The Self, the Scotsman and the Buddha

Take a moment, find a comfortable chair and sit down for a while. Take a deep breath and guide your attention towards your internal thoughts and perceptions. What is it you experience? Perhaps a particular sensation, an itch on your nose or a feeling of fullness in your stomach, maybe a meandering thought comes and goes or feelings of moderate contentedness or annoyance. Now, I want you to turn your attention further in and try to observe the ‘I’, the ‘me’ or the ‘self’ that is having all these experiences. Aside from these fleeting perceptions can you observe anything else, something that exists separate from them in a more fixed and continuous sense, something that is like the ‘I’ or the ‘self’ that we speak of when we describe ourselves to others?

If you are struggling, don’t worry you are in good company. David Hume, an eighteenth century Scottish philosopher, whilst musing on this same problem came to the following conclusion;

“If any impression gives rise to the idea of self, that impression must continue invariably the same, thro’ the whole course of our lives; since self is suppos’d to exist after that manner. But there is no impression constant and invariable. […] For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception. […] I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.”

Around two thousand years previously Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), in what is now Nepal and northeastern India, came to a strikingly similar conclusion. The Buddha did not write down his teachings so we have to rely on the works of later Buddhist theologians. According to the concept of Anatta (also referred to as Anatman) or ‘not-self’ there is no fixed autonomous entity which makes up the ‘self’ or the ego instead there exists a bundle of aggregates of existence known as the five skandhas of which our self is just a temporary creation. This can be understood in one of two ways according to the two main schools of Buddhism. According to Theravada Buddhism this means that the ego is an delusion and once freed from this delusion the individual can enjoy Nirvana. Mahayana Buddhism there is no real substance to all physical forms and that the self is to be thought of in the same way.

There seems to be something strikingly similar in Hume’s and Gautama Buddha’s conception of the self, common to both is the idea that the self is not a fixed and static entity but rather a bundle of perceptions that is in a permanent state of flux. However they are still greatly separated by their differing aims and methods. Hume described the purpose of his work as “to analyse different ways of knowing and to discover the principles which would meet the most critical examination” and summarised his project in the subtitle to the Treatise as “an attempt to introduce the experimental method into moral subjects” - for Hume “moral philosophy” is “the science of human nature”. Hume wanted to use scientific methods to study the human condition. Gautama Buddha sought to bring about an end of suffering in the world. Through spiritual contemplation the Buddha felt he had became enlightened or awakened and sought to help other people become so as well. He spent the remainder of his life travelling and teaching his methods of enlightenment and his metaphysical conception of reality.

Detractors of Hume sometimes say that his denial of the self is contradictory in that there is clearly some kind of self that is doing the denying. This is to misunderstand the point that Hume was trying to make. The argument is not that there is no such thing as a “self”, in that you or I do not exist, but instead that the way we habitually think of our selves turns out to be illusionary on further inspection. To say that something is an illusion does not mean that it does not exist, only that it is not as it first appears. Hume’s criticism has to be within the framework of his understanding of sense impressions and perceptions. For Hume it is through the power of the imagination that we ascribe a continued existence of objects perceived through the continually changing impressions they make on our senses. His arguments are levelled against Descartes who held that the existence of the self was unquestionable and self evident. “The identity, which we ascribe to the mind of man, is only a fictitious one, and of a like kind with that which we ascribe to vegetables and animal bodies. It cannot, therefore, have a different origin, but must proceed from a like operation of the imagination upon like objects.” (Hume)

Up until very recently it was thought that there was no evidence that Hume was aware of Buddhist ideas, but a recent article by Alison Gopnik shows that it was at least possible for Hume to encounter them through contact with Jesuit scholars, who had some direct knowledge of Buddhism, during his time at the Royal College of La Fleche.

This is meant as only the shortest of introductions, if your interest has been caught check out some of the links below.