Book blogging: Three Pillars of Indian Skepticism Chapters Two & Three

Robert Beer's contemporary (1988)
thangka of Nāgārjuna
In Chapters Two and Three of his book, Ethan Mills sets out his understanding of the 2nd/3rd century CE Indian philosopher Nāgārjuna. Since this is a blog post and not a thorough, scholarly book review, I can't do justice to both chapters in terms of engaging with both Ethan's* book and the immense literature on Nāgārjuna. What I will try to do is set out in a schematic way what he's arguing for. Essentially, the two chapters together set out existing interpretations of Nāgārjuna and Ethan's interpretation in light of these options. Even though Nāgārjuna has written other works, Three Pillars focuses on two of the most important of those where his authorship is uncontested: the Mūlamadhamakakārika (MMK, Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way) and the Vigrahavyāvartanī (VV, Dispeller of Disputes). Ethan's positive thesis is that Nāgārjuna argues for no positive philosophical position in either text, despite appearances, but rather, he uses philosophical argumentation against other views as an initial stage, after which, in the second stage, one one reaches the "pacification of conceptual proliferation" (prapañcopaśama). Understanding what Nāgārjuna means by this Sanskrit term is crucial to Ethan's argument, which is first set out in 2.3.

Before getting to that, what are the other options available? Ethan identifies three:

  • Mystical Nāgārjuna wants his readers to experience some "ineffable direct awareness of reality" (27). He cites T.R.V. Murti, John Taber, Masao Abe, and Stephen Phillips as scholars who in some way follow in this interpretation.
  • Anti-realist Nāgārjuna rejects semantic realism ("truth conditions of a statement are set by mind-independent reality", 28) and also has a positive view in which emptiness (śūnyatā) is the way in which all things exist. He cites Mark Siderits and Jan Westerhoff as two proponents of this view.
  • Epistemological skeptic Nāgārjuna is a skeptic in some sense, perhaps in that he denies the possibility of knowing the external world or that he is a skeptic about knowledge of causal relations. Here, B.K. Matilal, Jay Garfield, Georges Dreyfus, are examples of this family of views, though Ethan has some things to say about distinguishing kinds of skepticism here.
In Chapter Three, Ethan will lay out the textual evidence for his reading, but before he does, he criticizes these three views and lays out the two-phase theory. I would say that his criticisms of the existing positions are based on accounting for the following:
  1. Nāgārjuna seems to make positive arguments for certain positive theses.
  2. Nāgārjuna seems to recommend not holding any positive thesis.
  3. Nāgārjuna seems to recommend not engaging in conceptualization at all.
  4. Nāgārjuna has conceptual resources in the Upaniṣads and early Buddhist philosophy to explicitly urge mystical experience, but he does not.
If I understand him correctly, the Mystical Nāgārjuna cannot account for (1) nor for (4). But Anti-realist Nāgārjuna cannot account for (2) and (3). The Epistemological Skeptic Nāgārjuna is closer to the truth, but not only are some existing views a bit muddle in terms of just precisely how he is a skeptic, but they also cannot account for (2) since they require a positive skeptical thesis.

I realize that in a book this size, with three major figures to cover, there is no way an author can go into detail on every point. However, I found myself wishing that we had more development of these views and critical engagement with them. And I was a bit puzzled about the discussion of the mystical option in light of the Upaniṣads. Ethan argues that there is "little if any textual evidence" to support some mystical, ineffable experience as a result of his philosophy (32), even though he had such resources, for instance in the Māṇḍukya Upaniṣad 12:
The fourth (state, turīya) is measureless, not to be employed, in which there is the cessation of the phenomenal world (prapañcopaśamaḥ), the auspicious, the non-dual. In this way the syllable "oṃ" just is the self (ātman). One who knows in this way enters into the ātman by means of the ātman (32).
What Ethan says is that this verse illustrates a common perceptual metaphor (seeing the self) that is used to characterize mystical experience, but Nāgārjuna does not use such metaphors (33). Now, dating this Upaniṣad is difficult (everyone agrees it is late, but just how late there is no consensus), but if we assume Nāgārjuna had it, then why not think that in his use of the term prapañcopaśamaḥ, he is consciously alluding to this text (and using it for his own purposes)? I was surprised to have no mention of why the phrase here means "cessation of the phenomenal world" but should be "pacification of conceptual proliferation" in Nāgārjuna's MMK 25.24 (For instance, Siderits/Katsura translate it more broadly, "halting of cognizing everything.") We get discussion about the Buddhist history of the term (37-38) but no discussion of this in relationship to the Upaniṣads. Now, this is tough stuff, historically and textually, but I was hoping to hear Ethan's view on this, especially since so much hangs on his taking prapañcopaśama in a particular sense, which is the Buddha's "cur[ing] us of the disease of desiring to support [philosophical] theories" (38). But if prapañca has a broader sense than just philosophical theories, then we are closer to the kind of Upaniṣadic cessation of any cognitive action. We no longer carve up the world into I/you as a non-philosopher might, neither do we make distinctions like a Naiyāyika.

I realize I haven't done justice to all of the details in Chapter Two, but since the main textual arguments occur in Chapter Three, I'll take that up now, briefly.

Ethan wants to establish that there are two stages in Nāgārjuna's approach to philosophy. He thinks that this makes sense of the quietistic tendencies in early Buddhism as well as the particular meditative approach that focuses on insight due to analysis (as opposed to the vipassana practices). As I understand his argument, it goes like this:
  1. Nāgārjuna argues against essences (svabhāva) and to emptiness (śūnyatā) using prasaṅga.
  2. The conclusion to a prasaṅga requires no commitment to a thesis.
  3. Nāgārjuna argues that emptiness entails abandoning all views.
  4. Any conclusion or claim in an argument is a view.
  5. Therefore, the best explanation for any apparent positive claim Nāgārjuna has is that it is merely provisional.
Ethan looks at two sections of the MMK and VV. From VV 31-51, he outlines five options he takes to be a prasaṅga. In reply to Jan Westerhoff's interpretation that this expresses a kind of epistemic contextualism, Ethan says that he doesn't see any textual basis for this, nor is it necessary (55). Rather, agreeing with the later thinker Candrakīrti's take on this text, he thinks that all epistemologies, even Buddhist ones, are targeted by Nāgārjuna's arguments. In the MMK, Ethan looks at the discussion of causation found in chapter 24, arguing against existing accounts such as Jay Garfield's: Jay says that MMK 24.18 as a place where Nāgārjuna makes a doctrinal claim identifying emptiness with the middle way. In contrast, Ethan sees the interpretive fulcrum as MMK 27.29-30, where Nāgārjuna says we should abandon all views (dṛṣṭi). In conclusion, Ethan argues that:
"Nāgārjuna's philosophical procedure is therapy intended for people dogmatically attached to the pursuit of epistemological or metaphysical theories. As a quietist, Nāgārjuna's final word is--whether paradoxically or not--silence. But this is not a mystical silence of ineffable, transcendent knowledge. It is the silence of skepticism about philosophy, a silence born of having moved beyond the desire for such knowledge" (66).
At the end of Chapters Two and Three, I have a better sense of what Ethan is up to in his interpretation, though I am still unconvinced. I am no Nāgārjuna scholar, and perhaps it is for this reason that I wished for more textual evidence in Chapter Three. In fact, I almost think that these two chapters merit a book-length, sustained treatment (perhaps a trilogy, a book per thinker, could be in the future?). I was left wondering if the rest of the VV and MMK are consistent with Ethan's interpretation, not to mention the rest of Nāgārjuna's corpus. (He says on page 61 that MMK 1 aims at "undermining" views about causation, then MMK 24.18-19 "develops a provisional view of emptiness" and MMK 27.29-30 shows this "undermines itself", but what happens in the rest of the MMK?) And I haven't yet found a discussion to convince me that the distinction between philosophical and non-philosophical conceptualization is at issue for Nāgārjuna. Finally, I find myself wanting more historical/textual spade-work about what he might be drawing upon, especially in regard to the relationship between early Buddhism and Upaniṣadic material.

However, I really appreciated the fine distinctions between the kinds of skepticism discussed in the interpretations of Nāgārjuna, and indeed, it does seem as if we need some interpretive fulcrum from which we can judge how to resolve (or not resolve!) apparent conflicts in the text. Since the argument is one to the best explanation of the textual material, I found myself unable to judge if it is the best explanation, since the material was rather selective. Still, it does give me some things to think about the next time I read Nāgārjuna, which I'm inclined to do again soon! Next up, Jayarāśi!

Previous posts:
Chapter One

*I've decided to drop the last name convention for this series since I know Ethan and it felt extremely awkward!


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