Buddhism and the Not-Self Doctrine

In my last post, I wrote that the Greeks developed the most sophisticated science of mind in the ancient world. I would now like to suggest that the most sophisticated philosophy of mind of the ancient world was being developed not in Greece, but about three thousand miles to the East, around present-day India. There, at around the same time that Alcmaeon of Croton first developed the encephalocentric theory of mind, a new idea was put forward by a philosopher we now call Gautama Buddha. And that was the doctrine of not-self.

Put simply, the not-self doctrine is exactly what it sounds like: beneath our thoughts, feelings, and sensations, there is no self. This doesn’t mean that the self is reducible to some component parts like feeling, thinking, and sensing. It means that once you’ve eliminated the “parts” (thinking, feeling, sensing, etc.), there’s nothing – no self – left. In Western philosophical terms, we might say that the not-self doctrine is eliminativist (it picks apart the phenomenon at hand to show that the phenomenon isn’t real) and phenomenalist (like Hume’s “bundle theory” of mind, it maintains that mentality isn’t a single thing but rather a bundle of different things like thoughts, sensations, etc.).

Why is this so revolutionary? Well, to start, nobody that we know of had this idea before the Buddha. Second, it took the West several millennia – until David Hume in the 1700s – to come up with a similar doctrine. And one philosopher-psychologist has even suggested that Hume didn’t come up with the idea himself, but may have learned about it from Jesuit missionaries who had been to Tibet and studied Buddhism.

At the time that the Buddha began to preach the not-self doctrine, the dominant philosophy of mind in both Greece and India was animism, which is the belief that natural physical entities – like humans, animals, and sometimes even plants – have spiritual essences. In the introduction to her translation of the Dhamma Sangani, a Buddhist scripture on psychological ethics, language scholar Caroline A.F. Rhys Davis writes the following regarding Buddhism’s break with this prevalent mode of thought in ancient India:

The fundamental importance in Buddhist philosophy of this Phenomenalism or Non-substantialism is a protest against the prevailing Animism, which, beginning with projecting the self into objects, elaborated that projected self into noumenal substance, has by this time been more or less admitted. The testimony of the canonical books leaves no doubt on the matter, from Gotama’s [the Buddha’s] first sermon to his first converts, and his first Dialogue in the ‘Long Collection,’ to the first book of the Katha Vatthu. There are other episodes in the books where the belief in a permanent spiritual essence is, together with a number of other speculations, waived aside as subjects calculated to waste time and energy. But in the portions referred to the doctrine of repudiation is more positive, and may be summed up in one of the refrains of the Majjhima Nikaya: Sunnam idam attena va attaniyena va ti – Void is this of soul or of aught of the nature of soul! [pp. xxxv-xxxvi].

What about the Greeks? Aristotle developed the most thorough philosophy of mind in Ancient Greece in his treatise, De Anima. But Rhys Davis points out that even Aristotle takes the existence of the self as assumed and goes on to analyze it from there. She concedes that Aristotle went further than other Greeks in trying to fit animism into a rational framework, but maintains that despite this Aristotle never succeeded in “wrenching himself” from his tradition and questioning the reality of the self. Aristotelian thought was then adopted by early Christian thinkers and perpetuated through ecclesiastical philosophy for millennia, until Hume challenged the animist tradition of the West during the Scottish Enlightenment.

David Hume

Today, many scientists and philosophers find Buddhism’s not-self doctrine to be a remarkably sophisticated idea, primarily because it accords well with their descriptions of the mind. Most contemporary academic philosophers of mind espouse some variant of phenomenalism or the “bundle theory” of the mind. You might think that their readiness to accept phenomenalism has something to do with our inheritance of Enlightenment philosophy – it could be that we’re simply operating under the paradigm that Hume introduced in the eighteenth century.

But I think that we find Buddhist philosophy of mind to be so advanced because it is not only consistent with modern neuropsychological data, but also provides a helpful framework for thinking about that data. While the Buddha emphasized the relevance of the not-self doctrine for the path to enlightenment, modern neuroscientists might look to it as a reasonable way of thinking about how the brain gives rise to the mind: we know that nowhere in the brain is there a central controller that we might call the neural correlate of the self, and so maybe there is no self. The bundles of neurons that we see give rise to bundles of thoughts and feelings, nothing more. As the Buddhist philosopher Nagasena explained to the Buddhist Indo-Greek King Menander I, the “self” is like a “chariot”: when you pick apart the pieces, there is no “chariot” that is separate from the parts. Just so with the self. The words “chariot” and “self” are just generally understood terms, but in the ultimate sense there are no objects to which those words refer. And if we take this not-self doctrine seriously, then a host of modern philosophical questions about the nature of identity or the self become simply meaningless.


Rhys, Davis, C.A.F. (1900), A Buddhist Manual of Psychological Ethics of the Fourth Century B.C. 

Giles, J. (1993), “The No-Self Theory: Hume, Buddhism and Personal Identity.” Philosophy East and West 43(2): pp. 175-200.

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