Luminous Cognizance: Toward a Buddhist Model of Consciousness
Introduction I want to present an account of the conscious mind based on the work of Indian Buddhist philosophers broadly associated with the Yogācāra school. There are five key features of this model that I want to draw your attention to here. First, is the notion that self-luminosity or selfluminous cognizance is the mark of the conscious. Second, is a theory of the dual-aspect structure of conscious presentation. Third, is an account of the reciprocal dynamics between the relatively stable background and the more transient foreground of consciousness. Fourth, is an account of the complex relationship between phenomenal subjectivity, the sense of self or mental ownership, and background consciousness. Fifth, is a reductionist account of personal identity that gives a central place to the first-person perspective. My aim here is not to give a comprehensive defense of the model, but rather to present some key features and the some of the considerations and arguments in its favor.
Luminous Cognizance The metaphor of consciousness as light (prakāśa) or luminosity (prakāśatā) is at the heart of Indian thinking about the nature of the mind going back at least as far as the early prose Upaniṣads. Like a light, consciousness has (or is) the capacity to shine forth (prakāśate) and illuminate (prakāśyati) its object. Indeed, just as, without illumination, no objects could be visible, without the light of consciousness, no object could be experienced. Thus luminosity comes to denote the capacity to disclose, present, or make manifest. Physical light, of course, can
reveal or make objects visible, but, as later Indian philosophers pointed out, it can only do so to a perceiver. The luminosity of consciousness, on the other hand, is that original capacity to make experientially present some object to some subject. Yet this inner light that makes possible all experience and knowledge is itself quite elusive. It was widely, but by no means universally, held in Indian thought that the conscious subject (or consciousness itself) is not knowable in the same way as its objects. In some cases, luminosity also comes to be associated with the distinctive flavors (rasa) or qualitative features of conscious experience—that is, with the phenomenality consciousness (Ram-Prasad 2007, p. 54). By the classical period, luminosity comes to denote the distinctive mark or feature of consciousness as that which reveals or discloses (to a subject), particularly in the context of distinct episodes of conscious cognition. In this context the question of luminosity involves questions of intentionality, phenomenality, and subjectivity, as well as their interrelations. Following in this tradition, the Yogācāra Buddhist philosopher Dharmakīrti remarks in the Pramāṇavārttika that, “the mind is by nature luminous cognizance (prabhāsvara)” (Dunne 2004, p. 372).1 I interpret luminosity here in terms of phenomenal presence—the presentation of experiential qualities or contents. This is a basic notion for understanding phenomenal consciousness meant to point to the fundamental idea of experiential manifestation, that is, of anything showing up in (or as) experience in the first place. It is then a further question of what, how, and to whom (or to what) it is showing up. The cognizance (jñāna) of consciousness is its capacity to grasp or apprehend its object. This aspect, then, is linked to the intentionality of consciousness. Conscious states not only present phenomena, but also are contentfully directed to objects (viṣayatā). Further,
consciousness is implicated in the capacity to identify, re-identify, and understand its objects. Most fundamentally, I want to suggest that the cognizance of consciousness should be understood in terms of what Francisco Varela and Evan Thompson have called sense-making. According to Thompson (2011, p. 119): Sense-making is threefold: (1) sensibility as openness to the environment (intentionality as openness); (2) significance as positive or negative valence of environmental conditions relative to the norms of the living being (intentionality as passive synthesis— passivity, receptivity, and affect); and (3) the direction or orientation the living being adopts in response to significance and valence (intentionality as protentional and teleological).
On this account, an episode of conscious experience is luminous and cognizant in that it paradigmatically involves phenomenal presentation, significance, and valence. Further, on the Buddhist view, any particular episode of experience will be understood as the confluence of a complex network of conditioning factors, including sub-personal mental processes. Indeed, a fundamental feature of Indian Buddhist approaches to the mind is to dissolve what appear to be substantial unities into functional unities based on various types of events, processes, and capacities. So, rather than assuming a substantial or homuncular self, Buddhist approaches to the mind attempt to explain experience in terms of the complex synchronic and diachronic interdependence between sensory, cognitive, affective, attentional and conative events and processes. Hence, an individual conscious episode will be an internally complex global state arising on the basis of the integration of various sub-personal mental processes, while the stream of consciousness will be marked by functional complexity and both continuity and discontinuity. On the Abhidharma and Yogācāra approach, for instance, a conscious state can be analyzed into primary and secondary factors, and in this analysis we see an interesting account of the emergence of cognizance as sense-making. The primary factor (citta, awareness or consciousness) is the state itself as a conscious presentation of its object (luminosity), while the
secondary mental factors (caitta) characterize the type or mode of engagement with the object (cognizance). One common taxonomy lists 51 distinct mental factors, divided into six groups. However, there are five omnipresent factors: affect (vedanā), cognition (saṃjñā), intention or motivation (cetanā), attention (manasikāra), and sensory contact (sparśa). On this view, each moment of experience is grounded in and arises from on-going (somato)-sensory contact between the sentient being and its environment and is structured by affective, cognitive, conative, and attentional factors. These factors, while analytically divisible, are mutually specifying and reinforcing and operate below the level of reflective attention. Note here that the omnipresent factors involve the integration of exteroceptive processes (sensory contact) with interoceptive processes of affect, attention, and motivation. Further, the basic conative orientation of the sentient being on this view—that is, approach/avoid/ignore—suggests that the integration of exteroceptive with interoceptive information would be within an egocentric rather than allocentric spatial framework in order to be relevant for action. At the level of phenomenal consciousness, luminous cognizance could be considered a form of phenomenal intentionality. As Horgan and Nichols (2016, p. 145) have recently put it, “phenomenality is inherent to consciousness, and intentionality is virtually always inherent to phenomenality.” That is, consciousness is luminous in that it is essentially characterized by the capacity for phenomenal presentation, including, as I’ll discuss below, both interlocking modalities of self-presentation and other-presentation. It is cognizant in that it is essentially characterized by the capacity to apprehend, to constitute as significant aspects of the experienced world, including itself. These two features of consciousness are primordial forms of phenomenality and intentionality the intertwined operation of which constitute the basic mark or nature of conscious experience. However, it should be noted that, on this model, there may be forms of experience (in meditation or in certain forms of sleep) that are luminous, but do not involve intentionality proper.
Dual-Aspect Reflexivism The basic divide in Indian accounts of the luminosity of consciousness is between otherillumination (paraprakāśa) and self-illumination (svaprakāśa) theories. For advocates of otherillumination, the luminosity of consciousness consists in its capacity to present a distinct object. Thus, transitive, object-directed intentionality is the mark of consciousness. Conscious states, in order to be states the subject is conscious of, must be presented by a distinct, higher-order cognition. Hence, consciousness illuminates that which is other than itself, and conscious states themselves are apperceived by another state. In contrast, for advocates of self-illumination theories, consciousness is reflexive or self-presenting. Consciousness presents itself in the process of presenting its object. Moreover, just as light does not need a second light in order to be revealed, so consciousness does not need a distinct state to present itself—it is self-intimating (MacKenzie 2017). In some Buddhist schools, the term ‘svasaṃvedana’ (self-awareness) denotes this selfluminosity or pre-reflective self-awareness that they argue is a constitutive feature of conscious experience. On this view, individual conscious states simultaneously disclose both the object of consciousness and (aspects of) the conscious state itself. Thus, when a subject is aware of an object, she is also (pre-reflectively) aware of her own experiencing. Buddhist philosophers such as Dignāga, Dharmakīrti, and Śāntarakṣita defended the idea that consciousness is reflexive or self-presenting in this way. In contemporary terms, these thinkers hold that phenomenal subjectivity or (minimal) subjective character is essential to phenomenal consciousness.
This reflexivist view of consciousness, then, is closely linked to a dual-aspect view of conscious content. According to Dignāga, “Every cognition is produced with a twofold appearance, namely that of itself (svābhāsa) and that of the object (viṣayābhāsa)” (PS(V) 1.9a; Hattori 1968, p. 28). The object-appearance or object-aspect is the presentation of the intentional object in cognition. It is what the experience is as of. Whatever the further status of the intentional object, in so far as it is given in experience, there is an object-appearance. Yet a cognition is not exhausted by its presentation of an intentional object. It also presents a subjectaspect (svābhāsa), which for Dignāga means the way the cognition presents itself. When I have an experience as of a tree, on this view, the experience presents both the tree (the object-aspect) and the experiencing of the tree (the subject-aspect). And since I grasp both the objectappearance and the self-appearance of the cognition in which the object is presented, the dualaspect structure of cognition implies pre-reflective self-awareness (svasaṃvedana). Importantly, the viṣayābhāsa, svābhāsa, and svasaṃvedana are features of a single episode. Hence, the prereflective self-awareness here is not a distinct higher-order cognition, but rather an intrinsic feature of the first-order cognition itself. It is that phenomenal point of view within which or for which both aspects are presented. The dual-aspect view involves the rejection of the strong transparency of experience. For Dignāga, there is more to experience than how the object is presented. The phenomenal character of experience also involves how the experience itself is presented. Thus we should make a phenomenological distinction between what the object is like and what it is like to cognize the object. For instance, what it is like to see a bright yellow lemon may be different from what it is like to imagine the lemon or to remember it, even if the lemon qua lemon itself is presented in the same way (as bright yellow, etc.) in each cognition. Jonardon Ganeri characterizes the
subjective-aspect simply as, “whatever it is in virtue of which attending to one’s experience does not collapse into attending to the world as presented in experience” (Ganeri 2012, p. 170). One of Dignāga’s main arguments for this view is that if cognitions are transparent, there would be no distinction between a cognition and the cognition of that cognition (PS 1.11; Kellner 2010, p. 210). Yet it seems we can discern features of the experiencing of the object over and above the object itself. On the other hand, this view is compatible with a moderate transparency view, according to which the object-appearance is usually the primary focus of awareness and we don’t usually attend to or reflect upon the subject-aspect. Dignāga does not say very much about the nature of the subject-aspect, but he does say that we are aware of the various ‘mental factors’ (caitta) (mentioned above) that are built into our cognitive episodes (PS(V) 1.6ab; Kellner 2010, p. 207). In addition to being luminous and cognizant, then, an episode of cognition may be pleasant or unpleasant, focused or unfocused, calm or agitated, etc. (Dreyfus 2011, p. 119). These mental factors contribute to the global phenomenal character of the episode and are available for reflection by the subject—that is, they are pre-reflective aspects of the experience. These features of the experiencing, rather than the object experienced, I take to be part of what Dignāga terms the svābhāsa, the ‘self-appearance’ or subject-aspect of the cognition. Recall also that these mental factors already involve the integration of exteroceptive and interoceptive information. Hence, we can understand the dualaspect view of cognition in terms of the integration of self-specifying and other-specifying information within a single conscious point of view. Further, a number of researchers on the neuroscience of consciousness (Damasio 1999, Parvisi and Damasio 2001, Merker 2006) have argued that this kind of self-/other- information integration within an egocentric model of the organism in its environment is central to many forms of subjective experience.
On my interpretation, at the level of conscious experience, the object- and subject-aspects of experiences are phenomenal modes of presentation. The object-aspect presents the object (e.g., as being red and spherical), while the subjective-aspect presents the experience itself (e.g., as being a pleasant, focused, visual experience, as well as being a cognition of a red sphere). They are phenomenal modes of presentation in that the object and the experience are presented qualitatively. In modern parlance, we can say that there is something it is like to be aware of a red sphere and there is also something it is like to live through an involuntary, attentive, pleasant, visual experience of a red sphere. According to Dharmakīrti and his commentator Śākyabuddhi, reflexive awareness is more basic than the subject-object structure and intentionality of consciousness. Transitive intentionality presupposes subject-object duality, but according to the Buddhist epistemologists the subject-object duality is a cognitive distortion, not a real feature of consciousness. Reflexive awareness, however, is the essential nature of consciousness and is therefore non-dual and nonintentional. As Śākyabuddhi puts it: Since an agent and its patient are constructed in dependence upon each other, these two [i.e. subject and object] are posited in dependence on each other. The expression "subject" does not express mere reflexive awareness, which is the essential nature of cognition itself. The essential nature of cognition is not construed in mutual dependence on something else because it arises as such from its own causes. The essential nature of cognition is established in mere reflexive awareness (svasaṃvedanamātra). Since it is devoid of the above-described subject and object, it is said to be non-dual. (Dunne 2004, p. 407)
So what mode of awareness could this be, if it not a form of intentionality? My suggestion is that we understand reflexive awareness of a form immediate acquaintance rather than as a form of intentionality. Moreover, according to tradition, there are supposedly very rarified meditative states wherein the subject-object duality (and hence both intentionality and
the sense of self) are absent and all that remains is pure non-dual reflexive awareness. One could also imagine other altered states (pathological states or certain sleep states) in which the usual subject-object structure of consciousness breaks down (MacKenzie 2015, Windt 2015). For Dignāga and Dharmakīrti, the role of reflexive awareness is primarily epistemic. The idea here is that we have a direct (i.e., immediate, non-inferential, non-conceptual) acquaintance with the phenomenal contents of our experience. To have a conscious pain is to be aware of the qualitative pain directly, just by having it. However, the later reflexivist, Śāntarakṣita, comes to emphasize the constitutive role of reflexive awareness—that is, self-luminosity comes to be seen as the distinguishing mark (svalakṣana) or very nature of consciousness. In Madhyamakālaṃkāra 16, Śāntarakṣita (2005, p. 53) argues: Consciousness rises as the contrary Of matter, gross, inanimate. By nature, mind is immaterial And it is self-aware.
On this view, matter is inherently inanimate and insentient (jaḍa), while consciousness is inherently luminous and cognizant – that is, reflexive and intentional. As his Tibetan commentator, Jamgon Mipham, remarks in this context: Objects like pots, being material, are devoid of luminosity and cognizance. For them to be cognized, it is necessary to rely on something that is quite different from them, namely, the luminous and knowing mind. The nature of consciousness, on the other hand, is unlike matter. For it to be known, it depends on no condition other than itself. ... In the very instant that consciousness arises, the factors of luminosity and cognizance are present to it. Although other things are known by it, it is not itself known by something else and is never without selfawareness (it is never ‘self-unaware’) (Śāntarakṣita 2005, p. 202).
In Mipham’s gloss, there is a fundamental asymmetry between the way consciousness is aware of itself and the way it is aware of external objects.2 Intransitive reflexive awareness and transitive intentionality are distinct modalities, and it would be a mistake to model the former on the latter. Objects like pots do not have experiences and apparently exist independently of their being experienced. Conscious states, on the other hand, do not exist independently of being experienced—their very mode of being is to be experienced. That is, while actual objects do not need to be given in order to exist and intentional objects do not need to exist in order to be given, conscious experiences exist if and only if they are lived-through, are experientially given. And living through an experience subjectively just is our most basic way of being aware of that state. Mipham goes on to argue, following Dharmakīrti, that: It is thanks to reflexive awareness that, conventionally, phenomenal appearances are established as the mind, and the mind [i.e. a cognitive episode] is in turn undeniably established as the object-experiencer. If reflexive awareness is not accepted, the mind would be disconnected from its own experience of phenomena and the experience of ‘outer objects’ would be impossible (Śāntarakṣita 2005, p. 123).
That is, for these thinkers, the experiential object is recognized to be a phenomenal appearance (ābhāsa) or phenomenal form (ākāra) that is not distinct from the cognition within which it is presented. In other words, one sees that the supposed external object is in fact merely the objective-face of an experience and thus an aspect of the experience itself. Further, on this reflexivist view, absence of pre-reflective self-awareness would yield a kind of mind-blindness (‘the mind disconnected from its own experiences’) wherein at any given time one might be having any number of phenomenal experiences without any awareness that one was having them, in absence of which their intentional objects would not be phenomenally present. In such cases,
I am bracketing the issue of idealism in these thinkers.
one’s cognition would be more like blindsight than phenomenal consciousness. That is, if one is not at all aware of the experience in and through which the object is presented, then the object is not phenomenally present at all. Furthermore, note that the svābhāsa and viṣayābhāsa are given to or given within a conscious, first-person point of view. For the Buddhist reflexivists, svasaṃvedana constitutes the conscious point of view within which the two faces of cognition are given. Reflexivity, therefore, constitutes a minimal form of subjectivity in the phenomenological sense of a ‘dative of manifestation’, that to which the phenomenally present is presented. Yet, crucially, this point of view is not a distinct or enduring subject of experience existing over and above the interconnected episodes of experience constituting individual streams of consciousness (cittasantāna). Rather, as we have seen, reflexive awareness is a basic feature of each individual experiential episode. At bottom, each episode of experience is its own phenomenal subject. The upshot, in contemporary terms, is that a conscious experience is characterized by both its phenomenal character and its subjective character. The phenomenal character here involves both the presentation of an object and certain aspects of the experiencing of the object. This Janus-faced mode of presentation is (necessarily) presentation-to a subjective point of view. And this kind of phenomenal self-presentation or self-luminosity is the distinctive mark of consciousness.
Base-Consciousness and the Sense of Self Turning now from the structure of individual states or episodes to its more global character, the Yogācāra thinkers further distinguish eight modes or aspects of consciousness. The first five modes are the basic forms of sensory awareness. The sixth dimension is called ‘mental consciousness’ (manovijñāna), and has to do with ideation, thinking, and so on. These six types or aspects of consciousness are accepted throughout Indian Buddhist philosophy of mind, but thinkers associated with Yogācāra posit two more types of awareness: afflictive mentation (kliṣṭamanas) and base- or store-consciousness (ālayavijñāna). On this account, the seventh consciousness (kliṣṭamanas)—which I’ll discuss further shortly—is the source of the basic sense of self, the felt sense of mental ownership that is built into our default mental architecture. The ālayavijñāna forms the most basic stratum of the stream of consciousness against the background of which the other seven types of awareness operate. Unlike the discontinuous flow of the manifest types of awareness (pravṛttivijñāna), the base-consciousness is taken to be a diachronically continuous flow. It is also the store or repository of the various habits, dispositions, and latent propensities that shape the experience of the individual. Finally, according to the Yogācārins, the base consciousness is central to the explanation of the synchronic coherence of consciousness. In phenomenological terms the ālaya is a sedimented retentional continuum, an egoless streaming (Zahavi, 2011b). It is also, on my interpretation, the most basic form of embodied creature-consciousness. According to Mipham, the ālayavijñāna is the basal background field or continuum of awareness and is understood as ‘mere luminosity and cognizance’. “It is,” he writes, “an awareness of the mere presence of objects and it arises as a continuity of instants,” and “it does not have a specific object of focus but observes the world and beings in a general, overall manner” (2005, 238). The ālaya, then, is characterized by luminosity both in the sense of phenomenal presence and in the sense of reflexivity. It is also characterized by cognizance or intentionality, but of a different sort than the manifest modes of awareness that arise from it. In contrast to the thematic and transitive modes of intentionality to be found in the pravṛtti-vijñāna,
the cognizance of the ālaya is non-thematic—a basic openness or open presence to the world of experience, corresponding somewhat to Thompson’s sense-making as sensibility. Mipham further elaborates that the base consciousness must be understood in terms of two distinct, but inseparable aspects: the ‘seed aspect’ and the ‘maturation aspect’. The seed aspect corresponds to the retentional function of the base consciousness. It is the synchronic and diachronic basis for the various habits and propensities that condition experience. The maturation aspect functions as “a potential (a power source) for the seven kinds of consciousness and their attendant mental factors, which rise and fall like waves on the sea” (2005, 238). So while some have understood the ālaya as a form of unconscious cognition, I want to follow Mipham in taking it to be pre-reflective global background consciousness. Further, this background open presence is fundamentally bodily. In the Yogācāra tradition, base consciousness is said to pervade the body and to differentiate the living body from a corpse. Phenomenologically, we may see this as linking base consciousness to the lived, animate body— that is Leib rather than Körper. Empirically, as Thompson argues: Background consciousness is inextricably tied to the homeodynamic regulation of the body and includes primary affective awareness or core consciousness of one’s bodily selfhood. Background consciousness in this fundamental sense is none other than sentience, the feeling of being alive, the affective backdrop of every conscious state. Sentience—or primal consciousness or core consciousness—is evidently not organized according to sensory modality, but rather according to the regulatory, emotional, and affective processes that make up the organism’s basic feeling of self. (Thompson 2007, 354-5)
I take background consciousness to have a field-like topology. That is, base consciousness opens up or constitutes a synchronically unified phenomenal space within which phenomena can be given. This space is implicated in the appearance of anything within it but cannot itself be found among the objects it allows to appear. And since it is a phenomenal space, it is perspectivally
structured—it is characterized by a genitive-dative or of-to structure. Note also that the phenomenal field is not a hidden Cartesian theater across which mental representations parade. Rather, it is the phenomenal-intentional openness to the world of an embodied, situated conscious agent. Recall further that the ālaya is partly constituted by a felt sense of the body as lived and therefore constitutes a basic form of non-objectifying bodily self-awareness. It therefore exemplifies—in its own inchoate and pre-reflective way—the Janus-faced structure of phenomenal consciousness more generally. This Yogācāra account of the stream experience is based on what I will call horizontal and vertical dynamics. The basic temporality of experience is understood through its retentionalprotentional structure, as well as the various forms of passive synthesis within the diachronic flow of base consciousness. This horizontal form of dynamism roughly corresponds to what Mipham calls the seed aspect of the ālaya. Second, experience involves the vertical dynamic between the more passive background and the more active and explicit foreground of conscious activity. The foreground here, though, is not constituted by the ever-changing objects of experience, but rather the manifest mental processes such as perceiving, imagining, or thinking. In Buddhist terms, this is the on-going reciprocal dynamic between the ālayavijñāna and the pravṛttivijñāna and what Mipham calls the maturation aspect of base consciousness. Thus, for instance, as Thompson puts it, “the antecedent and ‘rolling’ experiential context of perception modulates the way the object appears or is experientially lived during the moment of perception, and the content of this transient conscious state reciprocally affects the flow of experience” (Thompson 2007, 355). Moreover, it is interesting to note that the functions associated with base consciousness— basic bodily awareness, affect, and self-regulatory functions, for instance— are subserved by
midbrain and brainstem structures (Parvizi and Damasio 2001) and are not organized according to sensory modality (Damasio 1999). In contrast, the various more transient sensory states associated with the foreground of consciousness crucially involve thalamo-cortical structures (among others), damage to which can leave intact backround awareness and core selfconsciousness (Philippi, et al 2012). This is one reason why, as Thompson argues, “the search for content NCCs in a particular sensory modality such as vision [i.e., in the pravṛttivijñāna] runs the risk of missing the biologically and phenomenologically more fundamental phenomenon of sentience, whose affective character and ipseity (nonreflective self-awareness) [[[svasaṃvedana]]] underlie and pervade all sensory experience [i.e., the ālayavijñāna is fundamental]” (2007, p. 355). That is, if this model of consciousness is on the right track, our empirical and philosophical attempts to account for phenomenal state consciousness will need to take more seriously the more fundamental modes of global background and creature consciousness, and the reciprocal dynamics between these aspects of conscious experience. In addition, if it is the case that base consciousness is reflexive, then it would make sense to look for the roots of reflexive phenomenal subjectivity, not so much in features of local, transient phenomenal states, but rather in basic features of bodily creature consciousness. As mentioned above, the kliṣṭamanas, is the source of the basic sense of self, the felt sense of mental ownership that is built into our default mental architecture. Like the baseconsciousness, it is taken to be pre-reflective, continuous, and relatively stable. As an implicit sense of mental ownership it does not depend on the operation of voluntary mental attention and it is more basic than the capacity for having explicit ‘I-cognitions’ (ahampratyāya). Its basis is the ālayavijñāna and it is argued that the kliṣṭamanas involves a basic cognitive-affective illusion: it mistakes the egoless streaming of the base-consciousness for an enduring self-entity.
This innate distortion in our mental architecture is thought to be the basis of various destructive emotions and other mental afflictions (kleśa)—hence the term ‘afflictive mentation’. While reflexivity, the basal sense of embodied sentience, and the temporal structure of consciousness contribute to its basic subjectivity, the minimal subjectivity of experience does not entail an egological view consciousness (MacKenzie 2015). “An egological theory,” as Dan Zahavi explains, “would claim that when I watch a movie by Bergman, I am not only intentionally directed at the movie, nor merely aware of the movie being watched, I am also aware that it is being watched by me, that is, that I am watching the movie. . . . Thus, an egological theory would typically claim that it is a conceptual and experiential truth that any episode of experiencing necessarily includes a subject of experience. (2005, p. 99) In contrast, the view here is that, at base, consciousness is an egoless streaming. The ego—that is, the sense of being a relatively stable and unified self—involves a richer sense of mental ownership than the on-going ‘feeling of being alive’ and perspectival ownership of experience. On the other hand, on this view this richer sense of self is a normal part of pre-reflective human experience. The kliṣṭamanas or ego-sense is an emergent feature of human experience that arises from and is sustained by pre-egoic processes. It is a product of the passive syntheses within the baseconsciousness, even while it provides the sense that there is a self that is the enduring owner and ground of the stream of experience. The sense of self, on this view, may feel fixed and fundamental, but it is in fact a malleable, emergent construct. It arises from an on-going process of appropriation (upādāna) of the embodied stream of experience into a self-model that ‘perfumes’ all further cognitive operations. Moreover, it can change and even perhaps drop away entirely in certain types of experience (pathological or meditative).
For instance, Zahn, Talazko and Ebert (2008) report the case of DP, a 23-year-old male who complains of having ‘double visions’ which he finds distressing. It turns out that he does not in fact have double vision. Rather DP reports that, “he was able to see everything normally, but that he did not immediately recognize that he was the one who perceives and that he needed a second step to become aware that he himself was the one who perceives the object” (2008, p. 398). DP, it seems, is aware of visual objects, but is not immediately aware of himself as the subject of the visual experiences in which the objects were given. Only with an act of reflection does he come to have a sense of ownership of the experiences. Indeed, according to Zahn, it is precisely the absence of the usual pre-reflective sense of mental ownership that DP found so distressing. If the basic description of this case is correct, it seems to be a counter-example to the idea that a pre-reflective sense of ownership or mineness is an invariant feature of consciousness. In DP’s case the sense of mineness has dropped out of the visual modality and he must take a second step in order to feel the visual experiences as his own. In an important sense, DP’s prereflective visual experiences are anonymous. On the other hand, this case is importantly unlike a case of blindsight. First, DP’s visual experiences are phenomenally conscious; there is something it is like to undergo them. Second, it appears that DP is pre-reflectively aware of his visual experiences in that he does not need to reflect in order to be aware of their occurrence. The ‘second step’ is at the level of ownership, not reflexive awareness. Third, his visual experiences are available for report and memory just like his other types of perceptual experience. Therefore, the case of DP provides prima facie evidence that one can have experiences that are phenomenally conscious, of which one is pre-reflective aware, but that lack the felt sense of forme-ness or mineness typical of our conscious experiences. The Yogācāra model, with its
distinction between the minimal phenomenal subjectivity of reflexive awareness and the more robust sense of self of the kliṣṭamanas, better accounts for this (and other types of cases) than egological or minimal self views (MacKenzie 2015).
Personal Identity I think the account of selfless subjectivity I have been exploring may provide an interesting alternative to Parfit’s version of reductionism about personal identity. Mainstream Buddhist views of personal identity are reductionist in Parfit’s sense in that they reject a separately existing self and explain diachronic personal identity in terms of the weaker relation psychological continuity. Moreover, given Buddhist views on rebirth, they are arguably committed to the idea that identity is not what matters in survival. However, proponents of the minimal self or weak egological views of consciousness have argued that, while Parfit is surely right to reject a separately existing or substantial self, his reductionism misses the irreducibility and diachronic identity of the first-person perspective. This has lead Zahavi (2011) to appeal to the (supposed) diachronic identity of the minimal self to defend what is arguably a novel form of further-fact non-reductionism. The Buddhist account of subjectivity sketched here provides a middle way between a purely third-person reductionism and a first-person non-reductionism. The basic idea is that personal identity is to be explained in terms of psychological continuity, but that psychological continuity centrally involves the phenomenal continuity of the first-person perspective or minimal subjectivity. But contra egological views of subjectivity, this continuity is constituted by the integrated flow of reflexive mental episodes which are more basic than and do not presuppose a sense of self or mental ownership. This egoless streaming of reflexive awareness constitutes the minimal form of the continuity of a conscious point of
view—a form of direct phenomenological connectedness. Yet this point of view is both fundamentally anonymous and, qua mere continuity, can be a matter of degree and does not rule out fission, fusion, or branching. The continuity of reflexive awareness, as Dignāga argues, allows for intra-streamal relations of access consciousness whereby one episode in the stream is able to access the both the objective and subjective aspects of earlier experiences, thus allowing for minimally first-person episodic memory (Ganeri, 2012). In addition, in sentient beings that construct rich synchronic and diachronic self-models (kliṣṭamanas), there emerges a more robust sense of mental ownership and the ability to think I-thoughts (including about the past and future). This allows one not just to remember certain earlier experiences from the inside, but also remember them explicitly as one’s own. It also allows one to think thoughts such as ‘I was happy on my seventh birthday’ and ‘I intend to complete the book this year’. On this view, the correctness of these I-thoughts derives not from there being an enduring entity that is their shared referent, but from the maintenance of the right kind of functional and phenomenological connections between phases in the embodied stream of experience. In short, the Buddhist view of selfless subjectivity may allow for the development of a reductionist account of personal identity that gives central place to phenomenal consciousness and the first-person point of view, while recognizing and identifying the ways that these very features give rise to the persistent illusion of a reified or substantial self.
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