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Paradox & Despair in Lev Shestov’s ‘All Things Are Possible’

Marina Jijina-Ogden
Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts


Only death and the madness of death can awaken people from life’s nightmare (Shestov, 1993, p.107).

One is fruitful only at the cost of being rich in contradictions; one remains young only on condition the soul does not relax, does not long for peace… (Nietzsche, 1990, p.54).

I believe that truth has only one face: that of violent contradiction (Bataille, 198, p.26).

What, then, is The One? It is what makes all things possible (Plotinus, 1964, p.173).

Though the works of the Ukraine-born Russian philosopher Lev Shestov have been translated into several European languages, they are still little-known within the continental tradition. His philosophical versatility as one of the most respected Russian thinkers has not been underestimated, however: V. V. Zenkovsky’s A History of Russian Philosophy (1991) characterizes Shestov as ‘a believing consciousness, rare for its sustained and lucid quality,’ claiming that in his writings the development of twentieth-century Russian thought reached its highest point (p.91, 82). According to Nikolai Berdyaev (1938), another celebrated Russian philosopher and Shestov’s lifelong friend, ‘Shestov philosophised with all his being; for him philosophy was not an academic speculation, but rather a matter of life and death’ (p.44).

In this essay I aim to examine a method of paradoxical thinking adopted by Shestov in All Things Are Possible (1923), where I attempt to unfold the significance of paradoxes and paradoxical principles within the context of his writing. The second aim of my study is to anticipate and elaborate on the concept of despair as a fundamental notion in Shestov’s philosophy.

Lev Issakovich Shestov (1866-1938), born to a Jewish family, studied law and mathematics at the Kiev and Moscow Universities. He married in 1896 and swiftly began his career as an author of essays and articles for a number of publications. His first book, entitled Shakespeare and his Critique Brandes, was published at St. Petersburg in 1898. Tragedy struck Shestov’s life with the commencement of the First World War, when he learned his son, Sergei, had been killed in service of the Russian military. In 1919, soon after the October Revolution, he and his remaining family were forced to flee the country. He spent the rest of his life in exile, living in Paris, where he lectured on Russian literature and established contacts from within the French literary circles—there he befriended some of the most prominent writers of his generation. He died two decades later, on the 19th of November 1938.

Michael Finkenthal (2010) observes that from an early age Shestov ‘lived intellectually under the spell of the Russian and the Western European cultures’ (p.17). Indeed, from the age of thirteen, Shestov immersed himself in the classic authors of Russian literature, such as Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Nekrasov, Belinsky, and Dostoevsky. Though the first foreign authors with which Shestov became familiar were Shakespeare and Goethe, the most radical impact was made when he discovered Nietzsche in the late 1890s, during one of his many visits to Europe. G.L. Lovtzky (2002), his brother-in-law, remembers that Beyond Good and Evil (1909) was the first of Nietzsche’s work explored by Shestov, followed shortly by On the Genealogy of Morals (1887). Many years later Shestov would tell his disciple Benjamin Fondane that the reading of this latter text had a stratospheric influence on his imagination and disturbed him to the point of insomnia (Finkenthal, 2010, p.30).

‘Paradox’ is a mid-sixteenth-century noun originating from the Greek paradoxon (para ’distinct from’+ doxa ‘opinion’). A paradox is defined as a seemingly contradictory statement which, when investigated, might be proven to be true. In the history of philosophy paradoxes are known to provide a valuable material for critical thinking; Kierkegaard (1946) deems the paradox ‘the source of the thinker’s passion,’ claiming that ‘the thinker without paradox is like the lover without feeling’ (p.29).

At first glance, it would seem that in All Things Are Possible Shestov emphasises the impossibility of finding satisfactory answers. The book reveals the major notion of his philosophy: the belief in the  revelation of a divine being through tragic experience of ‘groundlessness,’ deformity, and faith. For Shestov, truth lives by contradictions, and does not depend upon logic; the reader is invited to embrace the tragic side of existence, confronted by a controversial investigation. Willingly rejecting the concepts of reason, morality and universal truths, distinctive in the rational tradition of thinking, the author concentrates his attention on the subjective experience, i.e. one’s struggle with the self.

Shestov offers his reader an alternative means of perception, an unconventional perspective on life by way of a critical analysis of contemporary Russian and Western philosophical ideas. His original style of writing in this book is characterized by a gradual unfolding of the text, which contains numerous references to the ideas of Eastern and Western European thinkers. This impressive collection of ideas serves as a playground for Shestov’s often provocative, bold, and seemingly careless statements. The book is, on the whole, a collection of brief and deeply paradoxical, almost ironic thoughts.

Shestov (1923) defines doubt and uncertainty as the sustainable creative force of the mind, and an essential motivation when the field of its application is limitless (p.24, 90). Opposing the rationale of Kant and Hegel, he daringly states that philosophy has nothing in common with science, for science relies on logic and therefore ‘cannot know what truth is’ (Ibid., p.228). For Shestov, philosophy is rather an art and aims at breaking stereotypes by unlocking the imagination. The philosopher, then, is an artist of sorts, an artist to whom her work is dearer than anything else in her life, sometimes dearer than life itself (Shestov, 1916, p.115). He emphasises that in order to embrace a liberating, ‘groundless’ experience, one must free the mind of its own bonds and ethical dogmas. Likewise, philosophers must first set themselves free of all constraints in order to learn to doubt everything and ask questions where others do not, even at a risk of making themselves an object of ridicule (Shestov, 1923, p.38, 225).

The business of philosophy is to teach man to live in uncertainty. More briefly, the business of philosophy is not to reassure people, but to upset them (Shestov, 1923, p.24).

Shestov’s vision is conceptually complex. With the help of self-contradictory statements, the philosopher’s thought operates within a paradigm of unique self-negating oppositions, such as doubt/reason, truth/knowledge, experience/science, infinity/finale, distraction/harmony, ugliness/beauty, necessity/empiricism, originality/commonness, hopelessness/hope, immorality/morality, temporality/eternity, genius/talent, sickness/ health, and night/day. Overall, the intention is to rearrange and displace conventional, traditional values and commonly-held truths. By reducing the rational subject to nothingness, Shestov highlights groundlessness and uncertainty as the primary conditions for the start of a radically new irrational experience.

Shestov derives his penchant for contradiction from ancient Greek tradition.  In his Metaphysics (1987), Aristotle establishes the principle of contradiction as the fundamental law of logic (pp.65-9). Plato (2000) believes God created the world and is the author of good, but not of all things (p.52). Plotinus (1964, p.79), to whom Shestov often refers in his writing, suggests that ‘the One is every thing and not every thing. It is not every thing because it is the source of every thing’ (p.79). For Socrates, too, death may be the greatest of all human blessings (Russell, 2004, p.93). Following the Greeks, Shestov identifies the subject of death and passing to be the real aim for all philosophers (Shestov, 1923, p.45). Radically reconsidering Greek tragedy, he adduces tragic experience and despair as an example of a paradoxical encounter between the individual and the other (i.e. God). The conflict of Biblical revelation and Greek philosophy will become a fundamental theme in Shestov’s final book, Athens and Jerusalem (1938), in which he returns to the subject of death in Greek tragedy. Thus, referring to Socrates’ tragic death, Shestov (1966) emphasises its paradoxical nature:

It seems that every man, like Socrates, has at his side a demon who, in decisive moments, demands of him judgments and acts whose meaning remains incomprehensible to him and forever hidden (p.30).

Unlike those of his contemporaries (viz. Vasilii Rozanov, Vladimir Solovyev and Dmitri Merezhkovsky), Shestov’s writings do not exuberate poetic lines or mystical whimsicality. By contrast, adopting Nietzsche’s aphoristic style, the author takes his reader on a challenging journey through a multi-layered texture of provocative thoughts, scrupulously uncovering the groundlessness of logic, reason, and common sense in the established tradition.

In the way of Nietzsche, Shestov is compelled to go ‘beyond good and evil.’ In On the Genealogy of Morals (1989) Nietzsche (1989) writes, ‘Whoever has at some time built a “new heaven’’ has found the power to do so only in his own hell’ (p.115). In All Things Are Possible (1923) we see Shestov respond to Nietzsche: ‘Nearly every life can be summed up in a few words: man was shown heaven – and thrown into the mud’ (p.202). In the vein of Plato and Nietzsche, we see him illuminate despair as a place from which philosophy originates. For Shestov, tragedy is the starting point; it is the area where the most obvious things fade and lose their appearance. Everything becomes questionable, and life itself falls under the cloud of uncertainty.

Man only thinks properly when he realises he has nothing to do, his hands are tied. That is why any profound thought must arise from despair (Shestov, 1923, p.138).

Shestov highlights the notion of despair in order to unveil the real face of truth in all the groundlessness and uncertainty of life. The author asserts truth by way of contrast to knowledge, creating a dialogue of polemical ideas. His truth cannot be universal, for it is related to changeable human tastes and desires. Paradoxically, while the horror of death is present in all living beings, the horror of the sensation of groundlessness brings man back to himself (Shestov, 1923, p.75, 31).

Socrates, Plato, and Plotinus place God in subordination to reason and necessity. Shestov, conversely, places God outside of frames, definitions and necessities, seeing despair as a chance for philosophical advancement beyond rational knowledge, and an opportunity to establish a new understanding of consciousness adequate to the mind’s amorphous, infinite, and incomprehensible performance. Curiously, the Eastern Orthodox tradition has always been moderate in recognising inherent contradictions in things, viewing coexistence of good and evil as the only given and acceptable reality (Makrides, Uffelmann, 2003, p.100).

In an ambitious attempt to create a unity of Eastern and Western European thought, Shestov builds his argument on a broad spectrum of philosophical ideas. Appealing to Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, among others, Shestov identifies Kant and the rationalist thinkers as his main opponents (Finkenthal, 2010, p.33, 41). Shestov praises Dostoevsky’s ‘underground man’ for standing against reason, facing the weaknesses of the mind and descending into the tragic atmosphere of the underworld. Groundlessness and uncertainty surrounding Dostoevsky’s characters in Poor Folk (1845), Humiliated and Insulted (1861), and The Notes from The Underground (1864) give them a chance to redeem themselves, and according to Shestov (1923), ‘In a crisis, a stupid man becomes clever’ (p.157). For many of Dostoevsky’s characters there is no other path to the truth that of penal servitude, the dungeon, or the underground (Shestov, 1969, p.157). In a way similar to Nietzsche, Dostoevsky is destroyed by his personal encounters and the horrors of a tormented existence: the extreme experiences of their own lives bring both Dostoevsky and Nietzsche to ‘the philosophy of tragedy’ (ibid., p.241).

Shestov wrote Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche: Philosophy and Preaching in 1900, and like many of the philosopher’s works it is an inquiry as to the relationship between truth and its seeker. Many of the problems stated in this paper refer to Shestov’s later writings, and to All Things Are Possible in particular. Undertaking a deep analysis of Tolstoy’s stories, Shestov (1900) assert that his literary world is dominated by the idea of moral existence motivated by the intention of serving good. Shestov takes the side of the German thinker against Tolstoy’s ‘preaching’ and the conviction that there is no salvation outside the ‘good’:

Tolstoy now tells us that ‘’the good is God’’… He had, it is true, sought the good all his life, but he always had the ability to stretch the good on the Procrustean bed of his own needs (Shestov, 1969, pp.111-112).

As in Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, Tolstoy’s literary creativity is roused by the need to find a solution for the problems that torment the writer. But unlike Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, Tolstoy always presents answers to the questions he poses. Shestov (1969) argues that morality can’t exist without its counterpart – immorality – and consequently the questions ‘whom to blame?’ and ‘whom to reproach?’ inevitably become its essence (p.38, 19). This is why, for Shestov, Tolstoy’s philosophy does not pass beyond the limits of morality.

Significantly, Shestov defines his own philosophy as ‘the great and final struggle’ (Baranoff, 1982); that is, the struggle against the dictatorship of reason, the force of knowledge, the heavy chains of morality and logic. Hence, Shestov brings knowledge, logic, and morality to the centre of his philosophical investigation. He passionately negates abstract formalism and rational truths, rejecting Kant’s notion of a priori and universal laws. As Ramona Fotiade (2001) points out, ‘The fight against rational a priori and moral conventions is located at the level of individual consciousness and individual mind’ (p.26). By paradox, Shestov (1923) asserts that the sublime is but a single step from the ridiculous (p. 45). Ultimately, Kantian philosophy is limited by a categorical imperative; there is no room for doubt: for Kant, just like for Tolstoy, real contradictions cease to exist in the domain of moral life (Shestov, 1969, p.39).

According to V. V. Zenkovsky (2003), Shestov, whilst he was writing All Things Are Possible, was not yet familiar with Kierkegaard’s The Sickness unto Death (1849), where the Danish philosopher ponders the notions of despair (p.783). Shestov read Kierkegaard for the first time in 1929, following his acquaintance with Husserl. Although Husserl and Shestov occupied radically different philosophical positions, the two became friends after meeting at a philosophical symposium in Amsterdam in 1928 (Sinigoj, 2006). Interestingly, Shestov (1923) conceives of despair in a way similar to Kierkegaard: as an absurd negativity and a means to the revelation of truth. Kierkegaard (2008) considers truth both paradoxical and absurd, claiming that ‘despair is itself a negativity, ignorance of it a new negativity. But to arrive at the truth one has to pass through every negativity; it is just as the old story says about breaking a certain magic spell: it won’t be broken unless the piece is played right through backwards’ (p.50). Crucially, for both Kierkegaard and Shestov, liberation from rationalism is the fundamental task of philosophy.

Shestov aims to take our minds outside the constraints of preconceived limitations and judgements. We soon find ourselves descending into the groundlessness of the unknown, an underground space in the mind where all boundaries fade, and darkness prevails. Here we experience a disturbing sensation, confusion and displacement, which all provide an opportunity to despair and doubt everything that we previously believed or trusted to be true. Eventually, this experience would lead us to faith. The intense feeling of despair is metaphorically identified with the darkness of the night. For only in the gloom of the night sky are we able to gaze at the stars above, and even the brightest of the stars are not apparent to the human eye in the daylight. In a sense, Shestov creates a unique and unorthodox link between powerlessness and freedom. Thus, contradicting himself, Shestov (1923) arrives to a surprisingly logical conclusion:

We must make use of everything, even of death, to serve the ends of this life of ours (p.215).

The idiosyncratic style of Shestov’s writing, characterized by a free flow of thought, reflects the author’s daring conviction that reason and knowledge cannot fully comprehend all the absurdity of human nature. The poignant idea of an apology for the insanity of the mind, seeking to be liberated from the chains of rational thinking in search for truth, already belongs to modernity.

But to think-really to think-surely this means a relinquishing of logic. It means living a new life. It means a permanent sacrifice of the dearest habits, tastes, attachments, without even the assurance that the sacrifice will bring any compensation (Shestov, 1923, p.139).

The wealth of ideas put together in All Things Are Possible ensures important developments for the philosopher’s later thought, such as that present in The Theory of Knowledge (1916), Potestas Clavium (1923), and Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy (1936). Written between 1903 and 1905, the book poses major questions regarding religion and faith that the philosopher later explores after leaving Russia for the last time. The problems of truth and knowledge reoccur in Shestov’s writing as central notions within his philosophical inquiry. At a time when the majority of the Russian intelligentsia was under the influence of a materialistic interpretation of life, Apotheosis of Groundlessness  (1905) crashes upon Russian literature as a stone upon glass (Lovtzky, 1983, p.71). Possibly predicting the revolutionary changes in his homeland, Shestov (1923) talks about ‘the Russian man,’ describing him as ‘an elementary man waiting for a miracle, craving for the unknown’ (p.90, 163). Published in 1905, just a few months before the first Russian Revolution, the book incites heavy opprobrium (Lovtzky, 1983, p.71).

Due to its compelling discourse with rationalism and an enlightenment of the personal experience, the philosophy of Shestov has been described as existentialist. Nikolai Berdyaev (1938) was among the first to suggest that ‘this type of philosophy presupposes, that the mystery of being is comprehendible only within the human existential condition’ (p.44). Shestov’s provocative and often paradoxical ideas influenced many contemporary authors, among them Gabriel Marcel, Albert Camus, Benjamin Fondane, George Bataille, Czeslaw Milosz, and D. H. Lawrence. By some readers, however, his interest in the question of the revelation of death as the revelation of true life has been deemed absurd. Yet it seems that Shestov (1923) successfully fulfilled the challenge he set himself at the beginning of All Things Are Possible: the challenge of inventing his own truth. Accordingly, Shestov’s thought initiates a radical idea that each man has the right to possess his or her own truth. His philosophy does not provide a system of eternal truths, but attempts to show us how to live in uncertainty (p.71). By accepting the principle of paradoxical thinking, corresponding to the revelation of the incomprehensible mystery of being, Shestov offers a radically new experience for the human consciousness, which is no longer limited by the need to worry about the form or consistency of argumentation. The unconventional execution of thought characteristic of Shestov’s style of writing, provides an opportunity for refreshing ideas, setting the imagination free, and exploring alternative ways of thinking.

Shestov puts an individual’s experience at the centre of his philosophical investigation: where God stands outside the circle of necessity, there is no subordination, no ground; and therefore everything is possible.

Presentism & Relativity

Steven Umbrello
University of Toronto

In this short paper I will be presenting and evaluating the arguments provided by Keller and Nelson in their paper, ‘Presentists Should Believe in Time-Travel.’ I will show that their presuppositions, which are essential to their arguments, have the potential to devastate their central position. We will see that one of these presuppositions comes into conflict with the General Theory of Relativity, and I will demonstrate that this endangers both their own agenda and presentism as a whole.

Part I

Keller and Nelson (2001) attempt to show that there are at least some cases of time travel that are compatible with presentism, that is, the view that only the present is real (p.334). Before these scenarios are presented, they assess the nowhere argument (see Axiom 1), which they claim offers a fundamentally incorrect interpretation of the presentist view and must as a result be dismissed. We will revisit the nowhere argument (hereon NA) in Section III. (more…)

Kant’s Transcendental Idealism: A Hopeless Case?

George P. Simmonds
Oxford Brookes University


The interpretive mayhem engendered by Immanuel Kant’s Critique has, in the space of two centuries, yet to provide a standard or altogether satisfactory exegesis of transcendental idealism, a theory which on all counts lies at the very heart of Kantian philosophy. This paper aims to delineate two of transcendental idealism’s most salient readings in hope of proffering a well-considered comparison and, ultimately, a proposal that neither interpretation provides an account which conforms unerringly to Kant’s own promulgations.

Part I: Kant’s Transcendental Idealism

The Kantian doctrine of transcendental idealism concerns itself with the distinction between appearances and things-in-themselves, i.e.. objects as they appear to us and objects as they are in and of themselves. Kant’s finishing thesis on the matter posits the human mind as an active contributor to the objects of its perception and thus, in some way, a direct authority upon the nature of reality as we know it (McCormick, 2012, §4).

An exhaustive exposition of transcendental idealism demands a full consideration of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1998), an enterprise well beyond the scope of this paper. Thankfully, in the ‘Transcendental Aesthetic,’ however, Kant assures us that his views on space and time are of particular relevance here, and it is upon these views that the present section will aim to focus (Janiak, 2012, §6). It may, for the sake of clarification, be useful to juxtapose the Kantian notion of space and time with that of Newton (see Newton, 1990, pp.85-109, 823-60), whose transcendental realism epitomises the notion of external reality Kant aimed to oppose. With an eye to Newtonianism he writes:

Those […] who assert the absolute reality of space and time, whether they be subsisting or only inhering, must themselves come into conflict with the principles of experience. For if they decide in favour of the first […], then they must assume two eternal and infinite self-subsisting non-entities (space and time), which are there (yet without there being anything actual) only in order to comprehend everything actual within themselves (Kant, 1998, pp.166-7).

Here Kant presents the transcendental realist position as one which posits space and time as a pair of quasi-objects which exist independently of the human intuition. Without attending to Kant’s direct objections to this concept, it should suffice to say that he does not conceive of space and time as objects, quasi-objects, or indeed anything to be considered independent of human intuition. For him, they are to be conceived neither as things-in-themselves nor properties that can be perceived or verified empirically; they are rather ‘forms of intuition,’ that is, ‘a priori elements of sensible perception’ which would not ‘subsist in themselves’ if one were to contemplate them in abstraction from the minds of those to whose perception they are essential (Guyer, 2006, p.53). It is in this that Kant proffers the notion of the synthetic a priori proposition: observations on these necessary forms are synthetic, since ‘the predicate […] is not logically or analytically contained in the subject,’ but simultaneously a priori because they are ‘verifiable independently of experience,’ since they essentially constitute it (Encyclopædia Britannica Online, 2015). These forms are not, in other words, borne out of the objects themselves but imposed upon them as necessary conditions of the mind’s ‘receiving’ the external world (Schulting and Verburgt, 2011, p.5). When we look at a tulip as it is situated within spatiotemporal reality, then, we are not seeing it as it is, but as it appears to us following the intuition’s attempt to sort it into forms more easily digested by the understanding (van Cleve, 1999, p.134).

But what is the nature of an object beyond the veil of the mind? What are objects like when we are not considering them? It is when we ask questions like these that we stumble into Kant’s controversial distinction between appearances and things-in-themselves or, more concisely, phenomena and noumena. While on the one hand we have the phenomenon, an object as we perceive it through the prism of our intuition and understanding, on the other we have the noumenon, an object ‘unembellished’ by the mind and thus in possession only of those properties that are intrinsic to it (Walsh, 1901, pp.464-5). Things-in-themselves are on all counts considered inscrutable: while Kant claims we are able to perceive phenomena and acquire empirical truths regarding their relations, he insists that we will never apprehend the ‘unknown somethings’ of which appearances are mere representations (Kant, 1998, pp.276-96). This, he says, is impossible from the perspective of the finite mind.

As noted in Braiche (2008), a great deal of tension exists among Kantian scholars where transcendental idealism is concerned. While some interpret it as a doctrine interested in making ontological claims, others read the Critique as propounding an epistemic thesis (pp.2-3). The question of whether Kant intends to suggest that reality consists in two ontologically distinct worlds (one phenomenal, the other noumenal) is pivotal here; and it is around this question that the following sections will work.

Part II: Strawson and the Noumenal World

Needless to say, it is usually the thing-in-itself that provokes interpretive issues. Even Jacobi, one of the Critique’s earliest commentators, famously claims that ‘the “thing-in-itself” is the kind of concept without which it is impossible to enter Kant’s system, but with which it is impossible to get out of the system’ (Jacobi, 1912, p.304). Strawson’s The Bounds of Sense (1996) takes similar issue with Kant’s reliance on noumena and attempts to release transcendental idealism from its inconsistencies by attributing its metaphysical system to Berkeleyan idealism; that is, the notion that external reality is but a phenomenal illusion. ‘The only element in transcendental idealism which has any significant part to play in those structures,’ he writes, ‘is the phenomenalistic idealism according to which the physical world is nothing apart from perceptions’ (p.246). Despite the extremity of this deduction, Strawson’s ‘sortings of wheat from chaff’ are broadly acknowledged to stand among transcendental idealism’s most canonical interpretations (Bennett, 1986, p.340).

In reaching these conclusions Strawson focuses on the troublesome relationship between phenomena, noumena, and our cognitive faculties. He begins from what has become known as the ‘two-worlds’ reading of transcendental idealism, a view from which things-in-themselves and their appearances occupy two distinct realities, only the latter of which being comprehensible from the human perspective. The former, that noumenal ‘sphere of supersensible reality,’ must on Kant’s view transcend our intuitive notions of space and time as well as those ‘pure concepts’ which follow from them (such as that of causation) (Strawson, 1996, p.236). This interpretation is not without textual evidence. In Kant’s own words:

We should consider that bodies are not objects in themselves that are present to us, but rather a mere appearance of who knows what unknown object; that motion is not the effect of this unknown cause, but merely the appearance of its influence on our sense (Kant, 1998, p.435).

On this reading, then, we are to consider phenomena and noumena as ontologically distinct objects, one inhering within space and time and the other in some sort of transcendental realm of aspatiotemporal things-in-themselves. This is not to say that these worlds do not interact, however. Strawson insists that human experience must be the result of some ‘complex quasi-causal relation’ between phenomena and noumena, a connection he terms the ‘A-relation’ (Strawson, 1996, p.236). It is by way of this ostensible quasi-causality that noumena and human minds are able to ‘collaborate’ in their formation of the phenomenal world (Braiche, 2008, p.9).

But Strawson does not believe this relationship comports with Kant’s earlier conception of things-in-themselves as unknowable objects that do not conform to the modes of experience central to phenomenal nature. In support of this thesis he questions two aspects of the transcendental-idealist system in hope of bringing the notion of the thing-in-itself into question (Matthews, 1969, pp.206-7).

First, if noumena are unknowable and cannot be cognised, how is that we are able to know that they cause phenomena, or that they are in fact there at all? On Strawson’s reading of Kantian epistemology, things-in-themselves do not fall within the category of ‘possible human experience’ and thus possess neither the capacity to be verified nor any significant meaning as theoretical concepts. To insist that noumena exist despite this would be to approach transcendental idealism as a rationalist, where to claim that they do not would be to fall worryingly close to the extreme idealism of Berkeley (Strawson, 1996, pp.237-40). Kant here faces a dilemma, for he fits comfortably into neither camp. Second, if such notions as space, time, and causation do not exist beyond the realm of appearances, how is it that the A-relation is possible? How is it, in other words, that noumena are able to provide us with the material from which our cognitive faculties are able to construct phenomena? This, too, is a problem for Kant since it is not clear how this might occur without presupposing concepts of causation and, by extension, the forms of space and time (ibid., pp.246-8). While his epistemology is challenged on the first confutation, his ontological account of things-in-themselves is undermined in the second.

The Critique provides no easy way out of these difficulties and this, for Strawson, ‘tolls the death knell’ for transcendental idealism (Braiche, 2008, p.2). If we recall his statement that the doctrine’s only remaining foothold is the ‘phenomenalistic idealism according to which the physical world is nothing apart from perceptions,’ we see that Strawson chooses to equate Kant with Berkeley, both of whom deny the external existence of phenomena yet fail to affirm the things-in-themselves that would otherwise ground them in reality (Strawson, 1996, p.260). And thus Kant is, where his idealism is concerned, considered nothing more than an ‘inconsistent Berkeley’ (Allison, 2004, p.4).

Part III: Allison’s Two Aspects

How might transcendental idealism be navigated from Strawson’s impasse? According to the account proffered in the Bounds, Kant is describing two different classes of objects: the tulip as we see it, and the tulip as it is in and of itself. This is a metaphysical interpretation, and from this approach arises Strawson’s refutation. Allison does not read transcendental idealism this way; rather he views it as an appendage of Kant’s epistemic ideas. For him, the Critique does not intentionally discuss the ontologies of two distinct-yet-somehow-interactive tulips, but a single tulip considered in two different ways (Allison, 2004, pp.229-35). This, at least theoretically, diverts transcendental idealism away from the ambush Strawson prepares in his own exegesis.

Allison does not contend that there is nothing to be considered beyond phenomena: while he does not award things-in-themselves their own ontological status in the way of Strawson, he nonetheless acknowledges them as an important aspect to Kantian philosophy. On his view, sometimes linked with the ‘two-aspects’ position, what distinguishes a thing-in-itself from its appearance is not the domain of existence it occupies but the way in which the human mind considers it. Given that our cognitive faculties actively process and order the external world, thus giving rise to phenomena, it follows that an object of this reality may retain its own sort of existence where these devices are not present. This does not, however, entail the treatment of this existence as a separate, ontologically distinct entity, for it is simply an object of the phenomenal world considered in abstraction from the conditions under which we perceive it (Allison, 2004, pp.33-6). This interpretation is no more lacking in textual evidence than Strawson’s:

We can have cognition of no object as a thing in itself, but only insofar as it is an object of sensible intuition, i.e. as an appearance […] We [presume] the distinction between things as objects of experience and the very same things as things in themselves (Kant, 1998, p.116).

As seen above, phenomena and noumena are ‘the very same things’ considered in different contexts. We cognise phenomena as they appear to us within space and time, adorned with all the concepts part and parcel to human experience; while noumena are these same manifestations considered (via transcendental reflection) in the notional absence of such conditions. In this they retain a sort of methodological or formal status, but by no means an ontological one. This kind of formal significance is in no way peculiar to human thought: in theoretical physics we often consider objects abstracted from their necessary properties, but we do not insodoing commit ourselves to the belief that these abstracted entities exist in any real sense of the word (Allison, 1978, pp.53-4).

To avoid Strawson’s critique, Allison emphasises noumena’s negative role as more a description of what phenomena are not than an account of what might exist beyond the realms of possible experience. This account gives things-in-themselves a viable position within Kantian epistemology without force-feeding them the unwieldy metaphysical significance found in two-worlds interpretations. It shifts, in other words, the axis of the phenomena-noumena distinction from the way things are to the way (or whether) our cognitive faculties respond to them (Braiche, 2008, p.14).

Part IV: A Hopeless Case?

It seems fair to say that the accounts of both Strawson and Allison more-or-less conform to Kant’s original proposition; they would not, otherwise, be so widely discussed as valid interpretations. It is worth considering, however, that throughout the Critique Kant himself appears to oscillate between a two-worlds and a two-aspects position. Transcendental idealism is by no means a straightforward discipline to comprehend, and it could be that our failure to reach a univocal reading of its postulations owes to the irresolution of its author (Matthews, 1969, p.204). To end on a quotation from Wood (2005):

I think much of the puzzlement about transcendental idealism arises from the fact that Kant himself formulates [it] in a variety of ways and it is not at all clear how, or whether, his statements […] can be reconciled or taken as statements of a single, self-consistent doctrine. I think Kant’s central formulations suggest two quite distinct and mutually incompatible doctrines (pp.63-4).

Works Cited

Allison, H.E. (1978). Things in Themselves. Dialectica. 32 (1).

Allison, H.E. (2004). Kant’s Transcendental Idealism: An Interpretation and Defence. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Bennett, J. (1968). Strawson on Kant. The Philosophical Review. 77 (3).

Braiche, M. (2008). Strawson and Allison on Transcendental Idealism. Unpublished undergraduate dissertation. Lewis & Clark College.

Encyclopædia Britannica Online. (2015). Synthetic a priori proposition. Available: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/578646/synthetic-a-priori-proposition. Last accessed: 02/04/15.

Guyer, P. (1987). Kant and the Claims of Knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Guyer, P. (2006). Kant. London: Routledge.

Jacobi, F.H. (1912). David Hume über den Glauben, oder Idealismus und Realismus. Ein Gespräch. London: Garland.

Janiak, A. (2012). Kant’s Views on Space and Time. Available: http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/kant-spacetime/. Last accessed: 17/04/15.

Kant, I. (1998). Critique of Pure Reason. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Langton, R. (1998). Kantian Humility: Our Ignorance of Things in Themselves. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Matthews, H.E. (1969). Strawson on Transcendental Idealism. The Philosophical Quarterly. 19 (76).

McCormick, M. (2012). Immanuel Kant: Metaphysics. Available: http://www.iep.utm.edu/kantmeta/#H4. Last accessed: 14/04/15.

Michael, R. (2014). Immanuel Kant. Available: http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2014/entries/kant/. Last accessed: 17/04/15.

Newton, I. (1999). The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Oakland: California University Press.

Palmquist, S. (1986). Six Perspectives on the Object in Kant’s Theory of Knowledge. Dialectica. 40 (2).

Schulting, D. & Verburgt, J. (2001). Kant’s Idealism: New Interpretations of a Controversial Doctrine. New York: Springer.

Strawson, P.F. (1996). The Bounds of Sense. London: Routledge.

Van Cleve, J. (1999). Problems from Kant. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Walsh, C.M. (1901). Kant’s Transcendental Idealism and Empirical Realism. Mind. 12 (48).

Wood, A. (2005). Kant. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing.

Spinoza & Buddhism on the Self

Soraj Hongladarom
Chulalongkorn University


Note: All references to Spinoza indicate Spinoza (1985).

The self has once again become a fashionable topic in philosophy, given a boost through recent advances in cognitive- and neuro-science which find it intriguing that an entity as familiar as the self continues to elude full scientific investigation. To put it in formal terms, the problem we face is how to account for the referent of the first-person pronoun: when we say, for example, that I am typing this paper, who is this ‘I’ that is being described? The problem of the self has intimate connections with that of personal identity and the mind and body’s relationship, but they are not the same: what makes the self distinctive is its first-personal character.

In this paper I will present a brief sketch of two philosophies on the topic of the self, namely Spinoza’s and the Buddhist’s. As this paper presents only a sketch of a very large project, I do not specify which tradition of Buddhism is presented for comparison with Spinoza. What I intend to do is present the core view from each school of Buddhism in order to proffer it as a single whole (inasmuch as this is possible). More nuanced interpretation of Buddhism, especially on the self, must await further studies. A search through the literature on Spinoza and Buddhism provides only very scanty result: one of the earliest works on the topic is Melamed (1933), where only a handful of others—Wienpahl (1971), Wienpahl (1972), and Ziporyn (2012)—explore it in a more contemporary vein. This is rather surprising given the fact that Spinoza aims to give an account of how the best possible life can be achieved, which appears to be Buddhism’s goal, too. For Spinoza, the key to this is achievable only through intellectual understanding, which compares to the Buddhist view that wisdom (or paññā) is necessary for realizing such life. The metaphysics are similar, too: all things are interconnected for Spinoza, since they are modes of either the attribute of body (if they are material things), or of the attribute of the mind (if they are mental entities). In any case, all are parts of the one substance: God. We might thus read Spinoza as claiming that things, whether physical or mental, do not possess independent existence in themselves because the only thing that possesses such an existence is God. In Buddhism, rather similarly, things are also interconnected; and though it is well-known that Buddhist philosophy entertains no conception of a personal God, the Buddhist must surely find some comfort in Spinoza’s conception. The fundamental laws of nature for the Buddhist, such as that of Karma or cause and effect (idappaccayatā), seem to fit nicely with Spinoza’s conception of things in nature, all of which must follow these laws to such an extent that nothing within it can happen accidentally (Proposition 28, Book I). Please note that I use the Pāli terminology in this paper as a matter of convenience; as said earlier, the Buddhism I present is a generic one which does not distinguish between Theravada or Mahayana, nor any other.

The dearth of studies comparing these philosophies aside, I would like to compare and contrast them with reference to the self. There is a clear reason for this, apart from the fact that the self has become fashionable: Buddhist philosophy, as is well known, is distinctly skeptical regarding it. It is, in fact, the hallmark of almost all schools of Buddhist philosophy that its inherent existence is denied. (By ‘inherent existence’ it is meant that the self could, theoretically, exist without any relation to other factors). Buddhism maintains that the self as we know it—that thing by which we to refer ourselves when we use the first-person pronoun—is but an illusion, albeit a very useful one. Spinoza does not talk much about the self in the Ethics  , but he does discuss the human mind and body, and we can thus infer how he would conceive of the self as a referent of the first-person pronoun. The point I would like to make in this paper is that there are more similarities between Spinoza and Buddhism than there are differences. Analyses of how the Buddhist views the conception of the self could shed light on Spinoza’s own view on the union of the mind and body, which is notoriously difficult to comprehend. Furthermore, a close look at how Spinoza formulates his view concerning the mind and body could provide insight on how Buddhist philosophy might approach the issue in general. Hence, the benefits go both ways.

More specifically, I would like to contend that for Spinoza, as well as the Buddhist, the self does not strictly speaking exist. One cannot practically deny the reality of such a thing, but the apparent conflict and how it can be resolved will be discussed more extensively later. The merits of comparative studies are numerous: one not only discovers points of similarity and discrepancy between two systems, but also receives philosophical purchase from the comparison itself. In this sense Spinoza’s view of the self as a union of individual mind and individual body, and of bodies in general as objects of the mind, as well as his view of the mind as necessarily embodied, could function as a yardstick with which the Buddhist view can be compared. Marshall (2009), on the other hand, argues that Spinoza does not believe the mind and body are numerically identical. His view hinges on the ontological status of the Spinozistic attributes, which do not directly touch upon the argument presented in this paper. In the same vein, the Buddhist analysis of the self might also benefit our understanding of Spinoza, as we shall see in the following sections. All this has ultimately to do with Spinoza’s God and the Buddhist’s Dharma, or reality in the ultimate or absolute sense. I contend that an understanding of the nature of one can improve that of the other. Spinoza’s God possesses a number of interesting points of comparison with the Buddhist’s ultimate reality, and understanding these points is essential for grasping the notions of self in both traditions.

Spinoza’s Self as Mode of Union of Mind and Body

Spinoza discusses the mind and body in Book II of the Ethics. In Proposition 11 Spinoza says as follows: ‘The first thing that constitutes the actual being of a human Mind is nothing but the idea of a singular thing which actually exists.’ He goes on to claim that the ‘particular thing’ that is ‘actually existing’ is the body. Proposition 13 says that ‘the object of the idea constituting the human Mind is the Body, or a certain mode of Extension which actually exists, and nothing else.’ Thus, he seems to be saying that the mind is constituted by a thought, or an idea that one has of a particular physical thing. Without such a relation there can be no mind. To the extent that a mind has such a relation to an individual object, it must become an individual mind. Spinoza sees a parallel between mind and body, a view known as parallelism. His own unique view, however, is that both mind and body are attributes of God, such that there can be no body which is not accompanied by a mind, and vice versa. Every individual mind has to have a bodily object to which it is related, and every bodily object must be accompanied by a mind. In Proposition 3 of the same book Spinoza states, ‘In God there is necessarily an idea, both of his essence and of everything that necessarily follows from his essence.’ Given that every existing thing flows from God’s infinite essence in infinite ways, there is an idea of everything whatsoever. In other words, there is a one-to-one correspondence between every idea and every physical object, and this parallelism is established by the fact that all ideas and bodies are modes of the two attributes of God, each attribute being an essence of Him. To wit, both physical and mental objects are parts of one and the same God. When considered one way (under one attribute) God appears to be physical; but considered another way, under another attribute, God appears to be mental. As physical and mental objects are only modes of the two attributes, they are, collectively speaking, identical; and when considered as individual things, their physical and mental characters manifest themselves as such by constituting its very being. In other words, a physical object is also mental; a mental object is also physical. This absolute parallelism is thus the strongest of its kind, since two traditionally polarized elements are conflated.

As said earlier, Spinoza does not specifically discuss the self in the Ethics, but he does mention the human mind and body in Proposition 16: ‘The idea of any mode in which the human Body is affected by external bodies must involve the nature of the human Body and at the same time the nature of the external body.’ For him, the human mind is the idea of the human body. This follows from the discussion above. Thus, it is not possible for the human mind to exist without its corresponding body. Spinoza also states that the idea of the mind and body are one and the same, viz. Proposition 20: ‘There is also in God an idea, or knowledge, of the human Mind, which follows in God in the same way and is related to God in the same way as the idea, or knowledge, of the human Body;’ and Proposition 21: ‘This idea of the Mind is united to the Mind in the same way as the Mind is united to the Body.’ The latter proposition is particularly important in that it points to Spinoza’s view of self-consciousness, i.e. the act of the mind when directed to itself. Put simply, what Proposition 21 suggests is that when the mind is directed towards an object, the manner in which the direction takes place is the same whether it is directed outward, to an external object, or inward, to itself. Coupled with the above consideration, it might be said that the union of the mind and body—the parallelism discussed earlier—is of the same sort of idea as the relation between the mind and the mind itself. Thus, as there is a strong parallel between mind and body, there is also a parallel between the mind and the idea of the mind. Here is where we receive a glimpse of how Spinoza might view the self: when the mind is directed inward, it establishes a union between the perceiver and the perceived, the subject and the object. The self, then, is this union between mind and body that is individual and limited only to a particular human being. The self is composed of both physical and mental elements, and belongs to the body.

Does the Self Absolutely Exist According to Spinoza?

Perhaps Spinoza’s boldest claim regarding the self resides in his idea of the conatus in Propositions 6 and 7 of Book III. Proposition 6 states, ‘Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its being.’ Proposition 7, meanwhile, claims that ‘the striving by which each thing strives to persevere in its being is nothing but the actual essence of the thing.’ The basic idea here is that for each individual thing there exists a force that strives to preserve it. This does not sound traditionally Spinozistic, but rather quite mystical: how could it be that such a force exists in each individual thing? The content of Proposition 6 follows from that of Proposition 4, which reads, ‘No thing can be destroyed except through an external cause.’ Thus, for each thing to remain with itself, it must have a natural tendency to remain so unless an external force destroys it. Proposition 5 supports this in saying, ‘Things are of a contrary nature, i.e. cannot be in the same subject, insofar as they can destroy the other.’ Since a thing is an expression of God’s act and reason, and since contrary things destroy themselves, a thing persists within its own being because persistence is simply a consequence of having no contrary nature within itself. Thus the conatus happens as a logical result of there being a thing that persists in itself alone. Proposition 5’s claim is that if one thing can destroy another, then the two are contrary and cannot inhere within the same subject. For example, love and hate are contrary to each other; love is the force that preserves things, and hate the opposite. So love and hate are like contrary chemical compounds that destroy each other as soon as they come into contact. For Spinoza, the reason the world is still here is that the power of love is more than that of hate; and each thing, when left to itself, owes its being and persistence to that power, since love is ‘a Joy, accompanied by the idea of an external cause,’ and Joy is ‘a man’s passage from a lesser to a greater perfection’ (See Definitions 2 and 6 in Proposition 59, Book III). As  perfection cannot be achieved without reality (sc. man’s ascent towards God), love is a means by which joy is achieved; it is through love that one ascends to God. In Spinoza’s terms this actually entails that one achieves full understanding of reality through becoming absolutely in tune with the causality and rationality of nature.

So the picture is this: each of us contains a conatus, a natural tendency to preserve our beings which are in fact our very essence. The conatus strives to preserve our beings and by doing so realizes that it can do more, i.e. achieve its essential nature through striving to surpass itself in order to attain union with God. In less mystical terms, this means that the conatus strives to achieve a full union of the individual with God, or the ultimate reality, thereby erasing any substantive boundary between the individual and reality itself.

All in all, then, can the conatus be considered the self? In one way it certainly can. As all things contain their conatus, so does an individual human being, whose essence is certainly her conatus. However, what is strange about the conatus of a human being is that it must always be absolutely the same: the conatus of each human being is nothing more than that striving force that exists within it. Here the supposed essence of human beings is no different from the essence of simple things like rocks and trees. But if this is the case, then all human beings must be identical, since they share the same type of essence. There can be no difference in conatus between one human being and another, because the conatus is only that striving perseverance present within each of us, and nothing more. Thus, it cannot be identical with the self because the self of each individual must by nature be unique. Nonetheless, the conatus appears to be the closest thing in Spinoza’s system to such an individual self. That the self is not the same as the conatus does not necessarily imply that the self does not exist in Spinoza’s system, however: individual and unique traits of a human being may still be found, but they are particular in the same way an individual object over there might be particular. The task of the human being is to achieve what he calls ‘the intellectual love of God’—the striving towards perfection which is achieved when one has full understanding and leads one’s life in accordance with reason. Here the uniqueness of this situation does not play a role; instead the idea is to forgo these traits of individuality by merging with the One, so to speak, through losing one’s unique individual traits.

The Buddhist Doctrine of the Non-Self

Let us look at how Buddhism views the self. The view of Buddhism is here a vast topic: unlike Spinoza’s philosophy, the view of the self is central to Buddhist thought and there is, as a result, a vast amount of relevant literature within all traditions of Buddhism. In this short paper I shall be able to focus on only one aspect of the argument that concerns itself with the division of the self into five khandhas, which are literally translated as ‘heaps’ or ‘aggregates.’ A basic tenet in Buddhist philosophy in both the Theravada and Mahayana traditions is that the self is regarded as being composed of form (rūpa), feelings (vedanā), perceptions (saññā), thought formations (sankhāra) and consciousness (viññāna). (For an introduction to Buddhist philosophy, see Siderits, 2007 and Gethin, 1998. The analysis of the self as consisting of five elements here is fundamental in all Buddhist schools.) These five elements can be grouped together into physical and mental entities whereby form belongs to the former and the other four aggregates to the latter. The argument is that, as the self is divisible into these five aggregates, it cannot be found as an inherently existing entity because the self dissolves itself by virtue of being so divisible. Any characteristic that is thought to belong to the self, such as having a certain personality, is not found to belong to any of these aggregates. The personality may be thought to belong to perceptions and memories, but these are fleeting and constituted by countless short episodes, so cannot be considered as a candidate for the self that is thought to endure as a source of personality. The same kind of analysis applies when the self is equated with the body. In short, the Buddhist takes up the usual way in which the self is conceived: as existing as a life-giving soul, and finds that it is nothing more than a collection of these five aggregates. As none of them possess the characteristic that is necessary for their being a substantial self, the latter cannot exist. Note, however, that for the Buddhist the self does exist: to categorically deny this would be insupportable since we all refer to ourselves as a basic mode of communication. The problem, then, is the exact nature of this thing to which I refer in using the word ‘I.’

One of the most important places in the canonical Scripture where the Buddha specifically discusses the Doctrine of the Non-Self is the Anatta-lakkhana Sutta, or the Discourse on the Non-Self Characteristics (Anatta-lakkhana Sutta, 2015). According to the standardized account, the Buddha, having just attained Nirvana, turned to his original five disciples and convinced them that he had attained Liberation. After giving his first teaching, one of these disciples began to understand the basics of his ideas, resulting ultimately in all five disciples attaining this Liberation. The topic of the second teaching, Anatta-lakkhana Sutta, is precisely the nature of the Non-Self. The Discourse begins as follows:

Thus it was heard by me. At one time the Blessed One was living in the deer park of Isipatana near Benares. There, indeed, the Blessed One addressed the group of five monks.

‘Form, O monks, is not-self; if form were self, then form would not lead to affliction and it should obtain regarding form: ‘May my form be thus, may my form not be thus;’ and indeed, O monks, since form is not-self, therefore form leads to affliction and it does not obtain regarding form: ‘May my form be thus, may my form not be thus.’

Feeling, O monks, is not-self; if feeling were self, then feeling would not lead to affliction and it should obtain regarding feeling: ‘May my feeling be thus, may my feeling not be thus;’ and indeed, O monks, since feeling is not-self, therefore feeling leads to affliction and it does not obtain regarding feeling: ‘May my feeling be thus, may my feeling not be thus’ (Anatta-lakkhana Sutta, 2015).

The Buddha is referring to the five khandas mentioned earlier. The self is understood to be exhaustively divided into these five elements, and the Buddha’s strategy in the Sutta is to show that each of these five elements cannot validly function as the self of the person. ‘Form’ in the excerpt above is the traditional translation of Pali rūpa, meaning the body, i.e. whatever material form that makes up what is normally understood the self. The Buddha points out that this form cannot be identified with the self, because if it were, we must be able to control it with the will. We must, for example, be able to tell the body not to age; and the fact that this is not possible demonstrates that form and the self are not identical. When the body ages or otherwise follows its natural course in a way that we do not like, ‘suffering’ or ‘affliction’ is the result. The Pāli term for this is dukkha, which refers to things not according to our wishes and hence engendering dissatisfaction. The key point is that form does not follow our will, and that if form is to be identified with the self, it must do so. The Buddha then applies the same argument to all other components of the self, with the very same result. The overall conclusion is that we cannot find the self anywhere; the self, in other words, is an illusion. That our form or other khandas follow their own trajectory rather than submit to our will demonstrates that they are a part of the natural order and do not consult us in their doing so. Our aging hair will continue to turn white, for example, no matter how much we will it not to; but it turns white as a part of the natural order of which humans are already a part.

If the argument depends on the claim that form does not follow the will, then is the will itself to be identified with the self? Here the will is part of the mental components of the khandas: recall that there are four mental khandas (the body is identified with rūpa, the only one physical khanda), namely feeling, perception, thought formation, and consciousness. The idea is that any mental act falls under either of these four elements, and none other. The will must thus be a part of either one of these things. This entails that when we have a will or a desire—that I want my hair to be black, for example—it does not actually adhere to  whatever we want it to be. The desire is like a thought and according to the Sutta we cannot control it. Sometimes we have a desire or a thought, but sometimes we do not. Many have experienced this difficulty in controlling their thoughts; it seem that they can be so unruly that we often have a hard time restraining them. It is possible that sometimes the thought or the desire that I want black hair arises, but some other times it does not. Those who practice meditation will always be familiar with such difficulties. We cannot focus upon a single thought for very long; and in this way our thoughts and desires follow the natural order in the way of our bodies. It is in this sense that the Buddha argues that the self cannot be found anywhere, since even our will can elude our control.

The point made by the Sutta, then, is that whenever we gaze inside, where we normally expect to find our enduring selves, we in fact find nothing. Instead we unearth mere parts of the natural order that follow their own logic and cause-and-effect relations, and which bear no significance to the self. Even our consciousness follows the natural order in this way. The only reasonable conclusion from this is that what we normally conceive to be the self is but an illusion which does not exist independently.

However, if the Buddha argues that there is no self, then what are we referring to when we use the first-person pronoun? When we flee from danger, for example, what exactly are we trying to preserve? The Buddha’s point is not that he wants to eliminate all discussion on the ego; instead he wants to point out that our normal conception of it is in fact inaccurate. It is somewhat similar to apprehending a rainbow, thinking that it is substantial and has enduring existence, while it is in fact only an mirage borne out of light and water particles. In the same way we could say that the five khandhas are more basic in that the existence of the self depends upon them, just as the existence of the rainbow depends upon the light and moisture in the air. However, saying that the rainbow is only an appearance does not mean that it does not exist at all, for we can ostensively perceive it. In the same manner, the self exists even though it is, in basic reality, only an appearance. Hence, when we are running from danger, what we want to preserve is precisely ourselves, which consist of the mind and body combined in such a way that gives rise to a unique personality. The Buddha’s central message is that it is one’s attachment to this union of mind and body that engenders that unique personality—the self—which is the source of all humanity’s afflictions. Once we fully realize that the self is nothing but an appearance caused by our own misconceptions, the root of suffering dissipates and we are liberated at last.

Self and Ultimate Reality

The key to seeing whether Spinoza’s view on the self agrees with that of the Buddhist thus lies in Spinoza’s constructed perspective. If he denies that it exists inherently, as something whose existence necessarily depends on that of others, then his view would on the whole agree with the Buddhist’s. Recall that, for Spinoza, modes are an attribute of substance considered as limited by their own kind (Definition 5 in Proposition 10 of Book I). That is, a physical object is a piece of extended matter whose outer limit is defined by other objects. If that is the case, then it can be seen that the very being of the object depends crucially upon others. Without the other objects to provide its outer limit, how could the object even exist as an object at all? In the same vein, a self (that is, a union of individual body and individual mind) is limited by its relations with other selves. It is certainly the case that its body is limited by other physical objects, and the mind is also delimited in the same way. And the self, seen from the first-person perspective as a union of mind and body pertaining to one particular person, is thus limited in the same way by other body-and-mind complexes. This points to rather a striking similarity between Spinoza and the Buddhist.

Another point of similarity lies in the emphasis on the presence of natural order in both traditions. We have seen that, for the Buddhist, the khandhas are not to be considered as constituting a self because they follow this natural order—the cosmic law of cause and effect—and not the will of the subject. Spinoza also pays a great deal of attention to this: in Proposition 28, Book I, he states unequivocally that everything that happens does so because of a cause, and this continues ad infinitum. Even the conatus, the force that preserves the integrity of a particular thing, is not to be identified with the self, as we have seen above. The reason for this is that, for Spinoza, every object has its own conatus, and not only a human being whose self we are concerned with in this study. The conatus should, in fact, be viewed more as the force that is inherent everywhere in cosmic reality, and not specifically something that is capable of thinking and desiring in the way that we normally take to be the qualities of the self.

What about the actual metaphysical status of the self? According to Spinoza, it is something that is both physical and mental at the same time—just as substance itself can be seen as constituted essentially by mind and matter—the difference being that while substance is only one, the selves are parts of the substance, just as modes are.  This is clear from the fact that they cannot be divided. Furthermore, Propositions 11 and 12 of Book II confirm that there is a strict parallel between the mind and body: what goes on with these substances at a cosmic level also occurs on the more local level of the human being. There is, however, one difference between Spinoza and the Buddhist: for Spinoza the self is both mental and physical; but this is not necessarily the case within certain Buddhist traditions. According to the Abhidhamma, the mind and body are classified as two distinct and incompatible fundamental categories of basic reality, which consists of mind (citta), mental formations or mental states (cetasika), form (i.e., physical matter—rūpa), and Nirvana (Anuruddhācariya, 1979). The Mahayana tradition, following Nāgārjuna, claims instead that mind and matter are not in the end strictly separated, as both belong ultimately to emptiness itself, which is characterized as nature insofar as it is considered to be devoid of any inherently existent characteristics. For the Mahayana, all things are empty by nature; that is, they are what they are only to the extent that certain causes and conditions apply to them. They cannot exist beyond these causes and conditions. Nāgārjuna explains this thoroughly in Chapter IV of his Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, which argues that the five khandhas cannot be conceived as existing independently or objectively (Nāgārjuna, 1995). No assertion regarding the khandhas is tenable since no substantive statement can be made of them, since their existence depends upon other factors; and to make any substantive statement demands that each of the khandhas remain still, so to speak, so that assertions or theorizations can be made of them. This is a hugely complex matter, but suffice to say that, according to the Mahayana, mind and matter could be regarded as belonging to the same category of being, which is not unlike Spinoza’s view regarding the relation between God and individual modes. This results from everything being considered a part of emptiness: since all things lack inherent existence and cannot be separated—because separation presuppose some kind of objective substance—then to separate things as mental and physical would be to presuppose that there exists objective categories of ‘mental’ and ‘physical’—which contradicts the premise that all things lack inherent existence. Thus, to classify things in such a way, one must depend on one’s own conceptualization and convention (Nāgārjuna, 1995, Verse 18, Chapter 24, and also Verse 5, Chapter 5.) This claim is also dependent on whether it is possible to talk of emptiness as itself a category of being. If emptiness can be considered as being in some way, then there is a straightforward means by which it can be compared to Spinoza’s God. Another strand in Buddhist philosophy claims that ‘emptiness’ is only a word that designates a condition whereby all things are interdependent with other things, and since everything possesses this characteristic, the notion of emptiness as an entity is but a semantic device. Garfield argues that Nagarjuna subscribes to this view that emptiness is not to be equated with a kind of self-subsisting void that looms over conventional reality. On the contrary, emptiness and conventional reality are themselves one and the same. This is the case for Spinoza as well, as God, or Nature, is nothing but the collection or the totality of all things (Nāgārjuna, 1995, pp. 90-93). In any case, however, I would like only to show that there is at least one strand of Buddhist thought that appears to equate mind and matter, thus making it rather amenable to Spinoza’s thought. This point requires much further elaboration and analysis, however, and I will need to consider both emptiness in Mahayana thought and Spinoza’s God in order to discover points of comparison. A study of the conception of the self in both Spinoza and Buddhist philosophy cannot fail to look at how each view ultimate reality and how comparisons might thus be made.

A discussion of the conceptions of the self in either Buddhism or Spinoza would not be complete without a discussion of the ‘highest possible perfection’ from each perspective. If there is ultimately no self, as the Buddhist argues, then who is liberated when they reach Nirvana? And to Spinoza, who is it that possesses this intellectual love of God? Who achieves blessedness, which is for him the highest human perfection? The Buddhist’s rejoinder is that, ultimately speaking, the question is unsound because it presupposes that there is somebody who obtains the quality of ‘having attained Nirvana.’ To him, there is no such person to attain Nirvana in the first place. A standard source for this point is the Aggi Vacchagotta Sutta (2015) where the Buddha argues that it cannot be claimed that the Tathāgata (the one thus gone, or the Buddha) either survives after death or does not survive, because either way the claim presupposes the existence of something (namely, the Tathāgata) whose confirmation or negation leads to the opposite view. Instead the Buddha claims that existence always depends on causes and conditions; thus it cannot be said of someone who has attained Nirvana that he either survives or does not survive, because in either case the existence is presupposed without the dependence upon causes and conditions. Without this presupposition, then, the question of whether he exists after death or not makes no sense. Nirvana is attained when there is a realization that there is in the last analysis no self as an inherently existing entity. The standard Buddhist understanding of this problem is that one is at this moment disabused from one’s own delusions. One has, in analogy, long mistaken a rope for a snake, and once this realization has dawned upon one’s mind, one is ‘liberated’ from the fear of a snake that was never there. One has mistaken the five khandhas as one’s own self, but after practising and traveling along the Buddhist path, one gains the realization that what has taken to be the self has all along been something else. As a result, one is ‘liberated’ from all the afflictions and problems that accompany the belief in the existence of oneself. By so realizing, one is said to have attained Nirvana.

For Spinoza, the highest possible human perfection is achieved through the ‘intellectual love of God’ (Proposition 33, Book V). Spinoza defines this very important concept in Proposition 33 of Book V: ‘The intellectual love of God, which arises from the third kind of knowledge, is eternal,’ and also, more substantively, in Proposition 36: ‘The Mind’s intellectual love of God is the very Love of God by which God loves himself, not insofar as he is infinite, but insofar as he can be explained by the human Mind’s essence, considered under a species of eternity; i.e., the Mind’s intellectual love of God is part of the infinite Love by which God loves himself.’ The idea is that blessedness is achieved through what Spinoza calls the ‘third kind of knowledge,’ that is, intuitive knowledge one has of God himself as opposed to conceptual or direct perceptual knowledge. The distinction here is based on what Spinoza calls ‘adequate ideas’ (Defition 4 of Book II). These are ideas which are absolutely true, as they are related directly to God and contrast with ‘inadequate ideas.’ In Proposition 36 of Book II, Spinoza clearly distinguishes between these notions when he claims that the inadequate or confused sort are connected with a ‘singular mind,’ where ideas directly connected to God are true. The singular mind that Spinoza speaks of has an uncanny resemblance to the Buddhist’s view of the self as a source of confusion. Here the main idea appears to be the same: perfection is achieved through the dissolution of the self and identification of oneself with the whole or the totality. Spinoza’s notion that ideas are essentially eternal also seems to support the Buddhist interpretation I am suggesting. Roughly, ideas are themselves eternal as parts of the eternal God; as bodies are parts of God ,or Nature (who is eternal and contains many of God’s qualities), so are ideas. The Buddhist would in principle agree with Spinoza here, because to realize eternality one must transcend one’s own egoistic perspective and realize that one has all along been a part of the eternal and the cosmic. Though I cannot offer a full account of this difficult aspect of Spinoza’s thought here, suffice to say that as far as parallelism between mind and body goes, the eternality of mind is mirrored by the eternality of the body; but it is not the body of an individual person, but body per se as a part of nature. The atoms of a corpse, for example, remain despite the fact the person is dead (See also Garrett, 2009). Spinoza’s third kind of knowledge involves the realization that all things are connected as necessary parts of a single God and that everything is interconnected through the necessary chain of cause and effect. This, to me, sounds very much like Buddhism.


To conclude, we might say there are a number of similarities between the conception of the self within Spinoza and Buddhism. First, they are both unions of mind and matter that are limited by their own kind. This is meant both literally and metaphorically: the self is limited physically by the existence of others; but also recognized as such to the effect of limiting what the self is. This is in line with the idea that selves are not merely inert object, but the seats of subjectivity and the source of thoughts and ideas. In Buddhism, this is supported by the tenet that everything is interconnected (idappaccayatā), such that a recognition of there being one thing necessarily requires the recognition of others. Secondly, though Spinoza’s view that mind is constituted by body does not seem to find a direct support in Buddhism, if we interpret the Mahayana doctrine of emptiness in such a way that it is to be equated with ultimate reality, then mind and matter each belong to it. In this sense emptiness can roughly be considered to possess two major characteristics: mental and physical. This would be much in line with Spinoza’s theory of the attributes; if it is possible that emptiness can be recognized as an entity (a view that some Buddhist schools have developed), then mind and matter do indeed appear to run alongside the Spinozistic line of thought. Alternatively, we might say that Spinoza’s view of substance and attributes appears to follow an interpretation of the Mahayana that looks at emptiness as equal to ultimate reality.

What about the Buddhist’s denial of the self’s inherent existence? Although Spinoza does not seem to specify his views here, he does to some extent discuss the human mind and body, which are obvious corollaries of this matter. Furthermore, the whole purpose of the Ethics is to achieve a blessed life, and it must be someone’s self who achieves this as a result of following the path suggested in Spinoza’s suggestions. Thus, it seems incongruent for one to conclude that Spinoza gives short shrift to the self simply because he does not discuss it directly in his Ethics. Since it is always the self that eventually achieves blessedness, it is implied that Spinoza in some way recognizes the self’s existence. But if we think along these lines, Buddhism also recognizes the existence of the self, because in the end it is the self of the practitioner who, after arduous labor, arrives at Nirvana’s shores. In the same vein, I think it equally possible to suggest that in the Ethics the existence of the individual self is similarly tenuous. For one thing, Spinoza acknowledges that in the end there is only one thing, namely God, or substance. All the selves out there are thus only modes of God’s attributes (Proposition 13, Book I). Modes have some level of existence, but they do not exist categorically as God does.

Works Cited

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