No Self Theory: Understanding it through 2 Interesting Concepts in Philosophy

Insights about the No-Self Theory!

No-Self Theory according to Hume and as evident in Buddhism

No-Self Theory: Understanding it through 2 Interesting Concepts in Philosophy


There have been several contemplations and speculations regarding the nature of the self or the ‘I’ necessarily conceived by each finite being in existence as a mortal in the Universe. There have been several deliberations regarding the basic nature and constituents of the self and therefore clear understanding regarding personal identity. Philosophers from both the western as well as Indian traditions have either conceived the self as existent as it is present holistically, or they have presented a contrasting view of the ‘no self’ and reduced the identity of an individual to clearly non-existent. The doctrine of the ‘no self’ has been conceived primarily by philosophers such as David Hume and the Indian philosophical tradition of Buddhism, as preached by Gautama Buddha.

Overview of the doctrine of ‘no self’

In order to understand the doctrine of the ‘no self’ specifically, one has to understand that what necessarily constitutes a personal identity. Is it merely repeating without acting upon it that there is an ‘I’ or is it a continuous conscious experience in the Universe as an individual that gives one the justification for considering the self as evidently existent?

Therefore, this theory of the existence of the self and thus the personal identity, can be easily questioned is what philosophers supporting the no self doctrine state, since it does not clearly make the presence of the self as evident since it is merely applied and considered as valid on the basis of it being true by repeatedly stating it. The view that probably the no self theory could be construed as true and could hold significance, since it has never been conceived as much as the doctrine of the self can truly aid in churning out the essence of the self. Let us understand the reasons behind this significant negligence ascribed to the no-self theory.

One of the major reasons is that the doctrine of the no-self and reductionism are considered as theoretically similar to each other since both of them tend to focus on substantially reducing the self as existent beyond the expanses of experience. But, the distinction between both of them arises when one realises that reductionism significantly reduces the self as the no self by following a hierarchical order, of beginning by resurrecting the self and subsequently its identity and then analysing the psychological relations and various propositional theories about the body. On the other hand, the no-self theory is not a theory about the self per se and it simply approaches towards no-self by rejecting all theories of the self. Considering the instances of the reductive and eliminative materialism in the philosophy of the mind, the former significantly reduces the mental phenomena by considering its physical aspects and the latter simply rejects the notion of mental as it seems confusing and therefore does not pursue on exploring its nature further. Similarly, considering the no-self theory and reductionism theories, the no self theory becomes a bit loosely framed since it does not clearly elucidate that why do individuals are convinced to believe in the existence of the self, even if there is no such thing.

David Hume’s conception of the no self

David Hume was a Scottish Philosopher and a keen disciple of the ‘empiricist’ school of the Western philosophical traditions. He is considered as one of the first philosophers of the Western tradition to have denied and questioned the existence of the self and attempted to propose a no-self theory in fiction. Several philosophers who have analyzed Hume’s fiction propose the conclusion that he has not been consistent in establishing the inexistence of the self and that he has been quite generic and cursory in his statements of denial. On the other hand, some philosophers state that he has been partially consistent in establishing his premise of the no self by only addressing some specific notions of the self to deduce its irrelevance and not all. Hume has not been able to clearly deduce an alternative solution to the problem of personal identity, but only been able to specifically address certain problems with the question of personal identity.

Hume’s specific positions regarding the doctrine of the self and personal identity can be understood by going through the Book I of ‘A Treatise of Human Nature’. Hume clearly states over there that some philosophers preach of the existence of the self, merely on the grounds that it is existent, but they do not have any specific evidence to elaborate upon the experience that the self can be perceived as such or felt or even considered as such. He states in contrast, that “what we experience, rather is a continuous flow of perceptions that replace one another in rapid succession.” Further he iterates, “When I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.” Therefore, we can understand Hume’s ideals of personal identity are that there is never any simplicity within the mind at one time, and no identity at any two different times.

He proposes the above idea on the basis that every idea regarding the self must be derived from some one impression, but self is not any one impression, but that to which our several impressions and ideas are supposed to have reference. Therefore, then the necessary question of why does one have to ascribe identity to any given object/individual in the first place, arises.

Therefore, Hume helps us understand this skepticism by introducing the concepts of ‘identity’ and ‘diversity.’ The concept of identity highlights the persistence of an object invariably and uninterrupted, over time. Whereas, ‘diversity’ proposes that several objects exist in succession, connected by a close relation. Therefore, in our ‘common way of thinking’, we tend to closely correlate to and refer to these two. He further boosts this position by stating that we as laymen, often consider the existence of something mysterious by merely imagining it and binding our perceptions together. Therefore, Hume’s concluding statements state that the answer to the question of personal identity must lie in the workings of the imagination.

In Hume’s words, “The passage of thought… is so smooth and easy, that we scarce perceive the transition, and are apt to imagine that ’tis nothing but a continu’d survey of the same object. There are various ways to ascribe identity to objects which are variable just like repaired ships, rebuilt churches, plants and animals…” Therefore, conclusively Hume states that personal identity is explicable only in terms of working of imagination. He briefly presents the two levels at which the notion of the identity is employed, one being the metaphysical/ontological notion and the other being the verbal/conventional.

Buddhist doctrine of the no self

The Buddhist philosophical tradition roots its philosophies and ideals to the Indian sub-continent and Gautama Buddha was the key figure in shaping it as it is at the present moment. After Buddha’s attainment of enlightenment or moksa, several followers debated amongst several of its inherent principles and traditions and formed two schools of thought inspired by the main ideologies of Buddhism. These two schools were namely, the Hinayana school of thought (orthodox, focusing primarily on the Buddha’s original teachings), Mahayana school of thought (liberal and modified Buddhism to make it more interactive and easily practicable).

The doctrine of the no self as emphasised in the Buddhist philosophical school in the Indian tradition, emphasises on two levels of truth. One being the ultimate (paramartha) and the other being conventional (samvrti). Yet, both the Hinayana as well as Mahayana schools disagree about this proposition as established by the tradition. In the early texts of Buddhism, the Pali Canon (500 B.C.), one comes across distinctions drawn between two types of discourse: one of direct meaning and the other of indirect meaning. It is believed that the discourse on direct meaning is straightforward and plain, whilst that of the discourse on indirect meaning needs to be inferred with reference to the former. In the discourse of indirect meaning, there are words used which potentially refer to entities such as self or ‘I’ which, as per the Buddha are merely ‘expressions, turns of speech, designations in common use which the Buddha makes use of without being led by them. Therefore, the Buddha states that although one might encounter terms such as the ‘self’ or ‘I’ as a part of their daily affairs, but it is not necessary that they connote or mean something. They are simply limited to serving as grammatical devices.

Therefore, the discourse of indirect meaning holds great significance in the Buddhist tradition since it emphasizes on the inexistence of anything permanent or relatively enduring such as the self or ‘I’ and also touches upon the features of language and grammar, which one usually ignores in their daily usage of it. The Buddha instead looks at terms such as dharma (elements), categories, sense-bases in terms of ultimate speech. Due to the distinction between the terms which are conventional such as the self and the ‘I’ and the ultimate ‘dharma’, categories and so on, the Buddha declared two truths, one being the conventional and the other being the ultimate. Therefore, the words used by mutual agreement are true because of Worldly convention and the words of ultimate meaning are true because of the existence of the elements.

Therefore, the Buddha states that when we look to our experience, we only delve more into the impermanence of bodies, objects and that all of these are in motion along with the thoughts and feelings and none can be identified as the self. Then, the obvious question of whether one should abandon the language or not arises. The Buddha answers by stating that simply because language comprises of the ultimate as well as conventional truths, does not mean that it has to be abandoned, one simply has to understand and be vigilant while considering both of these truths and not mislead themselves into overlapping either of them with the other. The Buddhist doctrine presents an example of getting confused by the conventional and the ultimate truths. The commonly referred to statement in this situation, is that of Descartes.

Descartes states that “I think, therefore I am.” Therefore, Descartes presented an argument that I exist, because even when I am doubting of my existence, there is an ‘I’ that is persisting in these statements. But, Descartes lays astray in framing this statement since there is no necessary need to use the term ‘I’ in it, there simply can be a statement “there is thinking, therefore, there are thoughts.” And such a deduction, does not tend to prove the existence of an ‘I’, thereby justifying the evidence of the no self theory.

Therefore, before constructively concluding what constitutes the doctrine of no self in the Buddhist tradition, let us ask ourselves this question, why do we come to admit to a self?

The Buddhist response to this would be as: We admit to the existence of the self since the person is considered an aggregate of five skandhas or khandhas. The physical form of anything, being an object, individual and their feelings, perceptions, motives and consciousness cannot be identified as the self. The Buddha teaches us to break the misconception of ahamkara, which is the utterance ‘I’ or ‘I’-maker that states that the former is also the latter. He considers language and conventional thinking as a trap with an ever-expanding veil of delusion. Therefore, if one is willing to sacrifice the ‘I’, then they in turn agree to giving up pride, envy from within. Therefore, the Buddha conclusively provides a solution from the trap of getting entangled into the perceptions and feelings of the ‘I’ and the self, by practicing meditation as a response to darsana and therefore realizing that there is nothing like the self.



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