Smaller than some previous conferences, and including as appropriate a considerable Girardian component, GASC X in Nagoya was nevertheless in many respects the most GA-focused of all. Although a number of regulars unfortunately couldn’t make it, GA’s cadre of participants provided the dominant ideas of the meeting, and the cordial and respectful atmosphere created by Matthew Taylor and his co-director Kiyoshi Kawahara made me feel justified in intervening far more than in any past conference, leading after many of the presentations to dialogues within GA. My paper on Buddhist and Western paradox (the first part of which appears below) went over well, although I wish there had been more dialogue with Professor Musashi Tachikawa, the author of the commentary on Mahayana philosopher Nagarjuna that formed the basis for the Buddhist half of my talk (as well, in part, as that of Ian Dennis).

We were very happy to have with us two representatives of COV&R, Jeremiah Alberg of the International Christian University in Tokyo (the organizer of the joint GASC-COV&R conference in 2012) and Paul Dumouchel of the Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, both of whom were willing to dialogue with GA ideas. Although we might bring together more of the GA community at meetings in North America, my fears that we would be reduced to a “rump” group were not substantiated. This makes me less concerned about the prospect of an upcoming series of meetings abroad, from Stockholm in 2017 to perhaps Poland and Australia in the following years.

Thanks are due Matthew and Emi Taylor, Kiyoshi Kawahara, and to the staff of Kinjo Gakuin University for an excellent, smoothly run conference!

Nagarjuna and Zeno: Paradox East and West — Part I

Back in 2001, to commemorate the death of my uncle, which occurred just before the events of 9/11 put their stamp on the new millennium, I entitled my 242nd Chronicle of Love and Resentment, “We Are All Buddhists Now.” I was reacting to the distribution, at the memorial service for this Jewish man married to a Catholic, of a card containing a prose version of Max Ehrmann’s famous non-denominational poem “Desiderata,” the word “Peace”—and a Buddhist symbol that I now recognize as a Mandala. It seemed that he and his family saw Buddhism as the one religion that, as is commonly the case in Asia, could be shared by adherents of all faiths—or of none.

Needless to say, neither this nor the few books I have read since qualify me to spout words of wisdom about Buddhism. My presumption in choosing a subject about which my knowledge is so limited has two excuses. The first is that it seemed to me that this second visit of our summer conference to Japan offered a propitious occasion for attempting, however tentatively, to extend Generative Anthropology’s (GA’s) reflection to the major ecumenical religion of the Far East, one that both offers the most evident parallel with Christianity in the West and that has for a century or more attracted the sympathetic interest of many Westerners—including my late uncle. And the second, given that I will turn 75 very shortly, is that I have reached an age at which I can hope for a degree of indulgence concerning the depth of knowledge that I am expected to acquire before expressing myself on a given subject. At that age, given that one’s remaining time on earth is limited, one hopes to be credited with a certain accumulated “wisdom” that makes up for a somewhat less thorough study of new materials. Thus I hope you will indulge me in these remarks, which are focused, as regards their Buddhist content, on texts from the Mahayana philosopher Nagarjuna’s magnum opus, the Madhyamakakarika or Middle Stanzas, as presented and analyzed in Professor Musashi Tachikawa’s fine An Introduction to the Philosophy of Nagarjuna (1997 [1986]).

Before turning to our paradoxical philosophers, let me make a few basic points about GA’s conception of language, both in itself and as it relates to religion. Human language, the use of what C. S. Pierce called “symbolic,” and Saussure, “arbitrary” signs to communicate about the referential world, is clearly the key differentiating factor between humans and all other species. One point that has always seemed obvious to me—yet that so many generations have passed by without recognizing—is that all the insights about the human mind that have been formulated from the time of the pre-Socratics through the development of true metaphysics with Parmenides and Plato, then in modern philosophy beginning with Descartes, and finally in phenomenology and Existenzphilosophie, where the individual consciousness experiencing “the world” becomes a source of knowledge that can only be verified through shared introspection—all these modes of philosophy are wholly dependent on language. A moment’s reflection on this near-tautology makes one wonder why the subject of language in itself is never dealt with to any extent in the works in question. Not long ago I was obliged to read through the 900 pages of Sartre’s L’être et le néant, a work for the subtlety of whose analyses I have always had great admiration. Sartre gives, far more precisely than Heidegger, a description of what I would call the human scene of representation on which each of us constructs his version of the world. Sartre’s unique attribution of freedom to humans on the basis of this scene is an admirably concise way of describing the specific difference of humanity. But Sartre’s only discussion of language as a topic appears in a chapter entitled, “La première attitude envers autrui: l’amour, le langage, le masochisme” [The first/primary attitude toward the Other: Love, Language, Masochism]—where the low status of “language,” a means of communication sandwiched between two disparate forms of emotional relationship, speaks for itself. In contrast with GA, for which the scene of human consciousness, which I call the scene of representation, is the private yet shared locus of language by means of which we communicate with others, for Sartre, for Husserl and phenomenology, and already for the Descartes of the cogito, our consciousness provides an introspective vision of our own mind based on the intuitions we acquire from thinking and thinking about thinking, but with language as the instrument of thinking simply taken for granted. Not that anyone ever dares to say this explicitly; but it is implicit in all philosophy—and analytic language philosophy is not much of an improvement.

My point here is not to criticize philosophy but to point out that there is room for a more anthropological approach to language that nonetheless recognizes the subtleties of mind that philosophers have discovered over the centuries. The advantage of such an approach is that by thinking about language as our defining feature, we are obliged to do more than accept it as an “adaptation” somehow generated by erect stature, toolmaking, and other developments that enhanced the intelligence of our ancestral species. We become obliged to find a minimal reason why, at some point in time, language became necessary.

Language is not a “trait”; it is a revolution. With the advent of language, which as neuroscientist Terrence Deacon makes clear did not emerge from any “instinctual” signal system but is seated in a different part of the brain, a whole new dimension of experience is created, one that, among other things, makes such things as philosophy conceivable. And the most plausible minimal cause of this development, as those familiar with GA well know, is the “Girardian” danger of mimetic violence. To put it in a nutshell, humans began to designate by means of a sign a common object of desire—say, a large edible animal discovered by a hunting/scavenging party—in order to avoid killing each other fighting over it.

All that is required to generate such a scenario is perfectly understandable in Girardian terms, although Girard himself never accepted this hypothesis. With the increase in mimetic intelligence that the above-mentioned evolutionary developments would provoke, the old pecking-order hierarchy of Alpha-Beta-Gamma males could no longer maintain order over the mimetically enhanced desires of the participants. The only way to reestablish order when all began to reach at once for the central object was for those reaching, recognizing the danger of conflict, to abort their gestures of appropriation, which gestures would thereby come to be understood by the members of the group not merely as signals of their (temporary) renunciation of the object, but as signs, representations of it, signifying it as something intensely desired and, precisely for that reason, “sacred,” and for the duration of the emission of the sign, inaccessible.

GA’s originary hypothesis posits the common origin of language and religion as two modes of contemplation/designation/worship of a central object so “numinous” that it cannot be possessed. The scene of these gestures of designation is the uniquely human locus of a uniquely human mode of communication. All animals perceive the world, but only humans perceive it on a scene. The scene of representation is what Sartre described as the pour-soi, the consciousness “for itself” that contemplates its object as at the center of a scene virtually shared—through a common language—with one’s fellows. This consciousness stands back from the scenic center, liberated from the instinctive power of the appetite that draws us to it by a layer of néant or nothingness that Sartre made a point of substituting for Heidegger’s Time (Zeit) in his book’s title because he saw it as the unique mark of humanity. Implicit in this definition is the simple fact that “nothingness” and negation in general are categories comprehensible only as features of language. I would add that Sartre’s notion of nothingness finds a clear parallel in the Buddhist notion of “emptiness,” and in the procedures by means of which the mind is detached from worldly content; indeed, in either case, these categories of vacancy are used to define, in what are in fact ethical terms, the essential freedom of the human relationship to the scene of representation.

One last point about GA’s hypothesis of language origin. The first linguistic sign, which we can associate with “pointing at” the object, is not a declarative sentence or proposition, but an ostensive. Although the ostensive is not normally considered a linguistic sentence-form, we all use ostensives, say in teaching words to a child ([pointing at a cat]: “Cat!”) or in bringing to general attention a significant dangerous or desirable object in our field of perception: “Fire!” The religious use of language always maintains contact with the ostensive because religion is nothing other than the repetition of the originary experience of the sacred—that of the danger of mimetic violence transcended through the sign. But needless to say, as language evolved, it found other uses, and in particular, that of describing “reality” in propositions by which a predicate is attributed to a subject, thereby providing information about the world. Philosophy, even after J. L. Austin pointed out that we can “do things with words,” had always taken the possibility of formulating declarative propositions as the operation of “thought” for granted without ever stopping to wonder how we might have acquired in the course of the evolutionary process this unique ability to “think” when the rest of the universe does not. Thus the question of language’s origin and originary function has been left to the social scientists, whose protocols are too empirically driven to be capable of furnishing a response.

With these preliminaries in mind, let us turn to the question of comparative paradox. Nagarjuna, the founder of the Madhyamaka or “Middle Way” school of Mahāyāna Buddhism, who lived around 200 AD, is perhaps the most highly respected of Buddhist thinkers after Gautama Buddha himself. In reading through Professor Tachikawa’s book, I was struck by Nagarjuna’s paradoxical deconstruction of dozens of philosophical and worldly propositions. This led me to compare these Buddhist paradoxes to those of Western thought, as exemplified by the paradoxes of Zeno, as a possible source of insight into the contrast between the Buddhist (“Eastern”) and the Hebrew-Greek-Christian (“Western”)—world-views.

Let me begin with what is in fact a deceptive similarity between a Buddhist and a Greek paradox. Nagarjuna wants to show the impossibility of “traversing” or motion, or more properly, the impossibility of describing motion. As summarized by Professor Tachikawa on pp. 53-58, Nagarjuna first defines a path to be traversed by someone; it is divided into X, the part already traversed, and X’, the part not yet traversed. Then he demonstrates that the point that is currently being traversed cannot exist, because all the points on the line are either in X or in X’. Or to quote Nagarjuna’s conclusion:

That which is being traversed, other than that which has been traversed and that which has not been traversed, is not being traversed. (54)

Nagarjuna’s western counterpart, Zeno of Elea, lived over half a millennium earlier, in the 5th century BC. Zeno’s works are all lost, but he appears in Plato’s Parmenides, and his nine paradoxes, including four paradoxes of motion, are preserved in Aristotle’s Physics. The best known of the latter is no doubt that of Achilles and the tortoise. Achilles is, say, 100 meters behind the tortoise, but he runs ten times as fast. Yet Zeno shows that he can never catch the tortoise. For by the time Achilles has made up the 100 meters, the tortoise has run 10 meters. But by the time Achilles runs the 10 meters, the tortoise has run another meter. And at the next point Achilles is still a decimeter behind. And so on.

I will return to Achilles, but another one of Zeno’s paradoxes is quite similar to Nagarjuna’s: the paradox of the arrow. This paradox is not described in terms of a divided path, but the basic idea of the denial of motion is the same: Wherever the arrow is in its flight, it wholly occupies its point in space. But then at that instant, it is motionless, and therefore there is no time in which it can move to another point. To quote Zeno in Diogenes Laertius, “What is in motion moves neither in the place it is in nor in one in which it is not.”

Nagarjuna’s traverser and Zeno’s arrow are like a photograph and its negative. For the first, the moving object has no place to be, since his path is wholly made up of where he has been and where he has not yet gone. For the second, the moving object is wholly in its present location, so that it cannot be described as being in flight. In both cases, motion is presented as impossible. Yet we can detect a difference of emphasis. For Nagarjuna, as the verses that follow the original statement of the paradox emphasize, what is important is less to deny motion as such than to deny the possibility of describing the subject of the sentence “a traverser traverses.” For Nagarjuna, this statement implies that the traverser who exists in the act of traversing must be “unconnected to the act of traversing” (58); in other words, that this is a synthetic rather than an analytic proposition that must convey new information about its subject. For while in the act of traversing, the subject is not yet a traverser, and having traversed, he is no longer a traverser, and therefore is never a traverser, which means that only a non-traverser can traverse, which is of course an absurdity.

Thus the point of Nagarjuna’s analysis, although superficially similar to Zeno’s, is very different. Although Zeno’s paradoxes are of course expressed in language, the focus of his concern is not language as such. Neither of the two I have mentioned nor any of the others focus as do Nagarjuna’s on the words used to describe the subject in question. What Zeno is showing us is that to describe Achilles catching the tortoise by enumerating each leg of the catch-up reveals the impossibility of describing a convergent infinite series as a sum of finite quantities. Seen in historical perspective, Zeno’s paradoxes are less denials of the reality of motion than appeals to find a new way of formulating it: in terms of infinitesimals. Achilles catches the tortoise because the sum of the infinite number of intervals between him and the tortoise is not itself infinite; an infinite geometric series with a ratio less than 1 has a finite sum: 100+10+1+.1… = 111 1/9. Similarly, the problem with Zeno’s arrow is not in its description as a “mover” or “non-mover,” but in the confusion of instantaneous velocity with displacement in a time-interval that approaches zero. The arrow moves through an infinity of points at each of which its position is fixed, but it remains in motion at each point. And quantum mechanics makes clear that the mathematical notion of a continuum is itself a simplification of physical reality; we understand models of the real, not the real “in itself.”

In contrast, Nagarjuna’s purpose is unrelated to the mathematical representation of reality. The proof of this is that the paradox of the traverser is accompanied by a vast series of similar dichotomies and four-part “tetralemmas” whose variants Prof. Tachikawa lists in detail. For example, a parallel with the traverser is the following:

The errors of one who has erred do not come into existence,
The errors of one who has not erred do not come into existence,
And the errors of one who is erring do not come into existence. (68)

Here the temporal states of having erred and having not (yet) erred are contrasted with that of the one who is erring, exactly as the space being traversed is contrasted with the space already traversed and the space yet to be traversed. Clearly what erring and traversing have in common is not motion but temporal, worldly action of any kind. In another family of paradoxes, what is denied is simply the possibility of interaction of different categories of being:

An existent is not born from itself
An existent is not born from another
An existent is not born from both itself and another. (71)

Such paradoxes clearly do not depend on the contrast between our ways of talking about motion and its rigorous mathematical expression; they put in doubt the possibility of making any objective assertion about reality.

[to be continued]