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Empty Words: Buddhist Philosophy and Cross-Cultural Interpretation (review)

From: Philosophy East and West
Volume 53, Number 1, January 2003
pp. 136-139 | 10.1353/pew.2003.0003

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Reviewed by
Empty Words: Buddhist Philosophy and Cross-Cultural Interpretation. By Jay L. Garfield. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Pp. xiv + 306.

Jay Garfield is already well known for his important translation of and commentary on Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (MMK), published under the title Fundamental Wisdom of the MiddleWay (Oxford University Press, 1995). In Empty Words: Buddhist Philosophy and Cross-Cultural Interpretation, Garfield provides us with his interpretations of Buddhist thought, many of which informed or arose out of his work on the MMK. Empty Words is a collection of fourteen essays, of which eleven have been previously published, two are newly published, and one, jointly authored with Graham Priest, appears in the present issue of this journal. The work is divided into three parts: part 1 is composed of five essays on Madhyamaka, part 2 contains four essays on Yogācāra, and part 3 has five essays on ethics and hermeneutics.

In part 1 Garfield presents interpretations of Madhyamaka thought based primarily on readings of Nāgārjuna's MMK. These interpretations may be approached in terms of the following interlocking themes: Madhyamaka as skepticism, causality as regularities, and emptiness as paradoxical. In the first essay, "Epochē and Śūnyatā," Garfield argues that the Prāsaṇgika-Madhyamaka tradition (namely, Nāgārjuna and Candrakīrti) is akin to the Western skepticism of Sextus, Hume, and Wittgenstein. But, Garfield adds, "these Buddhist skeptics, because of their cultural and philosophical contexts are a bit more explicit about certain features of the skeptical method than their European counterparts" (p. 5): they are more explicit in attempting to steer a course between the extremes of reificationism and nihilism. According to Garfield's reading, Buddhist skeptics seek to undermine the essentialist metaphysical presuppositions that reificationists affirm and nihilists deny, and in so doing to avoid falling into either position.

Garfield sees this skeptical method significantly deployed in Madhyamaka arguments against a view of causality as based on causal powers. While the reificationist argues that observed regularities in the world are explained through recourse to causal powers, the nihilist denies the existence of such causal powers, and hence denies the possibility of causal explanations. The Buddhist skeptic's response, in Garfield's view, is "rather than to understand regularity as vouchsafed by causation, to understand causal explanation as grounded in regularities" (p. 8); there are no occult causal powers, but only regularities, which "are explained by reference to further regularities" (p. 29). Hence, the Madhyamaka philosopher disavows the search for ontological foundations of the conventional.

It should be noted that Garfield's reading of the MMK's position on causality is not uncontroversial. Garfield posits that the text makes a distinction between causes (hetus) and conditions (pratyayas). According to Garfield, a cause is "an event or state that has in it a power. . . to bring about its effect," while a condition is "an [End Page 136] event, state, or process that can be appealed to in explaining another event, state, or process" (p. 27). Furthermore, Garfield posits that while Nāgārjuna argues against the existence of the former, he argues for the existence of the latter. There is not a consensus among interpreters of the MMK, however, that Nāgārjuna actually makes such a distinction between causes and conditions. According to many interpreters (in his commentary on the MMK, Garfield mentions Streng, Wood, and Tsong kha pa, for example), Nāgārjuna simply takes causes as one of the four subsets of conditions, and argues against the existence of all four sets of conditions. In any case, Garfield acknowledges the "somewhat tendentious nature of the reading" (p. 262 n. 6), and I do not believe that these considerations should detract from taking Garfield's interpretation seriously as a possible refinement of a Madhyamaka position.

Garfield's view is that the crucial verse for interpreting Madhyamaka thought occurs at MMK 24.18, which he translates as follows: "Whatever is dependently co-arisen, That is explained to be emptiness. That, being a dependent designation, Is itself the middle way" (p. 26). Garfield states that here emptiness is identified with dependent origination, and, as a dependent designation...