My project on Buddhist epistemology of logic—First guest post by Szymon Bogacz

Note by EF: This post is part of our series dedicated to younger colleagues presenting themselves and their research, like Manasicha Akepiyapornchai did here and Anusha Rao did here. For more on Szymon, see here.

Hello everyone, my name is Szymon and I’m a PhD student in the School of Philosophy at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, Australia. Thanks to Elisa and the rest of the blog’s editorial team for giving me a platform to say a few things about my research.

My PhD project is about the nature of logical knowledge and the liar paradox. What makes us justified to believe that ‘This sentence is false’ is true if and only if it is false? How do we know that if someone has a cat, we can validly infer that they have a cat or a dog? In my project, I look at these and similar questions from the angle of Buddhist epistemology.

In this first post, I want to do two things. Firstly, I want to tell you a bit about my academic background, so you will know where my project is coming from. Secondly, I will describe a change of my thinking about the role of Buddhist texts in my philosophical work. In next posts, I will talk about more specific topics: the Dharmakīrtian view on the liar paradox, believing contradictions, and a logical rule saying that if a sentence implies its negation, then this sentence has to be false.

I graduated from a philosophy program at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. I’ve learned some Sanskrit and rudimentary Buddhist Chinese on the way. My MA thesis was about the concept of own nature (svabhāva) in pre-Nāgārjuna Mahāyāna and Sarvāstivāda. After getting my MA, I spent three more years at the same university working towards a PhD. I was focused primarily on the history of Buddhist philosophy.

In 2018, I withdrew my candidacy from the Jagiellonian and started the PhD program at the ANU. At the beginning, I thought I will keep working on Nāgārjuna, Mahāyāna, and Sarvāstivāda. After several months, I’ve changed my way of thinking about what I should be doing with Buddhist texts.

The change was a bit drastic. After around 5 years of studying early Buddhist religion and philosophy and trying to figure out how all-things-svabhāva hang together, I started reading some Dharmakīrti, Mokṣākaragupta and heaps of contemporary, heavyweight analytic philosophy and logic. Now I think about myself more like an aspiring philosopher of logic than a historian of Buddhist philosophy. What has changed?

Firstly, I realised that my svabhāva project was not especially promising. (I’m happy to tell you why but that’s a different story!) Secondly, and more importantly, no philosopher cared about my work. Okay, I might be exaggerating. I have met some great philosophers and buddhologists, some of them readers of this blog, who are interested in svabhāva. However, philosophers generally don’t care about Nāgārjuna and what he says. They care about something else. They care about what’s true, not what someone said.

Let me give you an example. Nāgārjuna in the Ratnāvalī says that causes and effects are like long and short. My work, as a historian of philosophy, was to figure out what that could mean. Nāgārjuna thinks that, I believe, because he thinks that causes and effects are relative to each other and, consequently, they are unreal and imagined. So far, so good.

However, there is a problem with Nāgārjuna’s view. He doesn’t give any compelling arguments to support it, at least not in the Ratnāvalī. All he does is state that causes and effects are like long and short and it means that they are unreal. But are causes and effects actually unreal? Why would they be? Even if we were successful at unpacking what he says, we would still be left with wondering why he would say that and whether what he says is plausible. Consequently, explaining what Nāgārjuna thinks is not in itself showing that he is, or might be, right.

Many philosophers I’ve met are mostly interested in assessing and giving reasons for various philosophical positions. In my first months at the ANU, I realised that my job shouldn’t be to figure out what Buddhist philosophers say or think, but rather to find out whether what they say might be right.

In my project, I focus on providing my own philosophical arguments originating from Buddhists views. Surely, I reconstruct these views in the process—most often piggybacking on work of others—but my reconstructions are merely instrumental for my philosophical work. I do my historical research to get Buddhists ideas off ground and then I build on them further without looking back.

How does it work? In the next posts, I will introduce you to specifics of my project. We will explore a philosophical position rooted in Buddhist texts that seems worth defending today. Next week, I will talk about Dharmakīrti’s thoughts on contradictions with own words (svavacanavirodha) and how they can provide a background for a novel approach to an old paradox.

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10 Replies to “My project on Buddhist epistemology of logic—First guest post by Szymon Bogacz”

  1. Hello Szymon,

    The gist of what you have said is that you want to find what is “real” and what is “right”.

    In order to even begin this project you have to have a predetermined objective referent to these words.

    Nagarjuna’s project was not to define what is real and right but to show that all such positions land one in logical absurdity. His ultimate aim was not to construct a metaphysical system of philosophy but liberation and liberation to him was nishprapancha – end of mental proliferation. Mental proliferation ceases only when the mind ceases to imagine or land on anything about the ultimate nature of reality because it sees that all views are untenable. If one lands on a view, it creates the ground for mind to proliferate and suffering to ensue.

    Warm wishes,

    • Hey Anurag,

      Thanks for your comment, that’s very interesting! Let me say a few words.

      I fully agree that for Nagarjuna, liberation is the cessation of prapañcas. I really like it about his philosophy, but I don’t have any views about whether it’s the correct description of liberation. I have no expertise on that.

      I also agree that he most probably didn’t want to construct a metaphysical system, at least as long as we identify metaphysical systems with describing svabhāvas and parabhāvas. However, there’s a question whether he succeeds in his project. I’m not convinced because I’m not sure what svabhāva is.

      I don’t fully agree with what you say at the beginning of your comment though. I think I could undertake a project about Nagarjuna without a predetermined objective referent of ‘real’. I’m myself an intentionalist about reference and I don’t think that words track anything other than intensions of speakers. So, ‘real’ refers to whatever people call ‘real’. Is this an objective referent you mean? I see how I better know what ‘real’ means before saying that something is real, but I don’t see how it bears on the project on Nagarjuna in any particular way.

      However, if you mean that I need to have some epistemological standard of arguments’ correctness before I start assessing arguments, then I fully agree. It is a big question what an adequate standard should be. Probably, there are many different standards worth having at once and this is what I do in my work. For example, I sometimes use Dharmakīrtian rules of valid inference to check arguments’ correctness but I’m sure there’s more to a good argument than merely follow Dharmakīrtian rules.

      Getting back to Nagarjuna, what I want to say is that he sometimes doesn’t give any specific arguments to support his views. It’s a fascinating project to reconstruct what he means or what could support what he says. In fact, the Ratnāvalī passage I mention compares the relationship between causes and effects to the relationship between light and lamp. Is it enough to establish that causes and effects are unreal? That they are prapañcas? Is it a good argument?


      • Dear Symon,

        Thank you for your detailed comment.

        Nagarjuna was not saying that cause and effect are unreal. We must remember that he was a Buddhist who upheld the theory of dependent origination, which is a cause-effect theory, and the most basic tenet of Buddhism.

        Nagarjuna has not refuted all available theories of cause and effect, he has only rejected all substantialist theories of cause and effect. He thinks he has shown that, if we maintain the philosophical assumption that things in the world derive from some unique material and essential basis, then we shall come away empty-handed in a search to explain how things could possibly relate to one another, and so would have no way of describing how changes happen. But since both our eminently common sense and the words of the Buddha affirm unremittingly that changes do indeed happen, and happen constantly, we must assume that they happen somehow, through some other fact or circumstance of existence. For his own part, Nagarjuna concludes that, since things do not arise because phenomena relate through fixed essences, then they must arise because phenomena lack fixed essences. Phenomena are malleable, they are susceptible to alteration, addition and destruction. This lack of fixed nature (nihsvabhava), this alterability of things then means that their physical and empirical forms are built not upon essence, but upon the fact that nothing (sunya) ever defines and characterizes them eternally and unconditionally. It is not that things are in themselves nothing, nor that things possess a positive absence (abhava) of essence. Change is possible because a radical indeterminancy (sunyata) permeates all forms.

        Warm wishes,

  2. Hi Szymon,
    Your shift sound both promising and personally encouraging to me. I am doing PhD work at the University of Hawaii attempting to integrate Indian phenomenological claims, especially those drawn from meditation, into contemporary philosophy of mind/consciousness studies. The long standing first-person exploration of mind/consciousness in India, along with the debates these experiences have informed, seem to be a rich place to start and develop from within the trajectory of more recent work. The fact that other philosophers such as yourself are taking this kind of approach is exciting!

    • Hey Neil,

      Thanks! That’s very reassuring to hear that other people work in a similar methodological setup. It’s so difficult though! I’ve been told once that projects like ours always come in threes: there’s a historical work on the primary sources, a philosophical work with the contemporary literature, and an uncharted territory of how (on Earth?) these two can fruitfully relate. It still think it’s spot-on. Really looking forward to hearing more about how your project is going.

      Also, you have such a beautiful campus in Mānoa! I was planing to visit in May but that obviously didn’t work out. Hope there’s gonna be a chance someday not far from now.

  3. Pingback: Dharmakīrti and liar paradox – The Indian Philosophy Blog

  4. Thank you, Szymon! There are so many interesting issues packed here, that I am not sure what to begin with.
    1. “However, philosophers generally don’t care about Nāgārjuna and what he says. They care about something else. They care about what’s true, not what someone said.”: Well, pity that they don’t care about Nāgārjuna, they should:-) I wonder whether part of the problem could be that, say, you discuss at dinner the liar paradox with a friend who is an epistemologist in the Anglo-Analytic tradition. In the best case scenario, they find what you say about Buddhist philosophy fascinating and ask you
    a) what else could they read—>Hard, there is not enough translated, studied etc.!
    b) ask how Nāgārjuna reacts to X (recent argument raised in an article about the topic)—> You don’t know, the debate did not interact with Anglo-Analytical objections.
    I might be exaggerating, but don’t you think that part of the problem is that the Anglo-Analytical debate developed within itself and that it is therefore hard for its exponents to get completely out of it (unless they work on exactly the topic of how generalizable are Gettier intuitions outside of NA or the like)?

  5. Well my coment can be out of the context, but recently i came to know about nagarjuna’s tetralemma and its refutation(though i knew about tetralemma way before but recently i came to know about how it was used) but here my question is something that we find the third and fourth option type statements (in a form of inquiry statements rather than as a form of logic) in the nasadiya sukta of rigveda is it possible that the sukta is doing the same thing the nagarjuna did (though there are key differences in use) or just they are just bearing some similarities with each other (for convention i am presenting one of the translation of nasadiya sukta)

    There was neither non-existence nor existence then;
    Neither the realm of space, nor the sky which is beyond;
    What stirred? Where? In whose protection?

    There was neither death nor immortality then;
    No distinguishing sign of night nor of day;
    That One breathed, windless, by its own impulse;
    Other than that there was nothing beyond.

    Darkness there was at first, by darkness hidden;
    Without distinctive marks, this all was water;
    That which, becoming, by the void was covered;
    That One by force of heat came into being;

    Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it?
    Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation?
    Gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe.
    Who then knows whence it has arisen?

    Whether God’s will created it, or whether He was mute;
    Perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not;
    Only He who is its overseer in highest heaven knows,

    Only He knows, or perhaps He does not know.

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