An Irrealist Theory of Self

The Harvard Review of Philosophy 12 (1):60-79 (2004)
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It has become a common-place to read the ‘no-self’ theory of the Buddhist philosophers as a reductionist account of persons. In Reasons and Persons, Derek Parfit himself seemed to endorse the association, having learned of the Buddhist theory from his colleague at All Souls College, Bimal Krishna Matilal. The Buddha’s denial that there are real selves metaphysically distinct from continuous streams of psycho-physical constituents lends itself, to be sure, to a reductionist interpretation. I believe, nevertheless, that there are good grounds for scepticism, and I think it is time for scholars of Buddhism to be more cautious about the identification than they have been up until now. Different Buddhist schools, not to mention different thinkers within particular schools, have given widely varying philosophical construals of the Buddha’s claim about ‘no-self’, and, while some thinkers and some schools might favor a reductionist reading of the claim, others, I would argue, do not. In this paper, I will examine the theory of persons of one such, the Mādhyamika Buddhist Candrakīrti. Candrakīrti’s interpretation of the “no self” slogan is, I believe, anti-reductionist but irrealist: persons are not reducible to psycho-physical streams, nor are they real existents distinct from the stream. How is it possible for him to say both these things? Let us see.
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