologizing their relativity and in effect exoticizing them and treating them as alien, unrelated to what is often unrealistically dubbed “Western” civilization.’
  2. For instance, Jonardon Ganeri, in his The Concealed Art of the Soul (2007), appendix C (pp. 228-231), shows how Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) included discussions of well-recognizable Buddhist doctrines (among which emptiness and karma) in his widely read and influential Dictionnaire Historique et Critique (first ed. 1697). Bayle could have been familiar with these views through the reports of Jesuits missionaries in China.
  3. Besides the specific cases of William James (Lecture Four) and Friedrich Nietzsche (Lectures Eleven) to be discussed later, Andrew Tuck, Comparative Philosophy and the Philosophy of Scholarship: On the Western Interpretation of Nāgārjuna (1990), provides an enjoyable case study of the evolution of Western attitudes in the interpretation of one of the most famous Buddhist philosophers. 
  4. To mention but a very few examples among countless cases: Nyanaponika Mahathera (1901-1994), originally German, ordained as a Theravāda monk in Sri-Lanka, contributed immensely to the popularization and understanding of ancient meditation practices through a number of publications and the foundation of the Buddhist Publication Society. Remaining in the same tradition, Ñāṇavīra Thera (1920-1965), originally British, offered a highly provocative and controversial interpretation of core concepts of ancient Buddhist philosophy in his writings (the most important is Notes on Dhamma, 1963), in which he creates an original interplay between Pāli sources and Western philosophical views (mostly drawing from phenomenology and existentialism). Operating on another front, Ajahn Sumedo (born 1934), originally American, ordained in Thailand and studied with Thai forest master Ajahn Chah (1918-1992), who entrusted him with the task of establishing a Western branch of the Thai forest tradition, which is currently one of the most conspicuous brands of Theravāda Buddhist monasticism outside of Asia.


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The Tragedy of the Self by Andrea Sangiacomo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.