Pyrrho vs. Nagārjuna?

Matthias Mauderer wrote to ask about an interpretation of Buddhist thought:
Maybe you are familiar with Adrian Kuzminski’s work titled Pyrrhonism: How the ancient Greeks reinvented Buddhism (Lexington Books, 2008).
Kuzminski writes:
“Far from seeing self-contradiction as a defining mark of incoherence and nonsense, or as some kind of mysterious referent, Pyrrhonism and the Madhyamaka use contradictions of this sort as performative acts that, by their very absurdity, occasion a logic defying liberation which cannot be characterized in any other way. The infinite regress of spiraling suspensions of belief into suspensions of suspensions of belief, and so on, may or may not be how things “really” are, may or may not be relevant, may or may not matter in any ultimate sense. Until and unless we are persuaded by some belief or other we remain free of belief or attachment; we simply notice that “things” appear this way or that way, and we go about our business, without having to worry about what it all “really” means.” (page 64).
Here is my question:
If the infinite regress of spiraling suspensions of belief may or may not be how things really are, does this mean that the suspension of any judgement followed by regarding only what appears without the judging could be how reality is? A reality that does not have any definite characteristics? So by suspending judgement on appearances, by suspending to attest some definite characteristics to the things that appear, this may be or may not be how reality could be? Have I got that?
Concerning the relevance of the regress of spiraling suspensions of belief, for me it would be important to know how ‘relevance’ is defined here and for whom in succession this definition would be relevant or not. For example the spiraling suspensions of belief is highly relevant for the Pyrrhonist for from these suspensions tranquility follows. For the realist it is not relevant, for he is searching for some definite characteristics of reality and not for a suspension of belief. So my question is what kind of relevance is meant here?
Thanks a lot in advance.
All the best, Matthias
I am hardly an expert on Pyrhonnism, and while I’ve browsed lightly through some sections of the work, I’ve only looked at the relevant section, and that a bit cursorily. That said here are some reflections:
1) although it is not the focus of your questions, a comment: as I understand Kuzminski’s thesis, it is that Pyrrho can be better understood by setting him in the context of Indic thought, than in the traditional one of later Skepticism; Kuzminski’s general argument in support of this thesis seems to be of two parts: similarity and historical contiguity. The first depends on how specifically or vaguely one describes the two positions, while the second is moderately speculative.
Beyond that, my question would be, So what? If Madhyamaka thought influenced Pyrrho, what difference does it make? Kuzminski seems to think it will help us to understand Pyrrho more accurately, which is apparently important for some community of discourse. There are, however, other consequences implicated by his presentation, such as those you have highlighted.
Even the philosophic point of understanding Pyrrho becomes retroflexively complicated, however, as it depends on the accuracy of Kusminski’s representation of Madhyamaka. The argument goes something like this:
1. We can better understand Pyrrho by seeing him in the proper context.
2. That context includes his time in India, where he was exposed to Madhyamaka.
3. Just like Pyrrho, Madhyamaka promotes a successive suspension of belief, “spiraling” toward the absence of any belief, which is then access to actual appearances, and a consequent tranquility.
In the third step, we can see how central Kuzminski’s representation of Madhyamaka is to the argument. If, as it appears, that representation is constructed—unconsciously no doubt—so as to maximize the rhetorical power of the argument to convince, then it is a petitio principii fallacy. I suggest this as a guidance for your own critical evaluation of Kuzminski’s argument, rather than as a final evaluation of his argument on my part.
From the quote you give, there is possibly a Perennialist presumption that both are different paths up the same mountain, but that they employ the same means (paradox) to a higher consciousness, one that is beyond thought, and which is not culturally conditioned. This presumption, if at work, would explain what I think is the error of attributing to Madhyamaka an “infinite regress of spiraling suspensions of belief or attachment.”
I don’t recall anything like that in the Mūlamadhyamikakārikās. Nor in any studies of Madhyamaka thought that are not already comparativist in orientation.
2) the “paradox interpretation”: interpreting Madhyamaka and the Perfection of Wisdom, and kōans, etc., as paradoxes designed to cause the rational mind to “lock up,” thereby allowing a direct perception of (higher) reality results from projecting neo-Platonic and neo-Romantic conceptions onto Buddhist thought. “Interpretation” in this case being more often an unreflective presumption based on apparent similarity. Not interpretation in the sense of explicit exegesis, but rather more an unconscious, or unintentional eisegesis.
And, at the same time, this interpretation is over-determined because there are elements in Buddhist thought that do seem to accord with this interpretation. And that leads to a selection of just those elements that do match up as representative, while those that don’t are marginalized in one way or another.
What appear to be paradoxes are found not only in the Perfection of Wisdom and Madhyamaka literature, but in some texts considered to be Yogācāra as well.
Historiographic aside: This discredits the oppositional relation that has been attributed to them, which I believe is (largely? mostly? in significant part?) the consequence of the Hegelian historiography of philosophy. It is (was?) not uncommon to write the history of (Western) philosophy in the form of thesis, antithesis, synthesis. A position is presented (thesis) which is determined to be in some way inadequate (antithesis), leading to a new formulation (synthesis). This dialectic is of course ongoing, moving Philosophy (capitalized) forward toward greater perfection.
One instance is found in the Samdhinirmocana sutra (using Powers’ translation, Dharma Press, 1995; pp. 11–13). At one point a preacher in the sutra is asked what it means when it is said that all phenomena are non-dual. The preacher replies:
“Son of good lineage, with respect to all phenomena, ‘all phenomena’ are of just two kinds: compounded and uncompounded. The compounded is not compounded, nor is it uncompounded. The uncompounded is not uncompounded nor is it compounded.”
Asked what this might mean, he goes on to explain:
“Son of good lineage, ‘compounded’ is a term designated by the Teacher. This term designated by the Teacher is a conventional expression arisen from mental construction. Because a conventional expression arisen from mental construction is a conventional expression of various mental constructions, it is not established. Therefore, it is [said to be] not compounded.”
3) there is no contradiction, no spiraling of suspension of belief—however, the languaging can be confusing if one operates under the assumption that it is irrational (either valorized positively or negatively), that it is just an (Aristotelian) contradiction. In other words, if one interprets in contravention of the principle of charity as framed by Quine (see Wikipedia entry “Principle of charity” here).
The tendency to interpret this kind of talk in Buddhist thought as self-contradictory, i.e., irrational, is heir to two very strong interpretive modes in Western philosophic thought.
The first is an imperialist orientation informed by Enlightenment valuing of the rational. Under this orientation those who are not northern European males are inherently irrational and therefore inferior, and further, in need of proper management through colonization, including violent suppression of any resistance to the obvious superiority and self-proclaimed good intentions of the colonizers. (On the lingering effects of such colonization, consider the Democratic Republic of Congo’s history as told in Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost.) These conceptions continue to play a very strong role in contemporary society, as is evident in the dehumanizing rhetoric of the current President of the United States.
The second tendency is the inverted valorization of irrationality by the Romantics, continued into the present by the neo-Romanticism of the 1960s and its entrenchment in contemporary understandings of religion as individual, emotional, and beyond reason. This assertion of the irrational, non-rational, a-rational as superior is very much what informs claims to spiritual superiority by those propagating a neo-Romantic version of Buddhism, or a generic spirituality.
What the quote from the Sandhinirmocana points to is that there is a shift of levels. The “contradiction interpretation” makes a category mistake of treating all usages of terms at the same level. The preacher of the sutra shifts the level from talking about the compounded and uncompounded, to talking about the concepts “compounded” and “uncompounded.” As concepts, the latter are themselves conventional constructs based on mental and verbal formulations. (I suspect this also explains the supposed “idealism” of Yogacara; this is, of course, my own understanding; for a complementary exposition see Reb Anderson’s Third Turning of the Wheel, Shambala 2012, here)
It is in other words a critique focused on the conventional, constructed, provisional, conditional nature of concepts. Not beliefs. One of the main ways of elucidating this status is by showing that concepts exist in relation to one another, and therefore are not “established” as independently existing. 
One category into which both Pyrrho and Madhyamaka might be grouped would be emphasizing their function as therapeutics. As for myself, I think that the practice of the abstention from judgements, as in various kinds of Buddhist contemplation, can be effective. However, the nature of the human mind is such that it integrates two dimensions, one that can be in a state of abstention of judgements and one that makes judgements. Again as I see it—it is not the goal to make abstaining from judgements a permanent state. As a practice, however, it is transformative, allowing us to see the relative, conditioned, etc., nature of our concepts and of our judgements.
As for your two sets of questions. It does seem to me that in your first paragraph–question you do have a correct understanding of Kuzminski’s claims.
Whether his claims are true or not, since I do not claim to any advanced mystical insight into the true nature of higher reality (note: this is intentional irony, I’m not claiming that there is such a thing, and I don’t have it), I can’t say. (that statement and aside involved a level shift of the kind described above; further note, this is I believe how authors who try to maintain that the Buddha taught the existence of an unknowable self [this is not me, this is not mine, this is not myself—drawing the conclusion that therefore myself must be something else {see for example Robert Wright’s chapter on nonself}] go wrong)


As for your second–paragraph question, I find his use of the term “relevant” confusing as well, and have no idea what he means.
Last historical note: there are two strains of Madhyamaka thought, Prasangika and Svatantrika. Quoting Richard Hayes (“Madhyamaka,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, here)
Because Bhāvaviveka had advocated for producing independent (svatantra) arguments for the view that all phenomena are empty of inherent natures, the Tibetan scholastics dubbed his subschool the Svātantrika school; because Candrakīrti criticized this approach and advocated for being content to show the unwelcome consequences (prasaṅga) of all possible positions on any given philosophical issue, his subschool was named by Tibetans the Prāsaṅgika school of Madhyamaka.
Kuzminski’s interpretation of Madhyamaka seems to represent more closely the Prāsaṅgika view in which no position is itself asserted, only the logical incoherence of the opponent’s views demonstrated.

2 thoughts on “Pyrrho vs. Nagārjuna?

  1. This discussion brings to focus something I have struggled with being vigilant of for a while. Unintentional Western reinterpretation of Buddhist scripture and thought is everywhere. Sometimes I can spot it and other times I don’t recognize it for years. Are you aware of any comprehensive studies of unintended (or intended I suppose) American/European reinterpretation of Buddhist scripture and philosophy that continues to persist? I assume the history of this extends at least all the way back to Max Müller.

    • Dear Jakuhō, I’m very happy that you find my comments of use to you.
      There are two works either just out or coming soon that should be of interest to you. First is Glenn Wallis’s Critique of Western Buddhism, which is a follow up of his earlier jointly authored Cruel Theory, Sublime Practice, also of value in this regard. Second, later this fall, is Anne Gleig’s American Buddhism after Modernity. Foundational would be Scott Mitchell’s Buddhism in America.
      Unfortunately, given the nature of the material we deal with, there can be no conclusive critique. There is no singular true object that we can accurately represent, only “Buddhism: The Construct.”
      I’m quite sure that my own work is informed by seeing similarities and thinking that they are significant. The key, however, is to be self-critically aware of that as a danger. That is why, asking the question What question are we trying to answer? is key. The question we are trying to answer creates the frame of presumptions and assumptions that determine the nature of the answer we “find” or more accurately I think, formulate.

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