We always talk and think about self as a noun. When reading Buddhist philosophy, I have never seen exceptions to this. Both "common sense looking" and "metaphysical looking" is looking for the self.

For me, it has been helpful to think about the word 'self' as a verb. Something like this: Self is action, even the sheer directedness of mind is an action. "I" self therefore "I" am. Apart from that, "I" am not. There is no looker apart from the looking, no self apart from the selfing. To me, the question "what/where is the 'I' doing the selfing?" is redundant.

The self is the (dependently arisen) selfing. If, and only if, the causes and conditions for selfing is present, there is selfing. If they're not present in the first place, or removed, there's no selfing.

Why even assume or presuppose that there could be the slightest possibility of finding this “thing” self? Why look? It’s not helpful at all, in my opinion.

Does anyone know thinkers/writers explicitly talking and thinking about self as action/verb?

  • 1
    What you are referring to is an idea common in Nonduality (there's a Tag for that). Paul Hedderman is the only person I know to use the word "Selfing", you might find his explanation useful. (He does swear a lot.) People tend to 'self' because the being inherently wants to continue to exist. This is instinctual, and then becomes part of ego. Once it is in ego, the entire ego must be seen through and understood to get over that tendency. But the instinctual "I am this one and everything else could hurt me" perspective is still there.
    – user2341
    Commented Dec 4, 2015 at 13:01
  • In response to whether their are other writers thinking about this - check out Alan Watts, The Book, and The Wisdom Of Insecurity.
    – dgo
    Commented Dec 4, 2015 at 21:31
  • Maybe because you are adding "self" with the " time " component? Self, as perceived in time, could be confused as a verb rather than noun because that's how actions of nouns flow/happen. If you take the time out of the equation, you have the self as a noun.
    – vianna77
    Commented Dec 6, 2015 at 0:52

5 Answers 5


I think it's conventionally useful to identify 'the agent' of an action, for example, "Whose turn is it to wash the dishes?" implies there's a someone who'll be doing that (more or less reliably).

People (or people's feelings) are also nouned when they're used as the object of a sentence, for example, "I hurt him."

Personal identity (including family) are also important (in law/jurisprudence) in assigning ownership of property, for example, "Who owns this land?", and inheritance etc.

Having nouns in sentences is partly grammar. For example, Chinese sentence structure allows sentences without verbs (Wikipedia calls it "to some degree pro-drop or null-subject language"),

Today hike up mountains, tomorrow camp outdoors.

Perhaps similarly, a nounal subject is optional/implied/unecessary in Latin, where the suffix of the verb is conjugated to indicate the person. So for example amo, amas, amat is (or must be) translated into English by adding pronouns (required by English grammar) as "I love", "You love, and "He or She loves"; but maybe you can think of it without a noun (or with less of a noun) as "first person loving", "second person loving", and "third person loving".

I might have heard that linguists have theorized that there's a correlation between grammar and reality, but I haven't heard any details about that.

I don't know Pali well enough to include it in this answer, but look at an example of some Pali at the top of this page (which starts with the Pali atta for "self", from which we then get anattā or "non-self").

I found a comment about Sanskrit -- Jayarava said,

There’s nothing wrong with creating new verbs from nouns. We do it all the time. There’s even a technical term for such verbs: denominative. We also go the other way and create verbal nouns.

And it’s not just English that does this. Sanskrit is full of denominative verbs and verbal nouns.

  • People (or people's feelings) are also nouned. Nice. Way to to turn noun into a verb.
    – dgo
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 0:22

I don't think there's an overly good answer to your question. "Self", as a word, in every language, is a noun. Quite simply, this is why people use it as a noun.

Your suggestion to use it as a verb is interesting. I'd offer yet another suggestion: why think of words as being "nouns" or "verbs" at all? Noun and verb are just mind-made constructs to add a certain level of detail to concepts; you could just as easily opt to ignore them and consider the raw nature of the concepts themselves.

  • Yes. My reason for asking is that I've read Western philosophers who explicitly talk about the self as verb. Kierkegaard is one, Harry G. Frankfurt another. And I agree, all language is constructs. Still, thinking about self as action has helped me analyzing my self (sic) and my actions. Thanks Commented Dec 4, 2015 at 12:47

Your question stands on the shoulders of giants and still can't get the job done. I don't mean this badly; I mean you are starting from a very high state of being and inquiry (in relationship to most human thought), and asking the question that is kind of at the heart of the matter; and you're asking "the question" as if it was a 'duh' question - (how could anyone not know this? duh ), and it's not.

What's interesting is that any intellectual knowledge you (not you specifically) have about this subject is fairly useless. The answer to this question as an answer is not helpful, because what matters is the ability to unlock that understanding gradually (or all at once), pulling apart the masses of accumulated attachments that help construct the prison of the self (I prefer the word identity when attempting to distinguish the self of attachments).

What's important isn't so much - 'Why talk and think about self as noun?', because this isn't an error that arises in grammar. Grammar makes the trap that much stickier, but the process of relating to one's self as being fixed - of having immutable qualities, etc. - arose not out of the language used to identify us skin sacks - but rather the morass that us stuffed into those skin sacks.

Thinking about it in basic terms - the question isn't Why talk about self as noun?, but something closer to Why is it that I experience myself as - and only as - an *it*; an object sitting inside a sack of skin, looking out through two holes at a world outside of; and also separate from; myself?

There is a source to the experience of a permanent, unchanging self, and the access to getting to that source is not attempting to codify your experience in transitional language. That's like putting a bow tie on a bowel movement. The access to unminding is different for all of us - it involves dismantling our own barriers and attachment. It's also a similar enough process that techniques such as those espoused by the Buddha and other great teachers were set up - and could be set up - to give people an access back to themselves.

  • I didn't understand the phrase, "There is a source to experience of a permanent, unchanging self"
    – ChrisW
    Commented Dec 5, 2015 at 8:52
  • @ChrisW . There was a grammatical error. Thanks for catching it. Does the correction resolve it, or is it still unclear?
    – dgo
    Commented Dec 5, 2015 at 22:34
  • 1
    Yes, thank you. Ironically (given the question topic), the reason I couldn't read the sentence was that I was reading "to experience" as a verb. Then after you fixed the syntax so I could read it, at first I found the semantics/meaning difficult -- difficult to reconcile "a permanent, unchanging self" with anatta -- but clearer now. Thank you again.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Dec 5, 2015 at 23:35

Self as a noun implies an entity which implies that the person is unchanging or has an unchanging core or identity.

Self as a verb implies that the the entity has control. This is also not the case, though there might be some apparent control it is not absolute.

In Buddhism there is no concept of Atman as this would imply.

A being is nothing but the cyclical rolling forward of the dependent origination which takes a more of a process oriented view of a being. A being that is dependently arisen. Here there is nothing permanent, the next arisen person is not someone entirely different not the same, all constituents of the being are transient. This is more like stochastic process in terms of modern understanding.


Self as noun or action/verb?

Is mirage is a noun or action?
Is rainbow is a noun or action?

Is Dress(Not cloth) is a noun(a thing) or concept?
Is person is a noun or concept?

Is Me(self) is a noun or concept?(Mantel action).

  • A relation that relates itself to itself, not the relation itself, but the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation. That's what I mean by action Commented Dec 4, 2015 at 16:52
  • @Mr.Concept In buddisum it's called "patichchasamuppada".
    – Shrawaka
    Commented Dec 4, 2015 at 17:00
  • @Mr.Concept: Well said, well said!
    – user2341
    Commented Dec 11, 2015 at 1:32

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