Nagarjuna, Wittgenstein, and Expediency

wood s lot’s mention of Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna remind me of what an attractive postmodern figure he is. The madhyamika tradition, of which he’s the chief exponent, is basically nihilistic, taking pairs of theses and antitheses and invalidating both to show the inadequacy of rational argument, and of any discourse whatsoever. Its functional similarity to Derrida’s attack on dialectic arguments is much analyzed. (Thanks to Ray at Bellona Times for the link.) Wittgenstein, with all his talk of that which we cannot express, is another popular reference.

I’ve never been fully convinced by the Wittgenstein comparison as far as grasping reality goes, since Wittgenstein, for at least large portions of his life, seemed to be pretty big on free-floating externals. His main concern was an realm of inexpressible “things” that was off-limits from the world of logical and linguistic discourse. It’s a dichotomy that he never broke down.

But the Buddhist concept of “expedient doctrine” has Wittgenstein written all over it. Nagarjuna firmly came down on the side of expedient work (e.g., his own writing) that, while properly nonsensical if you applied its own principles to itself, still assisted one in coming to true understanding. And, well, if you skip to the end of the Tractatus:

My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them–as steps–to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

This is an old point (though the site seems to have more in common with Ramon Lull than with Wittgenstein or Buddhism), and even though Wittgenstein is emphatically not trashing rational discourse, the expedient doctrine concept is there. But it’s undercut by the finality and austerity of the Tractatus.

It’s in Wittgenstein’s later work that the expedient doctrine concept feels most present, as he grapples his way through version after version of slowly shifting ideas about the private experiences that seemingly can’t be used as referents in public language. In the rougher notebooks, sentences trail off, thought experiments are proposed with no implied results, and non-sequiturs pop up just when he appears to be getting somewhere. Far more than Nagarjuna’s declarative style, it reads like expedient doctrine, for him as much as me.

(For the dialectical version, please see Chris and Joe’s Philosophical Steakhouse. If you prefer your philosophers to fly rather than struggling to crawl, see Levinas’s World of Wonders.)