The Self

A Thematic Compilation by Avi Sion

header photo

7. The Soul as Entity


1.     Not an Essence, but an Entity

Buddhist philosophers have stressed the idea of impermanence, with a view to deny the existence of “essences” in both the objective and subjective domains. However, an impermanent essence is not a contradiction in terms. This means that the question of essences is more complex than merely an issue of impermanence. Several epistemological and ontological issues are involved in this question. We have indicated some of these issues in the preceding chapters.

With regard to the objective domain, comprising the material and mental objects of experience, i.e. the phenomena apparently experienced through the senses or in the mind – their reasoning is that we never perceive firm “essences” but only constantly changing phenomena; whence, they conclude, the objects we refer to are “empty”.

In reply, I would say that it is true that many people seem to imagine that the “entities” we refer to in thought (e.g. a dog) have some unchanging core (call it “dog-ness”), which remains constant while the superficial changes and movements we observe occur, and which allow us to classify a number of particulars under a common heading (i.e. all particular dogs as “dogs”).

But of course, if we examine our thought processes more carefully, we have to modify this viewpoint somewhat. We do “define” a particular object by referring to some seemingly constant property (or conjunction of properties) in it – which is preferably actual and static, though (by the way) it might even be a habitual action or repetitive motion or a mere potential.

Note too, there may be more than one property eligible for use as a definition – so long as each property is constant throughout the existence of that object and is exclusive to it. The defining property does not shine out as special in some way; and in some cases, we might well arbitrarily choose one candidate among many.

However, defining is never as direct and simple an insight as it may at times seem. It requires a complex rational activity, involving comparison and contrast between different aspects and phases of the individual object, and between this object and others that seem similar to it in some respects though different from it in others, and between that class of object and all others. Thus, the property used as definition is knowable only through complex conceptual means.

Therefore, our mental separation of one property from the whole object or set of objects is an artifice. And, moreover, our referring to all apparently similar occurrences of that property as “one” property gives the impression of objective unity, when in fact the one-ness is only in the mind of the beholder (though this does not make it unreal). In short, the definition is only an abstraction. It indeed in a sense exists in the object as a whole, but it is only distinguishable from the whole through cognition and ratiocination.

The material and mental objects we perceive are, therefore, in fact nothing other than more or less arbitrary collections of phenomena, among which one or more is/are selected by us on various grounds as “essential”. The “essence” is a potential that can only be actualized relative to a rational observer; it has no independent actual existence when no observer is present. Definition gives us a mental “handle” on objects, but it is not a substitute for them.

An entity is not only its definition. An entity is the sum total of innumerable qualities and events related to it; some of these are applicable to it throughout its existence (be that existence transient or eternal) and some of them are applicable to it during only part(s) of its existence (i.e. have a shorter duration). Although the defining property must be general (and exclusive) to the object defined, it does not follow that properties that are not or cannot be used for definition cease to equally “belong to” the object.

It is inexcusably naïve to imagine the essence of an entity as some sort of ghost of the object coterminous with it. In fact, the entity is one – whatever collection of circumstances happens to constitute it. The distinction of an essence in it is a pragmatic measure needed for purposes of knowledge – it does not imply the property concerned to have a separate existence in fact. The property selected is necessarily one aspect among many; it may be just a tiny corner of the whole entity.

We may thus readily agree with Buddhists that named or thought-of objects are “empty”; i.e. that it is inaccurate to consider each object as really having some defining constant core, whether phenomenal or non-phenomenal. But the Buddhists go on from there are apply the same reasoning to the Subject (or soul) – and this is where we may more radically disagree.

They imply that the Subject of cognitions is itself cognized by way of phenomena, i.e. like any other object. This idea of theirs has some apparent credibility due to the fact that they confuse the Subject with his ‘inner’, mental phenomena[1]. But though such phenomena are indeed internal in comparison to physical phenomena sensed in the body or further out beyond it, they are strictly speaking external in comparison to the “soul”.

Anyone who reflects a little would not regard, say, the stuff of a dream he had as himself. His self-awareness is the consciousness of something more inward still than the stuff of imaginations. He is the one experiencing and generating the imaginations. The soul is not a phenomenon – it has no smell, taste, solidity, tune or color; it is something non-phenomenal.

The self is not perceived as an object in the way of mental phenomena (as the Buddhists suggest), but is intuited directly in the way of a Subject apperceiving itself (at least when it perceives other things, or when it expresses itself through volition or valuation). Our soul is not a presumed “essence” of our mental phenomenal experiences; it is an entirely different sort of experience.

Of course, it could still be argued that – even granting that acts of cognition, volition and valuation are non-phenomenal events, known by self-intuition – such acts are mere momentary events, which do not necessarily imply an underlying non-phenomenal continuity (an abiding self). Admittedly, the fact that we cannot physically or mentally see, hear, smell, taste or touch the acts of the self does not logically imply that the self is abiding.

However, note that this last is an argument in favor of the possibility that the self may be impermanent – it does not constitute an argument against the existence of a self (whether lasting or short-lived) underlying each act of cognition, volition or valuation. That is, these functions are inconceivable without someone experiencing, willing and choosing, even if it is conceivable that the one doing so does not abide for longer than that moment.[2]

To deny that cognition, volition and valuation necessarily involve a self is to place these apparent events under an aetiological régime of natural determinism or spontaneity. That subsumes willing under mechanistic causation or chance happenstance – i.e. it effectively denies the existence of freewill.

Similarly, it implies that there is no more to knowing than the storing of symbols in a machine (as if the “information” stored in a computer has any knowledge value without humans to cognize and understand it, i.e. as if a computer can ever at all know). And again, it implies that valuing or disvaluing is no more relevant to a living (and in particular sentient) being than it is to a stone.

The effective elimination of these three categories (i.e. knowing, willing and valuing) by Buddhists (and extreme Materialists, by the way) is without logical justification, because in total disaccord with common experience.

The confusion may in part be caused or perpetuated by equivocation. Because we often use the word “mind” – or alternatively, sometimes, “consciousness” – in a loose, large sense, including the soul, it might be assumed that the soul is similar to mental phenomena in its substance. But the soul and mind are only proximate in a spatial sense, if at all. The soul is not made of mental stuff or of consciousness – the soul uses consciousness to observe mental and physical events (and, indeed, its intimate self).

The self or soul is not an abstraction from mental or physical phenomena. It receives and cognizes mental and material information (and it indirectly chooses and wills mental and material events) – but it is not identical with such information (or events).

Only intuited events of cognition, volition and valuation can be considered as truly parts of, and direct responsibilities of, the soul. And even here, it would be inaccurate to necessarily equate the soul to these functions. Such a positivistic approach is a hypothesis to be adopted inductively only if we find no good reason to adopt the alternative hypothesis that the soul is more than the evidence of its functioning.

Thus, the inevitable impermanence of the phenomenal world cannot be construed as necessarily implying a similar impermanence for the self. Even granting that material and mental objects are “empty”, it does not follow that the self is a non-entity, i.e. non-existent as a distinct unit. The self is not a material or mental substance or entity – but it is a non-phenomenal substance and entity. We may legitimately label that distinct substance ‘spiritual’ and that entity ‘soul’.

Note well that such labeling does not preclude the idea, previously presented, that the individual soul’s individuation out from the universal spiritual substance or universal soul is ultimately illusory. We may thus well consider the soul as impermanent in its individuality, while regarding its spiritual substance as eternal.

Upon reflection, this is pretty much the way we view the phenomenal realm, too – as consisting of impermanent illusory individual entities emerging in a permanent real universal substratum. Their illusoriness is mainly due to the conventionality of their individual boundaries.

At this stage, then, we find ourselves with two ‘monistic’ domains – the one giving rise to material and mental phenomena and the other giving rise to spiritual entities (souls). Obviously, such double ‘monism’ is not logically coherent! We therefore must assume that these two apparently overlapping domains are really ultimately somehow one and the same.

So, we have perhaps come full circle, and our opinions end up pretty much coinciding with the Buddhists’ after all. We ought perhaps to lay the stress, instead, on our difference with regard to continuity.

According to Buddhist theory, the self has no continuity, i.e. our self of today is not the same person as our self of yesterday or of tomorrow. In this perspective, they are causatively connected, in the sense that earlier conglomerations of phenomena constituting a self ‘cause’ later ones – but there is no thread of constancy that can be identified as the underlying one and the same entity. It is not a case of mere succession of totally discrete events; but there is no essential identity between the events, either.

However, many (myself included) object to this theory on various grounds. While we may admit that one can logically regard selfhood (i.e. being a Subject and Agent) as punctual at every instant without having to assume its extension over a lifetime, we must realize that such an assumption removes all logical possibility of a concept of moral responsibility for past actions.

If one is no longer ever the same person as the person committing a past virtuous or vicious act, then no good deed may be claimed by anyone or rewarded, and no crime may be blamed on anyone or punished. Ex post facto, strictly speaking, the doer of any deed no longer exists. Similarly, looking forward, there is nothing to be gained or lost by any Agent in doing anything, since by the time any consequences of action emerge the Agent has already disappeared.

In such a framework, all personal morality and social harmony would be completely destroyed. There would be no justification for abstaining from vice or for pursuing virtue. Even the pursuit of spiritual realization would be absurd. Of course, some people do not mind such a prospect, which releases them from all moral obligations or responsibility and lets them go wild.

It is very doubtful that Buddhism (given its overall concerns and aims) supports such a nihilist thesis[3]. In any case, such a viewpoint cannot be considered credible, in the light of all the above observations and arguments.


2.     Distinguishing the Ego

The self was above defined – from a philosophical perspective – as the apparent Subject of cognition and Agent of volition and valuation. But – in common parlance – most people identify themselves with much more than this minimal definition. To clarify things, it is therefore useful to distinguish two meanings of the term.

In its purest sense, the term self refers to what is usually called the soul or person. In a colloquial sense, the term is broader, including what intellectuals refer to as “the ego”. The latter term – again from a philosopher’s point of view – refers to the material and mental phenomena, which indeed seem rightly associated with our self, but which we wrongly tend to identify with it. Thus, by the term ego we shall mean all aspects of one’s larger self other than one’s soul; i.e. all extraneous aspects of experience, commonly misclassified as part of oneself.

This is just a way to recognize and emphasize that we commonly make errors of identification as to what constitutes the self[4]. If we try to develop a coherent philosophical system, looking at the issues with a phenomenological eye, we must admit the self in the sense of soul (i.e. Subject/Agent) as the core sense of the term. The latter is a non-phenomenal entity, quite distinct from any of the material and mental phenomena people commonly regard as themselves.

We tend to regard our body, including its sensory and motor faculties, as our self, or at least as part of it. But many parts of our body can be incapacitated or detached, and we still remain present. And, conversely, our nervous system may be alive and well, but we are absent from it. So, it is inaccurate to identify our self with our body.

Nevertheless, we are justified in associating our self with our body, because we evidently have a special relationship to it: we have more input from it and more power over it than we do in relation to any other body. Our life takes shape within the context of this body. For this reason, we call it ‘our’ body, implying possession or delimitation.

With regard to the mind, a similar analysis leads to the same conclusion. By ‘mind’, note well, I mean only the apparent mental phenomena of memory and imagination (reshufflings of memories), which seem to resemble and emerge from the material phenomena apparently experienced through the body (including the body itself, of course). Mind is not a Subject, but a mere (non-physical) Object; a mind has no consciousness of its own, only a Subject has consciousness.

This limited sense of mind is not to be confused with a larger sense commonly intended by the term, which would include what we have here called soul. I consider this clarification of the word mind very important, because philosophies “of mind” in which this term is loosely and ambiguously used are bound to be incoherent[5].

The term I use for the conjunction of soul and mind is ‘psyche’. Of course, below the psyche, at an unconscious level, lies the brain or central nervous system, which plays a strong role in the production of mental events, although it is not classed as part of the psyche but as part of the body. Some of the items we refer to as ‘mind’ should properly be called brain.

The term “unconscious mind”, note well, refers to potential (but not currently actual) items of consciousness stored in the brain (and possibly the wider nervous system); for example, potential memories. Such items are called mind, only insofar as they might eventually appear as mental objects of consciousness; but strictly speaking, they ought not be called mind. The term “unconscious mind” is moreover an imprecision of language in that the mind is never conscious of anything – it is we, the Subjects, who are conscious of mental items (mental equivalents of sensory phenomena, as well as ideas and emotions).

Thus, mind refers to a collection of evanescent phenomena, without direct connection between them, which succeed each other in our ‘mind’s eye’ (and/or ‘mind’s ear’) but which lack mental continuity, their only continuity being presumably their emergence from the same underlying material brain. The mind cannot be identified with the self, simply because mental events are experienced as mere objects of consciousness and will, and not as the Subject and Agent of such psychical events. Moreover, the mind may momentarily stop displaying sights or sounds without our sense of self disappearing.

Nevertheless, our mind is ours alone. Only we directly experience what goes on in it and only we have direct power over its fantasies. Even if someday scientists manage to look into other people’s private minds and find ways to affect their contents, one person remains in a privileged relationship to each mind. It is therefore proper to call our minds ‘ours’, just as we call our bodies ‘ours’.

Thus, the self, in the colloquial sense, is a collection of three things: soul, mind and body – i.e. spiritual, mental and material experiences. But upon reflection, only the soul counts as self proper – the ego, comprising mind and body, is indeed during our whole lifetime “associated with” our strict self (that is, soul), but it should not be “identified with” that self. The ego is merely an appendage to the self or soul, something ‘accidental’ (or at best ‘incidental’) to it.

However, this should not be taken to mean that the soul has no share in the ego. Many of the physical and mental traits that comprise the ego are at least in part due to past choices and actions of the soul. The soul is thus somewhat responsible for much of the ego; the latter is in effect a cumulative expression of the former. Some people have big, mean egos, to their discredit; others have smaller, nicer egos, to their credit. Moreover, the soul tends to function in the context of the ego or what it perceives as the ego.

In narrower psychological terms, the ego is a particular self-image one finds motives for constructing and clinging onto. It is a mental construct composed of images selectively drawn from one’s body and mind – some based on fact, some imaginary. Compared to the real state of affairs, this self-image might be inflationary (flattering, pretentious) or it might be depreciative (undemanding, self-pitying). Ideally, of course, one’s self-image ought to be realistic; i.e. one must at all times strive to be lucid.


3.     Dismissing the Ego

On a practical level, such insights mean that what we regard as our “personal identity” has to be by and by clarified. We gradually, especially with the help of meditation, realize the disproportionate attention our material and mental experiences receive, and the manipulations we subject them to.

Because of the multiplicity and intensity of our sensory and mental impressions, we all from our birth onwards confuse ourselves with the phenomena impinging upon us. Because they shout so loudly, dance about us so flashily, weigh upon us so heavily, we think our experiences of body and mind are all there is, and we identify with them. To complicate matters further, such self-identification is selective and often self-delusive.

It takes an effort to step back, and realize that body and mind phenomena are just fleeting appearances, and that our self is not the phenomena but the one experiencing them. Even though this self is non-phenomenal (call it a soul, or what you will), it must be put back in the equation. We may associate ourselves with our bodily and mental phenomena, but we must not identify with them. There is no denying our identity happens to currently be intimately tied up with a certain body, mind, social milieu, etc. – but this does not make these things one and the same with us.

Gradually, it becomes clear that our personal confusion with these relatively external factors of our existence is a cause of many of the difficulties in our relation to life. We become attached to our corporeality or psychology, or to vain issues of social position, and become ignorant as to who (and more deeply, Who) we really are.

To combat such harmful illusions, and see things as they really are, one has to “work on oneself”. One must try and diminish the influence of the ego.

Specifically, one has to overcome the tendencies of egotism and egoism. Egotism refers to the esthetic side of the ego, i.e. to our narcissistic concerns with appearance and position, our yearning for admiration and superiority and our fear of contempt and inferiority. Egoism refers to the ethical side of the ego, i.e. to our material and intellectual acquisitiveness and protectionism.

The issue is one of degree. A minimum of self-love and selfishness may be biologically necessary and normal, but an excess of those traits is certainly quite poisonous to one’s self and to others. Much daily suffering ensues from unchecked ego concerns. Egotism produces constant vexation and resentment, while egoism leads to all sorts of anxieties and sorrows.

On this point, all traditions agree: no great spiritual attainment is possible without conquest of egocentricity. Self-esteem and self-confidence are valuable traits, but one must replace conceit with modesty and arrogance with humility. Meditation can help us tremendously in this daunting task.

Of course, it is none other than the self (i.e. soul) who is egocentric! The ego is not some other entity in competition with the soul in a divided self, a “bad guy” to pour blame on. We have no one to blame for our psychological failings other than our soul, whose will is essentially free. The ego has no consciousness or will of its own: it has no selfhood.

The ego indeed seems to be a competing self, because – and only so long as and to the extent that – we (our self or soul) identify with it. It is like an inanimate mask, which is given an illusion of life when we confuse our real face with it. But we should not be deluded: it is we who are alive, not the mask.

Rather, the body and mind (i.e. the factors making up the ego) are mechanistic domains that strongly influence the soul in sometimes negative ways. They produce natural inclinations like hunger for food or the sex drive or yearning for social affiliation, which are sometimes contrary to the higher interests of the soul. For this reason, we commonly regard our spiritual life as a struggle against our ego inclinations.

Not all ego inclinations are natural. Many of the things we think we need are in fact quite easy to do without. As we commonly say: “It’s all in the mind”. In today’s world, we might often add: “It is just media hype” for ultimately commercial or political purposes. People make mountains out of molehills. For example, some think they cannot make it through the day without a smoke or a drink, when in fact it is not only easy to do without such drugs, but one feels much better without them.

Often, natural inclinations are used as pretexts for unnatural inclinations. For example, if one distinguishes between natural sensations of hunger in the belly and the mental desire to titillate one’s taste buds, one can considerably reduce one’s intake of calories and avoid getting painfully fat. Similarly, the natural desire for sex for reproductive purposes and as an expression of love should not be confused with the physical lusts encouraged by the porno industry, which have devastating spiritual consequences.

Thus, the struggle against ego inclinations ought not be presented as a struggle against nature – it is rather mostly a fight against illusions of value, against foolishness. It is especially unnatural tendencies people adopt or are made to adopt that present a problem. It is this artificial aspect of ego that is most problematic. And the first victory in this battle is the realization: “this is not me or mine”.

Once one ceases to confuse oneself with the ego, once one ceases to regard its harmful inclinations as one’s own, it becomes much easier to neutralize it. There is hardly any need to “fight” negative influences – one can simply ignore them as disturbances powerless to affect one’s chosen course of action. The ego need not be suppressed – it is simply seen as irrelevant. It is defeated by the mere disclosure of its essential feebleness.

Meditation teaches this powerful attitude of equanimity. One sits (and eventually goes through life) watching disturbances come and go, unperturbed, free of all their push and pull. The soul remains detached, comfortable in its nobility, finding no value in impure forces and therefore thoroughly uninfluenced by them.

This should not, of course, be another “ego trip”. It is not a role one is to play, self-deceitfully feeding one’s vanity. On the contrary, one experiences such meditation as “self-effacement” or “self-abnegation”, as if one has become transparent to the disturbances, as if one is no longer there to be affected by them.

This is, more precisely put, ego-dismissal, since one has ceased to identify with the forces inherent in the ego. Such dismissal should not, of course, be confused with evasion. It is abandonment of the foolish psychological antics – but this implies being very watchful, so as to detect and observe them when they occur.

There is no need for difficult ascetic practices. One has to just become more aware and sincerely committed; then one can nimbly dodge or gently deflect negative tendencies that may appear. Being profoundly at peace, one is not impressed by them and has no personal interest in them.

Many people devote much time and effort to helping other people out materially or educationally. This is rightly considered as an efficient way to combat self-centeredness, although one should always remain alert to the opportunities for hidden egotism and egoism such pursuits offer.

Granting Monism as the true philosophy, it would seem logical to advocate ‘altruism’ as the ultimate ethical behavior. However, this moral standard is often misunderstood to mean looking out for the interests of others while ignoring one’s own interests. Such a position would be simplistic if not dishonest. If we are all one, the all-one includes and does not exclude oneself.

Thus, I would say that whilst altruistic behavior is highly commendable and admirable, working on oneself first and foremost would seem a very necessary adjunct and precondition. Conceivably, when one reaches full realization, one can pretty well forget oneself altogether and devote oneself entirely to others – but until then one must pay some attention to one’s legitimate needs, if only because one is best placed to do so.


Drawn from Meditations (2006), Chapters 11, 12 & 13.



[1]           See the Buddhist doctrine of the Five Component-Groups. In this doctrine, the fourth and fifth groups, comprising the “determinants” and the “cognitive faculty”, are particularly misleading, in that cognition, volition and valuation, the three functions of the self, are there presented without mention of the self, as ordinary phenomenal events. That is, the doctrine commits a petitio principii, by depicting psychic events in a manner that deliberately omits verbal acknowledgment of the underlying self, so as to seem to arrive at the (foregone) conclusion that there is no self. No explanation is given, for instance, as to how we tell the difference between two phenomenally identical actions, considering one as really willed by oneself, and the other as a reactive or accidental event – for such differentiation (which is necessary to gauge degrees of responsibility) is only possible by means of self-knowledge, i.e. introspection into one’s non-phenomenal self, and they have dogmatically resolved in advance not to accept the existence of a cognizing, willing and valuing self.

[2]           Note well that I am careful to say the possibility that the self is impermanent; which does not exclude the equal possibility that the self is permanent. The mere fact that the cognitions, volitions and valuations of the self are impermanent does not by itself allow us to draw any conclusion either way about the permanence or impermanence of the self. Additional considerations are needed to draw the latter conclusion.

[3]           Although the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna seems to relish it.

[4]           The word ‘ego’ originally, in Latin, meant ‘I’. Nowadays, in English, it is commonly understood in the pejorative sense used by me in the present essay. I do not subscribe to the sense used in psychoanalytic theory, which presents the ego as a segment of the psyche “mediating between the person and reality”. Such a notion is to me conceptually incoherent, since it ascribes a separate personality (i.e. selfhood) to this alleged segment, since to “mediate” anything implies having cognitive, volitional and evaluative powers. The ego of psychoanalysts involves a circularity, since it raises the question: who or what is mediating between the person and reality, and on what basis? The common sense of ‘ego’ is, I would say, closer semantically to the ‘id’ of psychoanalysis.

[5]           Equivocal use of the term mind leads some philosophers into syllogistic reasoning involving the Fallacy of Four Terms, in which the middle term has different senses in the major and minor premises, so that the conclusion is invalid.

Go Back


Blog Search

Blog Archive


There are currently no blog comments.