Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Subject is a Subject for the Object: Buddhism Meets F. H. Bradley

     This post may be of little interest to most readers, as it is rather philosophical, and discusses how a little-known British philosopher destroyed the world. After that it moves in a more obviously Buddhist direction by regarding a rather interesting aspect of No Self. It's interesting to me anyway.

     Many years ago I read Clearing the Path, by ven. Nyanavira, a very intellectual, philosophically oriented British bhikkhu who was ordained in Sri Lanka around 1950, and who died there in 1965. The book consisted of a smaller book, Notes on Dhamma, that Nyanavira had written, plus many of his letters. I must admit that his letters made much more of an impression on me than his Notes. One effect they had on me was that, since ven. Nyanavira mentioned that he was reading F. H. Bradley's Principles of Logic, it inspired me to read something by F. H. Bradley. I'm not exactly sure why this is; it seems largely an intuitive thing, since Nyanavira hardly mentioned Bradley, and seemed to be much more impressed by people like Kierkegaard. But I've never been moved to read Kierkegaard.
     However, finding books in Burma written by relatively little-known British Idealist philosophers can be next to impossible, especially in the days when I had very few international connections, and had never heard of Actually, finding any good English books in Burma can be a challenge.
     I did find out more about Bradley here and there though. He is important and famous enough to merit his own chapter in some histories of Western philosophy. Possibly the one thing he is most noted for is that he is the foremost champion of the coherence theory of truth. Most humans, mostly without realizing it, adhere to what is called the correspondence theory of truth. Scientism is based upon it. In fact the correspondence theory seems practically the default epistemological setting in humans, and probably in all vertebrates intelligent enough to have an epistemological setting. Stated simply, the theory affirms that a judgement is true if and only if it corresponds to an objective matter of fact. For example, the judgement "The apple is on the table" is true if and only if the apple really is on the table—obvious, especially if one doesn't think about such things much. But Bradley says there simply are no such objective matters of fact. There are no apples, and no tables; such things are mere appearance, and not ultimately true or real. According to the coherence theory, a judgement is true if and only if it does not contradict itself or any other judgement already acknowledged to be true. In fact, Bradley considered non-contradiction to be the only criterion for truth. According to him, "The apple is on the table" (or, for that matter, "The particle is in the atom's nucleus") cannot possibly be true, since the very existence of an apple (or a particle) is logically self-contradictory. This may seem far-fetched, but two things should be considered: 1) F. H. Bradley was a brilliant logician, and backed up everything he asserted with rigorous, ruthless logic; and 2) Buddhism teaches pretty much the same thing, even though most Buddhists may not study Dharma enough to be fully aware of it. We live and function as individuals in a world of mere appearance, not reality. (And Scientism does not rectify this situation at all, except superficially.)
     And then, a few months ago, a generous fellow in Canada donated me up a copy of Bradley's Appearance and Reality. The book is literally an antique, printed in 1906. Despite its ancientness, nobody has ever read the whole book, as it is so old that the pages have to be cut with a knife, and when I got it only about half of the pages had been cut. This is a little sad, considering that, opposite the title page, there is a quote from the International Journal of Ethics stating, among other things, "It is hardly too much to say that the book is altogether the most important independent work on Metaphysics that has ever been written in English." The last attempt to read it was apparently around 80 years ago, as I found a bookmark consisting of a hotel bill for telephone service, amounting to 10¢, and dated June 20, 1933.
     America is just too distracting of a place for me to read a book like that, so I waited till I was chilled out in the seclusion of a Burmese cave before attempting it. It is a bit hard to read in places, mainly because I'm unused to the language, but I've been reading it eagerly, yet with a mild thrill of dread, as though thinking, How will his ruthless logic destroy my point of view? But destroying points of view can be very good Dharma. Fear is the mind killer.
     Appearance and Reality begins with the systematic destruction of the entire phenomenal world. All forms of materialism are logically dismissed in chapter I (although Bradley continues occasionally to flog the dead horse for several more chapters). One of his main logical arguments for destroying just about everything is that just about anything—an apple, a particle, extension in space, duration in time, a sequence of causes and effects, etc.—may be seen as a unity and as a plurality. But simultaneous unity and plurality are mutually contradictory. Is a person an individual being, or an assemblage of parts? If both, we have contradiction and mere appearance, not reality. In practical life we deal with this muddle of shifting identities by emphasizing what is most useful and ignoring the rest—but ignoring things is not the way to see reality as it is. And if we say that something is an assemblage of parts forming a unity, then we have the further problem of relations between these parts. Are the relations real? Are similar to and different from real essences, or just imaginary? Even a solitary object disappears into an unthinkable void without these relations, at least the relation of difference between figure and ground. We can't have relations without things to relate, but apparently we can't have things without relations either, and they seem, somehow, paradoxically, to cause each other. Furthermore, how is a particle related to a relation that relates to it? What is the relation between the particle and the different from which surrounds it? One may require an infinite regress of relations to relations to relations. Things get paradoxically complicated.
     I'll spare you the messy details. If you're interested, you can try to read the book, if you can find it. If you're in America, you might consider taking the book to a different country where philosophy books are easier to read. I will mention, though, that those of you who are familiar with Buddhist philosophy may have noticed a resemblance between the discussion above and Buddhist arguments favoring the doctrine of anattā, No Self. The dissonance between an individual unity and its total of constituent parts is well-known to ancient Buddhist thought. Yet Bradley never mentions Buddhism, and may have been almost completely innocent of it, although it's extremely likely that he had read something about it, at least in the writings of Schopenhauer. So it's interesting to me that Bradley arrived at many "dharmic" ideas almost totally independently of ancient Indian Dharma. 
     For several years I've been semi-intending to write an article discussing a certain aspect of self and No Self, for the purpose of pointing out a weird aspect of No Self that we experience all the time in everyday life, namely, the psychological subject as distinct from the object. But now I have found that Bradley has already written most of the article for me; in chapters IX and X of his book he demolishes (or at least attempts to demolish) every conceivable interpretation of "self," taking special care to do this apparently because in the late 19th century many Western philosophers, no doubt influenced by Christianity, considered the individual self or soul to be the only thing we could be sure to be Real. Modern Western philosophy practically began with this idea—"I think, therefore I am." Following is Bradley's description of the psychological subject.
     We are now brought naturally to a most important way of understanding the self. We have, up to the present, ignored the distinction of subject and object. We have made a start from the whole psychical individual, and have tried to find the self there or in connection with that. But this individual, we saw, contained both object and subject, both not-self and self. At least, the not-self must clearly be allowed to be in it, so far as that enters into relation with the self and appears as an object. The reader may prefer another form of expression, but he must, I think, agree as to the fact. If you take what in the widest sense is inside a man's mind, you will find there both subject and object and their relation. This will, at all events, be the case both in perception and thought, and again in desire and volition. And this self, which is opposed to the not-self, will most emphatically not coincide with the self, if that is taken as the individual or the essential individual. The deplorable confusion, which is too prevalent on this head, compels me to invite the reader's special attention….
     Now that subject and object have contents and are actual psychical groups appears to me evident. I am aware that too often writers speak of the Ego as of something not essentially qualified by this or that psychical matter. And I do not deny that in a certain use that language might be defended. But if we consider, as we are considering here, what we are to understand by that object and subject in relation, which at a given time we find existing in a soul, the case is quite altered. The Ego that pretends to be anything either before or beyond its concrete psychical filling, is a gross fiction and mere monster, and for no purpose admissible. And the question surely may be settled by observation. Take any case of perception, or whatever you please, where this relation of object to subject is found as a fact. There, I presume, no one will deny that the object, at all events, is a concrete phenomenon. It has a character which exists as, or in, a mental fact. And, if we turn from this to the subject, is there any more cause for doubt? Surely in every case that contains a mass of feeling, if not also of other psychical existence. When I see, or perceive, or understand, I (my term of the relation) am palpably, and perhaps even painfully, concrete. And when I will or desire, it surely is ridiculous to take the self as not qualified by particular psychical fact. Evidently any self which we can find is some concrete form of unity of psychical existence. And whoever wishes to introduce it as something (now or at any time) apart or beyond, clearly does not rest his case upon observation. He is importing into the facts a metaphysical chimera, which, in no sense existing, can do no work; and which, even if it existed, would be worse than useless.
     The self and not-self, as discoverable, are concrete groups, and the question is as to the content of these. What is the content, if any, which is essentially not-self or self? Perhaps the best way of beginning this inquiry is to ask whether there is anything which may not become an object and, in that sense, a not-self. We certainly seem able to set everything over against ourselves. We begin from the outside, but the distinguishing process becomes more inward, until it ends with deliberate and conscious introspection. Here we attempt to set before, and so opposite to, self our most intimate features. We cannot do this with all at any one time, but with practice and labour one detail after another is detached from the felt background and brought before our view. It is far from certain that at some one time every feature of the self has, sooner or later, taken its place in the not-self. But it is quite certain that this holds of by far the larger part. And we are hence compelled to admit that very little of the self can belong to it essentially. Let us now turn from the theoretical to the practical relation. Is there here anything, let us ask, which is incapable of becoming an object to my will or desire? But what becomes such an object is clearly a not-self and opposed to the self. Let us go at once to the region that seems most internal and inalienable. As introspection discloses this or that feature in ourselves, can we not wish that it were otherwise? May not everything that we find within us be felt as a limit and as a not-self, against which we either do, or conceivably might, react. Take, for instance, some slight pain. We may have been feeling, in our dimmest and most inward recesses, uneasy and discomposed; and, so soon as this disturbing feature is able to be noticed, we at once react against it. The disquieting sensation becomes clearly a not-self, which we desire to remove. And, I think, we must accept the result that, if not everything may become at times a practical not-self, it is at least hard to find exceptions.
     Let us now, passing to the other side of both these relations, ask if the not-self contains anything which belongs to it exclusively. It will not be easy to discover many such elements. In the theoretical relation it is quite clear that not everything can be an object, all together and at once. At any one moment that which is in any sense before me must be limited. What are we to say then becomes of that remainder of the not-self which clearly has not, even for the time, passed wholly from my mind? I do not mean those features of the environment to which I fail to attend specially, but which I still go on perceiving as something before me. I refer to the features which have now sunk below this level. These are not even a setting or a fringe to the object of my mind. They have passed lower into the general background of feeling, from which that distinct object with its indistinct setting is detached. But this means that for the time they have passed into the self. A constant sound will afford us a very good instance. (Another instance would be the sensations from my own clothes.) That may be made into the principal object of my mind, or it may be an accompaniment of that object more or less definite. But there is a further stage, where you cannot say that the sensation has ceased, and where yet it is no feature in what comes as the not-self. It has become now one among the many elements of my feeling, and it has passed into that self for which the not-self exists. I will not ask if with any, or with what, portions of the not-self this relapse may be impossible, for it is enough that it should be possible with a very great deal. Let us go on to look at the same thing from the practical side. There it will surely be very difficult to fix on elements which essentially must confront and limit me. There are some to which in fact I seem never to be practically related; and there are others which are the object of my will or desire only from occasion to occasion. And if we cannot find anything which is essential to the not-self, then everything, it would appear, so far as it enters my mind, may form part of the felt mass. But if so, it would seem for the time to be connected with that group against which the object of will comes. And thus once again the not-self has become self.
     Next come two paragraphs in which he discusses the possibility of some quality in the subjective "self" that cannot be distinguished and attended to as the object, or "not-self," like something deep and obscure in the subconscious mind; and also of some quality that can only be a conscious object, like an emphatic, deliberate thought. He consents to the idea that such is possible, but that "The main bulk of the elements on each side is interchangeable," and that any deep residue of undistinguishable subject/"self" would be too narrow in scope to constitute and characterize an essential self. And it may be that the "deliberate and conscious introspection" by which "with practice and labour one detail after another is detached from the felt background and brought before our view" that he mentioned previously, if refined by advanced mindfulness meditation, could access the entire subject, little by little, or possibly even all at once. Bradley continues: 
     If at this point we inquire whether the present meaning of self will coincide with those we had before, the answer is not doubtful. For clearly well-nigh everything contained in the psychical individual may be at one time part of self and at another time part of not-self. Nor would it be possible to find an essence of the man which was incapable of being opposed to the self, as an object for thought and for will. At least, if found, that essence would consist in a residue so narrow as assuredly to be insufficient for making an individual. And it could gain concreteness only by receiving into its character a mortal inconsistency. The mere instance of internal volition should by itself be enough to compel reflection. There you may take your self as deep-lying and as inward as you please, and may narrow it to the centre; yet these contents may be placed in opposition to your self, and you may desire their alteration. And here surely there is an end of any absolute confinement or exclusive location of the self. For the self is at one moment the whole individual, inside which the opposites and their tension is contained; and, again, it is one opposite, limited by and struggling against an opponent. 
     And the fact of the matter seems this. The whole psychical mass, which fills the soul at any moment, is the self so far as this mass is only felt. So far, that is, as the mass is given together in one whole, and not divisible from the group which is especially connected with pleasure and pain, this entire whole is felt as self. But, on the other side, elements of content are distinguished from the mass, which therefore is, so far, the background against which perception takes place. But this relation of not-self to self does not destroy the old entire self. This is still the whole mass inside which the distinction and the relation falls. And self in these two meanings coexists with itself, though it certainly does not coincide. Further, in the practical relation a new feature becomes visible. There we have, first of all, self as the whole felt condition. We have, next, the not-self which is felt as opposing the self. We have, further, the group, which is limited and struggles to expand, so causing the tension. This is, of course, felt specially as the self, and within this there falls a new feature worth noticing. In desire and volition we have an idea held against the existing not-self, the idea being that of a change in that not-self. This idea not only is felt to be a part of that self which is opposed to the not-self,—it is felt also to be the main feature and the prominent element there. Thus we say of a man that his whole self was centred in a certain particular end.
     So we arrive at the weird conclusion that what we feel to be our self, all we are experientially, is the semiconscious background of whatever we're attending to! And that subconscious background is constantly changing; although enough of it stays the same that we feel like the same me from one moment to the next. That strikes me as delightfully weird.
     It also backs up one of the most important things I have learned in all my years as a meditating monk. It doesn't matter what it is: if you can observe it, you may know it's not you. This is because if you are anything at all, you are the one doing the observing, not whatever it is that is being observed. If you can look at your hand, you know your hand is not you. Similarly, if you can look at anger or fear, you may know that this anger or fear is not you—and thus you can detach from it and let it go, instead of identifying with it and being its slave. Even just observing is already detaching. I consider this to be of fundamental importance in Dhamma. 
     I would tentatively disagree with Bradley on one point though (and disagreeing with logicians can be scary). He seems to think that only the object is perceived, and that the subjective self is only felt. But I tend to agree with George Berkeley's dictum, "To exist is to be perceived." Or, as the medieval Indian Buddhist logician ven. Dharmottara has written, "Pure sensation without any perceptual judgement is as though it did not exist at all." In fact in Buddhism generally it is taught that, in ordinary consciousness at least, we cannot be aware of anything without perceiving it. So I would be inclined to hypothesize that all of the background of the object, everything that is not specifically focused on, would be part of the subjective "self," not of the "not-self." And what Bradley says is felt, I would say is vaguely or semiconsciously perceived. And vague emotions and ideas evoked by the object would no doubt be a major aspect of the subject, although Bradley barely mentions this.
     If, through meditation, the object is reduced to zero, as in some forms of advanced samatha, or else the object expands outward and becomes all-inclusive, as may perhaps happen with very advanced mindfulness practice, then the dualistic relation of subject and object would collapse, and the illusory feeling of an individual self conditioned by it would evaporate, at least temporarily. Try it, and find out for yourself.
     As a kind of illustration, or summary, of the main idea of this article, we may consider the example of a carpenter pounding nails. His mind is focused intently on the nail he is pounding. That is his object, for the moment. Everything else—his arm swinging the hammer, the pressure of his feet against a rung of the ladder, the breeze and the heat of the sun on his neck, the tweeting of a bird in the distance, the sound of his own pounding, a hungry feeling in his belly, a fleeting memory of his wife's voice, even perhaps all the blurry images in his peripheral vision—adds together into his subjective feeling of ME. Then, suddenly, he hits his thumb with the hammer, and with lightning speed his thumb, which up to that point was part of the background of ME, now becomes "my messed up thumb that hurts like a son of a bitch." The nail is no longer in his world. The thumb is now the object, and is not him any more, until he exclaims to a friend about it; whereupon what he is saying or who he is saying it to becomes the object, and his throbbing, bleeding thumb instantaneously becomes part of him again, although now rather a larger and more important part.
     I may as well add here that some of the Mahayana Buddhists, and maybe some Hindus also, have another explanation for the subjective feeling of "self." According to them it is a matter of "misplaced absoluteness." Ultimate Reality necessarily pervades the entire Universe, and thus it pervades each person's subjective experience; and we are all semiconsciously aware of this unconditioned infinity, to some degree. So we mistakenly apply this deep awareness of Reality to the idea or feeling of an individual being's self. I'm not sure what Bradley would say about that. I'm not even sure what a Theravadin Abhidhamma scholar would say about it. 
     I usually don't flip ahead to see how a book ends. If I were reading a novel, such behavior would be anathema. But I flipped ahead to see what the last sentence of Appearance and Reality was, and this is what I found:
Outside of spirit there is not, and there cannot be, any reality, and, the more that anything is spiritual, so much the more is it veritably real.
It's good to know that ruthless logic can arrive at such conclusions.

 F. H. Bradley..., wait a minute. This one is F. H. Bradley


  1. Just around 20 percent through the article Sir...."How will his ruthless logic destroy my point of view? "---Indeed it is brave of you to constantly entertain points of view and opnions which perhaps a more traditional and bound to a big monastery monk will eschew...this is what brings me back to here again and again...hope to one day see this point in my life , its not much possible..but sometime in the next couple of years Sir...May you be safe till then Aum

  2. absolutely interesting read till now ..somethings that I could parse out:

    The paragraph starting with the phrase " The self and not-self, as discoverable,.." and ending with the phrase "it is at least hard to find exceptions" gives an idea that he is on the cusp of forming his own "Neti,Neti" sort of meditation

    The following paragraph starting with the phrase "Let us now, passing" and ending with the phrase "And thus once again the not-self has become self." shows that he as the building blocks ready for a Vipassana/noting style of meditation....

  3. The ending is just so stupefying!! very mystical!!

    1. The strange thing about Bradley is that he was logically almost forced into a mystical point of view, but never quite took the necessary step, or leap. I consider one of his biggest oversights (or just deviations from my own point of view) to be the belief that anything real must have a form. So his Absolute somehow contains finite forms that are miraculously, inexplicably interrelated...without relations. If he had taken the step into mysticism that allows an Absolute without form, thereby relegating finite forms to mere appearance, he would have made things a lot easier for himself. I think the predominantly Protestant Christian culture he was living in was somewhat of a handicap (not to mention the influences of Plato and Hegel). If he had been born in India...he might have made a great Vedantin.

      With regard to challenging my own points of view, I consider that to be virtually a spiritual necessity. Many great practitioners lock themselves into a dogma, in good faith, which serves as a kind of spiritual mental prison. It's good to remember that ALL points of view are limited and samsaric.

  4. Bhante!

    "It doesn't matter what it is: if you can observe it, you may know it's not you. This is because if you are anything at all, you are the one doing the observing, not whatever it is that is being observed. If you can look at your hand, you know your hand is not you. Similarly, if you can look at anger or fear, you may know that this anger or fear is not you—and thus you can detach from it and let it go, instead of identifying with it and being its slave."

    So looking at that nice lady over there - knowing that she is not me - will lead to detachment from her charms?

    And if (Heaven forbid!) that lady is looking back at me, does she not see "the one, who is doing the observing"?


    1. The nice lady's charms are not the problem. Your own desire for her charms is the problem. And that you can look at, disidentify from, and detach from.

      If she looks back, she doesn't really see the one who is doing the observing; all she sees is a physical form.