Madhyamaka skepticism

Nāgārjuna’s Vigrahavyāvartanī (Quelling the dispute)

Nāgārjuna’s Vigrahavyāvartanī was evidently written after he had written the Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā or some text that established the emptiness of all things. It begins with a challenger saying that if all things are empty, then the statement that all things are empty must itself be empty, and if a statement is empty then it cannot communicate anything. On the other hand, the challenger goes on to argue, if the statement does communicate something, then it is not empty, and if the statement is not empty, then it is not the case that all things are empty. Nāgārjuna’s response to this challenge is to explain that saying that a thing is empty is another way of saying that the thing is conditioned and dependent. Of course the statement that everything is conditioned and dependent is itself conditioned and dependent. How could it be otherwise? A statement must have someone who makes it, and it must have something to be a statement about, and it should have someone to whom it is addressed, and so on. That a statement is conditioned and dependent, says Nāgārjuna, in no way undermines its credibility.

The challenger poses several other possible objections to Nāgārjuna’s position. One that is especially relevant to the topic of concern to us here is stated in these words:

17‒20. And you have no proof based on a reason. Indeed you could not have a reason, because it would have no nature. And if your denial of a nature is established without a reason, then my affirmation of a nature is also established without a reason. And the affirmation that beings have no nature would be impossible, because no being lacking a nature exists in the world. Supposing the denial comes first and the object of denial comes next. That is impossible. And it is impossible that the denial comes later or at the same time [as the object of denial], since the nature [of these things] does not exist.1

Nāgārjuna’s response to this challenge is long and complex. At the end of it he makes this observation:

The means of acquiring knowledge are not established by themselves, nor are some of them produced by other means of acquiring knowledge, nor are they established through their objects of knowledge, nor are the established without any basis at all.

All claims that something is known, he is saying, depend in some way on a means of knowledge. To use more contemporary terminology, every proposition requires a warrant, a grounds for saying it. The standard warrants for a proposition are direct experience and reasoning. But the claim that direct experience warrants a proposition is itself a proposition. So what is the warrant of the proposition that direct experience warrants a proposition? There are two possible ways to respond to that question.

One response would be to say that the proposition that direct experience warrants a proposition is itself warranted either by direct experience or by reasoning. But now we have yet another proposition, and it is legitimate to ask what its warrant is. Attempting to respond in this way leads to an infinite regress; the search for an ultimate grounding for a proposition never ends.

The second possible response would be to say that the proposition that direct experience warrants a proposition is a self-warranted proposition. In other words, it is a proposition that does not need an independent warrant. But if this is true, then why could it not also be true that the no proposition requires a warrant? This would amount to saying that everything is automatically true just by being said. Every proposition and its negation would be equally true. Clearly this outcome is not satisfactory to anyone who is interested in trying to determine which propositions are true and which ones are false, which ones are warranted and which ones are not. And so this second possible response is also unacceptable.

Now if both of the possible responses to the question “What warrants our saying that direct experience warrants a proposition?” are inadequate, we are left with the conclusion that there is no warrant at all for this or any other proposition. The deep implication of this outcome is that none of what we take to be knowledge is really warranted or grounded. All our beliefs are nothing more than beliefs. None of them can be established. The anticipates the famous dictum of Nietzsche “There are no facts, only interpretations.”

The skepticism of Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka Buddhism paves the way for the “Great doubt” tradition of Zen and some modern Western Buddhists.

  1. This translation is my own. An edition of the Sanskrit text with a translation and study can be found in E. H. Johnston and Arnold Kunst, eds., The Dialectical Method of Nāgārjuna: With Critical Edition of Nāgārjuna’s Vigrahavyāvartanī, (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1978). ↩︎

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