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Buddha and Wittgenstein on the Notion of Self


The notion of Self plays a significant role in the philosophical speculations of Buddha and Wittgenstein. For the Buddha, ‘Self’ has empirical validity without ultimate reality. However, the Real Self is transcendent. It is the Absolute which is immanent as well as transcendent. It cannot therefore be bound to thought-constructions. The Absolute is Nirvāṇa; it is peaceful, immortal and unproduced which is unspeakable and can only be realised through immediate spiritual experience. To deal with Nirvāṇa rigourously, Buddha upholds a negative method of describing it as final. He prefers to subscribe to the philosophy of silence, for the bliss of Nirvāṇa is beyond empirical reality. Some striking affinities with such Buddhist notion of Self can be found in Wittgensteinian philosophy of Self. For Wittgenstein, the ‘Self’ comes into being through one’s own world. The Self or the metaphysical subject does not belong to the world; rather it is the limit of the world. The metaphysical Self is different from the empirical Self or ego with which psychology deals. The psychological self pertains to and explains the worldly state-of-affair. Besides, the philosophical Self or I is not the human being, the human body or the human soul with psychological properties, but the boundary (not a part) of the world. Self or I is not the name of a person. It therefore is inexplicable. Since it is unspeakable, we must be silent about it, for whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. Wittgenstein finally submits that this is all that really matters in human life. A comparative study of the two great philosophers suggests that the Buddhist philosophy of Self apparently echoes in the Wittgensteinian philosophy of Self.


One of the crucial tasks of a philosopher is to reflect over the nature of self. The Indian and Western philosophers, in general, have so far established self as a substantial dimension of their philosophical endeavour. Buddha and Wittgenstein are no exception to it. In the philosophy of Buddha and Wittgenstein, the notion of self occupies a place of eminence in the construction of their respective metaphysics and epistemology. Some eminent scholars have attempted to undertake a comparative study between the philosophy of Buddha and that of Wittgenstein pertaining to certain concepts such as the process of knowing, the import of language, the function of language in thinking, mind and its acts and language game (Gudmunsen, 1977).Footnote 1 However, the study was confined to Mahāyāna Buddhism and later Wittgenstein. Still some other scholars have endeavoured to compare the Buddhist concept of steam of consciousness with Wittgenstein’s notion of continuity of a given Language Game (Andrej, 2016).Footnote 2 But, a systematic study of self in Mahāyāna Buddhism and early Wittgenstein has been lacking. I have therefore made a humble attempt in undertaking a comparative study of the very notion of self between Mahāyāna Buddhism and early Wittgenstein. Through this herculean task, the study anticipates the emergence of some striking affinities between the two great philosophies that will augment a milestone to cross-cultural comparison enabling and strengthening cross-cultural dialogue. To execute the study, I will first outline the Buddhist notion of self in general and Mahāyāna notion of self in particular. Next, I will discuss the notion of self advocated by early Wittgenstein. In this respect, the study will mostly concentrate on and confine to the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Finally, I shall be  engaged in a comparative analysis of self, attempt to explore some close parallels between the two philosophies and conclude with certain significant findings.

Buddhist Notion of Self

In classical Indian philosophy, the prevalent theories of self can be broadly split into ātmāvāda and anātmāvāda. Ātmavāda, as advocated by the Upaniṣads, was subsequently admitted into the āstika tradition. Anātmāvāda was propounded by Buddha and subsequently embraced strictly by his followers. According to ātmāvāda, self (ātman) is defined as life-breath constituting the nature of the real, eternal and the immutable. It is one with Brahman. It is self-proved (svayam-siddha), the existence of which is realised spontaneously and immediately. In other words, one is very certain about the existence of one’s own self, the existence of which can neither be suspected nor repudiated. It is the ultimate reality the human intellect can ever penetrate into. It is of the nature of pure consciousness (śuddha chaitanya), self-luminous (svayam prakāśa) and witness of all (śākṣi) which is identical with the absolute, the Brahman. But, the individual self, the jivātman is constituted of the various ephemeral constituents, such as, the sense organs, ego, mind, intellect and recollection which are the products of ignorance, avidyā. They group around the Self and turn it into the individual Self which is transcendental to it. They are just the outer coverings which hide the eternal Self. It is also known as the not-self (anātmā) which is the root cause of bondage (Sharma, 2007).Footnote 3 Nevertheless, it can never be one with the Self (ātman) merely because the Not-self exists on the bedrock of the self and get manifested by it. In other words, the Self being the nature of infinite pure consciousness or objectless consciousness, consciousness of an object is its confined revelation. As the inner Self of all beings, it is all-pervasive; though it is all-pervasive, it is not perceptible by the mundane senses. In this regard, the Kaṭha Upaniṣad states that the ātman is covered up by all objects and hence its existence is not revealed. It can only be cognised by an intelligent seer (Kaṭha Upaniṣad, 3.12.).Footnote 4 Such a notion of the Self is the principal subject matter of investigation of the Upaniṣads. To realise this Self, to see it, experience it directly by aporakṣānubhūti is the supreme goal of life. The Self has to be realised because it constitutes infinite bliss (ananta ānanda). By diving into the depth of this Self, one gets merged with the supreme Self of the nature of infinite bliss (Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad,4.3.32..Footnote 5

The Buddhists schools of Hinayāna and Mahāyāna are reluctant to accept such ātmavāda of the Upaniṣads just discussed above. Against ātmavāda, they propound anātmavāda. Hinayāna maintains that Self is a series of fleeting mental states which are real. It denies the eternity of the Self. Ātmā has only an empirical reality (prajñāpti sat); it doesn’t have ultimate reality (vastu sat). For Mahāyāna, the denial of Self is its denial as an eternal substance. It is not the denial of the absolute self. The Self and the mental states are empirically real; the Self is not an eternal substance. But then, there is indeed an Absolute Self which is Real (Sharma, 2007).Footnote 6 For Buddha, the individual self is neither an eternal substance nor a non-entity. It is neither real nor unreal but relative and phenomenal. Buddha warns those who do not realise the Real Self and mistake the not-Self as the Real Self. The mistake occurs due to avidyā. To Buddha, neither the body, mind, sensation, perception, volition or idea nor the five skandhas together can be called as the Self (Rhys Davids & C.A.F., 2007; Horner, 2004; Davids & Woodward, 2005).Footnote 7 In this regard, Mrs. Rhys Davdis aptly contends that Buddha does not deny the true Self, for the words ‘body is not the self’, ‘mind is not the self’ cannot logically be thought to imply that there is no self (Rhys Davids, 1934).Footnote 8 The true Self is transcendent and cannot be captured by the categories of mind. No doctrine of Self therefore can be formulated. To express something about the inexpressible is untenable, since to express something is to use categories of mind (Horner, 2004).Footnote 9 Buddha reiterated that all objects of thought are relative and ultimately unreal. They are perishable, miserable and devoid of ultimate reality. It gives rise to dukkha which is anātmā and anātmā is not the Self (Warren, 1922).Footnote 10 Chandradhar Sharma argues, in this regard, that Buddha does not mean that there is no Real Self. For Buddha, the Real Self is the transcendent Absolute which is also immanent in the phenomena. The Absolute is nirvāṇa. Buddha does not identify the Absolute with the Self, but the implication is clearly there. This is because, if the anātmā is perishable, that which is eternal and blissful must be the true Self or ātmā. The true Self therefore is one with nirvāṇa, for Buddha describes nirvāṇa as calm, immortal, unproduced, uncaused, unborn, undecaying, undying, eternal, abiding, unchanging, highest joy, blissful, desireless, cessation of plurality and the fearless goal (Sharma, 2007).Footnote 11 All phenomena are subject to origination and dissolution which logically imply that there must be the Absolute which is without origination, imperishable and unchanging. Had there been no such Absolute, there would have been no nirvāṇa from dukkha.

Buddha’s analysis of the nature of self and its implication in favour of the eternal self, the real self or the absolute self sounds like the Vedāntic notion of self (Andrej, 2016).Footnote 12 In this regard, Ule contends that the later Mahāyāna sūtras called Tathāgatagarbha or The Womb of Buddha expounded the concept of the universal Buddha nature that is said to reside in all living beings and is the potential of their enlightenment. This universal Buddha nature takes on the form of the absolute Self, which sounds similar to the Vedāntic concept of the Self (ātman). The central sūtra of this school, the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra, contains many positive claims regarding the Self that are attributed to Buddha himself.Footnote 13 For example, common mortals and the ignorant may measure the size of their own self and assume that it is like the size of a thumb, like a mustard seed, or like the size of a mote. When the Tathāgata speaks of Self, in no case are things thus. That is why he insists that all things have no Self. Even though he has established that all phenomena (dharmas) are devoid of the Self, it is not that they are completely devoid of the Self. What, then, is this Self? Any phenomenon (dharma) that is true (satya), real (tattva), eternal (nitya), autonomous (aiśvarya), and whose foundation is unchanging (āśraya-avipariṇāma) is termed ‘the Self’ (ātman). For the sake of beings, the Tathāgata instructs that there is the Self in all things. This is what the Tathāgata addressed to the ‘four classes’ in order to urge them to learn what dharma is.Footnote 14 Further, Ule cites a few other references in support of his claim and states that there exist many Chinese and Tibetan translations of this sūtra and only a part of its (possibly original) Sanskrit edition. They do not agree in all details but the above stated part is present in all variants of this sūtra. He asserted that he quoted the sūtra from the so-called Northern Chinese version of the sūtra made by the Indian monk Dharmakṣema around 421 CE and was translated in 1999 in English by the Japanese scholar Yamamoto.Footnote 15

Ule furthermore augmented that the Buddha also advised the monks (present at the time of his passing) that, in every situation, one must constantly meditate upon the idea (samjñā) of the Self which is said to be eternal, blissful, and pure. However, it is questionable whether, in this particular sūtra, Buddha actually defends the idea of the Self as an independent reality. In the last chapter, Buddha provides a more precise characterisation of the Self.Footnote 16 Citing the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra, Ule states that the Buddha said, “Nobly-born One, I have never taught that the six inner and outer āyatanas (sense-spheres) and the six consciousnesses are Eternal, Blissful, the Self, or Pure; but I do declare that the cessation of the six inner and outer āyatanas and the six consciousnesses arising from them is termed the Eternal. Because that is Eternal, it is the Self. Because there is Eternity and the Self, it is termed Blissful. Because it is Eternal, the Self and Blissful, it is termed Pure.”Footnote 17 The eternal Self is thus conceived as the ‘residual’ term denoting the unspeakable Reality that ‘arises’ when all saṁsāric components of our being ‘cease’, and not as the ideal or the absolute being given outside the phenomenal world.Footnote 18 Such an unspeakable reality is referred to here to nirvāṇa.

As far as nirvāṇa is concerned, it transcends speculation and hence cannot aptly be put into the categories of eternal or non-eternal, pleasure or pain, etc. For Buddha, nirvāṇa is not annihilation or momentary. He used negative dialectic, negative terms or methods for nirvāṇa as he denied the description and characterisation of nirvāṇa as being final. However, he never denied nirvāṇa itself. He adopted the method of Silence in this regard which constitutes the highest philosophy.

Dr. Lalji Shravak(Shravak, 1999)Footnote 19 observes that according to some scholars, Buddha always avoided to give a definite answer and remained silent on some metaphysical problems. This view however is not justified for Buddha responded to metaphysical questions and stated that these questions were avyakata’, i.e. that which cannot be answered in terms of ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The main purpose of Buddha’s preaching was to protect the tormented people of the world from suffering and to lead them towards cessation of suffering (nirodha) and nibbāna. Such questions are neither salutary nor connected with the essence of the Law; they neither help in cultivating moral life, nor for the removal of aversion, neither for destruction of passions nor for cessation of suffering, neither for appeasement nor for developing wisdom and neither for enlightenment nor for achieving nibbāna. Explaining this point further to Vacchagotta, Buddha asserted that since the heretics consider the psychophysical organism as āttā, they explained these questions according to their own assumptions. But, Buddha defined the body or the psycho-physical organism as paticca-samuppanna (dependently originated). Āttā is certainly different from the body. Buddha did not consider the body as the āttā and therefore asserted ‘It is not I’, ‘It is not mine’, etc.Footnote 20 Though it is different from the body, it is inexplainable (avyakata).

Dr. Shravak (Shravak, 1999)Footnote 21 furthermore added that, for the Buddha, if we struggle and quarrel with such insignificant questions as the metaphysical questions, then our situation will be like that of an arrow-pierced man who does not think about the removal of the arrow and does not care about the first aid for the wound, but asks about the arrow, as to which metal it is made of, where it came from, who has pierced him, etc. The man wrangling with such kinds of unnecessary questions would not annihilate the endless suffering of the cycle of rebirth-death. Buddha did not want to solve the problems only by logic or argument. He did not want to lead anybody towards nibbāna by simply showering blessings or by granting boons. His real purpose was rather to preach the path of morality for the emancipation of afflictions-obstructed people.Footnote 22

With regard to the unspeakability of the state of nirvāṇa, the observation of Jayatilleke (Jayatilleke, 1963)Footnote 23 is worth mentioning. To him, when the Buddha was asked whether the person who had attained the goal exists eternally without defect or not, he responded that the person who has attained the goal is without measure; he does not have that with which one can speak of him. The transempirical cannot be empirically described or understood but it can be realised and attained. The person who is freed from the conception of form, sensation, ideas, dispositions and consciousness is said to be deep, immeasurable and unfathomable, like the great ocean. Whereof one can speak of him—that he does not have and hence one has to be silent.Footnote 24

In the light of Jayatilleke’s observation, it is worth mentioning that in this respect alone, the Buddhist concept of silence resembles the Wittgenstein’s final remark that ‘what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence’.Footnote 25 He points out that such an attitude has to be distinguished from agnosticism. It was not the case that there was something that the Buddha did not know, but that what he ‘knew’ in the transcendent sense could not be conveyed in words because of the limitations of language and of empiricism (Jayatilleke, 1963).Footnote 26 He supports this claim by quoting R.L.Slater and S. Radhakrishnan thus “To me the silence is not a proof either of denial or agnosticism... Silence is on occasions the only language of true worship... Our thoughts of God are always images though they may not be graven images” (Slater, 1950).Footnote 27

However, Hinayāna, rejecting the absolutism of Buddha, rejecting the Self, advocated radical pluralism and treated nirvāṇa as an eternal positive reality, calm and blissful. Mahāyāna reestablished absolutism and treated nirvāṇa as the transcendent Absolute which was once immanent in the phenomena. At the backdrop of such view, the Buddha said, “Let the Self be your light, let the Self be your shelter; let the dharma be your light, let the dharma be your shelter; do not seek light and shelter outside” (Rhys Davids & C.A.F., 2007).Footnote 28 It is indeed very clear that if there is no true ‘self’, then who is to seek the light and where? If all objects are perishable and the light is to be sought only in the self, the reality of transcendent self is the only way indicated here. Therefore, nirvāṇa or the Absolute self is the light of all lights, the original home and life destination. This position has further been clarified by the Buddha when he stated that he who realises the real nature of the body and the various dharmas, he who realises that the five skandhas and all objects of thought are subject to origination and destruction, are perishable, miserable and devoid of self, he who gives up the notion of the ‘I’ and the ‘mine’, who rises above attachment, aversion and delusion, who is desireless and who enjoys the highest contemplation, he indeed enjoys the light of ‘self’ and ‘nirvāṇa’ (Rhys Davids & C.A.F., 2007).Footnote 29 Such a notion of the self is emphatically stressed in the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra which states that all worldly objects including the empirical self are relative and therefore ultimately unreal, anātmā. Nirvāṇa is the only real, the absolute reality which is transcendent to thought and immanent in phenomena. It can of course be realised in immediate spiritual experience which dawns through undergoing spiritual discipline. Buddha, in his last speech, asks his disciples to realise this nirvāṇa, this real self, so that they may enjoy eternal bliss and may declare like the Buddha that the cycle of birth and death has ended, the spiritual life is fulfilled, what had to be done has been accomplished and nothing remains now to be done, there is no further birth now (Rhys Davids & C.A.F., 2007).Footnote 30

It is worth mentioning here that Buddha, to the Mahāyānists, imparted the beginners the existence of empirical ego so that they might not be frightened by anātmavāda or nairātmyavāda and not give up cultivation of moral virtues. To the slightly advanced ones, Buddha urged to undertake a critical analysis which would give rise to the legitimate proposition: there is no self as an eternal spiritual substance and that what we encounter in experience is only an imposed ego on the stream of mental states. To the highly advanced, Buddha instructed that ultimately neither the empirical ego nor the mental states would be real, that both these views should be transcended in immediate experience of the Absolute (Poussin, 1903).Footnote 31 The word anātmā, for Mahāyāna, is devoid of ultimate reality, is of relative existence including the individual Self and all objects of thought. However, the ultimate reality is the true Self, the Absolute, Tathatā, Shūnyatā, Vijñāptimātratā, etc. Asaṅga calls it pure Self, universal Self and the highest Self (Levi, 1907).Footnote 32

Wittgensteinian Notion of Self

A strikingly similar notion of self can be found in the philosophy of the Austria-born philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein. A considerable part of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and a very few portion of other works deal with the notion of self. The prime question here is whether Wittgenstein believes in the reality of the self. If he does, what is the nature of the self? To begin with, Wittgenstein contends that his attitude towards the soul is rooted in his attitude towards religion. For him, religion teaches that the soul exists even when the body disappears. Religious teaching makes him understand so many things pertaining to the reality of the self. Indicating towards the very being of the Self, Wittgenstein advocates that for a human being, the consequential is often hidden behind an impenetratable veil. It is evident that there is something under there, but one cannot see it, the veil reflects the daylight (Winch, 1980).Footnote 33 In the Tractatus, he advocates that the issue of immortality of the Soul cannot be established with certainty within the framework of the phenomenal world of space and time. This, however, does not mean that there is no Soul nor does it mean that it is immortal. Wittgenstein, like Buddha, tends to maintain a middle path and therefore submits that the Soul as formulated by the psychologists does not exist (Pears & McGuinness, 2012).Footnote 34

Wittgenstein reflecting over the nature of ‘Self’ seems to subscribe the view of subjective idealism. To him, “What brings the Self into philosophy is the fact that ‘the world is my world’” (Pears & McGuinness, 2012).Footnote 35 In order to establish the link between the Self and the world, Wittgenstein, like a typical subjective idealist, upholds that the Self does not belong to the world; it is rather a limit to the world (Pears & McGuinness, 2012).Footnote 36 In the Note Book, he states that things are significant by virtue of their relation to one’s will (Anscombe & Von, 1961).Footnote 37 Further, it is not a part and parcel of the objective manifestation like stocks and stones. It is therefore beyond any kind of verbal communication, but then it is capable of being shown (Anscombe & Von, 1961).Footnote 38 It is thus evident that although the Self is not a part of the world, its being is foundational to epistemic acts. To quote Wittgenstein, “Things acquire “significance” only through their relation to my will” (Anscombe, 1961).Footnote 39

However, the treatment of Self in philosophy, to him, is certainly distinguished from the treatment of self in the field of psychology (Pears & McGuinness, 2012).Footnote 40 It seems Wittgenstein wishes to distinguish the empirical ego or self, as the subject matter of psychology, from the philosophical self. In the Notebooks, he contended that the philosophical I is not the human being, nor the human body or the human soul with the psychological properties, but the boundary (not a part) of the world. The human body, however, a body in particular, is a part of the world among others, stones, etc. (Anscombe, 1961).Footnote 41 Further, Wittgenstein insists, “The I, the I is what is deeply mysterious” (Anscombe, 1961).Footnote 42 In this context, McGuinness maintains, “One who has this insight does not identify himself with the physiological or psychological properties and the life of a particular human being. The higher or metaphysical self is identical with the whole world” (McGuinness, 2002).Footnote 43 Through these assertions, Wittgenstein makes it very clear that the ‘I’ is not an object. I objectively confront every object, but not the ‘I’. (Anscombe, 1961).Footnote 44 To present the link between the self and the world in another way, Wittgenstein puts forth an analogy of the eye and the visual field. Just as the eye sees everything except itself, so the Self is not a part of the world, though experiences it, but its limit. (Pears & McGuinness, 2012).Footnote 45 Max Black, an established Wittgensteinian scholar, observes that the Self is “that outside the world on which the existence of everything depends – it might plausibly be identified with God as with my very self” (Black, 1964).Footnote 46 It thus appears that epistemic act of any kind is preceded by the Self transcending the ‘given’. To put it in the words of Copleston, “Thus Kant might say with Ludwig Wittgenstein that ‘the subject does not belong to the world but it is a limit of the world.’” (Copleston, 1999).Footnote 47

Wittgenstein seems to be highly influenced by Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer holds that the Self is that by which alone we know everything; it is the bearer of the world, the Universal condition always presupposed for all appearance, all that is object: for whatever is, is only for the subject. (Schopenhauer).Footnote 48 In the similar way, Wittgenstein argues, “The inexpressible (what I found enigmatic and cannot express) perhaps provides the background against which whatever I was able to express acquires meaning.” (Winch, 1980).Footnote 49 It is fascinating, in this context, to note the observation of R.C.Pradhan. He states that Wittgenstein’s metaphysical self or limit-self is without any attribute like the Upaniṣadic self that is beyond language and mind. (Pradhan, 2003).Footnote 50 R.Balasubramaian observes that what Wittgenstein calls the metaphysical subject or the philosophical ‘I’ is different not only from the body and the senses but also from the mind and the psychological ‘I’. Nevertheless, in our language game, we speak of the Self as ‘I’. (Balasubramanian, 1996).Footnote 51

Wittgenstein was inclined to assert that the only strictly meaningful propositions are those of natural science. Unfortunately, such propositions can never touch what is really important in human life: the mystical. The mystical has to be contemplated in silence, for whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. (Audi, 2009).Footnote 52 At the backdrop of this view lies the distinction between ‘saying’ and ‘showing’ Wittgenstein wished to make. At one place, he writes, “A proposition shows its sense. A proposition shows how things stand if it is true. And it says that they do so stand.” (Pears & McGuinness, 2012).Footnote 53 In this regard, the logical positivists maintained that ‘saying’ consists of ‘what we can speak about’ which exhausts all that matters in human life. The silence of Wittgenstein therefore indicates that there was nothing at all to talk about the part of life he valued the most. (Choudhary, 2007).Footnote 54 But Wittgenstein, on the other hand, seems to uphold something different. His approach to silence is constructive in the sense that it is not a dumb man’s silence but silence born out of an inevitability of expression. (Ganguly, 1968).Footnote 55 The silence may amount to mean that the I is not a something, but not a nothing either. The I has not been reduced to nothing and also does not have the status of an object in the world of something. (Sluga & Stern, 1996).Footnote 56

Parallels Between Buddha and Wittgenstein

The following similarities arrived at by the comparative study between Mahāyāna Buddhism and early Wittgenstein does not entail any sort of influence that Mahāyāna Buddhism might have exercised upon Wittgenstein. The philosophical ideas expressed by Wittgenstein can be interpreted in the light of the concepts and theories associated with Buddhism. Some scholars are of the opinion that the way utter uncommon ideas are found between the early and later Wittgenstein, a similar distinction can also be made between early Buddhism of Pali texts and the later Buddhism developed by Mahāyāna philosophers. Some of them even go to the extent of claiming that “much of what the later Wittgenstein had to say was anticipated about 1800 years ago in India” (Gudmunsen, 1977).Footnote 57

Some close affinities between the Mahāyāna Buddhist notion of self and that of early Wittgenstein become self-evident from the aforementioned discussion. Firstly, for Buddha, self is neither an eternal substance nor a non-entity. It is neither real nor unreal but relative and phenomenal. Wittgenstein, on the other hand, responded in the same tone. With regard to the notion of ‘silence’, Wittgenstein tends to uphold that the self is not a something, but not a nothing either. That is, the self has not been reduced to nothing nor does it have the status of an object in the world of something. Secondly, for Buddha, the self is neither the body nor mind; neither is it sensation nor the pañca skandhas. In the same vein, Wittgenstein asserts that the philosophical I is not the human being, nor the human body or the human soul with psychological properties. Thirdly, for Buddha, the real self is transcendent absolute which is equivalent to nirvāṇa. In this respect, Wittgenstein strictly believes in and adheres to the view that the I or the Self is deeply mysterious. To put it in the words of Max Black, the Self is that ‘outside’ the world in which the existence of everything depends. Finally, for Buddha, nirvāṇa can be described only negatively as neither real nor unreal, neither eternal nor non-eternal and so on so forth. Often, he preferred to maintain ‘silence’ over such an issue since its description would lead to logical contradiction. Wittgenstein, on the other hand, would humbly submit that the mystical ‘which is really important in human life’ has to be contemplated in ‘silence’. The ‘silence’ is born out of inevitability of expression. So, the mystical self, to him, is inexpressible.


The philosophical study of the two great philosophers suggests that the Buddhist notion of Self apparently echoes in the Wittgensteinian notion of Self. Despite their radically diverse backgrounds and philosophical speculations for obvious reasons, one could aptly be interpreted in the light of another. In my search for Buddhist parallels in the Wittgensteinian philosophy, I have dared to consult only those areas of the his writings such as the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and others like the Notebooks and Culture and Value, wherein Wittgenstein seems to have a clear Buddhist tone. In contrast, I didn’t dare to venture into certain other writings of Wittgenstein such as the Philosophical Investigations or the later Wittgenstein wherein the author has repudiated the ideas expressed in his earlier thesis, that is, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus or the Early Wittgenstein. For instance, in the Tractatus, he wrote that the philosophical I is not the human being, nor the human body or the human soul with the psychological properties which he contrasted in the Philosophical Investigations wherein he emphatically contended that the human body is the best picture of the human soul. (Anscombe, 1953)Footnote 58 In the Philosophical Investigations, he claimed that if one sees the behaviour of a sentient being, one sees its soul. (Anscombe, 1953)Footnote 59 However, unlike Descartes, he proposed that mind is not the Soul. Though the study appears to be brief, I firmly believe that the aforementioned parallels have initiated a giant step towards strengthening cross-cultural dialogue between the two great philosophies.


  1. Gudmunsen (1977). Wittgenstein and Buddhism. New York: Macmillan Press, pp. 122–125.

  2. Andrej (2016). The Concept of Self in Buddhism and Brahmanism: Some Remarks. Asian Studies IV (XX), 1, pp. 81–95.

  3. Sharma (2007). The Advaita Tradition in Indian Philosophy. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, p. 25.

  4. Kaṭha Upaniṣad, 3.12.

  5. Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, 4.3.32.

  6. Sharma (2007) op.cit, p.26.

  7. Rhys Davids, & C.A.F. (2007)(Tr.) The Dialogues of the Buddha, 3 Volumes: Digha Nikāya 15. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.; Horner, I.B. (2004) (Tr.) The Collection of the Middle Length Sayings, 3 Volumes: Majjhima Nikāya 72. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.; Rhys Davids, Mrs. & Woodward, F.L. (2005). (Tr.). Kindred Sayings: translation of the Samyutta Nikāya 4 Volumes: Samyutta Nikāya 44,8. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

  8. Rhys Davids (1934). Outlines of Buddhism, p.46.

  9. Horner (2004). (Tr.). Majjhima Nikāya 72, op. cit.; Rhys Davids, T.W. & C.A.F. (2007)(Tr.) Digha Nikāya 1., op.cit.

  10. Warren (1922). (Tr.). Buddhism in Translation: Samyuta Nikāya 22, 15. (Harvard Oriental Series, Vol. III). Cambridge, Mass.

  11. Sharma (2007). op. cit., pp.28–29.

  12. Andrej. op.cit., pp. 89–90.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Ibid.

  15. Ibid.

  16. Ibid.

  17. Ibid.

  18. Ibid.

  19. Shravak (1999). Buddha's Rejection of the Brahmanical Notion of Ātman. In Dessein Bart (ed.), The Notion of Self in Buddhism, Communication & Cognition, Vo1.32, Nr.1/2 (pp.9–20).

  20. Ibid.

  21. Ibid.

  22. Ibid.

  23. Jayatilleke (1963). Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, pp.475–476.

  24. Ibid, p.476.

  25. Pears & McGuinness (2012). op. cit., Tractatus 7.

  26. Jayatilleke (1963). op. cit.

  27. Slater (1950). Paradox and Nirvana. Chicago, p. 121; cp. also Radhakrishnan, S. The Teaching of Buddha by Speech and by Silence. The Hibbert Journal, 35, pp. 350 ff.

  28. Rhys Davids & C.A.F. (2007). (Tr.) Digha Nikāya, 16., op.cit.

  29. Ibid.

  30. Ibid., 10.

  31. Poussin, Bib.Budd.IV. (1903). Mūlamādhyamika Kārikā 18, 6. St.Petersbourg.

  32. Levi (1907). (ed.). Mahāyānasūtrālaṅkāra IX, 23. Paris.

  33. Winch (1980). Ludwig Wittgenstein—Culture and Value. Oxford: Blackwell, p.92.

  34. Pears and McGuinness (2012). Ludwig Wittgenstein: Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.4312. London: Routledge, p.87. (Hereafter TLP).

  35. TLP, p.70.

  36. Ibid., 5.632, p.69.

  37. Anscombe, & Von Wright, (eds.), Anscombe, (tr.) (1961). Ludwig Wittgenstein: Notebooks 1914–1916, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, p.84e. (Hereafter NB).

  38. Ibid., p.82e. Also see TLP, 6.522.

  39. NB, p.84e.

  40. TLP, 5.641.

  41. Ibid.; Also see NB, p.82e.

  42. NB, p.49e.

  43. McGuinness (2002). Approaches to Wittgenstein: Collected Papers. London: Routledge, p.15.

  44. NB, p.80e.

  45. TLP, 5.632–633.

  46. Black (1964). A Companion to Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus”. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.309.

  47. Copleston (1999). A History of Philosophy, Vol.6, Burnes and Oates. Kent: Tunbridge Wells, p.284.

  48. Schopenhauer, Aurther. Die Welf, Sec. 2, M.Black’s Translation.

  49. Von Wright & Nyman (eds.) (tr.) Winch, P. (1980). op.cit, p.23.

  50. Pradhan (2003). R.Balasubramanian on Wittgenstein: The Search for Advaitic Roots. In S.Rao and G.Mishra (eds), in Paraṁparā: Essays in Honour of R.Balasubramanian. Delhi: Indian Council of Philosophical Research, p.241.

  51. Balasubramanian (1996). Primal Spirituality of the Vedas: Its Renewal and Renaissance. Delhi: Indian Council of Philosophical Research, p.16.

  52. Audi (2009). The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd Ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 978.

  53. TLP, 4.022.

  54. Choudhary (2007). Wittgensteinian Philosophy and Advaita Vedānta. New Delhi: D.K.Printworld (P) Ltd. P.140.

  55. Ganguly (1968). Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: A Preliminary. Santiniketan: Vishva-Bharati, p.114.

  56. Sluga & Stern (1996). The Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.32.

  57. Gudmunsen (1977). op.cit., p.124.

  58. Anscombe (1953) (Tr.) Ludwig Wittgenstein Josef Johann Philosophical Investigations, II.iv,178e. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

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Maharana, S.K. Buddha and Wittgenstein on the Notion of Self. J. Indian Counc. Philos. Res. 39, 43–54 (2022).

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  • Self
  • Empirical ego
  • Transcendental
  • I
  • Silence