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. Continue reading