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Religion & Philosophy

Why Believe in the Self? Western and Eastern Explorations of Self, No-Self, and the Divine

Author: Kai-man Kwan, Visiting Professor of Philosophy

Posted on: Jun 22, 2009

Kwan Kai Man, chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Hong Kong Baptist University, was a visiting professor in the philosophy department at Calvin College in the spring of 2009. He gave this presentation at Calvin on April 30, 2009. It was co-sponsored by the department of philosophy, the Nagel Institute, and the Asian Studies program at Calvin.

Nothing seems more certain to us than the fact that we exist, i.e., our selves exist. The father of modem philosophy, Descartes, makes the existence of the self (I think therefore I am—cogito) the foundation of his philosophy. Many philosophers are really self-enthusiasts. For example, J. B. Pratt says: “We know that the self is, and we know what it is by observing what it does. And this we know because every theory of the inner life which fails to recognize a knower and actor does violence to the facts of experience.” H. D. Lewis also asserts that “the self, far from being a mysterious reality behind the scenes, is in fact what we know best. But we know it in a very special way in the very fact of being it and having the experiences we do have, including the activities we initiate.” However, in fact there is a great controversy among philosophers and other scholars about the reality of the self. In the Western academy, especially among analytic philosophers of mind or cognitive scientists, the voice of the naturalists who want to deconstruct the illusion of self seems to be the dominant one. While the scholars working in the areas of Continental philosophy, comparative literature, and cultural studies are usually at odds with the analytic philosophers, on this topic they seem to be of one mind, celebrating with the postmodern gurus like Foucault about the death of Self (or the death of the author, death of humanism and so on). Of course it is already anticipated by Nietzsche in 1887: “There is no ‘being’ doing, effecting, becoming. ‘The doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed- the deed is everything ... our entire science still lies under the misleading influence of language and has not disposed of that little changeling, the ‘subject.’ ”

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