Brief glossary of some basic concepts
Chögyam Trungpa (1940-1987), a modern philosopher of Tibetan Buddhism, popular in the West, wrote that Nagarjuna “much preferred to approach truth by taking the arguments of other philosophical schools on their own terms and logically reducing them ad absurdum, rather than himself offering any definitions of reality.” We have seen in the present essay that such claims to logic by Madhyamika philosophy are highly pretentious.
Of Shunyata, the same disciple of Nagarjuna has this to say: “we impose our preconceptions, our ideas, our version of things onto phenomena, instead of seeing things as they are. Once we are able to see through our veil of preconception, we realize that it is an unnecessary and confused way of attaching handles to experiences without considering whether the handles fit or not.” This view, that conceptualization imposes something artificial and distortive on direct perception, may seem superficially credible, but upon reflection it is based on confusions. There are two aspects involved.
The first aspect is psychological – the fact of distraction. It is evident during meditation that extraneous thoughts keep popping up against our will, like a sort of enervating background noise. The brain continuously offers the mind topics of conversation, spontaneously or by association. We may with effort ignore them, but eventually one may grab our attention and drag us through a long interlude of useless images and inner sounds, memories, anticipations, discourse and emotions. Such “thoughts” obstruct our attempts at concentration, although if we persevere in our meditation they dampen and eventually disappear. During ordinary observation or thinking, too, there is a similar interference of irrelevant reflections, which hinder cognitive efficiency and efficacy. But it does not follow that cognition is thereby incapacitated.
Another aspect of Trungpa’s statement is epistemological – the fact of fallibility. Human thought is admittedly not automatically and always correct in its observations, conceptualizations, categorizations and verbalizations, predications and generalizations, argumentations and other rational processes in pursuit of knowledge. However, it does not follow that thought is automatically and always wrong! Indeed, one could not make such a generalization without thereby denying one’s own skeptical claim; so one must admit some efficacy to rational cognition, including the ability to spot one’s own errors. What our study of Nagarjuna’s arguments has clearly shown is that his rejection of human reason is not based on any profound understanding of the processes involved in it. Rather, his personal failure to carefully observe and reflect on the actual genesis in human knowledge of the concepts he criticizes made them seem arbitrary to him. But although we all often err in our thinking, and few of us take time or have the intelligence to analyze its founding concepts, it does not follow that these concepts are invalid and useless, and that they can or should be abandoned.
Let us here very briefly recall what we said about some of these basic concepts in the present work. The reader can then see clearly that these concepts are not “preconceptions” that throw a “veil” over the percepts they are based on, but merely attempts to summarize information, so that more and more of it can be taken into consideration in any judgment, be it verbal or not. They are not “unnecessary and confused… handles”, applied without regard to whether they “fit or not”, but legitimate tools of knowledge, which like all tools have to be properly used to do their job. Human knowledge is not built on a purely deductive model or by arbitrary imposition, as Trungpa’s (and Nagarjuna’s) skeptical statements imply, but is an inductive development from experience.
· Motion, rest. The facts of motion (in the broad sense of change) and rest (constancy) are given in experience, found both within present phenomena and in the comparison and contrast between present and remembered phenomena. The concepts of motion and rest are developed in opposition to each other, with reference to such experiences.
· Entity, individual. Comparing and contrasting our memories of successive moments in the stream of phenomena appearing before us, we observe that some aspects seem different and some seem the same. From such experiences (assuming ‘memory’ and ‘time’) we infer the existence of ‘change’ and the existence of ‘substrata’ to change (or individual entities). The inference involved is adductive, i.e. hypothesis, logical prediction and continued confirmation in experience.
· Essence, kind. Comparing and contrasting two or more such entities, we observe that some seem to have certain characteristics in common and exclusively (statistical sine qua non). A characteristic apparently common to two or more phenomena (concretes) is called an abstraction, being a presumed unity (of measure) in plurality (of instances). When (or so long as) such an abstraction is found distinctive, it is called an essence (or essential characteristic) and it can be used for purposes of definition. Individuals with the same essence are said to belong to the same kind or class.
· Naming, verbalization. Phenomena are first referred to in discourse by pointing and saying ‘this’ (or ‘here’ or ‘now’ or the like) to include, and ‘but not that’ (or ‘there’ or ‘then’ or the like) to exclude. Entities and kinds, concepts derived from collections of similar and distinct phenomena, may be associated with (respectively proper or common) words for the purposes of memory and discourse. Verbalization need not be final, but may be adapted as required; i.e. what is included or excluded under a name is flexible, provided consistency is maintained.
· Nature. The nature (or identity) of some individual or kind is the sum of the (categorical or conditional) ‘laws’ exhibited by it, i.e. a generalization of the apparent regularities in its attributes and behaviors, subject to review and particularization if new appearances do not match the old. Attributes or behaviors which seem devoid of law in this sense are regarded as either personal events or happenstance.
· Predication. Predication may be particular or general, possible or necessary, categorical or conditional, inclusion or exclusion of one phenomenon or abstract appearance in some abstraction. This may mentally occur with or without words. In any case, predication is a tentative act, a proposition, subject to checks and balances suggested by inductive and deductive logic. It has no dogmatic finality, but is controlled with reference to experience and reason.
· Causation. This refers to certain regularities of relation between two or more phenomena or abstractions, say ‘A’ and ‘B’. The most typical is constant conjunction between A and B, but the term is also applicable to negative cases (not-A and not-B, A and not-B, not-A and B). There are also many degrees of causation, according to the number of factors involved. Causation is thus a statistical concept, intended to record and communicate certain observations. It is one of a larger constellation of causal concepts, including volition and influence, as well as spontaneity or chance.
· Self, soul. The Subject of consciousness and Agent of will, presumed to inhabit humans (and other entities, like higher animals or God). That this special core substance (spirit) is presumed (induced rather than deduced) does not necessarily mean that it is invented. To induce it we refer to phenomena experienced, conceptual considerations and possibly direct personal intuitions of self. Although no single item is definite proof of soul, a large number of indices may suggest its existence.