The Enduring Self? The Concept of ‘The Self’ in Western and Eastern Traditions

The term ‘self’ refers to an individual human being, along with their body, mind, and in some cases, the concept of a ‘soul’. The western view of the ‘enduring self’ refers to the notion that “you are the same person you were earlier in your life. In other words, it assumes that we humans are selves that endure through time” (Velasquez 96). So, despite the many mental and physical changes that may occur during our life, we are essentially the same ‘self’ throughout our many developments. While western traditional has, for the most part, accepted and championed the idea of an ‘enduring self’, the exact definition and characteristics of this ‘enduring self’ are diverse. However, the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume and the founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, both rejected the idea of an ‘enduring self’, even going so far as to claim any concept of a ‘self’ is an illusion. In this essay, I intend to examine the two different views and state my own thoughts on which viewpoint is more compelling.

The European philosophers Plato, Descartes, and Locke all believed in an ‘enduring self’, however what exactly constituted this ‘self’ was varied. The concept of a ‘soul’ is often the most popular representation of an ‘enduring self’, because according to western belief, a soul is “immaterial or spiritual” (Velasquez 100), thus a ‘soul’ is beyond the physical realm and not subject to change like material objects. Plato was one of the first philosophers to state that the soul is eternal, so it is the soul of a man that makes him an enduring self, because even after death the soul continues to exist. Many years later, the philosopher Descartes stated that “thinking is an attribute of the soul” and that “the continuity of his thinking mind [is what] makes him remain the same person” (Velasquez 100). In other words, our consciousness is a result of our ‘soul’, or of our ‘enduring self’. Descartes basically believed that, if he could not think, then he could not exist, and thus ‘thinking’ in and of itself was what constituted an enduring self. Locke had a similar view, though his idea was the ‘enduring self’ is a person’s memory. In other words, it is our memory that allows us to identify ourselves, and it is the process of identifying ourselves that allows us to formulate the idea of a ‘self’.

While the western tradition may make some fairly significant justifications for an ‘enduring self’, the Buddhist philosophy completely rejects the notion of a ‘self’ in general, viewing it as an illusion. Buddhist philosophy believes that everything in life is ephemeral, or that nothing lasts forever. Everything is in a constant flux of change and impermanence, thus, the ‘enduring self’ cannot exist, because an ‘enduring self’ would imply something that is ‘permanent’ or ‘unchanging’. The Buddha taught that the idea of a ‘self’ is an illusion, and that this illusion leads to pain and suffering. By renouncing the ‘self’ and transcending the ego, one can obtain release from suffering (nirvana) and finally be at peace.

The Enlightenment thinker David Hume had a somewhat similar idea, in the sense that he too believed there is ‘no self’, and that what we think of as a ‘self’ is just an illusion. Hume “argues that all real knowledge is based on what we can actually perceive with our senses” (Velasquez 104). Hume believed that it was impossible to perceive the ‘self’ with our senses because it doesn’t actually exist – ‘the self’ is just an imaginary concept. Like Buddhism, Hume believed that “because everything is in flux, there is not even an enduring self” (Velasquez 105).

Personally, I find the Eastern tradition (along with Hume’s views) to be more compelling. Like Buddha and David Hume, I too believe that everything is impermanent, including ourselves. For example, right now I’m typing this essay, but the thoughts in my mind at this very moment are different from the thoughts in my mind a few seconds ago. Thus, how could I be an ‘enduring self’ when every few seconds the thoughts in my head are changing? In order to be an ‘enduring self’, wouldn’t that imply that I am unchanging, permanent and stagnant? Even the cells and carbon atoms that make up our bodies change repeatedly. Mentally and physically we are constantly changing, so I think that the idea of an ‘enduring self’ is nothing more than a mystical, idealistic concept.

I would say that the idea of a ‘self’ is just a notion that has been mentally created in order to give ourselves a feeling of identity and purpose. ‘The self’ is really only a product of our evolved consciousness – I personally don’t believe that it exists on any metaphysical, material or spiritual level. ‘The self’ may exist as a product of the mind, in other words, on a psychological level, but in all honesty I think even that definition might be stretching it. I agree with Hume in his reasoning that “we have no real knowledge of a self and so [we] have no justification for claiming that we have a self. What we perceive within ourselves is nothing more than a changing bundle of disconnected sensations” (Velasquez 104). In the end, I feel that David Hume and the Buddha’s views on illusionary nature of ‘the self’ are more rational and realistic.