Doctor Who and non-self

Doctor Who is one of my favorite TV shows, and it turns out that the sci-fi classic offers some insights into the Buddhist teaching of anatta, or not-self. How? By showin how our sense of self is a construct. You’ll have to read the whole article to get the connection with Doctor Who, but here’s an extract:

In 1956, famous existentialist and French resistance fighter Jean-Paul Sartre published his epic work Being and Nothingness.

One of the most influential parts of the book comes from his ideas about how vision helps us develop a sense of self. To grossly simplify his argument, which he makes in a chapter called “The Look,” being seen by somebody else is akin to being recognized by them. So we make a psychological connection between the act of seeing a person with glasses, and the more complicated act of recognizing the person as a man named Jean-Paul who is French, white, nerdy, and likes to write about metaphysics. To sum up, your sense of self and your sense of others is connected intimately with your ability to see them – and their ability to see you.

Sartre points out that this situation can lead to a lot of terrifying situations. First of all, it means we rely on others for a sense of self, and thus for a sense of stability and mental coherence. Even creepier, it means (for example) I basically wouldn’t have any sense of self at all if it weren’t for some Big Other having coming along at some point when I was a tiny little not-yet-self and saying, “You are Annalee. You are female and white and Jewish and you live in America in a middle-class suburb.” Yes, it sounds weird, but parents and teachers and other adults actually say things that more or less boil down to sentences like that.

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