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  • The Importance of "My" Being Single:A Response to Jiri Benovsky
  • Mark Siderits (bio)

Given how much the issue of the self and diachronic personal identity has been discussed in recent decades, one might wonder why something like Benovsky's pluralist-self view has not already been proposed and critically examined. It does, after all, look promising as a way to negotiate a settlement between the partisans of self and of nonself. For it gives the first party what it says it wants—ontological commitment to selves—while also granting the nonself theorists their core claim that there is no single entity that is the referent of "I." But I doubt that any such settlement can last.

Benovsky claims to have some sympathy for the view that I call Buddhist Reductionism, and his pluralist-self view does at first glance look like a near neighbor of [End Page 553] the view that these Buddhists hold. Their position can be described as claiming that(1) the self is simply unreal, and that (2) the person is merely conventionally but not ultimately real. Here the terms "self" and "person" are clearly being used to mean different things. By "self" they mean a soul-pellet or Cartesian ego, the one entity among the many psychophysical elements that is one's essence. By "person," on the other hand, is meant the mereological sum of some or all of the many causally connected psychophysical elements. An element and a mereological sum of elements are clearly different things. But instead of talking about "self" or "person," I propose to couch the discussion in terms of the meaning of the first-person pronoun "I." This is where Buddhist nonself theorists start: with the claim that the sense of an "I" is illusory and the source of existential suffering. Those who espouse Buddhist Reductionism do so as part of a strategy to extirpate the "I"-sense. Framing the discussion in terms of the first-person "I" may help us see why the pluralist-self view will not work.

According to that view, "I" could be replaced by "we." Since "I" and "myself" are interchangeable, and the view has it that my self is a plurality, the first-person pronoun would always be a plural. Now there are cases where "we" is allowed in place of "I." But the parental "we" (every child quickly learns) is really just a way for the parent to refer to themselves, and so is a disguised singular. The royal "we" is another matter. There the idea is that since the monarch supposedly represents the nation in its entirety, what we take to be the pronouncement of a single entity actually speaks for a many. There is a difficulty, though: for these pronouncements to do their job, they seem to need the assistance of the idea of the state as a single transcendent entity to the interests of which the monarch is answerable. This is, in any event, how the monarch's subjects typically see things when the monarchy runs smoothly. It is not clear how the affairs of state would go if "the state" were understood to be just an enumerative term (like "gross" or "multitude"), a way of denoting some unspecified number of people occupying a certain territory and standing in certain complex spatio-temporal relations. How does one fire up the troops to make war against Prussia if one cannot invoke past wrongs to an entity with which the subjects identify? Motivating emotions such as loyalty or resentment at injustice seem to need a single object.

The Buddha's account of the origin of suffering has something called "appropriation" (upādāna) as a crucial causal link. To appropriate is to take some event or state as "me" or "mine." Consider human socialization as a process of instilling a certain way of organizing the system that is a human organism. Gaining the ability to appropriate—to identify—represents a key stage in the progression from a desire-satisfaction model of system organization to the very different model of a system organized around principles of delayed gratification, responsibility-taking, and happiness-seeking. As we would now put it, appropriation is a key...