Dirty Ontology: The Muddy Waters of “the” Self

“When the water is deep, the boat rides high. When there is much mud, the Buddha is large.”
—Dōgen, “The Indestructible Nature in Deep Muddy Water” in the Eihei Kōroku


“Know thyself” is the fairly famous injunction inscribed overhead at Apollo’s temple at Delphi. The meaning of this may be less obvious than it seems, but regardless of how it was intended, we can read it in different ways depending on what we understand by “knowing” and what we understand by “self.”

I originally became interested in thinking about different conceptions of self in the context of death. Consider the original reasoning that got me interested in philosophy: “If there is no God, then there is no soul. If there is no soul, then there is no afterlife. If there is no afterlife, then the self ceases to exist upon death. Ceasing to exist is not good. Thus, death is not good. Thus… fuck.” But that conclusion depends on a very particular conception of self. To use a turn of phrase from Walt Whitman, it presupposes a conception of self where the self is contained “between one’s hat and boots.”

It seems to me that this idea strikes us as obvious (where the “us” in question is quite Western). That is, if I am not a self-contained, independently existing soul, then I must be this flesh and blood that “I” haul around everywhere. Mustn’t this be true? How could I be anything else? Even if I, or even an entire culture, were to say that what myself is is something other than this flesh and blood, this lump of flesh, how can that make it so? It’s obvious, isn’t it? It couldn’t. After all, consider the most extreme case: if the entire earth were to be destroyed, I would certainly still survive entirely intact if I managed to get away on, say, a spaceship. If not a soul, then I am necessarily this lump of flesh. An analogy: Calling my cat a “dog,” giving it dog food, a dog bone, and making it sleep in the doghouse, does not make him into a dog. I cannot make my cat something he is not by my treatment of him.

But, of course, it is not so easy. Consider part of Robert Solomon’s discussion of the traditional Maori conception of self. He writes:

Maoris, to be sure, have just as firm a grasp of their physical individuality and the privacy of their own pains as any individualistic Übermensch. But the significance of any meaningful action or experience can be properly described only in collective or we might say, “corporate” terms. An offense perpetrated by any member of a group or family is rightly blamed on the whole of the group or family. An offense suffered by any member of a group or family is felt equally by the whole of the group or family and revenge (uta) might rightly be taken by any member of the offended group on any member of the offending group. An individual is thus wholly caught up in kinship relations. Indeed, the death of an individual is in an important sense not death at all. One’s real self is the “kinship self,” and the kinship self survives. The “Western” idea that the group exists to serve the interests of the member of the group would be considered utter and dangerous nonsense. (“Recapturing Personal Identity” in Self as Person in Asian Theory and Practice, 24)

In a footnote Solomon expands on the notion of survival that helps to elaborate on the sense of self in question—quoting another author: “Kairangatiura, when alone and surrounded by his enemies about to slay him, is reported to have said: ‘you will kill me, my tribe will kill you and the country will be mine’” (ibid., 33, fn. 38).

Let’s not neglect to note Solomon’s point that the Maori are well aware of their individuality. They obviously can tell the difference between Kairangatiura being killed and someone of lower status being killed. However, that “hat and boot self” is only one aspect of a very complex cluster of self-notions, one’s that—like twining vines—may not admit of clear disentanglement. Indeed, that cluster of self-notions has an air of paradox to it. But such paradox ought not to disturb us too much, I don’t think. We find similar sorts of paradoxes in Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism. For example in Christianity, we have the Trinity in which the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are both different and one. In at least one path of Hinduism, we each have a true self, which is the soul-like atman, and each of these atman are numerically identical to Brahman, the Godhead. Thus, by transitivity, each atman is both identical and distinct. And Dōgen’s Zen, for example, the relationship between any “two things” is described as “Not one, not two; not the same, not different.”

Consider, again, the following from above:

An offense perpetrated by any member of a group or family is rightly blamed on the whole of the group or family. An offense suffered by any member of a group or family is felt equally by the whole of the group or family and revenge (uta) might rightly be taken by any member of the offended group on any member of the offending group.

There are variety of ways we might interpret such claims. For example, we might say, pushing back against Solomon’s claim that the Maori have a different, kinship-entangled conception of self, that the Maori don’t conceive of selves differently, but only responsibility. They take more seriously the idea that one’s “group” influences who one is and what one does. Thus, if someone acts badly, the rest of the group has merely “not done their job”; it is not that the agent is the group. The other main interpretation, and the one that Solomon is going for, is to say that the Maori conception of responsibility is part of what constitutes and, we might say, enacts their conception of the kinship self—the identity between the “individual” and the group.

So without any further information, how are we to decide between these two interpretations? What about the following? As I said earlier, it seems obvious that calling my cat a “dog,” even with all the accompanying behaviors on my part, is not going to transform him into a dog. But what makes my cat a cat? This is immediately to enter into dark, muddy, convoluted ontological waters. That acknowledged, let’s just say that one answer is nature. That is, my cat is a cat because of a very specific set of genes. These genes underwrite all the properties that make my cat a cat. That certainly seems right as far as it goes. However, it is not everything. From another perspective, the category of cat depends upon a very specific set of interests. That is, given our shared history, it is useful to distinguish cats from other animals. What we call “cats” and what we call “dogs” behave in very different ways; and those differences are very important to us. However, must they be? Mightn’t our interests have been different from what they are? Further, cats and dogs are the same under a number of descriptions. They are both mammals, quadrupeds, vertebrates, animals, physical objects, etc. And a steak knife and a butter knife are both knives until you order a steak.

Of course, it’s the pre-existing properties of the steak knife that, given one’s interest in eating steak, distinguish it from the butter knife. So, isn’t it the pre-existing properties of the cat that distinguishes it from the dog? Of course! But those “pre-existing” properties only stand out given certain interests and needs. Imagine a place with lots of what we call cats and dogs. In one scenario, a person is instructed to group the animals based upon their color of fur, as, terribly, they are going to be turned into skins for clothing. In another scenario, a person is instructed to group the animals based upon which ones bark and which ones meow, because some are going to be used as warning systems, and others for Internet videos. Which of these two is the right way to group the animals? This question of “the right way” is problematic. And we can see this because it forces us to ask, “Right in relation to what?” And the what here is of course our interests and needs. Is there a way to make sense of the idea of “right interests”? I’m skeptical.

The above result is hard for us to accept. It is tempting to say that it’s the cat’s already being a cat and a dog’s already being a dog that justifies our calling one a “cat” and the other a “dog.” And thus we can never be right if we say that the dog and the cat are the same kind of animal.

Let’s consider again the Maori conception of the kinship self. In ordinary contexts in the West, for example, part of what underwrites the claim that Isabel is a separate self from John, and both of their being separate from their kinship groups, is how we act toward them. If we are meeting them both for lunch, and John is rude to the waitress, we expect John to apologize for himself, not Isabel or ourselves. If Isabel murder’s someone, we expect Isabel to be arrested, not John or ourselves or either of their social groups. Given what Solomon says, this is in stark contrast to the Maori. As above, in a Maorian context, both John’s rudeness and Isabel’s murder belong to the corporate body of their social groups. In the US, the content of my self-conception is partially determined by my being responsible for my actions, not my family—by my expecting punishment, not them. Where the “my” here picks out this lump of flesh with all of its thoughts and projects. In an infinitely small loop of tail-eating, my self conception determines my behavior and my behavior determines myself conception. It is not, contrary to our assumptions, that this self-conception is necessitated by reality or the only possible way to conceive of ourselves. The boundary of the self, just as the boundary of the animal kind cat, is determined by our interests and needs. If punishing John instead of Isabel when his lump of flesh acts is part of what constitutes their separateness, then punishing the whole social unit when one of its individual lumps of flesh acts is part of what constitutes their identity.

Importantly, this is not merely a matter of semantics. Central to the concept of self that’s been in question is the concept of agency. With the individualistic, Western notion of self, it is particular lumps of flesh that are held responsible, more or less, in isolation. With the corporate, Maori notion of self, it is the corporate body that is held responsible for the actions of individual lumps of flesh. In the West, the agent is the individual lump of flesh; with a Maori, the agent is a corporate body, one that acts through its individual representations. This is not to say, of course, that the Maori don’t have a complementary notion of agency that extends only to individual lumps of flesh. Again, we face paradox here: if one member of the group slips and falls off a cliff, there is a sense in which only that individual slipped and fell, and a sense in which the whole group did. This is what allows Kairangatiura to say to his enemies, as above, “you will kill me, my tribe will kill you and the country will be mine.”

Because of all the complex sets of behaviors that constitute the Maori way of life, and Solomon’s and our talk of their practices regarding responsibility, etc., is but a small window into that complex set of behaviors, Kairangatiura is both an individual distinct from other members of the community while simultaneously being identical with the community. And to ask whether this is the right way to conceive of selves is just as problematic as to ask which of the ways of grouping the cats and dogs is the right way. Who and what we are, we see, is neither pre-determined, pre-given by reality, nor merely the whim of our words; who and what we are is constituted by a ridiculously complex set of properties, actions, behaviors, activities, and lumps of matter manipulated in so many different ways—ways that both reflect and determine interests and needs.

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