Contra Nagarjuna

Jay L. Garfield has an excellent translation and commentary of the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika (“The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way”).  And this reminds me of a problem I had while reading this book: Nagarjuna’s arguments seem to beg the question.  Below I explain why. 

All phenomena are empty, according to Nagarjuna.  That’s to say, any phenomenon lacks essence or independent existence; it exists not inherently, but only conventionally.  This is how Garfield explains the idea of emptiness of, say, a table:

…it does not exist “from its own side”that its existence as the object that it isas 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.  Or we would have no reason to indicate this particular temporary arrangement of this matter as an object at all, as opposed to a brief intersection of the histories of some trees.  It is also to say that the table depends for its existence on its parts, on its causes, on its material, and so forth.  Apart from these, there is no table.  The table, we might say, is a purely arbitrary slice of space-time chosen by us as the referent of a single name and not an entity demanding, on its own, recognition and a philosophical analysis to reveal its essence.  That independent character is precisely what it lacks on this view.  (Garfield, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, pp.88~9)

As far as I can see, Nagarjuna argues for the emptiness of phenomena mostly by reductio ad absurdum.  For any phenomenon our names designate as a single entity, Nagarjuna purports to establish two claims: that (i) it only exists interdependently with other phenomena, and that (ii) it is mind-dependent and hence conventional.

But quite often (though I don’t think always) Nagarjuna seems to argue for (i) by assuming the truth of (ii), which I take to be one of the desired conclusions of his arguments.  Let me show why I think this, first by parodying the troubling features of some Nagarjunian arguments, and then giving specific examples of such arguments from Nagarjuna himself.

Here’s the parody.  Nagarjuna’s arguments sometimes sound like this (I give a reductio argument):

Assume that husbands and wives exist independently of one another.  Then it follows that there can be husbands without any wives.  But that’s absurd!  It follows from there being husbands that there must be wives.  Therefore, to avoid this absurdity, we must give up the assumption that husbands and wives exist independently.

In the toy argument above, we get the contradiction by relying on the fact that “husband” and “wife” are correlative terms.  But surely this doesn’t mean that the person designated or described by the term “husband” must depend for his existence on the person designated or described by the term “wife”.  The parody argument establishes only dependency in the way we describe things (call this “de dicto dependence”), and not dependency in the way things really are (call this “de re dependence”).  The argument goes wrong in assuming that de dicto dependence (i.e., interconnections in our descriptions of things) establishes de re dependence (i.e., interdependence in the natures of things in themselves).

Once we distinguish between dependence de re and de dicto, it seems that some of Nagarjuna’s arguments establish only de dicto dependence, not de re dependence.  Here are some relevant passages from his Mulamadhyamakakarika (Garfield trans.).  Each of these passages seems to rely on de dicto dependence to establish de re dependence.

Chapter II, verse 4:

For whomever there is motion in the mover,

There could be non-motion

Evident in the mover.

But having motion follows from being a mover.

Chapter X, verse 9:

If fire depends on fuel,

It would be the establishment of an established fire.

And the fuel could be fuel

Without any fire.

Chapter XIII, verse 5:

A thing itself does not change.

Something different does not change,

Because a young man doesn’t grow old,

And because an old man doesn’t grow old either.

Chapter XIV, verses 5~6:

A different thing depends on a different thing for its difference.

Without a different thing, a different thing wouldn’t be different.

It is not tenable for that which depends on something else

To be different from it.

If a different thing were different from a different thing,

Without a different thing, a different thing could exist.

But without that different thing, that different thing does not exist.

It follows that it doesn’t exist.

According to Garfield’s commentary, Chapter X “Examination of Fire and Fuel” is especially important, because it is Nagarjuna’s response to those Buddhists who accept a one-way dependence relation (somewhat like supervenience) of conventional phenomena upon a non-conventional base level of atoms.  Just as the existence of fire depends on fuel but not fuel on fire, so conventional phenomena depend on the basic constituents of reality but not vice versa.  Against these Buddhists, Nagarjuna’s Chapter X is meant to argue for two-way dependence in the case of fire and fuel, thus showing by analogy the emptiness of the basic constituents of reality as well.  But his argument for this, as I’ve suggested, relies on de dicto rather than de re dependence of fuel on fire. 

Does Nagarjuna beg the question then?  That’s how it seems to me.  His arguments seem to beg the question against realists like the Nyaya philosophers, and against Buddhists who accept a one-way dependence relation.  Quite subtly he assumes what needs to be argued for.  He needs to argue that for every X there is a Y such that X is dependent on Y.  In arguing for this he assumes that de dicto dependence of X on Y establishes de re dependence of X and Y.  The assumption in turn presupposes that X is mind-dependent, and this presupposition is just a particular instantiation of the general conclusion that needs to be argued for!

That said, it’s quite likely that I am not giving the most charitable interpretation of Nagarjuna’s arguments.  Perhaps Nagarjuna does have an argument to show, in the Mulamadhyamakakarika or elsewhere, that de dicto dependence can establish de re dependence without begging questions.  But this argument, or the most charitable interpretation of Nagarjuna, escapes me.  If the reader is aware of where my ignorance lies, I ask for enlightenment.

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3 thoughts on “Contra Nagarjuna

  1. This is really interesting, Boram, but I guess I am really wondering about the following transition in your argument:

    “In arguing for this he assumes that de dicto dependence of X on Y establishes de re dependence of X and Y. The assumption in turn presupposes that X is mind-dependent…”

    I think it is because I don’t understand the basis of this transition that I don’t understand why you say that Nagarjuna begs the question. Can you help me understand?

  2. Thanks Colin, that’s a good question. It’s been a while since I’ve had these thoughts and I missed a step or two in making the transition.

    So you are wondering how I suppose that:

    (1) de dicto dependence of X on Y establishes de re dependence of X on Y

    must assume:

    (2) the mind-dependence of X (and Y).

    Basically I asked myself how it is possible that our way of describing things (de dicto) can be enough to show the way things really are (de re). It is possible on the assumption that conventionalism about objects is true. And I’ve supposed that it is possible only on that assumption. And conventionalism about objects implies that the objects are not mind-independent, but constructed by the mind, through the use of conventions for sorting, individuating and naming things.

    Perhaps Nagarjuna has another way of showing how (1) can be true, without assuming conventionalism and therefore (2) as well. If so, Nagarjuna would be able to avoid question-begging.

  3. My understanding is that the nature of anything (matter, mind, and their derivatives) has not been established except according to convention; thus assertions about existents (or non-existents) from their own standpoint are merely speculative and turn out to be incoherent even without question-begging or reductio.

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