Conference: Varieties of Self



March 6, 11:00 a.m.-12:30 p.m.

The Self in Confucian Thought

Kwong-loi Shun
Professor of Philosophy
University of California, Berkeley

After introducing the notion of the self in Confucian thought, the paper goes on to discuss the Confucian emphasis on ethical self-commitment and on self-transformation. It considers how this emphasis on self-transformation can be reconciled with the idea of ‘no self’ that the Confucians advocate. It also addresses the question whether their emphasis on ethical self-commitment renders the Confucians vulnerable to the charge of ethical self-indulgence.

Kwong-loi Shun has been a professor of philosophy and an academic administrator at the University of California at Berkeley, University of Toronto, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His main research interests are in moral psychology and Confucian ethics, and he is currently working on a multi-volume project in these areas.


March 6, 2-3:30 p.m.

Cultural Experiences that Shape the Self

Naomi Quinn
Professor Emerita of the Cultural Anthropology Department
Duke University

In a 2006 publication, Quinn contested a widespread contemporary anthropological view that the self is nothing more than self-representation.  She advocated instead a more comprehensive view in accord with recent neurobiological thinking that there are a number of neural processes that together account for at least partial integration of a sense of self.  Of these several neural processes, the two that are most relevant to the argument of this lecture are synaptic plasticity — the ability of neurons to be altered through new learning — and the capacity of emotional arousal to make synaptic associations more durable.  This lecture extends that earlier account, asking what kinds of emotionally arousing learning experiences, governed by both human neurobiology and cultural practice, are likely to occur universally, and how those experiences may vary cross-culturally.  The experiences include early attachment; adults’ cultural “models of virtue” that operate as guidelines for raising a child into a proper adult; the concrete practices by which adults socialize and discipline children; other less deliberate cultural circumstances surrounding childrearing; rituals, especially those in which children and youth are involved; cultural defenses against shared psychic conflicts; and trauma that cohorts or substantial numbers of individuals share, at any time across the life course, but especially when it occurs early in life.  The lecture takes up several of these kinds of experience.

Among Naomi Quinn’s publications, she is co-author (with Claudia Strauss) of A Cognitive Theory of Cultural Meaning (1997), editor of Finding Culture in Talk (2005) and co-editor (with Jeannette Mageo) of Attachment Reconsidered: Cultural Perspectives on a Western Theory (2013).  She is a past president of the Society for Psychological Anthropology and was awarded that society’s 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award.


March 6, 4-5:30 p.m.

The Buddhist Doctrine of No-self as Self-Transformative

Dan Arnold
Associate Professor of the Philosophy of Religions
and Associate Faculty in South Asian Languages and Civilizations
University of Chicago Divinity School

The cardinal doctrine of Indian Buddhism — the claim from which all other Buddhist systematic thinking arguably follows — is anātmavāda, or the “No-self doctrine.”  Getting clear on what Indian Buddhists mean in saying that we are not (or do not have) “selves” requires getting clear on the soteriological problem that Buddhists, along with a great many of their contemporaries among other Indian religious and philosophical traditions, took themselves to be addressing.  This widely shared Indian soteriological problematic explains much about just what kind of thing Buddhists were denying in arguing against the reality of “selves.”  While their arguments in this vein have interesting affinities with the projects of some modern and contemporary philosophers (David Hume and Derek Parfit are perhaps most often invoked), there are important considerations that complicate such comparisons, and some contemporary philosophers have reasonably wondered whether the “self” targeted by Buddhists really amounts to a straw man.  I would especially like to focus, though, on the counter-intuitive sense it makes to think that the constitutively Buddhist denial of selves is aptly characterized as having its place in a project worth the name self-transformation.

Dan Arnold is a scholar of Indian Buddhist philosophy, which he engages in a philosophically constructive and comparative way.  His first book, Buddhists, Brahmins, and Belief: Epistemology in South Asian Philosophy of Religion (Columbia University Press, 2005), won an American Academy of Religion Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion. His second book, Brains, Buddhas, and Believing: The Problem of Intentionality in Classical Buddhist and Cognitive-Scientific Philosophy of Mind (Columbia University Press, 2012), centers on the contemporary philosophical category of intentionality, taken as useful in thinking through central issues in classical Buddhist epistemology and philosophy of mind.  This book received the Toshihide Numata Book Prize in Buddhism, awarded by the Center for Buddhist Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.  He is presently working on an anthology of Madhyamaka texts in translation, to appear in the series “Historical Sourcebooks in Classical Indian Thought.”

Reception to follow


March 7, 9:30-11 a.m.

The Essential Moral Self

Nina Strohminger
Postdoctoral Associate
Duke University’s Kenan Institute for Ethics

While it is generally assumed that personal identity is judged on the basis of mental features, the possibility that certain parts of the mind are especially central to identity has not been systematically investigated. In this talk, Strohminger lays out the evidence that our sense of identity — both in ourselves and in others — arises primarily from the continuity of moral traits. This pattern is observable across a variety of domains, from brain damage and smart drugs to intuitions about reincarnation and the soul. Potential explanations for this phenomenon, along with implications for the field, are discussed.
Nina Strohminger holds a bachelor’s degree in cognitive science from Brown University and a doctorate in psychology from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She is 70 percent psychologist, 20 percent philosopher, and 10 percent miscellaneous.


March 7, 11:15 a.m.-12:45 p.m.

Death and the Self in the Incomprehensible Zhuangzi

Eric Schwitzgebel
Professor of Philosophy
University of California, Riverside

The ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi appears to endorse three conflicting views about death: that it is bad, that it is good, and that we don’t know whether it is bad or good.  He also envisions the possibility of radical transformations of the self into non-human form, which might or might not have something to do with death.  Schwitzgebel will try, and fail, to make sense of all this, while suggesting that if he could make sense of all this, then Zhuangzi would have failed in his philosophical aims.

Eric Schwitzgebel has written extensively on self-knowledge (he argues that we don’t have much of it), on the nature of attitudes (he argues that attitudes are expressed in your choices more than in the words that come out of your mouth), and on moral psychology (especially the not-particularly-good moral behavior of professional ethicists).  He has also written a little bit on classical Chinese philosophy.  His most recent book is Perplexities of Consciousness.


March 7, 2:15-3:45 p.m.

Qi for Life: Fluidity and Rhythm of Self-Transformation

Robin Wang
Professor of Philosophy and Director of Asian Pacific Studies
Loyola Marymount University

The ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras gave us the word philosophy, the “love of wisdom.” He also indentified three distinct lifestyles: the acquisitive, the competitive, and the contemplative. He argued that contemplation, a disciplined cultivation of awareness that leads to awakening, is by far the best lifestyle.  However there may be other important lifestyles. The kind of transformative living that is rooted in the Daoist teaching is such an important example of a lifestyle not reducible to mere pursuits of desire or perfecting knowledge. For the former, it is materialistic concerns that dominate one’s ideas and goals, and for the latter, a kind of living that removes itself from a full engagement and isolates the life of the mind or “soul” predominates.  But what about a naturally engaged mind, body and spirit living that direct our vital energies to both health and growth as well as wisdom? Such a life involves knowledge and practices that activate one’s vital energy, or qi. Life as a form of qi cultivation is itself a primary aim of the Daoists. In their view, dao is both natural rhythm and a lifestyle that attunes itself to that rhythm. This talk will offer a female Daoist account and practice of self-transformation that can broaden, integrate and enhance our experience of a flourishing life.

Robin Wang is the author of Yinyang: The Way of Heaven and Earth in Chinese Thought and Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2012), the editor of Chinese Philosophy in an Era of Globalization, (SUNY Press, 2004) and Images of Women in Chinese Thought and Culture: Writings from the Pre-Qin Period to the Song Dynasty (Hackett, 2003). She has published many articles and essays and regularly given presentations in North America, Europe, and Asia. She has also been a consultant for the media, law firms, museums, K-12 educators, and health care professionals, and was a credited Cultural Consultant for the movie Karate Kid, 2010.