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Selfhood and the Problem of Sameness: Some Reflections

Abstract

This paper examines the problem of sameness in terms of being it the classical problem of personal identity and various philosophical positions on the existence of the self as a substantive subject. I call this subject an ethical Self, which involves different notions of ego, being, substance, and personhood. The denial of the existence of a permanent self by philosophers like Hume and Buddhists does not seem justified in regard to one's identity or sameness over time. The no-self theorists do not provide any strong ground for how to explain the notion of personhood and one's actions in a moral space without accepting a substantive self as a doer that continues over time. They certainly seem to have failed in establishing a logical connection between their no-self theories on the one hand and the necessity of an ethical self in their philosophical accounts on the other. Rejecting the no-self theory in defense of the self (soul) theory of personal identity, I conclude this paper with a note that sameness of a person over time is the prerequisite of morality, law, and present and future plans and that there is no harm in considering a permanent self, as Jīva of Jainism, to solve the problem of personal identity. There is also no harm in preferring the self theory over the no-self theory since the former, unlike the latter, does give a meaning to spirituality and transcendence.

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Notes

  1. In her scholarly article ‘Self and Soul’, Calkins (1908) has shown significant parallels between the concept of Soul and the concept of Self when he explicitly observes ‘that the contemporary conception of self is a reaffirmation and amplification of certain central factors of the earlier concept of soul. It is most important to recognise this fundamental likeness of the two doctrines […] that most of the older thinkers more or less consciously use the terms ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’ as synonymous for “self,” or “I”’ (p. 275). However, she then goes on suggesting the readers that the ‘admission of the likeness of “self” to “soul” should not, however, obscure the important differences between the earlier and the later conception’ (p. 276).

  2. Olson (2007) makes a little contrasting claim when he writes that ‘People’s persistence conditions, and for that matter their metaphysical nature in general, would derive not from their being people, but from their being animals, or immaterial substances, or whatever metaphysical sort of person they are. Person would not be a kind that determines the identity conditions of its members’ (p. 45).

  3. Western scholars equate the self (soul) with the mind but in the eastern traditions, mainly in Hindu philosophical schools, the soul is believed to be an eternal entity that is completely distinct from the mind; the mind in these schools is translated as manas. So, it would be a serious mistake to ignore this uniqueness of the soul if a holistic approach is adopted to deal with the problem of personal identity.

  4. Penelhum (1976) attempts to indicate that Hume’s ‘explicit and implicit use of the idea of the self is free of outright contradictions, even if it is full of gaps and complexities’ (p. 23).

  5. A systematic analysis of different criteria and theories of personal identity has been explicitly given by Garrett (1998), who writes that ‘there are three broad accounts or criteria of personal identity over time: the physical criterion, the psychological criterion, and the mixed criterion. These criteria do not purport just to offer quite general ways of telling or of finding out who is who. They also purport to specify what the identity of persons over time consists in: what it is to be the same person over time. According to the physical criterion, the identity of a person over time consists in the obtaining of some relation of physical continuity (typically either bodily continuity or brain continuity). […] According to the psychological criterion, the identity of a person over time consists in the obtaining of relations of psychological continuity (overlapping memory chains, or memory together with the retention of other psychological features such as well-entrenched beliefs, character, basic desires, and so on). […] The distinctive claim of the mixed criterion is that no version of either the physical or psychological criterion is correct. The best account of a person’s identity over time will make reference to both physical and psychological continuities.’.

  6. I will discuss in section II that Buddhism, unlike Hume who treats the self as an arbitrarily formed bundle of perceptions, reduces a person to a causally compound continuum of the five khandas, namely matter or body (rūpa); sensations or feelings (vedanā); perceptions of sense-objects (saṃjñā/saññā); mental formations (saṃskāras/sankhāras); and consciousness or awareness (vijñāna/viññāṇa).

  7. The inner-outer worlds dichotomy is precisely taken to be equivalent to psychological–physical or mental–bodily dichotomy. However, it may also refer to the Self and Not-self dichotomy or the mind-world dichotomy. Studd and Cox (2019, p. 23) have given a comprehensible understanding, when they write that ‘Our inner world includes sensations, our private thoughts and emotions. It is both our biology and our psychology. The idea of “inner” is in large part, the way in which we define ourselves. The outer world is everything that is “other”, or not self. The duality of Inner/Outer is another way of languaging the theme of Self/Other.’.

  8. An encounter between Buddha and Vacchagotta (Saṃyutta Nikāya 4.10; Bodhi, 2000) is frequently cited in Buddhist literature and corresponding researches wherein the latter asks Buddha whether there is a self. Buddha remained silent. Then Vacchagotta asks if that means there is no self. Again, Buddha remained silent. Later Buddha explains his silence to his disciple Ananda but that too doesn’t favour the self:

    If, Ānanda, when asked by the Wanderer: ‘Is there a self?’. I had replied to him: ‘there is a self’, then, Ānanda that would be siding with those ascetics and Brahmins who are Eternalists.”.

    And if, Ānanda, when I was asked by him: ‘Is there no self?’ I had answered, there is no self this would have been siding with those ascetics and Brahmins who are Annihilationists.”.

    If, Ānanda, when I was asked by the Wanderer Vacchagotta: ‘Is there a self?’ I had answered, ‘there is a self’, would this have been consistent on my part with the arising of the knowledge that all phenomena are nonself?”.

    No, venerable sir.”.

    And if, when I was asked by him: ‘Is there no self?’ I had answered, ‘there is no self’, the Wanderer Vacchagotta, already confused, would have fallen into even greater confusion, thinking, ‘it seems that the self I formerly had does not exist now.” (pp. 1393-1394). Also see Bodhi, 2012.

  9. See Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra and Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra.

  10. Raju (1985) observes that ‘it is not clear as to what the above Buddhist school means by “body:” it may simply be the physical body, or it may be the psycho-physical body, including the sensorium, mind, and consciousness, which together constitute what they call pudgala (individual). In either case, there is much that can be said in favour of this view. Yet, there is a lacuna in the above argument. The body may be accepted as the instrument of both cognition and action; but whose instrument is it? It is a guided instrument, not an unguided one; I guide, direct my body and the senses and organs of action according to my interests. An instrument is utilized and guided by another entity. Even if we interpret the word indriya as the Buddhists do, viz., as force, power, it is not an unguided power or force. The I which Buddhism seeks to explain away is missing in the argument; otherwise, it presents an important idea’ (p. 174).

  11. Pathak can be of much help to understand the limit of human language in capturing mystical experiences. See Pathak (2021).

  12. Sāṅkhya-Kārikā, V. XIX. Bhāsya declares that ‘the Spirit is endowed with perception and inactivity. Since, the Spirit is a bystander and indifferent, therefore it is a spectator and therefore also the non-agent of those actions. The three Attributes, Sattva, Rajas and Tamas function as agent and action, and not the spirit’ (See Mainkar, (1972), p. 97).

  13. See Nemichandra/Ghoshal (1917/1986)’s Dravya-Saṃgraha, V. 2.

  14. Some might observe that the moral and legal practices are not consistently of the same kind. For example, if there is ‘moral transformation’ in a person, say, from a criminal to a saint, then should the ex-criminal be punished for the crimes committed in the past simply on the ground that he carries the same ‘self’? Or if a saint has become a criminal, should he still be rewarded for the good deeds committed in the past (though we may know that he is going to misuse the rewards? They might argue that an affirmative answer to these questions is not obvious, and that if morality is the ground of sameness/self, the ‘moral transformation’ of a person implies not-sameness/no-self. Jaina philosophers would respond to this objection by arguing that a transformation of the individual self at any level in life is though good, such a transformation of the self is totally irrelevant from a moral perspective since because of the karma particles, the non-liberated individual self (or say the ordinary self of ours) must face the consequences of its wrong action performed before. This makes it clear that a saint of today who committed a criminal act a few years ago would be treated as a criminal for that particular act and should accordingly be punished. His saintly aura has no exceptional escape, as far as Jaina’s metaphysical ethics is concerned.

  15. Self-focused spirituality in Buddhism is almost denied since they don’t believe in a permanent essentialist soul. They do talk about practical values but that too without giving a convincing reason as far as suffering and nirvāna are concerned. In Vedānta philosophy, practical values are secondary since the Ātman ultimately doesn’t go through the phases of suffering and the process of liberation because of its essential substantive purity. In Jaina, there is a value and balance of everything. For them, this worldly life is important as much as the spiritual life and liberation. And this life is not simply a means to the spiritual life as many Tirthankaras have lost their lives saving minor insects and other selves, and by doing their karmas and performing their moral duties or injunctions in a strict sense. Indeed, for Jainism, both the realms of phenomenal and spiritual are of equal importance as far as their moral belief is concerned.

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Pathak, K.M. Selfhood and the Problem of Sameness: Some Reflections. J. Indian Counc. Philos. Res. (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40961-022-00284-8

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Keywords

  • Selfhood
  • Identity
  • Language
  • Spirituality
  • Morality
  • Sameness
  • NST