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  • Emptiness Appraised: A Critical Study of Nagarjuna's Philosophy
  • William Edelglass
Emptiness Appraised: A Critical Study of Nāgārjuna's Philosophy. By David F. Burton. Richmond: Curzon Press, 1999. Pp. xv + 233.

An oft-quoted Buddhist adage urges the practitioner to test Buddhist teachings with analytic reasoning. The teachings should not be accepted dogmatically, many Buddhist traditions emphasize, but tested as gold is analyzed to determine its true value. In his carefully argued book Emptiness Appraised: A Critical Study of Nāgārjuna's Philosophy, David Burton, who informs the reader that he is undertaking his study as a Buddhist seeking to understand the tradition to which he is committed, has sought to put Nāgārjuna's philosophy of emptiness (śūnyatā) to the test of critical reason. The result, according to Burton, is a resounding failure: Nāgārjuna's arguments, he claims, are generally fallacious, and their most significant conclusions philosophically untenable.

Burton describes his project as twofold: the "ascertainment" and "appraisal" of Nāgārjuna's philosophy of śūnyatā. By giving a thorough exposition of Nāgārjuna's understanding of śūnyatā Burton ambitiously hopes to resolve debates between the many competing interpretations of Nāgārjuna's thought. Although his arguments are based on close readings of the texts and occasionally draw on Indian and Tibetan sources, Burton is not primarily interested in philological questions or tracing the various commentarial traditions. The central concern of this text is philosophical, an inquiry into the epistemological and ontological consequences of Nāgārjuna's philosophical use of śūnyatā. In the first part of the book Burton addresses three questions: What is the status of Nāgārjuna's knowledge claims, and more specifically, is Nāgārjuna a skeptic? How is Nāgārjuna's claim that ultimate knowledge is nonconceptual to be understood? And, does Nāgārjuna's account of śūnyatā entail nihilism? The second part of the book is concerned with the motivation and philosophical success of Nāgārjuna's critiques of Nyāya epistemology.

Nāgārjuna famously claims to hold no view, and, further, that those who hold śūnyatā as a view are incurable. For this reason Matilal, Hayes, and numerous other scholars have characterized Nāgārjuna as a skeptic. What, then, Burton asks, is the status of Nāgārjuna's knowledge claims that all entities lack an essence, or own-nature (svabhāva)? To answer this question Burton gives an account of both Academic and Pyrrhonian Skepticism, and shows that Nāgārjuna is not a skeptic in either of these two classical senses. That is, Nāgārjuna does not argue that knowledge of things as they are is impossible, nor does he argue that there is no legitimate rational adjudication between views. Instead, Nāgārjuna claims that he does have knowledge of how things are, most prominently the knowledge that all entities lack svabhāva, and thus he cannot be considered a skeptic.

The knowledge claim that all entities lack svabhāva leads, according to Burton, to a paradox in Nāgārjuna's thought. For Nāgārjuna also claims that reality is ultimately nonconceptual and inexpressible. If reality is ultimately beyond concept and expression, how can Nāgārjuna conceive of and express the ultimate nature of [End Page 602] things as śūnyatā? Burton suggests two possible responses: either Nāgārjuna is equivocating in his use of the word "reality," or he is using language imprecisely and really does not intend to characterize the knowledge of ultimate reality as beyond concept or expression, but is instead describing the meditative experience of knowing that reality. Burton considers the latter interpretation to have been Nāgārjuna's position, but argues that both interpretations are philosophically and spiritually barren.

According to Burton, once Nāgārjuna has made the distinction between un-conceptualizable ultimate truth and conventional truth that can be conceptualized, it will be impossible to understand how the two levels of truth and reality can relate to each other. Moreover, according to Burton, there can be no śūnyatā of entities as objects for meditative knowledge because Nāgārjuna is...


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