Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying

Chapter 1: What’s in a Self?

– +


What’s in a Self?

A History of the Concept of Self

PAST CONFERENCES WITH HIS HOLINESS in the Mind and Life series had taught us that having a professional philosopher conversant with the scientific topic at hand was very useful. One of the main reasons is that in the Tibetan tradition philosophical reflection and discipline are highly valued and cultivated. A Western philosopher among scientists often provided valuable bridges and alternative formulations that were clearer and closer to the Tibetan tradition. For the topic of this conference, Charles Taylor, a well-known philosopher and writer, was an ideal choice. In his recent book Sources of the Self, he had drawn a vivid and insightful picture of how we in the West have come to think about the thing we call the self.3 He launched into the subject with speed and precision.

“I’d like to talk about some of the most important aspects of the Western understanding of the self. To do that I’d like to paint a very broad picture of the concept’s historical development. I think a good place to start would be with the very expression the self. In our history it’s something quite new in the last couple of centuries to say ‘I am a self.’ Before this, we never used the reflexive pronoun self with a definite or indefinite article (such as the or a). The ancient Greeks, the Romans, and people of the Middle Ages never treated it as a descriptive expression. We could say today that there are thirty selves in the room, but our ancestors wouldn’t have said that. They would have perhaps said there are thirty souls in the room or employed some other description, but they wouldn’t have used the word self. I think this reflects something fundamental in our understanding of the human agent, something very deeply embedded in Western culture.


“In the past one would have used the words myself or I indistinctly, but the word self is now used to describe what a human being is. I would never describe myself as ‘I.’ I just use that word to refer to myself. I would say: What am I? I’m a human being; I’m from Canada. I describe myself in that way, but in the twentieth century I might say ‘I am a self.’ The reason I think that’s important is because we choose the descriptive expressions that reflect what we think is spiritually or morally important about human beings. That’s why our ancestors spoke of us as souls; that’s what was spiritually and morally important to them.

“Why did people become uncomfortable with that usage and why did they shift over to using the self ? Part of the story is that they found something spiritually significant in describing us as selves. Certain capacities that we possess to reflect on ourselves and operate on ourselves became morally and spiritually central to Western human life in a crucial way. Historically, we sometimes called ourselves ‘souls’ or ‘intelligences,’ because those concepts were very important. Now we speak of ourselves as ‘selves’ because there are two forms of concentration and reflection on the self which have become absolutely central to our culture, and which are also in tension with each other in modern Western life: self-control and self-exploration.

“Let’s first look at self-control. Plato, the great philosopher of the fourth century B.C.E., spoke of self-mastery. What Plato meant was that one’s reason was in control of one’s desires. If one’s desires were in control, one would not be master of oneself.”

“Very wise!” the Dalai Lama interjected.

“But interestingly, self-control had a very different meaning for Plato than it has in the modern world. For Plato, reason was the capacity in human beings to grasp the order of the universe, the order of the ‘ideas,’ as he called them, that gave shape to the universe. To have reason commanding one’s soul was the same as having the order of the universe commanding one’s soul. If I look at the order of things, my soul comes into order from love of that order. So it was really not control by myself as an agent alone; it was control by the order of the universe. Human beings were not encouraged 13to reflect inward on the contents of their own souls, but rather to turn outward to the order of things.

“Christianity changed that very profoundly with Saint Augustine in the fourth century C.E. He was influenced by Plato, but he had a very different view. His idea was that we can get close to God by turning inward and coming to examine what we have within ourselves. We discover that at the very heart of things we depend upon the power of God, so we discover the power of God by examining our selves.

“So we had these two spiritual directions: one, Plato, turning outward and the other, Augustine, turning inward, but still with the intention of reaching something beyond ourselves, which is God. A third change comes in the modern West. Take the seventeenth-century philosopher Descartes as an example. Descartes believed in God and he thought of himself as following Augustine, but he understood something quite different by the idea of self-control: the instrumental control that I as an agent can exercise over my own thinking and over my own feeling. I stand in relation to myself as I stand to some instrument that I can use for whatever purpose I want. Descartes reinterpreted human life as the way we concentrate on our selves as instruments. We came to see our bodily existence as a mechanism we can use, and this happened in the great age when a mechanistic construct of the universe arose.

“The modern idea of self-control is very different from Plato, because the order of the universe is no longer important or relevant. It’s not in control. I am no longer even turning inward to get beyond myself to God; instead I have a self-enclosed capacity to order my own thoughts and my own life, to use reason as an instrument to control and order my own life. It becomes very important for me to order my own thinking, to keep it operating in the right way by the right steps, to relate to it as an object domain that I can somehow dominate. This has become absolutely central to Western life. It’s one way we begin to think of ourselves as ‘selves,’ because what’s really important is not the particular content of our feelings or thinking but the power to control it reflexively.”


As was customary in our Mind and Life meetings, presentations were peppered with clarifying questions from the Dalai Lama. In fact, by following the type of questions asked, the reader can gain accurate insight into the gaps between the Tibetan and Western traditions. In this case, he politely interrupted Charles: “Would you say that this self as a controller has the same nature as the body and mind that are being controlled? Or is its nature distinct from those of body and mind?”

“For Descartes, it was the same thing,” came the reply. “But the self came to be seen as something distinct because it doesn’t have any particular content itself. It is just the power to control whatever thought content or bodily content occurs.”

Self-Exploration and Modernity

The discussion turned to self-exploration. “At the same time as Descartes was developing these ideas, another important human capacity appeared in the West: self-exploration. This grew out of the flourishing of Christian spirituality that was inspired by Augustine, which led people to turn to self-examination, examining their souls and examining their lives. Self-examination, too, developed beyond the original Christian form, and in just the last two hundred years it has become an extraordinarily powerful idea, which is now fundamental in the West, that each human being has their own particular, original way of being human.

“There were ancient practices of self-exploration, but they always started from the assumption that we already know what human nature is, and our task is to discover within ourselves what we already know to be true. In the last two hundred years, the assumption is that we know in general what human nature is, but because every human being has their own particular, original way of being human, we therefore have to draw that nature out of ourselves by self-exploration. This has opened a whole range of human capacities which are thought to be very important. How do you explore yourself ? You find what is not yet said, what is not yet expressed, and then find a way of bringing it to expression. Self-expression becomes very significant.


“How do you find the languages of self-expression? In the West in the last two hundred years it’s been thought that people can find the best languages of self-expression in art, whether poetry, visual art, or music. It is a feature of modern Western culture that art has an almost religious significance. In particular, people who have no traditional religious consciousness often have this deep reverence for art. Some of the great performers in the West have an aura around them—famous, beloved, and admired—that is unprecedented in human history.

“So we have these two practices of self-relation: self-control and self-exploration. Because they are both crucially important, we have come to think of ourselves as ‘selves’ and to refer to ourselves that way without reflecting. Both practices belong to the same culture but they are also profoundly at odds, and our civilization is constantly battling itself over this. You see it everywhere you look.

“You see it in the conflict today in the West between people with a very strict, narrow, technological orientation to the world and themselves, and those who oppose them in the name of ecological health and openness to oneself because the technological stance of self-control also closes off self-exploration.

“You get it in attitudes to language. On one side, language is conceived as a pure instrument controlled by the mind, and on the other side are conceptions of language that have led to some of the richest discoveries about human understanding—language as the house of being, language as what opens up the very mystery of the human being.

“What draws self-control and self-exploration together is that they have a common source: a conception of the human being that focuses on the human being in a self-enclosed way. Plato could not grasp the human being outside of the relationship to the cosmos, and Augustine couldn’t grasp the human being outside the relationship to God. But now we have a picture of the human being in which you may also believe in God, you may also want to relate to the cosmos, but you can grasp the human being in a self-enclosed fashion with these two capacities of self-control and self-exploration. It also has 16meant that perhaps the most central value in the moral and political life of the West is freedom, the freedom to be in control or the freedom to understand who one is and to be one’s real self.”

Once more the Dalai Lama clarified a key issue: “Is there an underlying assumption that self-control necessarily implies a self-existent or autonomous self, whereas self-exploration implies that that’s doubtful?” Charles answered that that was not necessarily the case, that self-exploration also presupposes a self, but opens the possibility that the exploration can go beyond that. The stance of self-control assumes that there is a controlling agency and never calls that into doubt. For instance, Descartes’ philosophy famously starts with the certainty that I, myself, exist. The entire edifice of scientific understanding of the world is built on that certainty.

Science and the Self

After painting this masterful picture of what it is to be a modern self, Charles brought the discussion back to the task at hand by relating these concepts of the self to the scientific tradition, and in particular to certain modes of scientific understanding that had already figured in earlier Mind and Life Conferences. “Take, for instance, the type of cognitive psychology that understands human thinking on the model of the digital computer. This is an extraordinary idea, a crazy idea for some of us, I have to admit, but with immense imaginative power.

“Going back to Descartes himself, the stance towards the self as a domain of instrumentality views the self as a kind of mechanism. The idea that we are, at bottom, just a mechanism is very congenial to this field. At the same time, Descartes put a tremendous emphasis on clear, calculative thinking. In other words, thinking would be clearest when it followed certain formal rules where you could be absolutely certain that each stage was a valid step from which to proceed to the next valid step. The wonderful thing about computers is that they combine this absolutely formal thinking with a mechanistic embodiment. People who are deeply moved by this side of Western culture are endlessly fascinated by computers 17and therefore are ready to make them the basis of their model of the human mind.

“On the other side are human sciences that grow out of the long tradition of self-exploration. One of the changes that has occurred in language in the West, along with using words like the self, is the development of a very rich language of inward exploration. Expressions like ‘inner depths’ are very much part of our culture— I would love to know if something similar exists in Tibetan. The idea is that each of us has to carry out a very long and deep exploration in ourselves; we think of that which we don’t fully understand as somewhere deep down and we think of these depths as inner. This emerges in another strand of Western scientific discourse, an example of which is psychoanalysis.

“Another direction of self-understanding that belongs to the line of self-exploration in the West today is identity. This is another word that is used today in a quite unprecedented sense. We often talk about discovering ‘my identity’ or we talk about our teenagers having a crisis of identity—of not knowing their identity, and the pain and drama of discovering it. My identity is who I am. In a sense, this is a way of describing myself as a spiritual being because when people talk about what they think their identity is, they’re really talking about the horizon from which they understand what is really important to them and what is vital in human life. In other words, the spiritual horizon of each person is understood as being bound by who that person is. Once again this reflects the search for what is particular to each human being. It is in this domain that explorations of new ways of understanding the human being are taking place in the West.

“This is a point that opens some very interesting and illuminating contact between the Western view and the Buddhist view. The discourse of identity allows for the possibility that I can radically rediscover and redescribe who I am; that I can discover that who I thought I was is not really correct and has to be re-understood and redescribed. Moreover, it’s in this domain that some Western philosophies have begun to question the very certainty of the self as a circumscribed entity. They have raised questions such as, ‘Is there 18really a unitary self ?’ This is the area in which exploration is going on, the frontier of uncertainty about the very nature of the self. Part of this philosophical movement is a reaction to the concept of self-control, which always seems very clear about the self as the controlling agency and never doubts its unity. This cultural war has resulted in modes of self-understanding that question whether we are in control, whether there are no deep resources within us that escape the self, and whether therefore self-exploration might not lead to something very different and disconcerting, something new and strange.”

The Self and Humanism

The presentation had reached its natural conclusion and a flurry of discussion started among all participants. The next question from the Dalai Lama was a bit less clear and a perfect example of the difficulty in making the leap between one tradition and another vastly different one: “Is there not a special relationship between this strong emphasis on the self and humanism? I have heard two very different connotations of the term humanism. On the one hand, there is the very positive sense of humanism as ennobling the self, endowing the self with a certain initiative or power. As a result, the self does not seem so much a pawn of God or any other external agency. In this sense humanism seems to be something positive. On the other hand, humanism in a very different context appears to be negative, with its emphasis on the self and its view of the environment simply as something to be manipulated and exploited by the self. If this is the case, how do these two meanings of humanism fit together, and which is in fact the more prevalent sense of the term?”

Charles replied, “One of the meanings of the word humanism has included this concentration on man, on the human being. As I said earlier, the two modes of self-control and self-exploration allow us to draw a circle around the human being and focus on that being. But humanism is also very varied and parts of it are in conflict. The two senses of humanism you have heard are two sides of the same coin in Western development. The original humanism of affirmation was relatively blind to the relationship of human beings 19to the rest of the cosmos. And there is now indeed a chastened humanism, among other things, the one that has learned wisdom of the self ’s connection to the cosmos, but it is not the original one.”

The Dalai Lama probed further: “When you speak of the cosmos, aren’t human beings part of the cosmos rather than something separate? If the cosmos is understood as referring to the external environment and human beings are regarded as individual agents existing inside it or even outside of it, aren’t human beings still thought to be products of the natural elements?”

“Yes, but in the view of the modern humanism that placed us as users in relation to instruments, the cosmos surrounding us was something that we could and ought to control. Originally, Descartes and others held a very strong dualism in which the human soul was thought to be quite separate from the cosmos; but later you are absolutely right. Another mode of humanism explains human beings in terms of these natural elements, a very reductive and a very arrogant stance of control. Indeed, I think there is a profound contradiction in this position. But a contradictory position is sometimes lived because it’s very deeply embedded in a culture.”

“So basically, both persons and the whole cosmos could be included in the word humanism. Does the term also imply a denial of the existence of a deity?”

“Not usually, but there are some people who use the word in that way,” answered Charles. “In England there is a Humanist Society whose members have in common simply that they are atheists. On the other hand, a great Catholic philosopher of this century wrote a book called Christian Humanism.

Non-Self in the West

As tea was brought in, the Dalai Lama pursued his question on the relationship between the self and the cosmos, asking everyone around the table: “Descartes seems to define the soul as being independent from the cosmos in general and from the body in particular. What about the modern sense of the self ? Is the self seen as an independent agent and something different from the body? What is 20its relation to the cosmos at large? Now that the self has been secularized, is it no longer possible to continue to conceive of the self as independent of the cosmos?”

Everybody deferred to Charles: “Logically and metaphysically, it doesn’t make sense to conceive of the self as separate, but this is the interesting point here. This whole way of understanding ourselves involves each person as a scientist or agent, taking a controlling stance toward the body and the cosmos. There is an implicit self-understanding that contradicts the explicit doctrine of the science. This is one of the great pragmatic self-contradictions of this metaphysical, materialistic stance in the West. The scientific doctrine says that it’s all just mechanism, including the self, but in order to get that doctrine you have to take a stance as a controlling agency toward the world. So this same agent has a sense of almost angelic or even godlike power over the world. There is a split in consciousness that is deeply illogical but existentially very understandable.”

The Dalai Lama then asked, “In the modern West, when one thinks ‘I’ or ‘I am,’ does this necessarily imply that the ‘I’ so conceived must be posited as being independent or autonomous?”

Charles’s answer was very Buddhist in flavor. “If you ask people, they say no. But in the way they actually live it, the answer is yes, very powerfully, and much more so than our ancestors who thought of themselves more as part of a larger cosmos.”

Joan Halifax interjected, “In the evolution of the self was there ever a non-self posited, the idea that in fact human beings didn’t have a separate self-identity?”

Charles answered, “There are such phases in Western development. For instance, the medieval Aristotelians thought that the really important part of us, the active intellect, was absolutely a universal thing and not particularized. The famous Islamic philosopher Ibn Rushd Averroës thought that also, but he had great problems with mainstream Islam. It was because of Ibn Rushd that Aristotelianism had problems entering Christendom; it’s only when Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas managed to reintroduce the idea of a personal intellect that it was allowed in.”


The discussion went around for a while in this questioning vein as everybody sipped tea. It was then time to change the stage, and to plunge into the first scientific presentation: a view of the brain in sleep and dreaming.

Join Wisdom

This content is only available to All-Access, and Plus members of the Wisdom Experience. Please log in, upgrade your membership, or join now.

Join Now
rotate left rotate right