Neue Luxury - - News - By Jes­sica Bir­kett

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 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).

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