Sunday, November 24, 2013

Comparative Philosophy and the Philosophy of Scholarship: On the Western Interpretation of Nagarjuna / Andrew P. Tuck -- N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1990

Understanding an alien tradition poses enormous obstacles. Many concepts that one takes for granted from one's own tradition turn out to be culturally specific, even ones that seem so fundamental to one's understanding of a subject that we think that they surely must be universal. Nonetheless, if we are to gain a cosmopolitan understanding, we must do what we can to understand what falls outside of our established world views. Success is always partial and it requires long and arduous study or total immersion in the alien culture.

In Comparative Philosophy and the Philosophy of Scholarship Andrew Tuck illustrates the changing fashions among Western scholars in their attempts to understand Indian Buddhist philosophy, particularly the views of Nagarjuna and the Madyamaka school that Nagarjuna is said to have founded. Tuck distinguishes three phases in the Western interpretation of Nagarjuna and the Madyamaka school: German idealism, Anglo-American analysis, and post-Wittgensteinian linguistic functionalism. Previously understood as little more than nihilism, serious study of the Madyamaka school did not begin until the 20th century. A landmark in this development was Fyodor Stcherbatsky's book Buddhist Logic which agreed on the illusory nature of the empirical world, but did not reject the reality of a transcendent world of the thing-in-itself. By this, Stcherbatsky advanced a distinctly Kantian conception of Buddhism which recognized the apparent duality of the phenomenal and the noumenal. The approach is further developed by T.R.V. Murti's The Central Philosophy of Buddhism.

As the idealist view of Nagarjuna was coming to maturity, Western philosophers were beginning to abandon idealism and speculative philosophy in general. Instead, the techniques of logical analysis of Anglo-American philosophy were gaining prominence and a number of Nagarjuna's Western interpreters were employing these techniques to understanding his work. According to Tuck, Richard Robinson is foremost in this movement. Given Nagarjuna's criticism of competing philosophical views and the nearly syllogistic passages in his works, it is no wonder that the techniques of the logician would be applied. During this period of interpretation, Nagarjuna's tetralemma [neither A, ~A, A&~A, nor ~(A&~A)] became the focus of study. Nagarjuna's primary project was taken to be refuting all competing philosophical positions, thus rendering all conceptions of "own being" meaningless. According to Robinson, Nagarjuna failed in this project, but in any case, the approach to Nagarjuna's work was analytic, not speculative.

The final phase of interpretation came after the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. According to the post-Wittgensteinian philosophers, Nagarjuna's task was pursued via a careful examination of the function of language, not its mere logical relations. Here a pragmatic, soteriological enterprise was afoot. Nagarjuna was showing his contemproaries how the fly might escape the fly bottle.

Tuck does not endorse any of these readings of (or approaches to reading) Nagarjuna. He merely seeks to show how the philosophical dispositions of Western philosophers have influenced the understanding of Nagarjuna. His work is in its detail interesting, but the larger point seems trivial. He does, however, seem to imply a more significant point.  Beyond merely observing that interpretations of alien traditions necessarily are shaped by the assumptions of the interpreting culture, Tuck seems to suggest that while no prior cultural assumptions are better or worse than another, each can generate a new and interesting mixture of ideas that will illuminate and advance human understanding.


  1. I am writing a MA thesis based on Tuck's book, and I had a different impression. I don't think Tuck is suggesting in any way some sort of scholarly progress or any hope that a synthesis of different cultures can create a "new and interesting mixture of ideas that will illuminate and advance human understanding (as you wrote)." In fact, scholarly progress is a chimera in the case of comparative philosophy -- the results drawn from comparative philosophy is progressing neither towards what Nagarjuna meant nor enhancing human understanding, but merely reflecting the author's own biases formed by contemporary philosophical trends (he refers to this as isogesis). He also sees this as inevitable. A significant point from Tuck's book, as I interpret it, seems to be his solution to this inevitable shortcoming, which is being aware or being self-conscious of scholarly biases and isogesis as much as possible. But these are just my impressions. I am from the Religious Studies, and I am very curious as to how people from the Philosophy Department take this book. It would be great to hear more about what you thought about the book and my interpretation to help me gain a wider perspective for my thesis. Would you have anything to add?

  2. Hello, Seung-Jae Pi.

    Thanks for your comment. I think you very correctly understand the main point of Tuck's argument. He is most certainly arguing against any sense that there is an objectively true interpretation of any text. I would, however, caution you against taking his main point as being his only point. There are a few places in which he cautions us against excess. In the preface he describes readings of a text as "always productively isogetical" (p. v). What it might mean to be "productive" is hinted at when he later writes, "The most useful interpretation may well be one that takes into account as many previous interpretations as possible and attempts to disclose the ways in which these earlier readings made sense, both to the interpretive scholar and to his or her readers" (p. vi). He appears to be adopting a pragmatic approach to evaluating readings. That is, if a reading is able to illuminate or resolve questions facing the interpreter and his or her readers, then it is productive.

    Certainly, any interpretation is constrained by the social and ideological context, but he recognizes that some interpretations are better than others within the bounds of a set of rules: "Within any set of rules for what counts as a desirable interpretation, choices between more and less preferable readings of texts can and will be made" (p. vi-vii), though these rules "are anything but constant." The most telling passage that that indicates that Tuck is not a relativist (not only about interpretations within a set of rules, but also in a global context) is his favorable quote from Clifford Geertz, "Studies do build on other studies, not in the sense that they take up where the others leave off, but in the sense that , better informed and better conceptualized, they plunge more deeply into the same things" (p.99). It is by plunging more deeply into the questions that each generation of scholars faces, by understanding as best one can the history of the different concerns of each generation, and of course by recognizing the isogetic nature of one's own hisoriographic work that we can come to a more "useful" understanding of whatever text we seek to understand.

    Tuck is quite shy about labeling this greater usefulness "progress" (see again, p. 99), but I think it is fair to say that he is implying that as generation after generation of scholars propose serious interpretations of a text, scholarship advances.

    I hasten to reiterate that you have captured Tuck's main point dead on, but as he himself writes, scholars tend to discuss their agendas and objectives in the "nonessential appendages" to their works. In light of that, I would recommend closer study of his Preface and Afterword. They may not really display his main agenda and objective, but they do put it into a broader context. I'd appreciate any additional thoughts you have about this or about comparative philosophy and religion.