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.


Psybertron said...

Hi Paul,

Sorry I linked to Ant's copy of your "Tetralemma" paper, without noticing it was a blog post.

Here's the link where I referred to it.


Paul Turner said...

No problem, Ian. I sent it to Ant before I pposted it here. The post I referred to in my comment on your "Wow, it's full of holes!" post is 'Alterity'.

MetaMapper said...

I have a 4-way mousetrap.

You basically set it without any cheese in it.

When someone trips one of the four extremes of a tetralemma then a cheese appears.
The four are: conventionally true (X), ultimately true (not X), both conventionally and ultimately true (both X and not X), neither ultimately real nor nonexistent (neither X nor not X) so be careful with your assertions or you'll be left holding the cheese.

Also, you know, the cheese stands alone.

Thus you'll have found your mouse.

And as an old zen master once said, "This cheese is good"

Enjoy! ;-)

Unknown said...

I am especially curious about solution focused decision making involving tetralemma. I have come to associate the approach, as demonstrated by Petra Mehrtens and Petra Müller-Demary, to the act of sewing a four hole button after playing a marketing-related imagination game introduced by Gemma with 5 other colleagues at a table on the last afternoon of the workshop with various objects she picked from her bag, one being a button, which I imagined to have four tiny windows to options in the tetralemma.
A dilemma is like the thread on the button. In a dilemma, one option is equally attractive as the other. What if the dilemmic button was an illusion? Imagine all four holes of the button merge into one, the thread falls right through and forms a straight strand. Shall I be so bold to say that they are one and the same. It makes no difference, as Peter would put it, which decision one makes because it is the same, in the end. The end is beyond a foreseeable future. If the end is beyond a foreseeable future, how do I know? Foresight itself is a prediction of the distant future. But future reality may reveal itself different entirely. We have an innate natural ability to shift we can rely on. In the same way, one would shift in his seat or bed to find a comfortable position. Trust this instinct to get you where you need to be. Do not be afraid to make any decision for fear of failure. Failure is not absolute and learn from them because it is a natural process in the greater scheme of things and essential to shift. Do not be held back by fear; fear of failure. Fear is to judgement what cloud is to weather. Fear clouds our judgement what otherwise would be as clear as a sunny day. Fear of failure.
A decision is not the be all end all but rather part of a continuous strand, interweaved in the fabric of life, a corelation between a small map with greater detail and a big map which gives an overall picture, as Andreas would put it. The challenge here is to be able to see the bigger picture. To look beyond the dilemma. Like water, there is flow until equilibrium is achieved. If something does not work out, trust in the shift, to make necessary changes to work things out, that things would work out somehow in the end. This is yin and yang. Can you help me state it more simply? How to integrate into solution focus coaching?

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Marnix Lamers said...

Hello Great piece! very interesting. One detail: you state an example for the 4 positions. In that, he third is: 'The self is not real (ultimately true, i.e., it has no essence)'. Don;t you mean this: 'The self is not real (ultimately UNtrue, i.e., it has no essence)

?? Let me know... Marnix Lamers, Holland

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Paddy Bergin said...

From Paddy Bergin for LIu: The Tetralemma is used in NLP coaching in various ways, one of which is in changing limiting beliefs. Check out Robert Dilts at