Illocution, No-Theory and Practice in Nagarjunas Skepticism: Reflections on the Vigrahavyavartani
Douglas L. Berger
In verse nine of his Vigrahavyavartani, Nagarjuna thematizes an objection to his skeptical "middle" position in the following way.
In the famous twenty-ninth verse, Nagarjuna, addressing the objection, writes:
Here, Nagarjuna gives a defense of his skepticism by insisting that he makes no proposition (pratijna) concerning the nature of reality. B.K. Matilal has argued that this position is not an untenable one for a skeptic to hold, using as an explanatory model Searls distinction between a propositional and an illocutionary negation. (3) The argument runs that Nagarjuna does not refute rival philosophical positions by simply refuting whatever positive claims those positions might make, but rather he refuses the very act of making an assertion. From this kind of illocutionary negation, however, a certain paradoxicality arises; for in negating the act of assertion, the skeptic is barred from asserting his own position, for under his own condition, if he asserts that position, he falsifies it. (4)
This kind of Searlian analysis of Nagarjuna is in many ways illuminating, for it renders such a skepticism at once viable and truly paradoxical. However, Matilals defense of Nagarjunas skepticism along these lines leaves much of the prasanga method out of consideration. The catuskoti (tetrolemma) dialectic employed by Nagarjuna in the Mulamadhyamikakarika consists of a series of propositional negations which are meant to exhaust all possible metaphysical claims regarding causation, motion, action, conditionality, essence and so on. Were skepticism a matter of merely practicing illocutionary negation, the catuskoti could be seen as non-essential if not superfluous to it. (5) Furthermore, the later Nyaya critics of Nagarjuna, namely Vatsyayana and Uddyotakara, accuse him of espousing vada-vitanda, or "refutation only," and indeed there are many crucial places in the Karika where Nagarjuna states clearly that things with a "unique nature" (svabhava) are "not evident" (na vidyate) precisely because any proof of such things can be found to be incoherent (nopapadyate). (6) It would seem therefore that, if illocution plays a role in Nagarjunas skepticism (which it surely does), it is only the last methodical step in a long philosophical process toward espousing Nagarjunas sunyavada, for the final illocutionary act is made compelling by the host of metaphysical refutations that have proceeded it.
In his study of Nagarjunas attack on the epistemological doctrine of the pramanas, Mark Siderits identified the "air of paradoxicality" surrounding Nagarjunas philosophy to lie in the common perception of it committing "the fallacy of absolute relativism." (7) That is, if no means of valid cognition exist, what gives Nagarjunas doctrine of the "emptiness" or "voidness" (sunyata) of all things its validity? If there are no pramanas, there would be nothing which could establish the truth of sunyata, while if sunyata is true, Nagarjuna has gained knowledge of its truth by some means. (8) Siderits, impressed by the illocutionary force of Nagarjunas reply to this objection, does not go into how the latters notion of prajna ("wisdom") relates to this problematic, nor into the emphasis Nagarjuna places on the "discrimination" (vibhaga) to be made between the "two truths" (satyadvaya), the "ultimately objective truth" (paramarthasatya) and "conventional truth" (samvrtisatya). (9) Even were one to downplay the cognitive significance of all these concepts and count them as Madhyamika sorteriology, the question concerning the means of knowledge would not disappear, and this not merely because of Vatsyayanas, Uddyotakaras and Udayanas replies to Nagarjunas skeptical attacks. There remain in the Karika allusions to confirmatory knowledges of emptiness through both perception (10) and induction. (11) Occasionally then, Nagarjunas claim to eschew all means of valid cognition looks somewhat suspicious.
The paradoxicality of Nagarjunas skeptical position is a result not merely of the consequences of the illocution we see in Vigrahavyavartani, 1:29, but also manifests itself in the reason Nagarjuna gives in the text for refraining from assertion. His prospective opponent has opined that "there is no name whatever without an object" (nama hi nirvastukam kimcid api nasti), and since Nagarjuna has found various names to characterize the things of the world, like nihsvabhavatva and sunya, he must with these words be identifying some sort of substantial nature in things that serves as their ground. Nagarjuna concedes that, were he to be making a proposition, the above objection would indeed show his position to have an error (dosa). This concession is a strange one for Nagarjuna to make at this point, for it seems to represent him as holding that propositions refer. It is well known that the Naiyayikas held the view that all propositional errors have their perceptual foundation in a real object (arthajanya), but result from the "misplacement" (anyathakhyati or viparitakhyati) of a real predicate into the locus of a real subject which does not belong there, and thus while there are fictitious entities we can speak of such as "a round square" or "a rabbits horn" or "the son of a barren woman," the elements which these expressions wrongly combine can always be found among the reals in the world. Therefore all propositions, whether mistaken or true, have a referential character. (12) The Buddhists on the other hand held a theory of error called asatkhyati, or attributing reality to unreal things, and therefore they maintained that almost all propositions, containing as they do supposedly ostensive terms, are non-referring, or in fact contain "empty subject terms." (13) This being the case, Nagarjuna could have simply objected to his opponent here that not all propositions, specifically those regarding sunyata, are referential. (14) Instead, he concedes the point of the objection, but then claims it does not apply to him because he makes no assertion.
Another typically Naiyayika objection thematized by Nagarjuna in verse nine is the charge that, with the term nihsvabhava (no self-nature), Nagarjuna actually means absence (abhava) of self nature. In his Nyayasutra, Gautama identifies abhava to be a prameya, and uses the example of marked and unmarked cloths to show that, were one asked to pick up the unmarked cloths, one would do so because one could perceive the absence of marks on those cloths. (15) Vatsyayana, in his commentary on this verse adds that, since the cause of the appropriate response in this case (bringing the unmarked cloths) was the apprehension of the marks absence, abhava must not only be an object but also a valid cognition. So the argument would go with Nagarjuna that, if one believed that things in the world had no self-nature, this must be because one cognized the absence of self-nature in those things. But then this very absence becomes self-nature, and this being the case, Nagarjunas claim that things are void cannot hold good. Again, Nagarjuna can here object that this conflation of absence with no self-nature can do no harm to him, for by the later term he doesnt mean the absence of essence, nor does he mean the "non-existence" of essence. (16) Instead, in Vigrahavyavartani, 1:30. Nagarjuna denies the very idea that he "apprehends" anything, and so he must make no affirmative or negative judgment concerning the matter. (17)
The point here is that, when faced with these typical attacks of Nyaya regarding the pramanas, no-self nature and reference, Nagarjuna does not resort to responses to them that were already at his disposal, such as the refutations of svabhava that were given in the Karika, nor the emphasis he has placed on the understanding that all statements (vacana), including his own about sunyata, are "dependent designations" (sa prajnaptir upadaya). (18) These responses seem compelling enough to caste some skeptical doubts on the Nyaya metaphysics and epistemology. But in these verses, Nagarjuna radicalizes his distance from his opponents by illocution. In this sense, it seems to me, Nagarjunas skepticism is not merely paradoxical by virtue of the implications of its illocution which Matilal has called attention to, but also extravagant in the sense that Nagarjuna has chosen here to resort to illocution where it does not appear philosophically necessary for him to have done so.
Now of course, Nagarjuna has Buddhist soteriological motives in mind which underlie the philosophical method he employs, motives dedicated to the premise that soteriology begins where theoretical constructions end. But it is also quite probable that there were at least some strictly philosophical motivations for the illocution we see in Vigrahavyavartani, 1:29-30. There were for instance the Nyaya responses to Madhyamikas skeptical attacks which we find thematized in Vatsyayanas Nyayasutrabhasya under 2,1:16-19. Nagarjuna had claimed that the pramana doctrine was suspect because it was without foundation (anavastha); that is, any appeal to a particular valid means of cognition would force us to show that that means was a priori valid, and such a proof must either lead to an infinite regress, each verificatory cognition needing a succeding one to verify it, or to an unjustifiable privileging of certain means of knowledge which were supposed to be intrinsically valid (svatah prasiddhih) over other means that were not. (19) Vatsyayana counters by making the point that we need not determine the ultimate validity of a particular pramana before employing it in actual practice, and further that the confirmation or refutation or of a given knowledge episode can be determined not in general, but only in regard to particular, empirical instances of cognition. (20) Thus all of our epistemological inquiries are made with respect to practical life (vyavahara). Nagarjuna himself places much emphasis on the idea that all of our conventional truths are useful only in the background of vyavahara, and perhaps sensing that the Naiyayikas could work out an "extensionalist theory of knowledge," as Siderits called it, in order to save their doctrine of pramanas, Nagarjuna felt it necessary to deny that the means of knowledge had any validity as an explainatory model of the structure of the everyday world. (21) This kind of move would allow him to attack the pramanas on both the empirical and metaphysical grounds upon which the Naiyayikas based them, but on the other hand he could then consistently do so only by denying he himself was employing any means whereby his own claims were justified, and even that he made any claim at all; hence the illocution.
There are other reasons for this strategy, directed not against the Naiyayikas but against the Sarvastivadins. Dharmatrata, a philosopher of this school, had maintained that not only objects (artha) but also convictions (niscaya) expressed through utterances must have an intrinsic nature (svabhava), for this is the only way to account for the latters semantical continuity of meaning in the passage of time. (22) Hence, the skeptic is faced with the conundrum that, if he makes an utterance to the effect that "nothing has svabhava," the utterance itself is a formally unified semantic phenomena (bhava) and therefore performitavely renders itself false. Illocution offers one way out of the problem. But even here, Nagarjuna has made independent arguments against this objection to the effect that it is because they are themselves dependently originated that his utterances can serve the function of confirming the contingency, and hence emptiness, of all other things. (23)
But for the most part, it seems that this illocutionary strategy is employed by Nagarjuna to make himself immune from the charges of the pramana theorists. Nevertheless, an internal instability appears to result from Nagarjunas strategy which taxes even his most devout commentator. Chandrakirti eventually concedes that, just as the "worldly man" makes use of pramanas for practical ends, the Madhyamika also uses pramanas such as inference to show the worldly man the way to sunyavada, with the exceptions that, first of all, they are only used in this case as soteriological "devices" (upaya) which have no definitive theoretical explication, and secondly they can only be correctly used by the arya for these purposes. (24) The instability, that is, is how to account for the practical efficacy of the means of knowledge for either the ordinary man after a worldly end or an arya after a soteriological end if one has abandoned the idea that the formal assumptions which hold that certain means can make certain ends attainable are fundamentally flawed. If the epistemological and metaphysical assumptions of the Naiyayikas concerning substance and causation fail to explain what the Buddhists hold as the one indubitable feature of the world, namely change, (25) then the fact that these assumptions can despite their falsity be used for successful practical purposes must also remain inexplicable. (26) The same must go for the "wise man;" for if he is to use certain means as soteriological devices, must he not have some formal assumptions that these means employed in a certain way will be expedient?. The doctrines of satyadvaya and sunyata would seem to provide him the basis for such assumptions, but when asked to account for this special knowledge, or prajna, he must remain silent, lest he allow a specially privileged standard of explicability to sneak in the back door which had already been kicked out the front. The kind of inexplicability which the Madhyamika skeptic insists upon does not merely apply to whether certain means will always be effective or not, rather it undermines the very notion that there are any real, tangable connections between means and ends in addition to such connections as are made possible by semantic agreement. Practicality does have its own conditions, among which are not only those of tacit communal agreement cited by the Madhyamikas, but also those regarding workability, which seems in turn to necessitate a number of minimal epistemolgical and metaphysical assumptions that the Madhyamika has made it his buisness to uproot. Illocution appears to save the argument against the means of knowledge, or at least keep it consistent, but the price of this consistency is not merely that ones own beliefs are rendered just as inexplicable as those one refutes, but also that the practical or soteriological relavence of any assertion is also unaccountable, and it is this latter consequence that could be parasitic on the other claims the Buddhists make about the practical "truths" of vyavahara, or at least their practicability.
But as I have mentioned above, there are certain senses in which it seems that Nagarjunas resorting to the illocution we find in the Vigrahavyavartani may not have been necessary for the maintenance of his skeptical position, for he has recourse to prasanga counter-arguments which can always offset the metaphysical and epistemological claims of the Hindu and Buddhist philosophers whom he confronts. There are also the places alluded to above in the Karika itself where certain pramanas seem to be employed, along with Chandrakirtis concession that the Madhyamika uses means of knowledge, that give one the impression that this kind of skepticism and the pramanas are only inimical to one another in so far as the latter may lead to the metaphysical, essentialist extremes criticized by the Buddhists. Nagarjunas illocution in this light seems an attempt to radicalize his difference from a developing Nyaya extensionalist theory of the pramanas, a theory in which the Buddhists and the Naiyayikas are closer than anywhere else. (27)
(1) "The Dialectical Method of Nagarjuna: Translation of the Vigrahavyavartani from the original Sanskrit with Introduction and Notes." Kamaleswar Bhattacharya, Journal of Indian Philosophy vol. 1, B.K. Matilal ed. (D. Reidell Publishing Company, Dordrecht, Holland, 1971, 217-261), 226.
(2) Ibid., 236.
(3) Perception: An Essay on Classical Indian Theories of Knowledge. (Clarendon, Oxford, 1986), 66-7, 88-9.
(4) Ibid., 48.
(5) The controversies surrounding whether the Madhyamika catuskoti violated the law of excluded middle first raised by Fritz Staal led Sitansu Chakravarty to opt for a Searlian "illocutionary" interpretation of negation in the Karika (see "The Madhyamika Catuskoti or Tetralemma" in the Journal of Indian Philosophy, vol. 8, 1980, 303-306. It seems to me, however that the dialectical method of refutation in Nagarjuna, rather than embodying this illocution, leads to it.
(6) Mulamadhyamikakarika, 1:10, 7:20, 19:3.
(7) "The Madhyamika Critique of Epistemology I." Journal of Indian Philosophy, vol.8, 1980, 307.
(8) Uddyotakara, in raising this objection, claims that Nagarjuna, in simultaneously attempting to prove there are no means of valid cognition and show that all things are empty, contradicts his own statement (svavacana vyaghata ), Nyayavartika, under Nyayasutra 2,1:12. In his classic defense of Madhyamika, T.R.V. Murti argued that "the dialectic is a series of reductio ad absurdum arguments (prasangapadaman ). Every thesis is turned against itself...It accepts a particular thesis hypothetically, and by eliciting its implications shows up the inner contradictions that have escaped the notice of the opponent." The Central Philosophy of Buddhism: A Study of the Madhyamika System. (George Allen and Unwin Ltd., London, 1960) 131-2. However, this kind of methodical use of prasanga seems to reinforce Uddyotakaras charge that the Madhyamika practices vada-vitanda rather than refute it.
(9) In his Slokavartika, Niralambanavada, 7-8, Kumarila critiqued this doctrine of "two truths." He found that since the "truths" of samvrti were said to be vitiated by paramarthasatya, it was improper to refer to both as "truths." .
(10) "Bhavanam nihsvabhavatvam anyatha-bhava darshanat." MMK, 13:3, "Changing existents are seen to be essenceless existents."
(11) "Anityata hi bhavesu na kadacin na vidyate." MMK, 21:4, "Indeed, impermanence in existents is never not found."
(12) Satischandra Chaterjee, The Nyaya Theory of Knowledge. (University of Calcutta, 1965), 36.
(13) B.K. Matilal, Epistemology, Logic and Grammar in Indian Philosophical Analysis. (The Hague, Netherlands, 1971), 134-5.
(14) Matilal has suggested that this alternative would be more appealing as a defence of the general Buddhist "ineffability thesis" than the seeming "refusal to play tha language game" chosen by Nagarjuna; see The Word and the World (Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1990), 155.
(15) Nyayasutra, 2,2:8
(16) "Bhavasya ced aprasiddhir abhavo naiva sidhyati." MMK, 15:5, "When the existent is not established, neither is the non-existent established."
(17) "Yathartham evaham kamcin nopalabhe tasman napravartayami na nirvatayami." It may also be noted that, with this response, Nagarjuna may be seeking to avoid having his skeptical doubt fall into one of the various Nyaya classifications of doubt such as dharmijnana, visesasmrti or pramanyasamsayat visayasamsayah. (See J.N. Mohanty, "Nyaya Theory of Doubt." Essays in Indian Philosophy: Traditional and Modern. Oxford, Delhi, 1993, 101-125).
(18) MMK, 24:18. This verse, along with MMK, 24:10 resulted in the exegesis of the word samvrti by Chandrakirti in the Prasannapada.. In his third definition of samvrti, which he derives from the root vr, Chandrakirti equates it with vyavahara, "convention."
(19) Vv., 1:33
(20) Siderits has referred to this defense as "Nyaya extensionalism." (Ibid., 329). Udayana and Uddyotakara expand on Vatsyayanas commentary by explaining that whatever pramana s are at work in a particular situation can be confirmed or invalidated depending on whether or not they lead to the successful attainment of a practical end (pravrttisamarthya)
(21) It is interesting that Chandrakirti in his Prasannapada ridicules Dignaga for attempting to improve on the Nyaya account of the means of knowledge, for the latter do not deserve to be attacked on the grounds that they contradict the experience of the ordinary man (19:12-13). He then goes on to point out that, while the everyday man does use pramanas unreflectively, the "everyday world" that they make known is "false" (samvrti, as derived from its other root, vr ). I shall expand on this tension below..
(22) David J. Kalupahana, A History of Buddhist Philosophy: Continuities and Discontinuities. (University of Hawaii Press, 1992) 128.
(23) "nihsvabhavatvaprasandhane bhavanam vartate." Vv. 1:22.
(24) Prasannapada, 20:2-4.
(25) MMK, 13:4, 15:6, 8
(26) This difficulty is underlined by the fact that the Buddhists hold all epistemological and metaphysical formal assumptions to be prapanca or "fabrications." They must hold then that human beings can achieve practical ends by cognitive and linguistic means which are one and all falsifications.
(27) Of course the more explicitly extensionalist features of Nyaya epistemology were to be developed by Uddyotakara, Udayana and the Navya-Nyaya, and Siderits is right in claiming that Vatsyayana would probably have been loathed to separate that Nyaya epistemology from the Visesika metaphysics, and even more reluctant to concede that the possibility of falsifying a given knowledge must lead to a theoretical scheme which allows for the possibility that the principles of the scheme itself are falsifyable (Ibid., 333). There is certainly no fully developed extensionalism separated from a carefully delineated metaphysical scheme in the Nyayasutrabhasya, but the beginnings of one seem to be there for the later commentators to build on, and thus I dont think it unreasonable to suppose that Nagarjuna was reacting to this in his later work.