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Philosophy 224. Expanding the Concept: Pt. 2. Taylor takes as his starting point the buddhist doctrine of anatta : that the “ self, ” understood as an inner, enduring phenomenon, is an illusion. As he recognizes, this doctrine stands in sharp contrast to much of western thought.

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philosophy 224

Philosophy 224

Expanding the Concept: Pt. 2

taylor the anatta doctrine
Taylor takes as his starting point the buddhist doctrine of anatta: that the “self,” understood as an inner, enduring phenomenon, is an illusion.
  • As he recognizes, this doctrine stands in sharp contrast to much of western thought.
  • Taylor’s task is to defend this claim, or at least a related one, “…a particular person or self is one and the same thing as [her] body” (200c1).
Taylor “The Anatta Doctrine”
a question of method
As Taylor is well aware, the claim that there is no inner self is a negative one, and you can’t prove a negative.
  • Instead he proposes to demonstrate that the claim is consistent with common sense, that it is not inconsistent with other things we know, and that arguments to the contrary don’t accomplish their task.
A Question of Method
what s really going on
Taylor seems to be motivated by the ambiguities and failures of Modern philosophy’s treatment of the person.
    • He does make reference to theories like Strawson’s, but dismisses them as “esoteric.”
  • Rather than posit non-phenomenal entities like minds, or even “mysterious” amalgams like “bodymind,” Taylor insists that we should go with what we know to be the case: we are bodies.
What’s Really Going On
if it s so obvious
Given the fact that the western tradition of thinking about this issue has largely rejected this possibility, Taylor has to provide some account of this rejection.
  • He chalks it up to two different types of considerations: Linguistic and Metaphysical.
If it’s so obvious…
the thickets of language
Part of the reason why we so stubbornly hold on to dualistic thinking is that our language is structured that way.
  • A key element of this structure is that we use possessive pronoun’s to reference ours and other’s bodies.
  • But we shouldn’t let this mislead us. We also speak of our car having a body, but don’t thereby assume that the body is one thing and the car another.
The Thickets of Language
can matter think
The metaphysical considerations that seem to underwrite a dualistic conception of the person center around the claim that mental predicates cannot be appropriately ascribed to a material thing.
  • Taylor dismisses this claim by pointing out the absurdities that would follow if we held to it strictly.
    • Example of Car Repair (203c2)
Can Matter Think?
a little seasoning
Though on their face, these linguistic and metaphysical considerations don’t seem too compelling, their influence is significantly exacerbated by two common errors:
    • Treating psychological states and activities as things;
    • Assuming that human bodies are coextensive with non-living bodies.
A Little Seasoning
what about personal identity
As we have seen, crucial to the modern treatment of personal identity is the concept of duration through time.
  • Taylor takes up the issue in conjunction with concerns like Locke’s for the possibility of “soul transplants.”
  • Ultimately, Taylor rejects possibilities like these as absurd and ultimately question begging: they don’t prove a substantial self, they presuppose it.
What about Personal Identity?
menkiti person and community
Menkiti, representing certain tendencies in African philosophical thinking, distinguishes between a sense of “person” grounded in the western philosophical tradition from that which seems to emerge from traditional African forms of thought.
  • This pointing takes the form of a series of contrasts, the significance of which Menkiti attempts to make clear.
Menkiti, “Person and Community”
abstract individuality v communal identity
One of the characteristic features of the accounts of the person that we have considered is the attempt to identify and define the individual with some abstract characteristic (exs. will, rationality).
  • The African view on the contrary is that persons are “…defined by reference to the environing community” (256c1).
Abstract Individuality v. Communal Identity
ontological and epistemological implications
This difference in approaches to understanding the person has some important implications.
  • Ontologically, the community comes first; it is the identity of the community which enables the identity of the person.
  • Epistemologically, our sense of ourselves and of our possibilities is grounded in our sense of our communal being.
Ontological and Epistemological Implications
instant v developing persons
Given the Western model of personhood, being a person is an all or nothing thing, and if you have the requisite quality, then you are a person.
  • The model Menkiti discusses is by contrast “processual.” That is, entities become persons by being incorporated into communities and that is something that happens not instantly, but over time.
    • “…the older an individual gets the more of a person he becomes” (257c2).
Instant v. Developing Persons
minimal v maximal views
It is on the basis of this contrast, that Menkiti notes another.
  • Western accounts of personhood tend to aim at minimum condition descriptions, ignoring as a result much of the thick significance of personhood.
  • The view Menkiti advocates by contrast identifies personhood with all of these “thick” features.
  • Menkiti points as an example to common views on ancestral communities highlighted by the notion of the “living dead.”
    • Not uncommonly, dead persons retain significant aspects of their personhood for a few generations after their death, at which point they lose their distinctiveness and become generic. That is, they lose their personhood.
Minimal v. Maximal Views
moral implications

There is a symmetry then that Menkiti points to between the lack of personhood of very young people and very old ancestors. Neither of them have a place in the community of persons.

  • One of the thick features which clearly demonstrates this is moral significance.
  • Common to our cultural context and the African ones Menkiti is relying on is a substantial distinction between the moral status of children (and the dead).
    • We do not treat or think of children as moral agents in the way we think of each other.
Moral Implications
a few clarifications

After drawing these contrasts, Menkiti returns to his discussions of the processual and communal character of personhood to help us avoid potential confusion.

  • First, he draws a distinction between the processual model and a Nietzchean or existentialist model on the basis of the claim that the processual development of personhood should not be understood as unconditioned or radically creative, but as always happening within a communal context.
  • Second, he offers us a clarification of the sense of communal that he is working with. As he makes clear, the contrast with our view of community is the contrast between an additive view, where the community is understood as a collection of individuals, and a collective view, where the individual is understood through their communal existence, “I am because we are” (261c2).
A Few Clarifications