Between Nihilism and Anti-Essentialism: A Conceptualist Interpretation of Nāgārjuna

Philosophy East and West 64 (1):151-173 (2014)

John Spackman
Middlebury College
This paper defends a “conceptualist” interpretation of Nāgārjuna which stands in-between two other prominent accounts, the nihilist view and what I call the anti-essentialist view. The nihilist reading, recently defended by Thomas Wood, holds that for Nāgārjuna nothing exists either at the ultimate or at the conventional level. On the anti-essentialist account, supported by Jay Garfield and David Kalupahana, though Nāgārjuna rejects the ultimate existence of things as svabhāva (independent), he affirms their conventional existence as interdependent. I argue that the nihilist view raises two challenges to which anti-essentialists have given no adequate response. The first alleges that the notion that all things are interdependent is incoherent. The second consists of passages from Nāgārjuna’s writings that seem to claim that whatever exists is svabhāva or depends on what is svabhāva. The conceptualist interpretation, I suggest, allows us to respond to these challenges while avoiding the implausible nihilist account. On this view, the passages in question assert a claim not about what exists but about the concept of existence, namely that it is a core part of this concept that what exists is either svabhāva or depends on what is svabhāva. Thus, contra the anti-essentialist, Nāgārjuna’s view is that there is no coherent concept of universal interdependent existence. But contra the nihilist, things can still be said to exist conventionally, since conventional discourse is precisely discourse in which subjects do not endorse the svabhāva component of the concept of existence. The upshot – again contra the anti-essentialist – is that both conventional truth and emptiness are strictly inconceivable.
Keywords Nagarjuna  Madhyamika
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DOI 10.1353/pew.2014.0000
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On the Nihilist Interpretation of Madhyamaka.Jan Westerhoff - 2016 - Journal of Indian Philosophy 44 (2):337-376.
Contemporary Philosophy of Mind and Buddhist Thought.John Spackman - 2012 - Philosophy Compass 7 (10):741-751.

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