Thursday, March 7, 2013

What is Non-Dualism?

I am a beginner in Eastern philosophy, but I recently purchased Milton Scarborough's Comparative Theories of Nonduality: The Search for a Middle Way and David Loy's Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy, both of which attempt to bring the Eastern and Western traditions into dialog.  This entry, hopefully the first in a series of reflections on these works, focuses on the question of what  nondualism means in Scarborough's first chapter "Western Dualism and Buddhist Nondualism."

The author begins with racism as an example of dualism ("Dualism Observed"), and ends with an account of the Buddha's journey from the lap of luxury through strict asceticism to the Middle Way ("Buddhist Nondualism and the Middle Way"), thereby framing the importance of nondualism in ethical terms.  Positions bordering on dualism are dangerous, even if not strictly erroneous:
binary oppositions and even binary distinctions have become the objects of criticism; such binaries are not, it turns out, utterly innocent. For one thing, they are a first step, a necessary one, toward dualism. This fact alone is not sufficient cause to reject them, but perhaps it should send up a red flag of warning.  Moreover, despite being essential to reflection, distinctions are dangerous because of the variety of ways in which they can mislead us into distorting our experience of reality.
This is consistent with an ethical focus, whereby activities not wrong in themselves can still be troubling if they make us more likely to commit wrongs. "More important for the purposes of this volume, however, is the notion of a metaphysical middle way, which is expressed in the Buddha’s doctrines of no-self (Anatman), impermanence (anicca), and dependent co-origination (pratityasamutpada)."  So while the impact may be ethical, the underlying question of the volume is metaphysical.  So what are the possible Western formulations of the insights underlying nondualism?

Is Non-Dualism Non-Sense?
One strong sense of non-dualism would be conceptual non-dualism, the claim that all distinctions are meaningless.  Like verificationism, this seems self-refuting, because it presumes a distinction between the meaningful and the meaningless.  Scarborough rejects this sense of non-dualism and its consequent problems, however: "It is important to state that mere difference, opposition, polar opposition, or even contradiction, however, still do not in the strictest sense constitute dualism."

Is Non-Dualism (Physicalist) Monism?
Scarborough follows that denial with the affirmation that
For both the West and Asia, dualism consists of a dichotomy in which the paired terms, concepts, or things have a static substance or fixed essence...Substance is an unchanging, underlying, metaphysical reality in which the qualities or attributes of a thing inhere. A fixed essence consists of changeless attributes, qualities, or meanings that are essential to the nature or identity of a concept or thing. Contradictions or dichotomies with substances or fixed essences are dualisms.
This might be interpreted, especially in light of his reference that "Descartes’s metaphysical dualism of mind and body consists of 'thinking substance' and 'extended substance'" to mean mere substance monism, or physicalism.  As I've pointed out, however, there are problems with simultaneously holding to physicalism and common-sense distinctions of physical objects.  Insofar as these distinctions are physical, this doesn't necessarily reduce non-dualism to non-sense, but it would vitiate Scarborough's claim that "mere distinctions and the binary terms that usually express them are helpful. They demarcate semantic domains, enabling us to be discriminating."  Indeed, he even grants the retorsion argument:
Such distinctions make us intelligent and civilized, give us increased clarity and control, defuse arguments, ease our journey in myriad ways, and even delight us. For both philosophy and other modes of thinking, they are the coin of the realm, the air thought breathes, the energy that propels it forward.They are the indispensable tools for acknowledging boundaries and the ticket price for entry into intelligible reflection or discourse. They are not to be abandoned or disparaged. Indeed, they cannot be abandoned because they are unavoidable. If we think about the matter realistically, utter silence is not an option.
Furthermore, while supervenience physicalism is certainly substance monism, the distinction between that which supervenes and that which is supervened upon would itself seem to be the kind of dichotomy essential to identity of things that non-dualists wish to reject.

Is Non-Dualism Idealism?
Of course there's another substance monism available besides physicalism, namely pure idealism.  Indeed Westerners often characterize Buddhism in just this way.  An idealist reading of nondualism, however, seems incompatible with Scarborough's worry that "despite being essential to reflection,
distinctions are dangerous because of the variety of ways in which they can mislead us into distorting our experience of reality."  He gives three reasons why this is so:

One rather common and simple way they can mislead us is by prompting us to draw boundaries too narrowly and precisely...A guidebook depicted Arkansas as a woodland state dotted with lakes; Oklahoma was said to be a plains state. Yet as we drove across the state line from Arkansas into Oklahoma, the woods did not vanish, the land did not flatten out...Only after continuing for 75 miles or so into Oklahoma did the landscape, which had changed imperceptibly slowly, suddenly appear different. “Woodland” and “plains,” to be sure, are not altogether wrong. In a rough-and-ready way they are helpfully descriptive, yet compared to the actual terrain, they are clearly simplifications.  
A second way binary distinctions distort is by numerical simplification...Consider sex, for example. It is usually described by a binary opposition that has become a full-blown dualism...we have believed that there are but two sexes, male and female. But why merely two? Is it because there are two kinds of chromosomes (XX and XY) involved in the genetic determination of sex? Yet the dualism of the sexes preceded our knowledge of chromosomes... 
There is a third distortion, one that characterizes dualism in particular. To speak of an essence or substance that is fixed, permanent, or eternal is to deny time and change. Perhaps during the era of Parmenides and Heraclitus it was possible to point to the flowing water of a river as an example of change and to a mountain as an example of the unchanging. At least as late as Newton one could still speak of the “fixed stars.” Edmund Halley, a contemporary of Newton, was the first to understand that even the so-called fixed stars move. Until Charles Lyell, geologists did not understand that rocks were still being laid down by water and also that due to ice, wind, sand, and water were being altered by erosion. Until Charles Darwin, biology continued to speak of fixed species. Until the arrival of the Big Bang theory, astronomers and other physicists could speak of fixed physical laws. Nowadays, we talk of “natural history.” We understand all of these former fixities as flowing; stasis is merely what moves relatively more slowly than other things. If there is something absolutely eternal or fixed, it is beyond perception. At best, such concepts survive largely as “limiting concepts.”

How can an idealist worry about simplifications relative to the actual terrain or the potency of nature discovered in perception?  These passages sound too realist for even the weak idealism of Rorty's liberal pragmatic irony, let alone the strong idealism of Hegel or Berkeley traditionally associated with Buddhism.  As Scarborough says with regard to Hegel, idealism "for all of its genius, does not fit all situations."

Is Non-Dualism Aristotelianism?
You might be tempted to dismiss this as the nuttiest theory you've ever heard, but hear me out.  First, while Aristotelianism might speak of multiple substances, underlying metaphysical realities with fixed essences, they aren't opposed realms, or contradictories.  The method of division is not a method of opposition, as species are understood together in their shared genus.  Change is attended to rather than denied, and distinctions are drawn carefully from perception, avoiding overreach.  Aristotle's anthropology seems resilient to

the seemingly endless pendulum swings of Western culture, what I term the “zigzag effect.” Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza, for example, established a rationalist epistemology that affirmed the power of unaided reason to arrive at clear and certain knowledge by means of innate ideas, deduction, intellectual intuition, or a priori categories.  This was the zig. Locke, Berkeley, and Hume launched a contrary movement that emphasized the role of sense data generated, in most cases, by causal relations with an external, physical world. Here was the zag. Both movements were overstatements, lacking descriptive sensitivity and nuance.

Furthermore, Scarborough links non-dualism with the Buddhist Middle Way:  "Food is neither to be rejected nor pursued gluttonously but ingested as medicine. Neither extreme asceticism nor lavish living eliminates ego; both strengthen it."  That certainly sounds very similar to Aristotle's golden mean.  And in metaphysics, also, both Aristotle and the Buddha would apparently affirm a contingently existing (neither astitta nor nastitta) self (namarupa) made up of proper parts (skandhas), making choices with multiple causes.  They might differ over the temporal directedness of causality, but that would seem to pale next to their commonalities.

Is Non-Dualism Phenomenology?
Without discarding the Aristotelian parallels, it's also worth considering whether nondualism might be well understood as a branch of phenomenology (especially as there are Aristotelian branches of phenomenology, like transcendental Thomism).  As Scarborough notes:

Such a metaphysical middle way also implies an epistemological middle way. If the self is constituted in and by a web of causal relations, it is not independent of the world. Thus, while there can be a subject-object distinction, there can be no subject-object dualism. The absence of an inner-outer, subject-object gap to be inexplicably crossed means that the necessity of complete skepticism is ruled out.

That certainly sounds an awful lot like, say, the phenomenology of Cassirer or what is sometimes described as Lonergan's non-dualism.  It's not clear, however, why Scarborough jumps from the rejection of naive realism to the rejection of certainty:

On the other hand, since knowledge is based on the self’s experience as part of the web of interacting events, absolutely certain knowledge is rejected as well. The self cannot step outside the web in order to view it as an object arrayed with utter clarity before either the eye or the mind’s eye.

There's no real argument there, especially since Scarborough's treatment of Nagarjuna on interdependence sounds suspiciously like Lonergan's account of explanatory knowing (which gives rise to ontological pluralism rather than dualism):

On the other hand, if asked to define “present,” we would almost certainly do one of two things: (1) supply a synonym for “present” or (2) offer a definition that includes a reference, tacit or explicit, to “future” and/or “past.” In the first case, one might say that the present is “now” or “this very moment,” which may not be helpful because those terms themselves may need to be defined. In the more likely second case, one might say, “The present is what comes after the past and before the future.” Nagarjuna’s tactic is to focus on the second case, pointing out that the meaning of any one of the three terms is dependent on the meaning of the other two. Consequently, the terms are interdependent. Viewing the words as interdependent leads to viewing the three concepts of time and then the three realities of time as interdependent,

It's clear why metaphysics must be interdependent in order to make sense of our experience, but it's not clear why this means it must be destabilizing, unless the fixed essences are understood to be those of naive realism.  Lonergan's notion of the empirical residue also seems consonant with Nagarjuna's account of emptiness, since while it's not real (it has no immanent intelligibility to be verified) it is nonetheless the ground of the real.  It remains unclear to me whether the Two Truths are better understood as an idealism (transcendence of the conventional world) or as critical realism (acceptance of the conventional world as contingently known).  Much of Scarborough's account, which is unfortunately too long to quote, makes the latter seem plausible even if it is ambiguous.  The difficulty with ascribing non-dualism as critical realism comes in with his account of attachment:
What concerned Nagarjuna is that if people became bound to the doctrine of emptiness, then liberation would elude them. After all, clinging to views is itself a form of clinging (tanha), the principal cause of suffering, according to the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths). Clinging to “right view” (Buddhist teaching that leads to awakening) itself binds one to suffering. The ultimate meaning of emptiness, then, is the cessation of clinging to any views at all, even Buddhist ones.
That's presumably the perspective underlying Scarborough's critique of Kant and his medieval forbears:

Kant’s attempt at a synthesis of the two positions, based as it was on the oppositions of a priori vs. a posteriori, phenomenal vs. noumenal, form vs. content, and theoretical reason vs. practical reason was no more satisfactory than the long disintegrated and overly simple “medieval synthesis” of revealed theology with natural theology and faith with reason. There was merely the substitution of one set of oppositions for another, a sleight of thought that brought but a temporary and illusory relief. The real culprit, the intellectual habit of reliance on simple binary oppositions, was left unidentified and, thus,
“allowed” to perpetuate its deleterious effects.
But what's the real objection here?  Is it just that the claims are too simple, which the critical realist would affirm in the case of Kant and also in the case of predominant naive realist readings of the medieval synthesis?  If the claim is stronger than that, why doesn't it destabilize Nagarjuna's language beyond any capacity for meaning?  Scarborough critiques Derrida, saying that deconstruction is predicated on opposition, but couldn't Derrida return the favor here?  Or is the claim again about contingency, that what privileges Nagarjuna over Kant is the understanding that knowledge comes from emptiness and will itself be transcended?  If so, the transcendental Thomists are on the same page, as "All that I [Thomas] have written seems like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me" (A Taste of Water : Christianity through Taoist-Buddhist Eyes by Chwen Jiuan Agnes Lee and Thomas G. Hand).  “Not being able to do the work of the angels in choir, we can at least write about them,” but we should not become so attached to such writing as to not joyously join the angels in choir.  It's difficult to understand what stronger claim for contingency against essences could be made without either reverting to naive realism or giving up on meaning itself.


  1. So I've already put a few preliminary remarks on facebook, but in the interest of keeping things unified, I'll repeat those comments here. Then, in a second post, I'll address the good questions that Ryan asked.

    In brief, then: first of all, a particular type of nonduality in ethics, in terms of a "Middle Way" between extremes of e.g. asceticism and indulgence, is certainly a part of the Buddhist tradition from the outset, and despite the enormous variety of Buddhist traditions can be found in just about all of them. The concept is closely related to "skillful means" (upāya), which highlights the pragmatic nature of Buddhist ethics.

    That said, I'm not sure that this is really meaningfully nondual, especially in Southern Buddhist (i.e. Theravadin) traditions. Because it is very clear that there is still good karma and bad karma (karma just means "action"), which ripen as pleasure or pain respectively. In other words, there is still a dualistic opposition between actions that are understood as good and actions that are understood as bad. The lack of absolute normative ethics--that is, the context-sensitivity of ethical actions--doesn't entail that those actions aren't placed within a dualistic continuum; quite the opposite.

    This is why I think that the place to look for "nonduality" in any meaningful sense is found in the Northern (i.e. Mahāyāna) traditions. To repeat my comments from facebook, in terms of substantive philosophy, Nāgārjuna is something of a red herring; the best sources to look at are Yogācāra and Pramāṇa theory. In those contexts, which are broadly idealist (though not in a way that would necessarily have been recognizable to e.g. Berkeley--and I will spin this out further in my next comment, below), what is most frequently meant by nonduality is *phenomenological* nonduality in terms of the lack of an intentional subject and object--thus "selflessness" (anātman) should be understood in epistemological and phenomenological as well as ontological terms. Whether this necessitates the ultimate lack of any kind of "differentiated" intentional or cognitive content upon the attainment of enlightenment (as opposed to the pure empty reflexive luminosity of the nature of mind), or whether intentionality qua phenomenological duality (which is the hallmark of ignorance) can be separated from intentionality qua cognitive content, is the topic of fierce polemics in the later tradition.

    1. I won't repost my Facebook comment now, as you've excerpted the relevant bits in your responses below, but I wanted to thank you again for all of your time generously sharing your expertise and apologize for taking so long to respond. I've spent the eight years since we first spent the night discussing these topics hoping we'd revisit that discussion someday, and you've certainly exceeded my expectations.

  2. On Facebook, Ryan asked two questions. They're pretty big questions, and there's a lot to say in response, but my answers didn't fit in the combox. So I'll split them up.

    I) Why do you suggest moving past Nagarjuna? He seems central to the authors I'm familiar with.

    For two reasons: one philosophical, the other historical. I'll address the philosophical issue first.

    A. The Philosophical Reason

    I haven't read Scarborough, so I'll tread lightly, but it seems as though he doesn't quite have the ideas nailed down. (It's also worth mentioning that there are some subtle differences in approach on display in the various works attributed to Nāgārjuna, some of which are only extant in Tibetan; when I say "Nāgārjuna" I am referring to his approach in the "Root Verses of the Middle Way.") Basically, the problem is that Nāgārjuna doesn't really deny the law of the excluded middle, so much as he ruthlessly exploits it against any kind of ontological foundationalism. Broadly speaking, his methodology is very simple:

    i) Demonstrate that A is incoherent
    ii) Demonstrate that not-A is incoherent
    iii) Profit! (Less cutely: A is therefore "empty").

    As for the specific points you mentioned, the primary purchase of the argument from "interdependence" is against what Nāgārjuna calls "establishment" (Skt. siddhi), most basically a kind of ontological independence. But there's also an irreducibly epistemological element to the argument, because siddhi also means "proof" in Sanskrit, thus embedded in the claim that you can't "establish" something as ontologically independent is a related claim that you can't "prove" it really ultimately exists, and vice versa. The bottom line here is that the arguments concerning interdependence are meant to show that what is interdependent (which is everything) cannot be "established," and vice versa. So there's already a kind of dualistic opposition at work in the text, between interdependence and establishment. There's another one between "emptiness" and any ontological modality as such (whether existence, nonexistence, both, or neither).

    1. So exploiting the law of the excluded middle against ontological foundationalism makes sense to me--it's basically Kant's approach, and if you do it again at a meta-level you basically have phenomenological critical realism. But what on earth would it mean to deny the law of the excluded middle outright? Obviously there's paraconsistent logic, which tries to make syntactically explicit the domain restrictions on combination which traditional logic has to do with implicit semantics and controls on informal fallacies during formalization. But that doesn't really deny the law of the excluded middle outright. To do that makes the whole apparatus of logic meaningless, no? I mean, no validity or completeness proofs would hold up...

      Also, what do you mean by "establish" here? To reject a certain kind of ontological foundationalism obviously means rejecting a certain kind of epistemic foundationalism (else one could trivially establish ontological foundations...)--is that what you mean? Or do you mean a skepticism that denies the possibility of knowledge and/or certain judgment?

    2. 1) Re: the excluded middle -- I only phrased it that way because I think people tend to conceptualize nonduality as in some sense having something to do with the excluded middle. But Nāgārjuna isn't concerned with logic as such, and I agree with you insofar as "denying" the law of the excluded middle would pretty much blow up the very idea of logic. The point I was trying to make was simply that nonduality in Nāgārjuna (insofar as that's an accurate way to think about his point) is about uprooting any kind of ontological views. Personally, the way it made the most sense to me when I was studying it for the first time was in terms of thinking about existence/nonexistence/both/neither as the four cardinal directions (x- and y-axes) on a two-dimensional Cartesian plane. Nāgārjuna's arguing three-dimensionally from a point outside the plane.

      2) Re: "establishment" -- your question made me laugh out loud, because that's not been resolved, and I doubt it ever will be resolved. Some scholars, especially those who haven't ever practiced meditation in any serious way and don't have a meaningful relationship with a teacher within the tradition, tend to read the rejection of "establishment" as an essentially skeptical view; one of the most prolific (and most spectacularly wrong) thinks of Nāgārjuna as an Indian Sextus Empiricus. But that's something of a minority view; the majority tend to see it as an anti-essentialist view, with the critical caveat that the Sanskrit word for "essence" (svabhāva) in context also means something like "atomic particle"--which, according to Nāgārjuna's Buddhist contemporaries, were the only things that really existed anyway.

      So the point is, in rejecting the "establishment" of essences/atoms/phenomena, he's rejecting their "real" or "true" or "ultimate existence." A succinct, classical formulation of Nāgārjuna's thought is: if it can perform a function, it is not established, because an established entity is permanent (and performing a function implies change). Thus only what is empty (== not established) can perform a function, and if something can perform a function, it is empty. The takeaway is, I would argue, a kind of phenomenalist anti-realism. Things appear, stuff happens, but it's no more meaningfully "real" than the contents of a dream. But the performing-a-function part is crucial, since the point is that causality (i.e. karma and ethics) is maintained. Basically, according to Nāgārjuna, the only way to coherently account for the effects of actions (or any other type of causal interaction) is by way of reference to emptiness.

      I'm not sure if this helps or makes you more confused… let me know.

    3. Your first two clarifying comments are extremely helpful.

      On the functions/permanence argument, that just sounds like a rejection of naive realism that would be compatible with critical realism, at least if it's restricted to proportionate being. Why would this kind of impermanence be necessarily dreamlike, that is exclude critical realism in favor of idealism? Or is that option just not present in the timespan of the original debates, and commentators haven't managed to introduce it?

    4. Hello!

      Please feel free to read, not read, scoff at, laugh at, respond to, or ignore my "comments." Also/alternatively, please feel free to let them inspire you towards a particular song to dance to.

      I acknowledge that my comments are less strictly in line with the back-and-forth responses and often mere speculative personal musings and questionings often unhelpfully and unintelligibly using and mis-using terminology and images in the seemingly different and internal context of my mind though attempting relationality and coherence and not just personal edification and fun [!!!]. I also admit that all of this work was done while listening to "Justin Bieber Radio" on Pandora--disclosure. [!!!]

      I will try my best to go in order of argument chronology and identify the person who wrote the corresponding point of origination and relation.

      1. Alex: "whether intentionality qua phenom. duality can be separated from intentionality qua cog. content:" Uhm. In my own appropriation of my own feathery interpretation of Nagarjuna's Two Truths and equation of samsara and nirvana, I would ponder that each (separated and non-separated) would occur. And that in each, the other shows up to say "Hey." And then realize the question is about how the instances of "each" relate to one another. Ok, so I'm already employing one formulation: A, B, Both, Neither with the added twist of each (of at minimum A & B) showing up in the other. Though I don't know in what way I would say they "show up." That's probably pretty important and begs the original question.

      2. Alex et. al!: on "interdependence" and "establishment:" What happens when you employ the catuskoti on the dualism of sorts of interdependence and establishment? What happens when you employ the catuskoti on the emptiness and ontological modality?

      Can we see a relation between those ontological modalities and "establishment?" What if anything would that change would employing the catuskoti on interdependence and emptiness? [This was, in a sorta way, the topic of my Lonergan on the Edge presentation transposing Nagarjuna's catuskoti on Lonergan's 4 realms of meaning--ending up employing it on Emptiness and Dependent Arising.]

      Ryan, in what way (if this is at all sensible) does that relate to "if you do it again at a meta-level you basically have phenomenological critical realism."


    5. 3. Alex: 2D/3D image: Thanks. I love images and diagrams, and have varying succeeded into failing and failed to succeeding at making headway on diagraming various things and levels of employment of the catuskoti. I get your diagram on the basic level. But I think ultimately (gasp?) you have to keep employing it. And it ends up, in diagram form, working with an all and a no-dimensionality. Where the point on this all-dimensional diagram of doing this higher-employment comes from is unclear (there could be many starting points, perhaps. Or perhaps they all have to work from a certain level or dimension or metaphoric coordinate). And, in an article by Graham Priest & Jay Garfield, they attempt to explain Nagarjuna using paraconsistent logic as a point that is both inside and outside the set. So, both inside the 2D but outside it in the 3D. That sounds easily enough envisioned: a point on the 2D coordinates that allows access to one seeing the 3D. With some aspect of that location being 2D vision and another aspect (do I want to use that word?) allowing the 3D vision. [I think this gets at what I said in 1. about both being the case and in some way the instance of separation of phenom. dual and cog. content and the instance of non-separation of phenom. dual and cog. content "showing up."

      Then again, my ideas about this more complicated diagram of 2D/3D are mainly based off a fun dream I had about running around a complicated building and going to the "Nagarjuna Room" that was inside the building but in some sense invisible and hence outside of.

      3. Ryan et al.: contra-dreamlike state: If "dream-like" reveals idealist tendencies, what would you say would be the corresponding "mistake" to be from the empirical side of critical realism?

      Thanks for navigating my communication.

    6. Mike:

      2. Well, you may have had an intense, crucial experience that lacked adversion to self, but if there was no self having the experience it wouldn't be something you find crucial to work through for your self-understanding. That's the meta-level.

      3. Animal-like.

    7. 2. Thanks for bringing up this really rich possibility of interpretation. Again, for purposes of the blog, let me underline that I'm not equating my experience argumentatively or otherwise with the Buddhist experiences, but hope that it can serve for make distinctions and hence enliven dialogue.

      For my own experience, I would speak of it both a multiple experiences and as aspects of the same experience. One experience was without a self. Another experience was experiencing in some form of self of recognizing that other experience. Both of these were aspects of an experience I tend towards comparing with (from my paper) Go Rampa--leaving aside the other experience(s) that I compare to Tsong Khapa.

      Since that experience/aspect of an experience was paired with another experience/aspect, it's hard for me to speak to what it would mean to have that experience by itself. Though, I continue to have access to both experiences/aspects--even if one experience/aspect is one continually without the presence of a self. When I remain solely in that experience/aspect, it does not feel crucial to my self-understanding to work through it--as it does when I access the other experience/aspect with the self. When I take both experiences/aspects simultaneously, I don't particularly feel in either direction, though this is admittedly the experience of the "three" that I access and have explored the least and, contrary to the other, takes "positioning." I will try to explore this experience more to see what comes of it.

      When we started Scarborough and this comment thread started, I began to see if the layers of experiences (which in their strongest aspects I compare to Go Rampa and Tsong Khapa) beared any helpful insight onto the three natures that Alex mentioned. It seemed to, and hopefully I will make some progress that can be articulated to share here soon.

      That aside, to our conversation on the phone, where you made a parallelism between my experience and those of person who, for example, black-out while drinking and thus have "experiences they weren't there for" also, I would say that those people don't continue to have access to such experiences. It seems that there is a memory loss (though perhaps recovered over time) that never happened for me as the continuity of access to the "experience without a subject" has been unbroken. Do you have any insights on how that meta-level experience could work under a Lonerganian framework?

      4. Thanks/lets make this 4 since I used 3 two times...

    8. Mike:

      Sure, I'm not saying that your experience was the same as a "black-out" one, just using that as another instance to show that not adverting to something while in a particular state doesn't mean it isn't there. I don't know why continuity of access is a problem...and indeed if access is continuous, and you have an occasional sense of self, that would seem like all the stronger argument that the experience you can access is an experience you had, even if adversion to your self was notably absent at the time.

  3. (this is Part 2 of A. The Philosophical Reason)

    This takes us to the next point. There are a lot of different ways of interpreting the doctrine of the two truths. But in the kārikās, the only time he explicitly references it as such is toward the end, when a Buddhist but presumably non-Mahāyāna interlocutor objects that, if everything is "empty," then the teachings of the Buddha are denigrated. Nāgārjuna then invokes the distinction, and explains that "emptiness" is not simply nonexistence--in other words, that in some sense, phenomena exist "conventionally" insofar as they appear but do not exist "ultimately" insofar as they cannot be established/proven to exist. (There's a bit of slipperiness here because elsewhere "existence" usually seems to mean ultimate/established/proven existence… but I digress).

    So are the kārikās meaningfully nondual? I guess it depends on your definition of nondual. Again, I would need to read Scarborough in more detail, but from your comment it seems like he's misinterpreting Derrida--actually I wrote my undergraduate senior thesis on the parallels between Nāgārjuna's critique of essences (the prototypical putatively "established" entity) in the kārikās and Derrida's critique of presence in Speech and Phenomena. Broadly speaking I think both are making a similar point about duality, viz. that the terms of dualistic oppositions only acquire their signifying force in mutual dependence, and thus that neither can be understood as ontologically prior to the other. When the opposition in question is presence/absence or existence/nonexistence, we're left with a profoundly anti-realist stance that is extremely difficult to say anything meaningful about. It's a lot easier to discuss nonduality in epistemological theory… which I'll talk about in my answer to the second question. Briefly, though, it's worth noting that Nāgārjuna also explicitly characterizes emptiness as that "by means of which all conceptual structures are pacified," and explains that the point of all the Buddha's teaching is "the abandonment of all views." So there's an explicitly praxeological and, one might say, phenomenological dimension to the ontological nonduality (if that's the right word) on display in Nāgārjuna.

    1. So again it seems like your reading of Nagarjuna is perhaps more critical realist than non-dual, though obviously slippery meaning and radically different context make that a difficult claim to really, dare I say, establish.

      Can you post your thesis on or something? I realize your thought is probably more nuanced/full/etc now but I'd like to read it nonetheless. I think you're almost certainly right that Scarborough misreads/cheapens Derrida, though I don't know Derrida's thought very well and I'm not that fond of it in any case.

      More to the point, I'm sympathetic to the critique of oppositions within communication/rhetoric, epistemology, and the metaphysics of proportionate being. It seems to me though, that denial of the priority of being over non-being, in addition to irreconcilability with Christianity (cf Augustine), really does more than just espouse an anti-realism that "is difficult to say anything meaningful about" (cf Tractatus 7.1) but amounts to a denial of intelligibility as such.

    2. I did some weird formal stuff with my thesis, so it's a very strange document to try to read if you don't have a physical copy (and even then, I should have signposted it better)… but I've been meaning to make it more readable for ages, and this is as good an excuse as any. It'll be up on within the next few days.

      As for the rest, I think that's a very interesting take. As in, I hadn't considered that, and will have to think about it some more. Briefly, though, I will say that I don't think the critique denies the priority of being, so much as the privileging of being over non-being or the intelligibility of being without non-being. It's still manifestly the case that there are phenomenal appearances, and we have to account for them somehow. The question is, first of all, whether an absolute ground of being makes sense on its own terms as a way to account for those appearances; and, second of all, even granting or bracketing that question, whether it is possible either in theory or in practice to have unproblematic or unmediated access to that ground of being. I get what you're saying about reconciling this with Christianity, but I guess I've always had more of an apophatic bent, so it doesn't bother me so much (and indeed seems to strike right at the heart of a kind of naïve triumphalist reading of theology). Also, could you say a bit more--not necessarily here--about how this amounts to a denial of intelligibility?

    3. On your thesis: excellent; I'm excited to read it.

      To take your other comments in reverse order (admitting that at some point this discussion will clearly exceed what's appropriate to a combox, but I'll keep running with it here for the time being):

      1. If being can't be said without non-being, I think that's a semantic (if not syntactic) denial of the law of the excluded middle. Anti-realism in philosophy is normally understood as "anti-realism about x," which is to say giving an account of the apparent reality of x in terms of an actual reality y. Anti-realism about being as such is a denial of our ability to verify understanding, which is to say a denial that we can ever know we have understood, which is a denial that we can affirm intelligibility.

      2. How is the non-privileging of being not Manicheanism? I have great respect for apophatic approaches, but I haven't run across any orthodox ones which reject God as pure act and creation ex nihilo. In fact, it seems like the central apophatic denial would be the denial that God's intelligibility is in any way dependent. I guess the claim could be read as the more modest (and crucial) rejection of ontic theology, that Being is not a being. So proportionate being can only be understood with reference to "ex nihilo" but Being as such is not so dependent.

      3. I don't think anybody (here) is denying that access to being is problematic and mediated. But that just means we can't ignore the surd, not that the surd has equal dignity.

      4. Well, I am a believer in (phenomenological) natural theology, so I would say that an absolute ground is the only way to make sense of the appearances, but that's indeed a disputed claim and not one I'm inclined to defend in the combox.

    4. To say things that are unhelpful for some:
      1. What if there precisely is a way that things can be said in a way that does not fall into the category of non-being nor the category of being?

      2. Why must God be ascribed to the categories of being and non-being? Pseudo-Dionysius called God a non-entity. Eckhart also in some way identified God with a sort of non-existence. While I don't think either were trying to privilege non-being, I think they and other apophatic mystics try to eschew the categories. Could one align God with non-existence during times of over-reification (a la the efforts of Buddha to identify with non-being as he lived in a time of eternalism) but still keep notions of pure act and ex nihilo creation? Or, perhaps is there something to be learned about pure act and ex nihilo creation from the more purely apophatic Christian standpoint?

      4. Why must the ground of appearances be one of being conceived as absolute? The ground of appearances could be that of the Dionysius/Eckhart or, as I would lean towards, related to the experiential answer of Nagarjuna's katuskoti.

    5. So perhaps it doesn't deny intelligibility as much as draw attention to something that simultaneously occurs with intelligibility and therefore points towards a total act of what is occurring in the kosmos when one (to say it from one dyad) knows.

    6. Mike:
      1. Well, it wouldn't be "things" exactly, but there's also the category of Being.

      2. I think you're misreading Pseudo-Dionysius (see any of Aquinas' commentary) and Meister Eckhart (see any of Lonergan's commentary). God is a non-entity because entities are beings and God is not a being but Being. I would suggest that much of the Buddhist tradition might be read as denying the Being of beings and much of the apophatic tradition might be understood as denying the being of Being. When you collapse this distinction you lose a lot of the intelligibility of both traditions.

      4. What do you mean by the 'ground of appearances'? In the first instance, the ground of appearances is being, not Being, hence not absolute. Being is only what grounds *complete* intelligibility.

      5. "something that...occurs" is merely the definition of intelligibility.

    7. 1. Does being an anti-realist about being imply necessarily that one is an anti-realist about Being? Does that statement make sense? I'm not entirely clear what I am proposing.

      2. I don't think I'm suggesting (despite, perhaps, my comment) one collapse the distinction as much as there is, at minimum, more relation to those distinction that meets the eye. I look towards the Second Person of the Trinity.

      Why would the non-priveledging of being in a non-dual context be Manicheanism? Wouldn't the problem simply be the non-priveledging of Being?

      4. So you're simply saying that the absolute ground used to make sense of appearances is Being?

      5. Ok, so if "something that...occurs" is the definition if intelligibility and thus such things would fall into the category of intelligibility, what are the requirements for intelligibility and its expression?

    8. 1. Well, an anti-realist about being would be a skeptic; whether you can believe in Being but not being I'm not sure--Descartes would say no, but I dunno. My point was just that being can be truly contingent because Being is non-contingent.

      2. Ok, yes, it does complicate things that there is a being who is Being, but the whole point is that humans can't actually conceptualize that. But now I think I've lost track of your point...

      3. Because Manicheanism is the doctrine that neither good nor evil, being nor non-being, has absolute priority over the other. Christianity affirms the non-contingency of Being, its independence of non-being.

      4. I'm not sure what you mean by "absolute ground used to make sense of appearances" so it's hard to say.

      5. Intelligibility is correlative to insight. If we affirm that something occurs, it's because we've had the insight that it occurs.

  4. Okay, so that's the philosophical reason. Next is the historical reason.

    B. The Historical Reason

    I should preface this by saying that I love Nāgārjuna and that my encounter with his texts is what initially set me on the path that has me now pursuing a Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies. I should also say that these views are something of a minority position within the field, but they are gaining greater acceptance. More importantly, they have the twin virtues of being a) supported by all of the evidence and b) true.

    So, in brief: as far as we can tell, Nāgārjuna lived between the middle of the first and the end of the second century. For the next ~400 years, there were no commentaries on his work. None. The only region where he had any documented influence was Kucha, modern-day Uighurstan. As far as we can tell, in the Indian tradition he was a virtual unknown.

    The situation changed in the sixth century, when the very first extant Sanskrit-language commentary to Nāgārjuna appeared. It was pretty straightforward, and for that very reason quickly attracted some criticism for being too straightforward and not adhering to the model of pramāṇa theory. I'll address the discourse of pramāṇa in some greater detail below, in response to the second question; for now, the important thing to understand is that scholasticism on the subcontinent, across all the different Vedic and non-Vedic traditions, was more or less coextensive with pramāṇa. So if someone was arguing in a way that couldn't be expressed in terms of the (highly) formal tropes of pramāṇa theory, their arguments were going to be basically unintelligible to the broader intellectual world of India. During the historical period in question, kings and so on would very commonly make decisions about power, patronage, and prestige on the basis of formal debates. These debates invariably employed pramāṇa methodology. So it wasn't just a question of "being right" in some abstract sense, it was also very much about being able to put food on your monastery's table--or getting the funds to build your monastery in the first place.

    That's why the second commentary to Nāgārjuna's Root Verses, also written during the sixth century, re-cast the arguments in a form that was comprehensible to pramāṇa theorists. And for the next ~500 years, every commentary on Nāgārjuna--save one--followed this same protocol. The sole exception was Candrakīrti's Entry into the Middle Way, which was ignored for ~400 years and only ever received a single Sanskrit-language commentary sometime around the 11th century. It is very easy to understand why: both Buddhist and non-Buddhist scholasticism was basically coextensive with pramāṇa literature. To the extent that adherents of the Middle Way rejected the discourse of pramāṇa, they were rendering their arguments unintelligible, both to other Buddhists and within the broader interreligious polemical landscape. This is precisely to say that Nāgārjuna was firmly outside of the scholastic mainstream.

    Thus, the idea that Indian Buddhist scholasticism owed much of anything to Nāgārjuna is an anachronism of Tibetan provenance. Nāgārjuna only really starts being influential in Indian Buddhist literature from the eighth century, when Śāntarakṣita synthesizes the Middle Way with mainstream scholasticism qua pramāṇa theory. Even then, as far as we can tell, there was only an Indian "Middle Way" tradition as such insofar as it piggybacked on top of the discourse of pramāṇa. It's only really in Tibet that you see an autonomous Middle Way tradition existing independently of pramāṇa theory, and even there, Tibetan commentators would go to great lengths of hermeneutical distortion to reconcile Candrakīrti with pramāṇa theory. So if you want to understand Buddhist philosophy, Nāgārjuna is something of a red herring; what you should really be looking at is Buddhist pramāṇa theory.

    1. Very interesting--thanks for the history lesson in an area I know very, very little about.

  5. Ryan's second question is a doozy:

    2. Phenomenological nonduality, eh? I don't even know what that could mean....if there's seeing, there's a seer and a seen...which doesn't of course mean we should treat those as cheap substances. You're saying that the first meaning of nondualism is the denial of intentionality as such? Is there some argument for why this is the hallmark of ignorance?

    I'm going to avoid, as far as possible, going into too much detail on pramāṇa theory, but some measure of discussion is unavoidable. So, briefly: pramāṇa is a Sanskrit word in the instrumental case, derived from the root ma that both means and is cognate with the English word "measure" and thus, metaphorically, also means "know" (as in "[correctly] measure"). The central question occupying pramāṇa theorists was: how do we know what we know? What kinds of things can serve as means for reliably knowing the truth?

    There's an irreducibly grammatical element here, built on the agent-object-instrument structure of classical Sanskrit grammar. The pramāṇa ("instrument" or "means" of knowing) is what enables a pramātṛ ("knower") to know a prameya ("object of knowledge"). There's a common metaphor, where the process of knowing is likened to chopping a tree down. The agent is the chopper, the object is the tree. If the agent uses an axe as the instrument, the tree will get chopped down. If the agent uses, say, a fish, the action is no longer chopping. The point is, it's the quality of the instrument that determines the quality of the action; in this case, it's the quality of the pramāṇa--whether or not it is, in fact, a pramāṇa--which determines whether a cognition counts as "knowledge" or "knowing" (pramā) at all.

    What does this have to do with phenomenological duality? In Buddhist pramāṇa theory, there are only two instruments of knowledge (pramāṇa): perception and inference. But what Buddhist pramāṇa theorists mean by "perception" is EMPHATICALLY not what Western empiricists mean by "perception." In Buddhist pramāṇa theory, perception is nonconceptual. Precisely for that reason, ordinary beings (i.e. beings who aren't Buddhas) under ordinary circumstances never have anything like direct access to the outputs of perception. It is, in other words, strictly noncognitive.

    So how do we get cognitive access to the outputs of perception? On the basis of an inference. Our cognitive architecture takes that noncognitive, nonconceptual perception, and processes it--almost instantly, so fast that we just take the process for granted--into what's called a "cognitive image" (ākāra). What we ordinarily think of as "perception" is not perception at all, but engagement with the cognitive image. This image is what is dualistically structured: it has the built-in features of phenomenological subjectivity (the so-called "aspect of the grasper, or grāhakākāra) and an intentional object (the "aspect of the grasped" or grahyākāra). Intentionality or phenomenological duality is, therefore, a structure that is hard-coded into every ordinary act of cognition.

    1. First a question: what justifies the quick movement from "nonconceptual" to "noncognitive"? Was something parallel to the modern "linguistic turn" going on? That's a move I'd tend to reject (largely because it seems to force an idealism/realism dichotomy of language and world).

      The "image" notion seems intriguingly close to Thomas Aquinas' account of phantasm. It certainly can't be inference in the Humean sense, right? But how can phenomenological intentionality not be present prior to the 'inference'? The content/aboutness of the mental act may not be individuated or schematized prior to the inference--may not be about a 'real object'--but there's still a distinction between perception and perceiver, no? If perception is non-intentional, then it seems like inference from perception would always be non-intentional, i.e. pure idealism.

    2. 1) Briefly, see below when I talk about ignorance and conditioning. The point is, in a very real sense, we're only able to see what we are conditioned (to be able) to see. This is definitely a result that we're also seeing in disciplines like cognitive psychology. There is a meaningful difference between "visual sense perception" and "seeing." Something can produce an effect in your visual field, but there are a million and one reasons why you might fail to "see" it. The point being, the mere production of a visual-sensory effect is insufficient to qualify a cognitive event as "(visual) perceptual judgment." So unless you are trained in nonconceptual contemplative practice, mental events that are not conceptually structured will be cognitively and epistemically and empirically inaccessible.

      I'm curious to hear why you think the "linguistic turn" forces that dichotomy. I'm also impressed at your analytic ability, because language is very much at the heart of the issue, so much so that it causes some problems for Western interpreters. I didn't touch on this at all, because it was complicated enough as it is, but an essential part of what's going on in Buddhist pramāṇa theory concerns "exclusion" (apoha) as the method of concept-formation but also the method by which sensory information gets processed into an epistemically-accessible form. Very briefly, yes, the conceptual system--which is to say, the prereflective manner in which cognition is structured--is identical with the language system. So when you look at a mass of atoms, you don't see them as a mass of atoms, you see them as e.g. a cow; and the way in which you see them as a cow (the way in which the epistemic judgment "cow" is produced in consciousness) is by "excluding" all causal features of the atoms in question except those causal features which are relevant for the production of the judgment "cow," including crucially relevant sociolinguistic information about what constitutes a "cow" in terms of being able to fulfill pragmatic goals such as obtaining milk or providing your daughter with a dowry. Basically it's radical nominalism meeting Saussure's pure play of differences.

    3. 2) That's a tough question, but again, I think you have to interpret the instant of "perception" before the "inference" as lacking a well-defined perceiver or perceived. Part of this has to do with the ontology at stake. It's actually during this part of the examination where a big shift occurs, where earlier Dharmakīrti was arguing as though there were real external objects (specifically, those atoms that I keep mentioning), but then he gets pushed on precisely this point and says [paraphrasing] fine, you know what? There aren't really any atoms anyway! There are just psychological imprints, stored as "seeds" in the intersubjective storehouse consciousness. When one of those "seeds" ripens it interacts with your sense-faculty and produces a sensory event.

      I hear the gears turning already and yes, absolutely, this is full-blown ontological idealism. Except it's neither "internalist" or "externalist" idealism since that opposition doesn't make sense here, because duality is an illusion, remember? There is no real "inside" or "outside" the mind, there's just the mind and the process of dependent origination that produces (mental/phenomenal) appearances. And it's not even really "the" mind because traditionally you talk about eight different types of consciousness; "the mind" is not a monad. This is crucial in the wider soteriological context because it's what accounts for the fact that one person becoming enlightened doesn't entail everyone becoming enlightened.

      Finally, no, it's not "inference" in any Western empirical sense. The word literally means "subsequent mind," and its technical definition simply refers to the fact that it is subsequent to the initial moment of unstructured, direct perception. The point is that it is structured, and that this structure--phenomenological duality--is what accounts for its epistemic accessibility. That's why "inferring" from that moment is not non-intentional, because the very act of "inferring" (my inner Derridean want to say, "differing/deferring") is what produces the intentional structure.

    4. 1. Agreed about the conditioning, though I don't agree that all conditioning is conceptual (I mean, lots of priming studies seem to rely explicitly on non-conceptual conditioning) and as mentioned below I have some difficulty with your reliance on science to make the point.

      2. I don't see why granting the 'cow' point gets me to nominalism and hence to idealism. Sure, perception happens by attention, and attention is obviously a simultaneous process of inclusion and exclusion. Indeed, once insights are had "that's a cow" they are fused to perception--it not just is a cow, but is seen as a cow, and as you point out the further value insights can be fused as well. But while language is certainly a tool, even an especially important tool, in the fusing of insights, it's not clear why it's an ineradicable one. I mean, at some point somebody discovered the platypus, no? And people do discover novel uses of existing things. So while inverse insights that de-fuse apparent insights are certainly difficult, they do seem to happen, which seems to undermine the tyranny of conceptualism. One can evade by just asserting the linguistic turn/radical nominalism, but then it doesn't seem motivated by the example.

      2. Again, ok, but what makes the idealism not just an assertion? The account of the 'seeds' seems completely compatible with Thomas' account of insight into phantasm. I mean, if you have the subsequent mind, and the subsequent mind comes from the prior mind (why else would it be subsequent?), then the prior mind must have been, in some broad sense, your mind. So you may not advert to that intentional structure in the first instance, but it's clearly there.

  6. (this is part 2 of my answer to Ryan's second question)

    But the crucial point is that it doesn't always have to be this way. Buddhist pramāṇa theory didn't exist in a vacuum; historically, it developed as a systematized formulation of Yogācāra theory. And in Yogācāra, there are what is called the "three natures." Phenomenological duality is called the "imagined" (parikalpita) nature. It is, according to standard Yogācāra exegesis, actually nonexistent. This is very closely related to the teaching of "no-self" (anātman). The ontological confusion or ignorance about the existence of a transcendental Self manifests, empirically and phenomenologically, as the experience of first-person subjectivity set up against an external world. But, just as the Self does not exist in reality, so duality does not exist in reality.

    What, then, does exist? What accounts for experience? The second nature is the "dependent" or "other-connected" (paratantra) nature. This is causally-produced dependent origination, interdependence, Lonergan's "empirical residue." Sometimes people talk about it as the "nondual flow" of mind. The point is that events occur, cognitions happen, but duality is nothing more than illusion. So the third and final "perfected" (pariniṣpanna) nature is glossed as the absence of the imagined nature--duality--in the dependent nature.

    Getting back to pramāṇa theory, the point is that perception in the strict sense is not "intentional," both insofar as it lacks the intentional structure of subject and object and insofar as it lacks meaningfully cognitive content. It's really just a causal process of sense faculties interacting with whatever type of phenomena have the capacity to produce sensory effects, which of course also depends on the causal properties of sense faculties. "Cognition" in any meaningful sense only occurs later, as an inferential and conceptual process. But that process by which sense-data become available to consciousness is, according to Buddhist pramāṇa theorists, fundamentally conditioned by ignorance. Again, this is a major overlap with Yogācāra. In Yogācāra, duality arises as the result of the beginningless psychological imprint of ignorance; if we weren't ignorant, we wouldn't experience duality. In pramāṇa theory, it's the same: our ignorance is what prevents us from having direct access to the outputs of perception. In effect, we're so deeply conditioned by ignorance qua duality that we are literally unable to have epistemic access to anything that isn't dualistically-structured in terms of an intentional subject and object.

    This is what causes the fierce polemics I mentioned above. Basically, there were two camps. The "False Imagists" argued along the lines you sketched: seeing implies a seer and a seen. If you remove duality as a feature of cognition, you lose any sense of what it could mean to have intentional content. So, once you achieve nonduality through meditation, there are no longer any phenomenal appearances, no more cognitive images. There isn't "nothing," per se, but they use a lot of metaphors about luminosity and the sky. The "True Imagists" adopt a contrary position, that nondual cognitive images exist, so you can separate intentionality qua duality from intentionality qua contentfulness, and Buddhas therefore still have some kind of e.g. visual phenomenal appearances. It may not be "seeing" in the traditional sense, but there is a nondual stream of visual perceptual information that is continually accessible, without any sense of being "the one who is seeing."

    1. Can you say more about pariniṣpanna? As I read you, the first two natures are more or less phenomena and noumena? But if noumena are already understood as causally produced and interdependent, then what's the dualism with phenomena about in the first place?

      So if perception is just 'external' and inference/conception/cognition are all 'internal' then I see why that's a dualism (of the unhelpful kind, no less) and why duality is associated with ignorance. What I don't understand is why understanding is associated with 'directness' or why subject and object have to be defined in naive terms in the first place.

      The "false imagists" seem a bit like the Thomist experience of moving from theory to contemplation, except that I don't see why the former must be "false." Transcendence need not mean supercession. The only way I know of to make sense of the "true imagists" is to say that what is lost is the *awareness* rather than the fact of intentionality.

    2. See above, but briefly, no, noumena/phenomena doesn't really cover it. It's not that there's some real thing "out there" that just happens to be manifesting in my consciousness in a particular way. My sensory apparati are constituted in such a way that they have the capacity to be causally affected by certain types of stimuli. Other beings with other types of sensory apparati (including other kinds of humans, e.g. colorblind people) will be causally affected by different types of stimuli. To the extent that we share a common pool of intersubjective psychological imprints--those "seeds" in the storehouse consciousness--we will perceive "the same" thing. But it's not really "the same" at all, first of all because ontologically there isn't anything really there, so there's no ultimate basis upon which to predicate judgments of sameness; and second of all because any judgment of "sameness" is a conceptual (i.e. ignorant) fabrication. The only things that can ever even potentially qualify as real entities are momentary, infinitesimally-small atomic particles.

      There's a common example sometimes given. What humans see as a river, devas ("gods" in the pagan sense) will see as flowing nectar, and hell-beings will see as molten copper. A human interacting with the particles will have his thirst slaked but won't derive the benefit that the devas do. A hell-being interacting with the particles will be painfully burned. So even the "objective" properties of phenomena depend on the causal properties of their observer. Which is just to say that there is no ultimately established "objective" reality.

    3. Ryan, I find it interesting that you use loss as a feature of that transcendent movement from "false" to "true" imagist.What if you instead spoke of what is gained by that movement. Perhaps what is gained is an awareness of the non-dual intentionality?

    4. Also, while I think I'm following what you both are saying about the idealism (though not of or of disputed external/internal basis), I suppose I personally don't feel that idealism continues to be a helpful word at this point. But, I think that I am in general trying to do something funny with the Two Truths in applying the katuskoti to the Two Truths and thus while a pure idealism seems fitting for argument, in actuality the non-dual perception is not one of simply idealism as the ultimate and secondary truths are themselves understood non-dually in such non-ordinary persons. But...speculation speculation.

    5. Mike:

      I don't understand--what is "the transcendent movement from 'false' to 'true' imagist"? As Alex explained it, these are philosophical schools with opposed positions on what is happening, not phenomenological/cognitional states. And what is non-dual intentionality? If there's intentionality, there's inention-of, which means awareness...

      Further, though, I was merely saying that a certain kind of awareness was lost/not adverted to--I'm not saying that such a state might not have other benefits.

    6. Alex:

      The psychology and physics references seem really problematic. If there isn't anything there, what's doing the causing? If we can't make judgments of identity, how does science work? It seems like you have to settle the phenomenology, epistemology, and metaphysics in an extra-scientific but science-consistent way before you can appeal to the science.

      As for the river, this seems to conflate descriptive and explanatory knowing. The way the river is perceived by or effects a particular kind of being is descriptive knowing for that being, and hence only ever objective in a limited sense. The chemistry of the river doesn't seem observer-relative.

    7. Ryan:

      I mis-read what you had said. I was probably already beginning to impose my own vague notion that there is a movement between the "False" and "True" Imagists. I would begin to speculate that the movement from theory to contemplation would not mean that theory is "false" but on with appeal with a movement to the True Imagist. And that the True Imagist only succeed in its full non-intentionality qua duality through movement into the "contemplation" of the False Imagist.

      I'm probably making too far of a jump, but, Alex, to the extent that you're familiar with Tsong Khapa and Go Rampa, would you say that Go Rampa and his subscription to a "harder" version of the Two Truths and there being a full epistemic-break between the truths would be reflective of the False Imagist. And that Tsong-Khapa and his attempt to maintain non-duality but, to some degree, epistemic continuity (and hence maintain non-duality with contentfulness) is to some degree reflective of the True Imagist?

  7. As I was responding, it occurred to me that you might want to read my Master's thesis. It's a complete translation of a short but very interesting text from arguably the most influential "False Imagist," together with 250ish pages of my own commentary on every last topic he touches upon, including Middle Way ontology, Yogācāra phenomenology, and pramāṇa epistemology.

    I don't want to put it up on just yet, since I want to spend the next few years editing various portions for publication and may use it as the backbone of a monograph someday, but I'd be more than happy to email you a copy if you're interested. Send me your address on facebook.

    1. It's obviously up to you, but I would urge you to reconsider not putting your thesis up on First, because I've had senior figures in my field email me on the basis of work I have up there, along with invitations to do both public and anonymous peer reviews (the latter may not seem like much of a perk, but if you've reviewed for a journal, they at least have to send your own submissions out for review, rather than desk rejecting them). Second, because I've yet to hear of a press in philosophy that wouldn't publish something because there was a copy already in an online document repository, and it seems wildly unlikely to be problematic if you're substantially reworking the format of the thesis anyway, as you'd basically have to do for monograph or journal publication. In fact, it's now the norm for philosophers to post (whether on, personal, or university sites) penultimate copies of papers, let alone substantially earlier forms. And it's normal for theses to be on proquest anyway. So I'd definitely like to read it (my email is on my FB profile), but I think posting it is highly likely to be the right thing for your career.

  8. So clearly there is a lot going on in this discussion. In order to try to keep it as clear as possible, with the caveat that there will necessarily be a lot of back-and-forth across comments, I thought I'd try to break the discussion down into what I consider to be classical Mahāyāna Indian Buddhist philosophical lines. Since I think part of the difficulty here is that we're coming at this from weird angles, I don't believe it makes much difference where I start.

    First up: Ryan noted that "anti-realism in philosophy is normally understood about 'anti-realism about x,' which is to say giving an account of the apparent reality of x in terms of an actual reality y." Broadly speaking, it may be said that, in the context of Buddhist philosophy, "x" is the world of mid-size dry objects in ordinary cognition, and "y" is empty dependent origination. But "empty" is doing a lot of work here. The idea is more akin to Heidegger's Being (being-crossed-out) than the ontic-ontological distinction. It's not just that we see or believe we see mid-size dry objects where there are in reality only partless particles; that's part of what's going on, particularly at a non-Mahāyāna level of analysis, but it's not the whole story. The point is that everything--even those particles--are nothing more than māyā, illusion. They are no more substantial, in the classical formulation, than "a soap bubble, a bit of foam, a thunderclap," etc.

    This gets right to the heart of your problem with the example of the river. "If there isn't anything there, what's doing the causing?" Great question! But there isn't really a good answer, or put slightly differently, it depends on what kind of an answer you want. There is no individual thing that is "doing the causing." There are only causal powers or tendencies, constantly in flux, stored (from a Yogācāra perspective) in the storehouse consciousness as "seeds." But--this is crucial--the very existence of those seeds is prima facie evidence of ignorance. Once you're enlightened, and have no more ignorance, all of your karmic seeds are completely uprooted. That's why, in the earliest Yogācāra literature, enlightenment was referred to as the "transformation of the basis" (āśraya-paravṛtti), where the "basis" is the storehouse consciousness.

    The effect of this transformation is precisely that enlightened beings are no longer bound by the causal capacities of anything--it is a fully fleshed-out development of the earliest Buddhist understanding of the Buddha's "unconditioned nirvāṇa" as freedom from (causal) conditioning. So the Buddha is free to fly through the air, walk on water, and so on. Ordinary causal capacities/tendencies have no hold whatsoever on him. He has pierced the illusion, seen it for what it is, and is therefore free to manipulate illusory phenomena however he sees fit (which, in practice, means "in a manner that brings ultimate benefit to limitless sentient beings").

    So again, the point is that the river only has the chemistry it does, from a human's perspective, because of the specific karma involved in being born a human. In reality, it's not a river of water any more than it is a river of pus and blood or a river of divine nectar--in reality, it's none of the above. It is only due to the condition of being an ordinary, unenlightened sentient being that the river appears at all, and yes, there is some slippage here between ontological and phenomenological categories that I'll address shortly. It also brings us to the "Imagism" debate, where different authors will argue over to what extent (if any) there are appearances-as-such for enlightened beings. But everyone agrees that enlightened beings are no longer bound by the conditioning of causal properties, precisely because in the final analysis even those properties don't really ultimately exist.

    1. Thanks for re-threading! You're definitely right about the weird angles.

      1. How can we know that reality is made up of particles, if we don't first know the existence of macro-objects? I assume you're not just reporting the findings of quantum mechanics ;p. Is this just a Democritus-like response to the fact of change? Why does change deny existence--what's wrong with contingent existence as a category? Or put differently, why is emptiness/-Being- not just contingency in the ordinary sense?

      2. So the Buddha is Derrida-the-optimist and Derrida is a pessimistic Buddha? Which is to say, once you've gone full idealist, the question is precisely about whether the world is volitional--if not, and you want to hold on to knowledge, you land with Cassirer and Lonergan in critical realism. If yes, well that's a good test. So I guess this is where I call for the cards. If altering consciousness unbinds one from causal reality, show me the goods.

      3. This is, of course, frighteningly close to the "faith of a mustard seed" and the wonder-workings of Martin de Porres or Francis of Assisi. I guess the difference is that when the latter pierce the veil to see a contingent world in the hands of God, they attribute the resulting power to God, to Being.

    2. 0. Thank you for acknowledging the weird angles. I would say that notions of Enlightenment are best approached through weird angles. Actually, I maybe do say that.

      4. I would like to play with the "pierce the illusion" notion. It seems like many persons in their lucid dreaming can "pierce the illusion" of dreaming and control all forms of causality in the dreams.

      As Ryan contrasted idealism's dream-like state to a materialist animal-like state. I wonder what "piercing the illusion" would look like from an animal-like state. It doesn't seem like human domination over nature seems to quite fit the bill. Would it be piercing through one's animal desires?

      Though, it's hard for me to conceive of that and not blur animal-like state with waking-state (when just having spoken of dream-state). And, feel free to ignore my even more tangent, this reminds me of the Tibetan Bon practice with their dream yoga recognition of "waking," dream, and (if i recall the name correctly) "true light" states. True light being fully sleeping but simultaneously aware of ones physical surroundings. And, I wonder what useful parallelism that may hold to dualistic inference, True Imagist, and False Imagist states.

    3. Well, I was going to try to write some more before notifying you all on facebook, but I got distracted by a presentation I'm hoping to deliver at a conference this fall, and it appears you discovered my half-done response in the meantime. No matter, there's more than enough here to chew on. I'll take your numbered questions in order.

      1) Maybe the important thing to understand about Buddhist atomism is that it is very closely associated with the (not-necessarily-Mahāyāna) Abhidharma. So the emptiness language and the atomism language don't necessarily square, especially once you bring Nāgārjuna—who more or less explicitly rejected atomism as a description of ultimate reality—into the mix. That said, yes, in the earliest strata it is absolutely a "response to the fact of change." Things change, which means there aren't essences, just particulars (including, crucially, mental particulars) causally interacting to produce the world of gross phenomena for ignorant beings.

      For early (non-Mahāyāna) Abdhidharma theorists, there is no problem at all with the idea of contingent existence. Actually, they distinguish between "imputed existence" (prajñaptisat) and "substantial existence" (dravyasat). Mid-size dry objects, the "self," and gross phenomena in general are all only "imputedly"—we could as well say "contingently"—existent. Particulars, by contrast, are "substantially" existent.

      Yogācāra is both historically and philosophically a Mahāyāna continuation of Abhidharma, so in Yogācāra this distinction still carries water. But for Nāgārjuna, it is unacceptable. This is for more or less the reasons you hint at: why is emptiness/-Being- not just contingency in the ordinary sense? Well, from one perspective, it is. The point isn't that it isn't contingency, the point is what this means or implies, what the consequences are. Nāgārjuna derives (his critics might say, unjustifiably) hugely important results from the fact of contingency. Basically, he derives the conclusion that contingent phenomena don't exist, not really, not the way they seem to—which is, so to speak, as really or truly existing, as "present" (in Derrida's sense of Husserl's sense of presence).

      It's probably worth mentioning that Ratnākaraśānti, as you'll see if you read my MA thesis, admitted the imputed vs. substantial distinction, but added a third term from Madhyamaka philosophy: "ultimate" existence. Basically, in Ratnākaraśānti's model, gross phenomena are still just imputations, atoms/particulars are still substantially existent, but their substantial existence does not qualify them as being "ultimately" existent. They are illusory, but "substantial" (as the minimal units of causal efficacity) in a way that gross phenomena are not.

    4. 2) I would love to show you my magic powers, but it tends to work best in person. Also, I'm not nearly as good as my teachers. Spend a little time in Kathmandu, though, and I guarantee you'll see some fireworks.

    5. 3) It may not be as far off as you think. Ultimately, Buddhist thaumaturgy works because (from a Buddhist perspective) that's just the way that the enlightened mind and the nature of reality are. In Mahāyāna thought, particularly in its post-5th-century evolution, there's an increasing tendency to see existence itself as always and everywhere unalterably and unfathomably good. The "Buddha-nature" that you may have heard something about, is (in certain contexts) the nature of mind; so if ultimate goodness is the nature of mind, and reality is nothing other than mind, reality is ultimate goodness. The only problem is that it's obscured (i.e. our minds are obscured) by defilement. The common example is, the sun is the same regardless of the weather, but our ability to enjoy sunlight changes with the passing of the clouds.

      I admit that if you have a heavily anthropomorphized God, who bestows those kinds of abilities as if by some kind of decree, the comparison is a bit more problematic. But if you're equating God and Being (which I think is the only way to really make Christian theology work)… I have a hard time conceptualizing the difference. That may just be me, though.

    6. 4) Read my thesis!! It is titled "Luminosity" and goes there, and stays there, for some fifty pages after dealing with all the boring philosophical legwork.

  9. Second issue: Michael asked, "What if there precisely is a way that things can be said in a way that does not fall into the category of non-being nor the category of being?"

    Well, I'm not sure that works methodologically--I'll get into this a bit below, but for now, it should suffice to note that to me language == conceptuality. So, insofar as ultimate truth qua the nonduality of being and nonbeing is necessarily nonconceptual, it follows that this truth cannot ultimately be picked out by descriptive language. I'm somewhat sympathetic to the view of Nāgārjuna as a certain type of speech-act theorist, whose philosophical arguments are intended to induce a particular state of mind rather than to "describe" or provide a map of ultimate reality; this view is not without problems, but it's not entirely without merit either.

    The point, in any case, is that (for Nāgārjuna) any/every model of reality will fail, naturally including the 2D/3D model I mentioned. Again, insofar as a language-system is more or less the same thing as a conceptual model of reality, the problems he identifies with arriving at an ultimately valid description of reality go "all the way down." This is one of the more important reasons why the Buddhist tradition places such an emphasis on the necessity of nonconceptuality (== nonduality) to an understanding of ultimate truth. The Tibetan tradition even has a stock phrase, smra bsam brjod [med], meaning "[the nonexistence] of language/speech, thought, and expression," to describe the ultimate.

    This is one of the many reasons why I would strongly recommend not to pay Jay Garfield too much attention. He certainly understands Western philosophy, but doesn't really get Buddhist philosophy at all, and tends to make some very basic errors of both comprehension and interpretation; if you look through my MA thesis, you'll see a few. Really, in the Buddhist Studies world he's not taken very seriously.

    1. Thanks for the pointer on Garfield. I've heard as such before. Will read your MA thesis--hopefully--this weekend. Would be interested at some point to hear more or be pointed towards directions to hear more about pro/con Nagarjuna as speech act theorist. I suppose I would--maybe youve caught on by now--be inclined to see him doing kinda both/other.

      Do you see Nagarjuna as setting up a model (though it will fail) as to be navigated through towards a particular state of mind?

    2. "Do you see Nagarjuna as setting up a model (though it will fail) as to be navigated through towards a particular state of mind?"


  10. Third: Ryan noted, "I don't see why granting the 'cow' point gets me to nominalism and hence to idealism. Sure, perception happens by attention… [but] while language is certainly a tool, even an especially important tool, in the fusing of insights, it's not clear why it's an ineradicable one. I mean, at some point somebody discovered the platypus, no?"

    This really depends on what you mean by "language." The operating principle here is something like Whorf's view, but subtly different. It's not precisely that "language" creates the cognitive structures that we use to classify our perceptual world; rather, it's that the same process of "other-exclusion" is at work in both "perception" (in the lay sense) and concept formation. So in a very real sense language--a better word might be "linguisiticality"--and conceptuality are the same thing. Thus all sentient beings, from bacteria to humans and everything in between, have "language" insofar as they have conceptuality, where "conceptuality" refers to the process governing how initial nondual direct perception becomes cognitively contentful through the other-excluding process of inference.

    This also answers your other issue, "So you may not advert to that intentional structure in the first instance, but it's clearly there." Again, it comes down to what you mean by "intentional." But if you mean dualistic, there is no "intentionality" in the first moment. The point is that the mind, the true nature of the mind, is nondual. Duality is an adventitious or accidental condition of the mind, produced by (or synonymous with) ignorance. But because we are conditioned by this ignorance, we are literally unable to have unimpeded access to the nonconceptual (== untainted by ignorance) direct perception. That's why "perception" (in the lay sense) is actually only an inference, made on the basis of this initial nonconceptual moment.

    In the case of seeing the cow, the point is that there is in reality no "cow" there. There are, depending on your perspective, either a mass of particles or a bundle of seeds, with particular causal tendencies/properties. The perceptual judgment "that is a cow" proceeds in several distinct stages. 1) The particles (for the sake of simplicity) produce, in accordance with their causal capacities, sensory data through their interaction with the visual faculty. 2) These data, which are unstructured, are--almost instantaneously--processed by higher-order cognition. 3) The way this process proceeds is by excluding all the causal features of the sense data which are not directly relevant for some particular goal or aim. 4) So for the aim of obtaining milk, the recognition that the mass of particles have in aggregate the capacity to give you milk structures the sense data in such a way that the perceptual judgment "cow" is produced in active consciousness, by excluding all those features of the particles in question which are irrelevant.

    In other words, the judgment "this is a cow" is actually, subliminally, made by processing the sense data as "this is not a non-cow [for the purpose of obtaining milk]." In this particular pragmatic context, a bull would not be considered a cow. But in the pragmatic context of, say, scientific taxonomy, a bull might be considered "not a non-cow" because it possesses the causal property of having the same genetic code as a cow or being able to mate with a cow to produce viable offspring. There are absolutely shades of speech-act theory here.

    1. 1. Why is it helpful to blur cognition (particularly attention), conceptualization, and language in this way? I mean "language" has some kind of meaning for many academic fields; why lose that? And Whorf has been pretty well thrown under the bus these days.

      2. It again seems like you're ignoring the explanatory/descriptive distinction. There are many descriptions for a cow, which are indeed context dependent. But the biological==explanatory definition is singular.

      3. But again, if the world is volitional for the enlightened, this all drops out, so again we're back to the heart of the matter.

    2. 1) Well Whorf may have been thrown under the bus of late, but that doesn't mean he was wrong, at least not entirely. There was a great study done recently about color perception in Tibetan language speakers. Basically, in Tibetan there are contextually different terms for green and blue, but the most common word (sngon po) could mean either green or blue. As in, ask a Tibetan what color the grass is, and they'll say "sngon po." Ask the same person what color the sky is, and chances are they'll say "sngon po" again. Anyway, they did an experiment, and it turns out it has measurable effects on their cognitive processing of color differences. Color terms and chromatic cognition in general are areas where Whorf seems to have been absolutely correct, I suggest checking out the work of Lakoff and Johnson for an overview of the research.

      But that's neither here nor there. The issue isn't, so much, about encroaching on linguistics as a discipline; I majored in linguisitics at BC, and I think it's a very valuable science. The point is just that linguistics, as a science, and "language" as a term in academic fields, aren't really concerned with soteriology. Buddhist philosophy is centrally concerned with soteriology (actually in my thesis I coined a term, "eleutheriology," since the goal is mokṣa which means "freedom or "liberation" and there is no sotēr). And Buddhist soteriology, in the most basic terms, involves the breakdown of conceptuality. From very early on, maybe even the very first textual strata, enlightenment or ultimate reality or the "experience" of ultimate reality was also understood to be inexpressible in language. So the idea that conceptuality == language, for the purposes and from the perspective of Buddhist soteriology, goes way back.

    3. 2) I'm not sure I understand your point here. But that may be because I haven't explained myself very well. The point isn't that the "explanatory" definition of a cow is context-dependent; when we're talking about that cow over there, we can both agree that we're referring to a particular set of cow-particles. The issue isn't whether or not those cow-particles can explain the being-there of the cow—clearly they can—the question is, rather, what we lose in the determination of those cow-particles as a cow. In other words, according to Buddhist pramāṇa theory, the way our cognitive-perceptual apparatus apprehends the mass of cow-particles as a cow is precisely by not apprehending them as whatever else those cow-particles have the causal capacity to produce as a sensory judgment: as a source of warmth, for example, or as a brown (or white or black) shape, and so on.

      To be clear, all of that causal information is pre-thematically present in our consciousness. But it isn't epistemically available without further reflection, since the processing of the sensory image is almost instantaneous, and happens much faster than our ordinary conceptual minds can deal with it. So we can switch between seeing the cow as a cow, and seeing it as a mammal, and seeing it as a brown mass, etc., but in every case we're always already making conceptual determinations. The point is that those conceptual determinations are necessary as long as we're not enlightened, but their relative utility is entirely a social or pragmatic phenomenon. The cow-particles are no more exclusively "cow" than they are inherently "brown" or "warm" or "square." Those are all qualities that we attribute to them as part of our conceptual determination, but if we were enlightened and/or trained in having access to that pre-thematic content, we'd "see" (not really the best word but you get the idea) all of the information, all at once, undifferentiated. It's precisely because such an experience would be extremely disorienting that we have subliminal cognitive processing mechanisms.

      Does that make any more sense?

    4. addendum to 3): that's why my doctoral thesis advisor, arguably the foremost scholar of Buddhist pramāṇa theory on the planet, hates hates hates talking about perception for enlightened beings. The whole thing goes crazy and doesn't make any sense any more. You can't even talk about it.

  11. To continue my practice of throwing out speculative ideas and forays that roughly correlate with the comment thread without directly arguing from it:

    I want to play with the notion of language (or linguisticality or conceptuality) as "other-exclusion." Why must language function on only the basis of other-exclusion? Could one conceive of a language of "other-inclusion" that features distinctness yet not duality?

    If language is other-excluding through its inference, could a borderline state of perception and inference exist? Is this the realm of the boddhisattva (yes, we're going Mahayana here...)? Where language circulates between the other-excluding of inference and the silence of perception. Or, can they reach a playfulness in between where the poetics of the sky and the moon (and, to conflate this Buddhist school's state of consciousness with those such as Merton who turn to poetry) trying to articulate from the non-dual silence come to meet the silence of playing between the dualisms of other-excluding language?

    Though, I am now conflating True Imagist and False Imagist dichotomy with perception and inference dichotomy (not necessarily in a correlation of that ordering).

    Let me try again for another angle:

    If inference creates other-exclusion. If inference sees and uses language through other-exclusion. Could inference rise to the line of perception and become other-exclusive/inclusive?

    Or if True Imagists have some form of other-inclusion language through being non-dual and yet still having cognitive content. Then... are they simply playing one side of the borderline of inference?

    If False Imagists see no content then how do they use language? What of their "luminosity" and "sky?" Are they trying to use "other-inclusive" language like the True Imagist? But that would recognize a cognitive dualism. So perhaps they are speaking in a manner that is non-other-inclusive? Errrr

    And then perception (if we go on a whim to speculate this as different than True and False Imagist conceptions) would speak--at all? Non-other-exclusive? I suppose where other would be interaction with linguisticality at all.

    Finally (Ryan): what would it mean for there to be a non-duality between explanatory and descriptive?

    1. I'm not sure. They can be undifferentiated, but that's not the same as non-dual, insofar as they remain differentiable.

    2. What would be the state where they are differentiated as aspects but still experienced in a unified manner? I suppose I'm playing with is the idea of form and emptiness being comparable to explanatory and descriptive. And if as Nagarjuba says, forms is emptiness and vice-versa. How that could be reflected with those two kinds if insights. And, at least for my own "non-dual" experience that I compare to Nagarjuna's relation of form and emptiness, how that would progress in terms of explanatory and descriptive. In such a unified manner (experienced as non-dual) what that would mean both for our language conversation and if it makes headway for the cognition part of these comments. Will call later for assistance in articulation and then will repost since this is probably fairly unclear.

    3. //re: form and emptiness

      What would it mean to have an insight into emptiness (thus see the form of emptiness) while experiencing the emptiness of form (the emptiness of the form of insight). Err...

    4. Michael, those are all great questions, that I'm not entirely qualified to answer. What I will say is that a lot of Buddhists, particularly after the 9th century or so, felt dissatisfied with the classical theory I've laid out above. They were especially concerned with the hard line drawn between perception and inference. So some, who became influential later in Tibet (particularly among the dGe lugs), actually went so far as to claim that, yes, you can have a perception of a universal—which, under Dignāga and Dharmakīrti's system, is absolutely impossible, since perception tracks particulars and inference tracks universals and never the twain shall meet.

      As for False Imagism and language, though, at least as laid out by Ratnākaraśānti, the point is that the cognitive images only start dropping out or fading away once you've achieved a direct meditation on emptiness, and only disappear entirely once you've achieved perfect enlightenment. So as long as you're not enlightened, the cognitive images still appear.

      The Buddha's use of language is an interesting conundrum, but this is why I think speech act theory works so well with Buddhist philosophy. If language is a Saussurian process of encoding and decoding conceptual sememes, then yes there is a huge problem with the idea of Buddhas using language—and, in all fairness, Nāgārjuna does have that line about how the Buddha never taught anything, anywhere, to anyone. HOWEVER, if human language is only different in degree but not in kind from "the cry" (Rousseau/Derrida), then we're not talking about encoding and decoding meaning but the causal production of a meaning-effect.