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  • Consenting to Contingency after Rorty and Nagarjuna*
  • Nancy Frankenberry

One must have a mind of winter, and behold nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is.

Wallace Stevens, “The Snow Man”

Anyone who tries to make the case that “contingency goes all the way down” very quickly discovers that by the time he has defined contingency, framed his adversaries, posited a thesis expressed as generally applicable, and thought through some argumentative moves, he is suspected of already doing metaphysics. My thesis that contingency goes all the way down (and all the way up the scale of nature, historically, biologically, and cosmologically) counts less as a metaphysical thesis itself than as a key element in my overall aim to read metaphysics through a social practices perspective. Whether one can maintain that contingency goes all the way down without embracing a properly metaphysical claim is a matter of some dispute among the authors whom I shall be discussing. Furthermore, whether and how one might avoid the self-referential problems involved in saying “contingency goes all the way down” presents a problem common both to neopragmatism in twenty-first-century America and to Madhyamika Buddhism in second-century Indian Buddhism.

To make my thesis more persuasive and vivid, I draw upon certain provocative parallels between the philosophies of Richard Rorty and Nagarjuna. In the first part of this address, I will discuss three aspects of their respective characterizations of contingency, dealing with their (1) antifoundationalism and the need to get over and beyond classic oppositions between realism and antirealism; (2) parallel ways of handling truth; and (3) susceptibility to a semantic interpretation of [End Page 563] assertions about emptiness/contingency in place of metaphysical doctrines.

In the second part, I examine two of the chief objections lodged against my view, articulated by Lisa Landoe Hedrick and Robert C. Neville.1 Rorty and Nagarjuna, at the intersections of their various works, replied to objections strikingly similar to Landoe Hedrick’s and Neville’s. By tracing those engagements, I can both defend my own thesis and illuminate the ways in which a twentieth-century American pragmatist and a second-century Buddhist philosopher of the Middle Way followed remarkably congruent paths.

The argument is best conducted by engaging less well-known texts by each philosopher. For Nagarjuna, I turn not to the celebrated Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way) but to his Vigrahavyāvartanī (The Dispeller of Disputes), which has to do almost entirely with Nagarjuna’s refutation of the charge of inconsistency; here he demonstrates how it is possible to have no view at the same time as one denies that things have an intrinsic nature, a denial that at first seems to implicate metaphysics as much as the assertion of an intrinsic nature would. In the case of Rorty, I am most interested in his fourth and last volume of collected papers, Philosophy as Cultural Politics; these prove richer sources for defending the arguments I want to highlight than his more popular 1989 book, Contingency, Irony, Solidarity.

The aim here, then, is to draw out and develop a defense of contingency all the way down from unsuspected, or at least underutilized, sources in Nagarjuna and Rorty. On my reading, their views and various recommendations are best understood as semantic rules rather than as metaphysical claims. Both Nagarjuna and Rorty, I will argue, were striving to get over and beyond metaphysical realism with its correspondence theory of truth and the idea that true beliefs are accurate representations of reality. Nagarjuna urged this for soteriological reasons, and Rorty for the sake of epistemological [End Page 564] repudiations, but they come out in the same place for my purposes. Embued with a sense of thoroughgoing contingency, both Rorty and Nagarjuna opposed essentialism in any form. Each consented to contingency without grasping for grounds of any sort—for which both received abundant scorn from other philosophers. Lionized by Harold Bloom as “the most interesting philosopher in the world,” Rorty was also satirized by John Stuhr as “the Milli Vanilli of liberalism, merely lip-synching the old Elvis refrain: ‘Don’t Be Cruel.’”2 Similarly, Nagarjuna, agile dialectician and proponent of...


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