On being inspired by irrational ideas

In keeping with Didion’s injunction to remain on nodding terms with the people we used to be, I’ve been reading old essays from my never-completed doctoral program. At times I can scarcely understand what I wrote, let alone the texts I was claiming to write about. I find it hard to believe that I comprehended half of what I pretended to. Now more than a decade removed from it, I wonder if there’s something about academia that encourages a kind of pretension, not only before colleagues, but before ourselves. I do recall even then, though, being frustrated by the ways in which people would casually drop names and texts as if they were really quite simple to understand if you were smart enough. I would often think to myself that the person speaking was either dishonest or desperate to appear clever, for I had read the same texts and would never claim the kind of mastery they did. And yet even in my own writing I see that same conceit creeping in at times, if in no other way than in how I’ll make hopelessly complex and vague statements (riddled with words no one truly knows the meaning to, not even their authors) appear self-evident.

Nevertheless, the ideas and questions of great thinkers can be beautifully, powerfully unsettling and inspiring, even with our feeblest attempts to understand. I remember taking a class in which we read the buddhist philosopher Nargarjuna. To say I could not make heads or tales of him would be an understatement. Were it not for the saintly patience of Prof. Malcom David Eckel I would have given up at the outset. Buddhist philosophy could not be further from my worldview, and every latent Aristotelian assumption within me resisted a system that appeared to be fundamentally illogical.

One of the main sticking points was the idea that things are fundamentally void, without an intrinsic nature. To a mind reared on the basic ideas of substance and accident this seemed impossible. To even discuss it was to become embroiled in self-contradiction at the outset. And yet Nargarjuna not only speculates what it would be like for things to be void, but asserts it as the only logical way to understand how things can exist and interact at all. Nargarjuna’s realist opponents used an argument we are familiar with today: if all things are void, then the statement that all things are void is itself void and asserts nothing. At this point I wrote:

However, the realist assumes the validity of such a move without either acknowledging it or justifying the logic behind it. His belief seems to be that only something with an intrinsic nature can enter into a causal relationship with other things. Nagarjuna simply makes the opposite claim by turning the realist’s argument back on himself. If one believes in an intrinsic nature, then cause and effect becomes impossible—all things would be permanent and unable to change. In fact, it is only because things are void that cause and effect is possible at all: “Those things which are dependently originated are not endowed with an intrinsic nature, for they have no intrinsic nature—Why?—Because they are dependent on causes and conditions.” Voidness means a denial of any static, substantial substratum behind objects of experience. Instead, Nagarjuna advocates the interconnection of all things by cause and effect. So that, in fact, it is not because of fire’s intrinsic nature that it can burn, but precisely because of it’s voidness, its dependent origination in relation to other, similarly void things, allowing it to act and be acted upon. “But things like a cart, a pot, a cloth, etc., though devoid of an intrinsic nature because of being dependently originated, are occupied with their respective functions, e.g., carrying wood, grass and earth, containing honey, water and milk, and protecting from cold, wind and heat. Similarly this statement of mine, though devoid of an intrinsic nature because of being dependently originated, is engaged in the task of establishing the being-devoid-of-an-intrinsic-nature of the things.”

From the realist’s perspective it is understandable why something without an intrinsic nature would be unable to participate in causal relationships, since the latter is predicated precisely on the former. To him voidness as a total description of reality is nonsensical. Yet for Nagarjuna this is a fundamental misunderstanding of voidness, because the realist is trying to define it from within his realistic preconceptions. Instead, voidness as dependent origination is the only way to explain the world we experience, and such a statement itself serves not to cause the voidness of things, but to direct one’s attention to that fact, since the statement itself is without an intrinsic nature. Nagarjuna uses the example of an artificial person (which the realist would concede is without substance) preventing another artificial person from doing something. Presumably Nagarjuna is suggesting that the realist cannot logically rule such a form of causation out, even thought it would never come up naturally in his system, as it is fundamentally incompatible with it.

What strikes me as brilliant is Nagarjuna’s attempt to define voidness in a way that is not obvious to one steeped in Western philosophy (Alfred North Whitehead notwithstanding). It is not simply an indescribable nihilo, but a way of describing the interconnectedness of things: dependent origination. To be void is to be connected, open to the influences of other things in the universe. All things arise in conjunction with everything else.

Of course I’m not sure I either believe or understand this. But I am deeply moved by it in a few ways.

  1. I need to find and reread the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā
  2. There’s a great danger in my realist assumptions, namely that I think things are what they are and can’t really change. Applied to life circumstances—and especially people—this tends to drive me to despair.
  3. It reminds that I need to fight against my tendency to close myself off from things. The idea of openness, connection and possibility is beautiful to me. Yet it does not come naturally. I need to be reminded of it constantly.

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