Self or No-Self?

The Debate About Selflessness and the Sense of Self

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Ingolf U. Dalferth, Trevor W. Kimball
Religion in Philosophy and Theology
  • Tübingen, Germany: 
    Mohr Siebeck GmbH & Company
    , January
     350 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Through the Looking Glass, Alice visits an extremely curious store. Although the shelves in the shop are full of objects, whenever she tries to look carefully at a particular item, the shelf upon which it is located suddenly appears completely empty, even as the shelves around it remain full. The study of the human self is quite like the phenomenon Alice experienced. Human shelves—or rather selves—permeate every aspect of everyday life, but whenever our philosophical or scientific attention turns directly toward the subjectivity in ourselves and others, the very “subject” of our investigation evaporates. As Ingolf U. Dalferth, editor of the present volume, notes, “selves are not physically or empirically detectable entities” (11). This problem was discussed by an international panel of two dozen scholars at the 2015 Claremont Conference on Philosophy of Religion. The resulting anthology, Self or No-Self?:The Debate about Selflessness and the Sense of Self, reflects telling choices made by the scholars and editors. 

In the preface, Dalferth contends that the Claremont conferences “aim at overstepping traditional boundaries between philosophy and theology, philosophy of religion, and other academic disciplines, and between European, American, and Asian religious and philosophical traditions—boundaries that still widely dominate philosophy of religion in the academy but cannot be upheld in the age of globalization and worldwide communication” (v). Yet the organization of the conference papers reinforces this very schematization, to wit, by section: “The Making of the Self through Language”; “The European Legacy”; “The Self in Modernity”; “Self and No-Self in Asian Traditions”; and “The End of the Self.” Aside from Robert Overy-Brown’s discussion of Black Lives Matter (308-309), there is a glaring absence of indigenous and subaltern discourses. 

I therefore read the text as it appears in actu: as an attempt to bang out philosophical differences and cross-pollinations between the concepts of soul and atman (self), on the one hand, and the Buddhist concept of anatman (no-self), on the other. Is this a worthy consideration? As Gereon Kopf notes, “it is the fundamental predicament of the ‘global self’ or ‘postmodern self’ that it has lost itself” (260-61). There are two ways to read this statement. First, that those caught up in global capitalism have lost their traditional local identities, and second, that those in traditionally Christian Europe and America have, time and again, come up against scientific facts that are better explained by the Buddhist notion of no-self rather than the notion of an unchanging eternal self or soul. Even the five articles comprising “The Self in Modernity” (section 3 of Self or No-Self?) do not address the former concern in any significant way, with an exception coming from Joseph Prabhu, who discusses homo economicus and the reduction of all human activity to “wealth maximization” (178). The majority of articles dealing with Western metaphysics do, however, seek to reconcile their considerations of the notion of no-self as part of an ancient and ongoing debate. Therefore, toward the end of this review, I will focus on this latter theme as it emerges from the Self or No-Self? conversation.

The topic of language is rightly placed at the beginning of the anthology, and further considerations of it are found throughout. Language must resonate with a cosmology in order for any self-concept to make sense, as Marlene Block says in her contribution to this volume (41). However, according to Block, the problems of language in connection to understanding the self and related topics extend beyond grammar to plague context as well (50). Following Hartmut Rosa, Dalferth contends that language about individual identity is always fraught with conflicting and fractured narrative elements, broken pieces which no meta-narrative can put back together again (32 ff). Add to this complexity another confounding fact noted throughout the book: a person changes over time. “So to speak of the self as a discrete entity when it is something that also develops and changes is, to say the least, problematic,” writes Duncan Gale (351). Leaping down this linguistic rabbit hole, we find our way through a wonderland of external and internal considerations of subjectivity. 

Looking outward to intersubjectivity, we are treated to accounts of Hegel’s spiritas a self-sacrificing task (W. Ezekiel Goggin), Kierkegaard’s argument that the self cannot be known apart from the moral will to love the uniqueness of others (Iben Damgaard, with a response from Raymond E. Perrier), hamartiology (the study of sin) in Pascal and Sartre (Kate Kirkpatrick), Wittgenstein’s language games as found in Sinhala Buddhist society (Alexander McKinley), Xinxing’s fake-it-til-you-feel-it ritual prescription for moral behavior with a suggestion for its employment in critical analyses of value and humane social agency (Leah Kalmanson), an analysis of the meaning of human rights and obligations in Aristotle and Confucius (Sinkwan Cheng, with a response from Robert Overy-Brown, who claims that rectification must be part of a genuine deontological orientation), and more. 

The volume also contains a wealth of material concerned with looking inward toward the experiencer presumably at the center of subjective experience. When the soul unites in love with its higher good, in Joseph S. O’Leary’s account of Plotinus, “the union of ‘us’ and the One takes place in a mute non-dual ‘touching’ in which there is no distinction of subject and object and in which no noetic categories have any application” (58). From similar forms of negative theology and from Buddhism, the idea of no-self has seeped into Western intellectual history, causing extreme consternation in many, but proving impossible to ignore. Fortunately, several of the contributors move this discourse forward. Yuval Avnur discusses “persistence conditions” in relation to afterlife possibilities. Stephanie Gehring reflects on the thought of Simone Weil, for whom “attention” involved a constant surrendering of will. Eleonora Mingarelli reviews streams of consciousness in William James and, in a similar vein, Jonardon Ganeri claims that ordinary attention, functioning as a point of reference or “surrogate self” within the stream of consciousness, “replaces self in the grounding of cognition” (215). 

Where and how can we discover meaningful knowledge about human identities? Self or No-Self? provides ample counsel to guide us in this endless task.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Belcheff is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
June 16, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ingolf U. Dalferth is Professor of Philosophy of Religion at Claremont Graduate University.

Trevor W. Kimball is a doctoral student in Philosophy of Religion and Theology at Claremont Graduate University.


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