The So-Called Narrative View of the Self (Westerhoff)

The So-Called Narrative View of the Self (from Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka, A Philosophical Introduction, by Jan Westerhoff, Oxford 2009)

Nagarjuna’s rejection of entities existing by svabhava is not restricted to the study of the external world around us. At least as important as refuting the existence of fundamental substances which provide the basis for a world independent of human interests and concerns is the refutation of a substantial self, which constitutes the fixed point around which our internal world revolves. Such a substantial self is an essentially unchanging entity, distinct from our physical body and psychological states, which unifies our sensory input and mental life and acts as a foundation of our agenthood in the world. Nagarjuna wants to replace this prima facie plausible and compelling view of a self, which, however, he claims to be mistaken, by a conception of the self as a set of causally interconnected physical and psychological events. He sets out to account for the fact that we normally do not see ourselves in this way by arguing that this set of events is usually under the misapprehension of its own properties: it sees itself as a substantial self, even though it is not.

It is interesting to note that this alternative view of the self presented here (which, to be sure, is not a Madhyamaka specialty but widely shared between different Buddhist traditions), despite its intuitive implausibility, finds a surprising amount of support in recent research on cognitive science. Of particular interest in this context is the so-called narrative view of the self, a theory that has been explored in detail by Daniel Dennett [most famously in his Consciousness Explained, London 1991], who also presents supporting evidence from our current knowledge of how the brain works. One of Dennett’s central observations is that the processing of neurophysiologically encoded information is spread across the entire brain. There is no place in the brain where “it all comes together”, no “Cartesian theatre” where the stream of sensory information is unified into mental content and presented to consciousness. He argues that not only is there no neurophysiological analog to the self anywhere in the spatial organization of the brain, also the temporal sequence of events in the brain cannot be used as a foundation of a continuous self. Dennett shows that in certain cases the order of events as the appear in our consciousness does not line up with the temporal order of their underlying neurophysiological bases. The view of our selves as continuous, temporally extended entities therefore cannot be seen as a mere reflection of a series of events in the brain, but requires a significant deal of conceptual construction. Our subjective feeling of spatial and temporal location cannot be grounded on the spatially and temporally spread out, discontinuous series of events in the brain in a straightforward manner. Our view of the self as an essentuially unchanging unifier and agent cannot be based on the structure of the piece of matter that occupies the space where we locate the center of gravity.

Dennett argues instead that the self is a product of our linguistic capacities. The capacity to use language is hard-wired into our brain, and once we start using language, we tell stories, including stories about ourselves which continuously create that very self. The self emerging on this theory is not the author, but the authored. Dennett notes that “our tales are spun, but for the most part we don’t spin them; they spin us. The human consciousness, and our narrative selfhood, is the product, not their source”. For this reason there is no fundamental difference between the self created by our own narrative and the selves created in works of fiction. It is not the case that the former are intrinsically more real than the latter; in fact they belong fundamentally to the same class of things (even though the fictional selves, unlike our own narrative selves, are usually not open ended). Both are conceptual constructs produced by our brain regarding a narrative, our own or that in some text, as revolving around a single fixed point.