No essential reality?

Once again Massimo Pigliucci’s excellent blog has excited me to post a comment there (  I’ll not re-post my whole comment here, which also addresses some issues concerning disagreements between Pigliucci and Graham Priest, only that part that deals with issues I continue to address here.  (I should note that I only re-post comments I make elsewhere, or quote from them, when the writing of the comment has raised the issues of concern to my own blog.  I hope Dr. Pigliucci, or anyone else maintaining a blog I might comment on, will forgive this.)  Anyway, this self-quote raises the issue of whether signs actually signify ‘objective’ entities, or whether they signify yet other signs (which certainly doesn’t, as some might charge, leave us without ‘objective’ or external entities):

Let’s consider Nagarjuna’s deconstruction of the presumed ‘reality’ of a chariot (from memory, and redacting, but I hope fairly):
We say of an object, e.g., that it is in essence a chariot, therefore we should always find in it this ‘chariotness.’ But if we take the sides away, and the platform, and the wheels (etc.), we find there no more chariot, hence no such thing as ‘chariotness’ (i.e., no ‘essence’).
This, because the word ‘chariot’ is a not sign for the object, but for our concept of the object (which is always a composite of other concepts, i.e., e.g., ‘sides,’ ‘platform,’ ‘wheel,’ etc.), which is constructed to account for sense data.
Now we can say that there is both a ‘chariot’ there (for practical purposes – something we refer to for use) and yet no (essential) chariot there (something by its nature a chariot). ‘Chariot’ is therefore ‘empty’ of essence (inherent, independent being).
Thus it can be said that the nature of things (as we can know them), i.e., their ‘essential being,’ is to have no nature, i.e., no ‘essential being,’ since we only know them as composites. The words referring to things can serve practical purposes (e.g., ‘tie’ the ‘chariot’ to a ‘horse’ and ‘ride away’), but can claim nothing of ‘essential’ reality, since their reference is to concepts of things – constructions of perception – and not the things themselves (‘chariotness’ has no reality, the word ‘chariot’ is devoid of reference to ‘essential’ reality).

“A ‘thing’ (bhava) is construction. Emptiness is the absence
of construction. Where constructions have appeared how
can there be emptiness (sunyata)?” –Nagarjuna*

One can accuse Nagarjuna of equivocating. Some of that has to do with his historical context, and some with his implicit position that language itself inevitably equivocates. Now we begin to see how some Buddhist philosophies really can be seen as developing problematics similar to those we find in the West, since Nagarjuna’s position clearly resonates with certain nominalist, skeptical, and constructivist ideas in the West.
Of course, one can read into this some form of mysticism and go on to discuss ‘ineffables,’ as [some Buddhists do].. But one can also read this as simply dismissive of those same ‘ineffables,’ as we can find in Zen – or for that matter, in Anglo-American traditions (or in the ‘noumenon’ of Kant). For instance, in one text Nagarjuna says that the resolution to the catuskoti concerning Nirvana (an apparent ‘ineffable’) is that Nirvana is identical to Samsara – the cycle of birth and death (and whatever comes before and after). Isn’t this as much as to suggest that Nirvana is a realization of *whatever just is*, rather than a possible transcendence of it?

(*Quote from Nagarjuna: The translation is by Chr. Lindtner.)


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