Buddhism as Reductionism: Personal Identity and Ethics in Parfitian Readings of Buddhist Philosophy; from Steven Collins to the Present (Pre-print Preview
Derek Parfit’s early work on the metaphysics of persons has had a vast influence on Western philosophical debates about the nature of personal identity and moral theory. Within the study of Buddhism, it also has sparked a continuous comparative discourse, which seeks to explicate Buddhist philosophical principles in light of Parfit’s conceptual framework. Examining important Parfitian-inspired studies of Buddhist philosophy, this article points out various ways in which a Parfitian lens shaped, often implicitly,
contemporary understandings of the anātman (no-self) doctrine and its relation to Buddhist ethics. I discuss in particular three dominant elements appropriated by Parfitian inspired scholarship: Parfit’s theoretical categories; philosophical problems raised by his reductionist theory of persons; and Parfit’s argumentative style. I argue that the three elements used in this scholarship constitute different facets of one methodological approach to cross-cultural philosophy, which relies on Western terminology and conceptual schemes to establish a conversation with non-Western philosophy. I suggest that while this methodology is fruitful in many ways, philosophy as a cosmopolitan space may benefit significantly from approaching Buddhist philosophy using its own categories and terminology.
The history of modern scholarship on Buddhist philosophy suggests that Western scholars have tended to draw on the conceptual schemes and categories of Western traditions of thought. Andrew Tuck, referring to the Western interpretation of Nāgārjuna, describes this practice critically as a reflection of “philosophical fashions” (Tuck 1990). Interpretive efforts of the kind identified by Tuck use Western technical terminology to
explain Buddhist thought, looking to Asian traditions for answers to Western philosophical problems. In this way, Tuck notes, they introduce their own presuppositions and agendas. Inasmuch as they are comparative, these readings encapsulate a tension — perhaps intrinsic to all philosophical interpretation — between striving for an objective description of Buddhist philosophy and producing new meanings which reflect the interpreter’s cultural and personal viewpoint. This is the eisegetical tension. My aim in this paper is to examine a Western theoretical category which has often served as a lens through which contemporary philosophers and scholars of Buddhism approached early Buddhist thought: the reductionist theory of personal identity
introduced and developed by the philosopher Derek Parfit. While I am sympathetic to the analogies between Parfit’s reductionist theory and Buddhist philosophy, my intention in what follows is to explore the ways in which the Parfitian perspective shapes, often implicitly, contemporary philosophical understandings of the doctrine of anātman (no self) and, specifically, this doctrine’s relation to Buddhist moral theory.
The eisegetical tension raises broader methodological questions in cross-cultural research. The majority of the works that I discuss below draw on Parfit’s conceptual scheme to establish a conversation of equals between Buddhist and Western philosophers, and to demonstrate the relevance of classical Buddhist thought to contemporary philosophy. In doing so, these works raise questions about a methodology that relies on recognizable Western models to explicate Buddhist ideas (and non-Western philosophy, more broadly). To what extent does this methodology provide a full and faithful depiction of Buddhist philosophy and, on that basis, facilitate a genuinely evenhanded cross cultural dialogue?
Derek Parfit’s theory of personal identity consists of two primary elements: the reductionist view and the psychological criterion of identity. In his early work, which culminates in the 1984 book Reasons and Persons, Parfit rejects the commonsensical, non-reductionist view of persons.1 According to this view, a person is a distinct entity that exists beyond the basic psychological and physical entities which constitute persons. The identity of persons, accordingly, is a basic fact that cannot be described using other facts. Parfit gives the Christian soul and the Cartesian thinking substance as examples of this entity, which he names the “further fact”. According to the reductionist view,
however, only the person’s physical and psychological events and the relations between them exist. Consequently, persons can be reduced to more basic entities. In other words, the fact of personal identity can be expressed by reference to other, more basic facts. When we know these impersonal facts, we know all there is to know about the person. Parfit’s reductionist view of persons is supplemented by his psychological criterion of personal identity, sometimes called the “Identity Doesn’t Matter” view (Shoemaker 2016). Parfit maintains that what matters in personal survival is not the endurance of a distinct entity, like a physical body or a mental substance. Rather, what matters are the relations that connect between a person’s psychological states. Such relations include the connection between an experience and its direct memory, the connection between an intention and the act that it leads to, and the connections between beliefs and desires which are held over time. If a sufficient number of relations is maintained, this entails the survival and endurance of the person; in other words, the person remains one and the same. The reductionist view and the psychological criterion of identity underpin Parfit’s
1 The position is articulated in a number of other places, most importantly Parfit 1971a, 1971b, 1982, and 1995.
approach to many of the ethical issues he considers throughout his early work, including moral desert, distributive justice, our obligations to future generations, and the grounding of his utilitarian ethical theory.2
In what follows, then, I identify some of the ways in which these Parfitian developments seem to have influenced contemporary interpretations of Buddhism. I focus on three aspects of his thought that became dominant in the works surveyed below: first, the theoretical categories that Parfit formulates in his work; second, the philosophical problems raised by his reductionist view, in conjunction with the utilitarian moral theory he defends; and third, his argumentative forms and styles. Methodologically, each of these three aspects assists the comparative purpose of the works discussed below. As such, they all fulfil a similar intellectual function, and constitute different facets of a single cross-cultural methodology.
I begin by introducing the theoretical categories of the Parfitian-Buddhist discourse, pointing to the intrinsic eisegetical tension that this discourse exhibits. I then examine two instances in which contemporary scholarship has used the doctrine of anātman, construed using Parfitian categories, to provide Buddhist answers to Western philosophical problems.
In the final section, I focus on one example of an interpretation that explicitly incorporates arguments by Parfit: the work of Charles Goodman (2009), who advanced a
2 While Parfit’s analysis of personal identity had a direct influence on Parfitian readings, the broad sense and significance of his claims are to be understood in their historical and thematic contexts, on which this paper will not elaborate. Historically, Parfit’s inquiry into personal identity is embedded in a philosophical tradition that goes back to thinkers such as John Locke and David Hume, and engages with contemporary philosophers such as Bernard Williams, Christine Korsgaard, and Susan Wolf. Thematically, the concepts of reductionism and eliminativism draw their significance from a wider set of debates in Western philosophy, particularly in metaphysics, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of science.
consequentialist interpretation of Buddhist ethics, within a normative ethical framework. I argue that a Parfitian perspective guides, in an unacknowledged manner, Goodman’s interpretation of the relation between the anātman doctrine and Buddhist ethics. Against this reading, I examine five verses from the Bodhicaryāvatāra (A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life) by the eighth-century Buddhist philosopher Śāntideva, which illustrate an alternative approach to understanding Buddhist ethics in the context of the anātman doctrine.
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