Summary on Berggruen Workshop on the “Self and the Meaning of Life” from September 17th to September 19th, 2015 at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University

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From September 17th to September 19th, 2015, the Berggruen Institute Philosophy and Culture Center assembled a great group of thinkers to discuss "the self and meaning of life" from diverse cultural and disciplinary perspectives. The workshop was held to address the Berggruen Institute’s theme "The Authentic Self and the Relational Self".

Among those participants are: Professor Asma Afsaruddin from Indiana University; Professor Roger Ames from University of Hawai’I, Dr. Julian Baggini who is the founding editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine; Professor Daniel Bell from Tsinghua University who is also the director for the Berggruen Institute Philosophy and Culture Center; Professor Rajeev Bhargava from Jawaharlal Nehru University who is also a Berggruen fellow; Professor Akeel Bilgrami from Columbia University; Professor Rebecca Goldstein from New College of the Humanities; Professor Peter Hershock from University of Hawai’I; Iyer Pico; Dr. Yi-Huan Jiang who served as the premier of Taiwan and is also a Berggruen fellow; Professor Thomas Kasulis from Ohio State University, Professor Chenyang Li from Nanyang Technological University who is also a Berggruen fellow; Professor Jin Li from Brown University who is also a Berggruen fellow; Jay Ogilvy; Professor Edward Slingerland from University of British Columbia; Professor Anna Sun from Kenyon College who is also a Berggruen fellow; and Professor David Wong from Duke University who is also a Berggruen fellow. 



Each participant wrote an essay that discussed a conception of the self/the person from a particular ethical or religious perspective and then drew implications for "the meaning of life", with short sections on the good life (and the bad or alienated life), the best life (and the worst life), responsibilities to others (and to the self), and this life vs the after life. 

The summary of this workshop is written by Dr. Julian Baggini and is attached below:

In recent years many have expressed a concern that Western individualism has created a society of atomised, isolated selves. At the same time, the values of personal choice and autonomy remain sacrosanct. Individualism is thus seen as both the great achievement and bane of Western civilisation.

This matters for the rest of the world too, where individualism is often thought to be a central part of a westernisation that some aspire to and some fear. So it would seem to be a particular good time to gather a dozen experts on conceptions of self, East and West, to consider the alternative ways of thinking about self around the world, and the implications of adopting them. That is just what happened at a workshop held in Stanford in September by the Berggruen Institute’s Philosophy and Culture Center.

One of the major themes to emerge was the importance of the relationality of self in much Eastern philosophy. For example, as Roger Ames explained, Confucian ethics is a kind of “role ethics” in which there can be no sense of what it is right or wrong for someone to do unless you know the role in which they do it. What would be a right way for a father to treat a child, for instance, would not necessarily be right for a stranger, or even a brother. 



This way of thinking challenges the Western assumption that individual entities – atoms, people, plant species – are the fundamental categories in nature, upon which relations rest. In China and elsewhere it is more natural to see the relational whole as primary and individuals as only having a secondary reality. Hence individual persons only become distinctive and distinguished by virtue of the qualities of their relationships.

Tom Kasulis reinforced this with his explanation of how the syncretic triad of Shintō-Buddhism-Confucianism in Japan is underpinned by a common belief, a kind of unnamed assumption, in what he calls “The Field”. In The Field everything is interconnected, including the self, such that there is no way to understand anything in isolation except as part of a greater whole. 

Relationality also features in Islamic thinking, in which Asma Afsaruddin argues selfhood is based on a dynamic relationship with God, grounded in submission and gratitude. The Qur'an stresses that the human self realizes its full potential through acknowledging and nurturing that relationship. Afsaruddin also says that in Islam Taqwa (piety), besides being an individual trait, should also be expressed in communal contexts, including familial relations and neighbourliness. 

Above: Professor Roger Ames



It is not that relationality is absent in the west. As Pico Iyer notes, when Ishiguro write about the English world of the upstairs/downstairs, of servants and served, in The Remains of the Day he was also writing writing about his native Japan. This is a reminder that people are people the world over and differences in conceptions of self are matters of degree, not of incompatible alternatives. 

The differences in the way people conceptualise self might best be understood as primarily ethical. Indeed, Iyer believes that the Japanese are generally more interested in the ethics of self rather than in conceptions of it. Peter Hershock suggests that the primacy of ethics is also evident in early Buddhist writings, which present not so much a theory as a therapeutic system in which, we see beyond the constructions we project out into the world that we confuse for things-in-themselves, in order to reduce suffering.

These are issues which have political implications. For example, Daniel Bell argues that conventional indices of national development have an individualistic bias and don’t pay enough attention to the strength of social relations, what Confucians describe as “harmony”. He has developed an alternative “Harmony Index” (HI) that counteracts this. Bell does not claim that the HI provides a league table for the best countries in the world, period. Rather it s a heuristic tool for thinking about the health of societies, one that is needed to counter the emphases on economic growth or individual happiness in other measures.

Above: Pico Iyer


Another major theme in Eastern conceptions of self which has ethical repercussions is the idea that whether or not we have an abiding “self”, there is a sense in we need to work on ourselves. Ames captures this in the arresting phrase “human becoming” as a proposed alternative to the more static “human being”. This implies a narrative model of human nature in which as you cultivate yourself you also cultivate a world, since there is no self in isolation form the world it inhabits. 

Edward Slingerland argues that the Western emphasis on rational, rule-based moralities has occluded the ethical need to develop and nurture our moral character. Aristotle provides an indigenous antidote to this, as does Mencius, who listed four “sprouts” of morality which we need to carefully nurture: feelings of empathy, righteous indignation, the feeling of deference and the feeling of right and wrong. Intriguingly, Slingerland suggests that contemporary cognitive science supports this, since it shows us that our moral cognition is profoundly embodied and so only works when it is linked to appropriate affective reactions. Merely having a moral rulebook in your head is neither necessary nor sufficient to make us good people. 

If good character is important and cannot be reduced to an algorithm, then this suggests that moral education should rest less on teaching principles than learning from moral exemplars. This is another recurrent idea found all across the East. In Buddhism, the idea that we should emulate the Buddha is an old one, giving birth to the idea of the Bodhisattva as an exemplary person.  Confucianism also has the idea of the junzi, the exemplary person who helps show others the path towards ren. 

Above: Daniel Bell


Akeel Bilgrami advocated the ideal of the exemplar most explicitly, offering Gandhi as a case study. Gandhi advocated setting an example by one's choices, as opposed to laying down principles. This makes a critically important difference to moral psychology, since if someone does not follow our example, “at least part of the disappointment is in ourselves that our example has not taken hold.” Hence in a sense criticism is removed from morality, and with it related psychological attitudes such as resentment and hostility which underlie inter-personal violence.

In thinking about the relative merits of different conceptions of self, David Wong provided an important reminder that every coherent moral code succeeds in honouring certain values at the cost of sacrificing others. Or in Ames’s formulation, in adding something you also take something away. All varieties of Eastern and Western conceptions of self have their losses and gains. But there is no gain, only loss, in learning from just one tradition.