Some thoughts on emptiness

Following up on my earlier post and Skholiast’s helpful comment and post, along with Timothy Morton’s own comments and posts, I’ve been thinking through numerous issues and will post a few tentative thoughts, more for the sake of dialogue and/or further thought rather than to achieve any sort of resolution or finality.

Emptiness and relations.

As I understand Nagarjuna, and perhaps a loose use of the word ‘understand’ is necessary here, emptiness follows from the fact that no-thing is independent of its relations of causal dependency. Nagarjuna is in many ways the mirror opposite of Aristotle, or a more accurate description, and one indebted to Rodolphe Gasché, Nagarjuna is the tain of the Aristotelian mirror. At the core of Aristotle’s argument for a first cause is the presupposition that there cannot be an infinite sequence (Aquinas follows Aristotle verbatim on this point). Aristotle’s argument is not without reason. An example I sometimes give in class is a hypothetical class project – construct a Rube Goldberg machine that will pop a balloon. The catch, however, is that you must use an infinite number of steps. The common sense reaction to such a project is that it is impossible. The balloon will never be popped. Aristotle’s first cause argument is based on a similar common sense intuition. Since we can accept that there are actual things and that these things are dependent upon efficient causes that made them possible, things in turn dependent on causes and so on, but we cannot have an infinite series of such causes since then there would be nothing that is actual, which there clearly is; therefore, there must be a finite series of causes and hence a first cause.

Nagarjuna rejects this argument. To call for a first cause, a cause independent of other causes, is for Nagarjuna both arbitrary and unnecessary. A consequence of this, and this is precisely the point of the first chapter of Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakarika, is that nothing has its reality in itself (as Heidegger would put it: Being is no-thing). As Nagarjuna puts it,

Neither from itself nor from another

Nor from both,

Nor without a cause,

Does anything whatever, anywhere arise.

The essence of entities

Is not present in the conditions, etc…

If there is no essence,

There can be no otherness-essence.



So what are the consequences of this approach for objects. Are objects undermined by the infinity of causal dependencies? To answer yes would be to forget that Nagarjuna’s MMK is known for being the middle path between nihilism and realism. The infinity of causal dependency does indeed empty an object of its autonomous, in-itself reality, but it does not negate objects and reduce them to nothingness. To adopt Deleuzian terminology (my bad habit, I know), objects are simulacrum. In other words, objects are neither autonomous realities that are independent of all their relations, nor are objects reducible to being nothing other than their relations. If one follows the first approach then one accepts the appearance/reality distinction. There are appearances of objects, their phenomenal noematic correlates as Husserl puts it, or the illusions of maya as the Buddhists would understand it, and then there is the object itself that exceeds and is irreducible to each of these correlates and illusions. If one accepts, by contrast, that objects are nothing other than their relations, their causal dependencies, then an object is indeed undermined and cast asunder by the proliferation of depenencies. Nagarjuna’s middle path of emptiness steers a course between the Scylla and Charybdis of realism and nihilism. An object is a simulacrum, and in Deleuze’s sense of the term, and hence it is real though not in the sense of being an original reality nor a copy of such a reality; as simulacrum it is the tain of the Aristotelian mirror.


The tain of the mirror is the opaque metallic material, usually tin, that turns a see-through class into a reflective mirror when it is affixed to the glass. As a simulacrum, as a tain of the mirror, an object is not to be confused with the actualized relationships of dependency between appearances, or the infinite causal sequence of modes as Aristotle (and later Spinoza) understands it. The actualized modes are like reflecting mirrors, and more exactly two mirrors facing one another and the infinite sequence this gives rise to. The tain of the mirror, however, is not the first cause, nor that which halts the infinite sequence and transforms it into a finite sequence; rather, it is the condition for these sequences, and a condition inseparable from the mirrored relationships. This is the sense in which the object as simulacrum is neither an autonomous, in-itself reality—as tain of the mirror it is integral to, and inseparable from the mirror as mirror—nor is it nothing but the infinite series of relationships that arise between facing mirrors. The tain of the mirror is not what enters into those relationships, even though it is inseparable from them. The effort to understand emptiness is thus part of an effort to develop a rigorous, non-dualist mode of thought.