KARL JASPERS FORUM
TA 93 (Müller)
Response 23 (Addition to R21)
by Ninian Smart
1967, posted 17 May 2008
a note on
THE ‘LAW’ OF METAPHYSICS BY DEFAULT (MIR-RELAPSE)
by Herbert FJ Müller
7 May 2008, posted 17 May 2008
NAGARJUNA, Buddhist metaphysician who lived sometime in the early second century, was probably born a Brahman in south India. His main work was done at Nalanda, the Buddhist university in north India. He was the founder of the Madhyamika school of Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) Buddhism and can be reckoned the subtlest and most original philosopher that this wing of Buddhism has produced. Although in part he developed earlier ideas, his systematic application of the dialectical method was novel in Buddhism and had a lasting influence. He harnessed what appeared to be a total philosophical skepticism to a positive interpretation of Buddhism.
The Madhyamika, or "Middle," school that Nagarjuna founded claimed to give a correct interpretation of the Buddha's intentions in refusing to answer certain questions - for instance, the question of whether the saint who has attained nirvana persists after his decease - on the ground that they were wrongly put. The Buddha rejected the views that the saint does, that he does not, that he both does and does not, and that he neither does nor does not. Nagarjuna generalized and reinterpreted this procedure, trying to show that all points of view about reality are contradictory. Thus his position is at the "middle" between the possible alternative theories about the world. Therefore, nothing can properly be said about reality, although the term "Void" (sunya) could be used to signify its ineffability. Thus, the doctrine of the school is also referred to as Voidism (sunyavada). "Void" also served to express the emptiness of contemplative experience, so that it had a religious meaning as well as a philosophical one. Indeed, the term "the Void" came to function in the Madhyamika system as the name of an admittedly insubstantial Absolute, embracing phenomena and constituting their inner nature.
The view that all views are self-contradictory should in effect invalidate ordinary language. For instance, Nagarjuna criticized all theories of causation, which are themselves presupposed by ordinary concepts. Although at a higher philosophical level common-sense discourse is misleading, we can legitimately use it at a conventional level for the ordinary purposes of living. Thus Nagarjuna held a two-level theory of truth, which was incorporated some eight centuries later into the epistemology of Sankara, who, ironically, used Madhyamika concepts in the formulation of a renascent and rival Hinduism. Nagarjuna's position here certainly corresponded to a theme running through Buddhism from very early times, namely, that ordinary language is misleading (for instance, it suggests that there is a permanent self underlying physical and mental processes). On the other hand, it was paradoxical for Voidism to hold, as a consequence of its skepticism, that the central teachings of the Buddha himself, such as that about the causes of rebirth, were false at the higher level.
Some Indian philosophers held the view that the effect is identical with the cause (that is, it is merely a transformation of the cause). But this view, according to Nagarjuna, is absurd. First it implies that a thing produces itself. But if it already exists, it is wrong to speak of something's being produced. Second, a cause is either eternal or temporary. If eternal, there is no reason, other than some separate temporary condition, why it should produce its effect at one time rather than another. Since the eternal cause is unchanging, it is rational to explain the change through a temporary condition. But if the cause is temporary, it can be distinguished from, and is not identical with, the effect.
The nonidentity theory, which asserts that the cause and effect are distinct, is equally open to criticism. If the cause is totally extraneous to the effect, then anything can come out of anything, and this negates causal connection. But if there is something intrinsic to the effect, then the identity theory must hold. Further, a combination of these theories can be countered by a combination of these arguments. A similar type of critique is directed at other pairs and combinations of philosophical theories.
The gist of all these arguments is that the concept of relation involves a contradiction. If two things are externally related, the relation cannot be made sense of; and if they are internally related, they cannot be two. Because the empirical world, both as described in Buddhist doctrines and as experienced in ordinary life, seemingly comprises states and events in relation to one another, any statement about it will be incoherent. But how can even this be said ? Does this not involve a view about the world that ought to come under Nagarjuna's ban ? Here his standpoint claimed to be negative : it was a series of reductiones ad absurdum of other viewpoints. In theory, therefore, the dialectic was not open to the criticisms it leveled at common sense and other philosophical positions.
Nevertheless, as his position was developed, especially by his successors, it became clear that some sort of thesis was implied. In religious terms, this could be expressed as follows. Ultimate reality is the Void: of this nothing can be predicated. But fortunately this empty Absolute phenomenalizes itself at the lower or empirical level as the Buddha. Thus a revelation fills the gap left by philosophical skepticism. And, as has been seen, the ineffability of the Void reflected the highest stage of mystical experience, so that one could have a kind of direct knowledge of the Absolute.
Nagarjuna's work was carried on in the late second century by his pupil Aryadeva; and in the fifth century the school split over the issue of whether the sunyavdda should be established simply by a negative dialectic or by positive arguments in favor of the religious interpretation. Partly as a result of the work of Candrakirti (sixth century), the school coalesced with Buddhist idealism (vijnana-uada). This mixed form of the Madhyamika became the dominant metaphysics in Tibetan Buddhism.
A work attributed to Nagarjuna and relevant to Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism is Mahayanavirhsaka, edited and translated by Vidhushekhara Bhattacharya (Calcutta, 1931).
Works in which Nagarjuna is discussed are Edward Conze, Buddhist Thought in India (London, 1964); T. R. V. Murti, The Central Philosophy of Buddhism (London, 1955); and Fedor I. Stcherbatsky, The Central Conception of Buddhism and Meaning of the Word "Dharma" (London, 1924). Stcherbatsky's The Conception of Buddhist Nirvana (Leningrad, 1917) includes a translation of Nagarjuna's key text "Treatise on Relativity" and ancient commentary.
This summary on Nagarjuna is from
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Ed Paul Edwards, Macmillan Co and The Free Press, New York, Collier Macmillan Publishers London, 1967.
The author, Roderick Ninian Smart (1927-2001), was Professor of Theology, Univ. of Birmingham.
OF METAPHYSICS BY
by Herbert FJ Müller
7 May 2008, posted 17 May 2008
My reason for posting Smart’s evaluation of Nagarjuna here is that so far I have not received other commentaries in response to R21 to TA93, which dealt with ‘Anti-Metaphysics – Without Structuring – in Tibet’ and presented a review by F Holmgren (‘Truth in Tibet’) of a recent book by Samten and Garfield, which describes Nagarjuna’s position as a ‘relentless critique of metaphysics’ (it is curious then to see that Smart labelled him a ‘metaphysician’, even though he attributed to him a ‘total philosophical skepticism’). Nagarjuna’s work is important because it has been of great influence on the subsequent development of Buddhist philosophy in India and Tibet.
My specific question in this context is whether Nagarjuna, in his critique of metaphysics, discusses the point that mental structures are created within experience, always involving the subject(s). From the above description by Smart, as well as from the book review by Holmgren, the answer appears to be that he did not. Despite his anti-metaphysical stance and his emphasis on the ‘void’ (see ff above), which could correspond to the unstructured origin of the 0-D view, he did not question that objects, ‘things’, are complete in themselves , and there is no hint that subject(s)-participation is needed for the structures to ‘exist’.
If that is a correct interpretation of Nagarjuna’s opinion, his great influence might explain the striking fact that Indian epistemology, which is often perceived as being anti-materialist and anti-metaphysical, nevertheless tends to base itself on what could be called ‘micro-materialism’, with assumptions such as the one of existence of entities like ‘thought-carrying particles’, etc. (see for instance the KJF Target Articles 81-82 by De & Pal, and 102-105 by Vimal). The connection between the lack of mention of the subject(s)’ role in structuring, and this persistence or resurgence of materialism could, I suppose, be as follows.
As I have discussed in TA93, Western epistemology has long battled with the idea of mind-independent reality (MIR, metaphysics-ontology), which is both impossible to know and needed for structured thinking. Its efforts to rid itself of metaphysics have been, by and large, unsuccessful, despite repeated announcements over recent centuries and decades that ‘from now on’ we are to have ‘non-metaphysical’, or ‘post-metaphysical’, or even ‘non-epistemological’ thinking, once and for all times. Despite these intentions the relapses into metaphysics have been more or less total, for instance in empiricism, in logical positivism, in analytical and surprisingly also in phenomenological views (see my description in TA93) - simply because metaphysics is needed for thinking.
So far as I can see, the only way out of the metaphysics-dilemma (its simultaneous necessity and impossibility) is to recognize that it is an essential mental instrument, which always implies the use by (activity of) the subject(s). That means a step to operational thinking, which transforms metaphysics-ontology from a fictitious mind-independent agency (or entity) into a practical mental tool, similar to gestalt-formation, language, or mathematics, all of which have at times been misinterpreted as indicating mind-independent reality and/or truth. But when they are treated as tools, the conceptual problems always disappear.
My present understanding of these relationships is that there is a ‘law’ to the effect that :
In the absence of acknowledgment of subject-inclusive structuring of experience, the assumption of mind-independence will always creep in by default, and manifest itself in one way or another, despite all possible denials-in-principle of materialism or of metaphysics.
The apparent ‘lawfulness’ of these events is a consequence of the fact that one automatically makes implicit or explicit assumptions about the origin of mental mind-and world structures. If the subject is excluded (on purpose or by neglect) there remain the possibilities of indigenous object-origin (such as things-in-themselves, empiricism, materialism, positivism), or of super-natural (e.g., divine) origin. The last of these is not usually considered in epistemological discussions. Thus, by default, some variety of materialism resurges.
The relapse into mind-independently pre-structured reality-belief (MIR-relapse, objectivity by default) is therefore built into the basic operations of thinking. It happens whenever the subject(s)’ activity is not taken into account; per se it does not depend on any particular philosophical traditions.
But tradition appears to shape the form of the relapse : in the case of Indian epistemology, the relapse appears to occur into an apparent traditional micro-materialism, while in Western epistemology it happens according to the Platonic-Aristotelian tradition of ‘real but unknowable’ macroscopic entities. Both of these options I suggest are pseudo-rational (i.e., nebulous), while subject-inclusive creation and use of working-structures with feedback-control is clear and can be examined in detail.
(The pseudo-rationality expresses a pretension of impossible thorough rationality which Feyerabend has rightly denounced; it is not the same as ‘mystery’, which is an inevitable ineffable property of the unstructured origin of structures.)
I am greatly interested in the opinion of others, who are more knowledgeable on these questions, particularly those acquainted with Indian epistemology.
Herbert FJ Müller
e-mail <herbert.muller (at) mcgill.ca>