In a recent exchange with Graham Priest, Massimo Pigliucci (who works mainly in philosophy of science, and Stoicism) takes aim at this notion that most Western philosophers’ disdain for Buddhism has to do with an aversion to contradictions, easily understood if one’s pursuit of knowledge and truth is rooted in a recognition of the Aristotelian principles of non-contradiction and the excluded middle. Priest, as is known, has been defending for some time the notion that Buddhist philosophy is full of contradictions (most recently here) and that, actually, that might not be such a bad thing (if dialetheism is to have a place of pride in the logical space of reasons).
Now, I am always happy to see mainstream philosophers take an interest in what is being said about Buddhist philosophy by fellow mainstream colleagues. The only problem is that whomsoever gets to speak on its behalf matters to what is being said about it. Pigliucci should be forgiven therefore for walking away with the impression that Buddhist philosophy means Nāgārjuna and his catuṣkoṭi, and that much of what Buddhist thinkers, both classical and contemporary, are concerned with is figuring out what the Buddha said and did, and why.
And what Priest thinks Nāgārjuna’s Buddha meant is something like this:
“The language we use frames our conventional reality (our Lebenswelt, as it is called in the German phenomenological tradition). Beneath that there is an ultimate reality, such as the condition of the enlightened dead person. One can experience this directly in certain meditative states, but one cannot describe it. To say anything about it would merely succeed in making it part of our conventional reality; it is, therefore, ineffable. In particular, one cannot describe it by using any of the four possibilities furnished by the catuṣkoṭi.”
And so here we go again: Eastern thought is intuitive and mystical and Western philosophy is rational and argumentative, and the twain shall never meet. No matter all those wonderful analogies between the contradictions of Madhyamaka* Buddhism and logical developments in the West since Aristotle that Priest marshals, the damage is already done. For Pigliucci all this talk of paraconsistency in Buddhism is just a veiled attempt to import logic into mysticism and to make paradoxical Buddhist ideas as rigorous as Western logic and math. As he puts it: “the rigor in the latter comes out of the ability to very precisely spell out formalism, build arguments and proofs, defend or abandon axioms, and so on. Nothing of the kind appears to be the case within Buddhist tradition.”
End of story!
Now, let’s just say for the sake of argument that Pigliucci had a colleague at CUNY someone who was both a philosopher and a scholar of Buddhist philosophy, say, someone like Mark Siderits, Jan Westerhoff, or Jay Garfield (on the principle that one most often learns about traditions of thought wholly outside one’s purview from one’s colleagues, if at all). How might this exchange have gone? Let’s see.
Take Westerhoff, for instance. His Nāgārjuna is concerned not with why ultimate reality cannot be described “by using any of the four possibilities furnished by the catuṣkoṭi” because it is ineffable, and saying anything about it renders it a part of our conventional reality. Rather, the main concern is with precisely how we are supposed to acquire knowledge of emptiness: that is, of the notion that things, including the sources of knowledge we rely on to access them, lack the intrinsic features typically ascribed to them. Now, Nāgārjuna’s critique of epistemology is mainly the critique of a version of the Nyāya** theory of knowledge (the quintessential school of analytic philosophy in early India, and the Buddhists’ arch-opponents). Nāgārjuna’s point is that knowledge does not come from the use of a set of epistemic procedures. Rather, the sources of knowledge and their objects are mutually entailing: objects are established as such by the sources that give us access to them, and in turn our successful practices establish which sources and under what circumstances are trustworthy. The point (for Nyāya) is to achieve what Westerhoff calls a “reflective equilibrium”: our beliefs about the nature of what there is are put to test by our best hypotheses about how we come to know what there is; at the same time these hypotheses furnish us with basic modes by which we assess what there is.
Unfortunately, the reflective equilibrium the Nyāya strives to achieve is problematic, because methods determine outcomes: which sources are deemed reliable is going to determine the type of reflective equilibrium that is achieved. And here’s the real problem: there is no neutral ground from which to deliberate about the different reflective equilibriums!
Insofar as it showcases the presumed relativism of such epistemic claims, Madhyamaka is surely no mysticism. And furthermore, the Mādhyamika’s criticism leaves no epistemic stone unturned. Its stand is no stand at all (at least on one version of the story). But, as Siderits has convincingly argued (“Nyāya realism, Buddhism critique,” 2000), the Mādhyamika’s critique of epistemology rests on an internalist framework of justification: one has to know somehow that one is justified in rejecting the Naiyāyika’s realist epistemology. The problem is that the Naiyāyika is an externalist about knowledge: reliable cognition is the product of reliable causal processes and thus cannot be subsumed under the internalist framework of justification the Mādhyamika has assumed. So, on Westerhoff’s meticulous analysis of this project, “the Mādhyamika’s criticism [of epistemology] loses its force, for it is now based on an assumption––namely epistemic internalism––which its opponent does not share” (Westerhoff, Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka, 217).
This is not a Madhyamaka wrapped up in paradox, but one we can make sense of (even as the story told here is awfully incomplete. It is true that in his magnum opus, the MMK, Nāgārjuna does set out to deny that causation is a mind-independent phenomenon capable of guaranteeing the efficacy of those epistemic practices that rely upon it. But, as I see it, there is a deceptive simplicity in Nāgārjuna’s argument: our conception of causal relations entails cognition of the operations of causality. If we can assume that cause precedes effect, then the missing link between the existing cause and the not yet arisen effect is supplied by cognition. Causation may transmit features of the object to cognition, but only as grasped by a cognizer who can articulate its structure.
This account of Nāgārjuna’s project is much closer to what Pigliucci thinks is going on with, for instance, Kant’s delineation of an “epistemically inaccessible zone”––one whose contents may be inaccessible, but whose contours can be easily traced. There is no contradiction is saying that cognition has an articulable structure, even though the constitutive elements of that structure are conceivable only in terms of our best ‘conventional’ epistemic practices. Drawing the contours of ineffability is just an indirect way of marking off the domain of the conventional. Surely, the relativism implicit in the Mādhyamika’s focus on the conventional threatens our robust conceptions of truth, of what there is and how we come to know it. But where is the paradox in asserting that, although we can only talk about things as experienced, what we experience does not exhaust what there is? It’s not like Nāgārjuna establishes the truth of emptiness by claiming its ineffability. Rather, the claim seems to be that a svabhāva***-based view of reality is fundamentally incoherent.
Madhyamaka: logic, mysticism, both or neither? It really depends on whom you ask.
*Madhyamaka (“Middle Way”) is the name of a school, founded by Nāgārjuna. A follower of that school of thought is known as a ‘Mādhyamika’.
Nyāya** (“School of Reason”) is the name of a school, founded by Gautama. A follower of that school of thought is known as a ‘Naiyāyika’.
***svabhāva–This is a difficult term with no straightforward philosophical equivalent in English. It encapsulates at once an ontological (things defined in terms of their ‘essences’), a cognitive (mental states as ‘intrinsically’ ascertained), and a semantic dimension (meaning or truth as an ‘immanent’ feature of language).