Sunday, March 19, 2006

A Tree

A tree beside the sandy
Holds up its topmost boughs
Like fingers towards the skies
They cannot reach,
Earth-bound, heaven-amorous.

This is the soul of man.
Body and brain
Hungry for earth
our heavenly flight detain.

Sri Aurobindo

The Tempest

March 2006

Monday, March 06, 2006

Nāgārjuna: Speech or Silence?

It is in impinging on a severe critique of language that the central upshot of the Mādhyamika method emerges. The rejection of language has its kernel in the idea of Pratītyasamutpāda and śūnyatā together, and witnesses an explicit articulation in the prasanga method of the Mādhyamika. Pratītyasamutpāda or conditioned emergence shows that everything is dependent on numerous contingent factors, modes and reasons, for their relative existence. All events come into being depending on their preceding conditions. So, none of them in isolation have independent essence or being. In characterizing all categories and all existents as finally “empty” or śūnya, what Mādhyamikas mean is that they are empty of “essence” or svabhāva. Śūnyatā is thus, the natural outcome of pratītyasamutpāda because upon the knowledge of the flux of reality, when one begins to unravel the object, one finds it to be empty of inherent existence or self-nature, devoid of any essential being.
In the Milindapañha for instance, Nāgasena poses as to ‘what a chariot is’ and then himself enumerates his proposals — is it the pole, the axle, the wheel, the reins etc? Or a mere conglomeration? And in refusing these unsatisfactory suggestions, King Milinda reaches the baffling conclusion that none of these individually or cumulatively constitutes the chariot, and that when it is unraveled to its core, it no more remains a chariot. The analogy can be extended to simply everything. It turns out that on analyzing reality free of any specific ditthi or perspective, we see that concepts characteristically fail and language distorts. Evidently, this is the harshest possible criticism against language, to deny its very function of even being able to express anything. Further, the method of reductio ad absurdum or prasanga is Nāgārjuna’s methodological core, in demonstrating that all possible perspectives [in language] about reality involve inherent self contradiction. The structure of the prasanga argument is four-fold, namely it is a four-cornered negation of the form of catuśkoti or tetralemma:
I. A is [sad]
II. A is not [asad]
III. A both is and is not [ubhaya]
IV. A neither is nor is not [anubhaya]

This formulation exhausts the limit of all ‘meaningful’ thought or talk. By showing that all four alternatives are equally inconsistent by explicitly drawing out their implications, Nāgārjuna is able to point at the absurdity of language.

In picking from here, in the Vigrahavyāvartanī, the Nyāya school puts forth a number of objections against Nāgārjuna’s emphasis on śūnyatā, since the very espousal of śūnyatā itself presupposes language. Since, śūnyatā is framed in language, either, (a) śūnyatā itself is not śūnya, which would make the proposition that ‘everything is śūnya false’ or (b) if śūnyatā is śūnya, then the proposition is insignificant, meaningless, trivial or worthless, for it is simply empty of substance. Nāgārjuna however resorts to a rather confident defence in denying entirely that he is offering any thesis or ditthi.

Thus, in Vigrahavyāvartāni, Nāgārjuna says:

“If I had any proposition (pratijñā), then this defect (dosa) would be mine.
I have, however, no proposition. Therefore there is no defect that is mine.” [#29]

In the claim of a ‘no-position’ view of self refutation, the role of language seems to be radically inconsistent. To the extent that the claim is that one is not taking any metaphysical position at all, Nāgārjuna’s philosophy is śūnya too. This emptiness, best shown through silence, is realized when assent is withheld from all four logically possible answers to a metaphysical question (yes, no, both, neither). This is suggestive of the primal absurdity of speech and verbalization [prapañca]. The silence that is entailed, can be seen as a deconstruction of language itself, since language, here, is both used and negated in the same stroke. Is there a way then to resolve the inconsistency at a basic level?

In the backdrop of contemporary ordinary language philosophy, there is a visible turn towards stressing on the pragmatism in language. In his classic work How To Do Things With Words (1962), J. L. Austin makes the significant distinction between ‘performatives’ and ‘constatives’ and highlights the role of speech act as lying not in describing anything but in the doing of things. Essentially, speech acts refer to acts performed when words are uttered. Thus in a speech act, one does not seek to describe or report anything. It is about what is done in the saying of something, such as an active function as affirming, reassuring, promising, commanding, threatening or praying. That is, the utterance performs a function. Thus in saying ‘I promise’ in suitable circumstances I make a promise; in saying ‘Hooray!’ I cheer someone.
Extending the idea of speech acts to Nāgārjuna’s method, one may argue that in suggesting the śūnyatā of everything, for instance, Nāgārjuna in the strict sense, is not just 'saying' anything. It looks like Nāgārjuna is rather engaged in doing [rather ‘undoing’] something. He is unravelling philosophical discourse to expose its inherent contradictions. He is also employing the speech act in affecting the hearer, since in claiming radically that everything is śunya, he annoys, puzzles, frustrates, and even disappoints the audience. It is transformative in its affecting the person or community in some way: purifying, healing, reconciling, protecting, informing, and so on. If the seeker of freedom understands the import of the utterances, then in the same act, she is also liberated, for she is moved, convinced, persuaded and then ‘quietened’. Nāgārjuna can thus defend his stance as using language in order to do something, not to describe anything (which is to be rendered true or false). In fact it is in the undoing of the theoretical effects of language that the Mādhyamika’s concern lies. Thus, Nāgārjuna’s use of language is possibly analogous to Derrida’s ‘writing under erasure’. The performative dimension of language then is something that seems fundamental to the Mādhyamika method. And on this interpretation perhaps, the apparent paradox of language and silence is resolved to an extent.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Alterity or Subjectivity

An anti thesis of Kierkegaard’s view that truth is subjectivity is found perhaps in the post modern philosopher Levinas for whom alterity or ‘the Other’ is the ‘nude’ truth which when confronted ruptures the self. Through the face of alterity God is reached. In his Beyond Intentionality Levinas says: ‘The face ‘signifies’ beyond, neither as an index nor as symbol, but precisely and irreducibility as a face that summons me. It signifies to-God (à Dieu), not as sign, but as the questioning of myself, as if I were summoned or called, that is to say, awakened or cited as myself’. Throughout the history of philosophy ‘the Other’ has been reduced to ‘the Same’ in its drive to objectify and universalize. For Levinas, the dominance of ‘the Same’ makes the universal the goal of thought.

So it turns out that Levinas is precisely against the same universalization and objectification that Kierkegaard is standing against. However, while for Kierkegaard the personal subject confers itself its own identity, standing as the primal individual; in Levinas, through language, it is ‘the Other’ that enables me to have an identity. Language is the basis which links us to other people. The signifier then is the opening up to ‘the Other’. It is in confronting the irreducible ‘Other’, seeing time as alterity, existence as alterity, the other person (autrui) as alterity, language as alterity, and God as alterity that we are led away from ontology, epistemology and reason, to the realm of ethics and religion. The shift then is from discourses that compel homogenous levelling to ones that heighten fecund encounters with the different Other.

However, Kierkegaard’s rigid persistence on the priority of the isolated individual per se can be made sense of, by the fact that his reaction is rooted in the context of the widespread, overpowering, overarching structures propagating universality, objectivity, abstractions, absolutism and stereotypes. Strictly speaking, one is just an individual for whom other’s existence occurs as a mere possibility, never a concrete actual. What exists comes first. It is my existence that is truly actual and concrete for me. It is therefore that Kierkegaard, in his solitary confrontation against depersonalization, anonymous public opinion, and mass consciousness, sought to become what he wanted to be known as: that individual”.
(Painting: Edward Munch - Despair 1893-94)