Laycock and the no-Self theory

§1: The text

To my knowledge, the Vietnamese language is utterly unique among languages in its mode of self-reference. I wish to explore self-reference in Vietnamese, but neither for its intrinsic linguistic interest alone, nor solely for the sake of illuminating a significant aspect of a rich cultural heritage. The mode of self-reference operative within the Vietnamese language has a decidedly philosophical import, and can be generalised to extend our contemporary understanding of self-reference. Moreover, as I hope to "how, the Vietnamese-or more generally, a Vietnamese-like-use of self-reference may have profound consequences for the philosophical problems surrounding the existence and nature of the self and the existence of other minds. In particular, the insights which we shall glean from our investigation of self-reference in Vietnamese will secure for us a clear and solid confirmation of the Husserlian doctrine that the empirical ego does not by any means comprise an ultimately founding stratum of sense, but is itself 'constituted' (functions, that is, as the selfsame identity revealed throughout a potentially endless manifold of profiles). [1] This confirmation can be purchased, however, only at the expense of rejecting certain early reflections of Husserl's regarding the logico-linguistic function of 'I'. We shall see, pace Husserl, that 'I' cannot serve as a referring expression. But this surface disagreement permits a more profound agreement of substance. It is precisely because 'I' does not refer to a purported extra-linguistic 'ego' that we can draw from Vietnamese the appropriate confirmation of its constituted character.

For Husserl, the empirical ego, the 'I' which we take, pre-reflectively and naively, to be immersed in the world alongside the objects which it confronts, is, of course, phenomenal. But though I welcome certain aspects of Husserl's theory of ego-constitution, my own Buddhist predilections prevent acceptance of this phenomenon as benefundata, as founded, that is, in a unitary and basal stratum of lived subjectivity. [3] For at least a significant strand of Buddhist thought, the ego is 'empty', not merely 'constituted', but ontologically dependent upon an array of conditions external to itself. Its very being is 'borrowed', as it were, from these conditions, and there remains to it nothing which is properly 'its own'. There remains, that is, no 'own-being' (svabhava), no self-existence. [4] With only apparent paradox, we can say that the self 'itself' has no 'self'. Buddhist egology (or 'anti-egology' if you prefer) is vitally concerned to 'deconstruct' any notion of a unitary, language-independent self or ego (atman) which subtends or directs the flow of our conscious life. And while the Vietnamese language predates the reception of Buddhism, and cannot, then, be said to exhibit, in its structure, a pre-existing (anti-)egology, it is all the more remarkable, as I hope to demonstrate, that the Vietnamese mode of self-reference mirrors this deconstruction. The Buddha did not, of course, speak Vietnamese. And it would be hopelessly arrogant (if not irrepressibly comical) to suppose that the profound message of egolessness (Pali: anatta; sanskrit: anatman) could only be formulated in a language which the Tathagata did not speak. English, Pali and Vietnamese are equally efficient vehicles for expressing the ontology of egolessness. The uniqueness of Vietnamese lies, not in its capacity to articulate Buddhist doctrine, not, that is, in what it can say, but in the fact that egolessness is reflected in the semantic conditions for its 'saying' anything at all.

[Laycock, Steven W. 1994. Vietnamese mode of self-reference: A model of Buddhist egology. Asian Philosophy. 4(1):53-70. full text. selected footnotes:]

[1]. An initial caveat regarding the Husserlian notion of 'constitution' is called for here. While the etymological overtones of this term may seem irresistible, constitution, in the phenomenological sense, is by no means to be conceived by analogy with the construction of a house out of boards. In its strict application, the constitution of an object through its 'profiles' signifies no more than the evident fact that a single and selfsame object is variously presented, that its 'look' is different from here than from there, but that one and the same object is presented throughout the manifold of alternative 'looks'. In its strict application, the notion of constitution is ontologically neutral.

[2]. omitted.

[3]. Dogen is clear that "There is a 'who' in beyond-thinking. That 'who' upholds the self'. Dogen, Shobogenzo Zazenshin, as quoted in Menzan, Zuiho Osho (1988) Jijuyu-zanmai [Same & of the self], in: Shohaku Okumura & Daitsu Tom Wright, trans. Dogen Zen (Kyoto, Kyoto Soto-Zen Center) p. 95. Yet the response to this 'who?' can only be 'no one!' The 'who' is not a self or ego.

[4] As Nagarjuna expresses it: "Whatever comes into existence presupposing something else is without self-existence (svabhavata)." Nagarjuna (1967) Fundamentals of the Middle Way: Mulamadhyamika-Karikas, in: Fredrick J. Streng, trans. Emptiness: A Study in Religious Meaning (New York, Abingdon Press) 7:16, p. 191.

§2: Commentary

clearly, Laycock is talking about the I2, phenomenal awareness, when he writes, "the empirical ego, ... is, of course, phenomenal".

Laycock is clearly correct in saying that the I2 takes itself "pre-reflectively and naively, to be immersed in the world alongside the objects which it confronts"; but, equally clearly, the I2 can come to know this (as Laycock obviously does); and, hence, can claim self-awareness; and, hence, by the first law of reality (nothing unreal is self-aware) must conclude that it is real in some sense.

while Laycock does not explictly acknowledge that the I2 must be real is some sense, he clearly denies that it has any independent reality ("the self 'itself' has no 'self'" ... " no 'own-being'" ... "no self-existence"); and, correctly concludes that the I2 is a derivative reality --- alluding to Dogen's teaching that there is a 'who' beyond thinking which upholds the self.

Laycock accepts the consequence of treating the I2 as a derivative reality: it follows then that the I2 originates with some other reality --- one that is independent of experience; that is, a metaphenomenal entity.

this is where Laycock begins to go astray. as indicated by Husserl, one may investigate the phenomenology of the I2 with a metaphenomenal neutrality --- without an a prior commitment as to the reality type of the reality (or realities) that generate the I2. materialists naturally take the I1 as the originating reality and immaterialists take the I3 as the originating reality. an interationist might say that the I2 is derivative of the interaction of the I1 and the I3.

Laycock takes the immaterialistic path. he starts to shift the referent of 'self' and 'ego' from the I2 to the I3. this is clear when he says that "Buddhist egology (or 'anti-egology' if you prefer) is vitally concerned to 'deconstruct' any notion of a unitary, language-independent self or ego (atman) which subtends or directs the flow of our conscious life".

the Vedantic 'atman' is represented as a 'self' or 'ego'; but, is better translated as 'soul'. it is the transcendental subject, the I3 rather than the I2. by mistranslating 'atman' into words previously defined as referring to the I2, Laycock illegitimately transfers to the I3 the lack of substance attributed to the I2. this argument is no more than linguistic sleight of hand.

perhaps Laycock is merely attempting to contest the reality of the quantum I3, an individuated, entity, in contrast to the collective I3, a shared entity. if so, he needs a better argument than his mistranslation of 'atman' into words which, when used differently, had a referent reasonably considered 'empty'.