- No-Selves and Persons
Jonardon Ganeri has written an impressive book that is a must-read for anyone interested in cross-cultural philosophy. Attention, Not Self moves Buddhist philosophy further into the center of contemporary philosophical debates about self, personhood, agency, action, perception, attention, and the kinds of mental content. The book is focused on work attributed to a single philosopher, the fifth-century Theravāda monk Buddhaghosa. However, this book is much more than an exegesis of Buddhaghosa's work. It is, in its own right, an original exploration of foundational issues in the philosophy of mind, consciousness, personhood, and self. Ganeri's aim is to think about long-standing problems in a fresh, new light, and this aim is admirably fulfilled in his book. Those hoping to learn about the rich historical material in the Pāli Buddhist Abhidhamma tradition will not be disappointed—nor, more importantly, will those looking for new insights into the wide-ranging philosophical issues under discussion. In the space of a review, I cannot do justice to its wealth of material, thematically organized into five sections. One important accomplishment of this book is the rich detail it offers in every chapter and in every theme that it covers, but this also makes it hard, and almost impossible, to offer a summary overview. So, rather than attempting an overview, I will focus on one issue that is central to the book: a philosophically adequate theory of persons in the absence of selves.
There is no doubt that the issue is important for Buddhist philosophy, but its significance goes beyond that. The popularity of no-self views in contemporary philosophy, inspired by Derek Parfit, together with recent developments in the cognitive sciences makes this is a pressing issue that demands attention from contemporary philosophers. Ganeri's discussion in Section V on "Attention and Identity" offers a refreshingly original and ground-breaking account of persons that all no-self theorists must consider seriously, and the adequacy of which must be evaluated. I will explain and evaluate Ganeri's Buddhaghosa-inspired theory of persons. But before that I must draw attention to the main claim and some important contributions of the book. [End Page 1120]
The main claim of the book is that attention does the work traditionally attributed to the self. Attention replaces self (as the agent) in the explanation of perceptual experience, thought, action, and personal identity. The role of attention in personhood will be the focus of this review. One important contribution of this book is that it offers a new reading of the Buddhist idea that a human being is nothing over and above an aggregate of nāma-rūpa (naively translated as mental and physical states or factors). Ganeri renders nāma-rūpa as "minded body" (p. 18). This is a novel interpretation that provides a sophisticated, nuanced way of thinking about Buddhist theory of mind, consciousness, and persons and that does not run into objections faced by the naive interpretation.
Another major contribution of the book is that it presents a way to transform the rich theoretical vocabulary in the Pāli commentarial tradition for concepts of mind, consciousness, and conscious states into an empirically informed philosophy of mind. This inter-theoretical translation of the central notions of mind and consciousness in the Pāli Buddhist literature into concepts familiar to those versed in contemporary discussions of consciousness in analytic philosophy and phenomenology is worth emphasizing because it lays important groundwork for a cross-cultural conception of philosophy of mind. It should help put to rest skeptical concerns about the incommensurability and untranslatability of concepts across cultures. In chapters 2 and 3 Ganeri masterfully works through the Pāli Buddhist jargon to propose carefully considered equivalents for concepts of mind, sensory contact, various kinds of attention, intention, phenomenal feel, cognitive and conative components of consciousness, et cetera. This provides the context for subsequent discussions in the book. I recommend these chapters as essential reading for anyone keen on exploring the original Pāli canon.
Ganeri's detailed analysis of the components...