Is the Self an Illusion?

Sunday, February 23, 2020

What Is It

Most of us think it’s obvious that we have a self, but famously, both Buddhism and British philosopher David Hume are skeptical that such a thing exists. What in the world could it mean to deny that the self exists? Could ‘the self’ just refer to a series of perceptions and feelings we have over time? If so, then whose perceptions and feelings are they? Is there any way Buddhism could have influenced Hume’s thinking on the illusory nature of the self? The philosophers question their selves with Alison Gopnik from UC Berkeley, author of The Philosophical Baby and "How David Hume Helped Me Solve My Midlife Crisis."


Comments (8)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, February 2, 2020 -- 12:36 PM

The concept (or notion) of

The concept (or notion) of self is, to my thinking, synonymous with something called consciousness. There are those who question that as well, perhaps because there is no means (currently) of measuring it. Philosophy has no real estate on this matter, because it is all too theoretical and, well, slippery to get a handle on.. Hume and other early thinkers had not the beginnings of technological knowledge upon which to even begin a discussion of something so potentially profound. So, most, if not all of them, avoided any position on the matter---eschewed the topic as ineffable, as so it was. It seems unlikely to me that people like David Hume would have given Buddhism a second thought: too ethereal and, as such, inaccessible. Nowadays, there are a number of folks who have tried to explain consciousness---some of them highly respected. Mostly, their efforts have met scorn, disbelief, or worse, jealousy. I suspect many of them rue the day that they became interested in this philosophic tar baby. We are still light years away from a coherent approach to understanding the self; or consciousness; or whatever you wish to call this mystery which is odorless, colorless, tasteless and senseless. Seems to me. One possible, though tentative, avenue may lie with AI. I cannot begin to imagine how that could work---it is just a hunch.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, February 11, 2020 -- 11:16 AM

Every now and then, I am

Every now and then, I am moved to write something that is not immersed in a philosophical context. This is not one of those times. In the view of some, I may be standing still. That might be true. But, at least I am still standing. As a wiser man than I once told me: you have to stand for something, or else you will fall for anything. Over the ensuing forty-odd years, I have found that counsel impeccable.

aeby's picture


Sunday, February 23, 2020 -- 12:01 PM

Name of the Buddhist scholar

Name of the Buddhist scholar that both Alison Gopnik and the first caller mentioned, S--- K---?

edphil's picture


Friday, February 28, 2020 -- 10:27 AM

Yes. That is him. As a

Yes. That is him. As a practical matter we can assume that he had a very strong sense of himself, and that his realization of no-self was in the order of what he calls a non-affirming negative. In other words, a self must exist practically and experientially in order to realize its tenuousness and/or its transparency or lack of "inherent existence". It is an experience of freedom. It is on the order of a direct experience of freedom and not a belief. One of the artifacts of contemporary philosophy talk is that we may interrogate or investigate a subject in terms of "belief" and the adoption of one belief or another. Analytic meditation in the sense that he uses it is meant as an aid to direct experience. And what is the experience. I gather it may be likened to what Wallace Stevens called an ecstatic transparence. Paradoxically, such an experience represents a high level of self-development!

edphil's picture


Friday, February 28, 2020 -- 10:30 AM

On the realization of the

On the realization of the importance of self-development and of the need for a self before one can esctatically perceive its transparency, I can point you to the notion of an ipseity disturbance. We need a basic sense of self and we can strengthen that, so that we may perhaps begin to take it lightly.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Sunday, March 8, 2020 -- 11:29 AM

Yes, there is a unique self.

Yes, there is a unique self.

Free Will is the larger issue. It doesn't really matter what the thing is that takes an action if we can't attribute choice to it.

I enjoyed this show.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, April 27, 2021 -- 6:46 AM

I cannot grasp the notion of

I cannot grasp the notion of an illusory self. That just does not make sense. Each of us has a faculty; an identity we think of as our 'self'. It is as real as the color of our eyes, or the name we were given at birth. It is a memory after we die. But, it never was illusion. Seems to me. Now, if anti-realists wish to argue that such things as eye color are illusion, go ahead. That is just smoke and mirrors. There is a lot of it going round, these days.