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recension by Bence Tarr

Philosophical nonegocentrism in Wittgenstein and Candrakirti

in their treatment of the private language problem

- By R. A. F. Thurman [Philosophy East and West, 30:3, 1980.07, ( p. 321-337)] -


R. A. F.  Thurman  is Associate  Professor  in  the Department of Philosophy and Religion, Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts.


The reason behind choosing this article for recension, out of the many that I’ve read on Wittgenstein’s philosophy in the last few years, is that it follows a new trend among western philosophers, which I find feasible in treating philosophycal problems. The basic attitude behind this trend is clearly marked in Thurman’s introduction to his writing:

In their book The Private Language  Problem, Saunders and  Henze  state  that  ‘it  is  primarily   in  the twentieth century that questions regarding the nature and possibility  of a private language  have received specific formulation and specific attention.’ [1] This statement  is only true if the qualification  "in the West"  is  added, since  the  Buddhist  tradition  of critical philosophy was implicity concerned with this question  in a central  way  for  over  two  thousand years, and explicitly  since the time of Candrakirti (sixth century).  Philosophers should no longer allow themselves to remain ignorant of the planetary nature of   philosophy,   in   spite    of   the   ingrained presuppositions of the superiority of the West and of modernity which make the contribution  of the East so startling.” (p.1)

David Hume


Treating philosophical problems in this manner, clearly has the advantage of presenting ‘the problem’ itself, rather than the way it has appeared in some kind of philosophycal text. Besides this, it enables us to throw some light on our preconceptions that we all have, when we come in contact with ‘the eastern’ thought. Looking back on my personal attitude towards the east, I have to say that I have fully lost all of my negative feelings towards the ‘eastern’ way of thinking. I also have lost my over-optimistic positive feelings about it. I have to say that by having studied western and eastern philosophy for several years by now, I have become neutral in treating both, and share Thurman’s point of view by saying that philosophy has a plantary nature and philosophers (not religious thinkers) think in the same way on all sides of the globe. What I mean by this is that ‘thinking’ has the same qualities in every culture, and it follows universal logical rules that provide a cultural-free basis for all reasoning. Therefore no philosophical investigation is ‘eastern’ or ‘western’ unless we use these terms to clarify the geographical origin of the treated problem.

I can’t say that Thurman’s article has amused me; I seem to lack the abilities to grasp what his lines of thought are at some points. Despite this I have found the article interesting because of it’s way of dealing with the problem of private language in the first place, rather than Wittgenstein only.

I have chosen to write this recension in English, since the original text is in English, and the quotations are given in English too. (And it gives me a chance to practice my English more than trying to teach present perfect almost thirty hours a week.)

                In his essay, Thurman intends  to establish   the  nearly   total  similarity   between Wittgenstein  as mature critical philosopher and the Prasangika-madhyamika philosophers ranging from Candrakirti  (India, sixth to seventh  centuries) to Tson Khapa (Tibet, 1357-1420) in their treatment  of  the philosophical  questions  related to the ‘private language problem’. He starts to introduce the topic by quoting Saunders    and   Henze, who convey  the general philosophical relevance of  the question  in  the following passage:

“The  series  of  problems   (i.e.   physical   world,  perception, self, etc.  relating  to  PL question)... may be said to constitute the egocentric predicament: the predicament of one who begins "from his own case" and attempts  to analyze  and justify  his system  of beliefs and attitudes.... This is the predicament of "how to get out," how to move justifiably  from one's own experiential data to the existence of an external world.... If the egocentric predicament be taken as a legitimate problem, then the response to this problem will  constitute   one  or  another  of  the  strands composing what we have called the egocentric outlook. This is the outlook  of one who begins  at home, with the private object (with his own private experiential data), and  attempts, in one  way  or another, to "go abroad."...  If  on the  other  hand, the  egocentric predicament  be viewed as an illegitimate  problem, a pseudo  problem, then the response  to this "problem" will be to repudiate the egocentric  viewpoint.  This is  the  response  of one  who  "begins  abroad," who begins  in the  public  rather  than  in the  private domain,  and  attempts  in  one  way  or  another  to understand both of these domains.[2]

Thurman believes that the terms used frequently by Saunders  and  Henze, “philosophical  egocentrist” and “philosophical nonegocentrist” are precisely adequate to translate the Sanskrit átmavádin (literally, “self-advocate”) and anátmavádin (literally, “selflessness  advocate”), and this most central Indian philosophical dichotomy persists onto the subtlest levels in a long debate over presence or absence of svabháva (“intrinsic   reality”), svalaksana (“intrinsic   identity”) and finally svátantrya (“logical privacy”) [3].  He also believes that once we notice this obvious parallel, we naturally  become interested  in the arguments  used  by both  sides, considering  the longevity  of the issue  in India  and Tibet, and its relative newness in the West.

                One  major  obstacle   to  appreciation   of  the richness of the Buddhist nonegocentrist  tradition by modern  philosophers, who would therein  find so much of interest  and  use, is the unwarranted  prejudice that  Buddhist  thought  is  “mysticism”, that  is, antiphilosophical  or aphilosophical.  This prejudice has  only  been  intensified  by  those  contemporary ‘mystics’ who have pointed  to the young Wittgenstein's famous statement about silence in the Tractatus as evidence of his similarity to the imagined ‘silent sages of the East.’ [4] Thurman also warnes us about this and also argues that in actuality, the vast  majority of ‘mystics’, or nonrationalists, both Eastern  and Western, have usually  belonged  to the egocentrist camp, at  least  tacitly  if  not formally. 

Recourse to mysticism  is a typical aspect of being  stuck in the egocentric  predicament.  The mature Wittgenstein  clearly  exposes  the tremendous amount of mysticism involved in the uncritical use of ordinary  language,  especially  by  the  egocentrist philosophers.    He   humorously    points   to   our predilection   to  reify   things   by   constructing realities   out  of  concepts,  substances   out   of substantives, revealing  the common notion of "naming as, so to speak, an occult process... and... when the philosopher  tries to bring out the relation  between name and thing by staring  at an object  in front  of him and repeating  a name or even the word 'this'....  And here  we may fancy  naming  to be some remarkable act  of mind, as it were  a baptism  of an object..." (PI  143).(4) An  egocentrist  philosopher, when  yet unwilling  to surrender  the notion  as a mere mental construction, quite typically resorts to 'ineffability',  'inexpressibility', and so forth, making  a virtue of his  inability  to  find  either  a nonentity  or its absence.” (p.2)

On the other  hand,  the  mainstream Buddhist philosophers were typically nonegocentrist and critical,  not  mystical, in approach. The  famous doctrine   of  ‘two  realities’   (satyadvaya) ,  the absolute (paramártha) and the contingent (samvrti) or conventional  (vyavahara), is not at all mystical but  is  rather  an effective  technical  device  for analyzing  apart the “queer”, “occult”, “mysterious”,  hence absolutistic  element, to clear up the realm of experience,  causality,  and  action.   The  doctrine properly  puts  the  ‘absolute’  in its  place  as  a conceptual    limiting  case, which frees the conventional world,  the  space of  living from absolutism and its problems.  The fundamental insight that Thurman also quotes is that: “egocentrist  absolutisms, ranging  from  the unconscious  and perceptual  to the  theoretical  and ideological,  all  categorized   under   the   rubric "mis-knowledge"   (avidya) ,  cause  all  evils  and problems.    Thus,   in   the   Buddhist   tradition,  philosophical analysis  was seen as the way to treat  the prevalent forms of 'misknowledge'  by applying criticism to the conceptual   knots   of  the  day.” (p.2)   The   level   of sophistication of the application varied according to the  sophistication of  the  ‘philosophical knots’, resulting in a critical metaphysics (Vaibhasika) as treatment of native realism (Vaisesika), a critical  nominalism (Sautrantika), a  critical idealism (Vijnánaváda), and  finally  the critical relativism of the Mádhyamikas. The high point in this philosophical refinement process was reached in the sixth century  by Candrakirti, who entered  into the refutation of logical privacy. This   refutation,  as  preserved   in Candrakirti’s  Prasannapáda,  Chapter  I, served  as  the basis of a philosophical  discussion that went on for three more centuries in India.  It then came down to the present day preserved in lively traditions of the Tibetan philosophical training colleges. Perhaps the greatest  master  of this subject  in Tibet was Tson Khapa  Blo Bzan Grags-pa  (1357-1420), whose texture of thought and analysis can probably be treated best to that of Wittgenstein and his followers.

                Thurman’s major opinion about Wittgenstein, is that one of  the  most remarkable things about him is that he had great courage, and ability  to make a radical  change  in his thinking  and publicly repudiate  his  earlier  statements.  Thurman quotes Wittgenstein: “In PI 46-47 [5], he mentions  his earlier attempt to find an absolutistic peg  in reality  on which  to hang  language  through meaning, and he then repudiates it: "What lies behind the idea  that  names  really  signify  simples?--... (then quoting  Plato) "what  exists  in its own right has to be... named without any other determination...  its   name   is  all  it  has."...   Both   Russell's 'individuals'  and  my 'objects'  (Tractatus...) were such primary elements....  (However)....  it makes no sense at all to speak absolutely of  the simple parts of  a  chair'.” (p.3)

Thurman draws a parallel with Tson  Khapa: “Thson Khapa also  describes the 'habitual  mode of intellectual  presumption'  ('sgro'dogs  kun btags kyi 'dzin tshul) in parallel  terms, calling  that 'essence'  in things that anchors their names "intrinsic identity" (svalaksana),  indispensable for the egocentrist, impossible for the nonegocentrist” (p.3.), quoting one of his works:

What  sort  of  mental  habit  holds  things   to  be intrinsically  identifiable?....  the Philosophers... investigate   the   meaning   of   the   conventional expression  "person"  in  such  cases  as this  "this person  performed  this action  and experienced  this result," by such  analysis  as "is the  'person'  the very  same  thing  as 'his'  aggregates? Or  is  'he' something  different  from them?" When  they discover whichever  possibility, sameness or difference, to be the case, it gives them a basis for establishing that 'person', and they are then  able  to establish  his accumulation of action, etc.  If they do not find any such basis, they are unable to establish  anything at all, and hence  they cannot  rest  content  with  the simple  use of the  expression  'person'.

Thurman believes that Tson Khapa was able to return to the surface of the question with the nonegocentrists view by appreciating  the conventionality  of the expression, content  with  that.  Further, he was able to isolate the  mental  habit that  had caused  him  the  whole problem, revealing  the egocentrist's  dependence  on the ‘private object’, internally  designated  via the ‘private language’. Tson Khapa mentions the ‘private language’ explicitly  in a language in which a person could write down or give vocal   expression   to  his  inner  experiences - his feelings,  moods,  and  the  rest - for   his  private use. The individual  words of this language  are to refer  to what  can only  be known  to  the  person  speaking;  to  his  immediate private   sensations.   So  another   person   cannot understand the language.

It is clear he does not mean simply  the private  use of language, the internal  enunciation  of the  usual public  means  of communication.  Rather  he means to imagine a logically  private language, a language  in principle  unique to the individual  who invents  and employs it, in Buddhist terms, an absolutely  private not  relatively   private  language.   Thurman thinks that Wittgenstein has also arrived at the thought of an absolute private language:

But  why  does Wittgenstein  bother to imagine such a thing? He does so as that  is the  best  way  to make  explicit  the unconscious  assumptions of 'reality', 'massiveness',  'ab  soluteness', 'facticity', 'objectivity', and  so forth,   that   we   habitually   impose   upon   our perceptions.  Thus, logical  privacy  is the  natural absurd   consequence forced  upon  the philosophical  egocentrist, as he  tries  to give  an account  of his absolute  'given', 'simple', 'first',  'individual', 'essence', 'self', and so on, that  is, element   constitutive   of   reality,  self-evident, irreducible, and  indispensable  to the coherence  of his  world.  The  egocentrist  is indeed  so strongly attached  to his groundedness  on this supposed solid basis, he perceives any challenge  as mere nihilistic skepticism.   Thus  he  is  best  approached  by  the nonegocentrist, (for  whom  the very  nonsolidity  of things   itself   is  their   actual   workability) , critically, by demonstration  of the absurdity of his absolutism   via   either   such   as  Wittgenstein's hyperbolic  imaginings  of private  language...” (p.3)

                Since the question is now seen to lie at the core of  a  fundamental  polarity  in  philosophy,  before tackling  the actual refutations  of privacy, ancient and  modern, Thurman gives a partial  typology  of philosophical egocentrism and nonegocentrism. This typology is the following: The outlook  of  philosophical   egocentrism  is characterized by an avid grasp of the ‘given’, a sort of ‘private  object’, self-evident  and  indubitable, the  substance  of all order, whether  it be used  to justify materialism, skeptical  nihilism,  phenomenalism,  positivism,  idealism, or  any  other form of ancient or modern absolutism. The egocentrist does employ critical methods in dealing with predecessors  and adversaries, but once he feels he   has   found    the    ‘essence’,   he   proceeds constructively,  systematizing  reality  dogmatically according to discovered  ‘laws’, ‘principles’, and so forth.  This essence then becomes  the foundation  of practical   life   in   social   reality,   and   any relativistic  account  of  language, meaning, morals, and   so   on,  is  dismissed   as  anarchistic   and nihilistic.  He  is absolutistic  even  in  empirical matters.   Finally,   he   considers   philosophy   a constructive  activity, an  elaboration  of  formal structures of truth, beauty, and goodness.  Hence his contribution is always dated, useful in the period as a temple  and perhaps  later  as a museum, an edifice that stands quite apart from the person himself.

In  contrast,  the  nonegocentrist   outlook   is essentially  critical of all givens, not by taking as given the essential  unreliability  of everything  as does  the absolutistic  skeptic, but  by never  being satisfied with any supposedly analysisproof  element, and by sustaining  the critical  process  itself as a valid mode of thought, tolerant of less than absolute security. 

The nonegocentrist's  attitude  toward the empirical    is    thoroughly    relativistic     and conventionalistic.  Having  found  that  life goes on even  without  any  irreducible  element, he  works flexibly with what there is consensually  established and yet does not abdicate  the task  of refining  the consensus.   He   considers   philosophy   itself   a therapeutic   process   rather  than  a  constructive metascience.  Instead of building up grand solutions, he  dissolves   problems   critically,  finding   the inconsistencies  in the  terms  of the  question.  He perceives  perplexity, 'misknowledge', a disease, and the clarity and insight afforded by critical analysis a cure.  His philosophy  tends to be less dated, less systematic, and more informal than the egocentrist's,  since  his  refinement   of  thought,  intensity   of insight, and attention to self-transformation  render philosophizing  more accessible to perplexed thinkers of later eras.” (p.4)

How do Wittgenstein and the Buddhist nonegocentrists  fit  into  this  typology?  It  will readily be granted  that the mature Wittgenstein  was primarily  critical  in approach, and  the  Buddhists were well known for their  critical  attitude  toward the  ‘given’ as naively  accepted   in  their  host cultures.  Vipasyana, or ‘transcendental analysis’ is the main type of Maháyána meditation.  Prajná, the  highest  wisdom, is glossed  as dharmapravicaya, literally,  the  ‘analysis   of  things’, and  it  is symbolized  as a sword that cuts through the knot of perplexity.   Thurman thinks that the most  striking  of  all  is the similarity of the actual texture of critical analysis of the two  nonegocentrists.  First he quotes Wittgenstein’s famous passage from the Philosophical Investigations:

Again, does  my visual  image  of this  tree, of this chair, consist  of parts? And  what  are  its  simple component  parts? Multi-colouredness  is one kind  of complexity; another is, for example, that of a broken outline composed of straight bits. And a curve can be said to be composed of an ascending  and a descending segment....  But  isn't  a chessboard  for  instance, obviously and absolutely composite?--You are probably thinking of the composition  out of thirty-two  White and thirty-two black squares.  But could we not say, for instance, that  it was  composed  of the  colours black and white and the schema of the squares? And if there are quite different  ways of looking  at it, do you still want to say that the chessboard is absolutely composite?....  (Is the  colour  of a square  on a chessboard  simple, or does it consist of pure white and pure yellow? And is white  simple, or does it consist  of the colours  of the rainbow?--)

Then he states that Wittgenstein applies the same type of analysis  to his feelings as to objects, as in PI 642, which proves that the  word ‘self’  (so far as it means something  like ‘person’, ‘human  being’, ‘he  himself’, ‘I  myself’), is not an analysis  of  any  such  thing, but  the  state  of a philosopher's  attention when he says the word ‘self’ to himself  and tries to analyze its meaning.

Examples    from   the   Buddhist   philosophical literature could be plenty, but Thurman finds Tson Khapa's description of the critical techniques of his predecessors particularly striking, from EE [6], p. 161:

..  the absolute  status  of anything  is refuted  by showing  first of all, in the face of no matter  what assertion  of Buddhist  or non-Buddhist  scholar, the impossibility  of an indivisible, a thing  without  a plurality  of parts such as periods of time, parts of physical  objects, or aspects  of cognitive  objects,  and then by demonstrating  that, whereas conventional objects may exist as unitary things while established as composed  of parts, as far as absolute  status  is concerned, there are inevitable inconsistencies; for example, if part and whole are absolutely  different, there can be no connection  between them, and if part and  whole  are absolutely  the same, then  the whole becomes  a plurality....  To give the actual  line of argument...  "to refute  absolute  production  of one thing from another, the cause is first restricted  to being permanent or impermanent, and production from a permanent thing is rejected. Then, production from an impermanent  thing  is  restricted  to  being  either sequential  or simultaneous, and production  from  a simultaneous  cause  is rejected.  Then, a sequential cause  is restricted  to being  either  destroyed  or undestroyed, and production from a destroyed cause is rejected.   Then   production   from   a   previously undestroyed  cause  is  restricted  to  being  either obstructed  or unobstructed, and production  from  an obstructed  cause is rejected."  The refutation  thus far  is  rather  easy.   "Then,  production  from  an unobstructed  cause  is  restricted  to being  either wholly unobstructed or partiaily unobstructed;  then,  in the  former  case, an atom  and  (its  aggregative effects  such  as) a molecule  must be confused  as a single   object,  (the  causal  atoms)  being  wholly unobstructed;  or else, in the  latter  case, as (the cause,  the  indivisible,  etc.)  would  have  parts, production  would  be relative  (sa.mv.rti) (and  not absolute).

Here the opponent, as the interlocutor  in the PI passage,   is    a   philosophical    absolutist,   a substantivist, who  is “bewitched  by language”  into perceiving  things  to  be  absolutely  true, “really real”  before   him,  and  the  Wittgensteinian and Madhyamika nonegocentrist critical analyses intend to force him to look deeper  into things  and processes  by examining  his account  of them to actually  try to find the essence assumed to correspond  to the name, the ‘metaphysical entity’,  the  ‘simple’,   the  ‘indivisible’.   The absolutist’s failure to find  any  such analysis-resistant  essence is the first step on the road to liberation of his intelligence from the spell of  language.

Thurman picks up the line of thought from here:

Relativism    or   conventionalism    about   the empirical, which  includes  language  primarily, is a central component of the nonegocentrist  outlook, the key to the nonegocentrist's  avoidance  of nihilistic skepticism  and mysticism.  The egocentrist  tends to engage in one or the other of these alternatives when his critical analysis goes further than usual, and he sees through his previously  accepted  'givens', such as  'self', 'matter', 'object', or  'sense-contents',  and  so on, and he feels  his universe  crumble.  And even  if  he  never  reaches   such  a  frontier,  he perceives  the nonegocentrist  as courting  chaos and typically  accuses  him  of  nihilism.   Wittgenstein responds to the charge, in PI 304: “ Not at all.  It is not a something, but not a nothing either! The conclusion  was only that a nothing would  serve just as well as a something about which nothing could  be said.  We have  only  rejected  the grammar which tries to force itself  on us here.  The paradox disappears  only if we make a radical  break with the idea that language always functions in one way.... He  goes  still  further   in  response   to  another challenge, in PI 118: “Where does our investigation get its importance from, since   it   seems   only   to   destroy   everything interesting,  that   is,  all  that   is  great   and important? (As  it were  all  the  buildings, leaving behind  only  bits of stone  and rubble.) What we are destroying  is nothing but houses of cards and we are clearing  up the  ground  of language  on which  they stand.” (p.4)

Thus  it  is  precisely   the  reaffirmation   of language, free of any supposed  absolute  substratum, as  a  practical, conventional  process, an  ordinary activity   of  human   beings,  a  "form  of  life, " (Lebensform) that  sets  the nonegocentrist  analytic philosopher  apart  from the skeptic  and the mystic, who makes the classic absolutist  mistake of thinking that lack of an absolute  basis  is no basis  at all, lack  of an absolute  process  is no process  at all, lack of an absolutistic, privately  grounded language is  no  language  at  all, lack  of  a mathematically absolute, perfect  logic  is no logic  at all, and so on.  Wittgenstein  is most explicit  about  the sheer conventionality  of  language, as  in  the  following group of statements:

(About) the  'language  of our perceptions',...  this language, like  any other, is founded  on convention. (PI 355)...  One objects: "So  you  are  saying  that human  agreement  decides  what is true  and what  is false?"--lt is what human beings say that is true and false; and they agree in the language they use.  That is not agreement  in opinions but in form of life (PI 241)...Here we strike rock bottom, that is, we have come   down   to  conventions.   (BBB [7],  p.24) ...When philosophers   use   a   word--'knowledge',  'being',  'object',  'I',  'proposition',  'name'--and  try  to grasp the essence  of the thing, one must always  ask oneself: is the word ever  actually  used  in this  way in the language-game which is its original home.  What we do is to bring  words  back from their  metaphysical  to their everyday  use.  (PI 116)...  The meaning  of a word  is its use in the language  (PI 43)...  When  I talk about  language  (words, sentences, etc.) I must speak  the  language  of everyday.  Is this  language somehow  too coarse and material  for what we want to say? Then  how is another  one to be constructed? (PI 120)... And main source of our failure to understand is that we do not command  a clear view of the use of our  words  (PI  122)...  Philosophy  may  in  no way interfere with the actual use of language;  it can in the end only describe  it.  For it cannot give it any foundation either.  It leaves everything as it is (PI 124)...  Essence  is expressed  by grammar  (PI 371).  Grammar  tells  what  kind  of  object  anything  is. (Theology as grammar) (PI 373).

Thurman believes that the buddhist Prásangika counterpart of  this conventionalism can be most clearly seen in Candrakirti’s critique  of  Bhavya’s (a contemporary thinker) use of the “head  of Ráhu” example as justification for employing the expression “hardness  is the intrinsic  identity  of earth” as a conventionally  acceptable  expression.  (Ráhu  is a mythological  demon  who is all head  and no body, so “head”  and “Ráhu”  refer  to the same  thing, as do “hardness” and “earth”.)

Candra states: “ Moreover,  this  example  is  incorrect  because  the expression...   "Raahu"   does  exist  among  mundane, established  without  analysis, and does apply  to  its  referent...  "head,"  just  like  the conventional designation "person," (EE, p. 171).” Thurman also quotes Tson Khapa, who here comments: “... it is correct, according to conventions of social communication, for a speaker to dispel the doubt of a listener  with the expression...  'Ráhu'  since  the latter  has  formed  the  notion  of a...  head  from hearing that word and is wondering "whose head? " The speaker thus wishes to eliminate  the possibility  of reference...  to any head other  than that  of Ráhu.  However, this example does not correspond to the case of the expression "hardness is the intrinsic identity of earth," there  being  no earth which  is not hard,  and hence no need to dispel any such doubt (EE, 172).

Thurman thinks that the main target of the critique  is the notion of  ‘intrinsic  identity’  which  would not occur  to the ordinary hearer.  “Hardness  of earth” might fit with the  example, but there  is no room  for  notions  of ‘intrinsic  identity’ - the  hearer  would  not wonder ‘whose   intrinsic   identity’?   but   only   ‘whose hardness’?

Thurman says Candrakirti returns the attack, by saying that conventionally  ‘head’  and  ‘Ráhu’  are  different,  hence the example cannot illustrate  a supposed  case of essential   nondifference.   But  then,  rejoins  the essentialist  (Bhavya),  when  one  investigates  the referents  of the expressions, they  prove  to be the same  thing.   Candra  then  succinctly   states  his conventionalism about language:

If you propose that the example  is indeed applicable since (...  Raahu) is proved to be nothing other than ...  'head', since  only  the latter  can finally  be apprehended, I say that is not so;  for, in the usage of mundane  conventions, such a sort of analysis  (as that  seeking   essential   identity,  etc.)  is  not employed, and further, the  things  of the world  are existent (only insofar) as unexamined critically (EE, p. 173)”.

Candra  states  that once one looks analytically  for ‘head’, ‘Ráhu’, or  anything  else, nothing  can  be found to withstand  analysis, but still  those things are there  when unanalytically  accepted.  He pursues this idea then with a key concept:

Although  analytically  there  is no self apart  from form    etc.,   from    the    mundane    superficial (lokasamvrtya) point  of view such (a self) has its existence  dependent  on  the  aggregates...  (EE, p. 174).

Let’s show Thurman’s comment on this line of thought:

Conventionally,   even   the   abhorrent    (to   the nonegocentrist) 'self' is reinstated, as 'part of the grammar'  of  mundane  communication.  And  thus  the feared nihilism, which the absolutist  imagines lurks at the  end of the analysis  that  seeks  a self  and cannot   find  anything,  is  avoided   through   the reaffirmation  of  the  mutually  dependent, mundane, conventional, nonanalytic existence of 'self'. Candra finally  shows  his awareness  of how  such  nihilism cannot  be  avoided  by any  means  other  than  such thoroughgoing  conventionalism, saying: "otherwise, the  superficial  (reality) would  no  longer  be the superficial  and would either lack validity  entirely or would become (ultimate) reality..." (EE, p.175).  Thus, no 'simple' analysis-resistant referential base can  be found  to anchor  the conventional, which  is precisely why it works as sheer conventionality, free of the extremisms of absolutism and nihilism.

                Here it should  be noted  that Candrakirti’s  opponent in this  is by no means  a naive  absolutist, but  is only  trying  to  uphold  the  ‘intrinsic   identity’ (svalaksana)  of   things   conventionally,  having already, as  he thinks, ruled  them  out  absolutely.  Candrakirti’s  thrust  is thus to show the incompatibility of the concepts of conventionality and intrinsicality.  Finally, to forestall any misunderstanding  about the sort of analysis that can be involved  in calling the conventional ‘nonanalytic’, Tson Khapa comments (with intriguing implications for Wittgenstein’s ‘everyday’ use of language, even philosophically):

We might suppose here, as the mundane  person engages in  a great  deal  of analysis--"Is  it happening  or not?" or "Is it produced  or not?"--that  it must  be improper  to reply to such inquiries  "It happens" or "it   is   produced.”    However,   this    type   of  (conventional) inquiry and the above analytic  method (seeking  absolute  referential  bases)  are  utterly different. As Thurman states:  “The mundane person is not inquiring  into coming and going through analysis into the meaning of the  use  of the  conventional  expressions  'comer',  'goer' 'coming', 'going', out of dissatisfaction with  (the fact that they are) merely conventional  usages. He is  rather  making  spontaneous   inquiry   into  the spontaneous  usage  of the expressions  'coming'  and 'going' (EE, p. 178).

The mature Wittgenstein's refusal to pretend to a system, his insistence on ordinary language (which so frustrated  logical  absolutists  such  as  Russell),  gains  support  when juxtaposed  to Candrakirti’s  view of language,  conceptual   analysis,  and  philosophical investigation  as  conventional  procedures, ‘programs’ (Thurman’s expresion) that function  on the surface, the superficial level (samvrti). The question asked at this point is: “Indeed, how could  language, logic, and understanding  exclude themselves  from the universal relativity that permeates all causal processes?” (p.7)

The   philosophical   nonegocentrist’s   attitude toward  philosophy  as  therapy  is  attested  to  in Wittgenstein’s  writings, as in the following  famous passages:

For the clarity  we are aiming  at is indeed complete clarity. But this simply means that the philosophical problems  should  completely   disappear.   The  real discovery  is  the  one  that  makes  me  capable  of stopping  doing philosophy  when I want to.--The  one that gives philosophy  peace, so that it is no longer tormented   by  questions   that  bring  itself  into question.--Instead, we now  demonstrate  a method, by examples  and the series  of examples  can  be broken off.-- problems are solved (difficulties eliminated),  not a single  problem.  There  is not a philosophical method,  though   there  are  indeed   methods,  like different therapies (PI, p.133) ....The philosopher's treatment of a question is like the treatment  of an illness (PI, p.255)....What is your aim in philosophy?  --To shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle  (PI, p.309).

After the general establishment of a nonegocentrists’ ‘family resemblance’, Thurman forces us to reflect  deeply  upon  the many historical  and cultural  notions  we have  that make the whole  idea “seem so outlandish  a priori”. Thurman:

Tson Khapa  introduces the refutation as follows: “ In  general,  the  two  masters  (Buddhapalita   and Candrakirti) took  as the  ultimate  in  subtle  and profound  philosophical  reasonings  those reasonings proving the perfect viability  of all systems such as causality  in the  absence  of any intrinsic  reality such   as  that   (already)  rejected   as  intrinsic identifiability even conventionally, as well as those reasonings   negating   the  negandum   of  intrinsic identity  by the very reason  of relativity, asserted clearly   as   the   relativity    of   all   things,  transcendental   as   well   as   non-transcendental.  Moreover,  they  took  this  refutation   of  logical privacy as the most subtle among them (EE, p. 218).

Thus, the refutation of logical privacy is stated to be a form of the refutation  of intrinsic identity  (svalaksana),  at  the  final  level  of  subtlety. ‘Intrinsic   identity’, as  we  have  seen  is  the egocentrist’s   designative  base,  the  essentialist private object, necessary  for private or independent reference  and  language.

                Thurman goes on like this for the rest of the article, making his line of thought more and more difficult to follow. I simply don’t have the desire to give a further account of his reasons of why he comes to the following conclusion. (His method of treating the problem and what he is aiming at can be clearly seen from what I have already reasembled.)


Although I feel quite at home among sanskrit philosophical terms, I had found Thurman’s way of reasoning quite difficult to follow. Despite of this, his attitude towards philosophy had a great impact on me, and his final conclusion could be heeded by many modern philosophers. That’s why I’ll quote it in whole:

In closing, I cannot  resist  a brief comment  on the implications  for philosophy  of the remarkable  fact that Wittgenstein  and his successors  are very close to the Prasangika  tradition  in many ways, without ever knowing  anything  about  them  directly, simply from pursuing the deepest questions of philosophy  in a  rigorously  critical  way, and  in  spite  of  the enormous temporal and cultural differences  involved.  It  means  that  philosophy   today  is  crippled  by prejudices  of a very nonphilosophical  sort--racial,  cultural, and historical. It means that our ingrained sense  of  the  "progress"  of  knowledge  is  highly suspect, not because  of some sentimental  appeal  to some imagined primitive  stage of nature, but because even rigorous technical matters were as well and even better  explored   in  ancient  times  by  people  in supposed  "non-technological''  cultures  and  times.  After  all, we  greatly  respect  Wittgenstein  as  a shining star in the firmament  of philosophy, even if some  of his  twinklings  elude  us, and many  of the finest   philosophical   minds   today   follow   him indirectly  if not directly  in many aspects of their thinking.  If the type of critical vision he achieved and  cultivated  on  his  own  was  highly  developed systematically  already  in  a great  tradition  with thousands  of members in the most populous nations of earth, (not that very many perhaps  ever reached  the greatest  heights  or depths), then  there  must have been a rather  bountiful  crop of unsung, unpublished Wittgensteins  over the twenty centuries during which Indian,  Tibetan,  Chinese, Japanese,  and  Mongolian scholars  pursued  the goddess of wisdom, (the Sophia of  philosophy  as  Prajnápáramitá,  "Transcendent Wisdom") whose attainment was defined as the ultimate liberation from the "fly-bottle" of perplexity.  Such being  the case, or even the possibility, it behooves us not to rest content  with our one river of Western tradition, but to explore and reveal to our young the great  ocean of world philosophy.  It is all ours, we are all human  beings, and  the  Indian  or Chinese  heritage belongs  as  much  to  us as to the  Chinese  or  the Indians. Especially the philosophical heritage of the nonegocentrist, critical  tradition  which  was  born  from  liberation  from cultural  conditioning  at the deepest  levels, perceptual  and  ideological,  never belonged  to  any  race, culture, or even  linguistic tradition, but always  to those  members  of whatever such  tradition  who  dare  to  question  what  seems self-evident    right    before    them,   what    is authoritatively  told to them, what  seems  safe  and natural  to them--those whose sensibilities  demand the surpassing  peace that comes with the eradication of perplexity.




[1] John T. Saunders and Donald F. Henze: “The Private Language  Problem:  A Philosophical  Dialogue” (New York: 1976), p. 3; hereafter cited as PLP.

[2] PLP, p. 11.

[3] I use Thurman’s translations, for he uses these terms in this sense. In writing the sanskrit words, I have chosen the English phonetic transcription with the simple modification of writing ‘á’ to mark the long vowels like in hungarian.

[4]  Ludwig Wittgenstein: Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. Pears & McGuiness (London: 1974).

[5]Ludwig Wittgenstein: Philosophical Investigations, trans.G.E.M.Anscomb (New York:1970), p.19e;  (hereafter PI)

[6]Tson Khapa: Essence of the Eloquent, trans. Thurman, unpublished manuscript, p.216 (hereafter cited as EE).

[7] Ludwig Wittgenstein: Blue and Brown Books (All of these quotations are refered to by Thurman)

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