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.