To the noble Sangha,

I am reading Sources of the Self, Charles Taylor’s book on moral philosophy, and he makes some philosophical claims which I think are worth examining from the viewpoint of the madhyamika doctrine of emptiness, at least if like me you enjoy this kind of speculation!

He is arguing, against modern naturalistic-reductionist conceptions of existence, that the self exists; more specifically, he claims existence for the self as an entity situated in a definite moral landscape. He further argues for the reality of the qualitative distinctions we draw within that moral landscape. He takes great care to express, and refute, reductionistic arguments against the existence of the self, some of which I recognized as similar to traditional Buddhist arguments, especially as found in the tradition on emptiness. Was Taylor, by refuting those arguments, refuting the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness of the self? Thinking this through helped me refine my understanding of emptiness, yet leaves some questions unanswered, which I will leave you to meditate on…

Let me first summarize Taylor’s argument:
We have inherited from Locke a conception of the self which is primarily characterized by self-consciousness, and self-awareness. Hume has denied finding any such self, and many philosophers have noted that one problem with such a self is that of continuity. Taylor singles out a version of the argument originating from Derek Parfit, but it will be familiar to Buddhist readers: When all that constitute identity may change over a lifetime, how can we speak of a single self? (See also the classical fable of the Ship of Theseus.) Buddhism gives the most extreme answer to that question, that the self dies and is reborn at every instant. Taylor argues that this objection is grounded in an overly limited view of the self, which is essentially described as an object of observation (even though it is also the observer.) Objects of observations exist in a very definite sense: They are considered in absolute terms, not with respect to what they mean to us; it can be described explicitly, yet it exists independently of all description; and its existence is independent of its environment. These characteristics hold for physical objects, the objects of natural sciences, but Taylor argues that they do not hold for the self; thus the denial of the self espoused by reductionists.

Of course, those characteristics of objective existence are very close to the idea of absolute existence, which madhyamika doctrine denies to the self, (and to the world for good measure!); in the case of the self, Taylor agrees so far. Instead, the self is described by madhyamika as having relative existence, which is sometimes characterized as being “no more than a name.” Now, to be honest, the concept of relative existence is much debated within Buddhism; I am myself very fond of Thich Nhat Hanh’s poetic descriptions of interbeing. Things (and selves) exist only in interdependency; they exist because all that has nurtured them; and cannot exist on their own. I also relate to the more abstract idea that things are a standing wave in a network of interactions. We give a name to this temporary nexus of interaction, yet its boundaries are fluid at best. (This standing wave metaphor has often been related to waves of quantum physics, and though I am sensitive to that imagery I do not take it literally myself.) Note that in neither case is the existence of an underlying reality flatly denied; saying that selves are no more than a name is not exactly the same is saying that they are wholly illusory. Yet, their unity is illusory, and their existence as something distinct and well-defined that can be an object of discourse is seen as a trick of language, and a deeply misleading one at that.

Enter Taylor: What kind of existence does he assert for the self, exactly, if it is not objective (absolute) existence? He argues that the self is, in a deep way, what we have to say (to ourselves, but essentially also to others) about our identity. When asked who we are, we want to situate ourselves as beings in a community; this starts, at the most basic level, with the name (I am Marc-Antoine), and according to context, or society, we may want to introduce multiple elements of lineage (I’m the son of Karl and Geneviève), social role (let’s say I’m a consultant for now…), community (I am Québécois); and eventually moral (or spiritual) engagement (I am a Buddhist; I am an environmentalist, I believe in deliberative democracy…)

Taylor insists that this last element is essential to human identity; we cannot think of ourselves but as situated in a moral landscape, having certain values, and living by them to a greater or lesser degree. The values here are strong moral values, not utilitarian preferences; though they exist within a specific moral framework which can be shaped by culture, they are not arbitrary insofar as they provide an absolute evaluation of my preferences. More important, any account of who I am (and why I make certain choices) must ultimately refer to these values; any reductionistic attempt to explain who I am which fails to refer to those values will feel inadequate to me, and as such will not be the best account of my self. As such, because they are key components of the best account of the self, the values exist (though of course not as objects); and, in part because it is situated in the landscape framed by those values, the self exist. Does this sound circular? Not really. Both appeals to reality are grounded in a discursive conception of existence.

So, for Taylor, the moral orientations exist because of their explanatory value; this grounds them in discourse. Similarly, we exist as moral selves because we situate ourselves with respect to a space of moral questions, which we try to answer for ourselves; those questions, being questions, exist in a space of discourse; discourse is essentially a collective space. (Yes, Taylor uses spatial metaphors a lot. I am surprised he does not quote Lakoff on the deep spatial grounding of most linguistic metaphors.) More important, we try to find (moral) meaning to our lives as a narrative whole; and it is insofar as we want our lives to make sense as a whole that it does in (discursive) fact have a unity, despite the essential changes that may traverse it. The self exists as a continuous identity through time, pace Parfit, because that identity is what we try to find meaning for as a whole.

So… Taylor shows that the self exists in some way (better than in my short rendition of his complex argument, incidentally.) Where does this leave Buddhist selflessness? Is this kind of existence equivalent to the Buddhist idea of relative existence, or does it carry more ontological baggage? Certainly, discourse seems to be the last word in both cases; but the implication in Buddhism is that the name carries a misleading illusion of a stable identity, which Taylor clearly affirms. So in the end, it’s all about identity.

I must say I always struggled with what I perceive as the Buddhist ambivalence about identity. On the one side, we have selflessness; on the other reinacarnation. Of what, then? I remember reading once that the Buddha denied reincarnation, on the basis of selflessness. But I am a Tibetan Buddhist, and reincarnated teachers play a rather large role in that Sangha! A slight paradox, not that I do not relish paradox for its own sake, but I also enjoy to think my way around them. So far, I have handled this one with my own, rather iconoclastic interpretation of reincarnation: Just as the atoms of our flesh may be recycled by more than one worm simultaneously, the mental skandhas and other habitual formations may also somewhat disperse yet be re-used in other sentient beings. (Of course Tulkus incarnate rather than reincarnate, and might preserve some more unity in that distinct process.)

But this is quite heterodox; I once asked a Geshe about what reincarnates, and was given an answer about a most subtle soul, which had left me thoroughly unsatisfied at the time. Yet, I think Taylor finally gave me the key, when he speaks of narrative unity. From another angle: If we accept that the self dies every instant, what then would karma attach to? Why would “I” incur consequences of past actions? The answer is that we give meaning to our life as a whole, and only as a whole; in that sense, our self is precisely what karma acts on (and where it originates.) Karma is described as impersonal in Buddhism, yet it only makes sense when interpreted in moral terms. Discursively, that is. I am not saying that Karma as a pattern does not exist (nor that it does) as an external (absolute) reality; but the only sense in which it can exist for us is in our narrated self.

So this is what discursive existence of the self means; and after all, though its continuous existence seems to go against some of the Buddhist arguments for selflessness (which I now interpret as arguments against absolute existence) I finally decided that it may after all be compatible with relative existence, which in turn ends up being a bit more than I bargained for, as the locus of karma… Oh, and reincarnation? Well, I could quip about narrative reinterpretation but that would just be flippant. I did say there were still open questions. Back to the cushion!

In the Dharma,
Marc-Antoine