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.


priyedarshi said...

I am not sure I understand what the paradox is. It seems to me that Nagarjuna's methodological elimination of language relies on the necessity of semantics. There may be a paradox here. He uses language to deconstruct language of all its dimensions. This deconstruction is either meaningless or meaningful. If it is meaningful as Nagarjuna expects us to believe, then there must be semantics. Hence, the semantic dimension of language is presupposed for his methodology.

Ajay said...

I think you are right here about the semantic dimension of language being presupposed by Nagarjuna. But probably this is precisely the point that he is making language use relies on semantics and thus frustrates us when we try to philosophise using that same very language. Thereby the dubiousness of language is exposed for philosophical purposes.

Rimina said...

The paradox in this case, was meant to highlight the apparent conflict between the silence of Buddha and Nagarjuna's vociferous use of language. In the claim of self refutation or a ‘no-position’ view, the role of language seems radically inconsistent. That is, the Madhyamika needs to justify his own use of language then.

Despite an apparent methodological paradox in Buddhist praxis, when language use is construed as a manifestation of Nāgārjuna’s speech act, the prasangika exchanges with the opponent philosopher can be seen as meaningful. And in this sense I think the Madhyamika never indeed denies semantics. Basically this is a response to the Naiyayika critic who would provoke Nagarjuna to justify his own use of language, perhaps.