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. Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the first Western thinkers to emphasize the deceptive workings of language. In Human, All Too Human, published in 1878, he wrote: “Through words and concepts we are continually misled into imagining things as being simpler than they are, separate from one another, indivisible, each existing in and for itself. A philosophical mythology lies concealed in language that breaks out again every moment, however careful one may be otherwise.” Like Nagarjuna, Nietzsche realized what this implies about the self: “The ‘subject’ is not something given, it is something added and invented and projected behind what there is.” For Nietzsche, the human being is something “unfinished,” mired in self-delusion, unconscious drives, and moral resentment. But one can, by rising above these and giving creative expression to one’s character, experience the freedom of theÜbermensch (“overman” or “superman”) that we can become and should become.
The Austrian thinker Ludwig Wittgenstein, who became the most important figure in twentieth-century Anglo-American philosophy, critiqued ways of thinking that try to explain the world abstractly. By letting go of “nonsensical” metaphysical explanations–including the metaphysics built into our ordinary use of language–we might, he said, come to experience the world in a more deeply spiritual way and with a greater appreciation of its mystery.
Wittgenstein’s early philosophy was very different from his later approach. In the beginning, his work was more technical and concerned with delimiting what can–and cannot–be expressed in words. Like Nagarjuna, Wittgenstein used language to point out the limitations of language. “My propositions,” he writes in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), “are clarifying in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up on it.) He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.” What do we then see? The Tractatus concludes with reflections that are more mystical than logical. “If by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present. . . . Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is. . . . The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem.” Letting go of abstract ways of thinking, he is telling us, opens one up to appreciating the mystery of life in a fresh way.
In his later work, Wittgenstein’s style is more dialectical. It becomes difficult to distinguish his own view from the views he is criticizing, and the conflicting voices may actually cancel each other out–a technique Nagarjuna typically employed in his own writings. Instead of offering us any fixed philosophical position, Wittgenstein analyzes some of the various “language-games” we play, demonstrating that language does not simply represent an objective world. When we think that language merely expresses facts, and that every meaningful expression must be referring to some thing in the world, we become trapped in and by the concepts we use. It is necessary, he tells us, to “battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”
Like Nagarjuna and Nietzsche, Wittgenstein was especially concerned to challenge the dualism between subject and object. All three thinkers agree that the duality between a self “inside” and the world “outside” is a delusion. When we observe carefully how words like “I” actually function, we realize that the sense of a separate self is, as Wittgenstein put it, only “a shadow cast by grammar.” Wittgenstein described his philosophical therapy as trying to “show the fly how to get out of the fly bottle.” But beyond this and other similarly enigmatic statements, Wittgenstein, who was himself a deeply religious man, was not very clear about what kind of liberation his approach was meant to lead to and what sort of life this might entail.
Today the thinker most often compared to Nagarjuna is the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who died in 2004. Although his way of doing philosophy, known as deconstruction, became notorious for its difficulty, his basic approach also has remarkable similarities to Nagarjuna’s. Like Nagarjuna and Wittgenstein, Derrida is not interested in defending any philosophical position of his own but instead is concerned with showing the limits of language and the difficulties we fall into when we overstep them.
Derrida’s work builds on structuralism, which argues that words do not have meaning in and of themselves. The meaning of any linguistic expression always depends upon some other expression, and that “other expression” is also dependent on something else. Meaning is therefore relative and always in flux, part of a chain of reference that never comes to an end. Whatever we think we understand right here and now always presupposes something else that is not present.
A simple example is thinking that gets caught in antithetical concepts: success and failure, good and evil, and so forth. We distinguish between such opposing terms because we want one rather than the other, yet the meaning of each depends on the other. If it is important for me to live a pure life (however I understand purity), then I will also be preoccupied with impurity–that is, with avoiding it. We cannot feel that we are good unless we are fighting against some evil–ironically, often creating more evil in the process. In his close reading of texts, Derrida shows how philosophical claims usually involve excluding some meaning that returns in such ways to unsettle the intended meaning.
Derrida’s term to describe the relativity and “indeterminability” of meaning is différance, and the way différance functions in his philosophy can be compared to how Nagarjuna uses shunyata, or emptiness. Derrida emphasizes that différance does not refer to some specific thing. It is merely a conceptual tool useful for describing how conceptual meaning is never quite settled, but always “deferred.”
For Nagarjuna, shunyata is simply a shorthand way to express the interdependence of all things. Nothing has any “self-existence” or “self-presence” because everything–including all concepts–is dependent upon everything else. Shunyata is “the exhaustion of all theories and views.” Making it into a metaphysical theory is like grasping a snake by the wrong end–look out! Nagarjuna emphasizes that the meaning of shunyata itself is relative: having used it to let go of other concepts, we should let go of shunyata too.
Thanks to modern Western philosophers such as Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Derrida, are we in the West finally able to grasp the meaning of Nagarjuna’s philosophy? The question is ironic. What would it mean to “grasp” his meaning? The point of Nagarjuna’s approach is not to grasp something but to let go of delusive ways of thinking. The important question then becomes: do Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Derrida also help to liberate us from such problematic ways of thinking?
Since the West’s discovery of Buddhism over two centuries ago, our appreciation of Nagarjuna’s thought has been dependent on the development of Western philosophy itself, and clearly the linguistic revolution in contemporary Western thought enables us to appreciate better his critique of the delusions built into ordinary language. Yet perhaps so much talk of “the West”–implying as it does a sharp distinction from “the East”–is too dualistic, and also out of step with the realities of life on a shrinking planet in which ideas circulate wider and faster than ever before. Perhaps the distinction between Western and Asian philosophy is running its course. When it does, perhaps then we will realize that Nagarjuna belongs not only to Buddhist Asia; he belongs to us all.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.