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One must have a mind of winter, and behold nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is.

Wallace Stevens, "The Snow Man"

AYONE WHO TRIES TO MAKE THE CASE that "contingency goes all the way down" very quickly discovers that by the time he has defined contingency, framed his adversaries, posited a thesis expressed as generally applicable, and thought through some argumentative moves, he is suspected of already doing metaphysics. My thesis that contingency goes all the way down (and all the way up the scale of nature, historically, biologically, and cosmologically) counts less as a metaphysical thesis itself than as a key element in my overall aim to read metaphysics through a social practices perspective. Whether one can maintain that contingency goes all the way down without embracing a properly metaphysical claim is a matter of some dispute among the authors whom I shall be discussing. Furthermore, whether and how one might avoid the self-referential problems involved in saying "contingency goes all the way down" presents a problem common both to neopragmatism in twenty-first-century America and to Madhyamika Buddhism in second-century Indian Buddhism.

To make my thesis more persuasive and vivid, I draw upon certain provocative parallels between the philosophies of Richard Rorty and Nagarjuna. In the first part of this address, I will discuss three aspects of their respective characterizations of contingency, dealing with their (1) antifoundationalism and the need to get over and beyond classic oppositions between realism and antirealism; (2) parallel ways of handling truth; and (3) susceptibility to a semantic interpretation of assertions about emptiness/contingency in place of metaphysical doctrines.

In the second part, I examine two of the chief objections lodged against my view, articulated by Lisa Landoe Hedrick and Robert C. Neville. (1) Rorty and Nagarjuna, at the intersections of their various works, replied to objections strikingly similar to Landoe Hedrick's and Neville's. By tracing those engagements, I can both defend my own thesis and illuminate the ways in which a twentieth-century American pragmatist and a second-century Buddhist philosopher of the Middle Way followed remarkably congruent paths.

The argument is best conducted by engaging less well-known texts by each philosopher. For Nagarjuna, I turn not to the celebrated Mulamadhyamakakarika (The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way) but to his Vigrahavyavartani (The Dispeller of Disputes), which has to do almost entirely with Nagarjuna's refutation of the charge of inconsistency; here he demonstrates how it is possible to have no view at the same time as one denies that things have an intrinsic nature, a denial that at first seems to implicate metaphysics as much as the assertion of an intrinsic nature would. In the case of Rorty, I am most interested in his fourth and last volume of collected papers, Philosophy as Cultural Politics-, these prove richer sources for defending the arguments I want to highlight than his more popular 1989 book, Contingency, Irony, Solidarity.

The aim here, then, is to draw out and develop a defense of contingency all the way down from unsuspected, or at least underutilized, sources in Nagarjuna and Rorty. On my reading, their views and various recommendations are best understood as semantic rules rather than as metaphysical claims. Both Nagarjuna and Rorty, I will argue, were striving to get over and beyond metaphysical realism with its correspondence theory of truth and the idea that true beliefs are accurate representations of reality. Nagarjuna urged this for soteriological reasons, and Rorty for the sake of epistemological repudiations, but they come out in the same place for my purposes. Embued with a sense of thoroughgoing contingency, both Rorty and Nagarjuna opposed essentialism in any form. Each consented to contingency without grasping for grounds of any sort--for which both received abundant scorn from other philosophers. Lionized by Harold Bloom as "the most interesting philosopher in the world," Rorty was also satirized by John Stuhr as "the Milli Vanilli of liberalism, merely lip-synching the old Elvis refrain: 'Don't Be Cruel.'" (2) Similarly, Nagarjuna, agile dialectician and proponent of the Middle Way between nihilism and essentialism, was considered the greatest philosopher of the Madhyamaka school, but his views were also rigorously opposed as nihilistic by non-Buddhist groups. Indeed, although both Rorty and Nagarjuna have been portrayed as nihilists, skeptics, conventionalists, relativists, and antirealists, they are none of those things in my view; instead, they are pragmatists who aim to move beyond a stale impasse between realism and antirealism, they are none of those things in my view; instead, they are pragmatists who aim to move beyond a stale impasse between realism and antirealism as well as beyond the extremes of absolutism and relativism. (3)


We begin, then, with arguments intriguingly advanced by both philosophers. Nagarjuna, as I read him, belongs on the side of the antifoundationalists, the Wittgensteinians, and the Rortyans in putting forth a view of contingency that pertains to reality, selfhood, and communities of discourse--the very topics of Rorty's own 1989 Contingency, Irony, Solidarity. Rorty, as I read him, anticipated and answered many of the overwrought criticisms of his unique version of pragmatism, defending radical contingency in ways that can help clarify Nagarjuna's endeavor.

That all things are "empty" or lacking in intrinsic essence or substance (svabhava) is Nagarjuna's central affirmation. In this, his most contemporary sounding argument, he expounds the idea that all things lack intrinsic nature, properties, or eternal existence by linking the idea of emptiness/contingency to the doctrine of dependent origination, the idea that all things depend on other things outside themselves. Indeed, the emptiness of all things is equivalent to their being dependently originated by a complex web of causal factors. To grasp the radical nature of emptiness, one must understand that, far from attributing any form of nonexistence to things, Nagarjuna is maintaining that everything is empty of substance, that emptiness is itself empty, and that the very assertion of emptiness is empty too. The absence of svabhava understood as substance denies only the existence of an essence to anything. The insight that even emptiness is itself empty allows that conventional phenomena do indeed exist, but with a different nature than when normally thought of as independent; rather, things exist relationally, dependently, and in context. That is why, in fact, suffering is not permanent, the path can be cultivated, and pain is alleviable. Only because the nature of all things is empty can these things be possible.

Two features of Nagarjuna's discussion in the Vigrahavyavartanis can be buttressed and clarified by bringing him together with Rorty. The first is his repudiation of the classic correspondence theory of truth, upon which most realist epistemologies are based. As Rorty described it, this is a theory according to which the truth of a statement is grounded in a structural similarity between bits of the world that "make sentences true" and linguistic sentences that "represent" those bits. (4) Attempting to explain how this could be so, and what the relation would consist in between linguistic and nonlinguistic bits proves futile. There is simply nothing instructive or interesting to which true sentences might correspond. Nagarjuna was no more successful at finding a relation substantial enough to yoke word and world together at some fundamental level, as his difficult discussion of "epistemic objects" and "epistemic instruments" in the Vigrahavyavartani attempts to make clear. (5)

This repudiation of realist semantics and ontology leads in turn to letting go of the widespread assumption that there is a "ready-made world" (Putnam) or "one way the world is" (Goodman). For both Rorty and Nagarjuna there is no coherent way to entertain the idea of "the way things really are." This is precisely why beliefs do not reach their finest hour in "representing reality." Reality is multiple, shifting, and full of contingencies. As a result, there is no way to investigate the world apart from our linguistic and conceptual practices, the very social practices that generate the notion of the "world" and the "objects" in it in the first place. This is to say that reality does not determine thought, in the sense intended by realists, and neither does thought determine reality, in the sense intended by antirealists. More precisely, as Rorty explained, " it is no truer that 'atoms are what they are because we use 'atom' as we do than that 'we use 'atoms' as we do because atoms are as they are." Both of these claims, Rorty insisted, are entirely empty. Both, he said, are "pseudo-explanations." (6)

A second feature of Nagarjuna's depiction of thoroughgoing contingency involves the question of truth. Nagarjuna characterizes ultimate truth and conventional truth as indistinguishable, and Rorty finds little practical difference between justification of belief and truth. On Nagarjuna's account, there can be no such thing as ultimate truth in the sense of a theory describing how things really axe, independent of the interests and conceptual structures we use in describing them. For Madhyamika Buddhists, one is left with conventional truth, in the sense of truths that agree with commonly accepted conventions and social practices. Buddhism's distinction between ultimate truth and conventional truth, once disambiguated, goes a long way toward showing how "contingency all the way down" can be affirmed as true consistently. (7)

As a corollary to the disambiguated identity between the "two truths," it follows that nirvana (the ultimate) is identical to samsara (the wheel of ordinary existence). Hence, the pithy summary offered by a leading interpreter of Indian Buddhist philosophy: "The ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth." (8) We can now correlate ultimate and conventional truth without the temptation to consign conventional truth to the status of "mere" convention as though it is deficient or subordinate in comparison to "ultimate" truth. The Madhyamaka assertion of identity between conventional and ultimate truth removes the "merely" from the contrast. Conventional truth is nothing more and nothing less than ultimate truth. As one, the two are not numerically two but rather semantically dual in being aspects of the self-same truth: all things are empty.

As a further corollary to this second argument, I would point out the almost identical ways in which Rorty and Nagarjuna deny holding any epistemological views. "Not having any epistemology," Rorty wrote, "a fortiori [the pragmatist] does not have a relativistic one." (9) "If I had any thesis, that fault would apply to me," said Nagarjuna in a famous verse of the Vigrahavyavartani. "But I do not have any thesis, so there is indeed no fault for me." (10) How are these disclaimers to be understood? This question takes us to a consideration of the third feature that marks Nagarjuna and Rorty's affirmation of thoroughgoing contingency, that is, its semantic status.

Two roads diverge in a saffron wood. One way sees Nagarjuna's verse as holding out a semantics only, and the other sees Nagarjuna as making proper metaphysical assertions. If we follow the first interpretation agreed upon by such eminent scholars of Buddhism as Jan Westerhoff, Jay Garfield, and Mark Siderits, we would interpret Nagarjuna to mean that he does not hold any thesis that is supplied with a realist semantics that embraces a correspondence theory of truth and insists on a mind-independent reality. Nagarjuna is offering a view of truth and not a view of reality. (11) "The ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth." Reading Nagarjuna this way, we would reject standard metaphysics just as Rorty did and avoid reintroducing substantially existing objects into the Madhyamaka theory of emptiness. Therefore, Nagarjuna would not be making a paradoxical claim in asserting that he is not asserting anything, for the objection to which he is replying presupposes an incoherent realist semantics that he has denied. Once the seemingly paradoxical verse is taken to assert Nagarjuna's rejection of the opponent's semantics, the criticism disappears too. Yet, lest we jump too quickly, it is important to add that this does not necessarily leave us with an antirealist semantics, as Siderits, Westerhoff, and others assume.

Another road beckons. If we follow the interpretive path brilliantly laid out by the Sanskritist and philosopher of religion Dan Arnold, we find metaphysical assertions at the heart of Madhyamaka. Arnold proposes that Nagarjuna indeed makes metaphysical claims that are both universal and a priori, that Nagarjuna offers transcendental arguments for his metaphysical claims, and furthermore that the semantic antirealism favored by Siderits, Garfield, and Westerhoff can be countered by embracing a realist conception of truth. (12) By that Arnold means that the Madhyamikas use the term "ultimate truth" to pick out "not a kind of statement but a kind of existent." On the assumption that "a realist conception of truth is surely what is conventionally in play in all our discursive transactions," Arnold sees no reason to think it problematic that Madhyamikas "hold that it is really true that there are no ultimately real existents." (13)

On Arnold's metaphysical reading, the ultimate truth is that there are no ultimately real existents, a direct challenge to the semantic view according to which Nagarjuna himself cannot be taken as making any claim proposed as ultimately true. Thus, Arnold can dispute Siderits's semantic antirealist interpretation by saying:
   It seems to me that one grants too much to the
   foundationalist-reductionist in allowing that 'realism' could be
   understood to consist only in the idea that there is a domain of
   enumerable existents such that the truth of any claim consists in
   its reference to (or causal relations with) that domain of objects.
   Insofar as proponents of Madhyamaka claim to take their bearings
   from what is conventionally true, why not work with the kind of
   'realist conception of truth' that arguably informs our everyday
   practices? (14)

But now, by the term "realism" Arnold is appealing to an everyday meaning, a far cry from the truth-theoretic version of realism employed in correspondence theories. The cogency of a truth-theoretic conception of this kind of realism, therefore, remains an open question.

On my reading, it is possible to travel both roads at least part of the way if we split the difference between the two. We can agree, on the one hand, that a certain realist semantic theory that reifies meaning and reference is the target of Nagarjuna's strictures in the Vigrahavyavartani and accurately describes the point of departure of his troubled opponents. Nagarjuna repeatedly rejects this kind of realism, its picture of the mind, and its place in nature. His arguments only work against the background of the specific theory of meaning that is assumed by his interlocutors but never endorsed by Nagarjuna.

At the same time, we can recognize that Arnold is right to resist the antirealist label that some contemporary analytic philosophers adopt for the alternative to the kind of realism they understandably reject. But it does not follow that to reject metaphysical realism is to accept antirealism. Only a dualist would suppose so. Embracing antirealism grants too much power to the stereotypical Western formula that dualistically opposes realism to antirealism, as though these are the only two forced choices. And it only serves to prolong the laborious and inconclusive debates between so-called realists and so-called antirealists in the history of philosophy, both East and West. Granted, there is no knowledge of the world apart from our linguistic and conceptual practices, if only because these social practices generate the notion of "the world" and the "objects" in it in the first place. But to call this view antirealism is a bridge too far, when all we need to say is that, as Rorty put it, "there is no preconceptual cognitive access to objects." (15) Rorty urged everybody on both sides to calm down and just get over it. Neither realism nor antirealism is true in the sense intended by the opponents who faced off against Nagarjuna. We should get beyond these debates, said Rorty. We should strive for a Middle Way that escapes them, said Nagarjuna.

Following the teaching of dependent origination and seeing that all is empty, then, does not entail an endorsement of the metaphysical view that the objective world is a vacuous notion, that "what there is" is determined by the conventions of our language or the constructs of our minds. The Middle Way offers a path between--or better, beyond--the metaphysical dualisms of essentialism and relativism, subject and object, the self and the world, the cultural and the natural, a scheme and a content--just as American pragmatism has long maintained.16

In sum, Nagarjuna's thesis about emptiness in the Vigrahavyavartani is that he has no thesis about emptiness that he asserts substantially and in accordance with metaphysical realism, because he does not assume there are mind-dependent individuals and properties in the world that make sentences true. Interpreted this way, Nagarjuna comes into close affinity not only with Rorty but also with Donald Davidson, who wrote:
   Nothing ... no thing, makes sentences and theories true; not
   experience, not surface irritations, not the world, can make a
   sentence true. That experience takes a certain course, that our
   skin is warmed or punctured, that the universe is finite, these
   facts, if we like to talk that way, make sentences and theories
   true. But this point is put better without mention of facts. The
   sentence 'My skin is warm' is true if and only if my skin is warm.
   Here there is no reference to a fact, a world, an experience, or a
   piece of evidence. (17)

Davidson, like Rorty and Nagarjuna, was engaged in a project that rejects the picture of the mind projecting structure onto an unstructured world; this picture is just as bad as the idea of the world projecting structure onto, or into, language. A better picture is captured by Davidson's doctrine of triangulation, often employed by Rorty. What ultimately ties language to the world is the triangle that, by relating speaker, interpreter, and the world, determines the content of thought and speech. This gives us more than just holistic inferential relations between beliefs and statements (as idealists in every generation try to get by on) and more than just atomic relations of being-caused-by (as Nagarjuna's interlocutors tried to get by on). Playing back and forth between causation and inference, we need all three corners--speaker, interpreter, and shared environment. Shaving off any one corner of the triangle creates a truncated picture of the mind and its place in nature.


Richard Rorty's concept of contingency, known to most readers from Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, underwent further development in his last papers. The overarching theme of those papers was on taking philosophical questions as questions of cultural politics. Although Rorty had been urging philosophers for some time to stop talking about ontology and to turn everything over to sociology, this theme acquired new argumentative form as he came increasingly to employ Robert Brandom's semantics. (18) In doing so, he drew even closer to Nagarjuna on the semantic interpretation of emptiness favored by recent commentators.

We can trace the contours of Rorty's most nuanced defense of pragmatism by considering how the belief that all is contingent/empty is linked to social utility. Rather than the crude notion of utilitarianism sometimes attributed to him, it is more accurate to epitomize Rorty's pragmatism as holding that beliefs are justified holistically by societal agreements, founded on coherence, that harness causal pressures to serve the social purposes selected for by cultural evolution. It is not that social utility directly justifies beliefs but rather that coherence does. More precisely, coherence is a test for truth, as Davidson spelled out. The coherence of a belief with the rest of the web of beliefs may in turn produce social agreement, which eventually may lead to social usefulness, but only if the belief is correct. Utility is an outcome of agreement, not a condition for it.

Rorty's position regarding self-referential arguments, justification, and truth is therefore considerably more sophisticated than the usual critique of neopragmatism allows. One does not insinuate a God's-eye view in stating that there is no God's-eye view. No such appeal is involved in arguing that representationalism presupposes a perspective from which to compare our representations to the world, and that the possibility of such a perspective fails to cohere with other things we know about the world. If this is still relativism, it is not one that is guilty of undermining itself.

Rorty's effort was similar to Nagarjuna's in wanting to drop the contrast between a represented world and our ways of representing it. Brushing aside the worries of those who wanted a stronger tie between language and the world, Rorty explained that language is tied to the world, not by various chunks of nonlinguistic reality serving as the conditions of the truth of various sentences, but because, as Davidson has shown, the triangulated relations among speaker, interpreter, and the world determine the content of thought and speech. (19) Holistic inferential relations between beliefs and statements together with causal relations with the world are enough to assure that the pragmatist critique of representationalism does not devolve into skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism.

This critique goes further. Robert Brandom's style of pragmatism gave Rorty an additional way of talking about meaning and communication without metaphysics and without reference. Appropriating key elements of Brandom's analysis of the social practice of giving and asking for reasons, with all the responsibilities and commitments built into those practices, Rorty was able to analyze a variety of claims. For example, existential claims are given a sense by the relevant set of "canonical designators." Distinct sets of canonical designators come into play in relation to claims about numerical existence, or physical existence, or fictional existence. In the case of numerical existence, the canonical designators are the numerals. To claim that prime numbers exist is to commit oneself to the structured space of the integers that provide addresses for complex numbers. In the case of physical existence, the canonical designators are "spatiotemporal coordinates centered on the speaker." (20) To claim that some physical object exists (that is, succeeds in referring) is to commit oneself to the identity of that object and some spatiotemporal region traced out from the speaker. Even in the case of fictional existence we can locate the canonical designators in the singular terms that appear in the fictional text, so that to claim that Sherlock Holmes's housekeeper exists is to commit oneself to an identity between this referring expression and a singular term that appears in the text, that is, Mrs. Hudson in Brandom's example. In all three types of existential claims about numbers, or physical objects, or fictional characters, the canonical designators are well in place. But in the discourse of metaphysics as it pertains to talk about ultimate reality or unconditioned existence, for instance, no such a structured space is provided. For no relevant designators are agreed upon to be canonical. Such metaphysical debates cannot even be conducted in coherent fashion. The moral that Rorty drew was that we should not hook up referential semantics with ontological commitments. In increasingly interesting ways, he was able to see Brandom's work as reinforcing the point made in Davidsonian (nonrepresentationalist) holism that reference no longer bears on ontology."


I do not mean to overstate the similarities between Nagarjuna and Rorty. The differences between them may be as compelling as the striking parallels. Rorty valued "social hope," even writing about "unjustifiable hope," (22) a quasi-religious leap made in the absence of evidence. On the contrary, Nagarjuna's Buddhist outlook has long counseled "abandon all hope you who enter here." Rorty embraced "redemption" (23) as the slow, willful transformation that overtakes the Nietzscheanized individual and transforms the culture. Nagarjuna's East Asian Buddhist philosophy gave rise to the Chan/Zen tradition in which sudden, not gradual, awakening informs the mind (although there is some debate about this). Rorty's entire philosophical project was therapeutic, aimed at getting his readers to let go of this or that doctrine or dualism that philosophers were invested in, uselessly, he thought. Nagarjuna's school of Buddhism was aimed at getting his audience to achieve liberation, an aim that requires more strenuous discipline than Rorty's insouciant way of shrugging off philosophical blinders that hinder only professional philosophers. Nagarjuna saw existence as nonessential, unstable, discordant. He asked us to contemplate the ultimate nature of things, in order to come to the insight that things have no ultimate nature. Rorty considered illiberal social practices to be susceptible to change by human agents using enough imagination. Nagarjuna espoused meditation and spiritual discipline, whereas Rorty prized conversation, action, and solidarity. While the Buddhist middle way aspired to achieving extinction by way of quenching desire and the dying of the self, Rorty aspired to "achieving our country" by way of engaging in liberal politics. From Emerson to Rorty, American pragmatism has settled for self-reliance, even as it sees the self as a node in a net of nodules. Madhyamaka Buddhism is no less thoroughgoing in its vision of interdependence, seeing dependent origination all the way down, but this has no apparent political fallout and it certainly is not consistent with an ethos of self.

To be sure, both gave us what is primarily a humanistic message, tinctured with liberal politics in Rorty's case and laced with ethical admonishments in Nagarjuna's case. Nagarjuna asserted that release from existential suffering is the goal, and stopping craving is the means to such release. Yet he counseled, in effect, that samsara is not something to be left behind, or nirvana something to be attained. Both ideas lack inherent existence and are destined to be abandoned when one lets go of all conceptual discriminations. The conceptual discriminations Rorty would have us leave behind were peculiarly Western and largely post-Cartesian philosophical dualisms.

In the end, Rorty's articulation of antiessentialism produced an important theoretical confrontation with the lack of ultimate foundations, but Nagarjuna's pragmatism aimed to provoke insight into how to live in a world of radical contingency without grounds or foundations of any sort.


In her 2017 Aristotle Prize-winning essay, Lisa Landoe Hedrick objects that I have ignored the legitimate claims of certain pragmatic a prions that our practices unavoidably presuppose. Moreover, she charges, to endorse a metaphysics of contingency is to fall prey to familiar self-referential problems in the form of the self-exempting fallacy. It appears that the assertion that contingency goes all the way down is self-defeating, because even to assert it one has to occupy transcendental ground of the kind that my pragmatism expressly repudiates. There are two difficult questions in her challenge. First, does the universal assertion of contingency land me in a dilemma the horns of which are either self-referential inconsistency or argumentative impotence? Second, how should we understand the meaning of "pragmatic a priori"?

Landoe Hedrick is correct that I question the need for transcendental grounds, along with Rorty and Nagarjuna, and hence the use of a transcendental method for arriving at truth. Blissfully indifferent to the Germanic tradition's obsession with der Grenze, whether transcendental or ontological, Nagarjuna, Rorty, and I doubt whether positing a "ground" explains anything. Indeed, pragmatists have generally suspected that asking for the ground of actuality or possibility involves a sleight-of-hand performance that proceeds by taking the finished first-level product, jacking it up a few levels of abstraction, inventing a metaphysical vocabulary into which to translate it, and then announcing that it has been grounded. William James said of such maneuvers: "These are but names for the facts, taken from the facts, and then treated as previous and explanatory." (24)

The very practice of deciding what to believe, of weighing propositional utterances against each other, and coming up with reasons for some and asking reasons for others, is no more in need of a "ground" than is the practice of using different pieces of wool in order to knit a sweater. If we were to ask about the "conditions for the possibility" of using red wool rather than blue, or red and white but not any other color, or red, white, and blue rather than orange, green, and white, we would find that an exhaustive list of conditions would include anything or everything and would depend upon particular, contingent purposes and desires that need to be specified concretely according to the exact social practices they support.

But perhaps I can rephrase the question in terms more congenial to pragmatists like me. Are there, we can ask, certain constraints on thought that seem at present "unavoidable"? Like the form that governs sonnets, human life--as well as all organic life known to us--does seem to evolve under various kinds of constraints. Those constraints permit rather more creativity than absolute freedom would allow. It is hard to see what is gained, however, by calling such constraints "transcendental" and enlisting them as methodological tools in metaphysics, even a nontraditional metaphysics such as Whitehead's. I would argue that we can recognize certain unavoidable constraints on all human experience (25) without going transcendental. We might even call any one of these constraints a "pragmatic a priori" as long as we add that what seems ineliminable or unavoidable is only "in so far forth," as William James liked to say, or "ever not quite." Some conditions have not yet been replaced by a better or a different version of things, but in principle they may be overturned by further evidence or bold new hypotheses in the future. What seem to be unavoidable constraints to us now may be abandoned later by others who discover some incompatibility or incoherence with other truths, or perhaps with some new mode of perception. The pragmatic meaning of the a priori, then, is any unavoidable constraint on perception or conception that we are not currently questioning. (26) The rest is contingency all the way down.

Taking up the second of Landoe Hedrick's criticisms, my reply to the charge that the thesis of contingency all the way down is either self-referentially inconsistent or impotent draws upon both Nagarjuna and Rorty. As we have already seen, Nagarjuna's reply in addressing the opponents who made the same objection many centuries ago was to deny that he and they shared the same semantics. If I may ventriloquize Nagarjuna in the Vigrahavyavartani, we can attempt to answer the question as he would by invoking, once again, the famous verse in which he announced, "If I had any thesis, that fault would apply to me. But I do not have any thesis, so there is indeed no fault for me." (27) On the semantic interpretation, we can take Nagarjuna to mean that he does not hold any thesis that is supplied with a realist semantics, that is, one that embraces a correspondence theory of truth and depends on the assumption of a mind-independent reality. In that case, we can reject the standard realist truth-theoretic account, as did Rorty, on the grounds that it is impossible to make sense of the idea that bits of words stand in a correspondence relation with bits of the world. Specifying the nature of such a relation has strained the rationalizing talents of generations of philosophers. I suspect that Landoe Hedrick's helpful concern to save me from committing the self-exempting fallacy may presuppose just such a picture, with its misleading realist semantics. Having rejected a realist semantics, I reject a criticism based on it as well.

Self-referential inconsistency would be an important consideration if Rortyans and Nagarjunans were making the sort of metaphysical claim that says, "It is necessarily so that contingency goes all the way down," giving with one hand what they take away with the other. Instead, I think the claim is better understood as a tentative, modest, fallibilistic "descriptive generalization," as Whitehead called it, or a "working hypothesis," as Peirce called it, something pertinent very broadly to any judgment that we acknowledge might turn out to be false.2" I have already indicated how Rorty's consenting to contingency all the way down does not entail even an implicit presumption of a God's-eye view. Let me also recall Quine, that master of ontological austerity, and his student Davidson. After Quine dissolved the second dogma of empiricism, all that was left of a "necessary truth" was simply an idea for which we have not yet dreamed up any alternatives. After Davidson dissolved the third dogma of empiricism--the scheme-content distinction--all that was left of empiricism in the tradition from Locke and Hume to Russell and Carnap was American pragmatism, long aware that knowledge and inquiry are more weblike than pyramid-like, more holistic than foundational, more fallibilistic than apodictic. Indeed, the kind of pragmatism that interests me today just is empiricism shorn of its three dogmas. While I can agree with Landoe Hedrick that it is possible to know a priori the truth of, say, the idea that all events have causes, my belief itself is fallible. Her important point about the necessity of some structure to anything that functions to contribute determinateness still does not obviate the claim that any and all particular structures are contingent. She uses "necessary" as Sidney Hook did to mean "inconceivably eliminative by thought." In recognizing something "necessary," that is, the idea of some form in the flux, I would add "currently" to the phrase. Not only does the emphasis belong on what is currently "inconceivably eliminative by thought," but also on the fact that it is the idea of some structure that is necessary, both in her telling and in mine, and not any particular (contingent) structure. She and I can both affirm the abysmal contingency of all actualities.

As for Landoe Hedrick's quarrel with my interest in detheologizing Whitehead's philosophy, this is not the place to enter into her ingenious defense of the importance of eternal objects and the primordial nature of God. (29) As Vincent Colapietro cleverly notes, she aims "to save ... eternal objects from the seemingly endless debates about their putatively misplaced concreteness." (30) I defer simply to the wisdom of George Allan, who argued persuasively in these pages against any metaphysical reason to introduce a special reality, a God, into Whitehead's system, even the secularized functionality Landoe Hedrick finds necessary, "since the principle of Creativity and the categoreal conditions it entails provide all that is needed to explain the world as we find it." As Allan reminded us, "we should never multiply metaphysical entities beyond necessity." (31)

Whitehead's God is not only the "poet of the world" but also a "fellow sufferer who understands." (32) Could it be that the idea of God-even Whitehead's idea of God--is born out of the unbearableness of the thought that our anguish and our joy are without witness, that all the tremors and tugs of our contingent acts go unnoticed by another heart, even a non-human one?


In a related criticism, Robert Neville thinks that a pragmatist account of contingency neglects the unavoidability of "ontological contingency," as he terms it, and attends only to cosmological contingency. (33) Generously, he invites me to heap even more, much more, contingency on my plate in the form of "ontological contingency," a term for something within his systematic philosophy that serves to make determinate all things that are determinate. Contingency, according to Neville, requires an ontological explanation to the question why it is determinate, or to the fact that it is determinate, rather than not. Like Landoe Hedrick, Neville is asking for something that would ground the contingency of the cosmos and of everything--both abstract and concrete--within it.

Neville's hypothesis that ontological togetherness is an ontological creative act is presented as a hypothesis in the Peircean mode. While we can appreciate the fallibilism built into such a conjecture, we should not lose sight of the fact that a hypothesis is not made any less hypothetical by virtue of being called metaphysical. The extreme hypotheticality of Neville's conjecture and the impressive systematic use he has made of it over fifty years notwithstanding, we may still wonder whether the major problem with Neville's hypothesis is the tension between the idea that the ontological creative act is indeterminate and the claim that the ontological creative act is also contingent. How can the same act be both indeterminate and contingent? Is not everything that is contingent also determinate, that is, having features, location, exclusions? Is not anything that is indeterminate also opaque to analysis? But an explanation, in order to explain a range of data, cannot be more opaque than the explanans.

Neville wants me to acknowledge an ontological act of creation, without which, he claims, there is no context of mutual relevance for things to be together and determinate while also being plural and different. Does this do justice to the plurality and multiplicity of contingency as we know it? Neville would make the ground of multiplicity more ultimate than the many itself. Madhyamaka Buddhism, on the other hand, instructs us to equate ultimate truth and conventional truth. Indeed, the distinction between ontological contingency and cosmological contingency may be difficult to distinguish, as Neville appears to acknowledge when he says that the distinction gets too complicated to sustain in the long run. Buddhist logic not only erases the difference that this distinction would install but also points the way to a more pragmatic path.

As a constructive gesture, I propose a Whiteheadian solution that Neville could avail himself of to make his system more coherent, although still ungrounded in his sense. Just as he has generously urged me to heap more and more contingency on my plate until I arrive at his notion of ontological contingency, I invite him to become more puritanical in his ontology, to smash a few stained-glass windows, to clear the clutter off that fancy altar. Low-church will do just fine. The plain-hewn pedestrian truth beats out the magnificent Baroque and Gothic cathedrals of systematic metaphysics. The plain truth is already found right under our nose, at least for those who have been convinced by Process and Reality. As Whitehead says of the creative process, "It lies in the nature of things that the many enter into complex unity," and "the sole appeal is to intuition." (34)

Neville's concluding sentence invites my counterargument: every item on his ontological wish list--all the powers and the principalities, all the heights and depths, all the ultimate beginnings and final ends--can be found in the many mansions of this world, in the myriad processes of becoming, each of which emerges from the vectorial energy of its immediate context, each of which owes its processive-relational becoming to the power of the past as well as to its own causa sui bootstrapping. The causa sui character of each occasion is spontaneous, the mark of actuality, and free, within the limits determined by its antecedent causes. Creativity unifies any many and is creative of a new unifying perspective which then becomes one among the many. As a category, creativity is the "ultimate of ultimates" in Whitehead's words, but as such it is an abstraction, the formal character of any actual occasion. Creativity as concrete, however, signifies a dynamism that is the very actuality of things, their act of being there at all. Everything exists in virtue of creativity, but creativity is not any thing. In the shift from a substance (svabhava) metaphysics to a cosmology in which processive-relational categories (pratityasamapada) are assumed, something radical happens. Neville already has desubstantialized and dynamized his cosmology. But has he sufficiently pluralized his understanding of ontological contingency? According to the process paradigm, being does not repose in an originary source antecedent to any event; rather, it constitutes the very act of being--the livingness of living, of existing--in the present moment as a new one emergent from an antecedent many. Inherently relational and processive, creativity is immanent within each momentary event as its spontaneous power; and it is also transcendent to that event of becoming in the sense that it is never exhausted by the forms in which it is found but is always potentially a "more" that is "not yet" actualized.

When given any many, Neville will always push for a one. Faced with this, my strategy is to refuse the Heideggerian question in favor of the Whiteheadian reply that "it lies in the nature of things that the many enter into complex unity," (35) thus resolving the question in favor of the many. Curiously, Neville comes close to the alternative I am sketching here when he hints that the distinction between ontological contingency and cosmological contingency may get too complicated to sustain in the long run. By trying to sustain just such a distinction, Neville has pried apart analytically what is together concretely as two aspects of the same act, differently considered. Viewed retrospectively, the causa sui character of the concrescence is identical with what Neville calls "ontological creativity"; it is, as Neville says, "indeterminate," that is, until it becomes something actual and contingent and therefore definite. Considered prospectively, the self-same event is cosmologically contingent in relation to indeterminate future events, distinguished from ontological contingency only by the asymmetry of prehensive activity.


As an existential condition, contingency poses obvious challenges for humans. The serious anxiety we experience over our contingency, our finitude, and our transiency may be a more enduring feature of being human than our joy, our laughter, or the way "we make a dwelling in the evening air, in which being there together is enough." (36) Heightening that anxiety today are all the urgent reasons to doubt that the biophysical conditions of life can be maintained on this planet. Consenting to contingency can therefore not be confused with easy resignation. In the end, our inclination to consent to contingency all the way down--or not to consent--may turn out to be a matter of temperamental differences. Recognition of the inescapable influence of temperament and intuition neither denigrates nor inflates the importance of so-called objective premises. It does serve, however, to call attention to William James's observation that "[t]he history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments." Of the philosopher, James wrote that "he trusts his temperament. Wanting a universe that suits it, he believes in any representation of the universe that does suit it." (37)

In conclusion, I have proposed some views about metaphysics and contingency, not a metaphysics of contingency. There is no one way the world is, because there are many, many ways the world is. We can discuss such airy subjects as "reality" or "the world" only when we are able to give them a "local habitation and a name," in Shakespeare's fine phrase, speaking of "the world of Lao-zu," for instance, or "Kepler's universe," or "Keats's reality." Meanwhile, Rortyan pragmatists, Madhyamaka Buddhists, and inferentialist philosophers of mind and language help us to see why neither appeals to inner experiences nor appeals to what is really out there help us get very far in deciding what to talk about. To return to Wallace Stevens and the epigraph with which I began, "one must have a mind of winter, and behold nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is." To consent to contingency all the way down, one must likewise develop a hermeneutic of seeing what is not there as well as what is.

Dartmouth College

Correspondence to:

* An earlier version was delivered as the sixty-eighth Presidential Address to the Metaphysical Society of America, 31 March 2017, Cambridge, Mass.

(1) The 2017 Aristotle Prize was awarded by the Metaphysical Society of America to Lisa Landoe Hedrick (University of Chicago Divinity School) for her paper "Processing Contingency with Theology: A Defense of Whitehead's Pragmatism." It was read and discussed, with a rigorous commentary by Vincent Colapietro, at the sixty-eighth annual meeting. Robert Neville's paper was presented at the same meeting under the title "Cosmological and Ontological Contingency."

(2) John Stuhr, Genealogical Pragmatism: Philosophy, Experience, and Community (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997), 126.

(3) Very few commentators have noted the affinity of certain strains of Buddhist thought with Rorty's pragmatism. It was the philosopher C. W. Huntington who, as far as I know, first mentioned the resonances between Madhyamika philosophy and Rorty's views. See C. W. Huntington, The Emptiness of Emptiness: An Introduction to Early Indian Madhyamika (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1989). Brief mention of parallels with Buddhism is made in Alan Malachowski, Richard Rorty (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002). For further discussion, see Shelden R. Isenberg and Gene R. Thursby, "A Perennial Philosophy Perspective on Richard Rorty's Neo-Pragmatism," International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 17, nos. 1-2 (1985): 41-65.

(4) See the Introduction to Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), and also Rorty's introduction to Joseph Murphy, Pragmatism: From Peirce to Davidson (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1990).

(5) See especially verses 42-48 in Jan Westerhoff, The Dispeller of Disputes: Nagarjuna's Vigrahavyavartani (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 33-34.

(6) Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, 5. Similarly, Jan Westerhoff says that for Madhyamika Buddhism, "neither the existence of a world sliced up at the joints into particulars and properties, nor the existence of an objective structural similarity between sentences and the world would be acceptable." See Pointing at the Moon: Buddhism, Logic, Analytic Philosophy, ed. Mario D'Amato, Jay L. Garfield, Tom J. F. Tillemans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 31. What Westerhoff calls "the standard picture" is what I am identifying as the realist view that both Nagarjuna and Rorty reject. Their views presume neither a determinate, ready-made world nor an objective, structural link between language and a ready-made world.

(7) Jay L. Garfield and Graham Priest, "Nagarjuna and the Limits of Thought," Philosophy East and West 53, no. 1 (2003): 1-21.

(8) Mark Siderits, Personal Identity and Buddhist Philosophy: Empty Persons (Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2003), 157. This is a noncontroversial summary statement with which many different interpreters can agree. However, as I explain below, Siderits's embrace of an antirealist interpretation of Nagarjuna and Madhyamika Buddhism strikes me as unwarranted. I recommend instead the pragmatist effort to get over and beyond the puerile realist versus antirealist debates.

(9) Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 23-24.

(10) Here I follow the translation given by Jan Westerhoff in The Dispeller of Disputes: Nagarjuna's Vigrahavyavartani (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 63. Dan Arnold translates the title as Dispatching Objections and the same verse differently: "If I had any thesis, then I would have this problem. But I do not have any thesis, so I do not have this problem." Arnold continues: "And if I were to have any thesis, I would (as you have explained) have the aforementioned problem, on account of its being applicable to the content of the thesis; I have, however, no thesis."

(11) Jan Westerhoff, Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka: A Philosophical Introduction. Mark Siderits, "Nagarjuna as Anti-realist," Journal of Indian Philosophy 16, no. 4 (December 1988): 311-25. Jay Garfield, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Translation and Commentary of Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

(12) Dan Arnold, Buddhists, Brahmins, and Belief: Epistemology in South Asian Philosophy of Religion (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005); see especially part 3 for an important treatment of Madhyamaka arguments as transcendental metaphysical arguments, at once a priori and universal.

(13) Dan Arnold, Brains, Buddhas, and Believing: The Problem of Intentionality in Classical Buddhist and Cognitive-Scientific Philosophy of Mind (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 232.

(14) Dan Arnold, "On How It Can Be Ultimately True That There is No Ultimate Truth: Thoughts on Mark Siderits's Personal Identity and Buddhist Philosophy;' APA Newsletter 6, no. 1 (2006): 12-16. Arnold here records his own uneasiness with Siderits's antirealism in the resounding final lines of this article: "for what proponent of Madhyamaka, when faced with the dichotomous pair 'realism' and 'anti-realism,' would want to endorse either of these extremes?" See also Dan Arnold, Brains, Buddhas, and Believing, 229-35, where Arnold defends a transcendental method of interpretation; and for an especially helpful work, one that challenges Westerhoffs, see Arnold's forthcoming translation of the Vigrahavyavartani as "Dispatching Objections."

(15) Richard Rorty, "Pragmatism and Romanticism," Philosophy as Cultural Politics, Vol. 4, Collected Papers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 116.

(16) One might even apply Nagarjuna's famous tetralemma to illuminate how this is so, but that is a topic for another time.

(17) Donald Davidson, Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 194.

(18) As early as 1993 he had described his philosophical purpose "to move everything over from epistemology and metaphysics to cultural politics," in Rorty, "Putnam and the Relativist Menace," Journal of Philosophy 90, no. 9 (1993): 457.

(19) This was Davidson's argument in "The Structure and Content of Truth," Journal of Philosophy 87 (1990): 279-328, an essay that helped to wean Rorty from his earlier overstatements in "The World Well Lost," Journal of Philosophy 69 (1972): 649-65.

(20) Robert Brandom, Making It Explicit: Reasoning, Representing, and Discursive Commitment (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994), 444.

(21) See volume 4 of his philosophical papers collected in Richard Rorty, Philosophy as Cultural Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), especially chaps. 1, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 12.

(22) "The essential thing is to dream of a better world. Hope doesn't require justification, cognitive status, foundations, or anything else." Richard Rorty, Derek Nystrom, and Kent Puckett, Against Bosses, Against Oligarchies: A Conversation with Richard Rorty (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 1998), 58.

(23) Richard Rorty, "Redemption from Egotism: James and Proust as Spiritual Exercises," in The Rorty Reader, ed. Christopher J. Voparil and Richard J. Bernstein (Maiden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 141-49; and Rorty, "The Decline of Redemptive Truth and the Rise of the Literary Culture."

(24) William James, Pragmatism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978), 124. A complaint similar to James's appears often in analytic philosophy of science. Van Frassen, for example, points out that "[t]he plausibility of the argument [for a ground] comes from our having to speak in a general way when abstracting from particular cases. But the argument loses its plausibility if we just look carefully at a particular case, and then reflect that what we say about the general case is simply about all the particular cases in a summary fashion." Bas C. van Fraassen, Scientific Representation: Paradoxes of Perspective (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 246.

(25) Terry F. Godlove has used the phrase "unavoidable constraints" and distilled those within the Kantian scheme as: the principle of non-contradiction; the fact that my thoughts are about a world outside of me; thus requiring a subject capable of self-awareness; and further requiring macroscopic objects locatable at some distance from me. See his Kant and, the Meaning of Religion (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).

(26) One could also go the way that Charles Hartshorne did and apply modal metaphysical distinctions according to which contingent and necessary are contrasts, not opposites, and the way in which they are together in experience is the way the concrete and the abstract are asymmetrically united but analytically distinct. In this case, everything concrete/actual is understood to be contingent, and the meaning of necessity has to do with abstract form/potentiality. For Hartshorne, the fact that everything is contingent is a necessary fact. Therefore, he is able to say that there could not be nothing. For me, the Hartshornian logical move undercuts the pathos of contingency. However, its appeal is understandable to those who seek an answer to the ancient question, Why is there something, not nothing? Hartshorne's answer is: because there could not not be something. The statement "something exists" is therefore a necessary statement in Hartshornean neoclassical metaphysics.

(27) Westerhoff, The Dispeller of Disputes, 29. An alternative translation and gloss is offered by the Buddhologist and scholar of religion Dan Arnold in a forthcoming work: "[29] If I had any thesis, then I would have this problem. But I do not have any thesis, so I do not have this problem. And if I were to have any thesis, I would (as you have explained) have the aforementioned problem, on account of its being applicable to the content of the thesis; I have, however, no thesis. So, how could there be any thesis regarding all existents, given that they are empty, completely pacified, devoid of nature? How could there be a problem occasioned by application to the content of a thesis? In that case, what you said--'because of its being applicable to the content of your thesis, this is a problem for you'--is not right." As noted earlier, Arnold's preferred translation of the Vigrahavyavartani is Dispatching Objections. He notes that the word "thesis" (pratijna) invites the translation "philosophically typical thesis."

(28) At another time I hope to develop the distinction between a transcendental metaphysics that tries to give us what its author thinks is required by experience, and a pragmatist metaphysics that is more interested in descriptive generalizations that can be derived from experience.

(29) See also Lisa Landoe Hedrick, "The Structure of Rationality and the Idea of Aesthetic Harmony in Whitehead's Pragmatic Philosophical Theology," Process Studies 45, no. 2 (Fall 2016): 223-35.

(30) Vincent Colapietro, "What is the Use of Calling Whitehead a Pragmatist? A Response to Lisa Landoe Hedrick." Presented at the sixty-eighth meeting of the Metaphysical Society of America, 30 March 2017, Cambridge, Mass.

(31) George Allan, "A Functionalist Reinterpretation of Whitehead," The Review of Metaphysics 62, no. 2 (December 2008): 346.

(32) Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, Corrected Edition, ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald Sherburne (New York: The Free Press, 1979), 346, 351.

(33) Robert C. Neville, "Cosmological and Ontological Contingency," presented at the sixty-eighth meeting of the Metaphysical Society of America, 30 March 2017, Cambridge, Mass.

(34) Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, Corrected Edition, ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald Sherburne (New York: Free Press, 1979), 21, 22.

(35) Whitehead, Process and Reality, 21.

(36) Wallace Stevens, "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour," The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1954).

(37) William James, Pragmatism and the Meaning of Truth (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978), 8. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein has called attention to the very same dynamic at work in Einstein's and Spinoza's mutual appreciation of "necessity." See Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, "Banishing Contingency: Einstein's God and Spinoza's Necessity," Keynote Address to the Metaphysical Society of America, 30 March 2017, Cambridge, Mass.
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Title Annotation:Richard Rorty
Author:Frankenberry, Nancy
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Date:Mar 1, 2019
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