Identity, Perception, Action and Choice in Contemporary and Traditional "No-Self" Theories
Simon Glynn
Florida Atlantic University

ABSTRACT: The ego is traditionally held to be synonymous with individual identity and autonomy, while the mind is widely held to be a necessary basis of cognition and volition, with responsibility following accordingly. However Buddhist epistemology, existential phenomenology and poststructuralism all hold the notion of an independent, subsisting, self-identical subject to be an illusion. This not only raises problems for our understanding of cognition (if the self is an illusion, then who does the perceiving and who is deluded) and volition (who initiates acts), as well as for the notion of responsibility (in the absence of an independently subsisting subject there appears to be no autonomous agent). For Buddhism, no-self theory raises serious problems for the doctrine of reincarnation (in the absence of a self, who is responsible for failing to overcome desires and attachments; furthermore, who gets reincarnated?). Arguing for such "no-self" theories, the paper attempts to demonstrate how such difficulties can nevertheless be resolved.

The self is traditionally held to be synonymous with individual identity and autonomy, while the mind, which is closely associated therewith, is widely held to be a necessary basis of cognition and volition, and the responsibility following therefrom. However Buddhism, Existential Phenomenology and Postsructuralism all point out that we have neither direct empirical experience of, nor sufficient justification for inferring, the existence of an independently subsisting self.
Buddhists for instance point out that, careful attention to the empirical evidence reveals that all the experiences we have of human subjectivity per se may be characterized in terms of five skandhas or aggregates. These are 1) Form; understood as the Body, including the sense-organs, 2) Feelings and Sensations, 3) Perceptions, 4) Mental Formations (or volitional tendencies) including habits and dispositions etc., and 5) Six Consciousnesses, consisting of the consciousness or awareness of sensations emanating from each of the five senses, plus a consciousness of non-sensory or purely mental experiences. Noting the changing nature of each of these skandhas, they conclude that there is no adequate justification for the common inference that these constantly changing phenomena are changing appearances of a persistent, independently subsisting self or ego.
Nor, as Phenomenologists and others have pointed out, do we experience a mind as such, - which much Western Philosophy regards, if not as synonymous with, then certainly essential to, individual identity and autonomy, - independent of the constantly changing sensations, perceptions, feelings, thoughts and ideas etc., and reflective awareness of these, which the concept of mind is supposed to account for. As Husserl notes, "... psychic being (or Mind as we would call it) in and for itself has no spatial extension and (consequently) no location", (1) and is therefore clearly not sensoraly experienceable. But neither is it an immaterial object, experienceable, as mermaids, unicorns, or our pasts are, as the immaterial object of non-sensory experience. As Heidegger confirms, "A person is not a Thing, not a substance, not an object", (2) but a subject, and as such "No-Thing" material or immaterial. As Sartre confirms "Human reality ... is" (Sartre tells us) "itself a nothingness." (3)
No longer misconceived as an independently subsisting and persistently self-identical entity, mental consciousness, which is essential to if not synonymous with the "self", is experienced, as we have already noted, as an ongoing "stream" of sensations and perceptions of material and immaterial objects, events, states, ideas and concepts etc., as what, as we can now see, amounts to mindfulness rather than "a mind"
Now as Heidegger informs us, "It is intentionality" - identified by Husserl as "the unique peculiarity of experiences to be the consciousness of something" (4) - "which characterizes consciousness..." (5) In which case in so far as the "self" is identified with consciousness then, "Essentially the person exists only in the performance of intentional acts ...," (6) only as the consciousness or awareness etc. of objects, events and states etc., a point with which Buddhism is in complete agreement. As Dogen puts it:
"I came to realize clearly that Mind is no other than mountains and rivers and the great wide earth, the sun and the moon and the stars." (7)
So far from first experiencing ourselves as reified egos, individuals who only subsequently come to experience the world, on the contrary we first encounter ourselves as always already experiencing the world, as what Husserl has referred to as a subjective "Poles" of experience, experiencers known only in relation to the experienced, which is to say the world, to which we are united in experience. (8) And as Husserl informs us:
"... it is only through reflexion ... that such a thing as consciousness or conscious content can become known" (9)
Indeed, as a consequence of such reflection:
"...we continue to distinguish - despite the necessary interrelationship - the experience itself from ... the content of experience experience we must distinguish between a subjectively and an objectively oriented aspects." (10)
Concomitantly, as Vasubandhu concurs:
"Where there is an object there is a subject, but not where there is no object. The absence of an object results in the absence also of a subject ... It is thus that there arises the cognition which is homogeneous ... The tendencies to treat object and subject as distinct and real entities are forsaken..." (11)
Like the two poles of a magnet the subjective and objective poles of experience, experiencer and experienced, self and other, though epistemologically distinguishable, are existentially inseparable, their identities as subject and object each being dependent, (as in Hegel's Master / Slave dialectic) (12), upon their relation to, or difference from, the other. As Derrida confirms:
"Subjectivity - like objectivity - is an effect of differance, an effect inscribed in a system of differance." (13)
However, as Heidegger has pointed out:
" maintaining the thesis that every subject is what it is only for an Object and vice versa ... the terms thus correlated - like the correlation itself - remains ontologically indefinite. At the bottom however the whole correlation necessarily gets thought of as "somehow" being and must therefore be thought of with regard to some definite idea of Being". (14)
That is to say that we are existentially inseparable from the world because, as indicated by the first skandha, we are ontologically embodied within it, (as Being-in-the-world or Dasein as Heidegger calls it). Consequently our survival presupposes that our relationship to it must first and foremost be practical, and therefore, as indicated by the fourth skandha, volitional. Sartre concurs, claiming that "... human reality is action", that for "human reality... being is reduced to doing," (15) a view reiterated by Merleau-Ponty, who writes that "Consciousness is in the first place not a mater of "I think that" but of "I can."" (16) Moreover such volitions are directed, by habits and dispositions (fourth skandha) the latter of which, at least, presumably reflect our desires and attachments.
This however implys an author with habits and dispositions, who seemingly must have a substantial persistent existence independently of, not to say prior to, the actions or "effects" (17) that s/he directs; a conclusion that would contradict Buddhist, Existential Phenomenological and Post-Stucturalist epistemologies alike.
Nor is Sartre, at least, oblivious to the apparent dilemma. Rather, distinguishing existence from essence, he claims that for humans "existence precedes essence", (18) or individual identity, which is a consequence, rather than a precondition, of the choice of end or "fundamental project" (19) which defines them. (20) In other words, according to Sartre it is not "the" subject, nor even, arguably, "a" subject, that exists independently of and prior to this choice and its accompanying acts. Rather prepersonal being or existence constitutes subjectivity by virtue of what emerges as the / its ability to make choices per se, its particular essence or identity being defined, and redefined, by the choice, and changes, of fundamental project, and the volitional acts concomitant therewith; a view which, notwithstanding its rather abstract formulation, seems to accord with the phenomenological evidence. Subjective identity is thus cast as an insubstantial and impermanent product of the desires and / or attachments which, presumably, occasion any such choice, with the consequence that, in the complete absence of desires or attachments, and of the projects to which they give rise, the illusion of individual identity would dissolve altogether, resulting, Buddhists claim, in escape from samsara or reincarnation.
But if the notion of an independently subsisting, persistent, self, is indeed an illusion, and consequently, as Buddhism claim, technically speaking "nobody ever enters nirvana", equally there can surely be nobody to be reincarnated, an apparent problem which dissolves however once reincarnation is understood as the reincarnation of the illusion of an independently subsistent, persistent self; desires and attachments being passed beyond the particular aggregates or skandhas in which they initially foster this illusion, to other such aggregates of skandhas, - themselves the product of prior desires and attachments - where they subsequently give rise to essentially the same illusion.
Thus our predecessors desires and attachments give rise to procreative acts, and hence to our Bodies, including our brains and Sense Organs (first skandha), and thus to Sensations and Feelings (second skandha) etc., and our Perceptions (third skandha), which provide the basis for our Mental Formations (or volitional tendencies) including habits and dispositions (fourth skandha), and Consciousness (fifth skandha). Their desires and attachments also give rise to certain forms of relation which constitute and shape the artifactual, economic, social and cultural environment, which, as both Hegel (21) and Heidegger (22) have pointed out, we first become conscious of ourselves as already existing in. This environment, or "reality principle" as Freud called it, conflicts with the "pleasure principle" or fulfillment of our initially "lower level" (biological) desires etc., and in so doing shapes the development of our Mental Formations, including our concepts, and thus our "higher level" (cultural) Feelings, "Perceptions" and Consciousness, and the ("higher level") desires and attachments associated therewith.
Furthermore the conflict of our ("lower" and "higher" level) desires and attachments with the (natural and cultural) environment occasions "impure" (23) reflection as a prelude to the adoption of (rational) strategies for their fulfillment, and consequently results, in a manner extensively detailed by Hegel (24) and Sartre, (25) in the reification or illusory "objectification" of the subject as an independently subsisting, persistently self-identical, entity.
Moreover these same desires and attachments give rise, as did our predecessors', to certain forms of relation which constitute and shape the artifactual, economic, social and cultural environment, and hence to our successors and their illusoraly reified notions of themselves, which emerge therefrom.
Thus desires and attachments, incarnated as the reified illusions of independently subsisting, persistent selves, are both constituted by, and in turn constitutive of, the form or structure of physical, economic, social and cultural relations, and the concomitant illusion of independently subsisting, persistent selves, to which they give rise as content. (26)
In this sense then, as Huang Po has observed:
... mind, beside which nothing exists, ... is without beginning, is unborn and indestructible. It ... has neither form nor appearance. It does not belong to the categories of things which exist or do not exist... It is that which you see before you ... (27)
But while the recognition that it is desires and attachments, and the illusion of an independently subsisting, persistent "self", to which they give rise, that are reincarnated, is compatible with the "no-self" theory, the question that now arises is whether, in the absence of an independently subsisting, persistent, self, we have the necessary autonomy to be responsible, as Buddhist claim, for failure to escape samsara for nirvana. For if we are indeed nothing but the skandhas, and if these, so far from being independent and persistent, are, as we have argued, constituted and shaped by genetic inheritance and/or a continually changing artifactual, economic, social and cultural environment, then so too, it would seem, will be our choices and actions, and we cannot therefore be held responsible for them. (28) The precondition of being responsible for the illusion that one is an independently subsisting persistent self would then, paradoxically, seem to be that one is in fact an independently subsisting, persistent self.
However while the Sensations, Feelings, Perceptions, Mental Formations, volitional tendencies, habits, dispositions, and Consciousnesses that constitute the skandhas are indeed, in the first instance, the products of our genetic inheritance and environment, and thus, from a Buddhist perspective, of the karma responsible for their constitution, the ability to reflect upon them, as we are now doing, enables us to become Conscious of, and understand, our desires and attachments, their role in sustaining the illusion of an independently subsisting, persistent self, and the suffering associated therewith. Moreover such reflection also enables us to become Conscious of, and understand, abstract concepts, and, most significantly, the formal relations between concepts, or reason, and having once reached The Age of Reason, (29) we are able to employ and develop the rational capacity for analysis, abstraction, extrapolation, interpolation and synthesis etc. This then clearly enables us to critically evaluate, and articulate alternatives to, our hitherto environmentally or / and genetically determined ways of perceiving, conceiving, understanding, and acting towards, ourselves, others and the world, as well as the values, attitudes and beliefs related thereto, upon which all our choices, - including that of the "fundamental project" which defines our identity, - are based, thereby guaranteeing our freedom.
Surprisingly enough then, an initially dependent, insubstantial, subject may, as such, be able, upon rational reflection, to change its "perspectives" together with the associated values, attitudes and beliefs that inform its choices, and thus define it, and may in consequence be free, while an independently subsisting subject, which, like an object, must be and remain persistently self-identically unless and until acted upon by some "externally" determining (environmental) (30) factor, may not. On such a view then the notion of the self as insubstantial and non-persistent is not only compatible with, but is a necessary precondition of, freedom, for only such an insubstantial and non self-identical subject is able to free itself of those genetic and environmental factors which seem to be determinative of the characteristics or essential identity of a substantial being and, in the limiting case, choose to reject or transcend altogether those desires and attachments that are, as we have seen, the precondition of any sense of identity whatsoever.

(1) Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences, and Transcendental Phenomenology, (Hereinafter Krisis) trans. David Carr, (Evanston Ill: Northwestern U.P., 1970) p. 216, my additions in parentheses.
(2) Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, (1927) trans. J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson, (NY: Harper & Row, 1962) p.72.
(3) J-P Sartre, Being & Nothingness, trans. Hazel Barnes, (NY: New York Philosophical Library, 1956), p. 440. My addition in parentheses.
(4) E. Husserl, Ideas., trans. W.R. Boyce-Gibson (NY: Collier, 1962) p. 223.
(5) Ibid., p. 222.
(6) M.Heidegger, op. cit., p. 73.
(7) Dogen, Shobogenzo, in Zenrui, No.10, as quoted by Philip Kapleau in The Three Pillars of Zen, (NY: Doubleday / Anchor, 1989) p. 215.
(8) See for example E.Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, trans. D. Cairns, (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1970) p. 66.
(9) E.Husserl, Ideas, p.210.
(10) Ibid., p. 214-5. Indeed Husserl continues: " this two-sidedness there corresponds, to a considerable extent at any rate, a division, (though not any real separation) between ... pure subjectivity (and) ... objectivity." Ibid.
(11) Vasubandhu, Trimsikavijnaptikarika, in E. Conze trans., Buddhist Texts Throughout the Ages, (New York: Harper, 1964).
(12) See G.W.F Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, trans. J. Baillie, (New York: Harper, 1967) pp. 229-40.
(13) Jacques Derrida, Positions, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), p.28.
(14) M. Heidegger, Being and Time, p. 252.
(15) Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p. 476.
(16) Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962) p.137.
(17) Cause must, of course, precede the effect to which it gives rise.
(18) J-P Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p. 568. My addition in parentheses.
(19) See Ibid., pp. 480 & 564.
(20) See Ibid., pp. 443, 453 & 564.
(21) See for instance, G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, pp. 229-35 and The Logic of Hegel, (or "Lesser Logic", abstracted from the Encyclopedia of the Philosophy of Science), trans. William Wallace, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), p.191..
(22) See for example, M. Heidegger, Being and Time, pp. 153-63, 246-7 & 264.
(23) Thus in contrast to impure reflection, by which consciousness affects to "stand outside" itself or adopt "a point of view" upon itself, and therefore "Perceives" itself, (as in Hegel's second stage [see Endnote 24]), as an object, pure reflection is the "Understanding" (equivalent to Hegel's third stage of consciousness [see Endnote 24]), that consciousness is a subject. For a full discussion of this distinction between pure and impure reflection see Simon Glynn, "The Eye / I of the Paradox: Sartre's View of Consciousness" in Simon Glynn ed. Sartre: An Investigation of Some Major Themes, (Aldershot and VT: Gower, 1987).
(24) See G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, Esp. Ch.IV, pp.217 ff.
(25) See Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p. 153-5.
(26) Note that while, of course, an illusion cannot, in and of itself give rise to or constitute anything, the way in which the non-reified and non-illusory, ephemeral and dependent self comes to perceive, understand, and relate to, the world, will clearly depend upon whether or not it is suffering from the illusion that it is an independently subsisting and persistently self-identical self, or not. It is in this sense then that this illusion can be said to constitute further illusoraly reified selves that emerge from physical, economic, social and cultural relationships whose form or structure reflect the illusions of their forbearers.
(27) The Zen teachings of Huang-po, trans. & ed. John Blofeld, (London: Buddhist Society, 1958) p.29, as quoted by David Loy in "Indra's Postmodern Net" in Critical Studies, ed R. Lumsden & R. Patke, p. 174.
(28) Indeed even if, contra Buddhism, one were gratuitously to invoke the aid of a metaphysical soul, as a potential basis of autonomy, any choices and/or actions emanating from it would be determined by its nature, and therefore far from free.
(29) This is, of course, the title of the first book of Sartre's "Roads to Freedom" trilogy.
(30) Of course if genetics indeed plays some part in the constitution of our values, attitudes and beliefs, etc., upon which our choices are based, then if it became possible to influence the values etc. of an already existing subject by genetic intervention, then genetics would also become an independent determining, and therefore in this sense "external", factor.