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Philosophy in Asia

Averting Arguments: Nagarjuna’s Verse 29

S. K. Wertz
Texas Christian University

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ABSTRACT: I examine Nagarjuna’s averting an opponent’s argument (Verse 29 of Averting the Arguments), Paul Sagal’s general interpretation of Nagarjuna and especially Sagal’s conception of "averting" an argument. Following Matilal, a distinction is drawn between locutionary negation and illocationary negation in order to avoid errant interpretations of verse 29 ("If I would make any proposition whatever, then by that I would have a logical error. But I do not make a proposition; therefore, I am not in error.") The argument is treated as representing an ampliative or inductive inference rather than a deductive one. As Nagarjuna says in verse 30: "That [denial] of mine [in verse 29] is a non-apprehension of non-things" and non-apprehension is the averting of arguments or "the relinquishing of all views." "Not making a proposition P" would be not speaking P or silence with regard to P (where P is some opposing view) and, as Sagal argues, not meaning a global linguistic silence (where P stands for any proposition whatsoever). Such an interpretation would lead to attributing wholesale irrationalism to Nagarjuna-something I wish to avoid.

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In this paper I examine Nagarjuna averting an argument of an opponent (Verse 29 of Averting the Arguments), Paul Sagal's general interpretation of Nagarjuna, (1) and the former's conception of "averting" an argument. Since I focus my discussion around verse 29, we shall begin with it, then possible interpretations of it, and finally move to considerations of how to best characterize Nagarjuna's "stance" (for lack of a better word) given that verse.

Verse 29:

If I would make any proposition whatever [P], then by that I would have a logical error [E];

But I do not make a proposition; therefore I am not in error. (2)

In sentential logic (SL) the argument would be symbolized as follows:

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Immediately we see a logical mistake here, so Nagarjuna is in error! What we have here is the formal fallacy of denying the antecedent. Under the theory of conditionals in SL, Nagarjuna could make the related propositions and be in error (which he is under this interpretation). PWertz3.gif (56 bytes)E is not equivalent to ¬PWertz3.gif (56 bytes)¬E, so the latter cannot be substituted for the former. If P and E are equivalent to one another, then the inference he draws would be valid, but the wording in verse 29 rules out that interpretation. However, the meaning of the verse might suggest a similar interpretation.

If we interpret "I do not make a proposition" not as the negation ("¬") of P, but as a Fregean or illocutionary "act" or "negation" as B. K. Matilal does, (3) which denies the uttering rather than the utterance. By E, "error," Nagarjuna means propositional error and not all error, because he did recognize perceptual error or "erroneous apprehension" (verse 27; 148/96), hence he could refrain from making P (propositions) and still be in error. Also stating a conditional like the first premise, PWertz3.gif (56 bytes)E, is not making an assertion or a proposition (of a true state of affairs), but rather indicating a connection between P and E that if P then E — not that P exists given PWertz3.gif (56 bytes)E, only that an association exists between P and E. Nagarjuna is well aware of the nature of conditionals and this is one of the major reasons why most of his replies are stated conditionally. What is P? Any proposition? No, only a few propositions (those of his opponents) are P, for we do speak with accepting, for practical purposes, the work-a-day world, to paraphrase Nagarjuna (verse 28; 149/96). So the second premise is really not represented by ¬P but ¬Wertz4.gif (62 bytes)P where "Wertz4.gif (62 bytes)" is the Fregean symbol for "asserted that." Then what is ¬Wertz4.gif (62 bytes)P? "Not making a proposition P" would be not speaking P or silence with regard to P and not meaning a global linguistic silence. (4) Such an interpretation would lead to attributing wholesale irrationalism to Nagarjuna — something that should be avoided. Consequently, the argument form for verse 29 should be symbolized as

Wertz2.gif (228 bytes)

Now the argument looks very different. We do not have a formal fallacy and, given we have moved to discussing the content of the argument, it appears that the argument is ampliative or inductive in that the truth of the conclusion goes beyond the truth of the premises, so that it is possible that the conclusion could be false and the premises could be true, i.e., more information is contained in the conclusion than is contained in the premises. Nagarjuna is attempting to get his opponents to see that if PWertz3.gif (56 bytes)E and ¬Wertz4.gif (62 bytes)P, then ¬Wertz4.gif (62 bytes)E, and consequently they would be closer to The Middle Way. (5) Therefore the silence here is a dogmatic silence and an illocutionary act or negation (see Matilal, 234) which averts an argument. Averting is an illocutionary act rather than a locutionary act. This interpretation ties in nicely with the ampliative or inductive argument reading of verse 29 since we have moved from exclusively logical considerations into psychological ones. Matters of logic and psychology are not clearly separated from one another in Indian philosophy. (6) The denial of P would involve a doubt in the propositional content of P, but P in our original argument of verse 29 has no content and is not doubted, so ¬P is not the best paraphrase of "I do not make a proposition." A good paraphrase of this utterance would involve descriptions of who the "I" is, what the circumstances are, and what is entailed in making the proposition that is uttered. The "making" would be different if P were a command or a question or a request or an assertion, so the specification of P is important to determine the rest of the speech act. An analysis of "averting" an argument would fall within this general framework and gives us additional insight into Nagarjuna's dialectic.

Nagarjuna suggests a way for the second premise and the conclusion to be interpreted in the following verse (30):

If there is something, while being seen by means of the objects of direct perceptions, etc., [It is] affirmed or denied. That [denial] of mine is a non-apprehension of non-things. (149/96)

The apprehension of non-things would be an act of locutionary negation (denial 1) and the non-apprehension of non-things is an act of illocutionary negation (denial 0). "That [denial] of mine" (verse 30) is denial 0. Non-apprehension is the averting of arguments or "the relinquishing of all views." (7) So what are we to make of this?

The apprehension of non-things is earlier Buddhist schools of philosophy who interpreted the eight-fold path. Apprehension is an intentional stance which involves interpretation. Substantially this is the arguments of the opponents (Part I of Averting the Arguments, 147-148/93-95). So the non-apprehension of non-things is not an intentional stance; it involves only awareness. Awareness of what? Of samsara or ordinary existence, and matters of ordinary existence involve only facts--there is no interpretation. Hence, Nagarjuna equates samsara (ordinary existence) with nirvana (enlightenment). In other words, there is no interpretation involved with non-apprehension; the latter is simply experience rather than reflection. What this experience reveals is non-things or emptiness, and that is no different than samsara or nirvana. The upshot of all this is that nirvana needs no interpretation. This is, I believe, Nagarjuna's point.

Nagarjuna must have had a distinction like that of fact and interpretation in mind when he identified samsara and nirvana. He certainly found no air of paradox in this matter. Such a distinction probably came from the Nyaya-sutra where perception (knowledge resulting from sense-object contact) and inference (which is preceded by perception and founded on conditions or generalization) were distinguished. (8) Fact is the result of perception and interpretation is the result of inference, so the two pairs are in the same family of distinctions. Nagarjuna used similar ideas to make the point that samsara consists of facts and involves no interpretation (a realist's claim) and that philosophy or theories about those facts or ordinary existence are interpretations (a positivist's claim). Nagarjuna wants to dispense with philosophy or interpretation and to be left with just the facts or "the work-a-day world" (verse 28). As Sagal points out Nagarjuna "borrows" or uses realist (and positivist, I might add) concepts and modes of argument to refute their claims and other's claims. Nagarjuna's rental agreements are at work here too. Because of all this, we can perhaps view him as the first radical deconstructionist. (9)

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(1) Paul T. Sagal, "Nagarjuna's Paradox," American Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 1 (January, 1992): 79-85.

(2) Nagarjuna, Vigrahavyavartaní: Averting the Arguments, translated by Frederick J. Streng, in his Emptiness: A Study in Religious Meaning (New York: Abingdon Press, 1967), 222-227; reprinted in Understanding Non-Western Philosophy: Introductory Readings, edited by Daniel Bonevac and Stephen Phillips (Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1993), 149; and included in ch. 3: "South Asian Philosophy," edited by Stephen H. Phillips, in World Philosophy: A Text with Readings, edited by Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen M. Higgins (New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1995), 96. References are to these two anthologies by page numbers. The bracketed "P" and "E" are added to verse 29.

(3) B. K. Matilal, Perception: An Essay on Classical Indian Theories of Knowledge (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), reprinted in Understanding Non-Western Philosophy, 234.

(4) Sagal makes this same point in a different way (83).

(5) See The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamkakarika, translation and commentary by Jay L. Garfield (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

(6) Consult, e.g., J. N. Mohanty, "Indian Theories of Truth: Thoughts on Their Common Framework," Philosophy East and West, vol. 30, no. 4 (October, 1980): 439-451, esp. 441.

(7) Garfield (note 5), 352: Verse "30. I prostrate to Gautama/Who through compassion/Taught the true doctrine,/Which leads to the relinquishing of all views."

(8) Reprinted in Understanding Non-Western Philosophy, 180-181; and World Philosophy, 107-110.

(9) David Michael Levin has an interesting, recent interpretation along these lines; see his "Liberating Experience from the Vice of Structuralism: The Methods of Merleau-Ponty and Nagarjuna," Philosophy Today, vol. 41, no. 1 (Spring 1997): 96-111.

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