Nobody at Home

Jon Elster

  • Selfless Persons: Imagery and Thought in Theravada Buddhism by Steven Collins
    Cambridge, 323 pp, £22.50, June 1982, ISBN 0 521 24081 6
  • Le Bonheur-Liberté: Bouddhisme Profond et Modernité by Serge-Christophe Kolm
    Presses Universitaires de France, 637 pp, £150.00, January 1983, ISBN 2 13 037316 X

A few years ago I was flying from Paris to Copenhagen on a day of calm and perfect weather. The flight took me over the sea beyond the coast of Holland, and looking down I was able to see in full detail the landscape below sea level, with its hills and valleys and – astonishingly – a lake: an accumulation of dark-blue water at the bottom of a valley, sharply separated from its lighter surroundings and maintained by some unknown physical process. This lake at the bottom of the sea forcefully evoked the idea of an inner nature of things, normally hidden by an opaque veil and only occasionally discernible by the senses. It has remained with me as a moment of ultra-clear vision, an experience of being absorbed into the world rather than having it represented on a screen of consciousness.

Most people have had similar experiences, I suspect. In his book on Theravada Buddhism, Steven Collins refers to the ‘water imagery’ expressive of the state of mind of the meditator ‘in which all mental phenomena can be seen and classified “as they really are”... like a clear pond through which the stones, plants, and suchlike, on the bottom can be seen with ease.’ Part of the attraction of Buddhism comes from the promise it offers of making such extraordinary clarity of vision a permanently available ability. It shares this, however, with many other views of the world that promise mystical insight. In his powerful study of the Buddhist tradition, Serge Kolm argues that it is also uniquely suited to the rational scientific mind, by virtue of its emphasis on materialism, determinism and method. Both works underline the elimination of suffering as the goal to which the theory and practice of Buddhism are harnessed.

The two books are nonetheless strikingly different, and not always consistent with each other. They deal with the same subject-matter: the relation between Buddhism and Brahmanism, between the Theravada and Mahayana schools, between exoteric and esoteric forms, between non-self and moral responsibility, between freedom from illusion and freedom from suffering. Collins has written a scholarly study of Buddhism, without attempting to evaluate its central doctrines. His stated concern is a philosophical one, but he does not go beyond the clarification of the basic notions. In a sense, he does not even take it seriously as an intellectual endeavour, as, for instance, when he suggests that the ‘deep structure’ of Buddhist theory is to be found in various forms of imagery. Kolm, on the other hand, offers a passionate defence of the doctrine: too passionate, in fact, to be consistent with the doctrine he is defending, since Buddhism strongly warns against becoming too attached to ‘views’. He also makes many gestures in the direction of scholarship, especially in those chapters which argue that Buddhism had a profound influence on Greek thought, notably on Pythagoras and the Stoics. I have no competence to evaluate his argument, but I suspect that he may have taken too much on. He rests his case on the similarities between Buddhism and Greek philosophy, together with the material feasibility of travel between the Indian and the Greek worlds, but specialists would probably demand more detailed evidence, notably with respect to the earliest influence. My concern, however, is limited to his arguments for Buddhism as a solution to current intellectual and moral problems.

Le Bonheur-Liberté is an exceptional work by most criteria. Its author is an internationally known mathematical economist, with many publications in the domain of public economics and economic justice. Like most economists, he is a utilitarian, and this is evident in his interpretation of Buddhism. He does not, however, cite the version of utilitarianism which is beyond doubt closest to his own view: the version developed in the work of Derek Parfit. (Collins does refer to Parfit’s ideas, and in this respect the books can usefully supplement one another.) Kolm has also written important work on the transition to socialism, and is much concerned with the relation between individual liberation through Buddhism and liberation through collective action, although I do not think he succeeds in resolving the tension between these two tasks. He has proposed, moreover, a mathematical model of Freud’s theory of the mind which, while not very interesting in itself, has prepared him for the task of comparing Buddhism and psychoanalysis as strategies for liberation. Many readers will no doubt be put off by his somewhat sketchy scholarship, and his claims for Buddhism as being ‘infinitely’ superior to Western thought and the definitive solution to all sorts of problems. It would be a great pity if this led them to neglect the work. Though often repetitive, it contains pages that dazzle with insight. Though sometimes vague in the answers it offers, it shows an uncanny gift for singling out important problems. It is an important work of social theory.

Buddhism is in many respects a very elusive doctrine, and both books discuss in some detail why this is so. First, in order to survive in a hostile Brahminical environment, it had to camouflage its doctrines in a form that defused it as an ideology of revolt. It had to offer itself as an exoteric doctrine for popular consumption, while reserving its real meaning for a few scholars. In particular, it had to pretend to accept the doctrine of rebirth which was the ideological basis of Brahman rulership. The true or esoteric meaning of this doctrine within Buddhism is as a psychological theory, in which each ‘birth’ simply represents a new moment of consciousness, and the transmigration of souls according to merit (karma) means nothing more than the production of one state by its causal antecedents. While Kolm insists on these distinctions between conventional and ultimate truth, Collins finds that they ‘have the flavour of rationalisations after the event, rather than an original and determining influence on the development of Buddhistic culture’.

Next, the status of the esoteric doctrine itself novers ambiguously between the analytical and the purely instrumental. In the Mahayana tradition, Collins tells us, there is a strong tendency to disavow the doctrine’s claim to truth, and to insist on its purely instrumental efficacy in achieving liberation. Although the Theravada appears to be more genuinely concerned with truth, a central work of that school also contains passages which suggest that the value of these patterns of self-analysis lies only in their strategic function as instruments of mental culture.’ This is not to be confused with the general idea that doctrines, or ‘views’, must not become an object of attachment, that they are like rafts that should be discarded once the river has been crossed. A true doctrine may well be the best instrument, yet dangerous if valued as more than a mere instrument. This is nevertheless slippery ground, as is shown in Kolm’s argument that the ontological doctrines of Buddhism – as opposed to its empirical psychological theories – can be understood as mere ways of looking at things, and are to be judged only by their usefulness in reducing suffering. In any case, this strongly instrumentalistic attitude can be opposed to what I believe is a widespread Western idea: that happiness tends to arise as a by-product of the search for truth but will escape those who seek to harness truth to its purpose.

Buddhism is elusive, furthermore, because it cannot be learned from books, for two distinct reasons. First, some doctrines are potentially so dangerous – for the person learning them and for those on whom he could be tempted to apply them – that they can only be taught under strict control. Kolm tells us that he had to swear never to reveal some of the psychological theories he was taught in the monasteries. It is difficult to know what to make of this. Secondly, it is in the nature of Buddhist psychological theory that it can only be assimilated by trained introspection, which is quite difficult to achieve. Unlike Western theories that try to relate behaviour to behaviour, and avoid the explicit use of mental states as explanatory variables, Buddhist psychology links mental states to other mental states. Although Kolm mentions in passing that the theory also has consequences for observable behaviour, we are unfortunately not given any samples which would permit us to assess the theory without undergoing Buddhist training. In addition, there are serious conceptual obstacles to the idea of a pure mental science of psychology. Kolm refers briefly to Wittgenstein’s private language argument, but even more serious objections could be derived from Donald Davidson’s argument against psychological laws.

The need to undertake Buddhist training in order to be able to assess the doctrine raises the question why anyone would rationally want to do this. If Buddhism is true in what it claims, it is certainly rational – practically and intellectually – to be a Buddhist, but how could it be rational for someone outside the creed to seek to become one? One might argue along Pascalian lines that if Buddhism is true, it offers so much that one should try it out even if one does not believe its truth to be very likely, but the question is whether there are any grounds at all for believing in it. Moreover, even were one persuaded that Buddhism will ultimately deliver the goods, one might rationally hesitate before engaging on a path that might not bring improvement until much later. Life is short and Buddhism is long. True, Kolm argues that every step on the path to improvement is itself an improvement, but this appears to be inconsistent with other and more plausible things that he also says. Finally, it is not clear that the ideal of non-suffering as he states it is a very attractive one, even were it immediately attainable.

The structure of Buddhist theory as set out in these books appears to be tripartite. The overall goal is the reduction of human suffering. For the individual, the privileged means to this goal must be the reduction of his own suffering. And this goal in turn is accomplished by insight into the illusionary character of the self.

As noted by both authors, the Buddhist view of the self and personal identity is quite similar to that of the early Hume, who saw in the self ‘nothing but a bundle of perceptions’. The human being at any given moment is made up of various elements (dharma), some of which constitute his body and others various mental states. Among the latter we find the belief in an enduring self, which is thought of both as the unchanging substance underlying the changing mental states and as the active centre of decision-making. Although the belief is an illusionary one, it is very difficult to shake it off, since it arises in a very natural, indeed compelling way. Hence Buddhism offers three doctrines with respect to the self. First, it contains a theoretical critique of the notion of an enduring self, together with a constructive analysis of the actual unity and continuity of the person. In Collins’s exposition, the critique rests on three main arguments: an argument from lack of control (a substantial self would not be as helpless in the face of change as is actually the case), an argument from impermanence (the endlessly changing mental states cannot make up a self) and what we might call an argument from conceptual parsimony (the self is neither observable nor theoretically necessary). The constructive part of the theory rests on the doctrine of the ‘life faculty’ which ensures the unity, continuity and stability of a person over time. The life faculties (there are two of them, one for the body and one for the mind) are elements that exist on a par with the other elements which they keep together, as the nuts and bolts in a car are ontologically on a par with the parts which they keep together. This, at least, is the impression one derives from Collins’s account. Kolm refers to the simpler theory that unity of the person is merely a property of the causal chains that link together the successive mental states, so that an element can be ascribed to a person if it is sufficiently closely related to other elements that have already been imputed to him.

Next, Buddhism offers an account of the emergence of the illusionary belief in the self. The belief arises by various psychological mechanisms, and is then stabilised by the misleading grammatical structure of language. According to Kolm, the main cause of the belief is the tendency to reduce cognitive dissonance, or perhaps the lack of toleration of ambiguity. In Buddhist psychology the states of consciousness that correspond to statements in the first person singular, such as ‘I eat’ or ‘I see,’ all have in common a certain feeling that he refers to as ‘the inductive self’. This feeling may wax and wane in ways that would create insupportable conceptual uneasiness were it not stabilised by the hypostasised notion of an enduring ego. Similarly, the ascription of mental states by the criterion suggested in the preceding paragraph could lead to ambiguities that are resolved, once again, by postulating an underlying self to which they adhere. Moreover, the inherent logical difficulty of treating oneself as fully causally-determined leads almost irresistibly to the invention of the idea of a free agent which is an active maker of decisions, not a simple aggregate of causally-related mental states.

Finally, and crucially, Buddhism proposes a way of overcoming this spontaneously arising illusion, through study and meditation. Collins strongly emphasises the difference between a purely intellectual understanding of the non-self doctrine and the psychological or affective acceptance of the theory. The overt fetter of a theoretical belief in the self is of secondary importance compared to ‘the selfishness inherent in the affective structure of experience’: indeed, excessive attachment to the theory of non-self is a sign that one has not liberated oneself from it affectively. ‘Right view’ in itself is simply one karmic agent among others, a mental state causally producing other mental states and not necessarily increasing peace of mind. For the latter, training and practice are required. There is a clear parallel here with psychoanalysis and its emphasis on the insufficiency (and sometimes the non-necessity) of Bewusstwerden as a condition of Ichwerden. There is also a vast difference, stated by Kolm in the final sentence of his book. Freud argued that ‘where Id was, Ego shall be’: Buddhism takes the further step of saying that ‘where Ego was, consciousness shall be.’

Kolm has a chapter on the Buddhist practices of meditation that is highly interesting, even if he had to pull his punches when describing them to the uninitiated. They include various consciousness-raising techniques leading to the ‘oceanic feelings’ which I described in my opening paragraph: a vision which is all-encompassing in scope, intensely clear and free from any subject-object duality. In this mode even thoughts are perceived as spontaneously arising within the mind, rather than generated by the mind: they come and go like external objects, linked to one another by causal chains. Personally I do not find it difficult to think of intellectual life in this way. The work of the imagination strikes me as being largely beyond my control: I can at most create a favourable setting within which ideas appear – or do not appear. Logical argument appears as a sorting routine, not as a creative activity. It is much more difficult, however, to think of moral life in this impersonal manner. The deliberate activity leading up to decisions for which one must take responsibility would not make sense without belief in freedom and the self. Kolm admits as much with respect to freedom: freedom on his view is an inescapable illusion from which complete liberation is not possible. He offers an illuminating analogy to the effort of seeing oneself as causally-determined: that of trying to commit suicide by voluntary suspension of respiration. As the goal comes nearer, the force to approach it still further drains away. And if this is accepted, I believe one must accept that some kind of belief in the self is also inevitable.

Why should belief in the existence of the self-ego lead to suffering? We should first observe that the notion of suffering is ambiguous, as is shown by the very different ways in which it is explained in these two books. For Kolm, suffering (dukkha) is taken in a subjective, psychological sense, as something immediately experienced as undesirable. On his view, the desire to be free from suffering follows tautologically from the meaning of the word. Collins, on the other hand, explicitly denies that suffering must be taken in this direct sense. The statement that all is suffering ‘is a judgment passed not as a description of life but as a reflective conclusion drawn from soteriologically-oriented premises’. Or again: ‘the idea that what is “constructed” or “conditioned” is in itself a form of suffering depends on the whole of Buddhist doctrine.’ The difference between these views may be approximated as follows. According to the first, the illusion of the self is a cause of unhappiness, and it is therefore better not to be under its spell. According to the second, it is a good thing in itself not to live under an illusion, irrespective of the consequences in terms of welfare as ordinarily conceived. I suspect that this reading of Collins betrays his thought, and that of the doctrine he is explaining, by placing excessive emphasis on ‘views’, but I have not been able to make any better sense of his somewhat cryptic analyses. In any case, it is clear that it is only if the notion of suffering is taken in something like the first sense that the Buddhist goal of eliminating suffering can be assimilated to the utilitarian goal of maximising welfare.

More specifically, what is the connection between the belief in a substantive self and subjective suffering or frustration? A possible answer is that in the absence of belief in a self there is nobody that suffers. Using the ‘house imagery’ discussed by Collins, one may say that when a person has liberated himself from belief in the self there is ‘nobody at home’ to experience suffering. This corresponds to the rare moments when one is able somehow to disconnect pain from the personality as a whole, and prevent it from spilling over into all other mental activities. There is no doubt that progress in this direction would be valuable. Whether it would be worth the effort is another matter. In any case physical pain is only one, often minor aspect of suffering. As far as one can gather from Kolm, lack of satisfaction of desires is very much more central.

The relation between belief in self and frustration of desires appears to be twofold. First, happiness is frustrated by the unfortunate habit of relating everything to self. If one is constantly thinking about the impression one is making on other people, instead of just getting ahead with the task at hand, one will not make much of an impression on them. Similarly, in order to overcome such problems as stuttering, insomnia or impotence, one must above all avoid an inward-looking or self-conscious attitude. In such cases there is an interference between the goal one has set for oneself and the way in which one is trying to bring it about. The goal is within reach, if only one can forget about it. These are states that are essentially by-products: they can come about as a result of action, but cannot be brought about deliberately by action. They have a central importance in Zen Buddhism, a variety of the doctrine briefly mentioned by Kolm and not at all by Collins. They are, moreover, central and in fact omnipresent in moral life generally, quite independently of the view one holds on the existence of the self. Much of the attractiveness of Buddhist theory derives from the simple moral point that happiness tends to elude those who search for it and to fall into the lap of those who concentrate on achieving substantial goals. This view can be – and has been – stated without reference to any epistemological or ontological doctrine concerning the self.

Kolm argues for a quite different view: that the frustration of desire can be eliminated by exploiting the total plasticity of character. Since there is no permanent self constraining or opposing character change, one may act strategically on desires and preferences so as to achieve the optimum of happiness, or the minimum of suffering. This action can take a number of forms. First, one should not hesitate in satisfying those desires that are in fact satisfiable, on condition that one takes account of the possible undesirable side-effects of doing so. The latter include the creation of new desires that cannot be satisfied, the fear of not being able to satisfy desires in the future etc. Next, one should extinguish non-satisfiable desires and prevent new ones from emerging. Thirdly, one may deliberately create new, satisfiable desires, with the qualification stated above. The rational allocation of effort between these activities will lead to some time being spent on work, to allow consumption; some time on consumption; and some on character planning to get the most out of the consumption. In the economist’s language, this amounts to saying that the problem does not have a corner solution. Buddhism speaks of the Middle Way, which eschews pointless asceticism as well as excessive self-gratification.

This application of the theory of ‘egonomics’ – to use the term coined by Thomas Schelling – is the most original and intriguing part of Kolm’s work. It is also open to various objections which, while not fatal, point to the need for fundamental revisions. First, I believe that his view of the satisfaction and frustration of desires rests on shallow psychological premises. These two notions are not in fact opposed in such a way that satisfaction is simply the absence of frustration. Rather satisfaction is the presence and then the overcoming of frustration. Kolm quotes Benjamin Franklin to the effect that pleasure is liberation from suffering, but neglects to draw the conclusion that sustained pleasure therefore requires a steadily renewed suffering or frustration. Leibniz wrote, for instance, that ‘l’inquiétude est essentielle à la félicité des créatures.’ Marx, similarly, argued that ‘the suspension of tranquillity’ is a need of the healthy individual. If Kolm were right, daydreaming would be a better source of satisfaction than reading books, and reading books more satisfactory than writing them, because in each case the first alternative involves less tension and frustration. I am presupposing, of course, that the tension is ultimately resolved. There is a need to tailor the task to one’s capacities, so that one is not constantly frustrated. I am not proposing the absurd view that satisfaction increases regularly with frustration, only that there exists an optimal level of frustration that is not zero, as Kolm assumes.

Next I want to object to the idea of an uninterrupted progression to happiness, however defined, by Buddhist training. Here Kolm’s argument is inconsistent in two respects. At one point he asserts that Buddhism shows that ‘le plus grand bonheur présent est la voie vers le plus grand bonheur futur,’ so that there is no need to sacrifice anything in the present for the sake of future happiness. This implausible view is denied elsewhere, in a reference to ‘un certain équilibre des satisfactions présentes, ni trop ni trop peu, qui est le meilleur pour le bonheur à venir’. On this modified view, Buddhism never necessitates indirect strategies of the form ‘one step backward, two steps forward’, although it does require sacrifice in the sense of not exploiting the present potential for happiness to the hilt. Kolm even offers a somewhat speculative explanation of the Japanese economic miracle in terms of this Buddhist tendency to moderate consumption and long-term planning.

Even the modified view, however, is incompatible with Kolm’s analysis of the relation between freedom and happiness. These two concepts are fused into one in the title of his book, since he believes that one may refer to the final state of nirvana interchangeably as a state of maximal freedom or a state of maximal happiness. On the road to nirvana, however, increases in freedom do not always go together with increases in happiness. The creation of more alternatives between which one is free to choose is likely to generate more anxiety than happiness. True, this can be alleviated by removing the inner obstacles to freedom which make us fear choice and responsibility, so that the frustrations created by freedom can be resolved by still more freedom. But since Kolm, along with Collins, insists on the gradual nature of Buddhist character change, the step that reduces happiness might have to precede the step that brings it beyond the original level. According to Kolm, the ‘trick’ of Buddhism, is ‘de considérer ensemble toutes les libertés et toutes les contraintes’, but to consider them together is not the same thing as being able to introduce them together, which is what would be required for progression to be uninterrupted.

Collins and Kolm both confront the critical issue of why a Buddhist should be interested in reducing other people’s suffering and frustration. Their answers are far from easy to follow, but I shall try to set out what sense I made – or failed to make – of them. Collins draws an illuminating analogy with the views of Derek Parfit, who has argued that one cannot consistently take account of one’s own future interest and refuse to take account of that of other people. One’s own future selves are like other people, at least for the purpose of ethical analysis. (Collins somewhat extravagantly argues that they are indistinguishable tout court, in the sense that given the ‘four-dimensional throng of individualities’ consisting of other selves and of one’s own past and future selves, ‘any given individual cannot know which of these are which.’ If this view is really found in the doctrine he is interpreting, it constitutes an astounding and atypical lapse from common sense.) Yet given a choice between considering only one’s own current interests and the current and future interests of oneself and others, it remains obscure why one should opt for the second.

It is not quite clear what on Kolm’s view is the relation between individual and collective release from suffering. In one place he writes that ‘pour diminuer la souffranee du monde, le bouddhiste est conduit à se préoccuper essentiellement d’agir sur la sienne propre,’ which I read as a statement subordinating individual to collective liberation as means to end. On the next page, however, he says that the apparently altruistic forms of Buddhist practice ‘apparaissent toujours comme moyen ou comme conséquence de la quête essentielle qui est l’effacement du soi’, which can hardly be understood otherwise than as saying that individual happiness is the supreme goal to which that of others stands in the relation either of a means or a side-effect. This may be related to a difference between the Mahayana and Theravada doctrines. According to the first, giving away one’s material possessions is to be recommended for two reasons: it promotes the liberation of the donor from worldly attachments and offers help to the recipient. (Yet, as he notes later on, from the Buddhist point of view this would be a poisoned gift which in the long run would contribute to the enslavement of the recipient rather than to his liberation.) According to the latter, only the first motive can operate, although it may have altruism as an unintended side-effect.

It would appear that Kolm is closer to the first of these views. The goal of the Buddhist is the reduction of universal suffering, but for reasons of efficiency he chooses to work mainly on his own suffering, since he has control over his own inner states but not over those of others. This sounds plausible enough, but the argument appears to presuppose a near-ideal state in which most other people are already virtuoso meditators. In the real world most other people are far too miserable even to entertain this idea, and the few who are able to should arguably devote themselves to more immediate concerns. Here as in other cases, acting in a way that would be optimal if others behaved similarly may be downright unethical if others cannot be expected to follow suit. Kolm neglects the problem of the second best, that of defining moral action in a world where most action is not moral. This is related to his implicit assumption that all constraints can be lifted simultaneously, so that there is no need to pass through the valleys of doubt and despair, to use Hegel’s terms, in order to arrive at the summits of liberation. The transition to the good society will not be made by all persons acting simultaneously and for each person the transition may involve temporary setbacks that could reduce the motivation to go further. The combined effect of these two obstacles makes Kolm’s benignly optimistic attitude appear singularly irrelevant to the problem of liberation in the actual world.

A final problem can be stated in terms of a current controversy over utilitarian theory. Bernard Williams has pointed to the dessicating effect of utilitarian calculation on the persons who make up their mind in this way, and underlined the importance of character even when not conducive to the maximisation of universal welfare. Derek Parfit has tried to work out a variety of utilitarianism that takes care of this objection, by insisting that we should not just act in a way that makes the outcome best, but that ‘we should have the aims and dispositions having which would make the outcome best.’ The problem, however, is whether such non-utilitarian character features could coherently become the object of utilitarian choice. Kolm faces a similar difficulty. He emphasises the useful consequences of ritual, tradition and compassion, and argues that the Buddhist will deliberately choose them so as to avoid a disenchanted world. Ritual and compassion may indeed enhance the quality of interpersonal relations, but only on condition of not being affected for that purpose. This is one case in which the lessons of Zen are superior to the more analytical varieties of Buddhism, as interpreted by Kolm.

The reader may be tempted to conclude that Collins has written a sound work of scholarship of marginal value to those who want to study the philosophical problems for their own sake, and that Kolm has written an analytical work that would have been more interesting had he laid aside the preoccupation with Buddhism. It would, however, be a mistake to dissociate philological scholarship from philosophical analysis. Grappling with problems of meaning and with problems of validity are mutually beneficial activities. Although Collins refrains from explicit evaluation, his concern is sufficiently analytical to be of great help in providing a firm context for the speculations offered by Kolm. I have rarely read two books that supplemented one another so well, and that taken together offered so much food for thought.