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Luminous Cognizance: Toward a Buddhist Model of Consciousness

Matthew MacKenzie
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Colorado State University
(DRAFT-Please do not quote)
I want to present an account of the conscious mind based on the work of Indian Buddhist
philosophers broadly associated with the Yogcra school. There are five key features of this
model that I want to draw your attention to here. First, is the notion that self-luminosity or selfluminous cognizance is the mark of the conscious. Second, is a theory of the dual-aspect
structure of conscious presentation. Third, is an account of the reciprocal dynamics between the
relatively stable background and the more transient foreground of consciousness. Fourth, is an
account of the complex relationship between phenomenal subjectivity, the sense of self or mental
ownership, and background consciousness. Fifth, is a reductionist account of personal identity
that gives a central place to the first-person perspective. My aim here is not to give a
comprehensive defense of the model, but rather to present some key features and the some of the
considerations and arguments in its favor.

Luminous Cognizance
The metaphor of consciousness as light (praka) or luminosity (prakat) is at the
heart of Indian thinking about the nature of the mind going back at least as far as the early prose
Upaniads. Like a light, consciousness has (or is) the capacity to shine forth (prakate) and
illuminate (prakyati) its object. Indeed, just as, without illumination, no objects could be
visible, without the light of consciousness, no object could be experienced. Thus luminosity
comes to denote the capacity to disclose, present, or make manifest. Physical light, of course, can

reveal or make objects visible, but, as later Indian philosophers pointed out, it can only do so to a
perceiver. The luminosity of consciousness, on the other hand, is that original capacity to make
experientially present some object to some subject. Yet this inner light that makes possible all
experience and knowledge is itself quite elusive. It was widely, but by no means universally,
held in Indian thought that the conscious subject (or consciousness itself) is not knowable in the
same way as its objects. In some cases, luminosity also comes to be associated with the
distinctive flavors (rasa) or qualitative features of conscious experiencethat is, with the
phenomenality consciousness (Ram-Prasad 2007, p. 54). By the classical period, luminosity
comes to denote the distinctive mark or feature of consciousness as that which reveals or
discloses (to a subject), particularly in the context of distinct episodes of conscious cognition. In
this context the question of luminosity involves questions of intentionality, phenomenality, and
subjectivity, as well as their interrelations.
Following in this tradition, the Yogcra Buddhist philosopher Dharmakrti remarks in
the Pramavrttika that, the mind is by nature luminous cognizance (prabhsvara) (Dunne
2004, p. 372).1 I interpret luminosity here in terms of phenomenal presencethe presentation of
experiential qualities or contents. This is a basic notion for understanding phenomenal
consciousness meant to point to the fundamental idea of experiential manifestation, that is, of
anything showing up in (or as) experience in the first place. It is then a further question of what,
how, and to whom (or to what) it is showing up.
The cognizance (jna) of consciousness is its capacity to grasp or apprehend its object.
This aspect, then, is linked to the intentionality of consciousness. Conscious states not only
present phenomena, but also are contentfully directed to objects (viayat). Further,

PV 2.210cd-211ab.

consciousness is implicated in the capacity to identify, re-identify, and understand its objects.
Most fundamentally, I want to suggest that the cognizance of consciousness should be
understood in terms of what Francisco Varela and Evan Thompson have called sense-making.
According to Thompson (2011, p. 119):
Sense-making is threefold: (1) sensibility as openness to the environment
(intentionality as openness); (2) significance as positive or negative valence of
environmental conditions relative to the norms of the living being (intentionality
as passive synthesis passivity, receptivity, and affect); and (3) the direction or
orientation the living being adopts in response to significance and valence
(intentionality as protentional and teleological).
On this account, an episode of conscious experience is luminous and cognizant in that it
paradigmatically involves phenomenal presentation, significance, and valence. Further, on the
Buddhist view, any particular episode of experience will be understood as the confluence of a
complex network of conditioning factors, including sub-personal mental processes. Indeed, a
fundamental feature of Indian Buddhist approaches to the mind is to dissolve what appear to be
substantial unities into functional unities based on various types of events, processes, and
capacities. So, rather than assuming a substantial or homuncular self, Buddhist approaches to the
mind attempt to explain experience in terms of the complex synchronic and diachronic
interdependence between sensory, cognitive, affective, attentional and conative events and
processes. Hence, an individual conscious episode will be an internally complex global state
arising on the basis of the integration of various sub-personal mental processes, while the stream
of consciousness will be marked by functional complexity and both continuity and discontinuity.
On the Abhidharma and Yogcra approach, for instance, a conscious state can be
analyzed into primary and secondary factors, and in this analysis we see an interesting account of
the emergence of cognizance as sense-making. The primary factor (citta, awareness or
consciousness) is the state itself as a conscious presentation of its object (luminosity), while the

secondary mental factors (caitta) characterize the type or mode of engagement with the object
(cognizance). One common taxonomy lists 51 distinct mental factors, divided into six groups.
However, there are five omnipresent factors: affect (vedan), cognition (saj), intention or
motivation (cetan), attention (manasikra), and sensory contact (spara). On this view, each
moment of experience is grounded in and arises from on-going (somato)-sensory contact
between the sentient being and its environment and is structured by affective, cognitive,
conative, and attentional factors. These factors, while analytically divisible, are mutually
specifying and reinforcing and operate below the level of reflective attention. Note here that the
omnipresent factors involve the integration of exteroceptive processes (sensory contact) with
interoceptive processes of affect, attention, and motivation. Further, the basic conative
orientation of the sentient being on this viewthat is, approach/avoid/ignoresuggests that the
integration of exteroceptive with interoceptive information would be within an egocentric rather
than allocentric spatial framework in order to be relevant for action.
At the level of phenomenal consciousness, luminous cognizance could be considered a
form of phenomenal intentionality. As Horgan and Nichols (2016, p. 145) have recently put it,
phenomenality is inherent to consciousness, and intentionality is virtually always inherent to
phenomenality. That is, consciousness is luminous in that it is essentially characterized by the
capacity for phenomenal presentation, including, as Ill discuss below, both interlocking
modalities of self-presentation and other-presentation. It is cognizant in that it is essentially
characterized by the capacity to apprehend, to constitute as significant aspects of the experienced
world, including itself. These two features of consciousness are primordial forms of
phenomenality and intentionality the intertwined operation of which constitute the basic mark or
nature of conscious experience. However, it should be noted that, on this model, there may be

forms of experience (in meditation or in certain forms of sleep) that are luminous, but do not
involve intentionality proper.

Dual-Aspect Reflexivism
The basic divide in Indian accounts of the luminosity of consciousness is between otherillumination (parapraka) and self-illumination (svapraka) theories. For advocates of otherillumination, the luminosity of consciousness consists in its capacity to present a distinct object.
Thus, transitive, object-directed intentionality is the mark of consciousness. Conscious states, in
order to be states the subject is conscious of, must be presented by a distinct, higher-order
cognition. Hence, consciousness illuminates that which is other than itself, and conscious states
themselves are apperceived by another state. In contrast, for advocates of self-illumination
theories, consciousness is reflexive or self-presenting. Consciousness presents itself in the
process of presenting its object. Moreover, just as light does not need a second light in order to
be revealed, so consciousness does not need a distinct state to present itselfit is self-intimating
(MacKenzie 2017).
In some Buddhist schools, the term svasavedana (self-awareness) denotes this selfluminosity or pre-reflective self-awareness that they argue is a constitutive feature of conscious
experience. On this view, individual conscious states simultaneously disclose both the object of
consciousness and (aspects of) the conscious state itself. Thus, when a subject is aware of an
object, she is also (pre-reflectively) aware of her own experiencing. Buddhist philosophers such
as Dignga, Dharmakrti, and ntarakita defended the idea that consciousness is reflexive or
self-presenting in this way. In contemporary terms, these thinkers hold that phenomenal
subjectivity or (minimal) subjective character is essential to phenomenal consciousness.

This reflexivist view of consciousness, then, is closely linked to a dual-aspect view of

conscious content. According to Dignga, Every cognition is produced with a twofold
appearance, namely that of itself (svbhsa) and that of the object (viaybhsa) (PS(V) 1.9a;
Hattori 1968, p. 28). The object-appearance or object-aspect is the presentation of the intentional
object in cognition. It is what the experience is as of. Whatever the further status of the
intentional object, in so far as it is given in experience, there is an object-appearance. Yet a
cognition is not exhausted by its presentation of an intentional object. It also presents a subjectaspect (svbhsa), which for Dignga means the way the cognition presents itself. When I have
an experience as of a tree, on this view, the experience presents both the tree (the object-aspect)
and the experiencing of the tree (the subject-aspect). And since I grasp both the objectappearance and the self-appearance of the cognition in which the object is presented, the dualaspect structure of cognition implies pre-reflective self-awareness (svasavedana). Importantly,
the viaybhsa, svbhsa, and svasavedana are features of a single episode. Hence, the prereflective self-awareness here is not a distinct higher-order cognition, but rather an intrinsic
feature of the first-order cognition itself. It is that phenomenal point of view within which or for
which both aspects are presented.
The dual-aspect view involves the rejection of the strong transparency of experience. For
Dignga, there is more to experience than how the object is presented. The phenomenal character
of experience also involves how the experience itself is presented. Thus we should make a
phenomenological distinction between what the object is like and what it is like to cognize the
object. For instance, what it is like to see a bright yellow lemon may be different from what it is
like to imagine the lemon or to remember it, even if the lemon qua lemon itself is presented in
the same way (as bright yellow, etc.) in each cognition. Jonardon Ganeri characterizes the

subjective-aspect simply as, whatever it is in virtue of which attending to ones experience does
not collapse into attending to the world as presented in experience (Ganeri 2012, p. 170). One
of Digngas main arguments for this view is that if cognitions are transparent, there would be no
distinction between a cognition and the cognition of that cognition (PS 1.11; Kellner 2010, p.
210). Yet it seems we can discern features of the experiencing of the object over and above the
object itself. On the other hand, this view is compatible with a moderate transparency view,
according to which the object-appearance is usually the primary focus of awareness and we dont
usually attend to or reflect upon the subject-aspect.
Dignga does not say very much about the nature of the subject-aspect, but he does say
that we are aware of the various mental factors (caitta) (mentioned above) that are built into
our cognitive episodes (PS(V) 1.6ab; Kellner 2010, p. 207). In addition to being luminous and
cognizant, then, an episode of cognition may be pleasant or unpleasant, focused or unfocused,
calm or agitated, etc. (Dreyfus 2011, p. 119). These mental factors contribute to the global
phenomenal character of the episode and are available for reflection by the subjectthat is, they
are pre-reflective aspects of the experience. These features of the experiencing, rather than the
object experienced, I take to be part of what Dignga terms the svbhsa, the self-appearance
or subject-aspect of the cognition. Recall also that these mental factors already involve the
integration of exteroceptive and interoceptive information. Hence, we can understand the dualaspect view of cognition in terms of the integration of self-specifying and other-specifying
information within a single conscious point of view. Further, a number of researchers on the
neuroscience of consciousness (Damasio 1999, Parvisi and Damasio 2001, Merker 2006) have
argued that this kind of self-/other- information integration within an egocentric model of the
organism in its environment is central to many forms of subjective experience.

On my interpretation, at the level of conscious experience, the object- and subject-aspects

of experiences are phenomenal modes of presentation. The object-aspect presents the object
(e.g., as being red and spherical), while the subjective-aspect presents the experience itself (e.g.,
as being a pleasant, focused, visual experience, as well as being a cognition of a red sphere).
They are phenomenal modes of presentation in that the object and the experience are presented
qualitatively. In modern parlance, we can say that there is something it is like to be aware of a
red sphere and there is also something it is like to live through an involuntary, attentive, pleasant,
visual experience of a red sphere.
According to Dharmakrti and his commentator kyabuddhi, reflexive awareness is
more basic than the subject-object structure and intentionality of consciousness. Transitive
intentionality presupposes subject-object duality, but according to the Buddhist epistemologists
the subject-object duality is a cognitive distortion, not a real feature of consciousness. Reflexive
awareness, however, is the essential nature of consciousness and is therefore non-dual and nonintentional. As kyabuddhi puts it:
Since an agent and its patient are constructed in dependence upon each other,
these two [i.e. subject and object] are posited in dependence on each other. The
expression "subject" does not express mere reflexive awareness, which is the
essential nature of cognition itself. The essential nature of cognition is not
construed in mutual dependence on something else because it arises as such from
its own causes. The essential nature of cognition is established in mere reflexive
awareness (svasavedanamtra). Since it is devoid of the above-described
subject and object, it is said to be non-dual. (Dunne 2004, p. 407)
So what mode of awareness could this be, if it not a form of intentionality? My
suggestion is that we understand reflexive awareness of a form immediate acquaintance rather
than as a form of intentionality. Moreover, according to tradition, there are supposedly very
rarified meditative states wherein the subject-object duality (and hence both intentionality and

the sense of self) are absent and all that remains is pure non-dual reflexive awareness. One could
also imagine other altered states (pathological states or certain sleep states) in which the usual
subject-object structure of consciousness breaks down (MacKenzie 2015, Windt 2015).
For Dignga and Dharmakrti, the role of reflexive awareness is primarily epistemic. The
idea here is that we have a direct (i.e., immediate, non-inferential, non-conceptual) acquaintance
with the phenomenal contents of our experience. To have a conscious pain is to be aware of the
qualitative pain directly, just by having it. However, the later reflexivist, ntarakita, comes to
emphasize the constitutive role of reflexive awarenessthat is, self-luminosity comes to be seen
as the distinguishing mark (svalakana) or very nature of consciousness.
In Madhyamaklakra 16, ntarakita (2005, p. 53) argues:
Consciousness rises as the contrary
Of matter, gross, inanimate.
By nature, mind is immaterial
And it is self-aware.
On this view, matter is inherently inanimate and insentient (jaa), while consciousness is
inherently luminous and cognizant that is, reflexive and intentional. As his Tibetan
commentator, Jamgon Mipham, remarks in this context:
Objects like pots, being material, are devoid of luminosity and cognizance. For
them to be cognized, it is necessary to rely on something that is quite different
from them, namely, the luminous and knowing mind. The nature of
consciousness, on the other hand, is unlike matter. For it to be known, it depends
on no condition other than itself. ... In the very instant that consciousness arises,
the factors of luminosity and cognizance are present to it. Although other things
are known by it, it is not itself known by something else and is never without selfawareness (it is never self-unaware) (ntarakita 2005, p. 202).

In Miphams gloss, there is a fundamental asymmetry between the way consciousness is aware
of itself and the way it is aware of external objects.2 Intransitive reflexive awareness and
transitive intentionality are distinct modalities, and it would be a mistake to model the former on
the latter. Objects like pots do not have experiences and apparently exist independently of their
being experienced. Conscious states, on the other hand, do not exist independently of being
experiencedtheir very mode of being is to be experienced. That is, while actual objects do not
need to be given in order to exist and intentional objects do not need to exist in order to be given,
conscious experiences exist if and only if they are lived-through, are experientially given. And
living through an experience subjectively just is our most basic way of being aware of that state.
Mipham goes on to argue, following Dharmakrti, that:
It is thanks to reflexive awareness that, conventionally, phenomenal appearances
are established as the mind, and the mind [i.e. a cognitive episode] is in turn
undeniably established as the object-experiencer. If reflexive awareness is not
accepted, the mind would be disconnected from its own experience of phenomena
and the experience of outer objects would be impossible (ntarakita 2005, p.
That is, for these thinkers, the experiential object is recognized to be a phenomenal appearance
(bhsa) or phenomenal form (kra) that is not distinct from the cognition within which it is
presented. In other words, one sees that the supposed external object is in fact merely the
objective-face of an experience and thus an aspect of the experience itself. Further, on this
reflexivist view, absence of pre-reflective self-awareness would yield a kind of mind-blindness
(the mind disconnected from its own experiences) wherein at any given time one might be
having any number of phenomenal experiences without any awareness that one was having them,
in absence of which their intentional objects would not be phenomenally present. In such cases,

I am bracketing the issue of idealism in these thinkers.


ones cognition would be more like blindsight than phenomenal consciousness. That is, if one is
not at all aware of the experience in and through which the object is presented, then the object is
not phenomenally present at all. Furthermore, note that the svbhsa and viaybhsa are given
to or given within a conscious, first-person point of view. For the Buddhist reflexivists,
svasavedana constitutes the conscious point of view within which the two faces of cognition
are given. Reflexivity, therefore, constitutes a minimal form of subjectivity in the
phenomenological sense of a dative of manifestation, that to which the phenomenally present is
presented. Yet, crucially, this point of view is not a distinct or enduring subject of experience
existing over and above the interconnected episodes of experience constituting individual
streams of consciousness (cittasantna). Rather, as we have seen, reflexive awareness is a basic
feature of each individual experiential episode. At bottom, each episode of experience is its own
phenomenal subject.
The upshot, in contemporary terms, is that a conscious experience is characterized by
both its phenomenal character and its subjective character. The phenomenal character here
involves both the presentation of an object and certain aspects of the experiencing of the object.
This Janus-faced mode of presentation is (necessarily) presentation-to a subjective point of view.
And this kind of phenomenal self-presentation or self-luminosity is the distinctive mark of

Base-Consciousness and the Sense of Self

Turning now from the structure of individual states or episodes to its more global
character, the Yogcra thinkers further distinguish eight modes or aspects of consciousness. The
first five modes are the basic forms of sensory awareness. The sixth dimension is called mental-


consciousness (manovijna), and has to do with ideation, thinking, and so on. These six types
or aspects of consciousness are accepted throughout Indian Buddhist philosophy of mind, but
thinkers associated with Yogcra posit two more types of awareness: afflictive mentation
(kliamanas) and base- or store-consciousness (layavijna). On this account, the seventh
consciousness (kliamanas)which Ill discuss further shortlyis the source of the basic sense
of self, the felt sense of mental ownership that is built into our default mental architecture. The
layavijna forms the most basic stratum of the stream of consciousness against the
background of which the other seven types of awareness operate. Unlike the discontinuous flow
of the manifest types of awareness (pravttivijna), the base-consciousness is taken to be a
diachronically continuous flow. It is also the store or repository of the various habits,
dispositions, and latent propensities that shape the experience of the individual. Finally,
according to the Yogcrins, the base consciousness is central to the explanation of the
synchronic coherence of consciousness. In phenomenological terms the laya is a sedimented
retentional continuum, an egoless streaming (Zahavi, 2011b). It is also, on my interpretation, the
most basic form of embodied creature-consciousness.
According to Mipham, the layavijna is the basal background field or continuum of
awareness and is understood as mere luminosity and cognizance. It is, he writes, an
awareness of the mere presence of objects and it arises as a continuity of instants, and it does
not have a specific object of focus but observes the world and beings in a general, overall
manner (2005, 238). The laya, then, is characterized by luminosity both in the sense of
phenomenal presence and in the sense of reflexivity. It is also characterized by cognizance or
intentionality, but of a different sort than the manifest modes of awareness that arise from it. In
contrast to the thematic and transitive modes of intentionality to be found in the pravtti-vijna,


the cognizance of the laya is non-thematica basic openness or open presence to the world of
experience, corresponding somewhat to Thompsons sense-making as sensibility. Mipham
further elaborates that the base consciousness must be understood in terms of two distinct, but
inseparable aspects: the seed aspect and the maturation aspect. The seed aspect corresponds to
the retentional function of the base consciousness. It is the synchronic and diachronic basis for
the various habits and propensities that condition experience. The maturation aspect functions as
a potential (a power source) for the seven kinds of consciousness and their attendant mental
factors, which rise and fall like waves on the sea (2005, 238).
So while some have understood the laya as a form of unconscious cognition, I want to
follow Mipham in taking it to be pre-reflective global background consciousness. Further, this
background open presence is fundamentally bodily. In the Yogcra tradition, base
consciousness is said to pervade the body and to differentiate the living body from a corpse.
Phenomenologically, we may see this as linking base consciousness to the lived, animate body
that is Leib rather than Krper. Empirically, as Thompson argues:
Background consciousness is inextricably tied to the homeodynamic regulation of
the body and includes primary affective awareness or core consciousness of ones
bodily selfhood. Background consciousness in this fundamental sense is none
other than sentience, the feeling of being alive, the affective backdrop of every
conscious state. Sentienceor primal consciousness or core consciousnessis
evidently not organized according to sensory modality, but rather according to the
regulatory, emotional, and affective processes that make up the organisms basic
feeling of self. (Thompson 2007, 354-5)
I take background consciousness to have a field-like topology. That is, base consciousness opens
up or constitutes a synchronically unified phenomenal space within which phenomena can be
given. This space is implicated in the appearance of anything within it but cannot itself be found
among the objects it allows to appear. And since it is a phenomenal space, it is perspectivally


structuredit is characterized by a genitive-dative or of-to structure. Note also that the

phenomenal field is not a hidden Cartesian theater across which mental representations parade.
Rather, it is the phenomenal-intentional openness to the world of an embodied, situated
conscious agent. Recall further that the laya is partly constituted by a felt sense of the body as
lived and therefore constitutes a basic form of non-objectifying bodily self-awareness. It
therefore exemplifiesin its own inchoate and pre-reflective waythe Janus-faced structure of
phenomenal consciousness more generally.
This Yogcra account of the stream experience is based on what I will call horizontal
and vertical dynamics. The basic temporality of experience is understood through its retentionalprotentional structure, as well as the various forms of passive synthesis within the diachronic
flow of base consciousness. This horizontal form of dynamism roughly corresponds to what
Mipham calls the seed aspect of the laya. Second, experience involves the vertical dynamic
between the more passive background and the more active and explicit foreground of conscious
activity. The foreground here, though, is not constituted by the ever-changing objects of
experience, but rather the manifest mental processes such as perceiving, imagining, or thinking.
In Buddhist terms, this is the on-going reciprocal dynamic between the layavijna and the
pravttivijna and what Mipham calls the maturation aspect of base consciousness. Thus, for
instance, as Thompson puts it, the antecedent and rolling experiential context of perception
modulates the way the object appears or is experientially lived during the moment of perception,
and the content of this transient conscious state reciprocally affects the flow of experience
(Thompson 2007, 355).
Moreover, it is interesting to note that the functions associated with base consciousness
basic bodily awareness, affect, and self-regulatory functions, for instance are subserved by


midbrain and brainstem structures (Parvizi and Damasio 2001) and are not organized according
to sensory modality (Damasio 1999). In contrast, the various more transient sensory states
associated with the foreground of consciousness crucially involve thalamo-cortical structures
(among others), damage to which can leave intact backround awareness and core selfconsciousness (Philippi, et al 2012). This is one reason why, as Thompson argues, the search
for content NCCs in a particular sensory modality such as vision [i.e., in the pravttivijna] runs
the risk of missing the biologically and phenomenologically more fundamental phenomenon of
sentience, whose affective character and ipseity (nonreflective self-awareness) [svasavedana]
underlie and pervade all sensory experience [i.e., the layavijna is fundamental] (2007, p.
355). That is, if this model of consciousness is on the right track, our empirical and philosophical
attempts to account for phenomenal state consciousness will need to take more seriously the
more fundamental modes of global background and creature consciousness, and the reciprocal
dynamics between these aspects of conscious experience. In addition, if it is the case that base
consciousness is reflexive, then it would make sense to look for the roots of reflexive
phenomenal subjectivity, not so much in features of local, transient phenomenal states, but rather
in basic features of bodily creature consciousness.
As mentioned above, the kliamanas, is the source of the basic sense of self, the felt
sense of mental ownership that is built into our default mental architecture. Like the baseconsciousness, it is taken to be pre-reflective, continuous, and relatively stable. As an implicit
sense of mental ownership it does not depend on the operation of voluntary mental attention and
it is more basic than the capacity for having explicit I-cognitions (ahampratyya). Its basis is
the layavijna and it is argued that the kliamanas involves a basic cognitive-affective
illusion: it mistakes the egoless streaming of the base-consciousness for an enduring self-entity.


This innate distortion in our mental architecture is thought to be the basis of various destructive
emotions and other mental afflictions (klea)hence the term afflictive mentation.
While reflexivity, the basal sense of embodied sentience, and the temporal structure of
consciousness contribute to its basic subjectivity, the minimal subjectivity of experience does not
entail an egological view consciousness (MacKenzie 2015). An egological theory, as Dan
Zahavi explains, would claim that when I watch a movie by Bergman, I am not only
intentionally directed at the movie, nor merely aware of the movie being watched, I am also
aware that it is being watched by me, that is, that I am watching the movie. . . . Thus, an
egological theory would typically claim that it is a conceptual and experiential truth that any
episode of experiencing necessarily includes a subject of experience. (2005, p. 99) In contrast,
the view here is that, at base, consciousness is an egoless streaming. The egothat is, the sense
of being a relatively stable and unified selfinvolves a richer sense of mental ownership than
the on-going feeling of being alive and perspectival ownership of experience. On the other
hand, on this view this richer sense of self is a normal part of pre-reflective human experience.
The kliamanas or ego-sense is an emergent feature of human experience that arises from and is
sustained by pre-egoic processes. It is a product of the passive syntheses within the baseconsciousness, even while it provides the sense that there is a self that is the enduring owner and
ground of the stream of experience. The sense of self, on this view, may feel fixed and
fundamental, but it is in fact a malleable, emergent construct. It arises from an on-going process
of appropriation (updna) of the embodied stream of experience into a self-model that
perfumes all further cognitive operations. Moreover, it can change and even perhaps drop away
entirely in certain types of experience (pathological or meditative).


For instance, Zahn, Talazko and Ebert (2008) report the case of DP, a 23-year-old male
who complains of having double visions which he finds distressing. It turns out that he does not
in fact have double vision. Rather DP reports that, he was able to see everything normally, but
that he did not immediately recognize that he was the one who perceives and that he needed a
second step to become aware that he himself was the one who perceives the object (2008, p.
398). DP, it seems, is aware of visual objects, but is not immediately aware of himself as the
subject of the visual experiences in which the objects were given. Only with an act of reflection
does he come to have a sense of ownership of the experiences. Indeed, according to Zahn, it is
precisely the absence of the usual pre-reflective sense of mental ownership that DP found so
If the basic description of this case is correct, it seems to be a counter-example to the idea
that a pre-reflective sense of ownership or mineness is an invariant feature of consciousness. In
DPs case the sense of mineness has dropped out of the visual modality and he must take a
second step in order to feel the visual experiences as his own. In an important sense, DPs prereflective visual experiences are anonymous. On the other hand, this case is importantly unlike a
case of blindsight. First, DPs visual experiences are phenomenally conscious; there is something
it is like to undergo them. Second, it appears that DP is pre-reflectively aware of his visual
experiences in that he does not need to reflect in order to be aware of their occurrence. The
second step is at the level of ownership, not reflexive awareness. Third, his visual experiences
are available for report and memory just like his other types of perceptual experience. Therefore,
the case of DP provides prima facie evidence that one can have experiences that are
phenomenally conscious, of which one is pre-reflective aware, but that lack the felt sense of forme-ness or mineness typical of our conscious experiences. The Yogcra model, with its


distinction between the minimal phenomenal subjectivity of reflexive awareness and the more
robust sense of self of the kliamanas, better accounts for this (and other types of cases) than
egological or minimal self views (MacKenzie 2015).

Personal Identity
I think the account of selfless subjectivity I have been exploring may provide an
interesting alternative to Parfits version of reductionism about personal identity. Mainstream
Buddhist views of personal identity are reductionist in Parfits sense in that they reject a
separately existing self and explain diachronic personal identity in terms of the weaker relation
psychological continuity. Moreover, given Buddhist views on rebirth, they are arguably
committed to the idea that identity is not what matters in survival. However, proponents of the
minimal self or weak egological views of consciousness have argued that, while Parfit is surely
right to reject a separately existing or substantial self, his reductionism misses the irreducibility
and diachronic identity of the first-person perspective. This has lead Zahavi (2011) to appeal to
the (supposed) diachronic identity of the minimal self to defend what is arguably a novel form of
further-fact non-reductionism. The Buddhist account of subjectivity sketched here provides a
middle way between a purely third-person reductionism and a first-person non-reductionism.
The basic idea is that personal identity is to be explained in terms of psychological
continuity, but that psychological continuity centrally involves the phenomenal continuity of the
first-person perspective or minimal subjectivity. But contra egological views of subjectivity, this
continuity is constituted by the integrated flow of reflexive mental episodes which are more basic
than and do not presuppose a sense of self or mental ownership. This egoless streaming of
reflexive awareness constitutes the minimal form of the continuity of a conscious point of


viewa form of direct phenomenological connectedness. Yet this point of view is both
fundamentally anonymous and, qua mere continuity, can be a matter of degree and does not rule
out fission, fusion, or branching. The continuity of reflexive awareness, as Dignga argues,
allows for intra-streamal relations of access consciousness whereby one episode in the stream is
able to access the both the objective and subjective aspects of earlier experiences, thus allowing
for minimally first-person episodic memory (Ganeri, 2012). In addition, in sentient beings that
construct rich synchronic and diachronic self-models (kliamanas), there emerges a more robust
sense of mental ownership and the ability to think I-thoughts (including about the past and
future). This allows one not just to remember certain earlier experiences from the inside, but also
remember them explicitly as ones own. It also allows one to think thoughts such as I was happy
on my seventh birthday and I intend to complete the book this year. On this view, the
correctness of these I-thoughts derives not from there being an enduring entity that is their shared
referent, but from the maintenance of the right kind of functional and phenomenological
connections between phases in the embodied stream of experience. In short, the Buddhist view of
selfless subjectivity may allow for the development of a reductionist account of personal identity
that gives central place to phenomenal consciousness and the first-person point of view, while
recognizing and identifying the ways that these very features give rise to the persistent illusion of
a reified or substantial self.


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