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  • The Limitation of Language and an Ambiguous Way of Knowing:A Comparative Theological Study of Cyril of Alexandria and Nāgārjuna
  • Wanjoong Kim

George Lindbeck's postliberal approach has inspired many theologians to focus on the language use embedded in doctrines and understand the "nature of doctrines" as a regulatory system of prescribing our language use.1 Its advantage is apparent in focusing more on the second-order propositions while avoiding difficulties involved in making the first-order propositions.2 But this linguistic approach does not examine the nature of language with reference to its "order." In ordinary language use, reality is described according to binary order, such as the principle of noncontradiction. For example, if it is true to say that Socrates is a man, then it is false to say that Socrates is not a man. But many cases of religious language use surpass this order and become ambiguous by assuming a form of paradox, particularly in the face of mystery, as Gordon Kaufman has observed.3

This paper will analyze the nature of language to understand its semantic mechanism that makes such an ambiguous use of language possible when describing a given reality. The main argument in this paper will be drawn upon a comparative theological study that reinterprets Cyril of Alexandria's analogical use of language through Nāgārjuna's prajñāpāramitā understanding of dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda) of verbal conventions (prajñapti). Nāgārjuna's metaphysical elucidation of the claim in the Heart Sutra, "form is emptiness and emptiness is form," recognizes the limitation of language in signifying reality, claiming that words do not have self-referential senses sustaining binary or definite uses of language. At the same time, Nāgārjuna also clarifies the semantic mechanism that envisages contingent and ambiguous uses of language as transcending the binary order of words.

This comparative study will help us to understand how Cyril's conceptualization of linguistic limitation in signifying God results in a semantically ambiguous doctrinal paradigm which resembles Nāgārjuna's method of argumentation known as catuṣkoṭi and rests on a nonbinary use of words. Theological language laden with semantic ambiguity is then a fitting tool to talk about ineffable mystery. Consequently, our knowledge of God is meant to be ambiguous. [End Page 145]

ambiguity and the nature of language: a buddhist insight

The prajñāpāramitā, which translates as "perfection of wisdom" in English, is a tradition of literature in Mahāyāna Buddhism. The Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra are its most widely known texts. This tradition examines the process of knowledge construction, including the nature of language through a critical perspective known as "emptiness" (śūnyatā). The prajñāpāramitā distinguishes objective and subjective dimensions of human knowledge,4 which reminds us of Bertrand Russell's distinction of reality and appearance.5 Such an epistemological problem has apparently been attractive in both East and West. They are called in Buddhist terms the ultimate (paramārtha-satya) and conventional (saṃvṛti-satya) realities. Although such an epistemological division was not endemic to Buddhism in ancient Indian culture, it was adopted to refine the doctrine of impermanence as the source of suffering.

The ultimate reality refers to the way a thing exists as it is apart from our cognition. Thus, this indicates the thing's objective reality. Meanwhile, the latter is inseparable from our cognition. It refers to the way it comes to our consciousness. It is unavoidable that the source of our cognition—that is, objective reality—goes through artificial operations in our minds, which are called prajñapti in Buddhist terminology and translated as "representation." Conventional reality refers to this psychological operation, that is, the thing's subjectively constructed reality.6 And language is a great part of this subjective reality. Thus, in a sense conventional realities are fabricated realities, while the ultimate reality remains something before fabrication, that is, the real of realities. Thus, the prajñāpāramitā tradition recognizes that any knowledge of a thing is fabricated through language use, and its essence—as it is known to us—depends upon language. This is one of main tenets of the...


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