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Misplaced Concreteness

Owen Flanagan in Chapter 4 ("Being No-Self and Being Nice") of The Bodhisattva's Brain resolves a seeming paradox of "the doctrine of emptiness", which says that everything — including "my consciousness" — is mutable and non-permanent. Thus, the Buddhists argue, "... the wise person sees herself as no-self, as atman-less. ... One needs to absorb and eventually live this truth. ..." Flanagan speculates that a no-self will be less attached to things and experiences, and therefore will suffer less, will be more tranquil, more peaceful, more serene.

But if emptiness itself is a "thing" then there's a problem. Emptiness would exist unchanging and unconditional, a violation of the doctrine of emptiness. The answer Flanagan offers is from mathematical set theory:

But here we can get help from something like Bertrand Russell's theory of types. When I assert that "All things are empty," I seem to need to assert next that emptiness is empty. But not if emptiness is not a thing. That is, if emptiness just means that no thing has intrinsic existence, is self-originating, and so on, then I've said all I need to say by asserting that "All things are empty," because lacking intrinsic existence, not being self-originating, is just what the state of being empty is or, better, means. The state of being empty is not a new thing that itself has to be accommodated by the doctrine of emptiness. Alfred North Whitehead, Russell's pal, the Anglophone "process philosopher" par excellence, warned of "the fallacy of misplaced concreteness" in his attack on substantialist metaphysics. Nagarjuna's mistake is taking emptiness to be a thing. It is not. Emptiness is just the predicate that says things don't have thingness in any deep sense. So emptiness itself, being of a different type than "things," does not itself fall to the same deconstructive logic that all things do.

That's a powerful mental tool, applicable in other contexts. Alas, Flanagan continues to beat the horse for a couple of additional pages. Maybe that's just what philosophers do ...

(cf. Believing in Leprechauns, ...) - ^z - 2013-07-02

I like this!