For Nagarjuna, the world as we commonly experience it is a linguistic construct.
The fundamental insight of what is known as the “linguistic turn” in twentieth-century Western thought is that language shapes our experience. Some of the most influential modern thinkers challenge our usual assumption that using language is merely a matter of attaching names to things that already exist in the world. In a very important sense, language creates the world as we know it.
This realization challenges our everyday sense of things. We usually think of language (when we think of it at all) as something “transparent” or as being like a mirror, reflecting things as they really are. But language does not simply reflect the world; in fact, it largely determines what we notice and what we do not. In coming to a greater understanding of how language affects the ways we experience the world, and ourselves, Western thought is now able, as well, to gain a better understanding of the great Buddhist dialectician Nagarjuna, whose work is generally considered the most important, and the most difficult, in all of Buddhist philosophy.
Considered by many to be, after the Buddha himself, the single most important figure in Buddhist tradition, Nagarjuna, sometimes called the Second Buddha, is said to have lived in India in the late second century C.E. His writings form the basis for the Madhyamaka, or “Middle Way,” school of thought and are hugely influential in the development of Mahayana Buddhism.
For Nagarjuna, the world as we commonly experience it is a linguistic construct. He employs a method of rigorous analysis–using language to remove the delusions created by language–which reveals that the commonsense categories through which we divide up the world are inconsistent and self-contradictory.
He does not try to replace one set of concepts with another, for it is precisely in the letting go of all views that wisdom and peace are attained.
In order to make sense of the world, we divide it up in various ways. One basic way we do this is to make a distinction between a thing and what that thing does: “The man went for a walk.” Another important distinction is between a thing and its attributes: “The man was tall.” Nagarjuna focuses on precisely these distinctions, because they play an important role in causing what Buddhists call dukkha, or suffering.
One of the first things labeled, and the most existentially troublesome, is myself. When we are born, we are given a name, and as we grow up we learn to think of ourselves as things that “self-exist” like the other things that we learn how to name. In this way “I” gain a sense of permanent identity that persists through the various activities I do. But we also can’t help noticing that objects are impermanent. They originate and eventually disappear. This is bad news for my own identity, caught as it is in the tragic incompatibility between my sense of self as something unchanging and the awareness of the inevitable fate that awaits it.
As the life story of the Buddha reveals, the Buddhist path was inspired by this very problem, and it offers us a way to resolve it. Language is intimately involved in this transformation, because it is with language that the world is divided up and our sense of self constructed. Nagarjuna deconstructs our unexamined belief in the reifications of language by revealing the contradictions that plague it. Awakening involves realizing that linguistic categories (including the “I”) do not refer to real things but are empty constructs.
Given Western philosophy’s turn toward examining the role of language in shaping experience, can one find in it, as in Buddhism, an acknowledgment of the possibility of profound spiritual liberation? Well, not quite, but there are some intriguing similarities.
Click here to read Part 2. David looks at western thinkers, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Derrida and compare their views with Nagarjuna’s.