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This paper compares arguments from Aquinas and Nagarjuna on contingency and necessity, examining the ways in which they arrive at opposed positions. However, neither set of arguments is unproblematical and both require appeal to further positions to support them. A curious parallelism begins to emerge between the positions when seen with their background assumptions, despite their obvious differences.
In this article I wish to compare Aquinas’s argument for a metaphysical source of necessity in the third way of the famous ﬁve ways of the Summa Theologiae with Nagarjuna’s rejection of such a position in the Mulamadhyamikakarika and assess the relative merits of each position. However, before beginning the comparison, I wish to discuss some possible objections to the very idea of such a project. The notion of ‘incommensurability’ has come to be used more and more in recent times in philosophical discussions. Gaining its currency from Kuhn’s work in philosophy of science where he suggests that there may be different paradigms for scientiﬁc research which are incommensurable with each other, the term has come to have wider use. It is used to signal a multiplicity or heterogeneity of approaches to a thinker or topic, none of which can claim pre-eminence. So, for example, in a recent survey of studies of Thomas Aquinas, Fergus Kerr (2002) repeatedly notes the incommensurability of approaches taken, generally viewing this in a positive light, as a sign of the fruitfulness and pluralism of studies in this area. However, talk of incommensurability often comes up short when faced with issues about truth. While difference may well be celebrated and methodological or hermeneutical agility embraced, few enough want to commit themselves to relativism about truth. That is, most recognise that accepting relativistic accounts of truth leads to problems of self-refutation and self-stultiﬁcation. So, to avoid that cul-de-sac, diversity of interpretation is emphasised, which by precisely afﬁrming difference, avoids problems about contradiction. Things which simply differ do not contradict each other. To form a contradiction there has to be a connection, one has to afﬁrm p and not-p, whereas with difference there is p and q, different things happily co-existing. Contemporary Buddhism, Vol. 6, No. 2, November 2005
ISSN 1463-9947 print/1476-7953 online/05/020173-188 q 2005 Taylor & Francis DOI: 10.1080/14639940500478687
Reading texts in context allows the proliferation of difference.174 P. I want to suggest that modiﬁcations of both positions required by their internal tensions push them both to an oddly similar sequence of metaphysical distinctions—wherein the differences between them soften. different inheritances. What emerges in the case of Aquinas and Nagarjuna is that they genuinely address the same metaphysical issue: that both approaches fall prey to various problems. In the next section I shall introduce the two protagonists. While contextualisation is vital and hermeneutical situating is essential. for example. namely whether there has to be a source of metaphysical necessity in existence (Aquinas). The Protagonists (a) Aquinas Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) was a thirteenth-century Italian Dominican friar who is best known for the voluminous writings he produced over a relatively . Aquinas and Nagarjuna have different contexts. it would be just too crude to think of them as actually dealing with the same issue. on this outlook. and I shall examine attempts to make sense of it. if they still don’t disappear. that a curious structural parallelism emerges in their positions as they strive to avoid these problems and that elements of Aquinas’s position may well prove vital to a coherent defence of that of Nagarjuna. Nagarjuna. However. I believe that a speciﬁc demonstration of the engagement of such philosophers with each other will dispel some of the doubts deriving from considerations of incommensurability. The third section looks at the key point of conﬂict between them. In the sixth section. Therefore. Overemphasising incommensurability is a generally unfruitful way of reading thinkers. A fortiori. General arguments for this view have been offered and I shall not rehearse them here (see O’Grady 2005). or whether absolutely everything can be contingent (Nagarjuna). So. the quest for truth. lends himself to different schools of interpretation and questions of the stability of his position arise. Aquinas’s argument is notoriously difﬁcult to interpret. O’GRADY One way of ensuring such peaceful co-existence is to emphasise the notions of the hermeneutical and the contextual. I then want to examine various problems besetting both positions. different presuppositions and so different positions. different questions. Initially there is a broader conﬂict of general positions which crystallises into a speciﬁc disagreement on a basic question in metaphysics. contextualising them and providing background information for the speciﬁc debate. and so they have incommensurable approaches. likewise. A theologian reading Aquinas comes with different questions and presuppositions to a philosopher. different cultures. Hume comes out of an entirely different context to that of Aquinas. and hence his concerns can’t address the same issues as Aquinas. It evades the fundamental issue which motivates the inquirer. since the differences of context disallows ﬁrst-order debate between positions. these are nevertheless but preparatory for dealing with substantive issues. After presenting the sharp clash in views.
drawing on Jewish and Islamic sources. Hence Aquinas’s work constitutes one of the classic articulations of a philosophical theism. so also. if you are going to be a philosopher. one gets a sense of a relentless intellect making distinctions. non-anthropomorphic and metaphysically nuanced. clarifying. It is intended as rationally compelling for any disinterested party. virtue ethics. Rather. free will. Aquinas harnesses together both Greek traditions and articulates a rational position which attempts to make sense of the JudaeoChristian worldview (see Booth 1983.2 This even-handedness goes with a tough-minded approach to the questions he addresses. fostered by the religious authorities and a radical appeal to an interpretation of Aristotle. explicit.1 He studied and taught at the University of Paris at one of its most turbulent stages. A recent scholarly issue has been a re-evaluation of the role of Platonism in his work. but in the reasoned parts his claims make no special pleading. The argumentation is compact. seeking supporting argumentation. Two main opposed tendencies in the university were a conservative religious appeal to Platonically inspired thinking. this tough-minded approach is linked to tender themes—the existence of God. Now clearly this position doesn’t have the . there is a genuine openness to other participants in the search for truth and an attempt to seek out what is true in other positions—ignoring whether they appear to be friends or foe. Boland 1996). The account is subtle. Using William James’s typology of philosophical intellects. immortality. His account of existence. nevertheless constitute developments of Aristotle’s work (see Owens 1992). Aquinas uses Aristotle in distinctly unAristotelian ways. analysing claims. however. while all based in a generally Aristotelian framework. He presents an account where there is space for faith to co-operate with reason. arguing. heavily inﬂuence by the Islamic philosopher Averroes. the virtues. He combines a religious sensibility with an analytical approach to philosophy. just over half a century after its foundation. tight and has little rhetorical excess. the eternity of the world. you have to listen to all the thinkers with their opposing positions in order to have more resources for making a good judgement. offering reasons. his approach is not a kind of syncretism.3 His philosophical work constitutes a genuine innovation in the history of western thought. which ﬂourished in the arts faculty. Therefore Aquinas. exempliﬁes the Buddhist doctrine of the middle way. the soul. in some respects. The mode of argumentation is closer to Russell or Ayer than to Augustine or Pascal. just as in a courtroom you can’t make a judgement until you have heard both sides of a case. Sometimes derided as merely Christianised Aristotelianism. Reading Aquinas. Aquinas attempted to steer between these two tendencies and engaged in controversies with both sides. seeking easy assimilation of disparate views by blending them all together.FORM AND EMPTINESS: AQUINAS AND NAGARJUNA 175 short career of 20 years as a university teacher in Paris and at various places in Italy. Aquinas notes. This comes out most clearly in his discussion of the metaphysics of participation (dismissed by Aristotle as a mere metaphor) and in his account of the divine ideas. However.
The agenda of his epistemology is not set by scepticism. (b) Nagarjuna It is probable that Nagarjuna was a second-century Indian Buddhist monk. For such schools. like Socrates. Nagarjuna inaugurated a new kind of approach—denying the very validity of the idea of the ultimate furniture of reality. O’GRADY same force in the modern world where Aristotelianism is by no means universally accepted—which has led to some curious contortions among theologians wanting to read Aquinas as really a ﬁdeist and not attempting to offer straightforwardly philosophical defences of his beliefs (Kerr 2002.176 P. privileging individual experience. Little is known with any certainty about his life. an enormous amount of writing was generated by it.4 We do know that he wrote a number of important texts—but issues about the exact number of authentic texts and the status of the extant texts are fraught. the notion of the ultmate furniture of the world made sense—even if it consisted of a kind of Heraclitean ﬂeeting play of atoms. appears unusually attuned to contemporary movements in philosophy which seek to throw off some of the more characteristic features of modern philosophy. This approach was called Madhyamika . Despite many pious protestations about the inability of putting such sublime teaching into mere human language. including philosophical treatises. his views can seem interesting to those in recovery from modernity. Hence a steady growth in secular interest in Aquinas’s work in recent years. Since he has no investment in Cartesian subjectivity. called Dharmas. His most important work is called the Mulamadhyamikakarika—or ‘fundamental verses on the middle way’. rejecting the view that there is such a thing as the stable reality called Brahman and rejecting the notion of a substantive self (Anatman) (see Williams 1998). His view of ethics doesn’t suffer from the characteristic modern split of on the one hand having realistic psychology with a dubious account of normativity. as a pre-modern. Finally one might note that Aquinas. Reality was analysed into conventional and ultimate reality. or in solipsistic notions of the self. grouped together under the label ‘orthodox’ by virtue of their recognition of the Vedas as an authoritative vision of the world. versus on the other a worked-out story of normativity in a thoroughly implausible psychology. Early schools of philosophical Buddhism resembled Logical Atomism in western philosophy (see Gudmunsen 1977). Rogers 2004).5 The middle way is traditionally ascribed to the teaching of Buddha who. Buddhism was unorthodox in that it rejected any special role for authoritative revelations.6 Classical Indian philosophy was basically characterised by systems which presented views on reality (Brahman) and the individual soul (Atman). Such Buddhist schools were called the Abhidharma and much of their work consisted in giving extensive lists of categories of Dharmas. Conventional reality was a construction made on the basis of the more fundamental atomistic realities which existed. put nothing in print. Schools of Buddhist thought distinguish themselves by their interpretations of his texts.
In different Buddhist traditions he is treated as a saint or a revered teacher of the dharma. One might characterise it in the manner that debates between theists and atheists have come to be seen in some quarters.9 However. Tibetan Buddhism and Zen Buddhism both. He appears as a naturalist—with rejection of design. Others rejected this approach. making sense of this idea of emptiness is central to the philosophical divisions within Buddhism. that rational thought cannot reach to it. of causation. yet non-rational. So there is this paradox of what is in the West extremely antireligous thought being housed in what would be seen in the West as archetypally religious practice—reeking of what Hume disdainfully called the monkish virtues. of essence. attacking essences. Some held that Nagarjuna advocated that the fundamental nature of reality is ineffable. Hume or Nietzsche. The key idea articulated by Nagarjuna is emptiness (Sunyata). as expressing outlooks on the world. Buddhism after Nagarjuna had a ﬂourishing philosophical diversity. with meditative practices. rituals and monasticism. At this general level one might be tempted to adopt the strategy outlined in the Introduction and suggest that they offer incommensurable views of the world and that it is an issue of tradition. His basic method of argument is the reductio ad absurdem. Nevertheless these views are articulated within a thoroughgoing religious culture.FORM AND EMPTINESS: AQUINAS AND NAGARJUNA 177 and it consitutes the philosophical basis of one of the two main strands of Buddhism—the Mahayana tradition. However. whose best exemplars are in various kinds of meditative practice. represent developments of the Mahayana ideal and see Nagarjuna as a key ﬁgure in their development. strategies of interpretation of reality. The most salient feature of reality is this emptiness—not substantial things. that emptiness really is empty itself and that one has to constantly beware of falling into reifying modes of thought. Nagarjuna’s system is much more sceptical. culture or temperament as to whether one ﬁnds Aquinas or Nagarjuna congenial.e. Aquinas can be characterised as a metaphysical realist. training. attacking genuine causal powers). or even ﬂeeting atoms. of genuine causal powers and the ability of mind to grasp reality as it is. intuitive thinking. Many of the positions he attacks are ones held by Aquinas (i. in different ways.8 The Conﬂict It certainly looks. such an easy resolution of the debate goes against philosophy’s . of necessity.7 Others still. He holds to the reality of essences. that Aquinas and Nagarjuna defend opposed philosophical positions. can pierce the veil of illusion and get to reality as it is (see Battacharya 1990). which he uses against Indian realists to attempt to show the instabilities and problems of their systems. from a general survey of their work. holding that the core doctrine is that there is no ineffable reality. saw Buddhism as articulating genuine scepticism (see Matilal 1986). One remarkable feature about Nagarjuna’s position is that the philosophical positions and manoeuvres taken by him are the ones which usually characterise militantly antireligious thinkers—for example Sextus Empiricus.
Nagarjuna holds that the metaphysical core of reality is captured in the notion of dependent co-origination.12 The third of the ﬁve ways is the one which is most relevant to this discussion. then at some time there would have been nothing. Because of their metaphysical lack of composition of matter and form. Much more work needs to be done to show that it is true and that a resolution is not available. It is a too ready concession to a general scepticism about the possibility of achieving insight and truth by means of reasoning. but there are some things which must be—necessary beings. If there ever had been nothing. Aquinas accepts a multiplicity of such necessary being—ones which do not corrupt. Aquinas begins by noting that things in the world come into being and pass away out of being. He then argues that among such necessary beings there must be one which is uniquely singled out as the source of necessity in the others.13 This is a way of understanding the Buddhist idea that everything that exists is ﬂeeting. then it must be the case that not everything is coming to be and passing away. depending on other things for its existence. Since that is patently not the case. says this is called God. scepticism may be true)—but it cannot be taken as the initial default position. He then argues that everything cannot be like this. as is his fashion. An initial stage argues to the existence of necessary beings. they do not. To specify the point of conﬂict with Nagarjuna. Examples in his worldview include the heavenly movers and rational souls. O’GRADY interest in trying to achieve a reasoned analysis of the conﬂict. In the meantime it is important to try to understand how exactly they differ from each other. Aquinas. there would be nothing now. The general clash of approach concretises in a speciﬁc point on which they hold opposed views which arises as part of Aquinas’s sequence of arguments for theism.10 There is a great deal of interpretative debate as to how Aquinas actually viewed the famous ﬁve ways for demonstrating the existence of God. The mere existence of such necessary beings does not yield God. Such necessity is not logical necessity—it is not a covert ontological argument. Aquinas argues that there is a unique source of metaphysical necessity in existence—not everything is dependent. . Given such necessary things. It is that which is called God.11 Does he think of them as a rational foundation for the rest of his ediﬁce? Or are they rather internal to a religious worldview and should be interpreted accordingly—not as free-standing rational supports for that worldview? Are they to be construed as original arguments or are they perfunctory presentations of what Aquinas and his contemporaries viewed as non-gainsayable truths accepted by all rational people? For the purposes of a dialogue with Nagarjuna I shall read them as freestanding metaphysical arguments designed to convince a philosophical opponent of the truth of the conclusion. so to speak.178 P. have the wherewithal for corruption. If everything were like this. It is possible that this latter may well be the truth of the situation (i.e. There are two main parts to this argument. Aquinas asks whether this necessity comes from themselves or from another? If from another there would be an inﬁnite regress unless one postulates a necessary being whose necessity is not explicable in terms of any other being.
As it stands it contains a gross logical error—pounced on by critical commentators such as J. then not everything can be contingent [from 3] 7. [observation and modus tollens ] 6. [conclusion] The ﬁrst phase of opposition lies in challenging line 3. [accept ex nihilo nihil ﬁt ] 5. and enlightenment comes about by the personal realisation of this truth. Aquinas says not everything can be transitory and erects a doctrine of theism on this view. So Nagarjuna articulates a position which diametrically opposes that of Aquinas. That conclusion is false—so there never was nothing. It is the focus of a great deal of interpretative controversy and there is no single clear canonical interpretation of the argument which is regarded as obvious by most commentators.FORM AND EMPTINESS: AQUINAS AND NAGARJUNA 179 The central ethical teaching of Buddhism. holds that suffering characterises the human condition (see Conze 1959. [uncontroversial observation of the world] 2. There are contingent things. No inﬁnite regress of necessary beings [general argument against inﬁnite regress] 10. in the manner of Denys the Areopagite. For the sake of clarity. There is no single being which escapes this transitoriness. If not everything is contingent.14 All things are dependent. And emptiness is itself empty—he is not articulating a kind of negative theology. for example. let’s look at the argument in logical reconstruction. in general. If at one time there was nothing there would be nothing now. 1. Aquinas’s Realist Argument Aquinas’s argument is by no means perspicuous or straightforward. Nagarjuna holds that everything is transitory. 186). If everything is contingent then at some time there is nothing [crucial move] 4. Contingent things are such that they don’t exist at some time [explanation of contingency] 3. and the corresponding cultivation of detachment in the face of this. then there is something necessary [from the meaning of ‘contingent’] 8. a classic reductio ad absurdem strategy. Let’s look in some more detail at each side of this impasse. where the word covers a hidden reality. which is doomed to disappoint us. His view is that entities lack any self-existence (svabhava). The origin of suffering is attachment to ﬂeeting reality. Whatever is necessary derives its necessity from itself or another [truism] 9. L. you end up with unacceptable consequences. are along the lines that if you attribute self-existence to any entity. 10 A ﬁrst necessary being must exist. the Four Noble Truths. If there never was nothing. The remedy for suffering is the realisation of the transitoriness of all things. His arguments for this position. What is most important about his position is that this is absolutely general. All beings are characterised by emptiness. Mackie . Nagarjuna supplies a metaphysical gloss on the meaning of the transitoriness of reality.
One suggested solution is that Aquinas is assuming the eternity of the world (see. Given an inﬁnity of time and a genuine possibility. he couldn’t have it in mind as a suppressed premise in the argument (Davies 2001). it doesn’t have the resources to answer critics such as Kenny (1969. and most importantly in this context. Unfortunately Aquinas cannot make use of such a premise. it ignores it (Wippel 2000. Of these things one can ask whether they have this property intrinsically or by virtue of another. It is analogous to making the inference from ‘All roads have an ending’ to ‘there is one ending to which all roads lead’.g. but would nevertheless have been familiar with the kind of fallacy involved. this would actually come about. If it didn’t come about then it wasn’t a genuine possibility and it’s negation would be necessary. since dependent things only exist by virtue of something else. it simply begs the question against a position like Nagarjuna. Another proposed solution is to gloss ‘everything is such that it does not exist at some time’ as meaning ‘everything is dependent’ (Davies 2001). Secondly. While he doesn’t think there are good philosophical reasons showing that the world is not eternal. 464).15 So the question arises whether Aquinas just simply failed to see the error. 69) who note that even if the argument is valid. An inﬁnite regress of such things is not possible. Lovejoy 1964). Because he holds the eternity of the world as actually false. It doesn’t argue that everything cannot be dependent. he nevertheless holds on the basis of revelation that the world did actually begin. or whether there was a deeper reason why he didn’t think this move was fallacious—that there were hidden premises operating. which do not come to be by generation and which are perishable. and so one has to posit a ﬁrst cause of necessity. Now Aquinas wouldn’t have been familiar with the label ‘quantiﬁer error’. the principle of charity counsels us to look for such hidden ways of making the argument come out as valid. Given his knowledge of the kind of error involved and his general logical acuity. known in Aristotelian parlance as the fallacy of composition and division—wrongly applying properties of an aggregate or group to a member of that group. it merely asserts it. Thirdly. that is. Fourthly. Such a suppressed premise would make valid the argument and get rid of the fallacy. 89) and Anthony Kenny (1969. The move from ‘everything is capable of going out of existence’ to ‘at some time everything goes out of existence’ is fallacious. . since he actually believes it to be false. It contains a quantiﬁer error. that possibility must be realised. e. O’GRADY (1982. Hence there are some things which are not dependent. it is compatible with positing eternal matter as the source of necessity. This moves straightforwardly to the argument that not everything can be like this. 56). The ﬁrst problem with such an interpretation is that it moves from the text quite a long way—it doesn’t explain away the quantiﬁer error. namely it would be necessary that not everything is capable of ceasing to exist. it collapses the third way into an argument rather like the ﬁrst way—a ﬁrst cause argument—removing any particular use for the notion of necessity. Hence if it is a genuine possibility that everything could cease to exist simultaneously. Holding that absolutely everything is like this is incoherent.180 P.
a non-genuine predicate. that causes feature in the genuine list of things which exist in reality. However. is seen as an empty idea. While there may be an intuitive basis for this distinction. Things are given a metaphysical analysis. Aquinas holds that nothing in the world contains the basis for its own existence within itself—existence always comes from without. These are two distinct principles which make up a thing—principles which are not things themselves. Even things which do not go out of existence require an external source of their existence. we select and note aspects which reﬂect our explanatory needs. It wouldn’t be quite right to call it a being—since it is the source of all being. removed from all other possible speciﬁcations of a thing. Nagarjuna changes the focus of explanation. Observed regularities explain nature. This would be an absolutely independent reality. the argument is indeed about dependence. The bare idea of existence. English-speaking commentators on this idea generally tend to be sceptical about such metaphysics. Rather they play a role in explanation—uniting explanandum and explanans—but with no commitment to the metaphysical reality of causes. unlike causes. this is possible in a metaphysically light-weight fashion.17 This holds that entities have real causal powers. On this way of looking at the third way. in that they consist of essence (their structure) and existence—the instantiation of that structure in reality. essence ¼ existence. are not occult metaphysical entities with mysterious powers. but it is explicitly about dependence in respect of existence. We select regularities and nodes of interaction which have salience for us—but we should beware of projecting such patterns into nature itself. a residual Platonically-inspired reservoir idea of being. more fruitful and quite traditional way of looking at this argument is to think that it implicitly involves the distinction between essence and existence which is the keystone of Aquinas’s metaphysical position. Such a source of existence would be a reality whose essence is to exist—whatever that might be like. wherein all things are connected. the full-blown metaphysical distinction of essence and existence is not sustainable. Such patterns are conditions— but conditions.18 .FORM AND EMPTINESS: AQUINAS AND NAGARJUNA 181 A different. However. for the moment. Contingent things rely on other contingent things for their existence. namely that there is something to be said about the instantiation as distinct from the non-instantiation of properties. I want to mark it as a plausible candidate for interpreting the third way as a valid argument. We trace patterns and make predictions. then there would be nothing. If absolutely everything which exists were dependent in this way. Existence is a kind of metaphor. and the sole reality in which the principles of being are identical.16 Nagarjuna’s Anti-Realist Argument Nagarjuna begins his assault on realism by challenging realist notions of causation. When confronted with the vast web of interconnections which is nature. One way of characterising this light-weight approach is to deny the notion of essence. Objections to this reading query the intelligibility of the distinction between essence and existence. An independent reality is required.
in fact. a view which would be familiar to his Buddhist audience. .182 P. which are natural habits. How the absolute perspective relates to the conventional perspective is at the core of Nagarjuna’s position. mask the metaphysical emptiness of reality. Nagarjuna therefore answers the challenge that he is really a nihilist by indicating that the doctrine of emptiness doesn’t wipe out conventional reality. Our discriminations. This is the normal. Nagarjuna has recourse to a doctrine of two perspectives on reality. It explicates the ﬂeeting nature of reality and the natural human tendency to cling to what is really transient. In fact it allows a deeper realisation of the conventionality of all that we call reality. Thus Nagarjuna’s notion of emptiness is not a reiﬁed metaphysical reality. Opponents of Nagarjuna picked on this very point and indicated the troublesome consequences of such a view. causes. or supersede it. There are no self-standing independent existents. or independent existence. from causes and results. To hold that entities are empty seems to be to hold that entities do not. This denies any validity to the very idea of the way things are in reality. O’GRADY There are no objective patterns existing in nature which hold independently of the web of interconnections. in which one posits beings. Nature does not carve itself up into explanatory units—we do that. no Buddha. On such a view one can see the conventions which hold together the conventional view of the world—and realise that all things are in fact empty. To respond to this criticism. such a view would wipe it out. Even the separation of entities into self-standing discrete realities involves choice.20 All the apparatus of Buddhism would crumble on such a view—no Four Noble Truths. that there is no self-existence. sometimes glossed as essence. Nagarjuna’s distinctive thesis on this is to deny that entities have ‘svabhava’. properties and all the familiar paraphernalia of the world. Now such a view is at face value difﬁcult to sustain and seems to be a straight form of nihilism. Such a view does then bolster the Buddhist worldview. Thus the doctrine of emptiness coincides with the doctrine of dependent origination. with entities appearing and disappearing. Rather than sustaining and explicating the Buddhist world-picture. events. exist. What it amounts to is a principled denial that there is an ultimate way things are and as such is in agreement with contemporary forms of anti-realism. pre-critical way of seeing the world. from what went before and goes after. However. It does not eradicate it. there is also a more reﬂective philosophical way of looking at reality—the absolute perspective. So the absolute perspective doesn’t eradicate the conventional. It is the denial of the kind of reality which metaphysics usually holds to. which we conventionally sort and pattern for brief periods of time. What exists is the ﬂux of change. Note that this blocks all forms of metaphysical realism—speciﬁcally it doesn’t sustain idealism. The fundamental metaphysical nature of things is that they are empty. independent of categorisation of them. Dharma (the teaching) or Sangha (community).21 There is a conventional way of looking at reality. arbitrary separation from what is contiguous.19 Another way of expressing this is to say that emptiness (‘sunyata’) characterises entities. which holds that the real nature of entities is that they are constituted by mind.
135ff). and cannot be used to sustain his position. showing that such reality is precisely conventional (see Garﬁeld 1995. As we have also seen. 307ff). but emptiness is their absolute reality. On Nagarjuna’s side. Yet it still seems of doubtful coherence to use a distinction which is under suspicion to defend the use of that very distinction. which Nagarjuna is interpreting. while in absolute reality it makes no sense to so speak. of course. the ego is a conventional reality—and Nagarjuna would agree with standard Buddhist analyses of the self into aggregates (see Gethin 1998. it is not at all clear that he escapes the charge of nihilism. and this emptiness pervades even conventional reality. Included in the scope of this conventionality is the very notion of the self. Given Nagarjuna’s view that emptiness characterises all of reality. despite the fact that they appear diametrically opposed. Within conventional reality it makes sense to speak of essences or forms. Huntington Jr 1989). However. we can ﬁnd a distinction of form and emptiness in conventional reality. what is distinctive of his position is that the aggregates themselves are not substantial— they lack independent existence. but this doesn’t make it unusable (see Garﬁeld 1995. One might think that perhaps a parallel argument could be made using Aquinas’s ingredients. one had to invoke the metaphysical distinction of essence and existence and even using that. what I want to draw attention to here is a curious alignment of both their positions. There is no trancendental ego which constitutes reality. The distinction between absolute and conventional is itself conventional and so not real. To make sense of Aquinas’s argument for a source of necessity. Structural Parallels It should now be clear that Aquinas and Nagarjuna are dealing with the same metaphysical issue and coming up with contradictory accounts of it. it helps one see things rightly. Like Wittgenstein’s ladder in the Tractatus. despite his protestations to the contrary. Therefore it is an unusable distinction. Nagarjuna’s response. neither Aquinas nor Nagarjuna have positions which avoid internal problems. Aquinas defends the existence of a single independent source of necessity for all beings. it is still questionable whether it really avoids logical error. and the very . Nagarjuna denies the existence of any such source and afﬁrms the dependence of absolutely everything. Nagarjuna’s worked out position entails a distinction between conventional and absolute reality. Forms have conventional reality. but the one Aquinas actually offers is ﬂawed.FORM AND EMPTINESS: AQUINAS AND NAGARJUNA 183 It doesn’t hold that absolutely nothing exists. would be to say that one must understand the distinction itself as conventional—that from the absolute level it also lacks reality. However. 316ff. The most obvious line of objection to this is to accuse his position of undermining itself. One requires a different line of argument to avoid charges of begging the question. Rather it gives a characterisation of conventional reality. is summed up in the refrain ‘form is emptiness. The essence of the Prajnaparamitra literature.
from a conventional perspective. Is there a way of adjudicating this stand-off? In relation to the objections levelled against their respective positions. He likewise has two sets of distinctions. Thus the parallel to Nagarjuna’s position: [Nagarjuna] [Aquinas] Conventional Form / Emptiness Dependent Reality Form / Existence / / Absolute Emptiness Absolute Reality Existence Now despite the structural parallel. O’GRADY emptiness is form’. in the second half of the distinction. whereas for Aquinas there is an independent reality. Despite Nagarjuna’s awareness of the danger of nihilism and his insistence that his position isn’t nihilist. a unique reality whose essence is to exist.22 From an absolute perspective there is an identity of what. However. The second distinction is between form and existence. the whole structure (Conventional/Absolute) is dependent. For Nagarjuna. it doesn’t seem . His initial distinction is between Dependent (created) reality and Absolute (uncreated) reality. this distinction goes. His way out of nihilism is to invoke the conventional/absolute distinction. where the second distinction holds in the ﬁrst side of the former distinction and collapses in the second. Emptiness is as things are seen from the absolute stance and this doesn’t wipe out the conventional. one can see a striking structural parallel to Aquinas’s position. What remains is self-subsistent existent. absolute reality. seem distinct. it still seems he falls into it. It is unclear that he can sustain the view that holding all entities are empty isn’t nihilistic. Conventional Form / Emptiness / Absolute Emptiness With this set up. while it collapses in the second half (absolute reality).184 P. it seems that Nagarjuana’s position is less stable that Aquinas’s. Yet the employment of this very distinction doesn’t seem defensible. All things that exist in the world are constituted by the metaphysical distinction between form and existence. the fundamental difference between the intended positions remains. Nagarjuna is therefore committed to two related sets of distinctions: Conventional / Absolute and Form / Emptiness The second distinction (form/emptiness) occurs in the ﬁrst half of the former distinction (conventional reality). Dependent / Absolute And Form / Existence Form and existence are distinct in dependent reality.
since concepts track essences. it is merely to hold that emptiness has some reality independent of that of conventional reality. be Aquinas’s notion of existence. Aquinas might overcome the objections to his position by invoking the essence/existence distinction. given that Nagarjuna denies that emptiness is equivalent to nihilism and complete nothingness. With even a residual amount of positive content. Thus Nagarjuna’s distinction is altered by accepting Aquinas’s notion of an independent reality. and then proceeded to engage Aquinas with Nagarjuna. Conclusion I began by noting a currently fashionable doubt about the possibility of bringing protagonists from different cultural and historical periods into dialogue with each other. it is unclear how such a distinction is possible. it strengthens Aquinas’s position vis-a-vis Nagarjuna. Lewis holds that it is absurd to think that beliefs can support each other when they themselves do not stand on anything—it being like two drunken sailors attempting to stand up by leaning against each other. The situation is akin to C. What might such content be like? Well. On closer inspection both sets of arguments had troublesome dimensions. they do not have independent existence. Without appeal to independent existence. Lewis’s observation about coherentism. A contextual response to the objection that Aquinas’s notion of existence is unintelligible would be to contrast it with Nagarjuna’s ‘emptiness’.FORM AND EMPTINESS: AQUINAS AND NAGARJUNA 185 possible to sustain it without invoking some independent argument for it. Aquinas afﬁrming a source of metaphysical necessity. I. The kinds of critic hostile to existence would be even more hostile to emptiness. So while not ` an absolute rejoinder to such critics. Aquinas doesn’t reify existence—it is not a thing and neither is it a form or essence. the distinction between conventional and absolute could be sustained. Yet the very possibility of this contrast is assured by having an independently contentful notion of existence on the absolute side of the distinction. It is not the possible object of conceptual knowledge. Nagarjuna denying this. It just don’t get off the ground!23 Likewise with the conventional/absolute distinction. but underwritten by the postulation of that very reality. in that things come to be and pass away. Hence substituting ‘existence’ for ‘emptiness’ yields the distinction Conventional / Absolute Form / Existence Existence The required feature of the conventional realm is preserved. A plausible candidate for such ‘contentful’ emptiness would. ironically in this context. it seems as if emptiness has to have some positive content. At a surface level their positions are diametrically opposed. not existence. . Furthermore.
’ Enquiries Concerning the Principles of Morals. Garﬁeld’s commentary furnishes this interpretation. Garﬁeld. but because they serve no manner of purpose.1. . 2. 5ff)—although Burton doesn’t attempt any claims about the historical ﬁgure. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Aquinas’s position appears to be more secure than that of Nagarjuna. Celibacy. objective Truth. Commentary on the Metaphysics Bk. 4. ch. in common life. mortiﬁcation. Section IX. Translated as The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. 87ff). 9. 7. 6. solitude. and the whole train of monkish virtues. without the delusive glosses of superstition and false religion. part 1. 3. 1995. For criticism of Murti’s interpretative presuppositions see Burton (1999. . I then noted a structural parallel between their sequence of distinctions and indicated that Nagarjuna’s position still seemed vulnerable to charges of nihilism. The best recent biographical study of Aquinas is Torrell (1996). For competing interpretations see papers by Rogers and Jordan in the same volume.3 lect. For some discussion see Murti (1955. For an interpretation of Aquinas in this way see O’Grady (2005). The current argument merely holds that in the dialectic of the debate between the postulation of a metaphysical source of necessity and the rejection of such. humility. 2. which Aristotle makes about Heraclitus. allowed to be a part of personal merit. unprejudiced reason. Consider the following: ‘The main themes of postmodernism thus become clear.12 below. . 5.186 P. NOTES 1. There is a sharp criticism of the received ideas of representation. For a survey of Buddhist writings see Gethin (1998. #219. self-denial. Jay N. Whether such a metaphysical ﬁxed point has any further characteristics which point in the direction of theism is another matter altogether. so no other will ever be received. where men judge of things by their natural. ‘The Word of the Buddha: Buddhist Scriptures and Schools’). fasting penance. ‘And as every quality which is useful or agreeable to ourselves or others is. silence. O’GRADY Nagarjuna responding to charges of nihilism by deploying the conventional/absolute distinction. They amount to a comprehensive rejection of virtually everything that the Enlightenment in general and Descartes in particular believed in. It seems as if something resembling Nagarjuna’s position could be salvaged by using Aquinas’s notion of existence. for what reason are they everywhere rejected by men of sense. Does that then turn Nagarjuna into a theist? No. that change presupposes some form of ﬁxity. It merely accepts the point. See also n. 8. The positing of existence as a metaphysical principle which serves as the basis on which to make the conventional/absolute distinction doesn’t say anything about what such existence has to be like.
MMK ch24. Murti’s absolutist reading in Murti (1955). Pratityasamutpada. Aristotle. Those who want to read Aquinas as essentially a Christian theologian. leading eventually to the “death of man”. .3. 11. 16. see Ebbesen (1982). The Heart Sutra in Conze (1973. but not engage in disinterested philosophical argument. 4. Instead we turn more to language. (Cupitt 1989. communication.40. See Kerr (2002.FORM AND EMPTINESS: AQUINAS AND NAGARJUNA Reason and historical progress. T. say. see Kenny (2002). his selfmastery through self-consciousness.4 on translating this term. 14. his moral autonomy and the justiﬁcation of his knowledge of the world. 523). in contrast to. 4 ‘Ways of Reading the Five Ways’) for a good survey. See Burton (1999 ch. ch. In Summa Theologiae Ia q. they could perhaps proselytise each other. They just don’t connect. have to hold that his initial confessional presuppositions would preclude such an encounter between the views of Nagarjuna and Aquinas. 13. Oxford: Oxford University Press. I also accept his generally anti-realist reading of Nagarjuna. Argument cited in Haack (1993. 142). Philosophical Theology and Analytical Philosophy’ for a defence of this view. As I noted above I use the English translation of the Mulamadhyamikakarika (hereafter. furthers the claim of that paper. 27). 23. art and culture-criticism’. See ‘Aquinas. by means of a particular study. 7 –14 sees Nagarjuna responding to such opponents. 89 n. the sign. a thoroughly wholesome loss of interest in the individual subject. 21. 18. This is the very reason why such a reading impoverishes Aquinas. MMK 24. ‘Whoever sees dependent arising also sees suffering and its arising and its cessation as well as the path’. V. the De Fallaciis—see Torrell (1996. 17. For the proliferation of thirteenthcentury textbooks based on this. A plausible interpretation of MMK 24. R. and without simply acceding to ﬁdeism. 1995.2 a. A problem for positions such as that of Kerr is how to articulate clearly how he can distinguish his view from this one. 39). generating a dialogue between Aquinas and Nagarjuna. This current paper. For examples of the kind of objections which can be levelled at this kind of reading. For the attack on a realist account of causation see MMK ch. Sophistical Refutations. 2) for a defence of the view that Nagarjuna is not a sceptic and that the denial of svabhava is a positive doctrine. MMK) given by Jay Garﬁeld in his The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. 20. 19. ch.18. without re-inﬂating the traditional Thomism he is seeking to overcome. MMK15. There’s scholarly dispute over whether Aquinas himself wrote such a textbook. The point is. See Garﬁeld p. 22. without an essentially philosophical dimension. that he would have been well aware of the ﬂaw involved. 12. 15. 187 10. however. 1. Hence the theist/atheist debate becomes pretty small beer indeed.
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