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Personal Identity and Buddhist Philosophy

A book review by Andrew May

First published in The Middle Way, May 2004

PERSONAL IDENTITY AND BUDDHIST PHILOSOPHY, by Mark Siderits, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2003, ISBN 0 7546 3473 6, pp. 250, 45.

To a scientist, a candle flame is an illusion: the underlying reality consists of heat, atoms and electromagnetic radiation. Reductionism -- analysing complex phenomena into simpler constituents -- lies at the heart of the Western view of the physical world. But when it comes to personal identity the opposite is true. Twenty years ago the British philosopher Derek Parfit tried applying reductionism to human existence, and his ideas have been given a rough ride by the academic mainstream ever since.

What does Parfitian reductionism entail? Suppose a human being really is just an ever-shifting mass of thoughts, feelings and perceptions, with no central "I". Having less stake in an all-important ego means the scope for personal hurt is reduced, while that for selfless, altruistic action is increased. These ideas will ring bells with readers of The Middle Way: the parallels between Parfit's reductionism and early Buddhist philosophy (such as the Theravada abhidhamma) were recognised from the start. Nevertheless there are differences, most obviously with regard to purpose -- Parfit is an analytic philosopher studying the human condition, while Buddhism is a spiritual practice aimed at improving it. Furthermore, the "reductionism" of the early abhidhamma tradition was soon countered by the more mystical approach of Mahayana schools like Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka.

Going beyond superficial observations such as these, there has long been a need for a proper comparison of Parfit's work with the Buddha dharma. The problem has been that such a comparison requires the talents of a very special individual -- someone who understands both the highly specialised language of modern Western philosophy, and the Pali and Sanskrit of the Buddhist traditions. That person has now come forth in the form of Mark Siderits. In this book, based on talks and seminars given at universities around the world, Siderits does more than simply "compare and contrast" the two schools of thought. His stated aim is to contribute to the ongoing Parfitian debate by injecting arguments developed centuries ago by Buddhist philosophers of various schools. In this he succeeds with conviction.

The book can be divided into two roughly equal halves. In the first half, Siderits reviews the major objections levelled against Parfitian reductionism, and counters these with arguments drawn from early Buddhist writings such as the abhidhamma. In the second half, he presents a new argument against reductionism based on the Madhyamaka "doctrine of emptiness". Reductionism is a quest for ultimate, mind-independent reality, yet the fact of impermanence implies that such reality is illusory. All things are devoid of intrinsic nature, and the pursuit of ultimate truth is nothing but a subtle manifestation of "I" -- a form of clinging to be rejected like any other.

This is a dense and intricate book that is not for the casual reader. However, it will be compulsive reading for anyone with more than a passing interest in Parfit's work and its Buddhist parallels.

Copyright © 2004 Andrew May

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