Learning to Live without a Self
- ISBN: 9780691220284
- Published By: Princeton University Press
- Published: May 2022
Jay Garfield’s Losing Ourselves: Learning to Live without a Self is passionate, logical, and thought-provoking. Despite his background in Buddhist studies, Garfield claims he is not engaging in comparative world philosophy in this particular work. However, I can speak from experience that students in comparative religions courses will find much to discuss in this short, nuanced book.
Garfield spends the bulk of this monograph arguing against predominantly Western philosophical notions of selfhood. He begins his criticism with thought experiments designed to demonstrate readers’ tendencies to believe that the self is akin to the notion of a “soul,” existing independently of body and mind. Furthermore, one’s self is unified, separated from others, and is always the agent of its own action. Persons, on the other hand, require minds and bodies. Personhood is constructed by the multiplicity of roles people play in life, which are acted out in social networks. Garfield anticipates readers’ skepticism, declaring that such terminological subtleties may seem like distinctions without differences. However, Garfield’s persuasive insistence on its ethical importance resonates behind each chapter. Indeed, “our moral commitments are at the very heart of who we take ourselves to be” (xii).
Chapter 2, subtitled “The View from Buddhism, Philosophy, and Science,” displays Garfield’s true methodological diversity. In this section, he uses psychological and neuroscientific analogies, in tandem with premodern Buddhist sources, to raise and answer questions that bedevil common beliefs about selfhood. If someone goes through different psychological states in their development, are they the same self? If a king replaces each part of his chariot as it degenerates so that over time not a single original piece remains, is it still the same chariot? What sets Garfield’s approach apart from other Western-focused works on the self is that this extended analogy comes not from Plato’s Phaedrus but from the 2nd-century BCE Buddhist monk Nāgasena’s The Questions of King Milinda.
Garfield is similarly interdisciplinary in chapter 3 as he develops personhood with help from analogies to drama. To Garfield, for example, being a person is like being William Shakespeare’s character Hamlet, not a specific actor playing that role. Nevertheless, the role of Hamlet requires an actor to perform it, though Hamlet’s essential character is not absolutely determined by the actor playing the role. Analogously, though a person may change physically and emotionally throughout life, their identity remains largely intact, according to Garfield. Furthermore, the performance of the role of Hamlet, requires an entire cast of characters. Persons are networked and embodied. “Interdependence is a fact of life; and our identity as persons is a consequence of that interdependence, for good and for ill” (43). The distinctions Garfield makes between personhood and selfhood in this section can be quite fine, to the point of blurring boundaries. I found re-reading passages for terminological subtleties rewarding.
Chapters 4 and 5 (forming a two-part argument, entitled “The Self Strikes Back”) both describe philosophical attempts to describe “the self” in transcendent (chapter 4) and minimalist (chapter 5) terms. In chapter 4, Garfield juxtaposes the Indian philosopher Uddyotakara with Western philosophers like René Descartes and Immanuel Kant. Readers needn’t worry about having prior knowledge of these thinkers because Garfield is a clear, able guide through the rough terrain of rationalism and transcendental argumentation, enriching the discussion with enlightening nods to cognitive science. Chapter 5 describes predominantly phenomenological theories of the self as inherently reflexive. For example, when you perceive the words of this review, you are aware that you are perceiving the words of this review. In this line of thinking, reflexive self-perception is an ingredient of perception itself. Using evidence from cognitive science that shows that humans perform many daily actions unconsciously or at least without self-reference, Garfield effectively offers answers to phenomenological theories of selfhood.
Chapters 6 through 9 are the most ethically focused, with Garfield developing an account of persons as constructed, embodied, and interdependent. For example, Garfield offers nuanced arguments about moral egoism and ethical causation. The former advocates self-interested action toward promoting personal wellness and the good of one’s own community. The latter highlights many Western thinkers’ ideas of the inner self as existing outside of worldly causality. Contra moral egoism, losing the self allows ethical agents to refrain from placing priority on self-interest, focusing instead on a more universal circle of concern. Moreover, emphasizing how we are embedded within communities shows that we as persons are agents of causation within them. Later, Garfield highlights how our ideas of our selves are often linguistically and narratively determined. Certain Western thinkers would describe us as authors of our own stories. However, as Garfield points out, “we are not the sole authors of the stories in which we participate” (156). As always, interdependence is key in this volume.
Overall, this book is a model of logical argumentation, deploying diverse methodologies and wide-ranging source material. There are times, however, when Garfield resists his own goal of refraining from comparative philosophy and makes overly broad assertions across religious traditions. To offer one such example, Garfield claims that “the Indian ātman and the Christian psyche are close enough in content, and are defended on similar enough grounds, that we can often treat them as manifestations of the same broad idea” (5). Anyone with experience researching and teaching courses on world religions, however, can attest that this is a contested linguistic issue. What makes Losing Ourselves so effective is its critical argumentation overall. Garfield is most effective when he exposes flaws in theories of selfhood with step-by-step precision.
David Greder is an assistant professor of religion and philosophy at Waldorf University.David GrederDate Of Review:January 30, 2023