THE PARADOXICAL INDIVIDUAL
Since Aristotle, Western philosophy has constructed perspicuous epistemological systems to apprehend the nature of truth, beyond what is available to the senses. However, logical paradoxes (e.g. Russell’s Set Theory paradox) and confrontations with the ineffable (e.g. Nagarjuna and the two-truths) have resulted in disparate philosophical methodology in an attempt to answer the questions: what is the nature of reality, what kinds of things exist, and why is there something rather than nothing? Namely, to devise an explicable metaphysical account of being.
Although inspired by scientific methods, describing the discoveries in metaphysics and the question of individuation as progressive is somewhat erroneous; metaphysical investigations are relativised to the scope of the inquiry. Medieval theologians employed cosmological methods to discern between corporeal and incorporeal reality, in order to determine God’s relationship to man. Modern philosophers since Kant, have discussed the nature of metaphysics in terms of man’s access to sensible versus intelligible objects in response to the Enlightenment. The continental projects since Husserl, Heidegger and the French phenomenologists, have reversed the positivist project, by suspending individual perceptions of reality in order to re-evaluate the content of our concepts and their significations. And now, a generation of contemporary philosophers are returning to the projects of early Buddhist metaphysics, for a radically different and fundamentally primary starting point in answer to the question, what is the nature of identity relative to being?
THE INEFFABLE, INDISCERNIBLE AND UNDECIDABLE
The analytic tradition since the time of Aristotle’s Metaphysics is rife in contradictions (self-refuting statements), paradoxes (Russell’s set theory paradox), indescribability (infinitesimals) and undecidability (Godel’s incompleteness theorem). Previously overlooked as abstruse and obtuse, Buddhist metaphysics have been rediscovered as incomparably well-equipped to cope with contradiction, indiscernibility and paradox. Classical logic maintains four following possible outcomes for a truth-valuable statement: (i) S is P (S is true) (ii) S is not P (S is not true) (iii) S is both P and not-p (S is both true and not true) (iv) S is neither P nor not-p (S is neither true nor not-true)
But Buddhist metaphysics has long recognized a fifth way, ineffability. Nagarjuna (150–250 CE), considered the most influential Buddhist philosopher following Gautama Buddha, maintained that “the Dharma taught by the buddhas is precisely based on the two truths: a truth of mundane conventions and a truth of the ultimate” (MMK 24:8). Buddhist metaphysics qua Nagarjuna, as described by Graham Priest at the University of Melbourne, posits the existence of ineffability as real and logically coherent, however inaccessible within conventional reality, thus requiring two accounts of being in order to develop a complete metaphysical system.
Similar limitations stemming from the ineffable are prevalent in the continental tradition. Australian Catholic University’s Professor of Philosophy Kevin Hart describes Heidegger’s project as response to theology’s failure to express God in a way that is ‘sufficiently divine’; incapable of interpreting the nature of being as incomprehensible, unnameable and ineffable. Later, Derrida’s déconstruction described that text-based explanatory systems are mistaken as stable and opaque; rather “this relationship is not a certain quantitative distribution of shadow and light … but a signifying structure” (Derrida, of Grammatology). The ineffable can be posited as existing, while remaining inaccessible through literal terms; rather the ineffable is experienced and interpreted through metaphor, analogy and symbols.
Acknowledging that there may exist things that are both true and ineffable (i.e. infinitesimals, which are indiscernibly small, however true or real; or God/ Nothingness/being which is both real and ineffable) allows new domains of analytic and continental inquiry that can interact with rather than dissolve at the appearance of contradiction.
NON-SELF, BUDDHA AND NAGARJUNA So what of the individual and the ineffable? Buddha’s argument for the non-self posited that the illusion of identity results from closely spatially temporally linked events of psychosocial interaction of the five senses: consciousness, material form, emotions, perception and volition, which are impermanent: 1. If there were a self it would be permanent. 2. None of the five kinds of psychophysical element is permanent. Therefore: there is no self. (Samyutta Nikaya: The Connected Discourses of the Buddha cited by Siderits, 2015)
How then to describe the entity that achieves oneness, contends with karmic retribution and experiences rebirth? Buddha was regarded as inimical towards unobservable entities acting as soulful deus ex machina, and rather posited that impermanence refers to those properties which cannot transmigrate into ultimate reality. While in conventional reality, the phenomena of selfhood serves important soteriological purposes; nonetheless the psychosocial elements are temporary and non-constitutive relative to ultimate reality.
What then is the bearer of properties that enables our considerably stable and constant individuation in conventional reality?
Nagarjuna’s exegesis to the writings of Buddha, Mulamadhyamakakarika (MMK) or The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, engages in a dialectic concerning the nature of self-hood in address to this contention. The story goes that, engaged in polemic Nagarjuna meets an opponent who asks ‘if there was no self, where would the self’s properties come from?’. The same argument is taken up centuries later by the medieval French theologian Gilbert of Poitiers, and the counterfactual in summary goes like this: individuating factors are individuating because they belong to an individual, Dame Edna’s boisterous coiffure is individuating because it is her coiffure; the assembly of constitutive accidents are important to use because we ascribe a sense of authorship or intentionality to them; the coif does not give rise to the Dame, but rather the reverse. Therefore, there must exist a substratum upon which continuity of the self persists through gathering and abandoning of accidental, non-essential qualities.
Nagarjuna maintained that appearances of individuation are limited to representations of conventional reality; appearances of causally linked spatial-temporal events enables self-identification, experiences of diachronic agency and causality; however this is frequently misinterpreted as indicating the ontological status of persons in Buddhist metaphysics. Similar to Aristotle’s Metaphysics, both traditions discern between accidental (secondary) and essential (primary) properties of individuals. Essential properties are those that without which the object would cease to be, accidental properties are qualities that may be acquired or discarded without compromising the nature of that object. For example, the qualities of being rational and mortal are essential properties of Socrates; accidental qualities include his reputed wisdom and stoutness. Socrates’ accidental qualities, if lost, merely hinders our ability to identify him, without causing him to cease to exist. In other words, the essential properties refer to the ontological status (what it is to be Socrates), while accidental properties grant epistemic access (truth-verifiable statements about Socrates). For Nagarjuna, phenomena of self-identification, experiences of diachronic agency and causality then are epistemic inferences rather than ontological indications.
What then, is essential on the account of Nagarjuna? According to his exegesis, the fundamental nature of the universe is emptiness (sunyata). Emptiness being fundamental, nothing can be prior to nor emerge from sunyata. Contending with the dualist picture of intrinsic conventional and intrinsic ultimate truth, Nagarjuna maintains that our metaphysical discoveries err in the assumption that it is epistemic ineffability that entails our belief in the existence of ultimate being with the ontological status of ineffability. Rather, Nagarjuna proclaims, there is nothing rather than something, which by nature is epistemically ineffable, though remains ontologically empty, or lacking in being.
Priest contends that the lesson to learn from Buddhist philosophy is the polemic value of deep and rigorous engagement with ineffability, long considered the inimical shadow of metaphysical systems. Our contentions with the ineffable throughout Western philosophy may indeed be the result of lacking rigorous inquiry and pervasive, undemonstrated metaphysical assumptions underlying our metaphysical investigations; namely, that there is ultimately something rather than nothing. Common rooms across Australia are sure to continue conversions to the Buddhist perspective, and recognise that perfecting our epistemic engagements with the effable (identity) ought to be the natural companion to our partner in dialectic, the ineffable (being).