reading note

Pointing at the Moon: Buddhism, Logic, Analytic Philosophy is a nice little collection of papers on the cross-fertilization (and mutual illumination) of Buddhist thought and analytic philosophy. In recent years I’ve been interested in the concept of emptiness and in the proper (or at least most truth-apt) interpretation of seemingly paradoxical statements like ‘the ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth’ and ‘all things have a nature, i.e. no nature’. Two papers in this book focus closely on this question: the first from Priest and Garfield, which interprets these statements in dialetheic terms, as true contradictions characteristic of the limits of thought; and the second, from Tillemans, which argues against this interpretation (at least insofar as it is supposed to apply to Nāgārjuna).

My goal has been to avoid dialetheic interpretations of the emptiness of emptiness, and if possible maintain a classical interpretation tout court. According to a simplified statement of the paradoxical reading, it is true that nothing has an intrinsic nature, and also true that everything has an intrinsic nature: namely that very lack. In other words, the intrinsic nature of everything is to lack an intrinsic nature. Contradiction.

Some support for thinking this might be a genuine ontological paradox comes from the following reasoning. It seems evident that, if an intrinsic property is just the same thing as an essential property, understood as one without which a given object cannot exist, then a contradiction arises. The contradiction is just to suppose that a thing can exist in a bare state, shorn of all its properties. This is contradictory given the following inference I accept: a thing without any properties would have the property of lacking any properties. Hence, either this contradiction is true, or it is false that there can be a thing lacking any properties. This in turn suggests that the having of properties, at least, is an essential property of everything; and, if that is enough for having intrinsic properties, then it looks like Priest and Garfield are right.

As I said, I am trying to avoid true contradictions. Moreover, I am trying to do so without giving up the just stated inference. Thus I am left looking for an alternative interpretation of what the thesis of emptiness is saying, which in practice means that I want a weaker reading of that thesis. To begin with, as Tillemans notes (88), the concept of an intrinsic nature is plausibly taken to involve more than simply having an essence: specifically, it ought to be taken as involving a nature that is “independent of other things”, “always fixed”, and “non-fabricated”. These together form the real substance of the concept of an intrinsic nature. But clearly they admit of many different readings, corresponding to overlapping but divergent tendencies within the history and development of Buddhist thought. What I want to say is that these tendencies aren’t exhausted by paraconsistent readings on the one hand and (for want of a better word) correlationist readings on the other. A naturalist tendency distinct from these is also discernible.

How, then, does a thick notion of intrinsicality help render consistent the claim that the ultimate nature of everything is to lack any ultimate nature? As the above reasoning may already suggest, I want to cut this Gordian knot, and deny that there is any reason to require that it must be an intrinsic property of anything that it lack intrinsic properties. Similarly, there is no reason to require that it be an ultimate truth that there are no ultimate truths. Or rather, to put things more delicately, that things lack intrinsic natures is not an epistemic thesis to the effect that our putative knowledge of them is somehow relative or subject to antinomies/problematic underdetermination, nor is it a semantic thesis to the effect that we somehow fall short of full expressive generality in characterising them thus. The distinction between ultimate and conventional truth is misleading in this respect: truths can be as objective and absolute as you please without being either conventional or ultimate qua independent of everything (not just mind-independent)/fixed/non-fabricated. Rather, we should understand an intrinsic nature as one corresponding to a self- or necessarily existent thing or truth (by necessary existent I mean a thing the nonexistence of which is impossible, and by necessary truth I mean a proposition the non-truth of which is impossible). My interest is in developing a relational ontology of this sort.

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