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Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka: A Philosophical Introduction.

Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka: A Philosophical Introduction. By Jan WESTERHOFF. Oxford: OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2009. Pp. xiii + 242. $99 (cloth); $24.95 (paper).

Ever since Th, Stcherbatsky published The Conception of Buddhist Nirvana in 1927, a work in which he attempted to find European philosophers with philosophical projects similar to Nagarjuna's, scholars have been engaged in not only explaining Nagarjuna in his own terms but also finding possible parallels in Western thought. The range of Western thinkers compared with Nagarjuna has been remarkably wide, which suggests that there is as wide a range of views on what Nagarjuna was trying to do and how he was trying to go about doing it among modern interpreters as there has been among Asian commentators.

Jan Westerhoff's analysis approaches Nagarjuna's principal works, mainly Mulamadhyamakakarika (MMK) and Vigrahavyavartani (VV), topically. He studies several philosophical issues in separate chapters and shows how they are all related. The relations are to some extent pointed out as he goes along and are then summarized in a concluding chapter entitled "Nagarjuna's Philosophical Project." The issues studied along the way to that conclusion are interpretations of svabhava (a polysemous term that requires delicate treatment), negation in the Indian tradition in general and in the works of Nagarjuna in particular, the peculiarities of the catuskoti, causation and time, motion (which is metonymic for all kinds of change), the self and personal identity, epistemology, and philosophy of language, with special attention drawn to Nagarjuna's potentially puzzling claim that he has no thesis--can one claim to be making no claims without contradicting oneself?

Scholars of Nagarjuna will recognize immediately that Westerhoff's main focus is on chapters one, two, fifteen, and eighteen of the MMK and on key passages of VV (on which text Westerhoff has published a useful and much more detailed separate monograph). Throughout the work it is clear that Westerhoff is convinced of what he states explicitly in the concluding chapter, namely, that all these various topics "are not just isolated philosophical statements but fit together as a unified philosophical theory which is Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka" (p. 199) and that this unified theory has counterparts in contemporary philosophy. Nagarjuna's thought is treated, then, not as a specimen to be placed behind glass in a museum of ancient philosophy but as a corpus that still deserves the attention of philosophers who grapple with problems in metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of language.

At the heart of the Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka project is the metaphysical thesis that there is no substance whatsoever that exists objectively and independently of other objects or of human concepts and interests. Given that the world outside human consciousness is unfurnished, all discussions of how the furniture might be arranged are senseless. That is, all discussions that use such relational concepts as cause and effect, identity and difference, before and after, above and below, and so forth are in vain, since without relata there can be no relations, and without substances there can be no relata. Without substances to play the role of being the bearers or loci of properties, there is no qualification. Moreover, the very idea of change loses all meaning, since the idea of change is bound up with a substance retaining its identity over time, despite physical dislocation or substitutions of some properties by others. This denial of substance, in other words, is, as Westerhoff points out, a very radical position indeed; nothing that is normally thought remains unaffected by this denial. Given that, according to Madhyamaka observations, none of the categories of thought that we human beings normally use turn out to be sustainable in a world without substance, it has been tempting to some interpreters to see the Madhyamaka as advocating a transcendent reality that somehow lies outside the range of our concepts. This temptation is to be resisted, according to Westerhoff's depiction of Nagarjuna, since our conceptions, limited though they may be, are the only means available to us to make sense of the world. The challenge for the Madhyamika, then, is to find a way of making the traditional narrative of Buddhism, and the practices associated therewith, seem convincing despite the artificiality and limitations of human concepts.

One important aspect of the traditional narrative of Buddhism is the importance of cultivating good habits (sila) of thought, speech, and physical action. The challenge for the Madhyamika is to find a way of sustaining that focus on karma, understood largely as habits that collectively constitute a person's character, with the claim that there are no persons and thus no agents and no enduring entities to serve as a locus for what we call character or personality. Westerhoff rightly observes that this problem is one shared by all Buddhists, and not just the Madhyamika, and he also rightly observes that Nagarjuna does little to address the problem. Finding a way to reconcile the doctrine of the emptiness of all beings with the bodhisattva ideal was left for Madhyamikas who came along several centuries after Nagarjuna.

Nagarjuna himself seems content merely to reiterate the standard Buddhist advice about cultivating good character, without acknowledging that this advice might be in tension with Buddhist, and especially Madhyamaka, attitudes toward metaphysics. That notwithstanding, Westerhoff does try to show that Nagarjuna must be convinced that what drives unskillful action is clinging, and that one of the most subtle forms of clinging is the adherence to what is assumed to be truth, and that questioning these assumptions about truth is a way of countering that subtle clinging and is therefore the best antidote to the root causes of unskillful action. Although that line of reasoning is not spelled out in the extant writings of Nagarjuna, Westerhoff makes a convincing case that something along those lines is at least implicit in those writings.

Much of the weight of this book is borne by the analysis of the various senses of svabhava found in the writings of Nagarjuna, which is the topic of the second chapter in Westerhoff's book. At the outset of that chapter, Westerhoff observes that the Abhidharmika conception of svabhava is importantly different from the notion of svabhava that Nagarjuna is at pains to show is not to be found in dharmas, and that both the Abhidharmika and the Madhyamika notion of svabhava is distinct in important ways from the notion of svabhava that plays a key role in the metaphysics and epistemology of Dharmakirti. Next, Westerhoff observes that the sort of svabhava being rejected by Nagarjuna is not only not held by other Buddhists but is rejected by Nagarjuna by various arguments that are at least apparently inconsistent with one another. That being the case, says Westerhoff (pp. 19-20), "when one is looking at the Madhyamaka arguments, it is often quite hard to attribute anything like a defensible philosophical theory to the proponents of svabhava at all, since these often appear to be set up conveniently as straw men." And a third problem in talking about all this in a way that is accessible to an audience trained in Western philosophy is that there is nothing in Western metaphysics that is quite a counterpart of the sort of svabhava that Nagarjuna shows is not to be found in anything. This is quite a list of problems facing the modern interpreter of Nagarjuna's writings. One of the most important achievements of Westerhoff's book is that he manages to sort these problems out in a way that makes the early Madhyamaka vision seem coherent, but by no means simple. At the risk of distorting the matter through oversimplification, one can summarize what it is that Nagarjuna is taking pains to reject as follows. The svabhava that Nagarjuna is rejecting is that which is independent of causes and conditions and therefore remains unchanged no matter what else may change. In other words, the doctrine that all beings are empty of a svabhava turns out to be another way of stating the standard Buddhist claim that all conditioned things are impermanent and that nothing is independent. It is also a claim that nothing is radically simple, for everything has parts, and therefore there are no fundamental building blocks of the universe, and no foundational principles or axioms upon which our thinking is based.

All the chapters that follow the second chapter in Westerhoff's book work out the implications of that central insight in specific philosophical domains. Although the book is described in its title as a philosophical introduction to Nagarjuna, the book draws on the long commentarial tradition of Madhyamaka in both India and Tibet and the shorter but rapidly growing commentarial traditional of those writing about Nagarjuna in modern European languages. Taking all into consideration, it is a rich philosophical feast. Suitable as a text to use in an upper-level course or seminar on Madhyamaka philosophy, it is also a work that bears careful reading and thinking and therefore suits the tastes of any philosopher.


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Author:Hayes, Richard P.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2010
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