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.

12 thoughts on “Some thoughts on emptiness

  1. Great post. As a theravadan buddhist, the only thing I would contribute is that before being a metaphysical concept (as developed by those like Nagarjuna) sunyata should be seen as a phenomenological one, which more directly relates to the discussion of relations, and has the advantage of being less distracting (from a buddhist standpoint, although I realize you are writing from more of a philosophical standpoint) from the ultimate direction of buddhist pragmatics (i.e. its practical use towards liberation). The “relations of causal dependency” that you mention is interesting from a philosophical standpoint (from which a doctrine of “emptiness” stands to clarify), but here we’re dealing with more acts of interpretation. For the Buddha, emptiness as concept proceeds from non-conceptual actualizations within the practice of jhana development. These latter, going of course hand in hand with the path of discernment, are like the back and forth between emptiness and object. None of this goes against what you’re saying here, but I find that if one does not know from where Nagarjuna’s discourse arises it may be very easy to take out of context, because of the extent of its abstractness. Cheers

  2. “objects are neither autonomous realities that are independent of all their relations, nor are objects reducible to being nothing other than their relations.”

    I would be interested in either Harman’s or Bryant’s take on this sentence. My guess is that the first clause will not satisfy the emphasis on the in-itself one gets in the “real objects withdraw” take on things, but I might be showing my hamfisted non-grasp of OOsubtlety here. My impression is that at least in Harman’s fourfold, the real object is indeed independent of relations, no question about it. The sensual object, on the other hand, is what offers itself for interpretation — or perhaps just is the interpretation.

    Thank you too, Jeff, for the shout-out.

  3. In the discussion about objects what needs to be accounted for is the unknown object or what the advaitins call ‘ajnanatta satta’. An object that comes to our notice is not thereby given being but there is undoubtedly a mental aspect to our knowing of something and this is the gateway to the idealist claim that this mental modification (vritti) is what we are directly aware of. Bishop Berkeley baptised this orphan of reality whose mother matter died at its birth.

    Now how the advaitins are able to square the circle of realism with a different view of identity, the theory of saksin (witness) and upadhi (limiting adjunct) is interesting but not germane to Nagarjuna’s difficulty with the unknown object. What is the being of the unknown object? Can his theory account for this intuitive demand?

    By the way on the Aristotle question Anscombe in Three Philosophers takes a different view finding that :

    The theory (matter / form: Active / Passive Intellect) has the attraction of seeming to preserve that internal relation which must be shewn to hold between what we may quite generally style ‘cognitions’ and their objects, without falling into idealism

    What I take from your tain analogy is that you are proposing a transcendental structure to perception, one that preserves the unity of ‘cognitions and objects’ whilst not at the same time asserting their congruence. There is always ‘more to know’ which rendered in crisp Latin might go nicely on the crest of a scientists blazer. (plus scire?) Interesting post.

    • Thanks for this, especially for alerting me to the notion of the ‘unknown object’ (ajnatta satta). I’ll be the first to admit I am no scholar in Buddhist thought, so I appreciate your pointing out some of the nuances of the tradition within which Nagarjuna was working. Your take on my tain analogy is correct. Coming at Nagarjuna as I do from a Deleuzo-Humean-Spinozist perspective of transcendental empiricism, I am attempting to think through a transcendental philosophy that is non-dualist and hence avoids the usual conceptual modalities – viz., realism-idealism, empiricism-rationalism, etc.

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