Lecture on Buddhist Perfectionism and Kantian Liberalism


Welcomes: David Cummiskey (Bates College)

With a Response From: Carol Rovane (Columbia University)

Please join on us at Columbia University’s Religion Department on FRIDAY, May 11th at 5:30 PM for his lecture entitled:

Buddhist Perfectionism and Kantian Liberalism on Self-Constitution

At the core of Kantian liberalism is a conception of the independent autonomous subject. On the other hand, the most central and distinguishing feature of Buddhist philosophy is the doctrine of no-self. It thus seems that Buddhists should reject Kantian liberalism. My larger project develops the connections between Buddhist perfectionism, liberalism, and principles of justice. In this paper, I focus on Buddhist and Kantian conceptions of self-constitution, but my ultimate concern is the significance of the doctrine of no-self to theories of justice.

Buddhists need some conception of a minimal self to account for the karmic-continuity of persons and also to provide an adequate account of the subjectivity of experience. I argue that we should reject the (Abhidharma) reductionist view of the self as a mere fiction that is reducible to its simpler and more basic parts. As is often noted, the Buddhist reductionist approach is similar to Derek Parfit’s view. Parfit also argues that there is no deep metaphysical self and that relations of personal identity are reducible to relations of psychological connectedness and causal continuity in a series of experiences. Christine Korsgaard has responded to Parfit’s reductionist view by developing a non-metaphysical account of Kantian agency and self-constitution. I argue that the Buddhist doctrine of no-self is consistent with a more minimal, non-substantial, emergent, view of the self. This approach, which is more fully developed by Evan Thomson, Matthew MacKenzie, Georges Dreyfus, and others, is surprisingly similar to Korsgaard’s practical conception of the self. As a result, the non-reductionist Buddhist approach is also not vulnerable to Korsgaard’s objection to reductionist views. In addition, I argue that the process of self-constitution is embedded in a recursive nexus of dependent origination, and reject Korsgaard’s conception of the independent autonomous subject, which she refers to as “over and above” its ends. In short, a Buddhist can accept Korsgaard’s basic account of self-constitution but nonetheless reject the Kantian idea of the independent autonomous subject. For Buddhists, the Kantian autonomous subject is instead part of the “primal confusion” that projects a reified subject-other division on experience. This confusion is the source of existential suffering, anxiety and stress, which characterizes too much of the human condition. The goal is to transcend the Kantian subject and internalize the pervasive interdependence of persons. Instead of the autonomous self, Buddhism embraces a perfectionist ideal, of a non-egocentric reorientation and re-constitution of the self.

Buddhists thus have reason to reject Kantian liberalism, if it is based on the autonomy and independence of persons. In his shift to Political Liberalism, John Rawls recasts the conception of the person, as “a self-originating source of valid claims,” and emphasizes that this conception is restricted to the political domain. It is part of a narrow conception of the “moral powers” of a free and equal citizen; it is not a metaphysical conception or comprehensive ideal. I conclude by exploring the contrast between Buddhist Perfectionism and Political Liberalism.

Friday, May 11th

5:30-7:30 PM

Rm. 101, 80 Claremont Ave., Columbia University


Please visit our website:


Inquiries should be directed to one of the following individuals:


Professor Jonathan Gold

Associate Professor, Princeton University, Department of Religion


Professor Hagop Sarkissian

Associate Professor, The City University of New York, Baruch College | Graduate Center, Department of Philosophy



Jay Ramesh


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