Monday, January 30, 2006

Rebel Without A Cause

These give rise to those,
So these are called conditions.

Nāgārjuna, Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (I: 5)

Pratītya-samutpāda (dependent origination) is the Buddhist alternative to a theory of inherent causality. It recognises the everyday experience of regularity and correlation without investing philosophical capital in an ultimately real force, or power, linking essential causes to necessary effects. In other words, causation, from a Mādhyamikan perspective, is empty; and as such we talk of conditions. As Garfield says in Dependent Arising and the Emptiness of Emptiness:

To assert the emptiness of causation is to accept the utility of our causal discourse and explanatory practice, but to resist the temptation to see these as grounded in reference to causal powers or as demanding such grounding. Dependent origination simply is the explicability and coherence of the universe. Its emptiness is the fact that there is no more to it than that.

(Garfield, Dependent Arising and the Emptiness of Emptiness, Ch.2)

It may be "simple" but I think the "explicability and coherence of the universe," and/or lack thereof, is the undercurrent that has pulled all the thinkers into an ocean of mythological, philosophical and scientific creativity. Causality is a major product of this creativity and before examining what it means to reject it, and how and why, I think it will be useful and interesting to investigate its historical development and variation to provide some background, shared and diverse, to the development of pratītya-samutpāda. This will be the main focus for the next couple of weeks.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Notes on the tetralemma

The tetralemma is the 'four-cornered logic' employed in Buddhist philosophy which can appear odd to those of us with a western heritage of Aristotelian syllogisms. As I will probably use the tetralemma at some point it is worth posting some notes which I have already written which relate it to some of the things I've been writing about in this weblog.

I think the tetralemma is best understood within the context of the Buddhist doctrine of two truths, the satyadvaya. As previously described, the two truths are typically designated ‘conventional’ and ‘ultimate’. Conventional truth applies to facts about the everyday reality of things, people and events. It is designated conventional in the sense of being the product of human interests and dispositions and does not correspond to anything independently or inherently true. Ultimate truth is deemed inexpressible in the sense that, in the absence of convention, there is no candidate for metaphysics-strength predication, including the ascription of existence/non-existence itself. Significantly, both conventional and ultimate truth has the same consequence – nothing can be said to exist by virtue of its own essence.

The tetralemma is comprised of four propositional formulations expressed positively or negatively.* Where x is any proposition and –x is its negation, a positive tetralemma takes the form of:

Both x and -x
Neither x nor -x

I think the positive tetralemma is an expression of the conventional validity of the two truths. The positive import of the two truths is that whilst it is stated that nothing is inherently real, i.e., nothing exists by virtue of its own independent essence, the familiar everyday world is, nonetheless, conventionally real and exists in a way which does not contradict experience. With this acceptance of conventional truth we are not left with an absurd conception of reality in which nothing exists in any sense whatsoever. Thus the contradictory standpoints of (naïve or philosophical) reification and nihilism are repudiated in favour of a ‘middle way’. The four formulations of propositions are traditionally presented in an order in which each view presents a progressively better expression of the middle way perspective whilst each is valid with qualification. Constrained by usual proofs, then, a positive tetralemma therefore permits and commits one to state that, e.g.:

The self is real (conventionally true, i.e., it exists in a dependent reality along with everything else we derive from experience)
The self is not real (ultimately true, i.e., it has no essence)
The self is both real and not real (conventionally real but ultimately unreal)
The self is neither real nor not real (neither ultimately real nor completely nonexistent)

A negative tetralemma takes the form of:

Not x
Not -x
Not (x and -x)
Not (neither x nor -x)

The negative tetralemma is the self-destructing logic of the ultimate truth (the emptiness of emptiness!) which denies the validity of any philosophical assertion of any kind including that of the attribution of existence and non-existence to anything. The import of the negative tetralemma is that it ultimately denies the validity of the doctrine of two truths which is itself designated a conventional truth.

An example would be its treatment of the proposition that "śūnyatā exists in time."

"Śūnyatā exists in time" should not be asserted.
"Śūnyatā does not exist in time" should not be asserted.
"Śūnyatā both does and does not exist in time" should not be asserted.
"Śūnyatā neither does nor does not exist in time" should not be asserted.

The negative tetralemma is purely about what can't be said about śūnyatā and, ultimately, nothing can be said. But even one who is aware of that may make mistakes. I think the fourth lemma is the most common mistake that even the most dedicated mystic may make but is avoided by a thoroughgoing application of the negative tetralemma. In this case the fourth lemma falsely implies the independent existence of time to which śūnyatā can be propositionally related.

*There is some dispute over whether Siddhartha Gautama endorsed the use of the positive tetralemma, but Nāgārjuna is less controversially interpreted as doing so.

Monday, January 23, 2006


Jay Garfield's systematic exposition of Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā is my most referenced source for interpreting Mādhyamikan Buddhism but I have found the work of Robert Magliola valuable too. In particular, Magliola's interpretation highlights the differential mysticism of Mādhyamika in opposition to the more popular strand of centric mysticism which often characterises Buddhism and older Hindu thought, such as the philosophy of the Upanishads. Central to differential mysticism is the characterisation of reality as an implacable process of alterity. It is through this alterity that any candidate for identity is thoroughly negated. This, Magliola states, is in stark contrast to the self-identity implied by the undifferentiated center one finds in centric mysticism. Citing Frederick Streng, Magliola begins to make this contrast clear in Derrida on the Mend:

"A major difference between Nāgārjuna's negative dialectic and the Upanishadic analogic use of words, however, is that unlike the 'Neti, Neti' (not [this], not [that]) expression in the Upanishads there is no inexpressible essential substratum which the negations attempt to describe. For Nāgārjuna, in place of the Brahman-Atman is anātman (no individual identity). The purpose of Nāgārjuna's negations is not to describe via negativa an absolute which cannot be expressed, but to deny the illusion that such a self-existent reality exists." Nāgārjuna "is not saying that the true eternal state of reality is a blank; the calmness of nirvāna does not refer to an ontological stratum beneath or behind the flux of experienced existence."

(Streng, cited in Magliola, Derrida on the Mend, p93-94)
He also elaborates on the origins and rise of the ultimate self-identity implicit in centric mysticism, its adoption by some schools of Zen Buddhism, and its subsequent dominance of Western perceptions of mysticism. It is an interesting section on Buddhism's history which I may return to but here I will refer only to its concluding comments which I think are important as they serve to accentuate a conception of reality that could easily be mistaken for Nāgārjuna's position but which is, in fact, rejected.

Westerners, through the good offices of Zen's great missionary to the West, D.T. Suzuki, know only of logocentric (and thus absolutist) Zen, and indeed there is no question that logocentric Zen has been for quite some time now Zen's most popular form. Or, to avoid needless confusion, let us call it "centric Zen," since its whole effort is to transcend logos understood as the language of is and is not and to achieve the 'undifferentiated center'. Thus Suzuki declares that "The meaning of the proposition 'A is A' is realized only when 'A is not-A'," that Buddhist philosophy is the "philosophy of self-identity," and that in this self-identity "there are no contradictions whatsoever." The supreme self-identity, indeed the only self-identity in the ultimate sense, is centric Zen's śūnyatā: "Emptiness is not a vacancy - it holds in it infinite rays of light and swallows all the multiplicities there are in this world."

(ibid., p97)
So, the point being made here is that, in the differential mysticism of Mādhyamika, śūnyatā, i.e., emptiness, is not an Upanishadic substratum nor a frame in which the entire multiplicity of phenomena is contained, or held, as it is in the 'absolutised Zen' described above. Instead, recalling from an earlier post that emptiness is dependent arising, it is characterised as a process of ongoing, ever-altering dependency and is thus always other than what is framed by any fixed term of reference or singular gnostic experience, hence the significance of the term 'alterity'. Therefore, the idea of enlightenment as a centering of awareness upon an immutable reality is untenable to the differential mystic. Rather, as Misra, cited in Derrida on the Mend, puts it:
[E]nlightenment itself is reality, in my view, not anything about which one is enlightened. And this is, according to me, the basic distinction between the Vedanta and the Mādhyamika: that in Vedanta enlightenment is enlightenment of Brahman, the awareness of Brahman as the Absolute, and in Mādhyamika enlightenment, or prajñā, does not mean the awareness of any reality. It means the awareness that things are essenceless or śūnya (empty of essence)....and this is freedom.

(ibid., p95)

Friday, January 20, 2006

Bullshit detector

David Skillicorn at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, has developed an algorithm which analyses the usage patterns of 88 "deception-linked" words to rate the level of spin in political speeches. It should be installed in the House of Commons with a certain level set for immediate disqualification.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Notes on satyadvaya

The Buddha's teaching of the Dharma
Is based on two truths:
A truth of worldly convention
And an ultimate truth.

Those who do not understand
The distinction drawn between these two truths
Do not understand
The Buddha's profound truth.

Without a foundation in the conventional truth,
The significance of the ultimate truth cannot be taught.
Without understanding the significance of the ultimate,
Liberation is not achieved.

Nāgārjuna, Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (XXIV: 8-10)
Satyadvaya (the two truths) is absolutely central to an understanding of Mādhyamikan Buddhism. They are:

Samvrti-satya: The conventional, or worldly, truth which applies to the everyday world of distinct phenomena and their relationships. This includes everything from the quark to human consciousness. It is designated conventional in that this individuated world is dependent on human dispositions and collective interests.

Paramārtha-satya: The ultimate, or sublime, truth which applies to reality in the absence of conventions, i.e., śūnyatā. Ultimate truth is deemed inexpressible in the sense that, in the absence of convention, there is no candidate for metaphysical-strength predication, including the ascription of existence/non-existence itself. Significantly, both conventional and ultimate truth has the same consequence – nothing can be said to exist by virtue of its own essence.

The general conception of two levels of truth is prevalent in Indian philosophy and can be traced to the Upanishads. To my knowledge, its prevalence in India is matched in scale by its absence in western philosophy. As such, some unfortunate misunderstandings can occur when a western philosopher hears of the two truths.

One major western misunderstanding of the satyadvaya which springs to mind would be to read in an appearance/reality distinction where paramārtha is the reality behind the samvrti appearance. This mistake would follow naturally from the assumption that śūnyatā is some kind of substance-in-itself which has been hitherto concealed by convention and/or faulty perception. This is not consistent with the Mādhyamikan rendering of the satyadvaya which asserts the ontic identity of conventional phenomena and the emptiness of śūnya whilst maintaining an epistemologically significant distinction between the two truths. The subtletly of this position and its consequences upon an understanding of the whole of Nāgārjuna's philosophy is expressed in the famous section from the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā:

By a misperception of emptiness
A person of little intelligence is destroyed.
Like a snake incorrectly seized
Or like a spell incorrectly cast.

Nāgārjuna, Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (XXIV: 11)

So, how should one cast this spell? I can't put it better than Jay Garfield does, so I won't:

Nāgārjuna establishes a critical three-way relationship between emptiness, dependent origination and verbal convention, and asserts that this relation itself is the Middle Way toward which his entire philosophical system is aimed. . . .Nāgārjuna is asserting that the dependently arisen is emptiness. Emptiness and the phenomenal world are not two distinct things. They are, rather, two characterizations of the same thing. To say of something that it is dependently co-arisen is to say that it is empty. To say of something that it is empty is another way of saying that it arises dependently.

Moreover, whatever is dependently co-arisen is verbally established. That is, the identity of any dependently arisen thing depends upon verbal conventions. To say of a thing that it is dependently arisen is to say that its identity as a single entity is nothing more than its being the referent of a word. The thing itself, apart from conventions of individuation, has no identity. To say of a thing that its identity is a merely verbal fact about it is to say that it is empty. To view emptiness in this way is to see it neither as an entity nor as unreal - it is to see it as conventionally real.

(Garfield, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, p304-305)

I will return to the satyadvaya in due course, particularly with respect to understanding Robert Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality in a non-dualistic way.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

What's wrong with essences anyway?

There are at least three answers to this.

One is that the naïve and/or philosophical reification of individuated entities is the misconception to which the twelve links of samsāric existence adhere. I intend to get to this much later.

Another is the pragmatist objection to essences which revolves around the manifest futility of essentialist metaphysics since its Aristotelian inception.

A third is evolution. As far as I have thought it through, if we take seriously the idea of cosmological evolution then any worldly* presence of essence becomes untenable because any given referent has the entire history of the evolved universe, up to and including its present state, as its conditions. Take these away as circumstantial, relational properties, as an essentialist must, and what essential property in this world can one possibly be left with? For surely an essence cannot be said to evolve, or emerge in any way, without violating the requirement that it be nonrelational with respect to time, i.e., that it be eternal.

* I say "worldly" because I suppose one may argue that the essences of all possible things already exist in some kind of atemporal transcendental realm.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Notes on svabhāva

Today I want to make some notes on my use of the term essence. I have thus far defined it rather negatively as "that which something has, or is, without dependence on conditions." I'll now add a little to this definition.

For anything to be without dependence on conditions means it comprises one or more nonrelational properties including, necessarily and significantly, the property of existing by virtue of itself. This is simply because if it didn't exist by virtue of itself it would depend on something else for its existence and would therefore have conditions. Furthermore, it has to be capable of being identified without reference to anything else. For how can one claim to have identified a nonrelational property in purely relational terms without contradiction?

So, a positive addition to my definition of essence is: that which has self-existence and self-identity. A further characteristic of an essence, if we want to apply a full-strength meaning to it, is that it is immutable. The simple argument for this is that if an essence is subject to change then its identity is related to the passage of time and this relational dependency precludes its status as an essence. More on this later. For now, I want to begin to place my use of essence in the philosophic context in which I intend to proceed. As noted in a previous post, a concept of essence is used negatively in the formulation of my position; a position which takes as its starting point the idea of pratītya-samutpāda (dependent origination) as elucidated best, in my opinion, by the Buddhist school of Mādhyamika.

The Mādhyamikan term for this use of essence is the Sanskrit word: svabhāva. Svabhāva is most commonly translated as self-nature. Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā can be characterised as a dialectical attack on the putative existence of svabhāva and the lack of svabhāva is an accurate definition of śūnyatā (emptiness). Jay Garfield, translating and commentating on Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, describes this relationship of śūnyatā to svabhāva in a down-to-earth way:

[W]hen a Mādhyamika philosopher says of a table that it is empty, that assertion by itself is incomplete. It invites the question, Empty of what? And the answer is, Empty of inherent existence, or self-nature, or in more Western terms, essence. Now, to say that the table is empty is hence simply to say that it lacks essence and importantly not to say that it is completely nonexistent. To say that it lacks essence, the Mādhyamika philosopher will explain, is to say, as the Tibetans like to put it, that it does not exist "from its own side" - that existence as the object that it is - as a table - depends not on it, nor on any purely nonrelational characteristics, but depends on us as well. That is, if our culture had not evolved this manner of furniture, what appears to us to be an obviously unitary object might instead be correctly described as five objects: four quite useful sticks absurdly surmounted by a pointless slab of stick-wood waiting to be carved.

(Garfield, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, p89-90)

Note that nothing in this example hinges on the fact that the table is an artifact. The same points could be made about the tree from which its wood was hewn. The boundaries of the tree, both spatial and temporal (consider the the junctures between root and soil, or leaf and air; between live and dead wood; between seed, shoot and tree); its identity over time (each year it sheds its leaves and grows new ones; some limbs break; new limbs grow); its existence as a unitary object, as opposed to a collection of cells; etc, are all conventional. Removing its properties leaves no core bearer behind. Searching for the tree that is independent of and which is the bearer of its parts, we come up empty.

(ibid, footnote, p90)

It is this down-to-earth understanding of the lack of essence in the world which provides the modern basis of my philosophic project by linking Nāgārjuna to the renowned American pragmatist, Richard Rorty and, later, to Robert Pirsig. In Philosophy and Social Hope, Rorty explains his antiessentialist position:

Starting from Bacon's claim that knowledge is power, [pragmatists] proceed to the claim that power is all there is to knowledge - that a claim to know X is a claim to be able to do something with or to X, to put X into relation with something else. To make this claim plausible, however, they have to attack the notion that knowing X is a matter of being related to something intrinsic to X, whereas using X is a matter of standing in an extrinsic, accidental relation to X. In order to attack that notion, they need to bring down the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic - between the inner core of X and a peripheral area of X which is constituted by the fact that X stands in certain relations to the other items which make up the universe. The attempt to break down this distinction is what I shall call antiessentialism. For pragmatists, there is no such thing as a nonrelational feature of X, any more than there is such a thing as the intrinsic nature, the
essence, of X.

(Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope, p50)
We antiessentialists would like to convince you that it...does not pay to be an essentialist about tables, stars, electrons, human beings, academic disciplines, social institutions, or anything else. We suggest that...there is nothing to be known about them except an initially large, and forever expandable, web of relations to other objects. Everything that can serve as a term of relation can be dissolved into another set of relations, and so on for ever. There are, so to speak, relations all the way down, all the way up, and all the way out in every direction: you never reach something which is not just one more nexus of relations.

(ibid, p53-54)
So, hopefully I have brought attention to the (unoriginal) observation that both Nāgārjuna and Rorty are antiessentialists. Not surprisingly, they have quite different methods of formulating the philosophic consequences of this stance. Both formulations have benefits and I will explore each in due course.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Dependent Origination: A philosophical position statement

When I claim to be a (diet-)* Buddhist, what I mean is that for all practical purposes I take to be true the concept of pratītya-samutpāda (dependent origination) and the satyadvaya (“two truths”) through which it is explicated. In my opinion, in a philosophical sense, dependent origination is Buddhism. I find dependent origination to be a completely rational and adequate characterisation of reality which as far as I am aware precludes none of the presently accepted scientific truths about the physical universe whilst agreeing with a neo-pragmatist repudiation of essentialist metaphysics and the appearance/reality distinction which goes with it.

Dependent origination is a Buddhist technical term for the entirely conditional reality of phenomena. Reality is designated conditional in that not one aspect of it originates or exists independently of every other; everything is dependent on conditions. If everything is dependent on conditions, and an essence of something is just that which it has, or is, without dependence on conditions, it follows that nothing has, or is, an essence. Furthermore, if a thing exists inherently only by virtue of its essence, and if nothing has an essence, then nothing exists inherently. If nothing exists inherently then there is no “way the world inherently is” and thus no tenable metaphysical-strength distinction between appearance and reality. With no hard metaphysical distinction between appearance and reality one can make no philosophical sense of a hard correspondence of knowledge to independent reality.

So much for my metaphysical and epistemological position statement. There are naturally a lot of unsupported statements in such a brief summary of an entire philosophy and I intend to work through each claim in more detail.

* For example, I have never even visited a monastery.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Resolution #1

One of my New Year resolutions was to create a weblog.

If only the rest were that easy.

I want to use this log as a single place to express my thoughts with the knowledge that they might be read by somebody else (so had better be well written) and also simply because I enjoy writing. I enjoy writing because I enjoy the challenge of articulating my thoughts. I also enjoy reading others' thoughts, particularly when they are well articulated. Philosophers' thoughts tend to be well articulated so it is no coincidence that I enjoy reading and writing about philosophy. I don't really have an agenda but philosophy is what I think I'll mainly be writing about here although I can opine at will about politics, religion, football, music and films too, so they'll almost certainly make an appearance.

Philosophically speaking, I'm currently closest to the writing of Pirsig, Nāgārjuna and Rorty. I have contributed to the (Robert Pirsig) discussion forum for a couple of years but recently bowed out due to a combination of lack of time, frustration and boredom as it became clear to me that arguments are mostly concluded through attrition. Despite this it's generally a good forum and I'll certainly be writing a few things about Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality here.

Politically, it's sufficient to say I'm drifting at the moment (I live in the UK, by the way) and religion-wise I'm an atheist/diet-Buddhist. Just what this amounts to should become clear as this blog grows.

The rate that this blog will actually grow is something I'm not sure about. Time is currently at a premium but I'll just see how it goes.