[Continued from Chronicle 515]

What does this comparison tell us about the two cultures that have created these paradoxical formulations?

Zeno’s paradoxes reflect his place in the history of pre-Socratic philosophy. Zeno was an “Eleatic,” meaning an inhabitant of Elea, an ancient Greek colony in Italy, but above all, a disciple of Parmenides, who may be considered the first rigorous philosopher, the founder of metaphysics. In Plato’s Parmenides, in which Zeno himself plays an important role, Socrates pays the older philosopher a degree of respect found nowhere else in the Dialogues. Parmenides founded his system of thought on the capital distinction between “the way of truth” and “the way of opinion.” That is, although he never speaks about language, he is nonetheless aware that philosophy as the search for truth requires a specific, rigorous use of language, to be distinguished from the language of “opinion,” things said without foundation—like the language of the Sophists who “make the worst cause appear the better,” or what the Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfort would much later call “BS,” propositions whose truth or falsity is subordinated to the aim of arousing a desired reaction in the hearer. The way of truth is essentially the way of logic and mathematics. Parmenides was unconcerned with the details of worldly reality, to speak of which requires empirical criteria of truth; the scientific revolution would take place in another era. On the contrary, he conceived of reality as transcending the changing world of our senses. Being was immobile and finite, and he imagined it literally as a solid sphere. In the Parmenides, Zeno expounds not his paradoxes of motion but a paradoxical argument denying the existence of a plurality of things.

It was in this context of immobile, immutable, singular Being that Zeno conceived motion as paradoxical, and attempted by the reductio ad absurdum of paradox to show that what we see and speak of as motion cannot in fact be understood as such. If Achilles can never catch the tortoise, if the arrow cannot move, then what we perceive as movement is a false appearance, an illusion of change in a world of permanence.

What is of primary significance in distinguishing Zeno’s discourse from that of Nagarjuna is that Zeno’s world, inherited from Parmenides, is anything but illusory; on the contrary, it is the timeless foundation of “truth.” If anything, it is too perfect. Parmenides does not make the distinction between analytic and synthetic truths that is at the root of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. For the Eleatics, reality itself was “analytic,” and the empirical is illusory to the extent that things appear to change and do not reveal on their face their timeless essence. Parmenides’ faith in an eternal, totally stable Being is the a priori basis for all the “truths” that can be enunciated in “the way of truth,” and the far-off guarantee of the propositional world of analytic philosophy, as given its final consecration in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus logico-philosophicus. This last word of Western metaphysics as guaranteeing a totality of true propositions or facts stands in diametrical contrast to the Buddhist affirmation of the emptiness of the empirical world and the illusoriness not merely of our experience of change but of all worldly experience.

The Western world is a world of propositions, of declarative sentences. Science and Faith points out that this applies as well to the Hebrew half of the foundation of Western civilization. The most important sentence in the Hebrew Bible is the one in Exodus 3:14 where God “names” himself to Moses as ehyeh asher ehyeh, I am what/who/that I am. The foundational being of Western civilization, the Judeo-Christian One God, gives his name as a declarative sentence.

Let us return to our traverser, who appears to be Nagarjuna’s favorite personage. We saw the traverser as the seeming equivalent of Zeno’s arrow, whose position could not be located in either half of his dichotomized path. But as if to show that the similarity to Zeno is fortuitous, Nagarjuna explains the traverser’s paradoxical (non-) status in a later passage without reference to his occupying a point in space, merely by the nature of the words themselves as they apply to a real-world situation.

A traverser does not traverse, nor does a non-traverser traverse
What third person other than a traverser and a non-traverser traverses? (58)

This argument is obviously independent of the nature of the action that defines the subject as a “traverser”: it would just as well apply to, say, a reader. Why does a traverser not traverse, or a reader not read? This apparently frivolous contradiction in fact exposes the fundamental paradox of language. It demonstrates that the “Eastern wisdom” of Buddhist thought is in fact closer to comprehending GA’s originary hypothesis of the origin of language than the West’s confidence in the declarative sentence.

In a universe of logical entities such as we are used to in the domain of science, there is no problem deciding on the truth value of a sentence like the traverser traverses. But by complicating the situation just a bit we encounter the essence of Nagarjuna’s paradox in a more problematic form in the famous paradox of the Barber, which Bertrand Russell placed at the threshold of analytic philosophy.

The Barber lives in a village where all men must be clean-shaven every day. Some shave themselves, and some do not, and the barber shaves every man who does not shave himself. But then, what about the barber himself? If he shaves himself, then he belongs to the group the barber does not shave, and vice versa.

The “solution” to the paradox is that does not shave himself is not a permanent quality. Every morning, the barber looks around and shaves all those who are still unshaven. He looks at himself and, if unshaven, he shaves himself. If he then looks again, he is already shaved, so he doesn’t shave himself a second time. The paradox arises from essentializing the status of (not) self-shaving. As with Zeno’s descriptions of motion, the world has to be talked about in the right way.

Why is the Barber like Nagarjuna’s traverser? The “traverser does not traverse” plays on two ways of interpreting the term that reveal the same kind of hidden essentialization as the Barber paradox. If we call this person a traverser only on the evidence of his having already traversed, then someone in the process of doing this cannot yet be called a traverser; he is, so to speak, a candidate-traverser, one who still has a way to go to become a traverser. But once he has fully traversed and truly become a “traverser,” he is no longer in the act of traversing.

All this may appear frivolous wordplay, yet its lesson about language is essential, and as Professor Tachikawa shows, Nagarjuna repeats it with dozens of variants. We must take this very seriously. Zeno’s paradoxes are at best peripheral to the Western tradition; Russell’s are meant to clarify the limitations of analytic philosophy, not to declare it illusory. In contrast, the writings of Nagarjuna enjoy foundational status in the “major” Buddhist tradition; Mahayana means the great vehicle or the major way, the main road to Buddahood.

Although incomprehensible to Western metaphysics, in the originary terms of generative anthropology, Nagarjuna’s insistence on the paradoxical nature of even the most apparently obvious propositions is anything but arbitrary. If GA has had such difficulty attaining acceptance, it is surely because in the West, with its confidence in the declarative sentence and the science and technology that derive from it, a theory of language that denies the priority of Chomsky’s S = NP+VP is well nigh incomprehensible.

For GA the originary linguistic sign is an ostensive sign that designates or points to its object. In the scenario of the originary hypothesis, the participants, in aborting their gestures of appropriation toward the central desire-object, instead signify it, displaying for the first time the “joint shared attention” unique to humans. Each begins by simply gesturing, but eventually they all notice that they are in effect communicating to each other that the source of food that is the object of their common desire cannot for the moment be touched, only signified, and is therefore sacred.

Now if we agree that this originary sign is the ancestor of all human language, then it is in effect a word like any other, and as such, it exemplifies in its pristine form the paradoxical state of Nagarjuna’s traverser or the Barber’s self-shaver. For in designating the central object, one is not simply “pointing,” but investing the referent of this pointing with meaning. The originary signifying act is not the equivalent of simply pointing at a cat; it is like saying “cat.” In effect, it is like saying “sacred,” since it designates its object as the single meaningful thing in the universe, the one thing that everyone should focus his attention on and not attempt to appropriate as an object of consumption. For this reason I have called the first sign the “name-of-God.”

It seems clear from the situation that it is the signing gesture itself that confers this signification on its object. Before the group of hunters began pointing at it, the animal was just part of the “instinctual” landscape, a source of food, but not of meaning. Thus it is the sign that creates its meaning. But on the other hand, the group wouldn’t be pointing at just anything; their gesture confirms the significance of what was already the object of a desire so intense that it could only be “addressed” in this way, not simply divided up according to the pecking-order system that had worked in the past.

If we put this in religious terms, we have a paradoxical indecision between man who creates God and God who creates man. Was, as believers claim, significance/the sacred there all along waiting for man to be allowed to discover it, or was it the creation of a naturally evolved creature that invented a new means of understanding the world through signs?

I have no desire to present myself as even a zero-level Bodhisattva possessing the lowest degree of Buddhist knowledge. But I think this analysis offers both to Westerners and those versed in the Buddhist tradition an insight into the difference between the two civilizations. Nagarjuna’s paradoxes are ways of demonstrating the “emptiness” of Samsara, the world of sensation and desire, in that it cannot support ultimate truth, true meaning. Propositional language is not capable of grasping meaning in this sense because the world of signs cannot find a firm support in temporal reality. The sign is always either too early or too late to demonstrate its own truth. Saying something is never simultaneous with the state of affairs it describes; it always adds, as Derrida would say, a “supplement.”

But when we reach ultimate enlightenment, then our sign indeed designates something true. The Buddhist’s faith in this sense, in contrast with either the philosopher’s faith in declarative sentences or the Judeo-Christian believer’s faith in God, is truly minimal. Whereas in the West we insist on the object of consciousness (Husserl’s “consciousness is always consciousness of something“), Buddhism understands that the scene of representation itself, although it can only come into being occupied by a sacred object, does not need such an object to maintain itself. On the contrary, it is as an empty scene that it reveals itself in its minimal essence. Buddha-like understanding of the sacred is the enlightenment that empties, whether it be through paradoxical thought or meditation or the repetition of a mantra or by some other means, the phenomenal world of words and their meaning, leaving only the universal faith in shared meaning itself that connects all humanity.

What the West gains by its faith in the object, that is, the ability to control the material world, which ultimately reflects its “Girardian” wisdom that the world cannot be conceived without recalling its origin in desire and its potential violence, it loses by its inability, as history appears to be in the process of demonstrating, to purge its violence on the example of Christ’s sacrifice. Today’s Western world of Christian love is full of people proclaiming themselves victims and denouncing others as their sacrificers; we have gone from “Love thine enemy” to “Hate the haters.” Perhaps by printing a Mandala on his card, my uncle—who fought in the Pacific in WWII—was trying to tell us that it is rather the Buddhist solution of putting our object-desire away from us to let everyone share the universal human scene that offers humanity its one remaining chance of salvation.