Converging on the Self: Western Philosophy, Eastern Meditation and Scientific Research

  • Jonathan Shear


Descartes, Hume and Kant all emphasized knowledge of self, holding it to be the “Archimedes point” of knowledge, the “capital or centre” of science and the “supreme principle” of employment of the understanding, respectively. Their analyses of what the self is, however, conflict strongly. Descartes held it to be single, simple, unimaginable and continuing. Hume argued we have no experience of anything corresponding to this idea. Kant supported Descartes by arguing that self as single, simple, unimaginable and continuing is absolutely necessary. But, strengthening Hume, he also argued that this idea of self is necessarily vacuous. For to accompany every possible experience, the self would have to be devoid of empirical properties of its own. And such a qualityless “pure consciousness” cannot even be coherently conceived, much less experienced. The topic remains problematic for Western philosophy.

Eastern traditions, by contrast, argue that while experience of “pure consciousness” cannot properly be imagined, it can actually be had. Meditation procedures can allow all ordinary mental activity to settle down and disappear, while one nevertheless remains awake. What remains is consciousness itself, devoid of empirical properties. This experience uniquely allows major features of Descartes, Hume and Kant’s analyses of self to be rendered consistent. And their analyses in turn identify the experience as being of self.

Empirical research appears to support this conclusion. Physiological correlates indicate that the experience reflects an innate potential of human consciousness, and link it to the brain’s default mode network thought to underlie our natural sense of self.


Default Mode Network Western Philosophy Transcendental Meditation Pure Consciousness Default Mode Network Activity 
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Copyright information

© Springer India 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyVirginia Commonwealth UniversityRichmondUSA

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