Self or No Self? The Debate about Selflessness and the Sense of Self

2015 Conference Program
Volume: Self or No Self?

Religious, philosophical, and theological views on the self vary widely. For some the self is seen as the center of human personhood, the ultimate bearer of personal identity and the core mystery of human existence. For others the self is a grammatical error and the sense of self an existential and epistemic delusion. Buddhists contrast the Western understanding of the self as a function of the mind that helps us to organize our experiences to their view of no-self by distinguishing between no-self and not-self or between a solid or ‘metaphysical’ self that is an illusion and an experiential or psychological self that is not. There may be processes of ‘selfing’, but there is no permanent self. In Western psychology, philosophy and theology, on the other hand, the term ‘self’ is often used as a noun that refers not to the performance of an activity or to a material body per se but rather to a (gendered) organism that represents the presence of something distinct from its materiality called ‘the self’. Is this a defensible insight or a misleading representation of human experience? We are aware of ourselves in the first-person manner of our ipse-identity that cannot fully be spelled out in objectifying terms, but we also know ourselves in the third-person manner of our idem-identity, the objectified self-reference to a publicly available entity.

This irreducible difference has far reaching epistemic and existential, moral and metaphysical consequences. We develop a sense of self in interacting with others in shared situations. We distinguish between our private and public selves by presenting ourselves differently to different audiences. But ‘constructing ourselves’ need not mean ‘constructing selves’, and being a self in the first sense is quite compatible with being a no-self in the second. So is that which (some) Eastern traditions deny the same as that which (some) Western traditions affirm? Is the sense of self a delusion or do we address different questions when we contrast self and no-self? Is it a contradiction in terms to say that selves can be selfless, and that no-selves can be selfish? Is our sense of self a function of our bodies and brains or does it point to a reality beyond our life as organisms? Do neuroscientific accounts reinforce or help us to deconstruct the (often oversimplifying) contrast between self and no-self? Does the distinction apply beyond the particular discursive practices in which we use it to respond to particular problems? Are there ‘selves’ without cultural technologies of ‘selfing’, and can there be ‘no-selves’ without cultural practices of ‘un-selfing’? Can we meaningfully pose and discuss questions of self and no-self without paying close attention to the modes of signifying and (re)presentation in the symbolic communications, imaginative constructions, social interactions and religious practices of our different cultures?

The 36th Philosophy of Religion Conference at Claremont, California, on Feb. 19-21, 2015, will address these and related questions. The conference seeks to provide an occasion and platform for critical and constructive debate between the critics and defenders of the self or of the no-self. Speakers will include: Sinkwan Cheng (Wesleyan), Iben Damgaard (Copenhagen), Jonardon Ganeri (NYU Abu Dhabi), Amy Hollywood (Harvard), Leah Kalmanson (Drake), Gereon Kopf (Luther College/Tōyō University), Dietrich Korsch (Marburg), Joseph O’Leary (Nanzan), and Joseph Prabhu (Los Angeles).