And Now for Something Completely Different.
Am I me? Are You you? ?
I’ve followed the work of Fredrik de Boer for a while now, because I rather share his no-nonsense traditional socialist approach to a number of current issues, even if he expresses himself with a kind of polemical force that I couldn’t possibly imitate. A few months ago, I saw he had decided to hold a book review competition. Why not, I thought?
As it happened, I have always had a strong interest in certain types of philosophy (Buddhist and other), which bring into question the idea of the existence of the Self in the first instance. It had always seemed to me that a society which worships and even deifies the Self as the be-all and end-all of everything, and aims at protecting and reinforcing the Ego by all and any means, in competition with all other Selves, is going to be an unhappy society. By contrast, a society that recognises that the Ego, or Self, is just a construction, a collection of fears, hopes, aspirations, conventional ideas, things we have been taught and things we are afraid might be true, and has no objective existence, will be a much happier one.
Now it occasionally happens that a book comes along which sets out things you have been thinking over many years with exemplary clarity. Jay Garfield is a distinguished western philosopher, and expert on David Hume, who has for a generation now has lectured and written in parallel on Buddhist philosophy. In particular, he’s a translator and commentator on Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, a text of an intellectual purity and rigour which would have impressed Wittgenstein (whom he greatly resembles, by the way). And I had just been reading Garfield’s Losing Ourselves: Learning to Live Without a Self. It’s not an easy book, and it’s light-years removed from the usual New Age claptrap, but it’s that rare thing: a serious work of philosophy for a popular audience like you and me. So I decided to review it for de Boer’s competition, and to my surprise and pleasure, it was placed runner-up. The review is now on-line on his site, and you can read it here if you are so inclined.
I won’t add much to the review itself, except for one meta-textual comment. In the age of frenetic, forced liberal individualism in which we live, where everyone is expected to create and maintain a full-time personality, to “be themselves,” to “express themselves” to market themselves for even the most mundane job, to construct a “personal project” to be allowed a place in university, to be “CEO of out life” for ever and ever, all the time in competition with others whom liberal society, not to mention identity politics, teaches us to fear, we are in danger of deliberately creating the largest and deadliest epidemic of mental illness in history.
Books like Garfield’s introduce us to the idea that it doesn’t have to be like that. That is, at bottom, what I think of as “I” has no real existence, just a purely conventional one. We all exist—everything exists—as a collection of conventional assumptions. But in the end, the “I” who feels hurt or neglected, who takes exception to something said by another, who feels discriminated against, or not given the love and affection they deserve, or has their troubles taken sufficiently seriously by others: that “I” is just a construct, with no inherent existence. The real “I,” we finally understand, is not our thoughts, but that which observes our thoughts; not our fears, but that which observes our fears. After all, when we are not thinking, where are “We?” Do we die, in-between thoughts? Obviously not: there is something that remains, something that cannot itself be hurt by words or events that might hurt “us.” And so the Indian Vedantic tradition has an exercise known as neti-neti: “not this, not this,” where the questioner examines each part of themselves (name, age, appearance, profession, family …) and eventually recognises that they are “not this:” the underlying reality is elsewhere.
I am going to stop now before I start sounding like the amateur philosopher I have no claim to be. The purpose of this essay is to get you to read Garfield’s book, which goes much further and deeper into these questions, and if you have time to read my review that would be nice as well. We need these ideas at the moment.
Oh, in case you wondered, I’m in the middle of yet another long, portentous essay about western inability to understand what’s going on in Ukraine and why. That’ll be out on Wednesday.