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Ram-Prasad Chakravarthi

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Department of Religious Studies
Lancaster University
Lancaster LA1 4YG UK








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Background Information

Dr. Ram-Prasad Chakravarthi, PhD, studied History, Politics and Sociology in India before doing a doctorate in Philosophy at Oxford. He has taught or been a research fellow at the National University of Singapore, Trinity College, Oxford and Clare Hall, Cambridge. He is now Senior Lecturer in Indian Religions in the Department of Religious Studies at Lancaster University. He has published over 35 papers in Indian and comparative analytic philosophy, religion and politics, and classical Hinduism. He is also author of Knowledge and Liberation in Classical Indian Thought (2001), and Advaita Epistemology and Metaphysics (2002).


Self and Self-knowledge: Indic perspectives on
the challenge of consciousness studies to the good and right life


Read the entire paper in PDF format (132K, 17pp.)

Contemporary consciousness studies – in cognitive science research and its handmaiden, analytic philosophy – utterly rejects the culturally influential view, traceable back to Descartes, of a dualism of body and soul. This rejection has not, however, led to the disappearance of that dualism even in a generally secular society inclined to work with the dictates of science. In fact, there is a deep and pervasive sense – whether or not put in religious terms – of a sense of self that is not captured in physicalist explanations which reduce the non-physical soul/mind and its power of consciousness to physical states (or eliminate it altogether). This sense of a non-physical self is grounded both in the intuitions of introspection and in the motivation towards ethical and teleological goals. The dominant approach to this situation has been to refute the dualism at the heart of this sense of self in Western/Westernist culture, and provide philosophical glosses on the conception of mind, self and personhood consonant with anti-dualist physicalism. But this misses the point of the disquiet that those with a persistent, non-physicalist sense of self feel about their intuitions and motivations being undermined or rejected outright in such a manner.

The alternative project is to neither violate the explanatory rationale of physicalist consciousness studies nor deny the integrity of life-narratives that resist physicalism. This is not to attempt, per impossible, to square the Cartesian circle. Rather, it is to draw on the rich resources of classical Indian philosophy and provide different and alternative re-configurations of the body-mind-self-consciousness template. In their very different ways, the classical Indian schools present paths to the understanding of the concept of self, its relationship to consciousness, the nature and role of the mind as the seat of consciousness, and – of utmost ethical and teleological importance – the constitution of personhood.

The crucial claim is that many of these very different accounts leave space for an introspectively transparent sense of self and provide motivation for ethical and teleological agency, while simultaneously allowing for these very aspects to be bracketed when analysing and modelling consciousness. In other words, they preserve widespread intuitions even as they support counter-intuitive but systematic models of consciousness and its features.

The key to this possibility lies in the interaction between two senses of self in classical Indian thought.

One sense of self is given by and through the experience – the sequential undergoing of states – to which a complex of physical and instrumental apparatus is subject. In brief, this sense of self is functional. Its functionality in part consists in conceiving of subject-object distinctions. These are necessary to explain experience, but they also involve thinking dualistically of a self and its objective states. Within the parameters of an account of this sense of self lie such issues as the body's role in giving psychological orientation and continuity, the conditions for the attainment of epistemic grasp of objects, etc. The Indian philosophers in general think of this sense of self as constitutive of life and yet in some profound, metaphysical sense, mistaken. The point relevant to this project about such a view of this sense of self is that it is both (i) explanatory about common intuitions about the self and (ii) avowedly reductive – and therefore provisionally physicalistic – about the features of ordinary consciousness.

The other sense of self (and, indeed, non-self) is metaphysical and meta-ethical. It concerns what there 'really', ultimately or non-reductively is the case. Some schools, like Nyaya, Mimamsa and Jaina, attempt to establish some fundamental continuity between this transcendental theory of self (and a theory of a transcendental self) and the intuitive sense of self. But even this continuity involves a giving up or transcending of the latter. Others, Advaita and all the Buddhist schools (including that focussed on in this project, the Yogacara-Madhyamika), posit a radical discontinuity; in utterly contrasting ways, they deny the metaphysical sustainability of the ordinary sense of self. In all cases, however, they argue for the ethical and teleological potency of this transcendental account. Such an account concerns the transparency or accessibility (the 'luminosity') of consciousness, its relationship to a metaphysics of (non-)self, the psychophysical means of accessing that metaphysics and its connection to a suitable motivation towards ethical agency. So, where they cannot, frankly, be in consonance with the physicalist regimen of contemporary consciousness studies, these accounts provide robust motivation for ethical orientation and a teleology of transformation.

The significant point is that in strikingly different ways these transcendental accounts de-link or problematise the link between the non-physicalist metaphysics of the self from the analytic and introspective exploration of the content and nature of consciousness. Nyaya and Mimamsa do this by strictly constraining consciousness (the quality of the transcendental self) to states mediated by the psychophysical apparatus (the constituent of the intuitive self). Advaita and the Buddhist schools do this by tying different conditions for conscious states to different types of conscious states (some of which are accessible in only certain very special contexts).

The upshot of all this is that thinking of self, mind, consciousness and body through the Indic traditions will allow for some very different ways of contributing to contemporary studies of consciousness even while acknowledging and explaining popular intuitions at odds with such studies. It may be possible to think of a time when these Indic resources will influence cultural re-configurations of the senses of self that make for a less antagonistic – and perhaps even reconciled – relationship between ethico-religious life-narratives and 'scientific' physicalism.

Read the entire paper in PDF format (132K, 17pp.)