Acquiring emptiness: Interpreting nāgārjuna's mmk 24:18

Philosophy East and West 60 (1):pp. 40-64 (2010)
A pivotal focus of exegesis of Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārïkā (MMK) for the past half century has been the attempt to decipher the text's philosophy of language, and determine how this best aids us in characterizing Madhyamaka thought as a whole. In this vein, MMK 24:18 has been judged of particular weight insofar as it purportedly insists that the concepts pratītyasamutpāda (conditioned co-arising) and śūnyatā (emptiness), both indispensable to Buddhist praxis, are themselves only "nominal" or "conventional," that is, they are merely labels that do not referentially signify anything that can be taken to be an ontologically ultimate reality. In various guises, as a result of this explication, Nāgārjuna's thought has been seen to embrace an overarching linguistic nominalism or conventionalism in which words, whether they are used for the purposes of theory or practice, though they serve as commonly accepted currency in the transactions of worldly business (vyavahāra), are in the end only ideas (prajñapti) or metaphysical fabrications (prapanca). This interpretation is largely due to tenaciously inaccurate translations and expositions of MMK 24:18 and their dependence on Candrakīrti's peculiar analysis of this verse in his Prasannapadā. This essay will attempt to correct both the diction of the major translations of MMK 24:18 and the fictions of nominalism and conventionalism that the consequent interpretations of this stanza have perpetuated. The argument that will be developed in the course of this essay is that Candrakīrti's reading of this verse proffers a strong form of linguistic nominalism that Nāgārjuna himself does not embrace. It will be shown, based on everything else found in the MMK, that Nāgārjuna, rather than advocating the mere nominal or conventional status of terms such as pratītyasamutpāda and sunyata, demands they be accepted as both pedagogically useful and even referentially accurate descriptions of the world as it is
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