Friday, April 20, 2012

Nagarjuna, metaphysics and the limits of language

I have recently enjoyed working my way thorugh Jay Garfield's "The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way", which is an alaytical philosopher's translation ond interpretation of the principal work of one of  Buddhism's most influential philosphers, Nagarjuna.

One of the principal things I took from Nagarjuna in this work is the basic inadequacy of language to grasp the ultimate nature of reality, as nicely summarised by David Loy in  this  article:
"Our basic delusion is the taken-for-granted distinction between things and their activities. Deceived by language, we divide up the world into nouns and verbs, subjects and predicates. We understand the world as a collection of separate things, interacting in external space and time, arising and passing away. This delusion includes the way we think about ourselves, of course."
Nietzsche expressed similar points in Twilight of the Idols (and elsewhere). For instance:

"In its origin language belongs in the age of the most rudimentary form of psychology. We enter a realm of crude fetishism when we summon before consciousness the basic presuppositions of the metaphysics of language, in plain talk, the presuppositions of reason. Everywhere it sees a doer and doing; it believes in will as the cause; it believes in the ego, in the ego as being,in the ego as substance, and it projects this faith in the ego-substance upon all things- only thus does it create the concept thing... 'Reason' in language: oh what a deceitful old woman! I fear we are not getting rid of God because we still believe in grammar."

Thus, it seems that because a dichotomy between things and their activities is pre-programmed into the language we use (well, the english language at least), metaphysics has a limited capacity to get beyond the medium in which it is expressed and obtain a "bird's eye view" of what there is. The way in which words carve up the world has its utlility and survival value, but much of what they say is a function of language and not of the fundamental features of reality.

So what then is the point of metaphysical speculation?

Whilst, I agree that a presuppositionless position of ultimate certainty is indeed unobtainable (as of course the postmodernists have been telling us repeatedly for a long time now), I think there are still some modest and useful functions for metaphysics.

Firstly, whilst metaphysical discourse can never get beyond itself to accurately depict the reality that is beyond language, perhaps some metaphysical models are less distortionary than others.That is, some models get further beyond the implicit distortions of grammar. In this regard, the process oriented metaphysics seem closer to a reality which cannot be tied down to 'thinghood' than substance oriented metaphysics.

For instance, both the actual occasions of Whitehead and the quanta of Will to Power of Nietzsche attempt to capture a metaphysical view in which processes rather than things are paramount (though even in this regard, it is important to view the quanta of Will to Power or actual occasions as processes and not reify them into substances or things). Further, an event event ontology is also more in keeping with the findings of modern science than an ontology based on substance - see, for example, this clip from Godehard Bruntrup.

Second, I think metaphysical speculation can keep a a check on the metaphysics implicit in the prevailing weltanschaung. The predominant worldview or cognitive orientation in the West is of course that of materialism or physicalism, in which consciousness is imputed an epiphenomenal role, if it is imputed any existence at all. Exploring alternate metaphysics provides relief from the overwhelming influence of this outlook and allows one, in my view, to make sense of the world in a more relevant and life affirming way. This is not too different from Whitehead's depiction of speculative metaphysics not as an impossible search for absolute truth, but as "the endeavor to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted".

Thirdly, I believe there can be a soteriological or therapeutic function in metaphysical speculation, even if this is only to lead one to the realisation of the limits of language. In this respect, like the ladder of Wittgenstein which is kicked away, or the raft of the Buddha which is discarded after the river has been crossed, metaphysics, if its limitations are properly recognised,  may be an aid into intuiting the heart of reality.

As Garfield puts it in relation to Nagarjuna's work: "..nirvana is by definition the cessation of delusion and of grasping and, hence, of the reification of self and other and of confusing imputed phenomena for inherently real phenomena" (p330).  In this regard, metaphysics may be a aid in the  overcoming of delusion. Of course, the complete cessation of delusion goes way beyond a mere intellectual recognition of the fact, but perhaps an intellectual recognition can be a move in the right direction.

As an aside, this brings to mind an interesting book on Wittgenstein I read many years ago by Russel Nielli, which explores the spiritual and mystical motivation behind the Tractatus and how it was misinterpreted by logical positivists.  In discovering how the work had been aridly misconstrued he describes how he "broke out into uncontrollable laughter which was to reappear intermittently for a period of several months. (I still have trouble maintaining my composure when I consider the Tractatus in the light of how it was actually interpreted by the positivists").

So in summary, whilst metaphysical speculation has it limits and can only ever fulfill modest ambitions, I think it does have the potential to give some direction into realising the nature of what there is, whilst also providing some relief from the "metaphysics of everyday life".  I think a panexperientialist metaphysics is particularly well suited to these functions.
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