A Critical Analysis of Nagarjuna’s Arguments
Avi Sion, Ph. D.
First published, 2002.
The 2nd Century CE Indian philosopher Nagarjuna founded the Madhyamika (Middle Way) school of Mahayana Buddhism, which strongly influenced Chinese (Ch’an), Korean (Sôn) and Japanese (Zen) Buddhism, as well as Tibetan Buddhism. Nagarjuna is regarded by many Buddhist writers to this day as a very important philosopher, who they claim definitively proved the futility of ordinary human cognitive means.
His writings include a series of arguments purporting to show the illogic of logic, the absurdity of reason. He considers this the way to verbalize and justify the Buddhist doctrine of “emptiness” (Shunyata). These arguments attack some of the basic tenets and techniques of reasoning, such as the laws of thought (identity, non-contradiction and the excluded middle), conceptualization and predication, our common assumptions of self, entities and essences, as well as our beliefs in motion and causation.
The present essay demonstrates the many sophistries involved in Nagarjuna’s arguments. He uses double standards, applying or ignoring the laws of thought and other norms as convenient to his goals; he manipulates his readers, by giving seemingly logical form (like the dilemma) to his discourse, while in fact engaged in non-sequiturs or appealing to doubtful premises; he plays with words, relying on unclear terminology, misleading equivocations and unfair fixations of meaning; and he ‘steals concepts’, using them to deny the very percepts on which they are based.
Although a critique of the Madhyamika philosophical interpretation and defense of “emptiness”, Buddhist Illogic is not intended to dissuade readers from Buddhism. On the contrary, its aim to enhance personal awareness of actual cognitive processes, and so improve meditation. It is also an excellent primer on phenomenological epistemology.
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1. The tetralemma
2. Neither real nor unreal
3. Nagarjuna’s use of dilemma
4. The subject-predicate relation
5. Percepts and concepts
6. Motion and rest
9. Karmic law
10. God and creation
11. Self or soul
Not ‘empty logic’, but empty of logic
1. Fallacies in Nagarjuna’s work
2. Brief glossary of some basic concepts
This essay is a critical review of some of the main arguments proposed by the Indian Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna (c. 113-213 CE), founder of the Madhyamika (Middle Way) school, one of the Mahayana streams, which strongly influenced Chinese (Ch’an), Korean (Sôn) and Japanese (Zen) Buddhism, as well as Tibetan Buddhism. Specifically, the text referred to here is Empty Logic - Madhyamika Buddhism from Chinese Sources (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1991) by Hsueh-li Cheng, of Hawaii University (Hilo). The main source-texts of this school of thought, to which Cheng of course often refers, are the “three treatises” – the Middle Treatise, the Twelve Gate Treatise and the Hundred Treatise.
The title Empty Logic was not intended pejoratively by its author, but simply to mean ‘logic of emptiness’, the term “emptiness” (Shunyata) referring to the Buddhist doctrine that (briefly put, very roughly) things have no abiding core, no essence, no fixed nature. Cheng’s work is a clear exposition of Madhyamika history and logical techniques, but it makes no attempt to criticize those techniques. All criticism of Madhyamika or Buddhist logic, here, is my own.
The present essay is not a religious tract and has no polemical intent. It is a work of philosophy, a fair-minded logical evaluation of certain propositions and arguments taken as philosophical positions open to discussion like any other. It examines and discusses a goodly array of Buddhist, and in particular Madhyamika, doctrines, but does not pretend to be an exhaustive treatment of all doctrines or of all aspects of those dealt with.
However, I do not attempt here to develop a historical perspective, or to list the various tendencies and their interrelations. Cheng’s book includes an interesting exposition of the development of Madhyamika philosophy, from Nagarjuna in the 2nd century CE through to the Yogachara school and on. However, he fails to investigate in sufficient detail the development of Buddhist philosophy prior to Nagarjuna, barely mentioning several centuries of earlier Theravada (Hinayana) philosophy and the early phases (starting 1st cent. CE, and before) of Mahayana reaction (e.g. the Mahasanghikas). To better understand Nagarjuna’s motives and goals, it would be well to be acquainted with this background.
My naming the present essay Buddhist Illogic should not be taken to imply that I consider all Buddhist philosophy or even all Madhyamika as illogical. It merely reflects my focus here on some of the (many) illogical arguments used in Nagarjuna’s discourse. Indeed, some of Nagarjuna’s arguments and beliefs have been refuted or rejected by other Buddhist philosophers. Buddhist philosophy is not monolithic, but a constellation of philosophies with as their common ground the (alleged) pronouncements of Buddhism’s founder. I do here challenge some underlying Buddhist doctrines, but only incidentally, not systematically.
I would have named this essay less pejoratively ‘Buddhist Logic’ if I had found some interesting new thought forms to report. Buddhism and Nagarjuna do indeed use valid as well as invalid forms of reasoning, but these forms (those I found so far) are all familiar to us today, and so not notable except for historical purposes (where we would try and determine whether Buddhist usage antedates usage in Greek or other writings). However, my main justification is that much of Buddhism itself, and particularly Nagarjuna’s version of it, cheerfully proclaims itself free of or beyond logic, or illogical and even anti-logical.
On a personal note, I want to stress my admiration for Buddhism in general, which has taught me much, both in the way of living skills and through its philosophical insights. So I cannot be accused of approaching this subject with any antagonistic prejudice. I read Empty Logic eager to learn from it, rather than to find fault with it. As a philosopher and logician I am however duty bound to analyze and judge philosophies dispassionately, and this is what I do here. Generally speaking, I have little interest in criticizing other people’s philosophical works, because I could write thick volumes doing so. Life is unfortunately too short for that, so I prefer to pass it developing a constructive statement. Nevertheless, one generally learns a lot through debate, and I can say that challenging Nagarjuna has helped me to clarify various philosophical problems and possible solutions.
Finally, let me say that the message of “Buddha” (the enlightened) Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 BCE), about “emptiness”, which as is well known is essentially non-verbal, should not be confused with Nagarjuna’s or any other writer’s attempted philosophical interpretation, explanation and justification of related ideas. Thus, to refute the latter does not necessarily deny the former.