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.

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