Lately I’ve been noting a pattern that seems to pop up across in the history of philosophy. Once philosophers deconstruct either the thinking human subject – the self – or nonhuman objects, new generations of philosophers will shortly come to deconstruct both together. The classical Buddhist thought of the Pali suttas and Abhidhamma says there is no atta or ?tman; by this it means only that there is no human or divine self. The continuity of human identity is an illusion; what we think of as ourselves is really just a collection of smaller physical and mental atom-like particles, momentary events that make it up. But – in this early Buddhism – these particles and events, unlike the self, are ultimately real.
Within a century or two, however, along comes the great Nāgārjuna and his Madhyamaka philosophy. Madhyamaka thinkers take the no-?tman doctrine much further. Now the ?tman isn’t just the thinking subjective self; it’s the self-ness in everything. Objects, including the atomized particles and events so dear to the Abhidhamma, are just as unreal as the subject. The deconstruction of the subject leads historically to the deconstruction of the object.
I thought about the point a couple months ago when reading Nick Smyth‘s excellent post on existentialism. Existentialism is not an area of much expertise for me, and I appreciate the way Smyth helped make sense of it. The way he portrays it, existentialism is about deconstructing objects and the way we make the world, including people, into objects (with the avowed “objectivity” of scientists and especially social scientists). We objectify people by putting them into categories, making them into the sum of their parts. But people are more than these categories, they are free individuals, choosing subjects, selves. (Existentialism as thus described seems rather the polar opposite of the Speculative Realist movement and its “object-oriented ontology.”)
Intellectual fashion has not been kind to these existentialist views of late. While existentialism dominated much of the mid-twentieth-century intellectual scene, the followers of French philosophy often ignore it now. What’s replaced it has been the postmodernism of Foucault and Derrida. And while postmodernists accept the existentialist critique of objectifying categories, they refuse to accept the choosing subject. Where Jean-Paul Sartre had proclaimed “existentialism is a humanism” because of his intense focus on the agency and choice of human beings, Foucault and Derrida instead turn to an anti-humanist structuralism which largely reduces human agency to the social structures that shape it. Here the deconstruction of the object is followed by the deconstruction of the subject.
I’ve been thinking about this point in reading James Doull‘s chapter on Augustine. Doull, discussing Augustine’s Confessions, notes how intellectually Augustine, before his turn to Christianity, made the move from Manicheanism to classical skepticism. The Manicheans, Doull says, deconstructed the subject in their own way: there was no unified self, the self was merely a battleground for the cosmic forces of good and evil. And once Augustine accepted that there was no subject, it was an easy slide for him into a skepticism that believed there was no object either.
I put all of these transitions – the Buddhist, the Augustinian, the 20th-century – together because I think there’s a Doullian connection to be made here. For Doull, as for Hegel and Ken Wilber, intellectual movements in society mirror movements made in an individual’s development, as the movements at both levels involve a rational necessity. I think Doull would argue that these transitions from either no-subject or no-object to neither-subject-nor-object are no coincidence at all: this is something that has to happen once we think it through, whether “we” are individuals (like Augustine) or a whole society (like Buddhist India). It doesn’t logically work to elevate objects without subjects, or vice versa; once you stop having both, it’s inevitable that you’ll end up with neither. I suspect Doull would come to a critique of Speculative Realism on these grounds as well: object-oriented philosophy, with the subject objectified in the way Smyth’s existentialists object to, will just lead people to a philosophy that has neither object nor subject.
Would Doull be right about this? I can’t say. To say more would require venturing much more deeply into details of which I have only the vaguest outline so far. I can’t help but think that Doull is on to something here, but I can’t yet back that up in a way that allows me to say so with any confidence.