A Short Note on Jay L. Garfield’s Losing Ourselves

Jay L. Garfield, Losing Ourselves: Learning to Live Without a Self (Princeton, 2021).

(Amazon; Bookshop)

Jay L. Garfield does for the Buddhist concept of anattā /anātman, what Robert Wright did for Buddhist meditation and mindfulness practices: he provides scientific and philosophical justification for their value to an audience that might be hesitant to embrace the metaphysics of Buddhism. For those unfamiliar with anattā /anātman, its a Buddhist doctrine that teaches there’s no essential “I” underneath my physicality, emotions, perceptions, mental formations, or even consciousness. Instead, “I” am the culmination of these realities; their intersection, if you will. Buddhists call them “Skandhas” or “Aggregates” or “Heaps” that together make “me”. Buddhists reject the idea, encapsulated in the Indian concept of the “Atman” which has parallels to the “soul” of the Abrahamic religions. Hinduism’s “Atman” is the “real me” underneath it all. You could change my body, thoughts, feelings, etc., but those aren’t the “real me”. The “real me” is the Atman that holds it all together. Buddhist say “no,” there’s no “Atman” (hence, “anatman” or “no-Atman”) underneath it all. What makes “me” who “I” am are all these realities. For those familiar with Greek philosophy, which posits an underlying “essence” that shouldn’t change (e.g. humanness) and “accidents” that do change (e.g. gender, eye-color, weight, height) from human to human, in a way Buddhism teaches we are our collective “accidents” and that’s what we must embrace when we speak of “I”.

Garfield is a philosopher, so he runs through a wide-array of philosophical arguments for why this Buddhist concept is closer to the best philosophy than say Descartes’ dualism or other approaches to the mind-body problem that seem to depict a little “me” controlling my body from inside my brain. Similarly, modern neuroscience appears to be leaning in a direction that leads some to reject the concept of a static, essential “me” underneath it all. Instead, most neuroscientists appear to argue for an understanding of consciousness and explain our mind-body relationship in such a way that the Buddha would approve.

For Garfield, this doesn’t mean there’s no “me” but instead of a “self” he prefers the word “person,” with a person being what Buddhist understand when they see the Skandhas intersecting together. And Garfield argues that there are ethical implications to seeing ourselves (for lack of a better word) as “persons,” interconnected and dependent upon the environment in which we live and the relationships that shape us, over against a “self” that somehow transcends our material and relational realities. This work is very thought-provoking, easy to read, clear in its arguments, and challenging in its conclusions. I highly recommend!


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