Abstracting the Self: Selfhood as Non-Existence

The discussion around the nature of selfhood is one which has seen no growing consensus in recent times. The Buddhist notion of anatman is often given much attention throughout this debate, but argumentation and refutation has developed far beyond the times of original Buddhist scripture. Mark Siderits approaches this Buddhist idea in a contemporary fashion, and acknowledges[1] that many attempt to reduce the self to psychophysical states, a perceiving subject, or awareness itself. In this essay, I reject these proposed definitions by alluding to their non-essentiality, and by introducing the principle of anti-reflexivity. As an alternative, and in line with Buddhist thought, I identify the self as the counterfactual to existence as we know and experience it. In rejecting numerous common-held notions of selfhood, an inference of the self must be made by discerning a constant to reality and/or our experience; specifically, I identify the property of existence as this constant. Once again alluding to anti-reflexivity, I argue that the nature of the self must be something distinct from this existential constant. Thus, the fundamental nature of the self must be non-being.

In modern times, the so-called common sense notion of the self is taken to be one of many aspects of our experience as humans. A reductionist approach is often taken, where our most fundamental essence is identified as our body and mind. More specifically, modern psychologists refer to the self as our psychological states. We see this in the type of language we use in certain statements: you’re a happy person if you often experience happy emotional states, for example. However, this proposition of selfhood is flawed. Firstly, these psychophysical states (including one’s body, mind, emotions, perceptions; one’s experience as a whole) change constantly. If we are to accept these as the groundwork of our true self, does this mean we must accept that we’re different people at every second of the day? If I am in a bad mood, for example, it is more accurate to equate the identity of my current self with my that of my friend Joe (who also is in a bad mood) than it is for me to equate my current self with my past or future self. Furthermore, if I were to meditate or take medication, bettering my mood or temporarily eradicating one of my psychological states/emotions, am I less me than normal? This seems like an absurd claim, far from the truth. For these reasons, as well as numerous others which I will not discuss in this essay, we must reject this notion of selfhood and continue our search elsewhere.

By rejecting most (if not all) of the particulars of experience as relevant to the fundamental self, we are left asking what else is there that we could accurately label “self”? One may feel inclined to claim that “if I cannot prove that I am my experience, then I can at least be sure that I am aware of my experience”. This seems indubitable; to even label one’s experience “experience”, one must be aware of it. But, is it fair to say that selfhood itself can be reduced to this awareness? I ask you to consider what awareness actually is. Can you conceive of it abstractly? Where is it? What is it? The core of the issue in this line of thought is that awareness cannot exist, or at least cannot be conceived of, without an object of awareness. So then, awareness must be a relation between an object and a subject. To elaborate here, let us refer to one of the most famous moments in the history of self-realisation. Rene Descartes, in his Meditations on First Philosophy[2], highlighted the undoubtable existence of a thinking subject, by the obvious occurence of mere thought. He sums up this line of thought in a famous phrase often translated as “I think, therefore I am”. This, I argue, extends to more than just propositional thought. For example, if I cut my hand and experience pain, the awareness of this pain, the mode of being this pain inheres within, is proof of a relationship between an object and its subject. The mere subjective awareness of any object of thought or perception is strong evidence for a subject. But what is the nature of this subjective self?

We have successfully ruled out both our experience and the awareness of our experience as possible contenders for selfhood identification. While our options become slimmer, our considerations appear to become more specific, but also more abstract at the same time. As such, the proposal of a subject as the self is quite ambiguous. “The thing which is aware of our experience is the self” almost seems circular. What is this thing? If we are to locate the self, we must be more specific. However, the reason for our lack of clarity in labelling ourselves a subject is evident. Self-reflexivity, the principle which prevents any single X acting upon itself, is relevant here more than anywhere. In the same way that a set of teeth cannot bite themselves, and a pair of eyes cannot directly look at themselves, the self cannot shine its light of awareness directly upon itself. How then do we learn more about the nature of this subject, this so-called perceiver? Galen Strawson[3] gives a well-worded explanation of what selfhood intuitively feels like for most of us. He acknowledges the self as “…the sense that people have of themselves as being, specifically, a mental presence, a mental someone, a single mental thing that is a conscious subject of experience, that has a certain character or personality, and that is in some sense distinct from all its particular experiences, thoughts, and so on, and indeed from all other things.” Although this seems accurate, and is certainly the position we now find ourselves in in our search for the self, we need to be more specific. So, if we accept that anti-reflexivity prevents us from directly perceiving the self, perhaps we must indirectly perceive it.

Inference is one of the most commonly espoused methodologies in the study of the self. Implicitly, I have already alluded to it in this essay; the existence of pleasure and pain means that we can infer a perceiver, an experiencer, a subject feeling these sensations. This process of inference is intertwined with identity. In inferring X from Y, I am understanding (albeit only partially) the identity of X by understanding the identity of Y. Thus, the more we know about Y, the more thorough our understanding of X becomes. The identity of X and Y are closely interlinked, if not dependent on one another. I will elaborate on this, as without doing so this may seem unfounded, by briefly explaining the principle of unity of opposites. The unity of opposites principle states that any two opposite concepts or entities necessarily determine the identity of one another. Without the identity and existence of one, the other would not take shape, and vice versa. For example, consider the concept of up-ness. What actually is up-ness, or above-ness? Without a concept of down-ness or below-ness, the concept of up literally carries no meaning. This unity of opposites applies to most (if not all, but that’s a debate for another essay) opposing dualities.

So, to infer a self by process of unifying opposites, we must identify a duality. Clearly half of this unification will be the self, the subject. However, this ambiguous concept is what we want to establish a definition for, so we must flesh out the identity of its opposite, anything not-self. I’ve previously rejected any particulars within our experience as direct experience of the self. Thus, all moments of experience, any particular thing found within any moment of experience, must be not-self. Therefore, this dichotomy we’re looking for is between the self and experience. We can come to infer the self as we come to more thoroughly understand experience.

How then, do we infer the identity of the self from the identity of not-self? If these two entities, the self and our experience (not-self), are opposites, their essential properties must also be opposites. Therefore, to explain the nature of the self, we must explain the most fundamental nature of our experience. It seems that our experience has two essential properties, one necessarily implied by the other; experience is not aware, but is aware of by a subject. And as an implication, it exists by our definition of existence. The fact I can be aware of the chair as a distinct object, for example, means it exists. Afterall, what is existence other than existence within our (or some conscious agent’s) experience. Nobody knows existence by any other extension. For this reason, I equate awareness of X with the existence of X. Accepting this means that any experience, any object of awareness, and indeed anything we can in fact call a thing, has one essential property: beingness.

So, if the fundamental essence of all non-self phenomena is existence/beingness, then everything which lies outside the limits of this property of aware-being must be selfhood. Thus, that which sets the limits to the property of aware-being is the self, and therefore must be fundamentally opposite in its nature. The self then, resides in non-being. It constantly eludes the spotlight of awareness, and is independent from the identity of experience which is the totality of our concept of existence. Coming full circle, we now have arrived at the same conclusion the Buddhists did: anatman, non-self. The self-reflexivity principle also carries some value here. For if X cannot act upon itself, then an experientially existing X cannot be aware of itself. Instead, the self must be a non-experientially existing X, in order to be aware of existing objects / moments of experience. Therefore, the nature of the subject of experience must be non-existence.

To conclude, as an attempt to ground a conception of selfhood, this essay has addressed numerous notions of the self which we often take for granted as intuitive common-sense. After refuting most of these proposals, I put forward the principle of anti-reflexivity and question what it means for something to be within awareness. This sheds some light on the relational dichotomy between a subject and object, and thus narrows the search for the self to an examination of the nature of a subject distinct from our experience. Finally, after a correlation of awareness with existence, I allude to the unity of opposing concepts and conclude that the self is inherently distinct from existing phenomena. Although reaching the same conclusion as a lot of Buddhist thought, the analytic approach taken in this essay gives us a much more thorough explanation of why we can say the self is non-existence, and brings deeper understanding to the often cited notion of anatman.

[1] Mark Siderits, David E. Cooper, Kathleen Higgins, and Robert C. Solomon, Personal Identity and Buddhist Philosophy: Empty Persons (London: Taylor and Francis, 2016), page 30.

[2] René Descartes, David Weissman, and William Theodore Bluhm, Discourse on Method: And, Meditations on First Philosophy (Salt Lake City: Masterworks Classics, 2014), page 23.

[3] Galen Strawson, The Subject of Experience (Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2017), page 19.


Mark Siderits, David E. Cooper, Kathleen Higgins, and Robert C. Solomon, Personal Identity and Buddhist Philosophy: Empty Persons (London: Taylor and Francis, 2016).

René Descartes, David Weissman, and William Theodore Bluhm, Discourse on Method: And, Meditations on First Philosophy (Salt Lake City: Masterworks Classics, 2014).

Galen Strawson, The Subject of Experience (Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2017).


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