Selflessness or Self-knowing?

Riggs Library

March 3, 2016

The Philodemic gathered in Riggs Library for the last debate before Spring Break to debate a highly innovative and interesting topic – Resolved: It is better not to have a sense of self. On the affirmation, Mr. Danny Graff (SFS ’16) of California keynoted with Sergeant Ashley Burke (COL ’16) of Vermont on the negation. President Thanki registered her enthusiasm for the topic, as did many members.

Mr. Graff opened the debate by quoting a Buddhist text to introduce the Buddhist worldview: that we have no self. Using this as a means of explaining the debate, he held that ‘self’ meant personal ego, me as an “I.” He proceeded to make the case for living without this sense of self – as it creates an ‘other,’ that allows us to blame other people, traps us in an egocentric perspective, prevents dialogue, and creates a victim mentality. The ‘self’ also makes us possessive of ourselves. Mr. Graff then argued that being ‘selfless’ makes us happy – we feel connected with the world and delight in it. “A selfless person cannot be unhappy.”

Sergeant Burke rose to oppose her Buddhist-minded friend, positing the debate as a clash between Eastern and Western conceptions of philosophy. True to her side, she opened with a Biblical tale: the Fall of ‘Man,’ as a metaphor for gaining knowledge of self. Yet instead of condemning Eve, Ms. Burke celebrated self-knowledge. Evoking Descates’ cogito ergo sum, she defined the self as the ability to reflect inward about yourself. Using a personal anecdote, she hammered home the point that “you are the only one who feels your pain or pleasure,” and the self is truly you, and nothing can separate you from that. Citing Heidegger, she argued that the world belongs to each of us insofar as we perceive it, thus we should take ownership of it. The way we own the world gives it beauty and meaning, and without the self, there is no reason to go out and live your life.

Opening the floor, Ms. Landau argued that we can get caught in ourselves and become blind to happiness that is everywhere, as in Ms. Provost’s smile, which creates love. Mr. Musgrave followed on this discussion by positing love as giving one’s self to another, whereas having no self would make this impossible. Mr. Hinck denied this definitional logic, quoting Albert Camus’s The Stranger, to argue that the opposition of the self and the world prevents accepting the world’s indifference. Mr. Tu used Hegel to argue that we must find the ‘self’ in others and thus find meaning while Mr. Zawora used epigenetic changes in DNA to highlight the role of interaction in determining the self. Mr. Shaughnessy argued that identity gives us both the capacity to feel empathy and triumph, and that no self leads to a fragmented identity. Mr. Willis countered that we should aspire to selflessness, the experience of letting things go. Vice President Little balanced the harm that self-consciousness can bring with the importance of positive thinking. Mr. Perez-Reyes, after portraying in adroit thespian fashion his experience lying in bed and finding the floor of Riggs too comfortable to leave, argued that understanding the self is not necessary for empathy, it is about connecting with others. Ms. Cuppari countered with the image of two water drops merging into one, holding that connecting with others without self can lead to a loss of identity. President Thanki evoked her Hindu tradition by describing its distinct sense of self until the realization of the collective soul, positing total empathy as our end goal.

Beginning non-member speaking time, Mr. Bret Reiking (SFS ’19) argued that losing our sense of self would be unpleasant and unnatural while Mr. Brendan Keenan (COL ’18) used the German word for home, heimat, to illustrate how boundaries isolate us from each other. Ms. Ellen Reilly (MSB ’19) thought of the Bible’s command to love our neighbors as necessitating knowing ourselves first. Ms. Eva Niedermeyer (COL ’19) spoke of her twin sister, asking ‘who are we’ to illustrate our interconnectedness.

Returning to the floor, Chancellor Nicholas Iacono (COL ’12) argued that the affirmation had villainized the self, imploring the negation to speak about the “awful beauty of self-discovery” that comes with pondering our existence. He reminded the Society of a Jesuit saying, “The world should break your heart.” Mr. Fletcher posited that instead of seeking gains for the self, we really desire small moments of kindness, which require no self. Ms. Hernick replied that the pondering of the world raises a conflict between our desires, imploring the Society not to be detached from our inner workings. Chancellor Whelan used music to argue that harmony comes when musicians lose themselves, arguing that we need to ‘go with the music’ and lose ourselves. Chancellor Ringwald countered that clinging to the self does not occur in a void, using her own job search to illustrate how we can only engage with the world individually. On the affirmation, Ms. Kurek argued for a more nuanced understanding of ‘softening our boundaries,’ and letting go of our self arrogance. Ms. Grace contrasted the collective and the individual, positing the self as what allows us to innovate. Ms. Allison Hsu (MSB ’19) argued that we never really possess our emotions, that they are as clouds in the sky. Mr. Schafer used the idea of God at the center of ourselves to make the case for the musician who has honed her skills, then connected to others. In a typically boisterous speech after a lengthy absence from debates, Mr. Marrow expressed his enthusiasm for other people meditating, asking if we are made in God’s image, why can we have no self? Mr. Kim replied that we should have firm sense of self. In the final floor speech of the evening, Mr. Laposata argued that we all coexist and are just one of many existing in this moment.

Re-taking the stand, Sergeant Burke evoked her own well-defined sense of self, saying “I don’t know anyone more grotesque than me.” She highlighted this relationship, argued that her relation with her own self was the highest priority. Addressing the issue of empathy, she pointed out that you decide to have empathy, it is not mystically conveyed. “The world is meaningless but you are filled with meaning.” She practically dared the Society to take command of our lives, to rage against the dying of the light. Closing with an exhortation to care about things because they are our things, Ms. Burke held that a strong sense of self was the most important requirement for leading a meaningful life.

Mr. Graff rejected the world of ‘my own’ in exchange for a world of relating to each other, affirming his liking of Ms. Burke for her humor in a kind moment. Mr. Graff argued that the self makes us blind by limiting our perception. No self leads to the larger mind of the infinite, not by disengaging from the world but by connecting to it. By going beyond figuring out ourselves, we can figure out much wider and more important things. In terms of empathy, connections transcend the self, creating harmony. He referred to an earlier incident when two members transported the podium by hoisting it into the air, labeling that the expression of the self as the podium had wheels. In closing, Mr. Graff implored the Society to make the world beautiful, to live a life of “free and easy wandering.”

The Society then voted to award Merrick points to the most eloquent speakers of the evening:

  • Laura Kurek, Chancellor Madeleine Ringwald, Mr. Alejandro Perez-Reyes, Mr. Andrew Shaughnessy – 1 point
  • Patrick Musgrave – 2 points
  • Chancellor Michael Whelan – 3 points
  • Sergeant Ashley Burke – 4 points
  • Danny Graff – 5 points

This brings the current Merrick totals to:

  • Mr. Andrew Shaughnessy – 21
  • Mr. Alejandro Perez-Reyes – 9
  • Chancellor Michael Whelan – 9
  • Mr. Patrick Musgrave – 8
  • Mr. Danny Graff – 7
  • Chancellor Madeleine Ringwald – 6
  • Sergeant Ashley Burke – 6
  • Ms. Anna Hernick – 5
  • Mr. Samuel Kleinman – 4
  • Mr. Joseph Laposata – 4
  • Mr. Thomas Shuman – 4
  • Ms. Lauren Finkenthal – 4
  • Ms. Kathryn Li – 3
  • Mr. Kyle Rinaudo – 3
  • Mr. Adam Gonzalez – 1
  • Ms. Laura Kurek – 1

And, with a vote of 27 negating, 1 abstaining, and 28 affirming, this resolution is affirmed!

Huzzah for a wonderful debate and happy Spring Break to all!


Garrett Hinck

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