The Conventional Reality of Phenomena (from The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, by Prof. Jay L. Garfield, New York 1995)
The central topic of Mulamadhyamakakarika (literally Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way) is ‘emptiness’ – the Buddhist technical term for the lack of independent existence, inherent existence, or essence in things. Nagarjuna relentlessly analyzes phenomena or processes that appear to exist independently and argues that they cannot so exist, and yet, though lacking the inherent existence imputed to them either by naive common sense or by sophisticated realistic philosophical theory, these phenomena are not nonexistent – they are, he argues, conventionally real.
This dual thesis of the conventional reality of phenomena together with their lack of inherent existence depends upon the complex doctrine of the two truths or two realities – a conventional or nominal truth and an ultimate truth – and upon a subtle and surprising doctrine regarding their relation. It is, in fact, this sophisticated development of the doctrine of the two truths as a vehicle for understanding Buddhist metaphysics and epistemology that is Nagarjuna’s greatest philosophical contribution. If the analysis in terms of emptiness is the substantive heart of Mulamadhyamakakarika, the method of reductio ad absurdum is the methodological core. Nagarjuna, like Western sceptics, systematically eschews the defense of positive metaphysical doctrines regarding the nature of things, arguing rather that any such positive thesis is incoherent and that, in the end, our conventions and our conceptual framework can never be justified by demonstrating their correspondence to an independent reality. Rather, he suggests, what counts as real depends precisely on our conventions (though in the end, as we shall see, ultimate reality depends on our conventions in a way, it depends on our conventions in a very different way from that in which conventional reality does; despite this difference in the structure of the relation between convention and reality in the two cases, however, it remains a distinctive feature of Nagarjuna’s system that it is impossible to speak coherently of reality independent of conventions).
For Nagarjuna and his followers this point [that what counts as real depends on our conventions] is connected deeply and directly with the emptiness of phenomena. That is, for instance, when a Madhyamika philosopher says of a table that it is empty, that assertion by itself is incomplete. It invites the question: empty of what? And the answer is: empty of inherent existence, or self-nature, or, in more Western terms, essence. Now, to say that the table is empty is hence simply to say that it lacks essence and importantly not to say that it is completely nonexistent. To say that it lacks essence, the Madhyamika philosopher will explain, is to say, as the Tibetans like to put it, that is does not exist ‘from its own side’ – that its existence as the object that it is – as a table – depends not on it, nor on any purely nonrelational characteristics, but depends on us as well. That is, if our culture had not evolved this manner of furniture, what appears to us to be an obviously unitary object might instead be correctly described as five objects: four quite useful sticks absurdly surmounted by a pointless slab of stick-wood waiting to be carved!