Saturday, March 7, 2015

Madhyamic Deconstructionism

I am not a specialist of Jacques Derrida’s (1930–2004) philosophy of “Deconstruction,” which is said to be based principally on his 1967 work Of Grammatology. I have tried to understand the quintessence of his philosophy but I failed because it turned out to be quite slippery and jelly-like. His critics, however, seem to make better sense to me. According to John Rogers Searle’s (b. 1932) critique of it (Wikipedia), “the consistent pattern of Derrida’s rhetoric is: (a) announce a preposterous thesis, e.g. “there is no outside-text” (il n’y a pas de hors-texte); (b) when challenged on (a) respond that you have been misunderstood and revise the claim in (a) such that it becomes a truism, e.g. il n’y a pas de hors-texte means nothing else: there is nothing outside contexts;” (c) when the reformulation from (b) is acknowledged then proceed as if the original formulation from (a) was accepted. The revised idea—for example—that everything exists in some context is a banality but a charade ensues as if the original claim—nothing exists outside of text [sic]—had been established. Searle wrote in The New York Review of Books that he was surprised by “the low level of philosophical argumentation, the deliberate obscurantism of the prose, the wildly exaggerated claims, and the constant striving to give the appearance of profundity by making claims that seem paradoxical, but under analysis often turn out to be silly or trivial.” Actually, the term “deconstructionism” would seem more suitable for characterizing the philosophical approach of the Madhyamaka school. That is, according to (I would assume all) schools or strands of Madhyamaka school, a phenomenon, entity or reality (“x”) seems existent only when viewed naively and non-analytically (ma brtags gcig pur nyams dga’ bar), but in actuality no entity or reality can withstand the Madhyamic analysis. There is no entity or reality that one cannot “deconstruct.” All phenomena, realities, or propositions are deconstructible. According to my understanding of the eleventh-century Tibetan philosopher Rong-zom-pa, there is no nothing that cannot be deconstructed by logical reasoning (rigs pas gzhig tu mi rung ba) and there is nothing that cannot be deconstructed by antidote (gnyen pos gzhig tu mi rung ba). According to dGe-lugs-pa exegetes, however, what is existent (e.g. kleśa) cannot be deconstructed by logical reasoning and one can only deconstruct what is non-existent (e.g. bden par grub pa). So actually dGe-lugs Mādhyamikas cannot be considered “deconstructionists”? In the Buddhist context, “deconstructionism” would include the approach of taking phenomena or realities apart by means of logical analysis (i.e. via theoretical examination) and also the aspect of actual or practical destruction of phenomena (i.e. through meditation or practical application just like destroying a clay pot with a hammer) and hence “deconstructionism” (in this context) would also include a kind of “destructionism.”


  1. Hi Dorji,

    “hmmm”, hard to digest (at least for me)…, I have not read Derrida´s book, so I don´t know if Searle understood really of what Derrida is talking…, but who knows? That´s the endless game of debating theories when not founded on recognized/established “definitions and rules“ (an endeavor which requires much of time, patience and cooperating work…).

    Naturally, the danger in advocating “contextualism“, “perspectivism“, “relativism”, etc. is to take the methodical approaches of communication “too literally“.
    In Buddhist context (“ahhh“, again this wheeling word but how to speak/“theorize“ otherwise?…) we would argue about what should be taken as nītārtha (definitive meaning) and what as neyārtha (interpretative meaning) whereby here we already have extensive discussions about the “accurate interpretation (or understandings?)” of sayings; allow me simply to offer some tentative reflections (afflicted with habitual conceptual infirmity…) about madhyamaka divided in 6 parts.

    What could we radically insinuate: Should madhyamaka-criticism then be adopted as the “punchy intellectual erasure of cognitive clinging“ (the “demonic obsession“)? I think that could work, unfortunately with such an adopted self-sufficient victory-attitude the sliding into systematical skepticism will become the seductive safety device in adopting the famously contested “cynical no-position“ where a kind of “non-engaging neutral-mentality“ will be taken to wiggle out from difficult decisions (of which Nāgārjuna implicitly warns us).
    Or is an adherent of madhyamaka inferences (a Mādhyamika) simply a scholarly trained, smart “manipulator“ (a brilliant jumping jack or philosophical dodger) of conceptual constructions to refute others so-considered dogmatism? If so, that would be disastrous.

    Indeed, if we understand under “deconstructionism“ the critical (pedagogically helpful) observation or assessment of viewing (statements about) reality (“x“) naively (includes even subtle philosophical positions) and non-analytically (the innate, ordinary cognitive operation), then the soteriologically destroying madhyamaka-function will apply – it should lead to “salutary quietism/non-conceptual cognition“, hence the definite (philosophical) acceptance of non-expressibility (of “x“). But again what should this practically mean? According Buddhist recognized authorities a great deal if one would only be ready for that! – And precisely that is the whole stroke of genius (āśrayaparivṛtti)!

  2. 2)
    The “problem“ (please read carefully, perhaps I misunderstood…) with “madhyamaka-analyses“ is (ok, I´m sure, with the following remarks I skate on thin ice) that we risk to take it “too serious“ or as the “invincible“ statement about reality (“x“) . We read, “all phenomena, realities, or propositions are deconstructible“ – I would say that´s a very sensible claiming (contingent on the accepted definitions of these terms). Fundamentally, I think, we all (as interested explorer of madhyamaka-thought) know that madhyamaka reasoning is not destined to subvert reality but our (innate) “imaginations“ about it (the “x“). Madhyamaka argumentations [the use of the typical 5 great madhyamaka proofs (a kind of philosophically reasonable chargebacks)] are envisaged as a skillful pedagogical strategy “contrived/developed“ for to gain access (the conceptual preparation within conceptualization) to the so ardently searched śūnyatā-direct-perception. If we take those lines of argumentation (the typical 5 great madhyamaka proofs/rectifications) as “literally understood analyses“ (“taken at face value“) concerning the empirical properties of living conditions within reality we are simply going too far. I believe that we should be careful not to miss the point here. The madhyamaka-strategy developed out of the pedagogically felt necessity to divide reality-as-such (reality is reality – even that sounds so “trivial“) into the two truths for becoming able to talk/teach about reality and finally to arrive at “adequate“ reality-acceptance. We intuitively know (or conceptually are convinced), the “x“ of reality is impenetrable (transcendent) yet present (immanent) [I think on Dharmakirti´s “svalakṣaṇa“; a comparison with Kant´s “Noumenon” doesn´t seem unreasonable to me, even there may be critical observers concerning such tentative “collatings” with occidental philosophy] – we can presumptuously say about it whatever we want, it will (in the last instance) be inadequate [only in “contextual“ (sorry, again this elusive word) interpretation (intent-meaning) can we speak about it and create “our theories”. But should that lead to philosophically escaping or slipping “contextualism“, “perspectivism“ or even further to “relativism“? Depends on how we practically and salutary can use the madhyamaka-thinking/training.

  3. 3)
    “What in actuality cannot withstand madhyamaka analyses“ is not reality but our imaginations/projections about it. Madhyamaka reclamations don´t have ontic impact (on the primordial being in the “Heideggerian sense”) but ontological and epistemological! The famously madhyamaka-attacked notion of “svabhāva“ [own-essence, own-nature, inherent nature, intrinsic nature, …, (what could be the “definitely accepted translation”?)] will be seen and interpreted differently through ontological and cognitive approach [I think here on the Dharmadharmatāvibhāga, ontological difference between dharma (being/Seiendes) and dharmata (beingness/Sein)].
    Existence is (needs to be ?!) acknowledged as existence – therefore we cannot deconstruct existence (owing to our unescapable withinness/interiorness/liability – provided
    that we accept the term existence as the foundational expression of vital energy/liveliness (like Kirkegaard or Heidegger). Probably in the respective (ineluctably) subjective interpretation of existence lies the “twist“.*
    *[I mean, there are so many (more or less subtle) interpretations as there will be uncountable thinkers who assiduously begin to think “systematically” about existence. Never will there be two highly ripened philosophers in total, mutual accordance – that´s impossible. But such an unfindable ideally, theoretical consensus shouldn´t mean practical incompatibility. “The preservation of evidence” will always be how far the philosophers´ strength of compassionate-reasonable character can infiltrate ordinary as well as complicated life situations and how far his/her developed system can have a corresponding impact on society – effective implementation of compassion/altruism/friendship(kalyāṇamitra) in society!]

    If we see/interpret existence through the lens of our (fixing) imaginations or (conceived) conceptualizations (it doesn´t matter if through “naive“, ordinary spontaneity or through sophisticated theoretical elaborations) there is (as you observed through the eyes of Rongzom) nothing that cannot be deconstructed by logical reasoning (rigs pas gzhig tu mi rung ba) and there is nothing that cannot be deconstructed by antidote (gnyen pos gzhig tu mi rung ba). Maybe the difference (I don´t know if there is one?) between Rongzom and Tsongkhapa lies in their focus of methodical explanation. Each awared/awakened perspective has its didactical advantage; perhaps Rongzom´s explanations focalize more on the aesthetical immediateness of engaged living?...; would be certainly fantastic if those two keen philosophers would have been able to engage in a constructive debate about existence! I´m sure we would learn much more…).

  4. 4)
    The point thereby is (again with all due caution that I understand to some extent Tsongkhapa´s dGe-lugs-standpoint/objective) to “identify correctly“ the “object of refutation/criticism“ [an object which never “existed“ as we think/believe it should “exist“ because it´s the conceptual overlap of imputational conditioning, hence, in a certain sense, “unavoidable“ cognition; this “unavoidable” is nonexistent even or precisely because its hypothetical presence is continually haunting us – we must gradually develop personal conviction about this. That´s the definite point!]. Tsongkhapa didn´t criticize “x“ as such but what we put inside (or on, a kind of “cognitive pasting“) this “x“ [namely a logically impossible reification about “x“ – and precisely this logical impossibility represents “non-existence“, the “fata morgana“ which never has existed; so Tsongkhapa didn´t “destroy“ existence(-as-such) but “non-existence“, and thereby, in the train of this logical reasoning, the “catuṣkoṭi-style-interrogation (tetralemma-reasoning-technique)“ of our speculative obsession concerning existence, non-existence, both and neither, the “cognitive mania“, becomes implicitly resolved (I think, based on this consideration, we could perhaps make sense about Buddha´s attitude of referential silence because there were never such a spectre or ghostly figure). Hence we notice, again the term “existence“ haunts us!
    How does such and such a philosopher integrate this flowering term “existence“ in his/her system of philosophical elaboration? I´m convinced that´s an endless subjective striving [most probably a genuine philosophers reificatory mental habits (his/her developing system) cause much more spiritual plagues than ordinary people – but if courageously followed until the liberating endpoint it could be very rewarding…]. Admittedly, it appears to be “true” that this correct determination of the object of refutation cannot be placed immediately before one´s philosophical eye, it requires conceptual training (just often repeating madhyamaka reasoning) to inflame the introductory, spontaneous understanding (where it makes the “fulminating click”).

  5. 5)
    So, the controversial issue about madhyamaka-completion, I feel it´s the prematurity of reflection itself if applied recklessly/ruthlessly. Precisely, owing to the analytical smart madhyamaka-observations, we shouldn´t become “too big-headed“ in seeing the process of cognitive reification as something absolutely condemnable, as the “tricky affair of cognitive fraud“ or the “damned ontological intrigue“. What I mean is that the accurateness of reality-cognition (“innocent purity“) shouldn´t be twisted in an illusory, deceptive world view, where the pedagogically (!) created notion of “appearance“ receives an instrumental character to “devaluate reality“ (the danger to fall in nihilism, illusionism, etc.) through, for example, so-called wise, self-convinced statements like:
    “Oh you incorrigible fool, don´t you see that all your childish engagements in life are based on mental projections? Stop it!“ –
    I´m astonished, “Hmmm, is it me who is crazy concerning “nirvikalpa-jñāna”? Did such a super-guy really understand of what he is preaching/talking? “It´s me who has nothing understood at all”? Am I totally wrong?”
    Sadly, sometimes I have got the impression (but again perhaps that´s only my own folly imagination about others opinions…) that even “advanced philosophically trained thinkers“ overstate the rationality of “philosophical (madhyamaka-) seeing“ and thereby undermine the “necessary triviality“ of being (or even worse, privately mock essential ordinariness in “simply playing the cognitive game through disguising self-supposed, sovereign seeing…“). But quite the contrary should be, namely, the more one “sees reality“ the more one will/should “appreciate“ the banality of innocent cognition (pṛthagjana) and thereby the inclination towards the devotional reality-attitude manifests naturally (and again this straightforwardness should not be confounded with “unintelligent sentimentalism“ or “simple-minded greenness” – it goes much further…).

    If there were no pṛthagjana (ordinary, naive)-cognition with all the ensuing (from time to time philosophically derided) trivialities the philosopher would never become able to arrive at śūnyatā-direct-perception! It seems to me that the philosophical overeagerness in the use of madhyamaka-method (if not skillfully applied) becomes deadlocked [the “bhūtakoṭi-trap“ (the reality-limit) of meditative concentration?] owing to conceptual or non-conceptual overvoltage about “existence“. I think, here if not before, it becomes obvious and relevant in which direction the “seeker“ turns [“heretic”-, Śrāvaka,- Pratyeka,- or bodhisattva-lineage/orientation]. We should not forget or sweep away that it´s only thanks to others unawareness others become aware! Cognition can only be the “interdependent performance of awareness and unawareness [a field of existential engagement (buddhakṣetra)]“. Hence the (so eagerly searched) “seeing of reality“ implies consequences to deal with ( = the cognitive ability to cope with “seeing existence“)! That´s the “true bodhicitta-drive“!

  6. 6)
    In brief (from my modest perhaps still unknowing perspective), I think the 5 techniques of madhyamaka-reasoning operate primordially on the spatial sphere of logical analyses (hence within ordinary explicit thought-linking operations, which we all naturally use – and sadly enough, the “wannebe-Mādhyamika” prematurely misuse!). Now, if we simultaneously become increasingly able to recognize and apply the temporally implicit thought-infiltration (the already-potentially-present time-point interval) within the thought-linking operations itself (the philosophically underlying “innate bodhicitta” within the train of thought) we will gradually comprehend the meaning (semantic content) of these (madhyamaka-) analyses and penetrate (initially through conceptual understanding) śūnyatā-direct-perception. This means that phenomena (“in context” of the two truths-strategies) are not eliminated or refuted as non-existent but clearly/luminously seen as existent (!) [in this sense I would propose we must learn to examine more thoroughly the Dignaga/Dharmakirti explicative propositions about language and existence in comparison with the (probably underrated) philosophical Sarvastivada/Vaibhasika viewpont – that´s one of the reasons why I suspect that we still need more Vaibhasika resources and researches to offer better explanations].

    Of course, madhyamaka demonstrations are preliminary investigations to orientate/direct (conceptually) towards śūnyatā-direct-perception. So, I think the designation “deconstructionism“ could work if and when an ārya (having śūnyatā-direct-perception) speaks/teaches to a pṛthagjana [a “total, complete, fully, uncritical, promptly, unhesitating, altogether,…, (innocent, hence pure) believer/follower in/of cognition“]. But it´s quite another matter when two ārya constructively begin to debate…; in this respect we should distinguish philosophical argumentation/holding/bearing (grub mtha` / siddhānta) from experiential realization (theg pa / yāna). Further, I trust that exceptionally trained tibetan philosophers elaborating in an awared “grub mtha`“ (philosophical tenets, doxography) kind of analytical focus about reality have “perfectly understood“ this point (the synthetico-philosophical dynamic awareness). Probably each such well-advanced author has his/her own exceptional, well-thought-out philosophical description owing to his/her personal talent, ability of thought application, lineage-training and the precise use of language.
    We must/should learn to interpret these “views“ or "tenets" within an holistic thought procedure (we can learn much from others competent endeavors and philosophical standpoints (but as always this implies much work, patience, etc.). We should simply continue to identify and trust “the good ones”!
    All the best, sincerely, mikael.