The rise of qualitative individualism in the West coincides relatively closely with Western interest in Buddhism. Nietzsche and Emerson, two of the most influential qualitative individualist thinkers, both had an interest in Buddhism stronger than was usual for philosophers of their time. And the greatest flowering of Western interest in Buddhism occured in the 1960s, the same time when qualitative individualism itself became fully mainstream.
Qualitative individualism can be put in many ways, but one of its most characteristic injunctions is “be yourself”. The injunction is often phrased further in terms of one’s true self. Such ideas are of central importance to the LGBT movement. A recent news profile asking Boston University students about the meaning of being transgender finds many of them echoing a common refrain: “discovering your truest self”, “finding one’s true identity”, “being their true selves”, “being truly, completely, unapologetically me”.
None of this seems like a great fit, on the face of it at least, with a tradition that has proclaimed for 2000 years that there is no self.
The philosophical difficulties are pretty profound here. I’ll admit that the non-self teaching (anattā/anātman) has never been my favourite part of Buddhism, and thinking through qualitative individualism has helped me figure out why. I am a grandchild of the ’60s – my mother was born in 1949 and came of age in that decade, and I grew up infused with its ideals, believing in finding oneself and following one’s own path. Now, though, I have become a Buddhist – as, I think, has she. And to take that Buddhism seriously requires taking non-self seriously.
It is important to point out here that for the first millennium of Buddhism there not only were Buddhists who acknowledged something like a self, but by some accounts they were among the most prevalent schools. These Buddhists are now most commonly known by the name Pudgalavāda, “way of the person”, a name given to them by their opponents – they typically called themselves Vātsipūtrīya or Sāmmitīya. The problem with the Pudgalavāda is that they have been extinct for millennia. One could call oneself a Pudgalavādin today, but this would be much like adhering to an Arian Christianity that rejects the divinity of Jesus – one is not outside the tradition exactly, but one has in some sense rejected the entire continuous living tradition. It is worth at least looking for an approach more in harmony with the Buddhism that still exists.
In that respect there are at least a few commonalities between traditional Buddhism and qualitative individualism as I see them. One can see these commonalities in what they both (explicitly or implicitly) reject – the Christian soul and its successor the Cartesian I. Against a Christian or Cartesian conception, Buddhists and qualitative individualists can agree that what we call self is divisible: the unity that it has is narrative, a story we tell. Because it is narrative, it is mutable, at least until the point of death – we do not have a fixed and unchanging essence, and that mutability is what allows us to escape our bad habits and therefore suffering. And, perhaps both most controversially and most importantly, as I understand both traditions the self is not autonomous. This is the point where I part with existentialism and its Augustinian emphasis on choices, will and responsibility. I think these concepts tend to mislead us, make us think too much in terms of decisions rather than dispositions. Rather, as I think Nietzsche and the Pali Buddhist texts would agree, we are the product of what has come before us; to the extent we can understand ourselves to be free, it is because we are able to free ourselves of the bad influences that plague us for most of our lives, bad influences that are not only social.
If Buddhism and qualitative individualism can be harmonized, I think that that harmonizing would do well to start from these commonalities. But problems remain. Buddhist texts go much further than merely denying that there is an indivisible, immutable or autonomous self. The suttas tell us that nothing physical or mental can be regarded as self at all. They do also seem to speak of individual people in a way treated as unproblematic, but from at least the time of the Milindapañhā, Buddhist texts have told us that this is a merely conventional way of speaking, not the ultimate truth or reality – at that highest, truest (paramattha) level of reality, selves are not real. And this is treated as important because belief in an ultimate self, a true self, is viewed as a key source of our craving and therefore our suffering: when there’s a self, we want more for it. If we are to get out of suffering, we need to divide the apparently true self into its component pieces, in order to be able to separate the good pieces leading to nirvana from the bad pieces that continue to entrap us – a separation that the abhidhamma texts theorize and meditators can observe in practice.
So is qualitative individualism then a trap that will merely serve to mire us in suffering? I think many wise Buddhists throughout the ages would have said so without hesitation. But I don’t think I agree with them. At a minimum, I think there is more to life than the removal of suffering, and to say even that much is to make room for extra-Buddhist elements in a Buddhist worldview, as many Buddhists have done throughout history. Qualitative individualism is among the elements I find it most important to bring in. But none of that solves the puzzles discussed above; it merely articulates what is at stake in bringing them up.