The Cartesian Self and Buddhist Alternatives

Introduction

Descartes provides a classic example of a individual, substantialist conception of the self, and Buddhists deny precisely such a view.  Consequently, they present intriguing alternatives for students. Theravada Buddhist argue that there is no self, but that it is conventionally useful to talk as if there are selves.  Mahayana Buddhists frequently argue that there is no completely individual self, but there is a transpersonal self that we are all manifestations of.

Courses

  • Introduction to Philosophy
  • Metaphysics
  • Personal Identity
  • Comparative Philosophy

Assigned Texts

  • Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans. Donald A. Cress, 3rd ed. (Hackett Publishing, 1993), pp. 13-23.
  • William Edelglass and Jay Garfield, eds., Buddhist Philosophy:  Essential Readings (Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 265-274.
  • Justin Tiwald and Bryan W. Van Norden, eds., Readings in Later Chinese Philosophy:  Han to the 20th Century (Hackett Publishing, 2014), pp. 86-91.

Optional Text

  • N.K.G. Mendis, trans., Questions of King Milinda: An Abridgement of the Milindpañha, reprint (Kandy, Sri Lanka:  Buddhist Publication Society, 1993), pp. 29-32 (on why there is no self), 39-41 and 58-59 (on reincarnation without selves), 47-49 (rejecting the self as subject of experiences).

Additional Texts for Instructor (Optional)

  • Francis Cook, Hua-yen Buddhism:  The Jewel Net of Indra (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977).  Clear introduction to the philosophy of Fazang (Fa-tsang).
  • Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, rev. ed. (Grove Press, 1974).  Introduction by a Theravada Buddhist.
  • Bryan W. Van Norden, Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto (New York:  Columbia University Press, 2017).  Chapter 2:  Traditions in Dialogue walks the reader through the Cartesian and Buddhist arguments on the self.

Recommended Schedule

Day

Topic

Reading

1

Cartesian Doubt

Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, First Meditation, pp. 13-16. (Optional:  Synopsis of the Following Six Meditations, pp. 8-12.)

2

The Cartesian Self

Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, Second Meditation, pp. 17-23.

3

The Theravada Buddhist Challenge

“Theravada Philosophy of the Mind and Person” in Edelglass and Garfield, pp. 265-274. (Optional Reading:  Mendis, pp. 29-32, 39-41, 58-59, 47-49.)

4

The Mahayana Buddhist Challenge

Fazang, “The Rafter Dialogue,” from Tiwald and Van Norden, pp. 86-91.

 

Background Information

The readings lead the student from a more familiar conception of the self (one which they may already take for granted) to a well argued critique of that conception, onto a quite challenging metaphysical dialogue on the nature of identity in general. More specifically, the students engage arguments that (1) the self is a soul that is the experiencer of mental states but is not identical with any of them, (2) there is no self, but it is convenient and appropriate to sometimes talk as if there is one, just as we can talk about a “chariot” even though there is no “thing” that is a chariot, and (3) since all identity is relational, the self exists only as a part of larger wholes, but those larger wholes only exist because of their parts.  Just as what makes a piece of wood a rafter (as opposed to a bench) is its role in the building, so what makes me a teacher (as opposed to a soldier) is the role I play in my institution.  However, a building is nothing beyond its parts, and a social institution is nothing beyond the people that make it up.

When reading Descartes, it may not be essential for students to read the Synopsis or the First Meditation, but it will help students to contextualize the overall project. The optional reading from Mendis’s translation of The Questions of King Milinda includes more extensive selections from one of the works included in the excerpt from the Edelglass and Garfield anthology.  Tiwald and Van Norden’s anthology includes other selections from Chinese Buddhist texts along with anti-Buddhist texts such as Han Yu’s “Memorandum on a Bone of the Buddha.”

Author Information

Bryan W. Van Norden, http://bryanvannorden.com